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 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 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 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
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 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 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
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 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
- Move much more slowly than normal, so that the scene passing your lens has a chance to register
- 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
- 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.