You’d be surprised at the high number of important events that can be captured with a simple iPhone or camcorder. If you’re not a professional videographer, the process can seem like a daunting task. After all, you’ve got to have the right lighting, framing, and sound quality so your video isn’t riddled with distractions or poor quality. To help you capture your next special memory or event, we’ve compiled these top tips for getting started with videography.
Related: iPhone Cinematography
Familiarity With Your Equipment
One of the main reasons people fail to get good results when shooting video is that when something important is happening that they need to capture, they flunk something with the equipment. The camera is not recording at the right frame rate (or not recording at all!), the audio is wonky, or the lighting makes the subject look like they’re wearing sunglasses.
To avoid tripping yourself up, first, get familiar with the basic functions of the equipment. You should know how to make audio and video recordings, playback your recordings, and know-how to adjust the settings of the equipment to get the best shots. Once you become familiar with the basics, you’ll be ready to begin shooting.
Spare Batteries and Memory Cards
Double-check that you have charged all the batteries you will need, and formatted memory cards if using those. Make sure you have spare batteries, as well, in case of emergencies. It’s amazing how Murphy’s Law operates when it comes to filmmaking and video production – you can pretty much guarantee that the battery will run out at exactly the moment you most need the camera!
Make sure you format the memory card before using it for the first time. Formatting involves erasing all the memory on the card and turning the space that was previously occupied by ‘deleted files’ into ‘free space’ for your photos or video.
Quickly Assess How to Film a Scene
The mark of a professional video camera operator is that they quickly check out the location and scene they are about to film, without the camera in hand. This enables them to ensure they have all of the necessary accessories or equipment, and that they’ll have enough room to film without causing people or objects to be affected in any way.
If they’re going to film outdoors, they should check the weather first – if it’s going to rain, they may want to postpone filming.
It gives a chance also to envisage how the scene will flow, and critically where to position the camera and perhaps microphone. Any camera movement will also be considered: for example, tracking shots or pans.
Carry a Shot List and Scene Card
Suppose you are filming an event. Ideally, you will have met at least some of the people in advance so that they feel comfortable with you. Your job is to cover the event on video, without unnecessarily disturbing peoples’ enjoyment of it. It will greatly help you to have a brief summary of the various stages of the event so that you can anticipate where to film and also consider the opening and closing shots of each scene.
There might also be specific shots that the client requests, or that you know you really want to capture. If so, write them in a list – otherwise, in the heat of the moment, you can forget to get them.
Use Other Films As Inspiration
As filmmakers, we are learning all the time about the art and craft of filmmaking. If tasked with the videography of a particular type of event, especially if it is the first time you’ve covered that type of occasion, then you can very profitably spend a few hours browsing through good examples of short films made by others of similar events.
Vimeo is a brilliant source of these because the standard of filmmaking and videography is usually much higher than that found on YouTube videos.
Take some time to watch some successful entries and take note of the techniques that are being used – for example, the way shots are cut together. Also, check what shots are used; are they close-ups of faces, for example, or long shots that capture the whole room, or are there any unusual angles or techniques being used?
Learn When to Use a Tripod
There are times when you will absolutely want to place the camera on a tripod, and other times when putting it on a tripod would completely ruin the shot.
The best advice I can give here is to always keep the camera steady, and don’t let any camera unwanted movement distort the shot. If the camera is moving when you shoot, it will show in the footage, and that will look terrible.
The truth is that you only really learn what to do with experience; however, the general rule is that if you are using the long end of a zoom lens, the chances are you will need stabilization. If, on the other hand, you have a wide-angle lens and want to track or follow the action then you would be well-advised to handhold the camera.
It’s a good idea to use a quick-release baseplate to be able to mount and unmount the camera rapidly from the tripod.
Get the Best Tripod You Can Afford
Like audio equipment, tripods tend to last a long time. By getting the best tripod you can afford, your shots will be smoother because your camera is less likely to be affected by vibrations caused by the wind, for example. Pans and tilts will be smoother because the quality of the tripod head will be higher.
If operating solo, you’ll need to pay attention to the weight because the last thing you want to do is struggle to lug a heavy tripod around all day.
Use the Right Lights for the Shot
There are a couple of very important considerations when planning the lighting for a shoot. The first is style: some shoots require primarily naturalistic lighting – basically, daylight. On others, you’ll need to use contrast lighting to get dimensionality in the shots, perhaps using Dedolights or similar. Potentially also to project some kind of effect on a backdrop.
Elsewhere, you’ll be looking to use primarily fill lighting instead, to gently illuminate your subjects. Portability and weight can also be a factor: the battery-powered LED soft lights now available have been a gamechanger for small and solo crews on location.
Use Cinematic Effects Judiciously
One of the consequences of DSLR filmmaking and high-speed (wide aperture) lenses has been the tendency to throw depth of field on almost every shot in order to get what the filmmakers consider to be a cinematic effect. However, be aware that this is not always desirable.
First of all, you may actually want to see something of the background! It may actually help your visual storytelling.
Secondly, if you use too open an aperture then you risk shrinking the focal plane to the point that even the movement of a head can put the subject out of focus!
Keep in mind that on a real movie set, the DOP is not alone – he or she will typically have a focus puller whose job it is to plan and assist the focus racking of the camera, to ensure the subject stays in focus throughout the shot. Also, shots will be blocked (planned) and rehearsed on a movie set – a luxury you may not have with your videography!
Bottom line: don’t use maximum apertures unless you really understand the specific use case, and how to control it!
Study Film Grammar and Cinematography
There are some basic principles like the Rule of Thirds, Angle of Separation, Crossing the Line, and so forth.
However, real cinematography and composition are connected to understanding how the arrangement and dynamic movement of elements in the frame, and into and out of the frame, create a story and a feeling that aligns with and feeds that story.
Make it your business to learn the basic rules, but then study the cinematographic masters to keep learning about mood, emotion, lighting, composition choices, and so on. The beauty of filmmaking, videography, and cinematography is that it is a lifelong study where it is as important to know what you don’t know as much as what you do, and what you don’t do as well as what you do!
Know the Effect of Lenses on Faces
Although lens choice is fundamental to all sorts of shots, the focal length is especially important when shooting faces. If you are not careful, your scene could wind up looking very distorted or unnatural. Generally speaking for portrait-style interviews or standups, aim for an 80-100 mm 35-mm equivalent focal length, which will give you a pleasant-looking shot.
Often the lens or focal length selected on a zoom lens will determine where you need to position the subject relative to the camera.
Keep in mind that often you need to allow space between the subject and the background, in order not to cramp them up against walls, furniture, or anything like that.
Shoot for the Edit
Shooting for the edit means that you consider the way in which shots may cut together in editing, to tell the visual story.
You need to be very careful, however, not to ‘edit in camera’ – this latter error will result in insufficient footage to be efficiently edited.
Therefore, the ideal choice is to get a blend of intentional shots that probably will cut together well, while also getting sufficient ‘coverage’ of a scene to enable additional editing options, depending on the precise requisites at that point in the editing.
Related: What Makes a Story Worth Telling
Allow Shots to Breathe
Nothing irritates an editor more (or will you, if you edit your own stuff) than to have static shots cut too quickly (or camera moves away) when you needed a tail at the end of it. A video or film camera is not a stills camera!
Get at least a 5-second hold on a subject, before moving to the next subject. Allow interesting action to complete before moving.
The same rule applies to pans and zooms. Get at least three-for-one on every camera move: a 5-second hold at the start of the shot, pan, then a 5-second hold at the end. Then, for bonus points, pan the other way. If you build shot discipline into your shooting, then you’ll start producing better shots and better films.
Beware Shadows When Filming Outdoors
Although the advent of High Dynamic Range cameras is changing the range of exposures in which one can frame a shot, shadows are still an issue for videographers. Shadows cast by large, overhead structures – trees, for example -can make it difficult to attain ideal exposure of subject and background.
Therefore, although that wide shot of the happy couple under the tree might have seemed like a good idea, you may find that it would be much better to place them in the sunlight. Or, to tighten the frame to extrude the sunlit background.
Contralight is when your subject is directly in the path of the sun. If used with intention, this can have a very dramatic effect on a subject’s appearance.
The classic example of this would be the subject walking through a meadow, with the sunlight being glimpsed through the hair. The point is that you don’t want every shot to be evenly exposed and dull.
Take some time to play around with contralight in practice sessions, so that when an appropriate occasion provides the opportunity you will know what that can give in terms of a creative result.
A great way, incidentally, to understand the way shadows will fall on a face is to bunch your fist and then extrude your middle finger knuckle to emulate a nose. Then, you can move your fist at various angles to a light source to see how the shadow will fall on a human face.
Use Corners and Retreating Lines of Perspective
When filming someone in a room, or perhaps in an architectural setting, don’t just settle with the easy option of placing them against a flat background wall. Instead, try shooting the subject with their backs to either a corner at some distance.
This immediately creates a more interesting perspective, helps introduce depth into the shot, and more often than not will also help sidestep lighting issues if sunlight is punching through a window.
A Great Way to Control Handheld Shake
When using the camera on the shoulder, or handheld, it is easy to start to have undesirable wobble – especially if zoomed in to any degree. I once saw a BBC camera operator solve this problem beautifully – he simply swayed very slowly side to side, to introduce a slow and controlled movement into the shot that eliminated the shaking issue he would have had if he had stood rock still.
Don’t Be Lazy About White Balance
Whenever you change a lighting setup, always ensure that you set your camera’s white balance. Although editing software can correct white balance to a degree, it’s never the same as if you’d done it manually. This becomes especially important when using cameras from different brands – the default white balance settings can vary from camera to camera.
Therefore, take a few seconds to do it manually on all cameras.
Think About the Background
The background of a shot and the camera angle you use can be just as important as the subject itself. Nothing undercuts the power of a shot faster than something distracting inappropriate in the background.
Generally speaking, unless you want the clutter of a particular kind in the background, aim for simplicity. Opt for a subtle background rather than a busy one if possible.
Pay Attention to Framing
Framing is a cinematography choice that should be driven by the storytelling and emotional requirement of the shot.
As a rule, closer shots are more intimate and carry more emotion. Longer shots reduce the expressiveness of the face and are usually done to provide context.
If in doubt, aim for a mix of framing and angles to help your editing later. Remember to use ‘looking room’ and ‘movement room’ in your framing – if someone is moving or looking from one side to another of the frame, allow the space for them to look into. The rule applies in every direction of the frame, therefore if someone is looking up, allow the room for them to look up into.
The Zoom is For Reframings
It is only very rarely that an actual zoom shot makes it into an edit. The zoom lens is there either:
- to reframe the shot, or
- to vary the depth of field in order to include or exclude background and foreground detail.
Move Your Feet
When covering a scene – a wedding, for example – remember to move yourself and the camera to new positions to get extra angles. Be intentional about when you move – make sure not to move at the important moments!
But when you know that you have ‘got’ the action you need from one angle, swiftly relocate to the second position and capture material from a different angle. And then move to the third setup. Understanding this dance in a scene is a fundamental part of good videography.
Use Low and High Angle Shots
Low and high-angle shots can help greatly to create a sense of space and presence. A low-angle shot can create a sense of hierarchy in an otherwise cluttered space, whereas a high angle shot can create a sense of power and even dominance in a shot.
When shooting a low-angle shot, the videographer shoots close to the ground or shoots upwards from an object. When shooting a high-angle shot, the cinematographer shoots from above an object or shoots downwards from an object.
If you need to capture a lot of context in one shot, look to get yourself higher up and shoot down onto the scene.
You will have heard this one more than once. But it’s worth repetition. You can rescue lackluster video in editing and postproduction, but lackluster audio is almost impossible to save. It behooves you to:
- use headphones to monitor sound as you shoot
- ensure that you have the sound source close-miked; microphone proximity is more than half the battle
- use hardwired microphones whenever possible; wireless is almost always a choice of necessity.
Remember to Use Release Forms
If you interview or feature someone in your films, make sure you have a signed release form done as soon as you finish filming. Don’t be tempted to ignore this, or trust to get it later.
If you don’t get a signed release at the time of filming, you run the risk that the footage may be unusable and your film will be delayed in the interim.
Close the Bag
When I taught one one-week class to film students at the Paris Film School (EICAR), I started them off with a simple test: go to the back of the room, grab the camera, and bring it over to the front of the room. Next, I’d ask them to go and bring the bag over. And watch as a piece of gear spilled out, due to the bag not having been closed. I know it sounds basic, but bag discipline matters!
A bag should only ever be open if you are taking something out, or putting something in!
Invest In Lenses, Lights, and Audio
The problem with camera systems and sensors is that the game changes every year. First, it’s 1080, then 2k, then 4k, then 6k, 8k. If planning to invest in equipment, think about which pieces of gear will hold their value long-term.
Good gun microphones, for example, will last decades. I personally own two Sennheiser MKH-60s that I bought in 2005. Lights and lenses will also endure if handled correctly and with proper care. Ditto stabilization gear, like tripods. However for the actual camera itself sometimes it might make more sense to rent it for a job than buy it.
If you plan to spend significant money on gear, pick items that you’ll be able to keep adding to your kit for years.
Keep a Videography Journal
Filmmaking and videography is an art and craft of continuing education and enhancement. You’ll find that keeping a simple journal will help immensely to refine your photography and videography skills. The journal should document your workflow, as well as your successes and failures so that you can continue improving your videography and photography skills over time.
Learn Modern Video Editing
There is no point in working on your videography skills if you never understand how the material you’ve shot works in editing. Therefore, even if you don’t plan to be an editor or edit your own stuff, it is totally worth getting Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro, Davinci Resolve, or similar and learning how to select shots and cut them together.
It will give you a much better understanding of what to shoot on location.
My top two wedding videography tips would be:
- remember that a wedding video is a love story. Make sure you get the reaction shots as well as the main action. But do these only after you are absolutely sure that you have captured the main action! Look for the little details that speak to the emotion – both on peoples’ faces, and the various symbols and traditions that weddings involve.
- don’t shoot everything – shoot the right things! As a wedding videographer, communication is key, in advance of the wedding and during it. Make sure you understand what is coming up, and how you can cover it. You don’t want to find yourself rushing to a location or moment you didn’t anticipate!
Event Video Tips
Events come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some top tips would be:
- Plan carefully. Especially logistics like parking, equipment storage, camera setting, and so forth. Make sure you know where the power supply is located. If you need to set up lights, make sure you can do so safely without wires causing a trip hazard.
- Allow for setup time. The type of event and light will make a huge difference to the amount of time you will need to set up. Natural light is usually easier and quicker than low light conditions, where you may need to add light in.
Explainer Video Tips
My main tip to get a professional-looking video would be to ensure you get the master shot recorded first before you start to record cutaways and B roll.
Storage of Video Content
The main thing is to make a backup copy of your rushes (raw video) as soon as possible and keep it separate from your main rushes. Drives fail, and stuff gets lost. In recent years, the cost of NAS (Network Attached Storage) has come down to the point that amateurs and hobbyists use it.