Video production tips

These are just a few tips for producing better looking videos for yourself.  Most are fairly obvious once you're aware of them, but they don't seem to occur to many people (see the complementary “filming gripes” page for a quick synopis of common problems and solutions).  If you want something to corroborate them, watch something on television but pay more attention to what's being recorded, and how, than whatever it is that they're portraying.  You'll only need to study a few minutes worth to understand what I've outlined below, and you'll pick up a few more ideas as well.  If you're really keen on producing interesting-to-watch footage, then I'd suggest studying some of the more well-known Alfred Hitchcock films, or some of Stanley Kubrick's films (just to mention a couple of directors famous for interesting photography in their work).  You can see some simple, but very effective, techniques that can be done with virtually any camera (i.e. most of what they've done is production technique, not special effects).  Watch some interesting parts of the film with the sound turned off, so your concentration is on the picture, alone.  Then do the opposite—listen to the sound while not watching the picture.  You'll appreciate the scene in a new way.

Get physically close to your subject

Although you can zoom into a shot, to appear to get closer, it's not the same thing.  The visual perspective is different, and so is the sound.  You get nicer looking shots when you get closer to a person that you're filming, and the sound will be much better.

A telephoto shot is more susceptible to jerky pictures than a wide angle shot, and focussing is harder to do, as everything is magnified.  You also lose depth of field with telephoto shots (only things in a narrow range remain in focus, e.g. the background may go out of focus), although this may be an effect that you deliberately want.

The microphone will pick up sounds from all directions, though usually mostly from the front.  Anything that's closer to the microphone will be heard the most (the noises of the camera, the breathing of the cameraman, wind noise, road noise, etc.), and the further a sound source is from the microphone, the quieter it becomes in comparison (the ambient noises become louder than the sound that you actually want to record).  It's another of those “inverse square” laws—when you double the distance, you get a quarter of the sound, and so on.

Manually control your lens

Turn off auto-focus and auto-exposure, and manually control them.  They're not magic, they can't tell what part of your picture is the focal point, nor what is the correct exposure for the entireity of the picture (they'll just average the picture to mid-level exposure, which doesn't work for very contrasty shots, or anything that shouldn't actually look mid-level exposed).  And the automatics can change settings on you in the middle of a shot, in an unwanted way.

Focus is a distance-related thing—it needs to be set to suit the distance between what you're filming, and the camera.  On a real film camera, you'd measure the distance and set the focus to the same mark on the lens.  For less precise lenses, you set focus by adjusting for a sharp looking picture.  Do so, to see a sharply defined image on the actual point of interest in the shot.  e.g. If you're filming a person speaking, then focus on their mouth or their eyes, that's what the viewer will be looking at.  Do not focus the camera on the wall behind them.

Likewise, set the exposure to suit the point of interest in the shot.  Again, if you were filming a person doing something, then set the exposure so you can see them properly, with the right amount of illumination for the shot (whether they're supposed to be in a bright room, or skulking around in the dark), ignore the exposure of the rest of the scenery around them unless that is actually important to the shot.  If there's a lighting problem between them and the room around them, then adjust your lighting (how bright it is; the height, spread, and angle of lighting; and use separate lighting for foreground and background).

Film scenes using more than just one shot

It's usually best to film a scene using multiple shots, giving different perspectives to what's being viewed (different angles, different magnifications, etc), but don't overdo it.  There are times when lots of quick cuts make a scene good, and there are times when a really lengthy shot make something more natural to watch.  You can see some examples of the latter by watching some children's television (they often seem to be done in a very simple style), and some of the cheaper, older, made on film, television shows (it costs less to do a prolonged two-shot of some actors talking, than it does to film lots of individual close-ups, and it's quicker to film).

Decide on the style of shots that you will use, and be consistent unless there's a reason to change.  For example, most productions tend to use static shots, and will change camera angles (when needed) by cutting to a new shot.  Generally, you'll only have a motion shot if there's a need for it, such as to follow someone who walks around in a fairly tight shot.  Whereas action scenes might use nothing but motion shots, usually to make things look more frantic than they really were.  Some directors will start using motion shots during boring scenes, but they really should have changed the scene to make it less boring.

Film more than just your subject

Filming something else gives you shots to break up what you're filming, to hide where you place your edits (cutting away to something else, for a moment, allows you to edit out parts that you don't want, without it being glaringly obvious that you've taken something out), and so it's not boring to watch.  But make sure that what you use as “cut-aways” are appropriate to what you're interrupting (e.g. show what they're talking about, the whole scene around them, or the reactions to what they're doing, etc.), and aren't confusing (e.g. don't switch views so that something that was going from right to left is suddenly moving in the opposite direction, nor do everything all in close-up so that viewers can't comprehend a scene).

Film at the same height as your subject

Unless you're trying to achieve a dramatic effect, then adjust the height of where you place the camera to match the height of what you're filming.  This gives a much more natural look for your subject (picture yourself talking to people—if they stand, you generally stand with them; and if they sit, you sit down with them; so you're all on the same eye level, as if you were both the same height).

To remember the usual reasons for dramatically filming someone from different heights, think of the phrases, “looking up to someone,” and, “looking down at someone.”  The effects (in filming) are the same.

Use an external microphone

If you can't get close enough to what you're taping, or you're in a noisy environment, then using a microphone that's remote from the camera really helps get a much better sound (you record more of the scene's sound, rather than the camera noises, this way).  You can get wireless mikes quite cheaply, so you're not tethered together; or you can get a very long cable so you avoid radio interference with the sound, but still be able to record distant sources.

You can also get mikes with different pickup patterns:  Omnidirectional mikes pick up sound from all directions, unidirectional mikes are optimised to pick up sound from one direction, superdirectional mikes are heavily optimised to pick up sound from just one direction, and noise-cancelling mikes will only pick up sound directed at them in a specific way (general ambient noise will be cancelled out).

Be mindful of what you want to record.  If it's just one thing, then get the microphone as close to that as possible.  But if you want to also capture some of the ambient sound, then you want to pull the microphone back a bit, use certain types of mikes, or use more than one microphone through a sound mixer (and you can record foreground and background sound on different channels, so you can control the level of one against another, in post-production.

Use headphones with your camera at the same time.  Then you can hear what you're actually recording, and you'll be able to tell if something goes wrong (the mike becoming unplugged, being switched off, batteries going flat, noises interferring with the sound, really loud sounds distorting, etc.).  You can waste a lot of filming if you only find out later on that the sound was unusable.

Use a shockmount to hold your microphone, it'll help prevent handling noises getting into the sound.  Likewise, use wind filters to reduce wind noise pickup.

I'd recommend against taking sound feeds from someone else's mixing desk, unless you've got your own mixer and microphones to record ambient sound with it, have audio transformers to avoid hum loops, are able to set the sound levels to suit your own needs, and you're somewhere where you can properly monitor your sound without interference from ambient noise.  Typically, you'll find that they've not miked everything, and some things will not be covered (leaving you with poor, or no sound, for that portion).  And that the mixing levels for amplification purposes are usually not suitable for recording.

Control your lighting

Use lighting as best you can, or adjust what you're filming when you can't.  You want most of your light to be lighting up the front of what you're filming, and usually to one side and above, rather than head on (think of how the Sun lights things when it's not midday).  If the light's behind what you're filming, such as filming someone with a window behind them, or a light source in front of them (e.g. candles or table lamps at their own height), they'll be too dark.  Lighting used in the wrong places can cause shadows in nasty places (e.g. lighting that's front on, directly above, directly beside, etc.).

While using broad floodlighting can be the simplest approach, it can give the worst results.  Anything that's close to the lights will be brighter than things further away, and you have little control over this, other than to try moving the light further away so that nothing is significantly closer than other things.  And shadows can be a problem.  Generally, you light foreground and background separately (people versus backdrops), this allows you to set their lighting levels separately, and you can adjust the individual lighting angles to avoid glare and unwanted reflections.

There are times where it's nearly impossible to adjust the lighting (e.g. filming outdoors).  Then, you're best to rearrange what you're filming into different positions, or use reflector boards to bounce more light into where you need it (you can use ordinary white cardboard, cloth, or specialist devices to do this).

Mixing together different light sources is usually a bad idea.  Daylight is much bluer than most artificial light sources.  Studio lighting is generally reddish–orange compared to daylight.  And fluorescent lighting usually used to be quite greenish, although they do come in a variety of colour temperatures.  It's well to remember that it's common enough for a room to have a mixture of different types of fluoros being used in it, and their age also affects their colour.  LED lighting can be a bit like fluoros—in that the spectral response is uneven, different between different lamps, and different on camera compared to looking at the scene with the naked eye (the colour tint of things may not turn out how you want, and change as people move between different light sources).

Use a tripod

If you're filming something that needs a steady shot, then use something like a tripod (or place the camera on a stable object), so that you get a steady shot.  It's very distracting to watch something like someone speaking at a presentation, if the camera is wobbling all over the place as if it were being filmed during an earthquake.

You can get quite small tripods that are easy to carry around, even tiny ones designed so that you can place a camera on a table to get a steady shot, but still be able to adjust the angle of the camera.

It's usually best not to lock the tripod head in position, so that you can easily follow moving subjects (including standing or seated people, that are still most of the time, but might move).  But for long telephoto shots, you might get a bit of wobble.  A partial solution is to increase the friction without actually locking the head into place.  Also, don't grip the panning arm like grim death, try to hold it in a relaxed manner.

Use a tripod that's properly designed for the weight of your camera.  That means one with a tripod head that's rated to hold several times what your camera actually weighs (because as you tilt the camera, it becomes front- or back-heavy, and the leverage increases the amount of force on the tripod head).  Some tripod specifications (deceptively) only take into account the weight of the camera when horizontally balanced, others (properly) account for the apparent additional weight of a tilted camera (which could triple the weight of the camera, depending on the angle).  It shouldn't wobble while you use the camera, the locks should be strong enough to hold the camera in any position, by themselves.  Video camera tripods should let you do smooth pans and tilts, most still-camera tripods aren't suitable for supporting a moving camera.

Edit, and be ruthless while editing

Editing means putting together just the shots that you need.  You should remove anything that doesn't belong (mistakes, lots of waiting around for something to happen, boring pauses between things, etc.), and remove things that are just pointless.

NB:  You can't fix filming errors with editing, you're stuck with them.  Bad sound is bad sound, out of focus shots are out of focus, etc.  If you make a mistake while filming, re-do the shot straight away.  I've seen plenty of people waste lots of time trying to fix the unfixable, after the event, and either dumping a lot of material that they wanted to use (after wasting a lot of time), or including really awful material that should have been completely dumped.

Experiment, and read the manual

Practice using your equipment on something that's not important, ahead of time, so that you're not trying to figure out how to use it at the crucial moment.  Try out some of its special features, and learn how to turn some of them off (having a date over everything you record looks awful, even more so if it's wrong, and it makes wobbly camerawork even more noticeable; auto-focus can keep changing the focus, and end up focussing on the wrong thing in a shot; auto-iris can keep incorrectly set the exposure of a shot if there are conflicting conditions, such as a person with a window behind them, or when you're following someone who's walking around).

Get faulty equipment repaired

Fix faulty equipment, it wastes production time while you try to get things to do what you want, and ruins your work.  I've known people who've put up with connectors that need fiddling with, all the time, and rickety tripods with loose legs, being unable to use (otherwise) useful features that were broken on their equipment, and not configuring settings properly, for many years, instead of getting it fixed so that things “just work.”  Throw away a dud cable and replace it, tighten loose bits, and replace broken parts that you've been bodging up with gaffer tape.

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