How to Work with a Camera You've Never Touched Before

How to Work with a Camera You’ve Never Touched Before

When it comes to cameras, there's more options now than ever before. That's great for cinematographers, but it leaves camera assistants struggling to wrap their heads around a staggering number of camera systems. Inevitably, you're going to come across one you haven't even touched before. So, how do you handle it?

With the amazing amount of choice on the market right now for cameras, it’s almost impossible to have heavy experience in every single system. Yet, as camera assistants, we’re expected to know each camera inside-out and front-to-back.

It’s especially tough when the market shifts every few months with the release of a new camera. Producers are notorious for wanting to shoot on that “gamechanger” they read about and they’ll often take their productions along for the ride. Other times, you don’t have the opportunity to work with a certain camera until further down the road – weeks, months, maybe years after its release.

At that point, instead of relying on experience, you’re making your experience. That can be intimidating.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Cameras, believe it or not, are amazingly similar. They all use lenses and they all need light. For the most part, if you’ve used one, you’ve used them all. It just takes some extra prep time and a smart approach to make sure that on Day 1, that camera you’ve never touched before feels like an old friend.

Follow the tips below and you won’t embarrass yourself as you learn your way around a new camera.

Read the F***ing Manual (Twice)

Are you familiar with the acronym RTFM? It means “Read The Fucking Manual.” Don’t let its brash brevity distract you from its important message.

You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this. You know what, though? I get it: a lot of manuals are poorly written, complicate understanding, and are terribly hard to read through. Some use pictures where you’d rather have steps while others give steps where a simple diagram would suffice.

In short, usefulness with manuals is wildly inconsistent.

But for whatever shortcomings manuals have, there’s always something to get out of them. You may end up reading 200 pages and only retaining the information from a few sections, but that’s more info than when you started to read.

Besides, you can read as many camera reviews, first-hand experiences, or forum posts as you want, but nothing will educate you better on the basics and expected processes than the manual itself.

The way I push myself to read through manuals is by approaching it like a text book. I know, for the most part, it’s going to be dry and boring, but it’s necessary for me to be competent. Just as I hated going into tests feeling unprepared, I hate going on to sets the same way.

Here’s some techniques I use that can help you push through the material better:

  • Read it while comfortable. I like to put PDF versions of manuals on my iPad and read them in bed before I go to sleep or during a period of rest. It helps take the pressure off of reading it quickly and, thus, helps me retain the information better.
  • Break it into sections. You don’t have to read a camera manual all the way through. Some are short (like the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera [PDF]), but others are novelistic in length and require being split into several reading sessions to keep your sanity.
  • Skip what’s unnecessary. Manuals are meant to be comprehensive, but you may not be utilizing the entire breadth of a camera’s capabilities. While it’s good to know what a camera can do (you never know when the director will ask about a feature), it’s sometimes obvious you will never use a feature. For instance, some Sony camera manuals have entire chapters on using a certain external recorder. If you’re not using that recorder on your shoot, skip it.
  • Have the DP give you direction. Before I shoot, I like to ask the DP what questions they may have about a camera or what features they are thinking of using. This gives me good direction on what features to read about – and focus on – in the manual.

Luckily these days cameras are trending towards simplicity and ease of use which means a shorter manual, so getting through one isn’t quite the exercise in self-motivation it has been in years past (unless you’re working with a Sony).

Finally, my last piece of advice is to read the manual several times. It’s not going to stick that first time you read it. You don’t have to read page-to-page each time, but go back to the important sections – things like formatting cards, changing user keys, etc.

Maximize Your Camera Prep

If you’re like me, reading a manual is no substitute for getting my grimy fingers on the damn thing. I learn best when I get thrown into the fire or into a room with a camera that I can poke and prod at it until I get it to do what I want it to do.

I have a feeling most camera assistants are this way: we’d much prefer to learn a camera in real-world situations than in the hypotheticals and “perfect setups” that manuals come from.

A solid block of camera prep time is perfect for this because if you do your camera prep right, you basically recreate a lot of common scenarios and test uses of a camera:

I can’t think of a better way to get hands-on experience without actually shooting a take than a quality camera prep. You are literally walking yourself through all the essentials of a camera.

If production, for whatever reason, is dragging their feet on the camera prep, urge them that it is needed. Especially with new cameras, a production will waste much more time on set with a problem than if a camera assistant can work out those kinks at the rental house.

On freebies and low-budget, you may not get paid for your prep time, but it’s still worth it (for your sake) to deliver the kind of professional experience you were hired for. I know it sucks to work when you’re not getting paid, but I’d gladly spend a few hours of my own time getting my hands on a camera beforehand than risk holding up a production the day-of.

(Plus, what you learn during prep is applicable for other paid work. It’s an investment in your skills).

To really make the most of a camera prep with an unfamiliar system, don’t be afraid to ask questions from the rental house you’re renting from. Even if the camera is brand spanking new, the rental techs have likely spent time with it already and been briefed on it.

Attend Training Sessions or Camera Meetups

While a solid camera prep will provide you with plenty of hands-on time, maybe you want to get even further ahead of the curve and mess around with the camera before your prep day. This has the added benefit of letting you spend more time actually prepping the camera than learning it.

That’s where meetups or training sessions come in.

Many rental houses will host meetups whenever a new camera system arrives (or even for older systems that are still popular). This is a win-win for everybody involved. For you, you get to learn about the camera, get some hands-on time with it, and walk away more confident. For the rental house, they provide education to you (their customer) and empower you to want to rent their equipment.

If you know your local rental houses, look them up on social media and see if they’re promoting any of these meetups. You’ll find the bigger market rental houses host these types of events more, but even smaller rental companies will do them from time-to-time.

Can’t find anything? Then call up your rental house and schedule your own hands-on session. Introduce yourself and ask them if you can come in to learn one of their cameras on a day it is available. And don’t make it seem like it’s going to be a big deal – let them know you’re happy to be by yourself in the corner and won’t take time away from their rental techs.

Most rental houses will be OK with this (empowering their customers, remember?) as long as you respect availability times, their staff, and aren’t overly needy with demands.

You may also have local filmmaking production groups in your area that host meetups or pay for lectures given to their members. The key is to engage with the film community in your market – that’s where you’ll be able to attend these types of events.

Leverage Your Network for Info

The filmmaking community is robust and, if you’ve been toiling away, you should have built up a network around you. So don’t be afraid to source questions from this network about whatever camera you’re about to work with.

Many times I’ve turned to Twitter or former colleagues to get their opinion on a camera. While I can learn a lot from a manual and articles online, it’s best to hear the opinions from those in the trenches.

Something as simple as a tweet asking: “Any quirks or concerns I should be aware of when shooting with a [camera name]?” can provide valuable feedback.

Prepare Now or You’ll Hate Yourself Later

In short, preparation is key to working successfully with a camera you’ve never touched before.

As mentioned above, most cameras are the same pieces in different bodies. They are remarkably similar and all use the same fundamentals of cinematography. The gap you have to bridge is mostly functionality and applying feature sets unique to each camera.

It’s likely you’ll still stumble across a few quirks you didn’t foresee, but I find that happens even with cameras I do have experience with. Each camera itself can be just as unique as the name on its side.

With time, you’ll discover what’s normal for a particular camera system and understand how to fix it or work around it. That you cannot learn without spending time shooting with a camera. And that’s OK – resourcefulness helps overcome those initial misgivings.

But the best advice – and really what all of these tips come around to – is ample preparation. You don’t want to be the person on set who’s supposed to know how to set the camera into varispeed mode and not actually know how to do that. It’s embarrassing and it could cost you a job.

So don’t put yourself in that position.

If you take the time to read the manual, prep the camera, go to a few meetups, and source information from those you know, well, there should be no reason why you can’t step on a set and shoot with a camera like it’s your 100th time – even if it’s your first.

Read Part 2 of How to Work with a Camera You’ve Never Touched Before here

What approach do you take when you’re about to work with a new camera? What’s your best piece of advice? Please let me know in the comments below!

  • Daniel Lowe

    Good blog. It’s possible to do well if you really understand Shutter, ISO, Aperture, and the sensor’s personality.

    • Russell Scott Day

      I tell young people to get next to a Panavision, and never leave it. Panavision being run by Kim Snyder from Kodak, and that morass of complacency going so far as to be fear of self is like the American story of hubris and failure, and frightens and insults me forcing out: Arri is what you get.
      Arri is all I ever got anyway.
      The guys that started Panavision understood it. There you go. See that frame? Put the image in the frame.
      I wanted to sell Panavision to Google as a program, or get google to make soft ware since the bidding starts at 1 billion after Instagram made it.
      I am ignored and pissed on.

      • Evan


        I have to be honest: I don’t really understand what you’re trying to say at all, especially within the context of this article…

        • Russell Scott Day

          You’re right.
          Read the manual and watch the youtube brick assembly video.

        • Lawrence Marshall

          Lol. You’re not alone.

  • Gavin Bearfield-Boyd

    As you rightly say, Cameras are very similar. I prep for a new camera immediately with the manual read 3 times and downloaded to my phone. I would also advise printing the manual as I once discovered that my phone had died on set. I also spend a large amount of time viewing product demos online and pay attention to guru reviews from people such as Den Lennie of F-Stop Academy and Phillip Bloom. Their knowledge and experience is paramount to understanding what goes on underneath these camera bodies.
    I think if you are a professional enough camera person and can set exposure, iso, colour temperature and focus by hand/eye then the most important area to navigate is the camera menus.
    Get around these first and you have cracked it.

    • Evan

      Reading the manual and having it on your phone is something I do every time too. I usually make a Dropbox folder and put everything pertaining to the shoot inside of it — call sheets, maps, manuals, white papers, whatever — that way I can reference it from my phone or someone else’s if needed.

      • Brendan Cherry

        This is exactly what I do and it works quite well

      • Lawrence Marshall

        Oh…oh man. Yes. In case my phone dies on set too!

  • Steve Stussey

    As much as everyone would like to be able to prep, sometimes you don’t always have that luxury. There’s been a couple of instances where they were last minute shoots and they weren’t sure what camera we’d be using or the lens package. Any tips on that situation?

    • Evan

      I’ll be covering that a bit in Wednesday’s part 2 of this post where I give some tips on the production side of things.

      But you’re right and I’ve been in that spot before. My advice is to do as much of the prep work as possible and to prioritize it aggressively. So yeah read the manual, but start with the most important sections. I’d also advise arriving very early to set and try to buy yourself some time to mess around before the pressure builds for the first shot.

  • Rufus

    The best straightforward advice I had was, to quote Douglas Adams, “Don’t Panic”. The first time I got told to set up a C300 to the DP’s specs (without knowing what I was doing. Note to self: prep, prep, prep) I think I was a tad nervous but “Don’t Panic” really got me through it. I think it should be printed on all the manuals.

  • Raj Mokan

    Good Blog..Very impressive and USEFUL