Nature or nurture?
There are many unanswered questions in life and that sometimes goes double for us video makers. Here’s one we’ve probably all asked ourselves: Why doesn’t my camerawork look like that of the pros?
The answer is tricky. It’s tempting to blame the nature of the equipment, the tape format, the lighting and the support staff (or lack thereof, if your friends or family are feeling cranky). And it’s true that each of these contributes in some way to what often looks like a hard and fast dividing line between the work that broadcast professionals do and what we do at home.
But the truth, I’m happy to report, is a whole lot simpler: it’s all about practice. The pros pick up their cameras every day and hone their skills in an ongoing trial-by-fire that may take them anywhere, from a studio to a war zone. In fact, they’re a lot like athletes or soldiers. They have to be ready for anything, and their jobs depend on the production of high-quality video every time. For the pros, nurturing ingrained camerawork reflexes is a matter of survival.
Fortunately, you’re probably not under that kind of pressure. (Yet.) Still, it’s undeniable that running almost any camcorder is a tricky balancing act that demands a wide range of skills, both physical and mental. Being a good shooter means you’ve got to be a clutch performer when it comes to things like steadying a shot at maximum telephoto, keeping a subject in frame while walking, making smooth tripod moves, holding your shot while looking away from the viewfinder, racking focus manually and even finding camera control buttons without looking.
To compete with the pros, you need to hone these skills into instincts, so you’ll be able to spend your time behind the lens thinking about what you’re shooting, rather than wasting time worrying about how you’re shooting. Read on for a boot-camp-style exercise regimen designed to give you the reflexes of a lean, mean, camera-operating machine.
Exercise 1: Cold start
Like new recruits drilled in breaking down and reassembling their rifles, a video shooter needs, first and foremost, to be able to grab the camera from it’s sitting, powered-down, in its case location to having it up and running quickly when the big moment happens. It’s tougher than it sounds.
Start this exercise with the camera in its case, the lens cap on, the battery unattached and the tape still shrink-wrapped. Now check the time and begin getting ready to shoot. Do this quickly and efficiently, though without rushing — you want to be fast, thorough and calm. See if you can develop a routine that you can repeat every time.
When you’re ready, roll a few seconds of tape, and you’re done. Check your time, break down your setup again and repeat the cycle until it’s smooth. Think you’ve got it down? Try it in a darkened room. It sounds silly, but give it a try once or twice.
Exercise 2: Obstacle course
Again just like soldiers in basic training, camera operators need to get comfortable facing a variety of physical obstacles while working. We can simulate a classic trouble situation by strewing small bits of paper (or bubble-wrap for added amusement) on the ground or floor to create a slalom course to navigate while recording video.
To mimic a crowded event, create a nice long course with plenty of turns and a few corners that will force you to change direction. Now decide on a stationary subject to frame and begin. Set out from the start of the course with your camera rolling and your lens at a forgiving wide-angle setting. Follow the course at a normal walking pace with your knees slightly bent to absorb shock. Divide your attention between keeping your subject framed and avoiding the obstacles. This gets even trickier when you change direction or walk backwards. Record and play back your results. Repeat until your shot looks steady all the way through the course and you manage to avoid all the obstacles.
For an added challenge, tighten the angle of view to medium-telephoto and proceed as above. This is a truly demanding test of your abilities.
Exercise 3: Rock solid
We’ve covered movement, now let’s cover holding still: a skill that’s especially important when using the extreme telephoto end of your lens. And, by the way, for this exercise, it’s no fair to use the image stabilizer that comes standard on many camcorders.
Set your camera up for handheld or shoulder-mounted operation and find a comfortable place to stand or sit. Now look for a suitable subject, preferably something smallish that has hard edges — this makes it easier to check for steadiness. Situate yourself at least 12-15 feet from your subject and zoom in as far as you can (optical zoom only). Use the edges of your subject to position it just within the boundaries of your frame and then hold that pose.
Notice how the camera drifts and twitches with your breathing, heartbeat and other movements. Your goal is to find the most stable position. Practice holding your telephoto shot for 15-30 seconds at a time, until you can keep the frame quite steady. If you can stretch your time to a minute or two, you’re a rock-solid shooter.
For a more difficult test, try this exercise without looking at the viewfinder. Frame your subject, then look away from the camera and try to hold the shot steady. Check your framing after a short time and see how far you’ve drifted from your original position.
Exercise 4: Smooth as silk
Tripod skills are another one of those critical areas that quickly distinguish between operators who’ve put in practice time and those who haven’t. It takes an experienced hand (and a fluid tripod head) to execute precise, soft starts and stops for pans and tilts.
Set up your camera on a tripod — a model with a fluid head will help immensely with this exercise. As in the previous routine, set your lens at telephoto and focus on a small object with hard edges. Lock off your tripod’s tilt control and tighten the pan control just enough to resist a light touch. Roll tape and watch the viewfinder or LCD as you gently take hold of the tripod’s handle and begin a pan to the right until your subject is out of frame. Next, pan gently and slowly leftward to the starting position and bring the pan to a gliding stop. Repeat this part of the exercise until you can both start and stop the pan without any sudden movements.
For the tilt section, you’ll execute a similar maneuver, but with the pan control locked off and the tilt control loosened just enough so that the tripod head won’t dump the camera when left on its own.
Exercise 5: Advanced variations
If your camera will let you override its autofocus capability, you can add a second subject like a willing friend or family member to the tripod exercise above to get practice with manual focusing. Just set up your scene so that one subject is at least 4-5 feet closer than the other, keeping your lens at a medium telephoto setting. That way, when you pan or tilt between subjects, you’ll also need to turn the lens focus ring during the move to shift the focal plane.
For another advanced variation, turn the iris control to manual if your camera has that feature. Use the same setup as for the focus exercise above, but make sure that one of your subjects is significantly brighter than the other. One real-world example where this might come in handy is when you have an indoor subject standing in front of a bright window in a backlighting situation. As you change the exposure from shooting outside the window to shooting your subject inside, you’ll need to adjust your iris control with one hand as you move the tripod with the other.
You’ve reached the end of the camera operator’s training regimen. If you’ve successfully made it this far, you’re well on your way to developing some serious shooter’s chops. Now get back to those exercises.
Bill Fisher is a documentary video producer based in Portland, Oregon.
Like athletes and musicians, camera operators need to warm up before an event. After all, shooting video demands some serious physical and mental work. Run through this routine to make sure you’re ready to roll.
- Stretch your arms, shoulders, back, legs and neck. These areas absorb the most stress during a shoot.
- Take stock and load up on tape, batteries and other supplies. Without these you’re out of the race.
- Do a camera check with tape rolling. Verify your settings are where you want them and that all functions are normal.
- Don’t forget to fire up those brain cells. Develop a strategy or goal and think before you shoot.