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How to become a wildlife camera operator – Part 2: The skills

The reality of being a wildlife camera operator is that you have to perform. In essence this means collecting the video content that the production team’s editors and director can craft into the beautiful documentary that the producer has envisioned. If you fail to have the necessary skills to confidently gain this content, your career will be short-lived. From my perspective, these skills need to be broken down into two components. (a) The technical skills of camera operations (and associated technical kit), and (b) the skills of understanding the animals that you intend to film. These skills, as you can imagine, require massively different approaches from training to past experiences. Many of the students we teach in our Wildlife and Filmmaking Internship Program come from either a traditional film or biology background. Thus, they are strong in one and weak in the other area of expertise. It is vital that they focus on strengthening their weakest skill if they are to successfully break into the wildlife filmmaking industry.

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What skills and training do you need?

Luckily for aspiring wildlife camera operators, no formal qualifications are needed. In the industry, many successful camera operators have learnt through courses, internships or they are self-taught through working in the field. A wildlife camera operator tends to come from either a traditional filmmaking background or an industry that generates a deep knowledge of wildlife. Examples of these are biologists, conservationists, tour guiding, SCUBA diving etc. In this article, I want to cover the essential skills needed to compete as a professional wildlife camera operator, so here goes…

Camera Operation

Operating your camera(s) with confidence and effortless skill is essential for every camera operator. There are numerous online video tutorials that can guide and assist aspiring wildlife camera operators in the requisite skills. Here are the main operations that any wildlife camera operator should be aware of and skilled in.

  • White balance – white balance is essentially telling your camera what colour white is. After this, your camera can correctly decipher the entire colour spectrum,
  • Focus – Camera operators work using manual settings, this includes manual focus. The camera operator must decide on what the focus point is and if they must move from one subject to another (pull focus).
  • Composition – The image composition is vital. Camera operators must collect a full suite of images including close up, medium and wide shots, so that the editor has what he/she needs to edit the footage into a watchable sequence. A great camera operator can place emotion, context and feeling into their image by their chosen composition and placement of subject(s) within the frame.
  • Audio – In many wildlife documentaries, the camera operator will record sound directly onto the camera and often operate without a dedicated sound engineer. As such, camera operators must know the different audio options, how to set them up, and how to monitor them whilst simultaneously shooting the required video footage.
  • Depth of field – Depth of field refers to the range of distance (from the lens) that is in focus. Many camera operators prefer the cinematographer style of having a shallow depth of field, thereby allowing their subject to ‘pop’. However, this depends on the entire style of the documentary and is typically the directors call. A good camera operator must know how to manipulate the depth of field to gain the required look of each shot.
  • Exposure – Ensuring that you have the correct exposure is vital, especially when it comes to post-production. You are seeking to get the most contrast and ‘pop’ out of each shot. Exposure in its most basic form is about allowing the correct amount of light onto your camera’s sensor. Thus ensures that the whites are not ‘blown-out’ or the shadows are not totally back. In wildlife, exposure is notably tricky as many shots could be ‘backlit’ or have an extreme amount of shadows and highlights. Many camera operators will go into their camera settings to adjust the baseline exposure settings and in return, they are able to capture all the required detail.
  • Sequencing – I mentioned it earlier (within composition) but shooting a variety of shot types is essential for any camera operator. Ensuring you have wides, mediums and closeups (as well as other shot types) will ensure your editor can enjoy putting together smooth and beautiful sequences. If there is one BIG tip I can give – “Shoot for your editor”. Learn this by sitting with an editor at work and see how they search for specific shots for their sequences!
  • Formats – All cameras shoot in a variety of formats. These formats can vary in frame rate (FPS), resolution (pixels) and color. To add to this, the compression codecs that take the raw content, compress and store it onto memory recording cards vary hugely between cameras. In addition, as cameras become more sophisticated, these formats and settings become more and more complicated. A good wildlife camera operator must be aware and knowledgeable of these formats, and able to set the camera up in the required format.

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Knowledge of wildlife

Many successful camera operators were wildlife and animal specialists in their former lives. The reason why they can easily convert to this media industry is due to their understanding of wildlife and the behaviour or wild animals. Some of the key knowledge points that are a must for any aspiring wildlife camera operator include:

  • Locating your subjects. The occurrence and behaviour of animals always vary in time and space. Many variations are driven by factors such as time of day or season. Knowledge on how a particular subject will behave at various times and settings can allow effective planning and capturing of footage. In the simplest form, everyone can understand that it is pointless to (a) try to film a owl hunting during the day, (b) film penguins in the Sahara desert, or (c) or find wild lions in South America. Whilst these are very obvious examples, the occurrence and behaviour  of each different animal will uniquely vary making it impossible to create blanket rules. The more knowledgeable you are about the animals you work with, and how they interact with their ecosystems, the more you can predictably locate subjects to shoot.
  • Reading animal behaviour. It is one thing to find your animal of choice, and another thing to successfully film it. One of the most common mistakes aspiring wildlife camera operators make is that they do not recognize they are part of the environment, and their mere presence is going to impact on the animal and its behaviour. To most wild animals, humans are recognized as a predator and they respond appropriately to this by trying to get away. Getting on all fours and leopard crawling towards an impala will not have the desired effect of allowing you to approach close for that extreme close-up. It will rather cause the impala to sound an alert call and bound away together with every other impala in the area. Understanding the interaction between humans and animals, and then being able to read the subtle signals they are communicating both to you and to each other is essential if you hope to film natural behaviour.  Many experienced wildlife camera operators understand that the filming of different species requires different approaches. The use of telephoto lenses, drones, vehicles, hides, camera traps etc must all be considered as no two animals are the same.

Mastering the ability to locate and film animals successfully, requires years of dedication. No person can expect to be an expert on every subject. However, the deeper your knowledge, the more willing you are to research and understand the ecology of different animals, and the better you are at reading the behaviour of animals, the more successful you will be as a wildlife camera operator.

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Blogger Profile - Ryan Johnson

Ryan is a well known wildlife film maker and biologist and filled numerous wildlife filmmaking jobs during his 15 years in the industry. This has primarily been through his work as researcher, host, camera operator and scientist on shark and marine documentaries. At Africa Media, he runs the Wildlife Documentary Filmmaking Internship Program where students can produce their own 5 minute wildlife documentary in Africa and learn and how to break into this competitive industry.