I’ve been freelancing for over a decade now, and I often get emails from film and media students asking the following questions:
How do I become a freelance camera operator?
Do I need to go to university?
Which university courses should I take?
How much money can I earn?
What kind of equipment will I need to invest in?
I’m always happy to answer any specific questions and answer emails, but to begin with I think it would be helpful to provide a brief summary of my education and career so far. I’ll also be continuing my blog, tackling specific queries and giving advice, so if you have a question you’d like answered or you’d like to suggest a topic, you can email me at email@example.com. Right, here we go!
The Early Years
I have been a huge film fan ever since I saw Jurassic Park on the big screen over 25 years ago. I was thrilled that something so incredible could be recreated in front of me in such amazing detail. I’d say this was the point I realised I wanted a career in film and visual story telling. I briefly considered CGI, but after quickly realising I didn’t have the patience for it, I started to think about production and camerawork. I would drive my family mad with my newfound passion, documenting our every family outing and holiday, before spending hours editing on my home PC. As irritating as this likely was for all concerned, it actually taught me a lot about how to tell a story through images.
Because I was a pretty good student, I was always told that the academic route was the way to go: sensible A-levels, then a three-year course at a good university. Because of this, I went against my better judgement and studied subjects at college I had little to no interest in – accounting, statistics and business studies. Unsurprisingly, I hated it, and spend most of my time finding ways to avoid going to my classes. I don’t think I’m alone here – unfortunately, it often seems to be the case that well-meaning teachers and parents look down on creative and niche courses, mistakenly believing that they will limit job prospects. Despite this setback, I finished college with decent grades and a renewed determination to have the courage of my convictions and follow my passions. Hopefully there’s a lesson in there somewhere!
Although I wouldn’t always recommend this to anyone wondering how to start a career as a camera operator, I decided to go to university. At the time I finished college in the summer of 2004 there was a disappointing lack of occupational film-related courses to choose from. Although Film Studies is a good fit for anyone wanting to explore the theory and artistic merits of visual storytelling, I knew I wanted to work behind the camera, and wasn’t too interested in theory and analysis. Although I’d hope the situation has now improved, at the time, only one course was available to me locally that fit the bill: BSc Film Production Technology at Staffordshire University. As it turned out I only needed three Cs in any A-level subjects to get on to the course so I found myself once more wishing I had taken courses I enjoyed at A-level without worrying about the academic merit.
One of the great things about the course was that it offered the opportunity to take a year out to complete a 12-month work placement. This could either be with an external company or you could join a scheme where you’d set up your own business with support from the university. I opted to start a company and I can honestly say I learned more in this one year than my entire time studying. The offer included free office space for the year as well as ongoing funding and business mentorship. I’d always liked the idea of being my own boss and this was a relatively risk-free way to give it a go. So, along with a couple of friends, I set up ‘Warped Noise’, a video production company making music videos and music-related projects.
The first step was to market ourselves and find work. We also had to manage clients and their expectations, as well as fully deliver projects on time and on budget. The support we had from the university was great, and I loved being in control of the work we were doing and improving my camera operator skills. The experience was not without its challenges, however, as we quickly learned that most bands and artists don’t have a great deal of money. We managed to survive by working with corporate clients too, though our meagre student lifestyle didn’t demand too much funding! We loved what we were doing, and we continued the business into our final year of university alongside our studies.
Finding my way in the world
I left university in 2008 with a first class degree and decided to move to Manchester with friends. One member of Warped Noise left the business, but the remaining member and I decided to continue. Nevertheless, this wasn’t enough to support us full-time, so I took a part-time job with Royal Mail as a postman. It was at this time that we decided it was make or break, so we decided to invest in some camera equipment with the Sony EX3. It was actually the perfect camera for us – versatile enough to use on corporate, creative and live projects. I still own it and use it on occasion 10 years later! Owning the camera ourselves and having to find the money to pay for it was a great driving force for us, as we could never become too complacent.
As enjoyable as the life of a part-time postman was, by mid-2009 I felt I was letting myself down by not putting my all into pursuing the career I wanted. Because I was also unhappy where I was living at the time, I decided the first thing I needed was an adventure and a fresh start. I had a friend who was living near LA, so I decided to head out to California for a few months to join him. Needless to say, this was a fantastic experience and exactly what I needed to reset and plan my next move.
I’d given up both my apartment and car to go to California, so when I returned I was technically homeless. As much as I love my parents, moving in with them felt like a step backwards. I stayed on friends’ sofas for a few weeks while I sorted myself out. At this point I should introduce Rosie. We met when I was 16 and were in a relationship for a couple of years before I started university. We remained close friends throughout, and had started to see each other again in the weeks before I went away. She had a job in Birmingham and was looking to move into her own flat. Well, suffice to say that it didn’t stay “her” flat for long, and she was kind enough to support me financially while I moved and settled back in the Midlands. I was very happy, and we have remained very much in love ever since.
Leaving Manchester made running Warped Noise very difficult, so we reluctantly decided to call it a day and go our separate ways. I bought the EX3 for my own use and started to pick up the odd camera gig and found some regular freelance editing jobs. One of my clients turned out to have so much work that within a year I was pretty much working for them full time and so they offered me a contract.
Wow! Stuff is a toy company who use an in-house video production department for all their promo videos and commercial content. I decided to work for them on a part-time basis at the same time as continuing independent work on the side. When I started I was only the second member of the team and so my role was very broad and covered all aspects of production, including shooting a lot of their videos. I spent good couple of years with Wow! Stuff and got to shoot some fun content along the way, but in early 2013 I felt it was time to jump back in to the freelance world with both feet!
Being a freelance camera operator
Rosie and I got married in May 2013 and took our honeymoon in South Africa straight after. I decided I would stay with Wow! Stuff until the wedding and afterwards I’d start properly as a freelancer. We’d been able to buy our first house by this time and with the expense of the wedding behind us I could enjoy the change without too much pressure. I’d built up a few good clients while freelancing part-time which gave me a safety net and had also allowed me to buy a Canon 5D mark 3 kit. This was at the peak of the DSLR craze and the EX3 wasn’t as popular as it had been but the 5D was in high demand. I filmed a lot of Asian weddings in the early days, as well as business profile videos and event coverage. Over the past seven years I’ve worked across all areas of the industry in some capacity but now primarily shoot corporate, live events and branded content. I have great clients from across the UK and my work as a freelance camera operator has taken me around the world.