This primer is based on numerous tips from film industry professionals and personal explorations in shooting DV.
Physical Aspects of Cinematography
At its most basic level, cinematography entails knowing more than what your camera’s buttons do. You need to know how to handle it according to the desired situation and scene. With this in mind, here are some essentials for getting the footage you’re after:
Steady Your Shot
While a little shakiness is forgivable (and sometimes unavoidable) in a documentary-style film or in an action sequence, for most of your filming you’ll want to keep the camera frame as smooth and steady as you can. Otherwise your audience is thinking about the camera- and not the scene.
To improve on this important aspect:
1) When holding the camera, always use both hands.
2) Get close to the subject- by standing far away and using the zoom
you increase the angle of shakiness.
3) Use a solid surface (desk, chair, etc.) or, best of all, a tripod when you know you subject isn’t going anywhere.
4) Try holding the camera against your sternum instead of your shoulder*
5) Sit or lay down with the camera*
6) If you need to move the camera smoothly with the scene, try using a wheelchair or skateboard (someone should be pulling or pushing you) for tracking shots.
(*note: this can steady a shot but this lower angle can also change the dramatic sense of the frame- see Composition)
Record More Than You Think You’ll Need
When shooting video, you really need to keep video editing in mind.
Basically, you want to give yourself options. As such, you want to be sure that you have more than enough material to work with when editing (as re-shooting footage is often difficult and sometimes impossible). Moreover, you need to always remember that there is a slight delay between the moment you press the record button recording- and the moment when the camera actually is recording. So to better insure that you get your Oscar winning footage the very first time:
1) Say “action” well after you actually hit the record button- otherwise you might cut of the beginning of your scene. Remember: there old saying was “lights, CAMERA, [and then] action.”
2) When doing any pan shots (across a room, valley, etc.): A) start with the camera still, B) hit record, count to 3, C) then slowly pan across, D) hold still at the end and count to 3, E) hit the recordbutton off. You’ve just given yourself 3 shots to work with and insured that you got a complete pan.
3) When filming dialogue- consider shooting the scene from, a variety of angles. 5 times from 5 different POVs (e.g., for a conversation between 2 people consider filming: a 2 shot, a subject A bust shot, and a subject b bust shot, an over the shoulder shot of subject A and an over the should shot of subject1
B. By shooting in this manner you not only insure more varied and interesting editing scenarios but also a better chance of getting quality audio (you’ll have 5 clips to sample from).
Technical Aspects of Cinematography
Ok, so you’re almost ready to go- but first you should know what all the bells and whistles on the camera are and what they do. For starting out, you probably don’t need to do anything but set the camera to the autoeverything mode and record away. However, once you’re comfortable with the feel of the camera’s basics, here’s how to get that extra nice lookfrom your camera (note: this is a pretty comprehensive list. You will probably only need to do 2 or 3 of these things for a given shot.)
Set and Check Your Audio
Audio is just as important and video. As proof, imagine watching a TV with the sound off versus listening to a TV from another room. Chances are- you’ll have a better understanding of what’s happening with only the audio (remember: for decades, millions of people were enthralled by radio programs). So once you’re ready to shoot, the first thing to check is you’re audio level. Have your subject do a dry run and say a few lines or just recite the ABC’s- and make sure your getting good audio.
Some fundamentals for audio:
1) Make sure the audio is set for 16, not 12 bit audio. Long story short- 16 bit means considerably better quality sound.
2) For breezy outdoor conditions, try the camera’s windscreen option or you can buy a mic cover.
3) For loud settings where you need to get clear dialogue, be sure to use a shotgun mic or boom mic if possible.
4) In highly reflective environments (e.g., bathrooms) throw some blankets, foam, etc. around the room (outside the shot, of course) to serve as sound absorbers.
Set the White Balance
This will keep your colors looking right and your whites from getting green, red, etc. Some cameras have a pretty good auto setting for white balancing via default settings (indoor, outdoor, etc. ) but . . . to get it justright, set the white balance manually. Here are the steps:
1) Set your white balance to manual.
2) Put a well lit piece of white paper in front of the camera.
3) Press the white balance button- and blamo, no more funky colors. *remember: this white balancing is scene specific- when you change
locations; you’ll need to do it again.
Run that Zebra
Scan the entire area that you will be filming (i.e. for a pan shot) with the zebra function on. This will help you determine any “hot” areas that are that are too bright in the shot and might cause “whiteout” or “blooming” (loss of detail in bright areas). If there are a lot of zebra spots- consider item
Joe Dockery teaches digital media courses at Mount Si High School in the Snoqualmie Valley School District, just east of Seattle, Washington. He weaves service learning into all aspects of his curriculum to ensure his students receive an authentic learning experiences. Dockery also consults and trains nationwide as an Adobe Education Leader. He has taught courses for Washington State University, Seattle Pacific University, The Puget Sound Educational Service District, and a variety of other school districts.
The Washington State Golden Apple Award
Radio Shack National Technology Teacher of the Year Award
Educator of the Year Award from the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation ISTE’s “Best of the Best”
ISTE “Making IT Happen”
Adobe Education Leader "Impact" Award
Pacific Northwest Key Club Advisor of the Year