Videography and Digital video tips

Some videography tips to improve your digital productions (you should also check out some YouTube video ideas):

1. Use manual focus

All cameras have automatic focus, but you should avoid using it if possible, because you will inevitably get “focus hunting”, with the camera constantly switching focus from one plane to another.

So, switch the camera to manual focus and get into the habit of using the following technique on every shot: zoom in all the way on the subject, pull focus, then pull back to get the framing you want. In this way, focus will be perfect, because the longest end of the zoom has the smallest depth of field tolerance.

2. Don’t overexpose the highlights when shooting digital video

The overwhelming majority of videos have highlights that are brutally overexposed. Overexposing the highlights is something you simply cannot get away with in digital cinematography, because the loss of detail is too ugly and it immediately singles out your footage as incompetently shot.

To avoid this, use your camera’s zebra pattern (if it has this option) and reduce the aperture until the zebra pattern warning is absent. This might result in murky shadows, but it is far better than having burned-out highlights, and you can marginally improve the look of under-exposed shadows or mid-tones in post-production. When shooting digital video, expose for the highlights and let the shadows take care of themselves.

Over-exposed highlights are so intolerably ugly in digital video, and so rampant these days, that taking care to avoid them will make your work stand out favorably, especially among other professionals. That said, there is an exception to this recommendation: if most of your frame consists of midtones and the highlights occupy a comparatively small area, you may prefer to expose for the midtones and let the highlights burn out. Sometimes this produces good results, sometimes it doesn’t. You must learn to tweak the exposure instinctively. The correct choice depends on the relative brightness of the midtones and highlights, and on their relative abundance in the frame. A tiny over-exposed area is sometimes acceptable; just avoid having the bright side of a person’s face completely blown out.

Of course, in such situations the root of the problem is excessive contrast, so the best solution, when possible, is to use fill light to reduce contrast and bring up the mid-tones and shadows. In this way nothing in the frame will be excessively under- or over-exposed. This is also why, when shooting exteriors, shooting in the morning or late afternoon is better than shooting in the middle of the day: the sun will be lower on the horizon and the light will be less harsh, with less overall contrast.

3. Use lights and reflectors on your video shoots

Even if you’re not into fancy lighting and making your videos look like film, you should still have access to some lights and/or reflectors when you shoot video. The reason for this is that sometimes the only way to get professional results is to reduce contrast by using some frontal diffuse light (fill light). This can be provided by a light with diffusion material in front of it, or by bouncing light off a piece of white card. Without fill light, you are left to choose between dark mid-tones or over-exposed highlights (you should definitely go for the first option, unless the highlights occupy a small area of the screen, in which case it might be better to sacrifice them).

4. Hold your camcorder with two hands

A simple tip for those using small camcorders, of which there are now many fine models on the market: hold it with two hands when shooting, not one; it will give you a steadier image. You can use one hand to hold it behind the strap, with the other hand placed under the camera and in front, right below the lens. A simple technique, but one which is often overlooked by beginning videographers.

5. Plan your shots – produce a shot list

Apart from its obvious value as a checklist, producing a shot list will make you think long and hard about what you hope to achieve during the shoot, and you might conceive shots you would not otherwise have thought of.

You should produce a shot list even if you are shooting an unpredictable, intrinsically difficult event, such as a car race.

That said, when shooting such events keep your eyes and your mind open and learn to react quickly with correct framing and focusing: I filmed some of my favorite shots on the spur of the moment, with a handheld camera and an instant framing decision. But such shots are a bonus and you cannot rely on that; a good shot list will ensure that you make the most of your shoot and will result in superior video production.

6. Shoot for the edit

Even if your aspirations are not particularly cinematic, understanding how editing works and what makes a good cut will make you a far better videographer. Learn the basics of editing and design your shots in such a way that they can be cut together smoothly in post-production. The section on film editing tips might start you off in the right direction.

7. For top results, use advanced grip equipment: cranes, dollies, stabilizers

For many video shoots a good fluid head tripod will suffice, but if you want top results and an impressive reel, you should consider using more varied camera support systems, such as dollies, cranes and stabilizers. There are many lightweight dollies, cranes and Steadicam-like systems that were specifically designed for small camcorders and that can be operated by a single person (although the cranes sometimes need two people to be set up). These can all produce great results if you choose the right model and practice using it smoothly. Your video production will greatly benefit from the judicious use of advanced camera support systems.

Should the look of a video be achieved by tweaking camera settings or should it be done in post-production? A reader’s question:

Please take a look at this video:

The colouring for me is beautiful. For DSLR users, is this something you can do by the use of picture style settings to achieve this? Like saturation, contrast etc. or is it something to do in colour correction in the post production process?

My answer:

I love the look of this video — good choice! Do you see what gives it the look we both apparently love? The dark tones are rich, the colours are saturated, the whites are bright, but without the cheap blown-out look that regular video can have. It reminds me of the look used by Tony Scott (Ridley Scott’s brother).

My answer to your question is this: you should always seek to shoot video in the cleanest way possible, and then achieve the look you want in post-production. In this way you capture clean data when you shoot, and then subsequently manipulate the data in any way you like.

The reason for this is that there is no look that you can achieve in-camera that you cannot also achieve in post-production.

More importantly, by tweaking the look in-camera you are potentially losing data and limiting your options in post-production. The priority while shooting is to capture as much data as possible.

A note of caution: when I write “shoot it clean and get the look in post-production,” I am ONLY referring to colour balance and subtle contrast and brightness issues. The actual lighting style can ONLY be tweaked when you shoot, so you must get that particular aspect of the look in production. I am referring to shadows, the direction and quality of the light, and so on. If you shoot with flat lighting, you will not be able to get a film noir look in post-production. Some computer nuts might argue that these days you can do anything in post-production, but that is NOT real filmmaking and I will have nothing to do with it.

For the sake of completeness I will add that, ironically, before the advent of the RED camera and the new DSLR cameras, when we used to shoot with regular Mini DV cameras, the opposite was true: the closer you got to the final look while shooting, the less you had to manipulate the video in post-production and the better it looked. I remember shooting a music video and a PSA where we creatively colour-balanced while we were shooting, to the extent that some shots required no grading in post-production, except perhaps darkening the shadows a little. It was a sub-optimal approach made necessary by an inherently mediocre format. Now, with the RED camera, we shoot as it is really supposed to be done: focus on lighting and camerawork while you shoot, and worry about grading and tweaking the look in post-production, using proper tools like Apple Color.

I will finish off by offering some quick tips on how I think the look was achieved in the video above:

– colour saturation was increased

– the dark tones were darkened

– the highlights were brightened (in this video I cannot tell how well they pulled it off, but in real grading the whites should never be blown out)

– some magenta and green was taken out.

I hope this helps!

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