Follow Me

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.