You don’t have to travel to Europe or the Amazon to enjoy the thrill of outdoor video producing. The USA is brim-packed with opportunities to hone and display your outdoor video skills.
From a pee-wee league ball game in your neighborhood to a Buffalo herd in Yellowstone Park, from a backyard barbecue to a Civil War battlefield, the opportunities are all around us.
But outdoor video carries with it a unique set of challenges. Learning to meet these challenges in the special world of the outdoors is something every videographer should work on. In this article, we will discuss planning and techniques you can use to capture good outdoor video.
Prepare for Outdoor Conditions
Basically, the same rules for shooting good video indoors also apply to video shot outdoors. There are, however, some important differences between the two.
Interior shots offer a lot of consistency in conditions. But venture outdoors and everything can change. A sudden rainstorm can ruin a shoot, and harm equipment. A burst of wind can destroy well-planned audio. A quick change in temperature can trigger the camcorder’s dew-protection system, leaving your camcorder unusable. If your shoot is important enough, plan it with these possible conditions in mind.
First, do the obvious and check the weather before your shoot. Official weather predictions can be wrong, but are more often right. If the chance of rain is high, prepare to either cancel the shoot or work around it. If you do decide to shoot in bad weather, adapt your camera to it. Commercial rain gear is sold for many cameras. These are soft but strong plastic enclosures that protect equipment from moisture and even have hand-holes for accessing controls. Some people use an underwater housing (soft or hard) to protect their camera in downpours.
And don’t forget wet gear for yourself. Get yourself an inexpensive disposable raincoat with a hood at a sporting-goods shop or the sporting goods section of your nearest discount center. These raincoats fold up smaller than an envelope, and can fit an one of the side pockets of your camera case. If you expect tougher outdoor weather, dress accordingly.
Dropping your equipment into salt water can ruin it beyond repair. An underwater housing can be a great idea, even when shooting on the water’s surface.
Outdoor shooting sometimes takes you to unfamiliar territory. Don’t rush. For example, when you’re up to your knees in water, don’t run with your expensive equipment. Losing an occasional shot beats losing your equipment.
Pack a Survival Kit
Put together a camera kit for your outdoor shoots. Your camcorder’s custom hard case may offer the best camera protection, but quick access can be a problem. And though these cases hold the camcorder well, they never seem to have enough room for accessories. A sturdy soft bag is your best bet. Keep your camcorder in the central and most protected position in the bag, but do this in a way that allows quick access for any surprise shots. Some videographers take the original Styrofoam molding from their camcorder’s box and trim it to fit into the center section of the soft bag.
When outdoor shooters find a critical cable missing, there is no running into the next room to pick it up. Know what you need–and what you might need–ahead of time and bring it with you. You can integrate your outdoor survival kit into your camera bag by reserving separate sections of the bag for the camcorder, audio accessories, video accessories and power accessories.
In the audio-accessories section of your camera bag, pack at least one external mike and its associated connectors and adapters. The mike input on most camcorders is a stereo mini jack. Some external mikes have a stereo mini plug that matches this jack. But some mikes have different plugs, including XLR (or Canon) 3-pin, quarter-inch, and even micro. Mikes can be low or high impedance, balanced or unbalanced, and you must match these factors to your camcorder’s mike input. The best way to be prepared is to gather the various connectors and adapters you would need to bring just about any kind of audio into your camcorder’s mike input jack. Extension cables for your external mike are also handy to have.
At other times you might want to take sound from an external source, such as a mixing board at an outdoor concert. If your camcorder has line-level audio input(s), you can plug such a source directly into your camcorder. If not, you must reduce the line-level source to mike level with an attenuator cable or adapter. Radio Shack sells many of these adapters, including a handy little red 40db attenuator that reduces line level to mike level.
Finally, pack a compact set of headphones in your bag. Some of the new earplug-style headphones can really fit the bill.
Begin the video-accessory section of your survival kit with filters. Filters can open a whole new world to the videographer that is beyond this discussion. But at the very least, carry a polarizing filter. It is the single most important filter for outdoor shooting. It reduces glare from water or other reflective subjects, and in general can help manage contrast that gets to be too much for the camera to handle. Many videographers also carry a neutral-density filter to reduce light. This can also help reduce the depth of field. Some of the newest cameras include a built-in neutral-density filter. Learn when to use it outdoors.
Other video accessories you should pack include lens-care products: lens-cleaning fluid, no-lint lens tissue and a lens brush. And don’t rely on one tape, even when the shoot is short. Cassettes can fail and stop the shoot; extra tape is a must. RCA cables for dubbing or plugging into a monitor are also a must. And don’t forget an RF adapter for those times you may have to play video through an older TV without RCA jacks. Most new camcorders include this adapter. Also, carry a battery-operated light.
Your power-accessory section should contain batteries, an A/C adapter and battery charger, as well as a car cigarette-lighter adapter. Commercial battery companies sometimes sell adapters that will allow you to use store-bought double-A batteries to power your camera. It’s expensive, but in an emergency it can save a shoot.
Other accessories you should carry at all times include high-quality duct tape, a knife, a few small screwdrivers and needle-nosed pliers. You might need to do some emergency work on your equipment or on location, and the right tool can save the day.
A final word about your survival kit: if something in your kit is really essential, consider having a backup, or at least think through a "work around" for dealing with a breakdown of that piece.
Take Care of Your Gear–and Yourself
Excessive heat can ruin a camera almost as certainly as salt water. Don’t leave your camcorder in direct sunlight in a car, or in a car trunk. On hot days these places can become a furnace.
Don’t let the hot sun shine into your viewfinder for long periods. Some videographers have had their viewfinders warped by the heat.
"Safety first" should be your motto, especially when shooting in potentially dangerous conditions. Shooting a nice close-up of a rock climber is not worth broken limbs. Be especially careful around wildlife. There’s something about a camcorder that seems to make people braver than they should be. Videographers have lost their lives trying to capture wildlife shots. Use your zoom, stabilizer and tripod rather than getting too close to danger.
The availability of power indoors is not a major problem. When your batteries fail indoors, you can always use the A/C adapter. But A/C outlets are rarely available outdoors. And batteries rarely last as long as they should. With battery prices so high, one would hope to get a little more recording time for the money. But the reality is that the outdoor videographer must do whatever it takes to power his camcorder.
First, have enough batteries for the shoot, and make sure they’re fully charged. Also, buy a device that will charge batteries or run your camera from a cigarette lighter. If you’re going to do extensive outdoor shooting, look into one of the commercial battery packs that are available. You can often run your camcorder off of these belt packs with the same adapter you use to plug into your car’s cigarette lighter.
Second, when using batteries, do what you can to increase their staying power. If shooting intermittently, use your camera’s standby mode. Just get used to the amount of time needed to power-up and shoot. Also, use the manual focus whenever possible. Your camera’s autofocus will eat up precious battery power and drastically reduce your shooting time. Many cameras have an "instant" focus button, allowing you to engage autofocus just long enough to set focus. This feature will save power.
The World of Outdoor Color
Most light sources contain all the colors of the rainbow, but in different amounts. Incandescent bulbs give off more red light than blue light, so they have a reddish hue. Direct sunlight, on the other hand, has a bluish cast. On a street-scene shoot at dusk, for example, sunlight provides beautiful light for the shot. But as the sunlight fades, it’s replaced by different colored light from nearby houses and streetlights. A color viewfinder might reveal the problem, but a black-and-white viewfinder won’t. Even better than a color viewfinder is a small portable color monitor. If you can, carry one along and occasionally check the color of the scene you’re about to shoot. Once you recognize the problem, you can attempt to correct it.
If a color problem does exist, the easiest way to correct it is to adjust your camcorder’s white balance. White balance describes the way the camcorder interprets the colors in a light source. In order for your camera to render faithfully all of the colors it sees, you must adjust its white balance to match the predominant source of light in a given environment.
Virtually all camcorders have auto white balance. This feature continuously adjusts white balance while you shoot video, and produces reasonably good color. But unusual lighting conditions and mixed lighting conditions can sometimes fool your camcorder’s automatic white-balance system. Many camcorders have selectable white-balance settings, and some have manual white-balance and white-balance lock. These are very useful tools. If your camcorder has them, master them.
Manual white balance is fairly easy to use. First, place a white card or other white surface in the same light as your subject. Then point the camera’s lens at the card so the card fill’s the camera’s view. Finally, press and hold the camera’s white-balance button for a few seconds. The camera’s viewfinder will indicate when it has finished calibrating its white balance to the light source.
If you can’t adjust your camcorder’s white balance, or if there is mixed light in a scene, the easiest thing to do might be to just move the location of the shoot. With a little planning, you could work around the problem by scouting the location beforehand. If all else fails and you are forced to shoot in mixed lighting, try to keep the mix the same throughout the series of mixed-light shots.
Also keep in mind that you can deliberately misadjust your camera’s white balance to create unusual color effects. If you white balance your camera to a particular color, the overall look of the shoot will change. For example, if you white balance on a blue card instead of a white one, your colors will tend to have a reddish cast. Experimenting with white balance can provide useful effects that you can creatively incorporate into your productions.
Depth of Field
Depth of field is defined as the distance, measured from the camcorder’s lens, from the nearest object that appears in sharp focus to the furthest object that appears in sharp focus. For example: focus on a flower six feet away from the camera. With either short depth of field or long depth of field, the flower itself will be in focus. But with a long depth of field, more of the foreground and the background will also be in focus. If you choose a short depth of field, the foreground and background will be out of focus.
The three parameters that control depth of field are the iris, the distance to the subject, and the focal length of the lens. The smaller the iris opening, the bigger the depth of field. The larger the distance to the subject, the bigger the depth of field. And the shorter the focal length of the lens, the larger the depth of field.
The biggest problem for automatic camcorders involves exposure. Auto-exposure systems expose for the average amount of light in the frame. If all you have are auto controls, use less panning and tilting to avoid unexpected bright or dark images coming into view. As brighter or darker images come into view, the auto iris changes exposure, which can be irritating to the viewer. If panning or tilting the camera will cause an exposure jump, don’t do it. Simply stop recording and move the camera to a location from which you can shoot without exposure jumps.
Many videographers have cameras with manual features. For them, the world of light outdoors is full of possibilities. Your camera should have a manual exposure setting, and this feature should include a way of locking the exposure. If exposure is locked, and a bright object comes into the frame, the exposure will not change. Many pros lock exposure on every shot. Practice every shot if time allows. Your viewfinder will show you if contrast problems exist. Some videographers lock their iris while close framing their most important subject (e.g. a face) to keep exposure perfect on that subject no matter what else comes into the frame. Brighter objects in the scene may appear too bright, or even blown out, but the main subject remains properly exposed.
Many cameras today give you a choice of shutter speeds. Though 1/60 of a second is the normal setting, some camcorders allow settings of 1/4000 and beyond. Faster shutter speeds require more light, and more light is the gift the great outdoors will give you. A hummingbird shot at normal shutter speed will have wings that are a total blur on playback. But drastically increase your shutter speed and you will see each individual wingflap. If you play back the tape in slow motion later, the results can be beautiful.
Adjusting shutter speed can help you adjust depth of field. Daylight usually means your iris will close down, giving you greater depth of field. But what if you want a shallow depth of field? Simply increase your shutter speed and the automatic iris will open to compensate. If you want to get the same effect without touching the shutter speed, use a neutral density (ND) filter to cut down the incoming light.
Tiny viewfinders make focusing a challenge. Color viewfinders help with color, but often make focus more difficult than traditional black-and-white viewfinders. The standard technique for good focus is to zoom in close to your subject to focus, then zoom out to frame the subject as you choose. Some camcorders do not have a well-adjusted back focus, and focus changes as one zooms in and out. Test out your camera to check out its focus throughout the zoom range. If focus does change, you are better off focusing at whatever framing you decide to use.
Sometimes, a focus shift during shooting, or rack focus, can be very effective outdoors. Focus on a subject that is somewhat close, but place a second subject in the background. Keep your depth of field short enough to leave the background subject out of focus. Then, without moving the camcorder or touching the zoom rocker (a tripod is a must), shift focus mid-shot from one subject to another. This is a beautiful technique that outdoor television programs often use.
The Sound of the Great Outdoors
Don’t forget the audio in your outdoor video. In outdoor shooting, the audio often contributes as much to the impact as does the video. Take headphones along on your shoot and use them. Have you heard the horror story about the videographer who used an external mike with a mono plug and used it in his camcorder’s stereo jack? The sound shorted and didn’t record on tape. Since the videographer couldn’t monitor the sound, he lost the shoot.
An external mike is important in outdoor video because there is often a significant distance from the camcorder to the subject, and because you often can’t control ambient noise. A wired mike with a long cable, or a quality wireless mike, can be very helpful. Keep the mike close to the sound source. A quality shotgun mike can do some of this for you, but more often the best bet is just to get your mike in close.
Wind is probably the greatest challenge in outdoor audio. As wind blows across your microphone, it creates a low-pitched rumble that destroys the sound. If the wind is mild enough, you can sometimes overcome it. Use the camera’s "wind" position, or shield the mike with your hand or body.
Extreme wind is almost impossible to conquer. You might just shoot at another time. Or, shoot your video now and just ignore the audio. Run your camera again when the wind dies just to capture the audio. Add this "wild sound" to your video later. This can also help overcome the problem of getting the mike close. A tree full of birds might look best from 50 yards, but it might sound best from the foot of the tree.
Outdoor video can be challenging, fun and beautiful to behold. But shoots work best with careful planning, good equipment and techniques, as well as attention to common sense and safety.
Bruce Barrett is an independent film and video producer.
[SIDEBAR: Dew and You]
If you take an ice-cold drink from an air-conditioned hotel room in Mexico right out to the hot and humid beach, you’ll notice the "sweating effect" as moisture appears on the sides of the can. This same thing can happen inside your camcorder. Take your camcorder from the cool room onto that same beach you may suddenly see in your viewfinder a strange warning light you have not encountered before–just before the camera shuts down. The rapid change in temperature causes moisture to condense inside the camera on the metal parts and makes shooting impossible. That’s the dew sensor at work.
Some videographers never see this problem, but it can and does occur. Only time, and the gradual equalization of temperatures, can cure the problem. Try to avoid big temperature variations when time is critical. Keep your air conditioning low or off when driving to the beach. If you do encounter a dew problem, leave your camera’s tape door open to help evaporate the moisture.