Getting Started: The Seven Deadly Camera Sins

Follow these easy guidelines for video you'll be proud of.

Good programs start with good camera work. No matter how carefully you plan a show or how assiduously you edit, you can't make a good video out of lousy footage. Garbage in, garbage out, to coin a phrase.

Quality video recording is surprisingly easy to do, as long as you tread the path of video virtue by avoiding the seven deadly sins of camera operation. So, without further ado, here they are.

Firehosing

Firehosing means turning the camera on and then aiming it vaguely at one thing for a moment before wavering off to inspect something else and then sweeping around to almost frame a composition but not quite because the fickle camera has already wobbled on to its next non-frame....

In short, firehosing is the sin of not knowing what you want to shoot. You just sort of wave the camera around in the hope of occasionally capturing something. The resulting footage irritates viewers because it never stays on anything long enough to see it properly. The constant, random motion could upset the innards of a tuna boat skipper.

To avoid this most common of all camera sins, simply frame each shot before you roll tape. Shoot long enough so that viewers can make sense of the image, and stop the camcorder before framing the next shot. If you edit your footage (and you really should, you know) it's okay to keep rolling while waggling your way from shot A to shot B because you will delete the firehosing between the two when you edit.

What if you really want to pan, tilt, or zoom between compositions to show the relationship between them? In that case, start by framing, but not shooting, a rehearsal composition of shot B. Then set up shot A, lay down the footage, and move smoothly and decisively to frame shot B. Your viewers will accept and enjoy the move because it looks planned and well executed.

Snapshooting

Snapshooting means making shots too short to view comfortably--shots suitable only for a machine-gun car commercial or a hyper music video.

Snapshooting results from two bad habits: unconsciously treating the camcorder like a still camera, and failing to shoot head and tail footage. Many Getting Starters come to video via still photography, and the habit of point-and-click is hard to abandon in the very different medium of video.

Unless you edit in the camera, it is essential that you roll tape at least three or four seconds before the action you want and another three or four after it apparently ends. There are two important reasons for shooting this bookend material:

  • Leading footage starts recording a control track before the essential action begins. In editing, that track will display timecode numbers so that you can cue the shot to hit a precise edit point.
  • Bookend footage offers you leeway in adjusting start and end points for the edited shot. Perhaps two times out of five you will want to trim the footage differently from the way you imagined it when you recorded it. Without head and tail footage, you're stuck with the edit choices you made on the fly.

Headhunting

Headhunting is the practice of framing subjects so that their eyes are in the exact center of the image: half- way down from the top and half-way in from the sides. It's called headhunting because the resulting composition looks like the picture in a gun sight. (Ouch!)

Centering people is natural because that's the way we look at them in real life, eyeball to eyeball (unless we're selling them TVs off the back of a truck). But our human vision does not have an unforgiving border around it like the frame around a video image. Like it or not, that frame turns raw visual information into a pictorial composition; and a composition that centers the eyes looks, well, dumb.

As a rule of thumb, or maybe nose, keep the subject's eyes on or above an imaginary horizontal line drawn one-third of the way down from the top of the frame. Interestingly, this one-third eye rule works with most image sizes between full shot (entire standing body) and big closeup (forehead through bottom of chin).

Backlighting

Backlighting is the sin of posing the subject (usually one or more people) in front of the sky or a ski slope or a body of water so that the important foreground is much darker than the unimportant background.

When this happens, the tiny brain of the camcorder's auto exposure system detects the bright background and sets the exposure for it instead of for your subjects. They become inky silhouettes.

Before you can take steps to prevent backlighting, you have to notice that it's happening; so, for goodness sake, study the image in your viewfinder. If it does not clearly show detail in people's faces or other important foreground elements, you've got yourself a bad case of backlighting.

You can fix backlighting by enabling the backlight compensation circuitry in your camcorder, or by lightening the foreground with reflector fill. But these solutions can be chancy for Getting Starters:

  • Most backlight controls are unable to gauge the difference between background and foreground, so the amount of compensation is seldom accurate.
  • Reflectors demand a modest amount of practice to master--though they are really easy, cheap, and fun to use.

No, the simplest solution to backlighting is to move camcorder and subjects until the foreground of your shot is at least as bright as the background. To eliminate sky, start by shooting from a higher camera position. At the beach, simply turn away from the glare off the water.

Motorzooming

Motorzooming is the sin of, well, zooming. No matter how nifty your wide-range, multi-speed, auto- zoom feature may be, the fact is that on-screen zooms are a dull waste of viewer time and professionals don't use them except in two circumstances:

  • Real-time coverage like news and sports, when the need to keep an image on the screen mandates zooming between compositions.
  • Situations that require a progressive revelation of the image: The dark figure at the door pulls a sinister tool from her pocket. We zoom in to reveal that it is... her door key!

If you have a zoom lens, zooming is inescapable because it's the only way to change image size without physically moving forward or back. But plan your shots to eliminate these zooms. If editing in the camera, zoom to recompose your image between shots. If you're going to edit your footage later, zoom as quickly as possible between compositions, knowing that you'll leave the zooms on the cutting room floor.

Upstanding

Upstanding is the somewhat subtler sin of shooting everything from standing eye level, even though much of the world is better viewed from higher or lower angles.

So, as the man says, get down! Shoot children, pets, flowers, and other lowly critters from their own levels. All camcorders allow you to put the unit right on the ground and view the image by tilting the viewfinder upward.

Full-size VHS camcorders let you tilt the finder down as well. You can raise the camcorder high in the air for dramatic establishing shots and footage grabbed over the heads of crowds.

And even if the subject doesn't require it, a new angle makes a welcome change from the endless progression of eye-level shots.

Jogging

Jogging is the sin of walking while shooting. Joggers give no thought to the fact that the image is bouncing around like a milk can in the bed of a Model T.

Moving shots are dramatic and exciting, so go for them! But to ensure that most of the movement is forward rather than up and down, observe these simple rules for hand-held shooting:

  • Zoom the lens to its wide-angle setting to minimize shake. The telephoto position magnifies the jitters along with everything else.
  • Don't touch the viewfinder with your forehead (a snap if you have an LCD screen finder).
  • Walk with both knees and elbows bent so that your arms and legs act as natural shock absorbers.
  • Move much more slowly than normal, so that the scene passing your lens has a chance to register with viewers.
  • Pretend the camcorder you're carrying is a very full, very hot cup of coffee--and you'd better not spill a drop!

Deadlier Than the Average Sin

Are all seven camera sins equally deadly? Not really.

  • Avoid firehosing and snapshooting and you'll upgrade your footage from unwatchable to presentable.
  • Eschew headhunting and backlighting and you graduate from newbie status.
  • Banish motorzooming, upstanding, and jogging and you'll find that without even noticing, you've become quite a skilled videographer.

Good shooting!

Issue: 

Jim
Stinson
Tue, 04/01/1997 - 12:00am