Home Video Hints: Shooting Under Cover

You may think that shooting unobtrusively is just for spying on bad guys or hotties at the beach; but covert videography has many other uses, even for casual shooters. If you ever wished you were invisible or just a fly on the wall, here are some tips.

But first, why would an upstanding citizen like you want to shoot sneaky? Well, think about these situations:

  •   Your toddler talks a blue streak, except when she sees a camcorder aimed at her. Then she just wants to chew the camcorder instead of the fat.
  •   The birthday party kids greet you by mugging, sticking their tongues out, and holding up two-finger horns behind other guests’ heads.
  •   The Tom Cruise of your home-grown heist movie does a beautiful job in rehearsals, but then blows every take.
  •   Villagers from a foreign land turn their backs on you and pull their children safely indoors.
  •   Animal Control refuses to believe that a bear has invaded the suburbs of Cleveland and declared war on your backyard trash cans.

    Let’s look at some easy techniques for shooting very, very quietly.

    Hiding What You’re Doing

    Most camcorders have a tally light–a red LED on the front of the camera that lights up in Record mode. The easiest trick is to disable it with one of the on-screen menus if your model has that control, or cover it with a small square of black electrical tape. Your subjects will know you’re present and fooling with a camcorder, but they won’t know when it’s actually on. This may be all you need in some of the situations we’ll cover in a moment.

    But for some subjects, just knowing a camera’s pointed their way is enough to turn them to stone, or make them behave unnaturally. So here are some ways to avoid the appearance of shooting.

    If your lens has a filter thread, you may be able to fit a right angle shooting attachment that lets you aim 90-degrees away from the actual subject. This approach has its limits, however. First, more photo-savvy subjects may draw obvious conclusions from the big hole in the side of your lens and the 45-degree mirror behind it. Even less knowledgeable subjects may grow suspicious if you seem to be busily taping a blank wall at right angles to them.

    Your biggest friend is your external LCD screen. By opening and rotating it to an appropriate angle, you can see what you’re framing even when you’re not aiming the camera conventionally. When using large camcorders with top handles, carry the unit at waist level. With compact models, hold the unit in the palm of your hand instead of grasping it by its shooting grip. Either way, glance at the LCD screen casually instead of staring at it with your usual shooting concentration.

    Shooting Blind

    Sometimes, you want to conceal what you’re doing completely, and that means no viewfinder at all. You’ll be surprised how much action you can frame adequately as long as you observe these two simple rules.

    First, set your lens at extreme wide angle, while keeping at least 5 feet from your subjects. The framing that results may not win any prizes, but chances are your broad view will capture everything you want.

    Next, make the camcorder part of you and aim it with your whole body. Because I have a flat, wide camcorder (similar to a Sharp Viewcam), I can wear it like a still camera, resting on my chest. To shoot sneakily, I just aim myself at what I want to record, remembering that I don’t have to tilt my upper body up or down too much because of the forgiving wide-angle lens setting.

    With large units, you can hold the top handgrip, but with narrow, edge-forward camcorders, suspend the unit from a lanyard-type strap instead. Most small camcorders lack topside lugs for straps, but you can rig something without too much difficulty. With the lanyard loop around your neck, suspend the camcorder under an arm and hold it so its lens is clear of your sleeve. Without a visible tally light, few people will realize that you’re rolling tape on them.

    Getting Subjects Used to You

    Instead of concealing what you’re doing, you’ll often achieve better results if you get subjects to ignore you. For actors who freeze or muff lines during actual takes, simply tape all the rehearsals. If they ask why the camera’s following them, explain that it too needs to practice. Though this ruse won’t work indefinitely, it may give skittish performers enough time to adjust to the camcorder’s presence.

    In documenting an event like a children’s birthday party, stick to the borders of the action and use a telephoto setting to get closeups. Or, put the video camera on a tripod in the corner of the room and use the remote control to activate recording. The camera is much less conspicuous without you standing behind it.

    Another technique is to begin shooting earlier than you need to, planning to discard the mugging or self-conscious behavior at the start of the session. People, children especially, soon grow accustomed to (and bored with) a videographer in their midst. You’ll often find that after 15 minutes, you’ve grown invisible and can shoot whatever you like.

    Flying by Wire

    For surveillance of that bear, you’ll need a remote camera setup. At a minimum, include a tripod (in a safe place), a good view of the action, and probably a power supply if you’re planning more than a few hours’ of observation.

    Some camcorders allow you to gather time-lapse footage in specified intervals, recording about five frames of video at a time. Since normal mode would burn 30 frames in that same second, 2.5 frames-a-second would make a one-hour tape last for 12 hours. The results will be choppy, but quite adequate for documenting a bear or identifying a burglar.

    Finally, you may want to capture something far slower than a bear, perhaps a tulip bloom opening. For this kind of work, you need editing software. You can easily do this with a simple slow-motion filter or effect.

    Good shooting!

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