Published June 15, 2015 by Gregg Schieve
The good news about the video production industry these days is that it has never been cheaper to get into the business. Good quality, high-definition video cameras cost a fraction of what they did 10 years ago. You can still spend tens of thousands of dollars on high-end, digital, 6K, cine-style cameras (without lens), but for a few thousand dollars one can produce a very nice full-frame image with a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR). In addition, reasonably priced support gear options for DSLRs have hit the market in the form of camera movement controls, monitors, camera support, lighting fixtures and audio recording. So, anyone with enough money (or high enough credit card limit) can go online, buy gear and become a video production company, right?
Well, like the old adage says, "just because you have a hammer doesn't mean you're a carpenter" (or, just because you have a 4K camera doesn't mean you're a cinematographer). So, in the spirit of promoting good carpentry, I will share 5 simple tips to help you become a better carpenter, er, cinematographer.
Tip 1 - Shooting: Shoot sequences of scenes - wide, medium and tight shots. Here's an example shooting a carpenter installing a door. Shoot a wide shot of the carpenter fitting the door into place. Shoot a medium shot of the same action. Shoot a close-up of the door moving into place. Shoot a close-up of the carpenter's face as he/she is pushing the door into place. Shoot a medium shot of the carpenter screwing the doorjamb to the framing. Shoot a close-up of the screw going into the wood. On and on. Soon you'll have several shots that you can edit into a short sequence and create a simple story of a door being installed. Once you master this method of shooting, you will start to master the art of visual storytelling.
Tip 2 - Lighting: Today's cameras don't need much light to produce a usable image. In fact, a lot of shooters will say they shoot with "available light". I once heard a photographer explain that shooting with available light should mean using the light that you, the photographer, make available. That is, if your subject's face is in shadow and their light colored hair is on fire because of the overhead lights, then you should make available a softbox light fixture to make them look better on camera. Some of the best lit scenes do not look like they are lit at all, but often there is a multitude of light fixtures, bounce cards, reflectors, and flags being used to make the scene look natural and read well on camera.
Tip 3 - Audio: The most common mistake people make when recording audio is thinking that the on-camera microphone is adequate for making an audible recording of someone talking 10 to 15 feet away. In the best case, you will probably be able to understand what the person is saying. Most often however, they will sound hollow (or "echoy" in technical terms), and the viewer will have to strain to understand them. A good quality, lavaliere microphone attached to the subject's shirt goes a long way to making sure that their every word is audible. And do not, I repeat, DO NOT let the mic cable show on camera!! Another common mistake is not recording audio at all. Always record audio for everything you shoot. You can always decide later in post production not to use it.
Tip 4 - Camera Movement and Support: Movie cameras are often referred to as "motion picture cameras". This should not be used as your cue to constantly move the camera around when shooting. Camera movement should always be motivated - are you trying for a particular look or feel or need to be nimble to keep up with spontaneous action? Or are you just too lazy to set up a tripod? Then there's the zoom button, argh! I would challenge any video photographer to never zoom until they've mastered the techniques in Tip 1. And even if they have, like camera movement, zooms must be motivated.
There are many affordable, DSLR-based systems out now to control camera movement. Sliders, jib arms, drones, stabilizers, time lapse, and motorized motion control can all be used to get great looking shots. But, again, they have to be motivated and contribute to the narrative of the story being produced. When the motion picture camera first came out, early filmmakers would simply shoot motion. Viewers where transfixed watching Eadweard Muybridge's short film of a galloping horse in 1878, but soon became bored because there was no story to keep them interested. The same could be said for some of today's popular drone or time lapse videos - cool to view once, but what's the story to keep me watching?
Tip 5 - Shooting: I know that I have two tips about shooting, but shooting is the key element of shooting good video! Approach shooting video as a passion instead of a chore. We are all better at something when we like what we are doing. Consider that a video camera is a tool to an end rather than this complicated box with confusing menus and knobs. Learn how to use your camera well, but devote less time to the technology and more time to the art of storytelling.
Bonus Tip - Hire A Pro: If video production is neither your passion nor core business, consider hiring a professional. There are many of us out here who love what we do and it shows in our work. Use the concepts expressed in these tips to help you decide who to hire.
My goal in life is to reduce the amount of bad video in the world!