Getting Started: Artistic Vision

Here you are, watching the last video you made, wondering why it looks
so dull. It’s not that the video is bad, far from it; it’s quite competent–good
lighting, textbook composition, adequate sound–it’s just unmemorable. There’s
no vision; there’s nothing powerful or unique or revealing about it. It’s
good, but it’s not ART.

Now wait a minute, you protest, I wasn’t trying to make ART. That may be
so, but a little visual style can benefit every video and you don’t have
to be a professional to create strong, memorable, artistic videos. Although
some artsy effects can only be accomplished through the use of computers
and editing equipment, most are simply created through camera technique.
So whether you are trying to add interest and excitement to a family video
or give an industrial tape an aesthetic edge, you can use the same techniques
as the pros to give your videos that memorable, artistic look.

Ten "Artistic" Camera Techniques

While all video techniques help you add style and interest to your videos,
any professional can tell you that the real key to artistic images is in
the camera. Even the most mundane shots can be made visually exciting through
expressive camera movement, composition and simple effects. It’s all about
looking at the world through new eyes and using the medium to express what
you see. These easy camera techniques and effects you can perform are guaranteed
to add a little more artistic vision to your videos.

1. Tilted Angles

Do you remember when you first started shooting and the goal was to keep
the camera straight and square, to match up those parallel lines? Well,
creative types say forget it. If you want to create a dynamic, artsy effect,
try tilting the camera slightly, so that you use the diagonal lines in the
frame, not the parallel ones. Canted angles are useful for interviews, action
shots and even stills. While it may feel odd to turn the camera sideways,
you’ll be amazed how much more exciting and artistic Aunt Augusta’s interview
looks this way.

2. High and Low Angles

Many new videographers shoot everything at eye-level. Why? Because that’s
the way most of us look at the world. But artistic videographers look at
the world from a different vantage point. If you want to add an artistic
edge to your videos, try changing angles. Climb up on a chair to shoot a
birthday party scene or lie down on the ground for a whole new look at a
family picnic. You’ll never shoot at eye-level again.

3. Extreme Close-ups

Most often, interviews are shot in the standard head-and-shoulders close-up,
but you can add some artistic flair by going a little closer and filling
the frame from top-to-bottom, side-to-side with the subject’s face. Shooting
a family gathering or event? Get close to your subjects; move in on the
details; get intimate with your Uncle Fred. There’s nothing more memorable
than finely rendered detail, so use the widest angle you can and get up
close and personal.

4. Off-center Framing

Although traditional rules of composition teach us to balance our frames
and keep things centered, it is often more dynamic and interesting to create
a frame that is unbalanced or off-center. The next time you set up an interview
or a scene try moving your subject off to one side of the frame. If you
combine this technique with an extreme close-up, a canted angle or a different
point of view, you’ll have a very dramatic, artistic shot.

5. Focus Dissolves and Swish Pans

In-camera transitions are tricky and most experienced videographers rarely
use them, but if you want to create an artistic transition without editing,
try a manual focus dissolve. Here’s how it works: When cutting from one
shot to the next, zoom slowly all the way in on your subject and rack focus
to make it completely blurry. Then cut. Before recording your next shot,
zoom all the way in on your new subject and go out of focus. Begin recording,
zoom slowly out and adjust your focus until your image is framed and clear.
The result is a smooth, unusual and highly artistic transition without fancy
editing equipment.

A more common in-camera transition is the swish pan. While swish pans take
practice to avoid making you and your audience feel nauseous, they can be
very effective. Instead of cutting from your nephew and his bride to the
wedding cake, pan quickly from subject to subject and add instant energy
and artistry to the scene. You can also use swish pans like focus dissolves,
cutting in the middle of your fast pan and starting your new shot with a
fast pan in the same direction.

6. Shaky Camera

The shaky camera effect is very popular these days because it gives the
viewer an illusion of intimacy and immediacy. But there’s a big difference
between artistic shakiness and bad camera work. It takes some skill to make
a shaky camera look natural without making the viewer feel queasy. To give
your video that artistic shake, stand still with the camera on your shoulder
or held firmly with both hands. Rock it back and forth very gently and rhythmically
in a square or rectangular shape, alternating your direction and angle across
the frame. Don’t move much; a little goes a long way. You may want to try
zooming in and out briefly or moving a few steps forward or back to give
the scene a "home movie" feel. But be careful not to move too
quickly or make your movements too big or you run the risk of giving the
impression of sloppy camera work, not art.

7. Overexposure or Gain

If your camera has a manual aperture function or a gain control, you can
use them to give a very unusual look to your videos. Open your aperture
slightly in a well-lit scene and you create an overexposed, dream-like quality.
Raise the gain in an underlit scene and you give your video a grainy, gritty
feel. Combine these techniques with tinting or black and white and you create
the illusion of an old-time film. Add a shaky camera and it’s a newsreel.
Use a focus dissolve and you have a very artistic supernatural sequence.
The possibilities are endless here and the best part is that you don’t need
any fancy lights to make your artistic statement.

8. Tinting and B&W

A sure-fire way to give your video that artistic edge is to alter the color
of the image either by changing the tint or shooting in black and white.
Many cameras will allow you to do this while you are shooting, but if your
camera can’t, you can purchase a colored filter for your lens. Going for
that historical feel? Try sepia. Want your video to look serious? Go to
black and white. Need a romantic or melancholy mood? Tint either red or
blue. But remember that you can’t change the color back to normal once the
scene has been shot, so think carefully before you colorize.

9. Strobe

Strobe is a favorite technique in music videos and when used in conjunction
with action or movement, it appears to slow the action down or give it the
illusion of speed. If your camera has a strobe function, try it out. If
it doesn’t, try using a higher shutter speed (1/2000 or above). Used sparingly,
these effects can make that winning touchdown more dramatic or the bride’s
entrance more spectacular. You can also use strobe in combination with gain
and black and white to give your video a grainy, artsy "film look."

Tracer and slow motion effects, both of which change the pace of the action,
can also make an ordinary scene more artistic. Next time you’re shooting
a scene with action, try these effects for a guaranteed touch of artistry.

10. Freeze Frames

While most professional freeze frames are done in post-production, you can
use the freeze frame function on your camcorder to give your video an artsy
look. Freezing a shot is a great way to end a scene or begin one and can
even be used in interviews as the subject speaks over the still image. It’s
also useful when shooting photographs, but be careful as freezing an image
adds some digital grain. Some camcorders will allow you to do a freeze frame
dissolve between a still image and a moving one, which is another powerful,
edit-free, artistic transition technique.

Once you start experimenting with these camera techniques and effects,
you will find your videos becoming more interesting to watch and more fun
to shoot. But as gratifying and tempting as these techniques and effects
can be, be careful not to overdo them. Creative videographers know that
too many tricks make the whole piece look amateurish. But if you use them
wisely and selectively you will be surprised to see how much artistic vision
you really have.

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