Frame the Game as a Sports Camera Operator

Niral Patel

It’s the noun squeezed in the middle of two verbs within the famous Hollywood tagline—Lights! Camera! Action! It’s a piece of equipment that has revolutionized how people consume entertainment. Without the camera, important world events, movies, television shows and must-see sporting events go unseen and undocumented. Video cameras capture the indescribable and help present them to the world.

In the sports universe, camera operators play a serious—though unseen, unheard and unheralded—role in the coverage of sporting events. The men and women strategically placed around fields, stadiums, pitches and arenas frame the window in which homebound fans watch the game through. Does the idea of visually creating a story energize you? Do you prefer being out in the field instead of working behind a desk? Does photography and videography bring out your creative side? If so, consider a job as a sports camera operator. It will bring you close to the action, make use of your technical expertise with camera equipment and combine a love of sports with a love of video production. The reward is the joy and energy you feel after the buzzer sounds, the fans head for the exits and the show producer cuts the live feed.

Successful camera operators are creative and passionate with both vision and energy. They are quick to react and can handle the stresses that come with filming live, action-packed sports. Steady hands, a calm demeanor and the ability to stand for long periods of time are welcoming characteristics. And the ability to ad lib when the moment arises and use strong communication skills will bring you to the next level in the industry.

So what will you do? You’ll be responsible to shoot the action from your station. You might be positioned in the dugout at a baseball stadium. Or in the end zone during a football game. Or maybe high above the action throughout a basketball game. Regardless of where you’re stationed you must be able to survey the landscape and know how to point-and-zoom, frame the best angles and find the most interesting crowd reactions. Know your equipment. Selecting the right lens and camera type for the scene—a rainy Sunday afternoon compared to a domed baseball game—can make or break the production. And guide your assistants as they help set up and ready the camera equipment. The work you do on the sidelines is paramount but remember that you’re not on your own—filming sporting events is a team effort so respect the process and people around you.

Producing a high quality televised or recorded event is a collaborative effort. The same plays shot from multiple angles requires coordination and teamwork. You’ll work closely with the event’s director to understand his or her vision. After all, each game has a story to tell. Do your part to help present it well. It’s no easy task but when it all comes together, it looks like seamless magic.

Enjoy a straight 9-to-5 job behind a desk? You’re not seeking out a career as a sports cameraman then. A lot of preparation goes into a successful sports production. There will be meetings to stay organized in the days leading up to an event. And, on game day, you’ll likely spend just as much time—or more—as the players will in the stadium. Preparing your station, testing the equipment and checking in with the director fills the hours leading up to the game’s start—kickoff, tip-off, puck drop, first pitch. The game itself is a whirlwind. You’ll film the action, collaborate with your director, lead your assistants and help bring the game to life. Blink once and it’s halftime. Blink again and the game is over. But, unlike the fans, you won’t head for the parking lot after the final buzzer sounds. Assist with equipment clean up and also check-in with the broadcasting director before your day or night concludes. Being a sports cameraman is typically seasonal and will include some long days. But the chance to use high quality equipment, be close to the sports you love and do something you’re passionate about is a rare opportunity. If you love it, seize it.

It’s not just about picking up a camera and pointing it towards the field. Technical know-how, camera operating procedure and broadcasting skills are learned through course curriculum as well as hands on experience. Respectable camera operator positions require a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting or film. So what will you study? Courses will focus on the craft of video production—lenses, video-editing software, film theory and practical technique. Learn how to best use editing tools available and how digital cameras work. If you’re not ready to commit to a four-year degree consider an associate’s degree in broadcasting and television production to find out if it’s a career path worth pursuing. While you finish up your classwork look for opportunities to get hands-on with a camera. Internships and college television stations offer jobs that will give you the experience needed to land a full-time gig when the time comes. The classroom knowledge you’ve accumulated coupled with some hands-on doing will get you in the game. With the right work ethic and skill you’ll be a camera operator for a major sports league in no time.

Like most sports jobs, compensation for camera operators escalates with the popularity of the league or broadcasting company you work for. Covering Notre Dame football games for NBC, filming ABC’s Monday Night Football or chronicling March Madness or a major golf tournament for CBS is the pinnacle. But expect to spend some time covering Division II football or an amateur hockey team while you practice the craft and perfect your technique. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics “the median annual wage for camera operators was $40,300 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,610, and the top 10 percent earned more than $86,000.” Do high quality work and a better paycheck will soon follow. A camera operator in sports is a unique, rewarding career that allows you to combine the creativity of video work with the thrill of sports.  

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