Careers in Television and Video: What Employers Want in Camera Operators

Before entering this field as a camera operator, it might be helpful to know what an employer expects from a videographer, sometimes known as a photog. I am about to let you in on two little-known secrets of what this industry wants their camera operators to know.

Are you ready for the first television videography tip?

Here it is, use a tripod!

It’s important to have the right videography equipment to succeed in this industry, and often times, the utility of a simple tripod is overlooked.

Yes, there are instances like news events, or special scenes that call for hand held camera work. News photogs sometimes have to go hand held for a number of reasons. In TV and movies, most hand held work is now with a steady cam harness of some type. Most employers though, especially in news (your local employment entry level), demand you give them shots with the camera on sticks (tripod). Oh yeah, and no long pans or zooms neither. The reasons are simple.

If you want to be a successful commercial cinematographer, it's important to master the nuances of shooting live events.

Master Basic Techniques to be a Professional TV Cinematographer

News stories are short and simple. If they need a shot of the water tower, it will eventually appear for only three to five seconds. A well executed zoom or pan will take fifteen to twenty seconds, too long for what the news editor needs. Editors prefer a twenty second static shot, and other static shots of various angles or closeness. If the photog does do a zoom or pan, they will start off static fifteen to twenty seconds, do the zoom or pan, then hold at the end for another fifteen to twenty seconds. This way the editor has three choices they can use in the shot.

This technique is 'Shoot-to-Edit', and is something to keep in mind if you want to be a camera operator. A news crew is only on the scene for a short while and then move onto the next story. Much of that time is setting up for interviews or remotes, and getting pertinent shots.

Sometimes a 'creative' shot is used, but there is not much time to spend on them. For the most part, creativeness is in the composition of the static shot. What angle you use, how the shot looks. As a camera-operator's career gains experience and moves into longer stories, news magazines and other specialized programming, then the shots become more creative.

One last thing on zooming, the zoom control is the most often used tool on the camera. It is there quite literally at your fingertips. In a professional world, it is there mainly to adjust for a shot before actually recording it. Sometimes a slow zoom is used live onscreen to create a mood, or move the scene. Nobody, but nobody wants zooming in and out like you see in home movies. It is a waste of media space, plain and simple.

There are very few editors, who want to sift through that kind of footage unless an extreme situation called for it. If a photog, is sent out on an Electronic News Gathering (ENG) assignment, they are expected to bring back usable footage for their employers. Enjoy your zoom while you can, because when first entering this field as a camera operator, you will not be using it very often. Zooming, Panning and Tilting are arts in themselves.

They require skill and practice. To zoom in or out, and keep the subject in the scene, means that you must do all three movements simultaneously without anybody knowing about it. If you jerk, or make sudden movements, immediately the attention of the viewer diverts from what is going on in the scene, to what is happening with the camera. It breaks the illusion, and forces the viewer to lose focus. The viewer's, as well as your angry director's focus, is now on you.

If you were watching an important speech, or dramatic scene in a movie and the camera jerked, what would you think?

"Oh, there's a camera operator there."

You would also mentally miss several words spoken in the speech or scene to think these thoughts.

Creativity Helps with Capturing Amazing Footage

An important skill to have is an ability to compose a static camera shot quickly. It is where the creativity begins for a videographer. It was always the hardest thing for me to teach because I believe that composition is in the eye of the artist. There are various long-standing rules and suggestions to help you compose a shot, but in ENG video, you do not have much time to apply these practices as you do in still photography.

Things happen suddenly and in real time, if you contemplate too long you may lose a one-time shot. You must make quick decisions in composition, and in many instances, it just comes down to what looks good to you. It is hit or miss. When I was assisting a videographer in educational television, many times we would do projects involving children and their parents or teachers.

The trick is while recording one shot (on tripod) with one eye in the viewfinder, the other eye is looking for the next shot. As soon as I saw a mother about to pick up her baby out of the corner of my eye, I would stop tape, quickly pan over, compose and focus, and start recording in enough time to capture a CU of the mother kissing her child. You are capturing a moment in time. It is something that cannot be set up or planned if it is to be genuine. You must always be looking for the next shot.

If hand held camera work is unavoidable, here is a tip

Zoom back all the way and forget the zoom control is there. I mean it! Just forget about the darn thing. If you need a closer shot, simply move in. The more you zoom in while on hand held, the more every movement you make will be noticeable, even your breathing. When I do hand held camera, I will hold my breath while 'on', or when recording, and even then it is a tough shot to hold steady.

You have to be quick on your feet to shoot magical footage!

I will often prop my body on things, lean back on a wall, put the camera on a sandbag, on my knee, or on the floor (feet shot), anything to get the camera to hold still and get the shot. I was once taping handicapped children at a special rodeo event. Children are shorter than adults, and for reasons mentioned before, you want the shot at eye level, so most hand held work is accomplished on your knees.

Even though held in the morning, rodeo participants find time before the event to do any practicing. In one activity for the children, they get to ride a rocking, 'bucking bronco'. I recorded the usual shots, but at one point wanted an angle from below looking up to the child. It was a great shot, but I found myself kneeling in horse manure to get it, anything to get the shot. Some videographers carry kneepads with them for this purpose, but occasionally you do not have the opportunity to go and get them.

If you can capture the shot on sticks, it is a better option. Heck, you can make the shot 'look' hand-held using a tripod anyway, if you just want the effect.

These tips and any of these techniques may be helpful in your career, or even if you are just taping a coworker's retirement party. They help to give your video a more professional and polished look. Whether it is a televised program or vacation video, these techniques can be the difference between your video being interesting to the viewer, or making them just want to change the channel.