There are a few common mistakes that amateurs make over and over again when capturing video - that's why they're amateurs.
Pros have a long list of DOs and DON'Ts in their heads so deeply ingrained they don't even think of them anymore. They walk into a room and immediately know what belongs in the shot and what doesn't. They know this because they made these mistakes over and over when they were beginners. Here are ten of the biggest ones.
1. The old "Pole Growing from Someone's Head"
This is a compositional error that comes from not paying attention to what's in the background. Trees, poles, and even bits of other people will appear as strange antennae or odd growths. Always keep a vigilant eye on what's behind your talent and how it affects what's in your viewfinder. Also look for things like telephone wires that seem to go in one ear and out another. Even changing your angle slightly can fix these. If you're completely unable to move, you can try lowering up your f-stop to blur out the offending object, or zooming in to crop it out of the frame.
2. High Noon
Gary Cooper looks great when he faces down Ian MacDonald in the 1952 classic High Noon. One thing the beleaguered sheriff had going for him was a Hollywood lighting team making sure the harsh shadows of the overhead sun didn't completely obscure his face. The sun directly overhead on a cloudless day presents some of the worst, most unflattering lighting conditions. People's eyes, recessed in their sockets, get lost in shadow which become great black pools. There are two ways to combat this - add more light, either from a lamp or a reflector - or move your subject into the shade. If you can't move your subject into the shade, you can bring shade to your subject by holding a large diffuser between them and the bright sun. The bigger the better. They're made by companies like Lastolite and Photoflex, or you can make your own from some PVC and an old bed sheet.
3. People Eating
I've never made a friend by videotaping them while they're wolfing down a plate of spaghetti; you won't either. Use the dinner break to change tapes, check your batteries, plot out your next shots, or interview someone who isn't shoveling food into their face.
4. Shooting in the Office Lighting
Fluorescent tubes mounted in the ceiling might be the most economical way to keep an office illuminated, but they provide some of the most unflattering light ever invented. Many tubes have a decidedly green cast and highlight imperfections in the skin. In addition, the overhead position doesn't give much fill to the face and like the high-noon lighting of the sun, people's eye sockets get dark. When professional video crews shoot in office buildings they have a number of strategies to combat this - one is to turn off all the overheads and light the room with their own equipment, another option is to move your subject into window lighting and let the sun fix things. A third option is to color correct the florescent with gels and add some fill from a tungsten lamp either through a light modifier like an umbrella or a softbox or bounced off of a card or wall.
5. Up the Nose
There are certain things that only an otologist should see and one of those is whatever's to be found on the inside of your subject's nose. If you're shooting up at a person on a stage, move back, raise your camera, or move to one side so that your subject's nasal passages aren't the main focus of the shot. Also watch out for this when shooting people who are laying down, you don't want the angle to be from their feet, but rather at their side.
6. Trash in the Background
When shooting that special birthday greeting your sister wants to send to grandma, don't get the dirty dishes in the shot, because grandma's going to call with a lesson in housekeeping. This goes for other clutter like half-empty drink containers, trash cans, and piles of paper. As a general rule, try and keep your background uncluttered. It's not so much that everyone will thank you if you do, it's that they'll be decidedly unhappy with you if you don't. And the last thing you want to hear is the bride's mother saying that you can't use any of the "getting ready" shots because of the heap of dirty laundry in the background.
7. Shooting into the Sun
Backlighting a subject without lots of artificial light on your side of the subject will lead either to an extremely blown out (too bright) background, or to your subject being silhouetted. Be mindful of very high contrast in scenes too. Dappled light underneath a tree can be different enough in brightness to ruin a shot if someone's face is half in direct sunlight and half in the shade. If possible move your subject or your camera so that your subject isn't darker than the background, if not possible, add additional light to his/her shadow side to lower the contrast.
8. Wrong White Balance
Ever see a video where everything's a lot redder than it should be? It might even have been one of your videos. Different lights are different colors - in bright sunlight a sheet of typing paper looks white, under fluorescent lights it may look slightly green and in tungsten lighting it will have a reddish cast. The "white balance" setting on your camera tells the sensor what color light you're shooting under. Most cameras have a number of pre-set white balances for sun, shade, fluorescent etc, and also an "auto" mode where the camera will try and guess what the light is. Your camera's okay at guessing, but not great. Leaving it in auto mode is a sure way to get an odd color cast to your footage.
9. Children and Animals from an Adult's Eye Level
Children live in a different world from adults, one that exists just a few feet (or inches) above the ground. Whereas adults see faces and light switches and mirrors, the world of children consists of knees and table legs and - faces of other children. The lazy tendency is to video tape everything from eye level, but this gives us a skewed perspective. When composing shots of kids and animals, get down to their eye level. Capture faces, not the tops of heads.
10. Automatic Gain Control, Auto Aperture, or Auto Shutter Speed on
On big movie sets there are lots of crew members. On small video shoots there may be just you. Thankfully camera automation can take over a lot of the jobs typically performed by another person. In a pinch, you can let your camera set and correct the exposure and audio levels, but its never going to be as good at this as you are. The camera can't tell between a bride in a white dress and a groom in a black tuxedo and their different reflective properties will confuse the auto exposure. Likewise, the automatic gain control can't tell when a room falls silent, or the speaker gets further from the camera and may end up giving you a lot of ambient room noise trying to pick up a voice that isn't there. Unless you're going to be in a situation where the light is changing rapidly, set your exposure, shutter speed, and audio levels manually.
The way professionals get to be professionals is by knowing the mistakes that amateurs make. The more of these you're aware of from the start, the less you have to experience yourself. Can you think of other common mistakes? Let's hear about them on the Videomaker forums.
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who exhibits regularly and has written books on technology and photographic art.