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8 Tips for Beginners

Its time:  You have the assignment, your script is approved, you’ve checked the camera out of the classroom and you’re ready to go in the field.

This is going to be great! You're ready to get out there and spread your extraordinary vision to the rest of the school. But maybe you've never shot any video before. What do you need to know to effectively communicate your ideas to your audience? If you're just starting out, there will be lots of tips in this article that will help you avoid the distractions that can ruin even a well-thought-out video presentation. If you're in the more advanced class, read along anyway, while smugly assuring yourself that you're doing everything exactly right and could teach the class yourself.

Beginner Mistakes
First, avoid the beginner mistakes that nearly everyone makes when they pick up a video camera . The worst ofender is the constant zooming and panning that pervades every shot. Before you reach for that zoom control, think about why you're doing it. Do you really need to get a closer look at your subject? Or are you just playing around with that zoom because you can? If you can't think of a really good reason to zoom or pan, don't. Keep in mind, some directors like Spielberg and Hitchcock have shot entire feature films without zooming one single time. Instead of zooming, consider stopping tape and moving in closer to your subject. Then, you can edit it later. If you must pan (moving from side-to-side, moving up or down is called a "tilt"), move slower than your instincts tell you to. Almost every beginner video has a pan that is so fast that it elicits laughter among the initiated. And, by the way, don't call what you're doing with that camcorder "filming." You're not filming anything. Look inside the camcorder.  See any film in there? You're using video, so call it "shooting video," or "taping."

Lens Characteristics
Remember that when you're zoomed all the way out, you're dealing with a shorter (wide-angle) lens that has different visual characteristics than a long (telephoto) lens. The short lenses give you more depth of field, that is, objects in the background are in focus as well as those in the foreground. A shorter lens also makes it so that "objects are closer than they appear" (that's why that phrase is printed on rearview mirrors -- which are, in effect, like wide-angle lenses). Use a short lens when you want to see everything in the frame focused. Also, use a short lens when you're trying to hold the camera steady -- the longer the lens, the more difficult it is to avoid "shaky-cam." On the other hand, a longer lens will have less depth of field, but can be very effective if you want to have your subject in focus while the background is out of focus. Try an experiment to illustrate this concept: Frame up an object, and as you walk toward it, keep it the same size in your frame by zooming out as you walk. As you get closer, you'll see the background coming into focus as your subject seems to mysteriously gain depth. It's a wild-looking effect, called foreshortening, that will instantly show you the differences in lenses and their focal lengths.

Shaky-Cam
Here's another common beginner mistake: Shaky-cam. Of course, some highly professional music videos and commercials have elevated shaky-cam to an art form, and if you're going for that effect, more power to you -- shake away! But the majority of the time, you won't want that shaky look in your videos. Do yourself (and your viewers) a favor. If you haven't already, invest in a good tripod with a fluid head, so your shots will be rock-solid and your moves smooth.

Headroom
How many home videos have you sat through where everyone's heads are cut off? When you're taping, keep in mind that there's a phenomenon called overscan in nearly every consumer TV set, where it cuts off about 10% of the top, bottom and sides of your carefully-framed shots. Allow for that while you're shooting. When I was first starting as a studio camera operator, I would always allow the width of my pinky finger between the person's head and the top of the frame, and that would end up giving the perfect amount of head room for viewers at home. But we were using five-inch studio viewfinders on our cameras. A pinky-width would be entirely too much headroom for a DV camcorder . So, experiment with it. Take a few shots, noticing the amount of headroom you're allowing, then look at it on a TV set. Try not to overdo the headroom, though -- you'll end up with your subject appearing to be sitting in a hole, with tons of space over his/her head. That is equally amateurish. You can always tell a pro shooter's work by the amount of headroom allowed. 

Shooting an interview
In home videos, it's all too common to see someone talking directly into the camera at great length, while being interviewed by the videographer. Think about it: How many professional presentations have you seen that are shot this way? Not many? The solution: Shoot it interview-style, just like pro news shooters do every day. Enlist the support of one more person as your interviewer, or get someone else to shoot and you be the interviewer.

The first thing to remember while shooting an interview is to always shoot your subject's face straight on, not in profile. You need to be able to see both the subject's eyes in the shot. OK, if you really want to get artsy, shoot the person in profile, but if you do, please allow some breathing room in the direction your subject is looking. If your subject is looking left, pan a bit more to the left -- it's a more esthetically pleasing shot. But for the straight-on interview, have your subject look at the interviewer, not the camera, and place your interviewer next to the camera lens. That way, you'll see your subject's face full-on. Frame up the subject's face and shoulders, but not too tight. Occasionally, slowly zoom out to include the interviewer in the foreground.

Then, after the interview is done, take shots that are called "cutaways," and also take a few "reversals". Cutaways, sometimes called "noddies," are shots of the interviewer listening to the interviewee, or, shots of what the subject is talking about. Get a variety of these shots, both singles of the interviewer and over-the-shoulder shots of the interviewer with the subject in the foreground. Here's where you can fake that interview, with yourself in the shot as interviewer. Just place your camera (on its tripod) on the other side of your subject, and frame it up on yourself listening with the subject talking in the foreground. Try not to show the subject's lips to be seen in these shots, so you can fake these shots in editing. Then try shooting some reversals, where the interviewer re-asks the questions asked during the interview. You can cut these in later, making it look like you used two cameras. Finally, if your interviewee was looking slightly left screen, have your interviewer in the reversals looking slightly toward the right of the screen. You'll see the magic happening when you edit all this together. Wow. It's fake, but looks real, especially if you do it right. After an attempt or two, you'll get pretty good at this. 

Lighting
Keep in mind that when you look at a camera shot (or anything else, for that matter), you're actually looking at reflected light. So, get a lighting kit with at least three lights in it, and the improvement in your video quality will make you feel like you just upgraded your camera. Good lighting makes even lame camcorders look passable. A basic lighting setup would include a key light, placed close to the camera, a fill light, aimed at the subject and set up on the other side of the camera, and a back light, behind the subject, to set him/her apart from the background. Be careful not to have the back light's stand in your shot. If you have more lights, place a blue or amber gel on another light and point it at your background. You'll see a great difference with just this one colored light brightening up the background. When shooting outdoors, the best look is to shoot in the shade, but use a reflector to add some punch.

Shooting For the Edit
The best shooters are always thinking about how their shots will be used in the edit session. For instance, if your subject is talking about swimming, make the effort to get some shots (called "b-roll") of people swimming, or better yet, the subject swimming. The most prevalent problem editors complain about when sifting through b-roll footage: There's never enough. It's hard to get too much B-roll footage. When you're shooting a flower, for instance, stay on that shot about five seconds longer than you think you'll need. That way, you'll have more options in the edit session. That's the key to shooting for the edit: Allow yourself as many options as you have time to shoot. Every edit session we’ve ever done has moments of serendipity, where someone thinks of something we hadn't planned, and that's usually the best part of the final product. Allow for these insights. Give yourself options.

Close-ups and Backgrounds
Here's probably the number-one beginner mistake, both in still photography and videography: The shots are all too wide. Get in there, close to your subject. We’re not talking about shots that feature nose hairs. But if you'll just move in a bit closer, and eliminate things in the shot that aren't imparting any information, your shooting will be a lot stronger. Remember, you're communicating, and the video frame is limited. You get to decide what goes into that limited space. Don't waste it by showing us an expanse of carpet or a huge blue sky (unless you're going for a special effect). Use that precious space to show us a loved-one's face, for example. The best side effect of this is, generally, the tighter your shot, the higher the perceived video quality -- there's usually more detail that needs to be reproduced in a wider shot.

Finally, choose your backgrounds carefully. Avoid anything that's too busy or moving. Even when dealing with lightly compressed DV footage, the less compression necessary, the better your video will look. Try not to have any distracting elements in the background. Sure, that plant is beautiful, but if you place it right behind someone's head, they'll look like they're wearing some kind of absurd plant headdress. Another suggestion: Add some splashes of color to the background, without getting too distracting. A little bit of color goes a long way toward creating an attractive background