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A Ten Step Guide for Stepping Up Your Video Skills

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More and more SLR cameras are now being sent of out of the factories with amazing HD video modes. Whereas previously photographers often kept to just shooting stills, you find that due to the convergence of the devices and global money issues, more photographers are treading into video production as a secondary income. In this article, I am going to share some tips that I have learned over the last few years that have helped me out. It turns out it's more like still shooting than you think.

Step 1 - Use a tripod

When shooting photography it is great to use a tripod, however when dealing with video its a different story. In almost ALL cases you will need to use a tripod or some sort of stabilizer, nothing screams amateur more than wobbly footage.

Obviously a fixed camera location is only useful for half the amount of shots you need to shoot. Often you will need to walk around or move with a subject. For these tasks you will need a specialized rig which uses weights to keep the camera still. Steadicam are the most well known for their rigs, however they are very expensive at approximately $5000. You can purchase or even build yourself a much cheaper rig such as the brilliant CowboyStudio Shoulder Support Pad at just $35 which, due to price and quality, is very popular.

If you are lucky enough to have a bit of extra cash you might even want to look into slider rigs, dolly rigs or camera cranes. For further reading check out a previous tutorial on How to Build Your Own Digital SLR Video Dolly for Under $20.

You will want to make sure you have a heavy duty tripod that firmly locks your camera into place. Cheap lightweight tripods are fine for stills but have too much movement when shooting video. A good idea would be to purchase a tripod head designed for video, these heads are able to be locked on all axis and will stop all movement apart from in the axis you plan to move. Manfrotto have a great range that are available at all most camera stores.

Step 2 - Remember your fundamental visual skills

I've always been told there are three things that make a good picture: light, composition and moment. These all apply to video, too. Look for or create great light for you video shoots. Those aforementioned tripods vary in height, so don't get stuck making those same eye-level compositions over and over again. And finally, make sure your video is full of great moments. This should be much easier on video, because you have the ability to film the whole time around the good moments instead of just having to rely on your timing skills.

Composition is easily the most lacking in most amateur video. Think creatively, just like you would if you were shooting stills. Create layers, use the rule-of-thirds, and pay close attention to your focal length. This will immediately take your video to the next level.

Step 3 - Leave the camera rolling

A tip I learned very quickly when starting to shoot video is to leave around 5 seconds on the beginning and 5 seconds at the end of your footage.

For example when shooting interviews, people are very quick to jump the gun and start speaking as soon as your hit that record button. During the first few seconds of shooting some cameras are still busy finalizing the lighting and focus.

When editing your footage, you will want to clip out these first few seconds, however if the person you are shooting has already started talking it often becomes impossible.

The same theory goes when merging two interview clips together, you want another space in between to make it sound like the person has taken a small pause.

Leaving it rolling at the end allows you to make sure you don't accidentally cut anyone or anything off. Just remember you can always cut out if needed but you can never add content. The same goes for those shots of stationary scenes or objects. Be sure to hold each shot for at least 10 seconds.

Image credits: winterofdiscontent

Step 4 - Get familiar with some film theory

The most important realization for me when beginning in video was that film is constructed of only two parts: a-roll and b-roll. A-roll is your interview or primary audio gathering shot. B-roll is what you lay over top of your a-roll to add more information visually. B-roll is typically less audio dependent. B-roll is sometimes referred to as cutaway footage.

When you watch video and look for this distinction. You'll see a person talking, then the camera cuts away to something else while you continue to hear the voice of the person. You realize quickly that the a-roll and b-roll were film and separate times and pieced together alters.

Also realize that both a-roll and b-roll are made up of smaller clips. These clips should be approached similarly to shooting stills. You'll probably notice that no one clip is on screen for more than a few seconds

Step 5 - Work out focus points beforehand

When watching TV or films you will often see a popular effect where the camera is focusing on an object in the foreground and then it quickly changes focus onto something in the background. The apprentice is a prime example of a TV show that uses this technique.

The focusing is always perfect and that's because the cinematographer has previously focused on each point and then marked the perfect focusing distance. When it comes down to filming all the cinematographer has to do is turn the focus ring to the pre-marked point. The term "follow focus" is often applied this function, though that terms applies to a broader set of focusing applications.

There are a number of gadgets which will help this process. A large number of specialist SLR gear has been designed and made in the last year including the Genus Bravo Follow Focus System for DSLR Camera (pictured) in which you can purchase for $599.

However if like myself you don't just have a spare $600 sitting around alternatives include the DSLR Follow Focus which is just $60. It uses just a basic clamp combined with a velcro strap, however the results are very similar to the more expensive systems.

If you own a Canon camera you might find my tutorial Remote Shooting: Using Your Laptop as Monitor and Control for Your Canon DSLR helpful. As often the screen on the DSLR is too small to accurately judge your focus.

The Genus Bravo rig

Step 6 - Plan in advanced

When shooting a video there is often nothing worst than arriving to a shoot and not having an action plan. Clients often start pointing out things for you to film with no idea how they merge together or come together to create a final film.

Keep things dead simple. Sit down with your client and create a story board before you go with a clear beginning, middle and an end. A story board can be just be a list, but traditionally was a series of drawn panels with rough sketches of what each shot should look like. There are a variety of story boarding computer programs available as well.

Your first few shots should be establishing shots and instantly set the scene in the mind of someone watching. For example, if you were to shoot a car race then the establishing shot would most likely be of the racetrack. An establishing shot is most commonly shot with a wide angle lenses which allows the person watching to see as much as the scene/subject as possible.

The middle should contain the main bulk of the content and be where the most important content should be placed. In this example, it would be the actual race.

The end should conclude and should feel like either a point has been made or that the scene is over. Back to the racing idea, a shot of the cars passing the finishing line with a fade to black would instantly bring a sensible close to the video.

If it is possible, try to scout out the location beforehand so that you can understand camera angles, positioning and also the location of the sun. Remember that we live in the digital age, and with Google street view you can almost place yourself in any outdoors scene (as long as it is next to a public road).

Obviously not all films can be planned for, such as weddings or sports photography. However you should still pre-plan and pack the correct lenses and equipment.

Image credits: LDragan-Sute

Step 7 - Shoot more than you need

I worked as an video editor for a number of months and when editing one of the most annoying things can be that you simply don't have enough clips to choose from. Some clips just don't merge together and no amount of editing will help your cause. Having that extra shot to slip in and break two shots up can be ideal.

A real life example would be of a trailer I put together sometime last year. I was given well over 3 hours of content to create a 40 second trailer. The trailer was for a famous motor cross rider in the UK and it consisted of shots that only lasted for a maximum of around a second. When I edited the trailer together I thought carefully about each each shot and only placed clips together that merged well. An example would be of a wide shot of the rider going around a corner, followed straight after with a slow motion close up shot of the wheel shooting up dirt and followed by another wide shot.

The cameraman had often shot the same scene 5 times using many different angles, distances and also speeds. He had shot the video using a RED one camera and therefore was able to shoot in actual slow motion. However a large number of DSLR cameras do include the shooting mode of 60FPS, which can be slowed down in post production.

To conclude just make sure you shoot a great selection of wide and close-up footage as you will want to edit these two together to avoid editing too avoid visual redundancy.

Image credits: RHW-Photography

Step 8 - Audio


If you want to be taken seriously as a cinematographer then you will need to sort out some extra audio gear. The built in mics are getting better, but for serious work such as short films or interviews then I would suggest purchasing an actual microphone.

It doesn't mean that you need to spend thousands on a boom mic and multiple microphones. To start just simply invest in a high quality microphone such as the Rode VideoMic or the Sennheiser MKE 400. The other external microphones can come later on if you need them.

Top tip: Don't buy a cheap one on Ebay, I made the mistake and amazingly its actually got poorer quality audio than my 7D.

Background Music:

Its also a good idea to have background music and effects in mind when shooting. It is very common to edit your footage to the beat of the music, so for example with fast paced audio you want lots of quick snappy footage.

Just remember that you can't just use any song you purchase, you need to have full permission to use in your video. Be aware music labels are often very fussy and will want huge amounts of money for use of their songs. I once got a quote in the £10,000 mark for a song that was currently in the charts, amazingly enough the client quickly found an alternative.

One of the most famous sites within the video industry is Audio Network which offers some amazing songs, however these range from £150-£300 ($249-480) for commercial use or 75p-£1 for personal/student use. (Go down the most popular 10 songs and I will bet you will have heard almost everyone of them on TV in the last week)

However don't forget about one of Phototuts+ sister sites called Audio Jungle. These songs can be used as background tracks for your videos for the much cheaper price of around $4(commercial and non-commercial).

Step 9 - Approach visual clips like you approach stills

As mentioned earlier, clips are the sort pieces that make up a video. When shooting clips be intentional. That means, don't just wander around with your camera. Set down your tripod or stand in one place, like you would for still, and make your clip.

When shooting these, think of making a still with a few extra tools. You still have the rule-of-thirds and depth-of-field, but now you also have motion and pans and zooms.

Motion is just what is moving in front of you. Sometimes you'll want to follow it, other times you'll want to try letting it enter and leave your frame. Imagine a person walking. You can keep them in the frame by panning with them, or you can stay static and let them walk through the frame. Both have their place.

Panning is achieved by moving the camera up and down or left and right. You can pan across a crowd room. You can also pan up the wheel of a car. This is a way of showing details of a larger picture.

Zooms are achieved with zoom lenses. You can zoom into something small in the scene, or start off zoomed in and reveal the environment by zooming out. I find that zooming in rarely works. It usually has a voyeur feel and often appears sloppy and undirected. Conversely, zooming out from something often works quite well.

When you apply one of these techniques to a clip, you can think of it just like applying a technique to a still. You might try the same shot with a deep and shallow depth of field. You might also try the same video clip with a pan then a zoom and then perfectly still.

Too many pans and zooms can literally be sickening, so give the movement a rest for parts of your video. This will let the viewer regain focus and tame any nausea.

Step 10 - Lighting

Lighting in photography is very important and the same can be said when shooting video. Try to use natural light when you can, DSLR sensors are able to cope with low light better than most video cameras can.

However, owning some lighting gear can be very handy at points. Small LED Lite panels or even some video capable fluorescent lights can help when filming.

I often find that the use of a reflector is very helpful when dealing with video. They allow you to reflect the light and focus on a subject. I found they are great when shooting people as you are able to reflect a nice warm glow onto the face of the person. Using a reflector also means you're only dealing with one light temperature, making white balance more easy. For more information check out my past article.

Further reading:

Advice & Recommendations for Digital SLR Video Gear

Thanks for reading

I hope you have found this article interesting and hopefully learnt something about video that you previously didn't know. If you are still unsure about any of the points please comment and I will attempt to answer them the best I can.

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