Back in the ‘90s I was a contributing editor for a national magazine called Videomaker. I wrote more than a hundred articles and tried to pass along some of what I learned in my early career as a video professional. It almost seems quaint now, that quest for excellence. Look at all the shaky, out-of-focus “content” on You Tube and it may seem that it just doesn’t matter. Hoping that is not the case, here’s an article from 2004 with some hints on making your video better.
Ten Mistakes to Avoid When Shooting Video
What’s one of the differences between a professional and an amateur in any endeavor? A professional has either learned or been taught to avoid mistakes in his or her field. This can lead to a bit of arrogance on the part of the professional when viewing someone else’s work. “Look at that composition,” a professional camera operator might say, “this guy doesn’t know head room from a head waiter.” Why should this bother us? Because, as human beings, each of us wants to be the person pointing out mistakes, not making them. Don’t fight it; it comes packaged in your DNA.
If you want to shoot video like a pro you need to know what the major mistakes are, so you can either avoid them or have a good reason for using a particular “technique”. For example, usually you want the horizon to be level in your shot so that it runs parallel with the top and bottom of your frame. But if you want to create a feeling of uneasiness in your audience you might tilt the camera to one side, throwing the world created by your camera out of balance. This is called a “Dutch Angle” and you’ve seen it hundreds of times in major films (probably without realizing it).
The point is: if you shot everything with a Dutch Angle without knowing it you would be making a mistake. But if you used the technique for a specific purpose you would be a genius, forcing gasps of admiration from professional camera operators everywhere. We’re shooting for this goal.
Who’s Zooming Who
Ah, the zoom lens. A multitude of sins too numerous to catalog has been perpetrated by this invention. Let’s start with an experiment. Put down your camcorder. Now, look through one of your eyeballs (or both if you are feeling ambitious) and attempt to zoom in on an object in the vicinity. Concentrate. No luck? Don’t take it too hard. The human eye cannot zoom. Not when we crawled from the primordial muck and not now. It’s not a natural way to make an object larger on the screen. It’s handy as heck, but it’s not natural. If you are new to camera work my suggestion is to only use the zoom feature when you are not “rolling” (capturing video). Use it to make your subject more prominent in the screen if you can’t or don’t want to get physically closer (when shooting subjects like mountains in the distance, or that snarling Rottweiler next door), but don’t zoom as a technique.
Eventually there will be times to zoom, but please use it sparingly. It’s very annoying to a professional camera person when footage zooms in and out without purpose or reason (annoying and sometimes nausea-inducing). The main reasons to zoom are the same reasons for any type of camera movement (see sidebar).
Oops, I Did It Again
Few things are as frustrating as missing a great shot because you weren’t recording. Except missing that shot because you thought you were recording and you were not. Learn your equipment. If it makes a clicking noise when it begins capturing footage, listen for it. If there is a blinking light in the viewfinder, look for it. If you have to look to see a tape physically moving, do so until you are sure you are rolling.
If you don’t, you may not only miss a great moment in video–you could end up with lots of shots of your feet, and haven’t we seen enough of those already?
The audience of your video can only see what you show them. You have a responsibility to keep the subject in the frame. When you are capturing video of people there is a rule of thumb to make sure you have them composed correctly. Here it is: keep the eyes of your subject about a third of the way down from the top of the screen. This works if you have a head-to-toe shot of the person and it works if you have an extreme close-up where the person’s face fills the frame. The eyes are in the same relative position.
When you are running a camera: concentrate and anticipate. You should always be one step ahead of your subject in your mind. Is that person going to move? Which direction? If you are using a tripod is the camera locked down or ready to pan to follow your subject? If you are hand-held would it be better to move over a few feet to get a better angle? If you are going to be editing the footage later do you need to get a close-up of the action? Will there be a chance to re-create that shot or do you have to shoot it on the fly?
And while you are thinking about all these things you have to concentrate on the subject and keep it in the frame. Because if the subject is worth recording at all, it’s your responsibility to the eventual viewer to capture what they want to see. If the quarterback throws a football in a game and you pan to follow it (O.K. go ahead and zoom out at the same time, then zoom back in) the audience wants to see if the receiver caught the ball or didn’t. If you don’t show them, they’ll never know.
When you’re shooting the microphone is always on, capturing audio that syncs up perfectly with your video. That audio is natural (or Nat Sound to a pro) and is difficult to recreate. The gentle twittering of birds, wind in the trees, your child’s laughter—these sounds should be allowed to speak for themselves. So remember that the microphone will also pick up everything you say and your audible reactions (Huh! Ho Ho Ho!). Resist the temptation to make noise. You can always add a narration later, but you can’t remove your statements from the raw footage without losing the other sounds that you may wish to save. So, and this isn’t meant in a mean way, shut up.
Oh, What a Tangled Vid We Weave
Some people like to talk with their hands. Sometimes the camcorder is in their hand and rolling when that is happening. The result: a weaving, bobbing, unsteady mess that would make a deep-sea sailor blanch.
Or you might have a habit of pointing a camcorder like it is a flashlight, or a garden hose, “What’s that over there?” (whip pan) “Hey, look at that!” (whip pan) “Ooh, pretty colors,” (whip pan). This may not have the effect you had in mind. Even worse are the folks who never stop at all, but just flow back and forth over the scene as if they were spray painting it with the camera. Please land somewhere and stay a while.
Left in the Dark
Cameras with automatic exposure will attempt to adjust your picture so that it looks as good as possible under a certain lighting condition. If you point your camera at a bright light source (such as the sun, or a bright window when you are indoors) the camera will adjust the aperture of the lens to compensate. If your little girl is sitting on the ledge of the window when this happens you might be able to see things outside, but your child will probably be a silhouette without detail. Your gear may have a backlighting feature to compensate (by overexposing the background) or you could try to light your subject (this is not easy), but you could have better luck by moving your camera to avoid the bright background.
Sounds Like Trouble
You have enough on your mind avoiding all these mistakes; do you really want to worry about the audio, too? Of course. On a professional production there is often an operator (or an entire crew) to check levels, watch out for wind noise, listen for airplanes flying overhead, check for buzzing from bad connections, etc. You can avoid most common problems by simply plugging a set of headphones into your gear to monitor the audio recording. If you are using an external microphone, listening with headphones can keep you from making an embarrassing error— like not turning on the microphone.
Room to Cut
Another rule of thumb: start recording five seconds before the action in your frame happens and continue to record five seconds after the actions concludes. This is useful in editing, especially if you ever intend to use special effects, like a dissolve or wipe. You may say, “I don’t always know when the action is going to happen.” The answer to that: “Concentrate and anticipate.” You’ll be surprised how often you get “lucky”.
Your goal should be for the viewer to forget that you were running the camera. The viewer should never think about you at all and if they do you should hope the thought is not, “Why can’t this person hold the camera still?” Be smooth, let the action happen within the frame, make your movements deliberate and motivated (follow the action or reveal information) and don’t draw attention to yourself. Use a tripod until you get the feel for a steady shot. Some camcorders have image stabilization to help, but propping yourself against a wall or holding your breath can also help take some shakes out. Unless you’re zoomed all the way in, you can probably keep a camera steady, if you know that’s important. It’s important.
You Can’t Pixelate Your Friends
Have you ever zoomed your camcorder all the way in, have it pause slightly and then as you continued to push the zoom control watch the picture grow in the viewfinder? The picture grew, but the pixels remained the same. That’s a digital zoom, and it’s not really a zoom.
Let’s say you start with the lens in the widest angle (zoomed all the way out) and start to zoom in. This zoom is being done with the lens on the front of the camera. When the lens can zoom no more the electronics inside the camera expand the pixels that make up the digital picture. If you have ever manipulated an image on a computer using software like Photoshop you know you can expand the picture to view detail, but at some point the image turns into little boxes of color. So when you use a digital zoom you aren’t really gaining anything, just degrading the image that you already had.
Go and Sin No More
We’ve looked at ten common mistakes that can be made by an unsuspecting camera operator. Learn them, avoid them and your video footage will improve, guaranteed. And you will also be qualified to look at the video shot by others, shake your head sadly and murmur, “What were they thinking?” Just like the pros.