There are many ways to make your video dull. We speak derisively of “talking heads” on television because they’re not exciting. It’s one thing to be in a room with someone who is talking for an hour, but it’s something entirely different to watch that as a single, unbroken video image. Unfortunately, natural selection doesn’t always decide who gets to make the video. As a videographer, you have an obligation not to bore your viewers and hopefully, you have the desire to make their viewing experience pleasurable. There are plenty of ways you can make your video more interesting with just camera placement, angles, and movement. Here are a few ideas.
1. Get down to their level
One of the most common mistakes made by videographers photographing pets and children is point of view. Adults see children and pets from a wholly different perspective than they see each other. Don’t be afraid to crouch down and shoot from the floor. Photographing a Chihuahua from five feet in the air is just plain lazy.
2. Plan for your background
More than making certain that a light pole isn’t growing from someone’s head, planning for your background might mean scouting locations before you start shooting and then moving your subjects into a more suitable area. Bad backgrounds can be “busy”–filled with complicated and confusing elements that distract from your subject. They can also be too bright, causing your subject to be backlit (shooting a subject on a shaded porch with a brightly-lit beach in the background, for example). A little time spent planning your shots can go a long way.
3. Use cutaways
If you’re going to be on one particular master shot for a long time–a bride and groom exchanging vows, for example–consider editing in some cutaways to break the monotony. Show some closeups of people in the audience, pan across the cars in the parking lot, a child fidgeting, or even closeups of the bride and groom’s faces, shot later. This means, don’t forget to shoot cutaways–the church windows, the spectacular ceiling, etc.–whenever you get the chance. Shoot more footage than you think you need. It may save you in the editing room.
4. Use wide or telephoto angles
Wide-angle and telephoto lenses have other properties than simply making things look closer or farther away; they also change the apparent distance between objects. A wide-angle lens will seem to increase the distance between an object in the foreground and another in the background; likewise, a telephoto lens will compress the distance and make objects in the frame appear to be closer together.
It’s common, for example, for movie makers to film dangerous looking car chases with a long telephoto lens to make the cars seem closer together, while in reality, there may have been thirty feet between the two cars in that “near miss.” Wide-angle lenses will make objects close to the lens appear larger than objects further back. You could, for example, have a child in the foreground who appears taller than an adult several feet back.
5. Use a natural frame
We like it when things are framed. It draws our interest and tells us where to focus our eyes. Doorways and windows make natural and obvious frames; train yourself to look for them in other places, too, like the crook of someone’s arm or the arch of a ladder.
6. Depth of field
This is a very important technique in making your images look professional. Depth of field is defined as the area in front of your camcorder that appears in sharp focus. This means that if you have a shallow depth of field, the foreground and background of your video will be out of focus when your subject appears sharp in the frame. Conversely, when you have a deep depth of field, elements in the foreground and background will appear in sharper focus along with your subject. You can control depth of field with your camcorder in several ways, but by far the most important of these is the aperture, or iris, setting. Small aperture settings (those with a large f-stop number, such as f22) have a very deep depth of field, whereas large aperture settings (with the smaller numbers, like f2.8) have a very shallow depth of field. If you don’t have the ability to control the aperture on your camcorder, you can trick your camera into thinking that it’s darker by putting a “neutral density” filter in front of the lens. This forces the camcorder’s automatic exposure system to open up the aperture a bit to compensate. Basically, a neutral density filter is just like the lens in a pair of sunglasses: it doesn’t change the color, it just makes things appear darker, tricking the auto-exposure system accordingly.
7. Avoid on-camera zooms
One thing that’s worse than a static shot on a tripod is a static shot on a tripod that zooms in and out. Zoom in, cut away to something else, zoom out. Unless your zoom is for effect, cover it up with a cutaway.
8. Try moving the camera
This doesn’t mean jerky, random, shaky camera work, which we see plenty of, but rather a smoother, more standard kind of camera move. Two basic camera movements are trucking and dollying. A dolly shot moves the camera in and out, towards or away from the subject, while trucking is moving the camera left or right while keeping it perpendicular to your subject. Try shooting out of a slow-moving car window (as a passenger, of course; don’t shoot while driving!) to track a moving subject, such as a jogger. Try moving through a crowd to create a “you are there” feeling.
9. Try an Unusual Camera Angle
Get down on the ground and shoot up, or put your camera on a monopod and hold it way over your head for an aerial perspective. Consider using staircases, ladders, or the upper story windows of buildings for vantage points to shoot from. Unusual perspectives can be intercut with more standard views to break up the monotony of a single shot.
10. Watch TV with a critical eye
When you’re watching television or movies, become aware of the production. How long does a director stay on a shot before they cut away to something else? How do they use establishing shots and cutaways to keep the audience interested? Where was the camera? Learning the visual vocabulary of video goes a long way toward learning how to effectively use it. At the same time, look critically at the video productions of your peers. Where do they succeed? Where do they fail? And why? Each time you notice and understand a new technique, you can add it to your repertoire.
11. Edit tightly
Find the clips that get to the core of your video and cut away everything else. Beware of things that have limited, sentimental value or inside jokes if your audience is larger than your immediate circle. You may think that junior mashing his face into a plate of spaghetti is the best video you’ve ever shot, but folks outside your family will probably disagree. Also, keep it short. Instead of showing all 4 hours of your vacation footage, select only the very best 10-second shots and compile them into an effective and entertaining ten-minute (or shorter) show.
One thing you should always aim for is to entertain your viewer. And face it, a lot of things that end up on video aren’t terribly exciting to begin with (“I’d like to take this opportunity to explain to the stockholders our six year plan to bring Wonder Widgets to the forefront of the industry.” “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” or “Okay, we’re back for the sixth inning, you can just see Billy out there by the light post in left field.”) This doesn’t mean you need to have a dog and pony show in every corporate video, but you do have an obligation to make your video, if not entertaining, then at least not dull.
There are plenty of things that you can do to break up the monotony of a lackluster video. The first key is to look critically at other people’s productions, learning to see what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and judging for yourself whether or not it really works. Once you understand the various shots and techniques that make good video, it’ll be possible to include them in your own work. Motion, cutaways, and unusual camera angles can all add to the impact of your productions and make them more interesting for your viewer.