Today’s modern digital video camera is a technological marvel. For less than the cost of a decent suit of clothes, anyone can buy a modern camcorder that largely outperforms yesterday’s professional studio cameras.
Camcorder technology has become downright revolutionary.
You know what else it’s become? Largely unimportant.
The truth is that nearly ALL cameras today are so good, that at the student video level, none of them make much difference. They all are capable of shooting quality video when used properly. And right there—in those three words that conclude the previous sentence—you’ll find the magic incantation that calls forth good video: When used properly.
You see cameras are TOOLS in the same sense that a paintbrush is a tool. The paintbrush doesn’t paint the wall or the picture, the PERSON operating it does that. What makes the difference isn’t the brand or even the features of the camcorder, it’s the knowledge and skill of the user.
So let’s look at some of the basic skills that separate good camera work from the not-so-good.
The goal of good camera work is pretty simple, really. We typically want to shoot scenes that allow the audience to see whatever is being videotaped clearly and without distraction.
So if there’s some technical aspect of the picture that is annoying or frustrating—that’s bad.
Problems that commonly diminish the quality of video fall into three general categories: exposure, framing, and camera movement.
This term refers to how much light the camera lens lets in and relates to how bright or dim the recorded picture looks.
First some great news: today’s modern digital cameras do auto exposure VERY well. So this factor is less important than it used to be. However, it’s not off the table. For instance, if you’re shooting video of a classmate who’s standing in front of an exterior window- the light behind the subject might cause the camera to underexpose the person in the shot. This is called BACKLIGHTING.
And similarly, trying to record images in a dimly lit room or a dark space might leave you with grainy, underexposed images devoid of color and life. This is the opposite or UNDEREXPOSURE. The wise camera operator is mindful of the environment—and understands that to make well exposed pictures, a change in shot angle, or even a move to someplace where the light is better, might be wise before you hit the RECORD button.
Framing is how the camera operator arranges things on the screen. To illustrate how challenging this can be, let’s take the most basic of video shots—the so-called “talking head”—and look at how one might arrange a single human face for the screen.
The initial instinct might be to simply center a head on the screen, the nose at the geographic center of the frame. But watch TV and you’ll hardly EVER see a nose right on the center line like this. Why? A long-time artistic concept called the “rule of thirds” which broadly states that perfect balance can be visually boring and that pictures get livelier when there’s some “tension” in the arrangement of the visual elements.
The rule of thirds essentially superimposes a “tic tac toe” grid on the screen, and suggests that the lines (and especially where they cross) are points of more powerful visual interest. Placing a subject’s eyes, not in the center, but on the upper third line, is more visually pleasing. Want confirmation? Tape a thin line of removable masking tape across your TV, one-third of the way down and watch all the eyes of the people you see. You’ll see this “rule of thirds” in action every day. You can improve your camera work quickly by thinking about the rule of thirds and placing important visual elements on those lines and intersections. There’s a lot more to composing great shots than the rule of thirds, but at least it can start your thinking about the importance of how you arrange things on screen.
This is an area where good student videos often go bad very quickly.
Again, watch professionally produced movies and videos (yes, even on MTV where they try so hard to break all the typical visual rules!) you’ll find that in the VAST majority of shots you watch, camera moves are subtle if they even take place at all. The ACTION moves within a rock-solid frame. That solid frame is typically the result of using a TRIPOD to mount the camera. And that is probably the single most powerful difference between amateur video and video that looks more professional.
The truth is that camera work is hardly ever as simple as just pointing the lens at something and hitting record.
And good camera work is the ONLY sure path to being able to sit down to edit and know that you have great visual material available to tell your story.
Next time: Lighting basics.