Getting Started: Copy Stand Shooting

So you need to shoot some photographs for your next video. Perhaps it’s a family reunion, video scrapbook or memorial video. Perhaps just a video photo album to send to your sister in Denver. You decide that shooting the photos right out of the album is not an option; the album pages are yellowed with age and would look awful on video. When you zoom in to frame the shot the image is so shaky it’s sickening. So how can you transfer those snapshots to tape with high quality results? What you need is something called a copy stand. For decades photographers have used these stands to shoot "copies" of photographs and artwork with still cameras, hence the name.

Copy Stand Primer

In the professional world, a copy stand is a small tabletop board with a vertical camera support rising from it, designed for the express purpose of transferring static images from paper to videotape. You place a photo on the flat part of the board, attach your camcorder to the support so it points down at the photo, frame and shoot.

A copy stand can be used to accomplish many things. While most often used to shoot photographs, it can also be used to shoot newspaper clippings, stamps or coin collections. You can rent a copy stand from a camera or video equipment shop on an hourly or daily basis, or you can use the tricks you’ll learn here to get copy stand results without spending a dime.

Tabletop Shot

One way to simulate a copy stand is to use a tripod and your kitchen table. With your camcorder securely in place atop your tripod, extend one of the tripod’s legs to its full length. Next, extend the two remaining legs to about half their full length. Position the tripod so that only the one long leg touches the floor, while the two shorter legs rest against the edge of the table. Try to get those two short legs as close to perpendicular as possible with regard to the table. Now, extend them until they touch the floor. What you have is a tripod that is slightly off kilter, but is stable because it is supported by the table as well as its legs. Most important, the camcorder is in a position so it can be tilted down and pointed directly at the table’s surface. Simply place your photo on the surface of the table and shoot. For best results, place a black matte on the table and lay your photos on top of the matte. This way, your photo will be framed in black, not in the wood-grain finish of your kitchenette.

The Music Stand Method

Music stands make very nice copy stands, especially if you will be using camera moves (more on this later). They have a raised edge at the bottom to hold the artwork in place and, because you don’t have to shoot straight down, they make camera movements easier. These stands allow the videographer to shoot in a more natural, forward position, with the camcorder tilted slightly downward. In some cases it may be necessary to fasten photos to the center of the stand with a piece of tape. The setup is as simple as placing a photo on the stand and your camcorder on a tripod.

Copy Stand Technique

To shoot an object or title on the copy stand, zoom out as wide as possible. Position the
object–whether it’s a graphic, photograph or small item–on your stand (homemade or otherwise), and adjust its position within the frame. Use the zoom to close in on it until you have the object framed the way you want it. If the object falls out of focus, you may have to move the camcorder physically closer and zoom out. Always use manual focus if possible. Focal drift, where the autofocus is roving around searching for its subject, is highly undesirable.

Because of your camcorder’s optics, you can only zoom in a slight bit on objects that are close to the lens before your camcorder loses its focus on the image. To work around this focal length issue and still get extreme closeups, you’ll need to move the camcorder closer to the object and use the "macro focus" setting to set the focus.

Shedding Light on Copy Stands

Many professional copy stands come with lights–usually attached to the side of the stand on adjustable necks. They might remind you of small desk lamps or architect’s lamps. Any light source, however, be it a table lamp or even a flashlight, will work to add light to your copy stand.

When lighting the shot, the key is to position your lamps to the sides of the stand and not directly overhead. Position your lights at about a 45-
degree angle. This angle will minimize the chances that you, or the camcorder, will throw a shadow on the object and accidentally darken the shot. A 45-degree angle will also eliminate reflections of the lights on artwork.

Lighting flat objects, like stamps and newspaper clippings, is usually pretty easy. A nice, even light is all you need. Because these objects are only thin pieces of paper, you shouldn’t have to worry about them casting their own unsightly shadows.

Photos can be more of a challenge. Even though they are thin and don’t usually cast shadows, many of them have a glossy surface. This coating can be highly reflective, and unless your photo is absolutely flat, it may reflect some of your light back into the camcorder. This reflected light is called "a hot spot." Flatten the photograph to avoid this problem or use a dulling spray -sometimes simple hairspray works to eliminate glare. While we are on the subject of reflections, keep an eye on your camcorder’s red record light. Your shot may look fine when you set it up, but when you roll tape, a glossy picture might reflect that little red light. Simply placing a piece of black electrical tape over the light will save you the embarrassment of red light syndrome.

Spice it Up

One of the beauties of working with a copy stand setup is that it can hold your shot very steady. But there are ways to incorporate motion even when you’re shooting a stationary object.

There are two basic camera moves that you can use for copy stand shooting: the tilt and the pan. By using these simple camera moves, you can shoot a group of photos rather than simply shooting single objects one at a time.

Just put several objects–pictures, newspaper clippings, diplomas, letters, etc.–in a row on your stand. Before you roll tape, pan the camcorder to one side, or tilt it away from the objects. Start rolling tape, and as you do, move the camcorder slowly so that it moves across the objects you have laid before you. The result will be a nice montage of objects shown up close and in sharp detail, but made more interesting thanks to the additional camera move. Want to get really creative? How about introducing your show with a title that miraculously comes into focus as if it were a fancy special effect? All you have to do is to put your title graphic on the table, zoom all the way out, and adjust the height of the camcorder so the graphic is framed properly in the shot. This will be the end result of your effect. Now zoom in as tight as you can go. The result will be a hopelessly muddy blur of the image. Roll tape and after a second or two, start to zoom out. As you do, the image will reach a point when the camcorder can regain focus. The camcorder will focus on the image automatically when that point is reached. Continue zooming out all the way. When you play back your footage, the result will be a title that mysteriously comes into focus before your eyes.

Why Bother?

Using a copy stand offers some significant benefits over handheld camcorder operation. First and most importantly, you can get extreme closeup shots of objects that you might not be able to get otherwise. Second, the camera remains absolutely steady throughout the entire shot. Finally, it offers a very controlled environment for shooting that can produce very professional results.

Another Tool for the Box

The copy stand setup can be a useful tool for taking your videography to the next level. When you are ready to graduate to producing a program more along the lines of a video resume, a family retrospective, or a tribute to a relative, then it’s time to start using some more interesting techniques, like the copystand.

Thanks to the copy stand, you have an easy way to shoot the many small still objects you want to use in such programs. The copy stand technique will help you achieve steady shots that are definitely up close and personal. So get a copystand, and add some photos to your videos.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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