You can save stress and set yourself up for success by investing a small amount of time in pre-production preparation.
The big day has arrived and you're ready to shoot. Wait. Are you sure? As any good scout will tell you, the secret to success is to be prepared. As a video production manager, the best tool I've found to insure my crew is perfectly prepared every time we roll is a pre-shoot checklist. If you aren't working from a checklist, you're putting your productions at risk. So make a list and check it twice. While I create custom production-specific checklists for each of our major shoots, there are a few things that always stay on every one of my lists, and they should be on yours too.
1. Test Your Gear
Just because your tools worked last time doesn't guarantee it will work this time, so always take time to pull out all of your gear and put it through its paces a day or two before your shoot. Do it every time with every piece of equipment: camera, lights, mics, monitors... all of it. It's important to test your gear in advance of the shoot so you have time to make repairs or find replacements in case you do discover any defects.
2. Check Your Charges
It takes several hours to refresh the charge on your camcorder batteries, so this is another task that needs to begin a day or two in advance of your shoot. I like to carry at least two charged batteries per camera; preferably three. Preparing your power supplies doesn't end with charging your camcorder batteries, you should charge or replace all of the batteries in every battery-powered device at the beginning of every shoot, and always carry extras. Make a habit of replacing your 9-volt and AA batteries as a regular part of your shoot prep.
3. Prep Your Media
Depending on the type of camera you shoot with, prepping your media may mean buying tape or clearing off your digital media cards or hard drives to make sure you have room to record. Allow adequate time for this task, just in case you need time to transfer media off the cards before swiping them clean.
4. Make and Print Your Plans
There's a wise old production adage that says you should plan your shoot. In practical terms, this means creating and working from scripts, schedules and shot lists. Anyone who shows up at a shoot planning to "wing it" without a strategic plan is putting the production at risk. Even when covering an unscripted event, the wise shooter can anticipate certain events and activities that are must-have moments. So take the time to make a plan and remember to take your plan.
5. Pack Your Bag
A checklist is also an important part of packing your gear bags before you leave home base. This should include everything you need to pull off your shoot. Things like your camera, tripod, microphones, cables, headphones, reflectors, gaffer's tape, and those charged batteries that we talked about earlier. When it goes in the bag or in the car, check it off the list. Never assume you have it if you haven't checked it off.
6. Clean Your Lens
Once you're on set, your prep work isn't done. There are a couple important things to do before you roll. One of the simplest is to clean your lens with a lens tissue. I have two tips for you here: 1 - always clean the lens before you shoot. Always. I can't tell you how many times I have seen beautiful footage corrupted by dusty, streaky, dirty lenses. Always wipe your lens. 2 - Your lens is very sensitive to abrasives, so only clean it with a genuine lens cloth designed for cleaning camera lenses. Don't use a facial tissue... or your sleeve.
7. Check Your Focus
The last essential thing to do before you tap that little red record button with your itchy trigger finger is set your focus. Always set your focus at a full telephoto zoom. If you are shooting a person, zoom all the way in on the eyes, take the camera all the way out of focus, and then slowly bring it back in until the specular highlights (those gleaming white reflections of light in the eyes) are crisp and clear. If you are shooting more than one subject, focus on the one farthest from the camera. Once the focus is set, don't touch it again. As you zoom back to a wide angle setting everything between your subject and the camera will stay sharp as you zoom out, and when you decide to zoom back in, it will still be sharp.
You can save yourself a great deal of stress and set yourself up for more successful shoots by investing a small amount of time in pre-production preparation. While these seven tips will get you started, don't stop here. Customize this list to make it your own, and be as prepared as you can be.
Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy award winning writer and producer. He is currently VP of Production at KIDMO/Rivet Productions.