For most casual shooters, vacations are tops among the big four video subjects (along with birthdays, holidays and family outings). For many makers of home video, heavy planning is strictly for the pros ("Sheest! Who am I, National Geographic?"). So here are ten zero-prep tips for better travel programs, plus a bonus tip that does need a bit of forethought.
First of all, here's the bonus: Depending on your recording media needs, pack plenty before you go. Videotapes or SD cards are often hard to find at Jellystone Park, and when you do find them, they can cost double the price of mail order discount.
After that very brief bow to pre-production, let us move right to our low-overhead suggestions. We present them with three assumptions:
Your idea is to record whatever presents itself that looks interesting, and that's all the planning you care to do.
You will do some quick and simple editing to transform your raw video footage into a coherent (and watchable) finished travel program.
The program is for friends and family only. Because you won't try to make money with the show, or play it at a public gathering, you're allowed to mix copyrighted materials with your original footage. Also, you can tape in privately-owned locations like the historic Smithers Mansion in South Succotash, Mass.
We divide our ten handy-dandy tips neatly in half. Five of them will help you shoot better footage and the other five will ensure that the footage you shoot can be cut into a satisfying program.
Getting Great Footage
Without further ado, here are five hints for better footage.
1. Orient the Viewer You know where you are when you begin recording, but your viewers don't, so start with a wide establishing shot. Incidentally, when you edit, it can be fun to tease the audience by starting with close shots and postponing the orientation for a few moments. For instance, before cutting to a shot of the New York skyline, you could start with a closeup of a family member on the ferryboat.
2. Find Telling Details Because it's a low-resolution medium for a small screen, video does better with close shots. Once you've established the environment, move in tight. You'll deliver a much better impression of your locale through several close shots than through a couple of indistinct wide ones. From urban parks to deserts, flowers are everywhere, and they make armor-plated closeups.
3. Frame Your Shots Instead of just aiming your camcorder like a deer rifle, try composing images to look pleasing on the screen. While you're at it, look for pictorial elements that add depth to the shot, like the converging lines of a receding road or a foreground "picture frame" like the bridge and sidewalk on the San Antonio River Walk.
4. Get Down! (Also, up). The natural tendency is to take shots from the elevation you start from, which is usually standing eye level. But this gets boring after a while. Instead, train yourself to hunt the best camera angle for the subject you want to shoot. The fancy details of the building in Victorian Ferndale, CA work well from a worm's eye (very low) perspective .
5. Use People as Yardsticks Landscapes, in particular, don't have any built-in scale, so try to include some people for reference (familiar objects like cars and park benches work well too). Notice also that people can provide a center of interest that attracts the viewer's eye and completes the composition.
Preparing to Edit
Even for simple projects, editing starts when you shoot. By anticipating post-production needs, you can supply yourself with the raw materials for a smoothly-finished show. So the second five tips look forward to the editing suite.
6. Name That Footage! For those using videotape, it's all too easy to grab a partly-used cassette and tape right over priceless footage. So here's an easy way to avoid this disaster: First, pre-apply blank labels to all the tapes you're taking with you, leaving them blank until you use them. When you start your trip, label tape number one and insert it in your camcorder. When it's full, repeat the process with tape two, and so on. That way, if you pick up a cassette with a number on it, you know it's already used. For those using cards, don't lose them! Keep two large envelopes in your case to hold the cards-one marked "fresh" the other marked "used". Cards have room to write maybe 2 letters on each, so pre-label them 01, 02, 03, etc before the trip. Drop the full ones
7. Record Titles as You Go The simplest way to label your show segments is by shooting "live" titles. If you can't do that, look for postcards or other printed materials with ready-made titles (Greetings from Pismo Beach!) that you can capture when you get home. Just remember not to try this trick if you intend to show the video outside your friends and family. A great gag is to put a souvenir tee shirt on a family member, fill the frame with the name on it, than have the subject move away to reveal the scene behind.
8. Get Lots of Footage Avoid shooting short little snippets. Tape is dirt-cheap, and cards are recyclable so always roll camera several seconds before the action, cover it generously, and keep rolling for several seconds after it ends. This will guarantee flexibility in timing your show as you edit.
9. Don't Forget Audio Unless someone is speaking or shots contain distinctive sound effects, it's often best to replace the choppy, unmatched sound tracks of individual shots with a general track of background sounds. So when convenient, place your camcorder in a good position to pick up the surf, the New York traffic, the wind in the pines, or whatever, and roll about five minutes of tape. When editing, you can discard the picture from this shot and lay the audio under your assembled sequence.
10. Pick up Some Music Finally, another hint for family-only shows: Shops in an amazing number of tourist destinations offer CDs for sale that reflect the ambience of the location: Zydeco for Cajun country, Gershwin for Manhattan, Native American for the Grand Canyon, Elizabethan for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival in Oregon the list is endless. While you're there, look for music or other canned audio to use under your visuals. The results will amaze you!