5 Poor Excuses for Bad Video

The classic "my dog ate my homework" excuse that people joke about as a cop-out for carelessness is easy to poke fun at, but the underlying lesson from that line is that many excuses are just that: coverups for not being prepared, not being alert or not being savvy enough to know what you're getting into. I write an annual Videomaker feature for October called "Video Horror Stories" where readers and I share stories about how we had to save a shot, sometimes using MacGyver-istic tools when things start to fall apart at the seams. 

Technology can interfere with nearly every aspect of video production, but your skills as a producer and talents as a visual artist can usually bail you out of most of these goofs. Videomaker is full of features and techniques that will help you rid your world of some of these mistakes, here are the five most common excuses for bad video that usually pop up, and I'm starting with number one because it's the most common excuse for nearly anything!

1. Poor Lighting: The Sun Got in My Eyes.

[image:blog_post:14980]You hear this from people playing sports – from baseball to badminton – but for video shooters, it's a poor excuse because you (usually) have options.

  • If the sun is right behind the subject, you're choices are letting the background bloom as you raise the iris on your subject, or giving your background good exposure as your subject sits without features in a silhouetted shot. Or – you can think like a pro and move the camera, move the subject, or move the sun. That's right, move the sun. By blocking the sun using diffusion over your subject, and using a bounce card to fill in light from the side, you can create a better balanced shot with your background and subject[image:blog_post:14981].
  • Take the classic "gorgeous sunset" shot. Your subjects wants the sunset behind them, but their faces are under-exposed. So you raise the camera's iris, now the sunset is washed out. You need to learn to control your exposure. Instead of putting them directly into the center of the shot, put your subjects to the right or left third of the frame, and angle the shot of the sunset so that it washes light onto their faces, instead of back-lighting them.

2. Shaky Video: I Didn't Have My Tripod Handy.

Not every pro uses a tripod or stabilizer every time, but that's still not an excuse for extremely shaky video.

  • First, if you are shooting handheld only, think of yourself as a human tripod and plant your feet shoulder-width apart, tuck your elbows in, and cup the camera with both hands, one on top and the other one the bottom of the camera. Even with mobile phones you can move your hands to balance the camera this way after you hit "record."  
  • Lean against a building or pole, and practice a few of these handlholding techniques illustrated in this feature from Videomaker.
  • If you're going to be shooting a handheld moving shot like a side-to-side for a pan, put most of your weight on one foot as you move to the other foot for balance when you shoot, as illustrated in the listed feature.
  • Finally, don't zoom in! Anytime you zoom in the camera shake will be intensified. Either get closer to your subject, or just don't zoom in, or prop the camera on something and step aside. You can prop the camera on a rock, table or box, but a small beanbag is a great device to have on hand.

3. No Audio: I Forgot to Turn Up the Mix.
Out of this entire list, audio errors are the hardest to control, but there's definitely no excuse for not having the audio ON in the first place. From a mic input set to the wrong channel or the mic merely not being plugged in properly you can lose audio and not even know it.

  • So what do you do, watch the meters? No! The meters are merely a guide, if the audio you're gathering is important to you, and not just background, you should always wear headphones.
  • Know your camera's audio settings. If your camera allows you to manually set levels, and you do often, then make it a habit to ALWAYS check the levels when you shoot. You might have had them set very very low from that last shoot at the race car event, and then your next shoot with a child's soft-voiced interview will be lost if you forget to raise the levels. Or the opposite, you raise the levels to record birds tweeting in your garden, then forgot to bring them down when you covered the high-school band tryouts, and your audio gets over-modulated, or worse: it isn't there at all because a digital audio signal in the red doesn't just distort the audio, it clips it out completely.
  • If you can't set levels and you're camera only works with AGC, learn some tips to get around Automatic Gain Control.
  • If you are using just the on-camera mic, get closer to your subject. The farther the camera is from the subject the more background noise you're going to gather, which will battle with the audio you want.

4. Bad Composition: I was Looking at the Subject, Not the Background.

We are videographers aren't we?!? Remind yourself of that – we aren't merely manipulating some electronic device, we are visual artists… and our mission is to make lovely images, even in the dreary places. Nothing ruins a beautiful scene better than garbage cans in the background, someone picking his teeth on the side of the frame, or a telephone pole growing out of your subject's head.

  • Don't look just at the subject like the bullseye of a target, check out the foreground, background and those edges of the frame for things that can lower the value of your shot.
  • Practice good composition. It's not just about good framing, although that's a start. Follow the Divine Proportion guides of the master artists of olde,  using the Golden Rule of Composition, as illustrated in this Videomaker feature.
  • Practice the Rule of Thirds – an image is much more interesting when your main focus isn't always in the center of the frame.[image:blog_post:14982] Once you know the "rules" don't be afraid to break them – sometimes the center is a fun place to be, as this Vimeo post about Stanely Kubrik points out.
  • Learn what lead room is, and why you can break this rule, too. And generally, think like an artist with a blank canvas: he or she lovingly paints background, foreground and subject with equal contemplation and purpose. Make every element in your frame have purpose.

5. Lost Opportunity: My Tape/Card was Full, My Battery was Dead.

Really. Bad. Excuse. We visual artists have a Love-Hate relationship with technology because we work in a right brain-left brain field. It gives us the opportunity to hone our craft, master our skills, and create the amazing visions from our minds – and it can fail us at a moment's notice. But we don't need to help it along!

  • Stop being right-brained for a moment and let your left-brain module take over.
  • Take the images off your card as soon as your shooting day is done and wipe it clean for the next shoot.
  • If you're shooting to tape, always have a spare on hand; in the trunk, glove box, tackle box, or any other place you can stash one for those "just in case" moments.
  • NEVER go out without a fully charged battery, and if your 'trusty big brick' isn't holding a long charge anymore, invest in another. Losing a shot to a dead battery or not having recording media happens to us all, (I could fill the pages of one issue of Videomaker with stories just on this subject), it's the most painful of excuses because it's the one that you can not remedy with smoke and mirror tricks. Maybe MacGyver can, but unless you have him along on every shoot, you need to plan for the technology to be there when you need it.

These are simple mistakes that can easily be remedied by knowing what you're doing. Technology demons raising their ugly heads are different beasts altogether.

Plan, Compose, Deliver!
Be Prepared might be the Boy Scouts motto, but we should all take note of such a simple phrase. Always have a backup plan, always prepare for the worst, and always figure out an exit strategy when things fall apart or technology fails you. As for these five points of poor excuses? They're usually just as bad as the dog eating your homework play – poor excuses for not planning.

– Jennifer O'Rourke, Videomaker's managing editor

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

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