Camera OperatorBeing a camera operator is not a matter of just pointing and shooting. If you understand the types of camera shots you can take, how to focus well and what you need to do, you will be well ahead of others who don’t.

Types of camera shots

You can use a variety of different shots. People in the filmmaking industry know the terms and the abbreviations used  to tell camera operators what to do for each shot. Each standard shot is based on the size of the subject in the shot. The shots range from extreme close up (ECU/XCU) to extreme long shot (ELS/XLS).

Deciding on what shots to take depends partly on where the shot will be viewed. For example, if the shot will end up on a home television, you might use a variety of shots. For large video screens, you might use medium and close-ups, because the audience can already look at the stage to get a long shot. If it’s for an iPod or smartphone, you might use close-ups more.

Checking before you shoot

Once you’ve decided what shots you’re going to use, make sure shooting goes well by doing the following:

  • Check for light that will come into the shot if you pan right.  This will show you if a person is going to move into the shot, so you might recompose it to include the person.
  • Check to see if something is about to move out of shot or might be partly cut off.
  • Check the composition; for example, check for headroom and framing.
  • Check if things seem to be “growing out” of subjects.
  • Check if microphones, cameras, lamps, boom mics or their shadows are in the shot.

Focusing the shot

The most important part of the subject should have the sharpest focus. For example, focus on the eyes for a person. In closer shots it can be good to focus a little in front to allow for subject movement. You should have enough depth of field to account for possible movement. You can deal with a limited depth of field by having a higher f-stop number, or using a wide angled lens because it has a wide depth of field, or you can move the camera further back.

Being a camera operator

As a camera operator, you must check that you won’t run over cables, bump into anything or anyone, or move in front of other cameras. Also, make sure you have enough cable to move where you need to.

If you are the single camera operator, you are responsible for adjusting your own camera, which means you have more control over the images. You must check that your camera is fault free before the shoot. Check that the supports are operating, the lens is clean, batteries are fully charged, the viewfinder is adjusted to your comfort level, and pre-set controls are correct.

As a multi-camera operator, you might take still photos or use mobile cameras for action shots. You will be working with a coordinated plan, though sometimes you will be responsible for finding the best shots and advising the director. Often there will be a person in control adjusting your camera’s aperture and the director will say what s/he want as you film. It’s critical to check your camera in this team situation.

In addition to the items above, check that cables are tightened, the viewfinder is working, the focus is working from close-up to infinity, the zoom is working across the whole range, the filter is correct, the camera mount is firmly attached and the tilt works, the tripod’s legs are firm, the pedestal moves smoothly up and down, and the support wheels steer easily. Check, too, that the intercom, teleprompter and shot sheets are all functioning properly.

During the production

Here are some basic guidelines for you as you operate the camera:

  • Relax your body while staying mentally alert
  • Watch for the tally light; it shows that you are on air. When it’s not on, you can move the camera, adjust settings and so on.
  • Pre-focus the lens when you get to a new position.  Z oom in to focus sharply, then zoom out to the shot the director has asked for. You will then be ready to zoom in from a wide shot if needed.
  • Shoot actors at eye level, unless directed otherwise.
  • Use the shot sheet to be ready to move the next position.
  • Listen to other cameras’ intercom instructions, as well as your own.
  • Let the director know of any problems: another camera blocking your shot, composition problems, focus difficulties and so on.
  • Suggest changes to the director if appropriate; s/he can’t always see what you can see. Only do this as necessary. Remember, you are not the director!

Production techniques and the camera operator

The director might approach the production in different ways, from having only one take to doing takes until the shots are right. Here are production techniques that might be used:

  • Improvised and spontaneous
  • Unrehearsed shooting plan
  • Scheduled rehearsal, where you can check shots in advance
  • Detailed plan, with the director explaining the action or shots to the camera and sound crew before the rehearsal of final shooting
  • Director-guided camera work, with the director guiding shots, stopping the camera to correct problems when they come up ,and shooting the final production
  • Staggered rehearsing and recording, comprised of a rehearsal just before each shot or scene is recorded, with shots not being necessarily in order because they can be edited later

Camera operator tasks after the show

After the show is shot, the director will tell you when you’re done. You will need to:

  • lock off the camera’s pan and tilt head
  • arrange the cable neatly so it won’t tangle when you use it next time
  • put the lens cap on
  • take down and put away the camera, if needed – for example, in remote locations
  • load gear into the truck, if needed.