Twenty tips for shooting great video
With your camcorder of choice in hand, it’s time to venture off and shoot videos. If you’re new to videography, following these tips will help you create better videos. If you’re an old hand, think of this list of shooting axioms as a way to snap out of your routine and juice things up a bit:
- Get a closing shot.
- Get an establishing shot.
- Shoot plenty of video.
- Adhere to the “rule of thirds.”
- Keep your shots steady.
- Follow the action.
- Use trucking shots.
- Find unusual angles.
- Lean forward or backward.
- Get wide shots.
- • Get tight shots.
- Shoot matched action.
- Get sequences.
- Avoid fast pans and snap zooms.
- Shoot cutaways.
- Don’t break the “plane.”
- Use lights.
- Grab good “bites.”
- Get plenty of natural sound.
- Plan your shoot.
Get a closing shot
Your closing images are what stick in people’s minds. You should be constantly on the lookout for that one shot or sequence that best wraps up your story.
Get an establishing shot
An establishing shot sets a scene in one image. Although super-wide shots work well (aerials in particular), consider other points of view: from the cockpit of a race car, a close-up of a scalpel with light glinting off its surface, or paddles dipping frantically in roaring white water. Each grabs the viewer’s attention and helps tell your story.
Figure 1 The establishing shot sets the scene: an isolated mountain range. The second tells the story: a race is about to start.
Shoot plenty of video
Videotape is cheap and expendable. Shoot a whole lot more raw footage than you’ll put in your final production. Five times as much is not unusual. Giving yourself that latitude might help you grab shots you would have missed otherwise.
Adhere to the rule of thirds
It’s called the “rule of thirds” but it’s more like the rule of four intersecting lines. When composing your shot, think of your viewfinder as being crisscrossed by two horizontal and two vertical lines. The center of interest should fall along those lines or near one of the four intersections, not the center of the image.
Consider all those family photos where the subject’s eyes are smack dab in the center of the photo. Those are not examples of good composition.
Another way to follow the rule of thirds is to look around the viewfinder as you shoot, not just stare at its center. Check the edges to see whether you’re filling the frame with interesting images. Avoid large areas of blank space.
Figure 2 The rule of thirds: Putting your image’s most important elements along the lines or at their intersections will make it more pleasing to the eye.
Keep your shots steady
You want to give viewers the sense that they’re looking through a window or, better yet, are there on location. A shaky camera shatters that illusion.
When possible, use a tripod. The best “sticks” have fluid heads that enable you to make smooth pans or tilts.
If it’s impractical to use a tripod try to find some way to stabilize the shot: Lean against a wall, put your elbows on a table, or place the camcorder on a solid object.
Follow the action
This might seem obvious, but keep your viewfinder on the ball (or sprinter, speeding police car, surfer, conveyor belt, and so on). Your viewers’ eyes will want to follow the action, so give them what they want.
One nifty trick is to use directed movement as a pan motivator. That is, follow a leaf’s progress as it floats down a stream and then continue your camera motion past the leaf—panning—and widen out to show something unexpected: a waterfall, a huge industrial complex, or a fisherman.
Use trucking shots
Trucking or dolly shots move with the action. For example, hold the camera at arm’s length right behind a toddler as he motors around the house, put the camera in a grocery cart as it winds through the aisles, or shoot out the window of a speeding train.
Find unusual angles
Getting your camcorder off your shoulder, away from eye level, leads to more interesting and enjoyable shots. Ground-level shots are great for gamboling lambs or cavorting puppies. Shoot up from a low angle and down from a high angle. Shoot through objects or people while keeping the focus on your subject.
Lean forward or backward
The zoom lens can be a crutch. A better way to move in close or away from a subject is simply to lean in or out. For example, start by leaning way in with a tight shot of someone’s hands as he works on a wood carving; then, while still recording, lean way back (perhaps widening your zoom lens as well) to reveal that he is working in a sweatshop full of folks hunched over their handiwork.
Get wide and tight shots
Our eyes work like medium-angle lenses. So we tend to shoot video that way. Instead, grab wide shots and tight shots of your subjects. If practical, get close to your subject to get the tight shot rather than use the zoom lens. Not only does it look better, but the proximity leads to clearer audio.
Figure 4 Using a wide and a tight shot can create greater interest.
Shoot matched action
Consider a shot from behind a pitcher as he throws a fastball. He releases it, and then it smacks into the catcher’s glove. Instead of a single shot, grab two shots: a medium shot from behind the pitcher showing the pitch and the ball’s flight toward the catcher, and a tight shot of the catcher’s glove. Same concept for an artist: Get a wide shot of her applying a paint stroke to a canvas, and then move in for a close shot of the same action. You’ll edit them together to match the action.
Figure 5 Matched action keeps the story flowing smoothly while helping to illustrate a point.
Shooting repetitive action in a sequence is another way to tell a story, build interest, or create suspense. A bowler wipes his hands on a rosin bag, dries them over a blower, wipes the ball with a towel, picks the ball up, fixes his gaze on the pins, steps forward, swings the ball back, releases it, slides to the foul line, watches the ball’s trajectory, and then reacts to the shot. Instead of simply capturing all this in one long shot, piecing these actions together in a sequence of edits is much more compelling. You can easily combine wide and tight shots, trucking moves, and matched action to turn repetitive material into attention-grabbing sequences.
Avoid fast pans and snap zooms
These moves fall into MTV and amateur video territory. Few circumstances call for such stomach-churning camerawork. In general, it’s best to minimize all pans and zooms. As with a shaky camera, they remind viewers that they’re watching TV.
If you do zoom or pan, do it for a purpose: to reveal something, to follow someone’s gaze from his or her eyes to the subject of interest, or to continue the flow of action (as in the floating leaf example earlier). A slow zoom in, with only a minimal change to the focal length, can add drama to a sound bite. Again, do it sparingly.
Avoid jump cuts by shooting cutaways. A jump cut is an edit that creates a disconnect in the viewer’s mind. A cutaway—literally a shot that cuts away from the current shot—fixes jump cuts.
Cutaways are common in interviews where you might want to edit together two 10-second sound bites from the same person. Doing so would mean the interviewee would look like he suddenly moved. To avoid that jump cut—that sudden disconcerting shift—you make a cutaway of the interview. That could be a wide shot, a hand shot, or a reverse-angle shot of the interviewer over the interviewee’s shoulder. You then edit in the cutaway over the juncture of the two sound bites to cover the jump cut.
The same holds true for a soccer game. It can be disconcerting to simply cut from one wide shot of players on the field to another. If you shoot some crowd reactions or the scoreboard, you can use those cutaways to cover up what would have been jump cuts.
Figure 6 A cutaway of the racer’s face as she prepares with her mechanic.
Don’t break the plane
This avoids another viewer disconnect. If you’re shooting in one direction, you don’t want your next shot to be looking back at your previous camera location. For instance, if you’re shooting an interview with the camera peering over the left shoulder of the interviewer, you want to shoot your reverse cutaways behind the interviewee and over his right shoulder. That keeps the camera on the same side of the plane—an imaginary vertical flat surface running through the interviewer and interviewee.
To shoot over your interviewee’s left shoulder would break that plane, meaning the viewer would think the camera that took the previous shot should somehow be in view.
Figure 7 The plane is an imaginary vertical wall running, in this case, through the reporter and interviewee. Breaking the plane—particularly when shooting a reverse cutaway—leads to camera shots that cause viewer disconnects.
In general, you want to keep all your camera positions on one side of that plane, even when shooting large-scale events like football games. Otherwise, viewers may lose track of the direction of play.
There are exceptions. Consider videotaping a rock group performance. Camera crew members typically scramble all over the stage, grabbing shots from multiple angles, and frequently appear on camera themselves.
Lights add brilliance, dazzle, and depth to otherwise bland and flat scenes. Consider using an onboard camcorder fill light and, if you have the time, money, patience, or personnel, a full lighting kit with a few colored gels. In a pinch, do whatever you can to increase available light. Open curtains, turn on all the lights, or bring a couple of desk lamps into the room. One caveat: Low-light situations can be dramatic, and flipping on a few desk lamps can destroy that mood in a moment.
Grab good “bites”
Your narrator presents the facts. The people in your story present the emotions, feelings, and opinions. Don’t rely on interview sound bites to tell the who, what, where, when, and how. Let those bites explain the why.
In a corporate backgrounder, have the narrator say what a product does and let the employees or customers say how enthusiastic they are about that product.
Your narrator should be the one to say, “It was opening night and this was her first solo.” Let the singer, who is recalling this dramatic moment, say, “My throat was tight and my stomach was tied in knots.”
In general, even though your interviews might take forever, use only short sound bites in your final production. Use those bites as punctuation marks, not paragraphs.
Exceptions for idiosyncratic characters
None of these admonitions are carved in stone. Some characters you’ll videotape are so compelling, quirky, or humorous that your best bet is to let them be the primary narrator. Then you’ll want to consider what scenes you can use to illustrate their commentary. You don’t want to fill your entire video with a “talking head.”
Get plenty of natural sound
Think beyond images. Sound is tremendously important. Listen for sounds you can use in your project. Even if the video quality is mediocre, grab that audio. Your camcorder’s onboard microphone is not much more than a fallback. Consider using additional microphones: shotgun mics to narrow the focus of your sound and avoid extraneous noise, lavalieres tucked out of sight for interviews, and wireless mics when your camera can’t be close enough to get just what you need.
Plan your shoot
When you consider a video project, plan what you need to shoot to tell the story. Videotaping your kid’s soccer championship match, a corporate backgrounder, or a medical procedure each require planning to ensure success. Know what you want your final video project to say and think of what you need to videotape to tell that story.
Even the best-laid plans and most carefully scripted projects might need some adjusting once you start recording in the field. No matter how you envision the finished project, be willing to make changes as the situation warrants.