The year 2009 will go down in history books as a revolutionary one for photography. It ended the era when stills were stills and video was video, and never the twain would meet. Shooting professional-looking video with hybrid DSLRs has come of age. In 2010, we’ve seen the release of even more impressive hybrid cameras.
Having great tools doesn’t translate into great results, however—unless we know how to technically and creatively use them. Video has a grammar different from still photography that needs to be understood to take full advantage of the new hybrid equipment.
A four-day Travel Channel Academy Video Boot Camp at the network’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, led by veteran producers Michael Rosenblum and Lisa Lambden, aided in my quest to understand what components make up a great travel video. This comprehensive course covers everything from shooting to editing and, most importantly, the art of storytelling.
I put the following tips to the test in Thailand, one of the world’s most exotic travel destinations, using the 12.3-megapixel, DX-format Nikon D300S that shoots 720 HD video.
Any travel editor will tell you: “A destination isn’t a story.” It’s important to delve into specific aspects of a location to make a travel video interesting. It could be the food, the art, the architecture, the culture—there are countless possibilities. It doesn’t have to be exclusive to the subject, it just has to be the focus.
Once you have an idea of what you want to shoot, concentrate on the building blocks of video storytelling. When possible, shoot five basic, 10-second shots of each scene, whatever scene that is. For instance, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I shot the Northern Folk Dance and Music Performance at the Khum Khantoke Restaurant by doing a wide shot as an establishing shot, a close-up of the performers’ hands, a close-up of their faces, a side shot and then an over-the-shoulder shot from a guest’s point of view (POV). I paused the camera between each take. As you’ll find out when editing, 10-second shots give you enough footage for video transitions such as cross dissolves. The results are clean, dynamic clips that are easy to edit together. It’s a waste of valuable CF card space to “spray and pray,” panning and shooting everything. It’s also a nightmare to edit. There’s a time and a place for pans, tilts, zooms and so on, but they shouldn’t be the default shots we turn to.
Whatever the story is, if a dynamic host is leading the way, so much the better. You can mount your camera on a tripod and be your own host or use a travel companion if he or she can exude a sense of enthusiasm for the subject. An on-camera appearance with an introduction to a place is a great way to personalize a travel video.
If you’re going to put yourself in front of the camera, put out as much energy and personality as you can muster. Gone are the days of the “Voice of God” narrators who we hear but never see. The most compelling stories follow a dynamic character such as Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations and Samantha Brown.
Some video techniques are counterintuitive to our still-photo sensibilities. For me, not moving the camera and chasing things around the dance floor during the dramatic performance was one of them. But as you’ll see, it’s often far more dramatic to hold the camera still and let the action go out of frame. Motion in the film/video world is typically done by edit and not by moving the cam-era. Additionally, faster cuts make sequences convey more action.
Thai cuisine is unique and a big part of the travel experience in the country. At the magnificent Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa near the Thai/Laos/Burma border, I used a macro lens with a shallow depth of field so you could almost taste the food on the screen. The shots have to live up to the enthusiasm you have for the subject. If you can make the audience have a Pavlovian response to a food shot, you’ve succeeded at the highest level.
Pans (moving horizontally) and tilts (moving vertically) are important camera techniques that are best done with the camera on a tripod.
A fluid head on a tripod is a must for anyone who wants to make serious hybrid videos. I used the Manfrotto 128LP micro video fluid head on my carbon-fiber tripod for smooth pans and tilts to reveal the architecture of the historic Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai. Pans and tilts on a non-fluid head will strip its gears.
For situations where use of a tripod is impractical or impossible, such as shooting from the top of an elephant at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang Province, rigs like the Redrock Micro stabilization system are great tools. To change focus or zoom during a shot is almost impossible without a supplemental focusing setup such as the Redrock microFollowFocus. A hooded loupe over the LCD screen will help focusing, especially under bright conditions.
With the ability to shoot HD video with hybrid cameras has come the need to have a continuous light source for low-light and fill-light situations designed for those cameras.
Lightweight and compact LED lighting such as those made by ikan, Litepanels and Lowel are the hybrid video equivalents to carrying around a flash for still shooting. All have dimmers to vary the output. Attention to color balance (most often by adding warming gels) must be taken into consideration with these daylight-balanced artificial light sources.
These lights can fit in the hot-shoe on top of the camera or in an extension plate, so both a mic and the light panel can be onboard the camera at the same time.
The visual results from the Nikon 300S and the other high-end hybrid DSLRs are stunning, but as with all digital SLRs, they need external microphones for the audio to live up to the picture quality.
Weighing just over 10 ounces and powered by a 9-volt battery, the RØDE Stereo VideoMic fits into the camera’s hot-shoe and plugs into the camera with a stereo mini-jack. It comes with a wind shield that RØDE suggests should be used at all times. If you’re going to shoot high-definition video, you need to generate high-definition sound.
For my on-camera introductions, I stayed within the recommended six feet of the mic for optimal dialogue quality. To expand the recording range, the RØDE Boom Pole that extends from 33 inches to 129 inches can be used when the mic is connected to the Rode 3.5mm Stereo Audio Extension Cable (VC1).
You’ll also want to have headphones to better hear the sound that’s being recorded.
Digital cameras have given us the ability to adjust the white balance on every shot, reducing the need for carrying color-correction filters. Yet there are still several filters that should be a part of every DSLR user’s arsenal. At th
e top of the list are polarizers to enhance blue skies and reduce reflections and a variety of neutral-density graduated filters. Neutral density works by lessening the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor. Graduated neutral density allows for a darkening of a single section of the image, most often the sky.
I used a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop, soft, neutral-density graduated filter to harness the bright skies over Chiang Mai’s ancient wall and moat. The rectangular Singh-Ray filter was held in position by a LEE filter holder. The holder itself can be rotated and the filters can be slid up or down. I have a set of adapter rings that fit into the filter holder, so I only need one type of filter for all my lenses.
EDITING AND SOUND
The architecture of storytelling should begin with a “killer opener.” Don’t save the best for last. A compelling shot will draw your viewer in, whether it be your family members or a theater full of people.
Apple Final Cut Express has plenty of applications that will give videographers polished-looking pieces. For those who want to go further, the full version of Final Cut Pro is the logical next step. For Windows users, Premiere is Adobe’s version of this video-editing software.
The key to mixing sound in your edit is to use your eyes on levels, not your ears on your computer’s speakers. A good starting point is to have dialogue between -6 dB and -12 dB and background “wild sound” and music between -15 dB and -18 dB.
The addition of music is a great way to create an ambience and flow for a travel video. Every culture has its unique music style, so I match the music to the location. If you’re going to have any commercial usage for your final product, make sure to have the rights to use that music. The web is full of sites that offer music at nominal fees.
After your piece is edited together, watch the finished product and write out a script that can be used for a voice-over. Recording high-quality audio into the computer requires an external mic. I record my narration using a Snowball microphone plugged into my MacBook Pro and recorded in Final Cut Pro.
Whether shooting halfway around the globe or in your own backyard, being involved in every aspect of your solo video production will help create a more disciplined eye and make you a more focused storyteller. Be prepared to take your bows.
Portable Light For Video
Measuring 3.3×3.3×1.5 inches, the Litepanels Micro is powered by four AA batteries (runs 1.5 hours on four alkaline AA batteries or seven to eight hours on e2 Lithium AA batteries) for location work or by a 5-12V input jack located on the back of the unit. A flip-down filter holder allows for work with color and diffusion gels. The Litepanels Micro’s housing has a camera shoe featuring an adjustable tilt mechanism.
ikan’s iLED 150, with its built-in battery mount and small size, puts out an impressive 60 LUX, especially when taking into consideration its compact size of 6×3.25×1.375 inches and weight of 0.85 pounds with battery. The iLED kit comes with three color-correction gels, AC adapter, battery and charger, and camera-shoe mount.
Powered by AC or by battery, the Lowel Blender, with a 4x3x3-inch lamphead, is another option. It has two sets of LEDs, one in tungsten and one in daylight color, in one unit that can be blended to match mixed light sources. Rotary dimmer controls for each are located on the back of the fixture. It comes with a set of front diffusers for softening the light output.