10 Tips for the Best Holiday Video

Nearly everyone the world over celebrates some sort of “Winter Festivity” and it’s the most beautiful time of year for gathering great video of annual traditions along with a reflection of the past year and getting a year-ender together to share with family and friends. Whether you’re making a holiday video filled with all the pageantry and glorious color, or have taken on the daunting task of making a year-end compilation, there are a few things you can do to make your task a little bit easier, more fun, and artistic.

-1- Let the magic of light and color work for you. Here’s a few tricks for shooting holiday lights. first thing’s first: You have to use manual focus and manual iris for these tricks, and a tripod or some other steadying device. If you see a specially vibrant over-the-top light display on someone’s home, ( or your own!) don’t make fun of it, rather make use of it… the lights can make for a beautiful backdrop portrait. Set your camera and subject across the street from the lit up home, so you’re not too close. Too many people get right in front of the lights for a photo op, and lose a lot of the beauty of the shot. By setting across the street, your lights will be in softer focus, be more plentiful, won’t overwhelm the scene, and your subject will stand out from the background better. How to balance the light on your subject with the background? Us a simple fill light, set a bit to the side, not in front of the subject – even a pen light will do. DON’T go for the big spotlight, it will give your subject the deer-in-the headlights-look and will make the background dim and over-wash your subject. You want some shadows to balance the night. Move the pen/fill light forward and back a bit to see where the best balance between both the fill and the background lights appear to have about the same exposure. If you want a shot of your subject watching the lights, shoot him or her a bit to the side, so you have a 3/4-face shot, not a profile. 3/4 is more flattering, and you can still get lights in the background. Soft twinkle lights and candle-light are everywhere during winter holidays – take advantage of their soft glow to get some artistic cutaways. Pre-focus on the light then shooting from a distance [too close will blow our your shot] slowly zoom in. As you zoom into the light[s] or candle, slowly rack the focus ring to take the shot out of focus, being careful to not jerk the camera. This shot is best done using a tripod. Another trick is to slowly pan across a lit-up scene until you pan into darkness. These simple tricks are good for cutaway shots between scenes of family gathering, when you need a segue from the parents wrapping presents to the mad scramble of kids opening them.

-2- Starry Starry Night. Star filters are great for capturing lights and candles… and they add a romantic, old timey look to any scene.Check out some soft mist filters that give your shot a sepia tone, too. If you want a “City Street Lights, Even Stop Lights” sort of scene, “Blue Hour” is the best time of day to illustrate this. If you’re shooting outdoor night scenes, look to the “almost dark” scenes of “Magic Hour” or “Golden Hour” one-half hour before the sun sets or one-half hour before the sun rise for soft warm color. Golden Hour is the most beautiful time of the day for any outdoor shot, but if you wait that extra 15 to 30 minutes, the sky will be a gorgeous deep blue[image:blog_post:13071] and will be dark enough to show off the lights but will balance the daylight with the Christmas lights or the lovely cool blue tones of frost or snow.

-3- Use Just a Small Fill Light Just like the outdoor lights we talked about above, don’t be afraid to let the dark work with your. Sometimes your setting is going to tell you “low light”, and in cases of showing off lightly lit scenes like Christmas trees or a house covered in twinkle lights, this is OK. Soft lighting is the key to these types of events, you don’t want to blow out the scene. Indoors, too. I actually hang extra twinkle lights inside for a softer illumination than the harsh indoor lights we might usually use. Stash a pen light on the mantle, just in case you need some fill… but try to avoid the overheads, if you can, and if you need the pen light, don’t get it too close to the subject, use it for fill only. They have a harsh beam, usually, unless you get one that has an adjustable focus.

-4- Use your Spare Cam in a Creative Way many of us have more than one video camera: we have our main rig, and maybe an older camera we no longer use much, or perhaps a small pocket cam we carry when the big rig isn’t convenient. And, of course, nearly everyone has a mobile phone that shoots video. So take advantage of that spare by sticking it in places you normally wouldn’t – set it gently on a branch of the decorated tree early Christmas morning. (This means getting up before the kids, of course!) Turn off all the lights of the room except the tree lights, set your camera to record, and you’ll get a wonderful “Oooo! and “Ahhhh!” POV [Point of View] shot of the kids’ faces as they first enter the room and see the presents under the tree.

-4- See the Event through a Child’s Eyes. Don’t shoot the entire scene from a standing position. There’s a world of wonder underneath the tree. Vary your angles. A trick I use when shooting family gatherings is to get three shots of everything: a wide shot, close up, and one other angle. Wide can be just as wide as a shot of a child and the tree and a present the child reaches for – not from the outer reaches of space! This is the time when extreme closeups are great. [image:blog_post:13073]One of my favorite shots to take is from a bit behind the tree, or tabletop display, with the branches of the decorated tree framing the child’s face.

-5- Sound off! I was shooting a child’s school play last night, and two parents behind me were talking during my grand-daughter’s “Big Moment”. Luckily I planned in advance and took a Zoom H2n with me and set it on the base of the stage. I had no wires tethering me to the camera or in the way to trip up excited parents and kids, and better still, I didn’t have to rely on my nice, but too far back, on-camera mic to capture her soft nervous voice as she “Jingle Belled” her way through her solo.

-6- Organize! If you plan to cover EVERYTHING, from the hectic shopping and the frantic wrapping, to the pageants, plays and recitals – DON’T OVER SHOOT! Time is of the essence, you don’t want to be sitting at the computer at 4-A-M still trying to find that shot from two weeks ago. Every night, file all video to an external drive and copy ‘best of’ and ‘highlights’ right away to another folder. Label them clearly – if everything is for a Christmas Compilation, then this would be a bad title for your shots of Jenny’s solo… you might remember it today, you won’t come Dec. 23 when you’re up late editing. Trust me on this one – I missed nearly an entire Christmas day trying to recover a project that inconveniently disappeared, and then trying to author it, burn it to a DVD and get across town – the turkey was cold and the in-laws weren’t happy. That is, until I presented them with the compilation video.

-7- Cheaters DO Profit! The above statement might have you scratching your head – “how did she do a Christmas compilation and still miss Christmas morning?” Because I cheated. I took a bunch of generic footage from the year before, close ups and unidentifiable scenes like setting up the tree, ripping open presents, etc. and used them in the current year’s video. Then I just needed to fill in the holes with the rest of the event. When I presented them with the finished project later in the day, I just had to add about 2 minutes of that day’s footage.

-8- Don’t Forget about Yourself! When she was 5, I was showing my grand-daughter some video of her at 2 years old, and as she watched, she asked me “Who’s that person talking to me?” I told her that was me, and she said, “why don’t you turn the camera on yourself, then?” Good observation from a 5 year old. Don’t forget to get yourself in the video once in a while, the kids want to see you just as much as you want to see them. One of my favorite “Self shots” is shooting myself in the silver ball ornament hanging from the tree. Very pretty. [image:blog_post:13074]Mirrors and reflective glass are all around, usually you want to avoid them, this time of year, take advantage of them!

-9- Engage the Kids – Teach them your craft Nearly everyone has a hobby, and if yours is video, then you need to pass that along to the kids. Just like Grandpa’s hand-crafted wooden toys form yesteryear and grandma’s home-made pie, passing on your hobby guarantees that the video legacy will live on. And you’ll have something to talk to the kids about before they draw back into the latest video game and gizmo gadget they got this year.

-10- Have Fun! really… the most important thing – if you forget to take your eye away from the viewfinder you might find you’ve missed a lot of the little nuances that make up the holiday. Keep the video simple – save the complex stuff for your Year Ender! Happy Holidays!

Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & editor.

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