Home Video Hints: Sharp Shootin'

As a casual camcorder user, you don’t want a whole film school curriculum, for cryin’ out loud; but maybe you wouldn’t mind some painless pointers for better home videos. (Pay no attention to that cheering in the background; it’s only the people who have to watch your videos.) The good news is, you can make dramatic improvements in your programs just by following three very simple suggestions:

1. Avoid the dreaded Seven Deadly Camera Sins.

2. Spruce up each shot by making it a good composition.

3. Capture enough footage to allow simple, effective editing.

To be sure, each of these prescriptions has several healthful ingredients, so let’s take a look at what they are and how they can help you. First, we’ll look at what not to do, and then at what you should do.

The Seven Deadly Camera Sins

You remember that ancient wheeze: PATIENT (rotating his arm), "Doc, it hurts when I do this. What do you prescribe?" DOCTOR: "Don’t do that." Exactly! You’ll improve your footage immensely if you simply don’t do any of the following.


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  •  Firehosing This means aiming your camcorder in the general direction of your subject and then waving it vaguely around the area without decisively framing anything. Instead, frame a sharp composition (see below), roll several seconds, move to another good image, hold on it for a goodly amount of time, repeat as necessary. This will tell your audience that you know what you’d like them to look at.

  •  Snapshooting Too many hobbyists treat camcorders like still cameras, shooting endless little snippets too short to view properly. No shot should be less than five to ten seconds long (again, see below) even if the part that gets into your program is only half that length. If you edit only in the camera as you shoot, try seeing the finished movie in your head as you work.

  •  Headhunting Beginners tend to center closeups on subject’s eyes because that’s what we do when we look at people. Confined to a video frame, however, the result looks stupid. As a general rule, keep subjects’ eyes in the top third of your frame. Footnote: for some reason, it’s quite all right to cut off people’s hair, but not their chins.

  •  Backlighting Camcorder auto exposure systems are very good indeed, but not perfect. Auto exposure functions tend to expose for bright backgrounds, throwing darker foregrounds into under-exposed shadow. To keep your subjects from looking like Felix the cat, move them away from bright skies or background windows.

  •  Motorzooming For some strange reason, zooming is, well, cool, while you watch it in the viewfinder. In a finished show, however, it’s just boring filler. To avoid the problem, use the zoom sparingly. When zooming to create a new image size, try to start the new shot so that it will edit smoothly with the old one. That way, you can leave the zoom on the virtual cutting room floor.

  •  Upstanding Most of the time, you shoot standing up, but that’s no justification for recording everything from a height between five and six feet. For varied perspectives and greater visual interest, go low or high or whatever the subject seems to want. With today’s external, rotatable viewfinders, you can hold the camcorder anywhere and still see what you’re shooting.

  •  Jogging Jogging means making shaky footage, either by walking negligently while shooting or by allowing the camera to shake. To avoid this problem, use image stabilization if you have it; and even then, avoid very long telephoto lens settings when handholding. When you do move the camera, use the LCD monitor if you have one, and carry the camera like a very hot, full cup of coffee. Some people recommend locking your elbows against your sides, but I think that picks up more body movement. I keep my elbows cocked outboard, where they also act as shock absorbers.

    The Art of Composition

    Well-composed images are interesting not only for what they show but for how they show it. Visual composition is worth a lot of study, but four of its basic principles are simple.

  •  The rule of thirds As a rough guideline, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid superimposed on your frame . (You can even draw one on clear plastic and tape it over your LCD finder, for practice.) In composing images, align the important elements horizons, people, buildings, trees, etc. with one or more lines on the grid. Try to get the most important elements of all at or near at least one the four intersections. Keep in mind that this is just a quick and dirty visual organizer. The rule of thirds is not the only basis for composition but it’s quick and simple, and it almost always works.

  •  Look room and lead room Instead of centering people and other subjects in your frame, give them extra air space on the side toward which they’re looking and/or moving . This prevents subjects from creating a claustrophobic feeling by crowding the frame edge.

  •  Provide a center of interest The first two principles are hard to implement if you don’t have strong subjects in your frame. Mountains, oceans, city streets, forests: even the grandest vistas look less interesting without a foreground subject to organize the image.

  •  Show the scale On video, the Grand Canyon is curiously disappointing because there’s nothing to reveal its jaw-dropping vastness. It helps to give viewers a yardstick by which to measure the image. Humans are the most common gauges, of course, but any familiar object will do: a horse, a car, a park bench anything with a size that is familiar to the audience.

    Shooting to Edit

    You don’t edit, you say? Okay, but with $800 iMacs and video software built into Windows ME, you probably will eventually. Like composition, editing rates a lot of study, but the fundamentals are easy.

  •  Provide heads and tails Every shot should have at least four or five seconds of extra footage both before and after the action you think you’ll use in your finished show. Shooting Junior blowing out the birthday candles? Frame the cake, roll camera, count to five, and only then cue the action. You see, editing a program (as distinct from just pasting shots together) means giving it pace and rhythm through timing. Timing, in turn, requires flexibility in starting and ending shots. That’s what that extra footage is for.

  •  Vary your images Part of the power of video is its ability to show everything at the size best suited to it. The run to first base is in full shot; the ball thunking into baseman’s glove is a big closeup. The roaring stands are in long shot, with occasional medium shots of hysterical fans. Each piece of your subject naturally wants to be displayed at a certain size. You should keep this in mind as you are shooting.

  •  Get cutaways A cutaway is any shot other than the main action. It can be a small detail of that action (an insert of a wrapped birthday present) or a subject outside but related to that action (the envious face of a party guest). By inserting a cutaway between two shots of the main action, you can conceal mismatches, omitted footage and a host of other inconsistencies.

  •  Check your sound Notice how we say we’re "shooting video" rather than "shooting audio?" Beginners often neglect sound and that’s too bad. Sound is just as important as picture (sometimes more so), and you should monitor it as you shoot. A pair of headphones is your audio viewfinder and you should use them just as attentively. Just a short time ago, ignoring sound was defensible because analog sound editing was laborious and took mounds of gear and knowledge to do it right. However now days, even the simplest digital outfits let you do wonderful things with audio with relatively little background. If you ignore this half of video production, you’re playing golf without a putter.

    A film school curriculum is the best thing when you want to learn the basics of shooting. The next best thing to that is a textbook and the next best thing to that is a quick and easy article that gives you the basic dos and don’ts of shooting techniques. Then, after that, the best thing to do is get out there and practice, practice, practice.

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