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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.