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Friday, February 8, 2013

Learn to Get the Action and Reaction

Now as you're moving forward with editing your video and keeping editing in mind when you're shooting, it's time to start thinking of more ways you can avoid the jump cut. Beyond that, it's time to start thinking about how you can better tell the story of what you're trying to share with your shooting and editing.

Sir Issac Newton would have made a great videographer. Paraphrasing one of his laws of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Specifically for us shooters, we always need to be looking for the action and reaction in our scenes. This idea doesn't necessarily apply to static objects  but more specifically to the thing we should focus on the most: people.

Let's say your friend is giving a rousing speech and ends one of his paragraphs by making such a great point that the audience gives him a standing ovation before he continues. Think back to why you were getting the cutaways in the last post. So you could edit portions of his speech together without jump cuts. Now here's a way to get a cutaway that also adds to the story. If in the final edit, your friend makes his triumphant point and all you see is his face while the audience is cheering, then you've really missed out on part of the story of the scene.

If you think in terms of action and reaction, then you're naturally going to want to get the shot of the audience cheering (and you're probably going to want to move to get their faces).

An aside here: a sign of amateur video that features people is shots that don't treat the face as the most important thing. That's where all the emotion is. Backs of heads, feat, arms...they can serve a purpose, but when you really want to communicate feelings, go for the face. You may have a special reason for not doing so...think Nanny in the Muppet Babies, but, most of the time, it's the face that tells the story. Also always be asking yourself why. Why would the first several shots of the opening sequence of MacGyver only be his hands?

So you're going to want that action (the action being the speech) and the reaction (the audience's response to the speech).

In our fictional scenario, you've now solved one problem (giving yourself a cutaway) and you've also told a better story by showing that reaction. Now your viewer will really start feeling like they were there.

It's important to address the real world, practical applications of my tips. I understand it may be hard for you as a hobbyist to put yourself in the position to be able to get all these shots. You have to be able to work with what you have and what you're comfortable with doing. There's nothing wrong with that.

Nevertheless, if you're going to take it to the next level, you're going to need to be prepared to move. If you've ever been at a wedding or concert and seen a professional videographer or photographer...I'll bet you noticed something. They were all over the place. Moving, moving, moving.

We had a little saying in the news business: shoot and move; shoot and move; shoot and move.

It's up to you to think in advance about what position you can put yourself in to be able to get those cutaways and that every important action and reaction (while also being courteous to others around you).

Get that action and reaction and your final product will improve by one thousand percent.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Editing: The Cutaway

It's important to remember shooting and editing go hand in hand. And now that you've learned about what a jump cut is, it's time to start thinking about ways to avoid that jump cut.

The first thing you're going to want in your bag of tricks is known as the "cutaway".  When editing, you may need to break up the action you've shot with another shot (hopefully something relevant to the scene). Often, it's needed to avoid a jump cut.

Let's look at an example: let's say you have video of your friend giving a speech that you're wanting to edit down to the most important parts. Let's be honest. You don't need all his thankyou's and warm up jokes, so you're going to take the most important parts and cut them together. The problem is, every time you do this, there's going to be a jump cut in the video. Even a minute change can look like a glitch. Some editors will leave the jump cut in there as a special effect, but it's important to know why and when you're wanting to do that. For our purposes, we'll take a pure approach and try to avoid those jump cuts.

If you sat down to edit and never thought about this in advance, you're going to have a pretty hard time finding something to cutaway to in between those clips of the speech. In fact, as a shooter, it's your job to not "shoot your editor (or yourself if you're the editor) into a corner" and to be looking for opportunities in the field to avoid those jump cuts later.

An aside to broadcast new photographers who often aren't editing their own video: you need to make sure your editor doesn't even have a choice to use a jump cut. Think ahead. 

Ok, so how are you going to get out of those jump cuts? Well you're going to have to think ahead while you're in the field. While you're at the speech, you're going to need to shoot some cutaways.

What can this be? Here's a short list; some better than others:

  • His hands on the podium
  • Faces in the crowd listening (this will play into action/reaction in future posts)
  • Maybe even his feet

In other words, you're going to have to move. I always liked to use a wide shot in which maybe the subject was in the shot, but I had kept him out of focus. As long as he's roughly in the same part of the screen, it shouldn't look to bad. But trust your eye. If you go from a wide shot to a tight shot of the same person and it looks jumpy...don't use it.

Now that you have a few cutaway shots, you'll be able to use those when editing the speech. During those transitions from clip to clip, simply use the cutaway shots (just the video, not the audio).

A mentor once told me to always get the "cat in the window shot". This means get a shot of something completely away from the action just in case you need that cutaway. Now some purist might disagree using the argument that every shot needs to add to the story of the scene, but it never hurts to have that in your bag of tricks.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Editing: What is a Jump Cut?

Now that you're ready to get into editing your video, there are some concepts you're going to need to understand to make that edited video more enjoyable (or just make sense).

When you combine two pieces of video or splice them together, you're creating a cut. Think of it as that tiny moment of time when one clip of video turns into another clip of video.

It's important to address the idea of transitions here. Most editing programs come with ways of making your cuts more fancy...the most common is the dissolve. If you've ever edit with the iMovie app, dissolving is done automatically. This is where the clips of video slowly turn into each other as if they were overlaying each other. I don't know of a better way to say it. The cut is abrupt. And the cut is our friend. Down the line, we'll address the cut vs. dissolve issue, but here we're addressing a related but separate issue.

There are a couple of different things my mentors said that have stuck with me.

The first is that good editing goes unnoticed. That's why when you're watching the pro video on TV, you're not really thinking about all the shots changing constantly (and they are). In fact, you're not likely to see one shot held longer than a few seconds unless there's a really good reason. And I'll address that in a later post.

Another thing one of my mentors told me was that he imagined the jump cut got its name when it first happened in a movie theater and everybody in the audience jumped.

So what is it, already? A jump cut happens in editing when an object is in one part of the screen in one shot, then in the next shot is in another part of the screen. So that the object has appeared to have jumped though space and time to move.

Here is an example of a jump cut:

Pretty freaky looking, right? Sure...there are many times when professional editors use the jump cut for a special effect, but a lot of time in shooting and editing is spent trying to avoid the jump cut.

In fact, much of the advanced shooting tips I will give will involve strategies to avoid the jump cut later on when you're editing. That's right, when you're shooting, you have to be thinking about editing. They go hand in hand. The story is important and the jump cut is your worst enemy.

With some of the fast paced editing you see in many reality shows and documentaries, a jump cut slips in every now and then, but they are few and far between in the pro world because they are so jarring and they sure sign of an amateur editor.  The more you learn about shooting and editing, the more you'll realize how much time and effort is put into avoiding those jump cuts.

One by one, we'll start looking at some advanced SHOOTING techniques that will help you avoid those jump cuts later and also make you a better story teller.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Getting Started with Editing Your Video

There may come a time when you're interested in becoming a little more involved with your video--an easy move considering almost every camera including phones come with some sort of editing option and every laptop comes with a basic program from the factory. Even Apple has made the iPhone a one stop shop for shooting and editing with the iMovie App.

I remember shooting a broadcast news piece when the iPhone was released along with the iMovie app. I don't recall which model it was...I believe the 4. At this point in my career, I wasn't a field photographer anymore, but I decided I wanted to go talk to the people waiting in line for their phones and (because I was lucky enough to get mine early) I wanted to shoot and edit the entire piece on my phone to really drive home how far our technology had advanced. It was important to me to convey why these people might be so interested in a phone. That was the value I wanted to communicate to the viewer. In this case, using the technology seemed to be a good way to drive that point home.

I was surprised how easily I was able to do something right on my phone which I normally used several thousand dollars worth of equipment to accomplish.

By now we've gotten used to and expect that kind of power in our smart phones, but the moral of the story is that it's not what you use to shoot and edit, but how you use it.

That's why you won't find me outright endorsing any particular editing software or camera. There are many writers on the Internet that devote all of their time to this. Matter of fact, I don't know if I could tell you every available option out there and certainly haven't used all of the editing software available.

What's more important are the principals behind editing. The same principals I applied whether using expensive AVID software or the iMovie app.

Editing simply means reducing the raw video you've shot down to the parts you feel are the most interesting or convey the most important things about the scene you're hoping to portray. It also allows you to take multiple video files or shots and combine them.

Editing is going to allow you to take all of your video and condense it down into one, easily understood story. And that's the key here: story. Just like shooting video needs to be about communicating what you value in a particular happening, editing needs to aid in telling that story. And it needs to help the person watching that video better understand what's going on.

What you're shooting and what you're editing go hand in hand. In fact, the more involved you get in editing and shooting video, the more intertwined the two become.

So the most basic idea with editing is getting rid of the video that doesn't really mean anything. Perhaps you wanted to film your friend's speech, but started recording a minute before he started talking. Editing allows you to get rid of that minute of useless video. This idea in particular is usually referred to as "trimming". If you imagine your video as a line (or timeline) where the pictures are laid out in chronological order starting from when you pressed record, then you're trimming what's on the front in and back to make the clip shorter so that you're only sharing what's important with the viewer.

The next basic idea is combining separate shots. So say you've recorded your friend's speech and then several minutes later another friend gave a speech and you shot that as well, but you wanted to combine those two things into one continuous video. Editing will let you splice those two clips together.

I know this is basic, basic stuff, but it needs to be addressed.

Think about it in terms of time. You're wanting to communicate something you value: you're friends' speeches. At the same time, you want what you're trying to communicate to be easily understood and convenient for the person viewing it. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to sit through a bunch of dead time while other people are talking or nothing is happening. In editing, you're simply removing that time in order to convey the most valuable parts....while still telling the story of the event you value.

If you're wanting to tell the stories of your life with video, then eventually you're going to want to start becoming familiar with editing.

Understanding the basic ideas above is the first step.

If you're ready to make your edited videos more pleasant for the viewer, then we'll need to discuss some more advanced topics.

To me, the very first concept is that of the JUMP CUT. I will address that in my next post.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Wide, Medium, and Tight Shots

Now that you're learning some of the basic tips and tricks to shooting better video, it's time to get a little more advanced and start thinking about the types of shots you're shooting in terms of their framing.

This is going to be especially helpful if you're thinking about editing your video. We're going to start addressing editing soon, so get ready for that. First, though, let's start with three basic shots: the wide, medium, and tight (or close-up) shots.

The Wide Shot

This is exactly what it sounds like. Just a big shot with everything you need in it. Imagine you're shooting your friend giving a speech. This shot would have not only your friend, but possibly the entire room you're in and the audience. The basic idea is that your subject is a small part of the screen. A type of wide shot might be called and "establishing shot" because it establishes the scene. You can also get some "super wide" shots for a little more variety.

If you're shooting one shot you plan to use for social media, a shot framed this wide may be to distracting for the viewer. Remember the donut. It may be best to look for a medium or tight shot. If you have no choice (maybe you're at a football game), then look for a way to get that shot as steady as possible.

The Medium Shot

To me, medium shots compose much of what I see people posting on line and most of what you see in video. It's easy to think of it as just your regular ole shot. Maybe it's just a shot of your friend as he stands at the podium giving his speech. Remember to keep your composition clean and medium shots go a long way toward telling the story you're communicating. But sometimes you really want to see what's going on or see your subject's eyes. And that's why you get:

The Tight Shot

You can call it a close-up, but this is just getting up close and personal with your subject and getting that framing tight. As your friend gives the speech, we don't even see the podium anymore. Maybe it's from the chest up or even his face. If you want to go for that extreme tight or "extreme close-up", you might just get his eyes. I've always been a fan of getting the extreme tight shots for the editing process. But not only for that, a good close up cuts out a lot of clutter and really makes the clip or scene easily digested.

As a side note: a good lesson to keep in mind is that you want to be kind to your viewer. We've already established you're here because you want to share your video. Extreme tight shots of gross things tend to turn people off. My pet peeve is the "chewing mouth" shots I see every once in a while or anything involving blood.

It's a common misconception that broadcast news outlets only show death and gore. Maybe you've heard the phrase, "If it bleeds, it leads." While the content they report may tend to be focused on the bad things that happen, most local and national news organizations have policies or at least editors that often decide against showing blood or images that may be disturbing (there are several reasons and it can be a controversial topic). Nevertheless, simply use your best judgement and maybe ask yourself if you'd watch your video while eating.  

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Shooting Video as the Eye Sees

If you've read through some of the blogs, then you've probably heard me say that the most effective way to communicate your idea through video is by shooting as the eye sees.

Beyond the theory, it's also a good concept to keep in mind because it makes the choices you're making as videographer easier.

Whether it's the angle of your shot, the framing, composition or whether you use panning or zooming, keeping this idea in mind will make your video that much more easier to digest for your viewer.

Why can't I just do whatever feels right to me? You absolutely can. As with everything on this blog...these are tips. Tips I sometimes call rules, but I always add that rules are meant to be broken. If you're reading this because you want to shoot better video, then this is something you're going to want to pay attention to.

If you're shooting video that you don't expect anybody else to watch, then it really doesn't matter what you do. But if you're wanting your video to speak to anybody who watches it, you're going to need to keep them in mind while you're shooting. And if you really want to engage them, you're going to have to work on your skill and practice.

We experience the world through our senses. We smell, feel, hear and see what's going on around us. We smell, taste, fell and see food. The art behind video is communicating sight and sound to the people you want to watch it so that they feel they are there. You want them to get the story of what's going on. Because that's why you're shooting it in the first place. Right?

You can easily pick up your phone and shoot your ceiling and your walls...maybe some carpet...but this isn't something you're probably interested in sharing with your friends and family unless you're planning on selling your house. In most cases, you've placed value on what you want to share. It means something to you and you want to share that value with other people. By the time you make the decision to share what you value with other people, you're already making a decision to make the thing you're valuing understandable.

Perhaps it's that you want to share your child's first steps or something amusing you've seen while taking a walk. In both cases, you feel it's important that your friends and family share in something that has brought you happiness or joy. You want to spread that joy and happiness.

If you're reading this, then that means you want to be more effective at sharing that joy and happiness. You want to convey those feelings as best you can so that the person watching might think they're there.

Video is probably the best way to show somebody what's happening where they are not. So when trying to shot better video, the immediate question is: what would your friend or the person you plan on sharing this with see if they were here. How would they see it? Would their vision constantly be shaking? Would they be viewing things at weird angles? Tilt your head. Everything still seems pretty much level, right? Would they be looking at other people in the eyes or looking down or up at them? The answers to these questions can guide you to making the right choices when shooting video. They can make your video more understandable to the viewer.

And that's important. Because when you're in a situation, you immediately grasp what's going on around you and what's important because your brain filters out a lot of the noise (there's a lot of interesting science about this). But when it comes to sharing something with somebody that isn't there, it's up to you to act as that filter. To make the scene easily understood.

Most of the tips on this blog are geared towards helping you get better at that, but so long as you ask yourself what the eye would see, you'll make great strides in making your video better.


Friday, February 1, 2013

To Pan or Not to Pan

Zooming is a pretty common concept most of us a familiar with. Another camera move that goes hand in hand with zooming is called panning. This simply means moving the camera from left to right. It's something you do all the time instinctively. But there are some aspects of the concept that need to be examined in order to shoot better video.

And are you ready for what I'm going to say? Shoot as the eye sees. The eye never zooms, but let's examine panning with an experiment. 

First, choose two objects on opposite sides of the room you're in. Now look at one of the objects. Quick! Look at the other object. Do it again. 

Did you notice anything? You probably didn't pay much attention to the room whooshing by as you moved your attention to the other object. You probably even blinked. If you did notice the room whooshing by, then you are very much in the minority. 

Now, this might be a little harder. Imagine somebody throwing a football or another object across the room. The subject is the ball. Notice anything this time? You very much followed the action of the ball and "panned" your eyes across the room. 

When it comes to panning while shooting video, follow the action. Luckily, you're going to find that most of what's interesting in life is action and is always moving. So the pan comes in handy almost every time you press record. 

Well, with that being said, when do you not pan? Simply put, when there is no action. When the subject is static. This is one of those concepts that very much comes down to taste and also has a lot to do with editing. If I were shooting video of a house, I would generally not pan. Some videographers will use panning as an effect to add movement to an otherwise static scene. If that's the case, you can even get better at panning by following a simple rule: make the pan very steady and make sure it's the same speed all the way through. 

In a real world situation, you're probably going to be shooting and following action the whole time. If you don't plan on editing your video, then it may sometimes be necessary to pan to get a reaction or another action...and even though the eye doesn't see this way, it has to be done. 

But let me address those who do plan on editing their video from here on out. 

You're going to get the best end product by not shooting any pans. Don't even leave them in there to be edited out if at all possible. 

Let's say you're getting video of two people talking to each other. The simplest thing to do is to get a "two shot" of both of the people and just let the conversation play out. Our instinct will be to pan back and forth as they take turns talking. In the end, don't just leave the mess of whatever is in between them in the video. Edit it out. If you're in a situation where you have control, then don't even shoot the panning to begin with. This can be used for artistic effect, but mostly it's jarring to the viewer. 

Get an idea by watching almost an movie and see how they handle conversations. Yes, the filmmakers have all the control over the environment, but watch closely and see how much panning goes on. 

Getting better at eliminating those pans in quick, real world situations is a skill that has to be developed by videographers called anticipation. This is in news shooting or even reality show shooting. But they are always looking to shoot how the eye sees. 

Pan to follow action. And keep us all from getting dizzy. 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pro Tip: The Rapid Rack Focus

This is for those photogs out there who are using some pretty expensive equipment. Particularly cameras with lenses that give you an ability to adjust the macro focus in addition to your regular focus. If you know what I'm talking about, then this is for you. 

I always like to use this effect when shooting an static, close object. 

First, get your subject in focus.

Next, use the macro to blur the object.

Quickly rack the macro back into it's original, locked state and bam! a perfect, quick rack focus.

This isn't for the purist who wouldn't use a rack focus to begin with.

For those who have read this far and have no idea what a rack focus is, it's simply when you bring a an object into focus DURING the shot. It can also be used to switch focus from one object to another. It's often very necessary to use rack focuses and you'll see it a lot in movies.

For those of you who are still shooting on less expensive equipment where you don't have much control over the focus, this is another trick you can look forward to using when you upgrade.  

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

If you're shooting video on your phone, you have it pretty easy when it comes to the concept of zooming. Right now, many of them don't offer any zooming while you're recording. I don't think it will be too long before most of them do, and if you want to shoot better video, then you're going to need to think about when you need to use it.

The concept seems pretty simple: if you can't get close, simply zoom in to get closer. But there are many things to consider about what affect that has on your shot.

First of all, the more zoomed in you are, the more shaky your video will be. Especially if you don't have any access to a tripod. The pros have a simple principal: "zoom with your feet". When shooting without a tripod or "off the shoulder" or in your hand in a lot of cases, zooming makes even small amounts of motion from your body (breathing and walking) seem really big. Get as close as you can to your subject and the action to get the best and most steady video. Getting close will even help you clean up your composition.

Now if you're editing a piece and need to get that "wide shot", walk further away. Zoom with those feet. Don't be lazy.

From a practical, real world stand point, we have to consider some extreme situations. Let's say you want to get some footage of the concert you're attending, but you don't want it to look like and earthquake. You also are pretty far away, so you're going to need to zoom to get a good feel for what's going on. Do your best to find a way to steady the camera as much as possible to get those shots.

Secondly, we've got to go back to the principal of shooting as the eye sees. This mainly deals with cameras that have the ability to record and zoom and the same time. Now, as a general rule, zooming should be considered an artistic element. It's been used fantastically throughout the history of video, but in most circumstances, using zoom in the middle of the shot can be pretty jarring. And that's what we're addressing here: using the zoom in the middle of a shot.

Time for an experiment: look at your look at something far away like a picture or painting. Did your vision zoom in? Unless you're Superman, probably not. You just mentally focused on that object. It didn't get bigger. Now (this is for those who plan to edit) you could walk across the room to get a good look at the picture, but that's the only way it's going to get bigger. And this is what I'm talking about when I say shoot as the eye sees. From any given vantage, the average person is going to see one static image. This is why zooming is used primarily as a special effect. Bottom line, try to avoid zooming as much as possible unless you have a good reason.

So you're standing on the street when a high speed chase comes by. You happen to have your phone out and this would be a great thing to share with your friends and maybe the world. You have the option to zoom and as the cars move away from you what do you do? Well it would be impractical for you to zoom with your feet here, so let this be an example of a time when the rules go out the window because the video itself is what's compelling no matter how poorly it's shot. I shot several high speed chases while working as a news videographer and didn't hesitate to use that zoom. Because people are interested in seeing the cars. Always be asking why and you'll probably make the right decisions.

It's important to not confuse zooming with panning. And I'll be addressing the pan next.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Shooting at Eye Level

When shooting people, making sure that you're shooting your video at eye level can be a great way to improve the look of your video.

For starters, your subject won't appear to be any shorter or taller than they really are. There are many times where you may feel shooting from below or above will add to the artistic value of the video, but for normal shoots consider this concept.

When we're trying to communicate with people, we like to look them in the eyes. And because we're trying to shoot our video as the eye sees, then it makes sense to shoot at eye level.

Perhaps you want to achieve a majestic effect where your subject towers over the viewers. This is a great example of how something as simple as the angle at which your shooting has a very emotional affect on the viewer. Think about times where you feel like you're looking up at whoever is on your tv or video screen. Often they're a person of importance or a hero (I see it a lot with sports video).

On the other hand, you may want to convey a feeling of smallness by aiming the camera down onto the subject.

You're main concern (if you're not looking for an artistic effect) is to make sure you're not accidentally making somebody look smaller or bigger than they really are. This will help people watching your video make a real connection with whatever you're trying to communicate.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Separates Your Video from the Pros'?

If you're looking to get some better video to share on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube or even if you're shooting to document your life, you may ask yourself what makes the video you're seeing on television so much better.

It's a loaded question, but understanding a few concepts will help you move towards being a better videographer.

First of all, it's important to realize that frame rates and resolution play into the quality of the video. More advanced features on your camera also play into the quality of the video.

But it's important to note that these advance features basically give you control over aspects of your camera that is mostly automated in less expensive equipment. Meaning, that the more features you have on your camera...the more difficult it is to operate. Let me get back to this in a minute.

My main focus is to give some tips that you can use on even the cheapest video equipment to get better video. That means paying attention to your composition and framing as well as how steady your shot is.

There will be many posts on this blog that apply to any camera, including the one on your phone.

But how will more expensive equipment help your video look better?

If you're looking to become a video hobbyist and want to get into some more expensive equipment and editing...or even plan on making video into a business, it's important to know what you'll be getting as you move up the ladder.

This isn't a technical blog, so getting bogged down in numbers and arguments about who makes the better equipment is really a waste of time here. But let's briefly look at some features you may get as you purchase more expensive equipment.

1. Control Over the Focus

With your average camera phone or consumer digital camera you have very limited, if any, control over where your camera focuses. If you're trying to be creative or give your shot some depth, this can be a big pain in the butt. But with power comes responsibility. One of the very first obstacles a photog needs to overcome when shooting on more advanced equipment is making sure that his subject is always in focus...crisp and clear.

2. Control Over Exposure

Again, your average smart phone age camera is handling this aspect of video for you. It's basically auto-adjusting the picture so that the brightest thing doesn't look super bright and over exposed--or Heavenly, as I like to say. This can be a big pain if you're shooting video in mixed light...say near some windows. You've probably struggled getting a good picture before because something was too bright behind your subject. You've seen it. You'll point the camera and the bright light will dim, but so does your subject's face. Many cameras, including the one in the iPhone, now include a feature that allows you to tap on the subject you're want to take a picture of and then adjusting exposure (and focus) to the information included in that part of the photo.

In more advanced cameras, you have control over the aperture and can adjust the amount of light coming into the camera. Again, this leaves you open to shooting your entire video clip over or under exposed, so it's important to learn what proper exposure looks like on your viewfinder or display. This is something that takes practice. Next time you watch a documentary or reality show, pay attention to what happens if a camera man walks from inside to outdoors without cutting, that is in one continuous shot (and many try to avoid this move). For a moment, it will look like a nuclear bomb has gone off outside. A pro will be able to adjust the exposure accordingly and smoothly. Below are a few pictures that demonstrate exposure.

This is a photo of a window taken on an iPhone before the auto exposure has had time to adjust. 

Now after it has adjusted to the proper exposure. 

3. Control Over Your Shutter Speed

Like focus and exposure, this setting is also automated in your average consumer camera. And like exposure and focus, there are some very sciency principals that play into why certain adjustments do certain things. On a high end video camera or DSLR, you will have control over the shutter speed. This basically determines how long the "aperture" will be open. The most common use of the shutter is to reduce motion blur. Think of it as making things look really crisp as opposed to fluid. Another use of shutter speed is to control the depth of field...or how much of the terms of its depth...will be in focus. Shutter speed will need its own post, but if you're looking at some more expensive equipment, you're going to need to understand this concept.

In the end, these features give you more control and more creative control over your video...and if you're wanting to make some top notch home movies, eventually you'll need that control. In future posts, I'll be sure to address these more in depth and give some tips on how to use them.

Now, when it comes to separating amateur video from pro's not these features. It's how you shoot, what you shoot and what you're trying to communicate with your video. You'll find plenty of tips you can use here.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Steady Video is Usually Better

We've seen the movies where the camera is shaking around (think Cloverfield) and the documentary/mockumentary style television shows like The Office. But you'll notice in most of the professional video you see out there, the shots are fairly steady to perfectly steady.

Why is this? Well let's start with and experiment: shake your head. Did you notice anything? Did it seem like there was an earthquake? Probably not. In fact, it probably seems like things were fairly still. Now there might be a slight perception of movement, but your brain does a pretty good job at keeping the world steady.

One of the main principals I always keep in mind when shooting video is to Shoot as the Eye Sees. Somewhere along the line this jewel was imparted to me and I've never forgotten it. It applies to several other tips I'll be addressing in the future.

It makes sense right? As you strive to shoot better video, always be asking why you're taking a certain approach to shooting that video. If you're looking to bring the viewer into the experience, then you need to consider how that person would see what you're shooting if they were there. They wouldn't see a shaking, panning, zooming, blurry world. It would be very focused and steady.

But what about those movies and tv shows? Well, as with any of my tips, much is left to creative impulse.
But consider something like Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project. Both of these films were shot with the idea that they would be considered "found footage". In other words, they were meant to look like bad, raw or loosely edited video. The filmmakers were essentially trying to mimic what an amateur might have been shooting.

Here comes the hard part. When you're using such light-weight and small cameras to shoot your video, how can you keep them steady? Basically, you have to be the MacGyver of video to achieve this.

The first step is just being aware. A lot of shake can be eliminated by simply paying attention and wanting to get a steadier shot. That desire comes from the knowledge that people might find shaky video to be less appealing.

The obvious choice is to use a tripod and make sure it's level...but that's too easy. Let's assume you're shooting with your smart phone and there isn't a good tripod option.

1. Loosen your grip. Let the phone or camera float in your hand. I've even cupped my and kind of balanced it as best I can to get rid of some shake. Get a cup of coffee and walk across the room with and iron grip on's probably gonna spill everywhere as your grip transfers every bit of motion from your body to the cup. Now grip it (as we pretty much instinctively do) and let it almost balance and feel it glide across the room. Let gravity take over and get rid of some of the motion.

2. Set your hand on something level. A fence, a table, a chair, a stool, the ground: all these things can work as a tripod if you're trying to get a steady shot. If you can, set your camera on the level surface and hold it there. This can be tricky composition wise, but be looking for those opportunities.

3. Breath through your stomach if you're holding the camera out to capture the moment. It's a simple thing that will get rid of some of the up and down movement coming from your shoulders.

As you start putting these tips together and working on shooting better video, you'll realize that many of them are difficult to achieve at the same time. That's why there are guys who get paid a lot to shoot video. But even doing one or two of them at a time will give you significantly better shots that other people will enjoy watching. And getting rid of that shake is probably one that should go on the top of the list.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cut the Clutter for Better Composition

I often watch the television show, Hoarders, and feel sorry for the guys shooting that show. It takes a lot of smarts to make their subjects pop from the background and standout.

I was once told that if you can't tell what's going on in a shot within a second of seeing it, then it's not worth using (assuming you're editing). And for sure not worth shooting.

Now, the guys shooting shows like Hoarders have a lot of tricks up their sleeves and some pretty expensive tech that helps them light subjects and control elements of the video like shutter speed and focus. There are some things you can take into consideration when shooting video even on a phone that can make your video easier to understand and take in for those viewing it.

Here's what you've got to understand: your subject (whatever you're shooting) is the most important thing. It's not the background or anything else that's going on. One theory says: the eye is attracted to brightness, motion, and that order. So your subject should be the brightest, most movingest, most colorful thing in the shot if the viewer is going to instantly know what's going on.

So if you're shooting video of your puppy, does that mean you need to put him in a red sweater and throw some big studio lights on him? Not at all.

Here are a few tips for somebody shooting on any old thing:

The Donut Effect

Yummy. But we're not talking about that kind of donut here. I was once undergoing some training when my tutor took a piece of paper, cut a hole in it, and put it on the video screen. In the middle of the hole was my subject...likely a person...I don't remember. This person only took up a small portion of the screen. He asked me something like, "If that's what's important about the shot, then why did you shoot all of this other stuff?"
What's important in this photo?

Get in a little closer for better composition.

That's something that stuck with me. What I learned is that if I wanted people to immediately understand the concept of what I was shooting, then there really wasn't any need to shoot everything else going on around it. In fact, most of that just distracted the viewer from the most important thing.

I learned that I needed to cut the clutter. And there are a number of ways to do this in the real world. Let's say I'm shooting my puppy, even with the most inexpensive cameras, I can walk up to him and make him fill up the screen. I don't need a zoom at all to do this. I can "zoom with my feet" (we'll address this later). You can get rid of everything else going on by just making your subject fill the screen up. If I want people to know my puppy is cute (and he is), then I don't need them to see my refrigerator or the paintings on my wall.

Or the bright light coming in through the window behind him bringing me to my next tip:

In shooting video, you can't win against mother nature

Even using something like a phone camera (especially using a cheaper camera, actually), this is one tip to always keep in mind. Be aware of your surroundings. No artificial light is going to be brighter than the sunlight coming through a window. This is why when you see windows in a lot of video, it just looks like a bright square. Now, there are some technical reasons why this happens, but the best thing is to just remember that the eye will be attracted to the brightest thing in the shot. Probably the best way of dealing with this is to find a way to keep the windows or glass doors out of the shot (if you're indoors). If you're outside, this isn't such a problem unless you're dealing with lens flares.

For example: if I'm shooting video of my puppy in my living room, then I need to find a way to get between him and the windows. This trick can also work to your advantage by providing a little better lighting as well and your subject can be the star of the video.

Pay attention to color

This is a more tricky problem to deal with in real life situations, but a little awareness can go a long way in helping compose cleaner, more understandable shots. For example: if I have a bright red painting on the wall and I'm trying to get some video of a puppy...who probably isn't bright red...then I should find a way to keep that bright red out of the shot. Change your angle or walk right up to the subject. Remember to let the subject fill the screen.

Letting the subject fill the screen is probably the easiest thing you can do shooting home video to help cut cluttered composition. It immediately eliminates some of those distractions. It's likely you're not going to be dealing with a lot of editing, so remembering these few things will help.

A note on editing: while I may get into some editing tips in the future, it's important to remember the pros don't just shoot wildly and edit it down to the best stuff. They are often short on tape or memory, short on battery and short on time, so they're very much shooting with editing in mind and they've thought about all these things before they even press the record button.

Composing Your Shots

As in every skill that blends creative and technical elements, a lot of what makes good video comes down to what looks good to you. Does your video look good to you? Can you tell what's going on?

If you're going to make the step of sharing that video with the world, you'll have to ask another question...will that video look good to others.

Learning good composition is one of the basic steps in shooting better video. Much of the theory that applies to taking better pictures also applies to shooting better video.

A fellow videographer once told me that he liked to imagine every shot as if he was trying to get a real good still picture. After all, video is really just a rapid succession of still images put together to convey motion. In typical video in the United States, you're looking at around 30 pictures in one second. Films are shot at a rate of around 24 frames per second (giving them a different look). There are a lot of technical elements involved when discussing frame rates that we'll just leave out. Let's start by just looking at a few tips to get better composition.

What is composition?

Think of it as how you position the camera when you're about to take your video. Where is the subject you're shooting? (I know, in front of you) But where on your display screen is the subject?

For these examples, let's pretend you're shooting video of a baby. In your display or viewfinder, in which section the baby? Up top in the upper portion? Or off to the left? Imagine a tic tac toe pattern that stretches from the bottom to the top of the screen and all the way to the left and the right. This will be an imaginary grid you can use to make your video a little more understandable to other people.

The Rule Of Thirds

This rule is probably the most referenced when discussing composition in visual arts. This is how I'll present it: The eye (when looking at video) is attracted to the upper, lower, left and right thirds of the screen. If that's where the eye (of the viewer) is naturally attracted, then why not frame your subject in those thirds?

As simple as that might seem, it is a bit counter-intuitive. If you're getting video of the baby, wouldn't you want to have him or her dead center? As always, you have to make artistic choices, but the video with the better composition is going to be easier to watch for the viewer. Experiment with taking your subject out of the center of the screen. Dead center subjects are a tell-tale sign of amateur video.

Here are some of the ways I learned to think about the rule of thirds.

More sky; less sky

As a news photographer, I often found myself shooting video of boring things like buildings. In order to better compose those shots, I remembered a little saying that helped me visualize the rule of thirds in the field: more sky; less sky.

My subject in this case would be the building. In order to keep the subject in the upper or lower thirds, I always got a shot that had more of the sky in it (and most times shot another shot with less of the sky in it or more of the ground). Remembering this is a sure fire way to keep the rule of thirds in mind.

And it doesn't just have to apply to static building shots. The tip can also apply to just about anything.

Here are some examples:

Dead Center

More Sky

Another more sky

Less Sky

Looking Room

Most of our video involves people. And that's good. That's what's interesting. That's what people connect with. To keep in mind the rule of thirds when shooting a person talking, give them some looking room. In other words, if they're looking off to the right...frame them up on the left like they have sticks shooting out of their eyes and you want the sticks to stretch to the other side of the screen. Imaginary sticks, of course.
Remembering this will keep your subject framed in the left and right thirds of the screen.

Understanding better composition will make your video more digestible to those who have to view it or want to view it. It's important to remember that rules are made to be broken...but they are also called rules for a reason.

There are many situations in which centering your subject might make sense. Think about it. Ask yourself why. Perhaps it's just for artistic reasons and there's nothing wrong with that.

Just use these for some basic tips.

If the shuttle were a face, it would have no looking room.
Now you have a little looking room. 

Works both ways. 

What about focus, depth of field, shutter speed, filters and white balance?

For now, we'll focus on basic, home video. All these things are pretty much automated on consumer digital cameras and phones. For those looking for tips and info on more advanced video techniques, I will be addressing some of those in the future. Specifically, I plan to get into broadcast news videography tips.

But any of the tips I share here are meant for the hobbyist and aspiring pro alike.

You Can Learn to Shoot Better Video

Why does it matter if I shoot better video?

Well it doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things I suppose, but if you're looking for some tips on getting better video you can share on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or anywhere else, I have some for you here.

Will I learn to shoot like the pros?

The pros have years of practice. They're shooting day in and day out practicing their craft and getting better and better every time they shoot, but you can certainly learn some tricks that will help you get better and make your video more enjoyable...especially if you're sharing it with people.

What makes a video compelling?

Well I suppose a bunch of different things can make video compelling. What matters the most isn't how you shoot it, but what you're shooting. Is it interesting or unique? What does it show other people? Can they learn something or be entertained? These are good questions to ask yourself.

When I was a news broadcast photographer, a mentor told me once that the most important thing about video was simply: people. 99.9% of the time, the video you'll be sharing with your friends and the world will involve people (our pets are people too). It will involve the feelings those people are expressing and the experiences those people are having. Shooting video is a way of telling their story and you can learn some easy tips to make you a better story teller...even if you don't plan to edit that video.

Do I need a bunch of fancy equipment?

Nope. This blog is all about shooting better video no matter what you're using. The tips work whether you're shooting on your phone or on a twenty thousand dollar camera. In time, I may provide some explanation of the more advanced features you might find on a camera. But I've learned that if I can't be a better story teller with even the simplest and cheapest of equipment, I'm not going to get better by spending money. You know the old saying: a good craftsman never blames his tools.

So feel free to look around and discover how you can be a better shooter and tell better stories.