When it comes to hiring a camera operator or DOP, clients and Producers are looking for talented and reliable crew. Typically Producers will not take a chance on a using a new crew member unless they come recommended. Even then they will only use new crew on a small shoot to see how you go. It can be a hard road and many don’t make it, but if you run your business of being a camera operator well you will make.
So how do you set yourself up for success and make sure you will be financially viablae and around for the next shoot?
Here are some tips to make sure you can give it your best, and give the right impression before a shoot.
Have a showreel and CV. If you are starting out and you are still working on the reel your CV of what you have worked on in what role and for who is your best friend. Cold calling when starting out is daunting and, lets be honest, not that much fun. But it works. If you have a website make sure it shows you in your best light. An old site that does look great, has dead links and says nothing meaningful is waste of time and money.
Specialise. There’s nothing less convincing than someone that says they are a DOP, Editor, Director, Lighting, Motion Graphics and Plumber. Decide on what crew role you are going be, because to use a cliche – jack of all trades, master of none is very true. We all start off wearing multiple hats. I did but you have to decide to specialise at some point. There are many people that think it is wise to offer themselves as both camera operator and editor in the same package. I strongly disagree for nearly all people you will be far better at one thing than both. You will end up being judged on your results and that means by your weakest ability. I know I can shoot beautifully and capture what the shoot demands, but I always get an editor to put it together. This makes best use of both our talents and means happy clients.
Be confident. I don’t like big-noting myself, but I will say I’m a good camera operator. I can clearly tell people what I am good at and I know that for a fact. When producers, directors, clients or agencies are looking for a camera operator they check out showreels and websites. You need to let them be able to feel good about their decision to use you on their shoot. So when asked put your hand up and say use me.
Charge Appropriately. Charge a daily rate or a half day rate for you. This is a standard common film/TV industry practice. In Australia a half day shoot is a shoot of less than 4 hours which includes setup, shooting, wrap and data transfer time. For a shoot over 4 hours you jump to a full day shoot. A full day can be either 8 hours or 10 hours. Don’t charge half day rates for your gear – once it’s out, it’s out for the day. Be able to clearly state your rates and what is included when asked and stick to the rates you decide on.
Behind the scenes ways to be a successful camera operator
Use accounting software. When I first went freelance I was using a word document to send out invoices and a excel spreadsheet to try to work out what was paid and what was overdue. You might think this saves money but it costs time and may mean you miss out on payments or have clients paying you really late. I use MYOB and love it, it tells me exactly what invoices are due for payment and how old the overdue ones are. It also make running my business financially really easy. There are other good option too to look at like Xero and Quickbooks. Using Accounting software has saved me so much time over the years and is well worth the money in my opinion.
Investing in Gear. When choosing gear I have always looked at what to buy by what piece of gear would be most useful and or what gear would help either generate work or make my work better. There is always a long list of gear that we all want but unless it’s going be able to be charged for on an upcoming job I will hold off buying it. Remember gear can age quickly so if you don’t need it now it may be out of date by the time you do need it.
Another lesson I have learnt about gear is buy good quality gear. There are no excuses on set for gear that is dodgy or doesn’t work, it just makes you look bad. If you buy yourself some good quality lights or a good tripod and look after them – they will last you for years.
Business costs. You are running a business and so you need to put money aside for Tax, insurance and maintenance for your gear and vehicle. Remember you will need to replace camera gear every 3 to 5 years so factor in savings to pay for this too. Then after the basic costs there are many more like marketing yourself, website and blogs, accounting costs and then having money to buy the next piece of gear. The list is endless.
Being a successful freelance camera operator is not an easy job, there are many things to consider. Basically its business and just like any other business your success will come down to the numbers. But at the end of the day I love what I do and getting e-mails from my clients saying how happy they are with the shoot is what gives me the most satisfaction.