BY JASON PORTER | Ball State Sports Link
When I first started as a camera operator in live remote broadcasting, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I scoured the Internet looking for as many tips and tricks I could find that would help me better my craft, but had little success.
So I hit the ground running and hoped for the best.
I began my career as a camera operator in 2013 when I started working for the in-house video board crew at Ball State University. Then in 2015, I joined Ball State Sports Link where I have had the opportunity to continue to expand my knowledge and experience.
I decided in 2016 to enter the freelancing arena and began working in the field, putting what I’ve learned at Ball State to work.
These opportunities have led to being a part of over 100 broadcasts that have aired nationally on ESPN, ESPN 3 and CBS Sports Network; locally on WISH-TV, HTSN, COZI-TV; and on the in house video boards at Indiana Farmer’s Coliseum, Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse and Ball State University’s Scheumann Stadium and Worthen Arena.
Now in my third year as a camera operator, I want to help those who might be in the position I was in not too long ago. Here’s what I think are the five most important tips a new camera operator needs to know.
Tip 1: Understand your event.
I know this sounds like an elementary idea, but it’s incredible how much understanding the event you’re covering helps you with your job.
You have to ask yourself: do I know what the viewer – and your on-air talent – is looking for? Covering football or basketball, do I know the basic rules and flow of the game? These things are vital to understand to make your job as a camera operator much easier.
If you find yourself saying you don’t have a firm understanding of the event, then do your homework and watch the event.
My preface here though — make sure it’s a high-caliber broadcast you watch. I tend to stick to the major sports networks – ESPN, NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports, FOX Sports – because I know they put out the highest quality product and set the standard.
I also try to make sure the broadcasts I watch reflect the event I’m going to cover. For example, if I’m about to cover college basketball, I watch several ESPN or CBS college basketball broadcasts.
In my opinion, this is the best part of the job because you get to watch sports to study! What could be better?
Now, when I say watch the event, I mean watch it for the technical aspects and from the perspective of a camera operator. When I sit down to do this, I try to watch every camera angle and understand what each camera is responsible for covering.
I still remember when I got crewed as a handheld camera operator to cover a gymnastics meet for the first time. I’ll be honest, I was a little worried at first.
I started to do some homework and looked up gymnastics events and watched them repetitively. I was watching dozens of NBC Sports Network and USA Gymnastics videos to understand what types of shots were used, what the on-air talent was talking about and how to frame the shots being use for each event from a handheld camera perspective.
After doing this for a couple of days, I had a much clearer idea of how to do my job to cover an event I’d never worked before.
Tip 2: Know your role.
This is a two-part tip that will make your life much easier if you keep it in mind.
As a camera operator, it’s important that you understand the responsibilities for your particular camera position and that you understand your place in the chain of command.
I’m not trying to steal a line from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, I’m only trying to help you avoid a potentially detrimental mistake.
When you get crewed for an event, you will likely know what camera position you’ll be in before you arrive. Then, on the day of the event, you’ll have a camera meeting with your director.
In this meeting, the director will define exactly what they’re wanting from each camera operator. And, this is the time to ask questions specific to your position.
In my experience, I have learned a lot about the responsibilities for different camera positions. One camera I run quite frequently is Camera 4 for basketball.
This is a handheld camera on the baseline below the basket on the right hand side of the court. This position is obviously responsible for covering game action.
However, it is also the camera responsible for going out to shoot the pregame and halftime segments with the on-air talent, and shooting the post game interview with the sideline reporter.
Going back to my first tip, to prepare for a game on this camera, not only do I pay attention to game action, but I also pay attention to the framing of the pregame, halftime and postgame interview segments.
The other side of this tip is to know your spot in the production’s chain of command. By this I mean, worry about doing your job to the best of your ability and let everyone else do the same.
As a camera operator, you should not be worrying about replays or graphics or directing.
On occasion I will chime in to let the director know I have a particular shot if they were calling for a camera to get it, or I’ll let replay know that I’m going to shoot something for them to bank and potentially use later.
Other than those instances, I try to stay pretty quiet on the headset so I don’t add clutter.
Tip 3: Be aware.
Again, this is another multi-part tip, but this one will go a long way in your success as a camera operator.
The four biggest things I think a camera operator needs to be aware of are: your tally light, the program audio, the director and other people.
Your camera’s tally light is the single most important thing you can pay attention to as a camera operator.
When that light comes on, you’re live. You have to stick with the shot you have until that light turns off. It seems like another simple idea, but you’d be surprised how difficult it really is in the heat of the moment.
The program audio is a guide to what you should be looking for. This is the audio being heard by the audience watching the broadcast and you should be able to hear in your headset.
By being aware of what the on-air talent is talking about, you can sometimes think ahead of the director and find what talent is talking about before being asked.
Being a camera operator, you have to become skilled at listening for key words.
For example, when I’m running a camera I listen for the on-air talent to say a specific player’s name. If I hear a name, I start looking for that player so the director can show what talent is talking about.
The same holds true for listening to the director.
During game action, I listen to the director in the same way I listen to my program audio. I listen for keywords like a director’s “ready” call. If I’m running Camera 4 and hear “ready 4,”, I know that the director is about to take my shot, and I need to stick with whatever I have framed up. Once I hear the “take” call, I pay attention to my tally light and listen for the next “ready” call so I don’t pull or drop my shot.
Finally, you have to be aware of other people. For tripod-mounted camera this is slightly less important, but as a handheld camera this is vital.
Handheld cameras, like the other cameras, are connected to a cable that runs back to the truck. Anytime a handheld camera moves around the venue, that cable moves with it making it vital for the camera operator’s utility (or grip) to be aware of people walking nearby.
One of the first things I do when I am crewed as a handheld is to introduce myself to my utility. I like to talk about what I’m expecting as the camera operator out of them in certain situations.
For example, one situation I’ll talk about is the postgame interview. I’ll tell them about how far onto the floor we have to go and where I’d like them to stand. Generally that’s right behind me because if I have to follow the interviewee and I run into someone, I want to know that person was my utility and not someone else.
Of course I feel bad about running into my utility, but I feel less bad about running into them than I would feel if I were to run into an athlete’s grandmother waiting to see her grandchild.
Tip 4: Be prepared.
This seems like an overarching tip that really encompasses everything above it, but here I’m talking about being physically prepared.
Every event I work, I take a backpack with me that has everything I think I could possibly need for an event. My backpack contains rain gear, sunscreen, paper tape, gaff tape, a multi-tool, snacks and all kinds of other small items.
Being prepared for anything will make your life much easier.
For example, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve used my rain gear when it hasn’t been raining. Of course I’ve also lost count of how many times there’s been a chance of rain in the forecast and I needed it to stay dry.
I also make sure I have some small snacks in my bag in addition to a bottle or two of water. There have been countless times when I’ve shown up to crew call thinking I would get a lunch break only to have that lunch break disappear because of complications during setup.
Not only should you be prepared for the unexpected — or food — but you personally need to be prepared. Games can get long and the cameras get heavy. You have to be physically ready to have the stamina to cover a whole event.
I have experienced triple overtime basketball games and a softball game extending 14 innings. That’s the beauty of sports — it’s unpredictable.
Being prepared physically will be a major key to making it to the end of an event successfully.
Tip 5: Make goals.
This is something I do every single time I work an event. I found by making goals for myself going into and during a game makes the job more fun while helping me progress.
The goal can be something as simple as, every shot will be in focus, or something bigger like, during game action the ball will not leave my shot.
One goal I always try to set — and I found has helped me hone my skills — is mimicking a shot I saw on a major network broadcast.
For example, during football season I made it a goal to get a shot from the back corner of the end zone that had the goal line pylon and the line of scrimmage in it. I was successful and that shot can be seen near the end of my demo reel.
Bonus Tip: Have fun!
Remember why you wanted to be in sports broadcasting in the first place. Sports are fun, and being a camera operator can put you in some really cool places covering some amazing – and sometimes historic – events. Enjoy it, soak it in, but remember you have a job to do.
This job can put you in places and give you experiences many people will only dream about having. No two games will ever be exactly the same, and to me, that’s the best part of the job. I’ve been fortunate to find my calling and feel like I haven’t worked a day in the last three years.
I hope these tips I have shared give you a foundation to start your career, and hopefully you love your job as much as I do.