If you come from a still background, like I do, you may think shooting video with your digital still camera is as simple as hitting the record button. Nothing could be further from the truth! Yes, you’ll capture some video, but the quality will be similar to when you first started shooting still images. Video capture has some similarities to still capture, but many aspects are different. Stay in touch with your creative sense of composition, but learn proper video technique and your movie quality will rapidly improve.
Over the last year, I’ve been shooting video on various projects. Initially, the learning curve was really steep, but now I have things running smoothly. As a photographer who I once assisted told me, “Learn by my mistakes.” Following is a list of 10 tips for producing better DSLR video. Give these a try, and you should be producing good video in no time.
1. Use a tripod.
The biggest indicator of amateur video is a shaky shot. Stabilizing your shot is the first step to improving your video. Even though it’s easy to grab the camera and start shooting, your video will suffer.
With still images, you’re working with one frame. If your shutter speed is fast enough, you’ll have a sharp shot. But with video, you’re working with thousands of frames shooting in real time, so camera movements will show up in the video. Fix this problem by getting a solid tripod with a good head. The best heads for video are those like the Manfrotto 701HDV, which allows you to pan smoothly during a shot. If you already have a ballhead for still shooting, tighten the head so there’s no movement during video shots.
Stabilized lenses are also helpful for getting steadier footage, though a tripod is still better. If you’re in a pinch and don’t have a tripod, try holding the camera extended in front of you with the camera strap tight against your neck. This gives a little more stability than just supporting the camera in your hands.
2. Use a video support system for moving shots.
For moving shots, use a rig designed to support your camera in a video camera fashion. I use the Captain Stubling by Redrock Micro. This handy support system allows me to hold my Nikon D3S at eye level with great stability. Better yet, the follow-focus mechanism ensures silky-lgooth manual focus during shots. The Stubling is perfect for moving shots or shooting from precarious locations where tripods won’t work. The Redrock Micro system has many configurations and works with most cameras.
Another option for moving shots is the Glidetrack, a three-foot rail system that mounts to your tripod or can be put on the ground. Your camera is mounted on a slider bar that runs smoothly along the track. As you take footage, you slowly push your camera along the track, resulting in smooth panning movements.
3. Use a focus-assist eyepiece.
Since video is shot using Live View with your camera, you need to watch your LCD screen to check focus. Some cameras have autofocus in video mode, but this contrast-based system is typically slower than the still frame autofocus system. Whether you use autofocus or manual focus, if you can’t see your LCD screen clearly, you won’t be able to check focus. There are a number of companies that produce focusing loupes to solve this problem. I use the Hoodman HoodLoupe with the hot-shoe mount that holds the loupe over the LCD screen. This loupe is essential to check focus, especially outside with bright sun. When I use the Stubling, this loupe is positioned right at my eye so I can focus with moving shots.
4. Create a storyboard.
A storyboard helps you organize your video shoot and fosters creativity in your coverage. Before I shoot any video, I write down what the story is about, the scenes that need to be included, the best camera angles to use and what other media I may use, such as stills and audio. During this storyboard process, I often come up with new angles and ideas to cover certain shots.
Storyboards give you focus and efficiency when you’re shooting. If you’re working with models or people, this efficiency will be appreciated by all. Don’t randomly take video on a shoot because that’s how it will play back—randomly and scattered, quickly losing the viewer’s attention. Come with a storyboard plan, but always stay open to spontaneous ideas and angles that arise on the shoot. Shoot lots of B-roll footage, “scene setters” that support the main story. This footage can be edited into the final video and round out the story.
5. Seek out good light.
Most of the lighting principles that apply to still photography are the same for video. Try to shoot with warm evening or morning light, and avoid harsh, midday sunny conditions. Many of the light modifiers you use to create nice light for still shooting are the same with video shooting. Reflectors, overhead silks and softboxes are all used in video production. Since video is shooting continuous frames, lights have to be continuous sources. A small, powerful video light is the Litepanels MicroPro. It’s a lightweight LED light that attaches to your hot-shoe, is powered by AA batteries and puts out an amazing amount of light. I often put my MicroPro on a Manfrotto Justin Clamp attached to a light stand. This allows me to position the light at a nice high angle to my subject. If you’re shooting with overhead sun, try putting your subject in the shade or use an overhead diffusion silk to soften the light.
6. Use a variety of shots.
Video shooting involves what videographers call wide, medium and close-up shots. Just as these terms describe, you want to use a variety of angles and compositions to make your video interesting. Mix up wide-angle shots with close-ups and medium shots; they give your video better coverage quality and make it more interesting to the viewer.
Don’t simply put your camera on a tripod and then shoot the entire movie from one angle. Try putting your camera at ground level or up high for a fresh perspective. Shooting from different angles makes the video “snappy.” Try some shots with your telephoto, and shoot other clips with your wide-angle lens. These different angles and perspectives give you more creative options when editing the final piece.
7. Try selective focus.
Using selective focus is a subjective choice, but it allows you to utilize one of the benefits of still camera video: the ability to use your existing lenses. Many camcorders don’t have the option of using wide-open apertures like ƒ/2.8, which gives soft, silky backgrounds with its shallow depth of field. This soft background effect is a great way to make video clips more dramatic and interesting. You can take this technique even further if you own a tilt-shift lens. Swing the lens left or right, set the aperture at ƒ/2.8, and you’ll have a really soft-focus shot with only one side of the frame sharp.
8. Shoot short clips.
A common beginner’s mistake is the “endless take.” This refers to shooting a long time on the same scene with no breaks. For some situations, like an interview, this may be appropriate. But if you’re covering an event, don’t let the camera run on and on for one shot. Move positions, shoot another clip, and move to the next location. A storyboard gives you a great shot list to follow and keeps the production moving along.
What’s the minimum length of a clip? Shoot at least 10 seconds of video for each shot. Clips shorter than 10 seconds may not allow the use of video transitions in editing. Ten seconds may seem like a long time, but make sure each shot is at least this length. Short clips also make the editing process easier. Rather than trying to find one moment in a 10-minute clip, you can preview short clips faster. Find your clip, label it, and add this to your media file for quick reference during editing.
9. What about audio?
Most producers agree that the picture is only one half of a good video. Audio is equally as important. Still cameras have audio recording, but currently it’s very limited and the sound quality isn’t terrific. To remedy this, you need to use a good-quality microphone or a portable recorder. RØDE Microphones makes the VideoMic, a hot-shoe-mounted shotgun mic that plugs right into the mini-jack on your camera. The VideoMic uses a 9V battery and records excellent sound, a huge improvement over your camera’s built-in mic.
I often use a portable recorder like the Samson Zoom H2. This device records amazing sound, is very small and portable, and is great for recording interviews or background sounds to accompany your video. These sound files are then downloaded to your computer and edited into the final video. The VideoMic records dedicated sound to your video clips, while a portable recorder like the Zoom H2 records sound files that have to be synced with your video. Either way, getting a good microphone or portable recorder will greatly improve the quality of your video.
10. Use fast flash cards.
Video files are huge, much larger than still images; 24 or 30 fps is normal, resulting in large files very fast. One performance issue in recording video is the write speed and size of your media card. If you use a slow card, your video may not record properly. If you use a small flash card, you’ll fill it up quickly and have to change out cards. I like to use cards 300x and faster and at least 8 GB. These cards cost more, but are worth it in terms of video-recording performance.
If you have a digital still camera that has video capability, but you have ignored it until now, go out and shoot some video. You may be surprised at the quality, and you may have more fun than you think directing your own movie.