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Nothing brings out the camcorders like the holidays, which is why this is the perfect time to admit an ugly truth: You suck at making home movies.
No, really. I’m sure you’re a nice person and all, but there’s more to videography than just taking the camcorder out of the box and pressing Record.
As with photography, good videography requires a bit of know-how. Luckily, I know how, so here’s my list of ways you can improve your home movies. You won’t come out Soderbergh on the other side, nor even Singer, but your Uncle-Henry-dropped-the-turkey-on-Aunt-Edna’s-head submission to America’s Funniest Home Videos will look a lot better.
Canberra Video Production ACT team tip 1. RTFM
A good fisherman knows what’s in his tackle box, and a good videographer knows his camcorder. The moment Junior takes his first steps or a spaceship lands in the backyard, you should be able to adjust the shutter speed, turn off the autofocus, or do whatever else is necessary to capture the best images. In other words, learn your camcorder inside and out. Read the manual—twice. Know how to access the menus, which menus contain which settings, and so on. Keep a crib sheet handy if necessary (laminate a 3×5 card, hole-punch it, and attach it to the neck strap). A little bit of study and preparation can go a long way toward helping you shoot better video. Now, onto the advice you might actually follow.
Canberra Video Production ACT team tip 2. Be prepared
Anytime you go somewhere with your camcorder, here’s what you should be packing:
At least one spare battery, fully charged.
At least two more blank tapes than you think you’ll need.
A lens-cleaning cloth. No matter how careful you are, the lens is going to get smudged. There’s no post-production software filter in the world that can correct for that.
A tripod. Throw it in the trunk, even if you don’t think you’ll need it.
The battery charger/power supply.
An extension cord for the power supply, which you’ll invariably need.
Duct tape, for taping down the extension cord so people don’t trip over it.
Lighting gear, lens filters, microphones, and any other accessories you own. You bought them for a reason, right? Bring ’em!
Canberra Video Production ACT team tip 3. Use a tripod
It’s a lot harder than it looks to pull off that cool shaky-camera look. Most home video just ends up looking shaky, which is absolutely no fun to watch. By mounting your camcorder on a $20 tripod, you’ll get rock-steady footage. At the same time, you’ll free yourself to perform pans and zooms, or even to get in front of the lens. If you’re planning to rely on your camera’s digital image-stabilization feature, don’t. All that does is lower the video resolution by cropping to the center of the frame. Optical image stabilization is better, but it still can’t beat a tripod.
No tripod? Lean against a wall. That’ll help keep the shakiness to a minimum. No wall? Put your butt on the ground, bend your knees, and prop your elbows on them. Presto: instant tripod.
Canberra Video Production ACT team tip 4. Raise the lights
To paraphrase the old real estate maxim, good videography is all about lighting, lighting, lighting. Most of the camcorders I’ve reviewed over the years do a really crummy job under poor lighting, producing grainy, washed-out video that can’t be improved in post-production. (Hey, there’s only so much your video-editing software can do.) The easiest way to overcome lighting issues is to shoot outdoors, where even a cloudy day produces enough ambient light to keep your video crisp and colorful. If it’s sunny, try to shoot in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky. When it’s directly overhead, it casts unflattering shadows on subjects’ faces.
When shooting outdoors isn’t an option, bring as much light into the room as you can. Turn on lamps and open blinds to let outside light in. If your camcorder has a built-in light, use it. At the very least, it will help bring out faces in close-up shots. A shoe-mounted external light can be helpful as well. Many camcorders allow you to adjust aperture, white balance, shutter speed, and other light-oriented settings, but these will get you only so far unless it’s a really high-end model. My advice for when the lights are low is to disable the autofocus, otherwise you risk getting that annoying pulsing effect from the lens trying to lock onto a subject.
Canberra Video Production ACT team tip 5. Ace the audio
If lighting is the most important element in quality video, audio runs a close second. Unfortunately, this is one area where it can be difficult to achieve professional results. The microphones built into most camcorders are fairly basic, recording audio from any direction. If you’re trying to film someone talking near a busy street, the traffic may drown out the person’s voice. Your best bet is to get your subject(s) as close to the microphone as possible (without sabotaging the shot, of course).
Ideally, your camcorder should have a jack for plugging in an external microphone. There are many varieties to choose from, including: shotgun mikes for capturing audio directly in front of the lens; lavaliere (a.k.a. tie-clip) mikes for sit-down interviews and stand-up reporting; and pzm-type mikes, which are omni-directional and therefore suitable for auditoriums, large conference rooms, and the like. Hopefully, any camcorder outfitted with a microphone jack will also have one for headphones, which is essential for monitoring audio levels as you record.
Canberra Video Production ACT team tip 6. Set up your shots
Smart photographers obey the “rule of thirds,” and you should do the same. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board over your viewfinder. The lines intersect in four spots. Your goal should be to frame the action using one or more of those spots. Or, to put it another way, keep the birthday girl out of the center square.
Photography Tip of the Day: Move it from the middle
Amateur photographers are notorious for their instinct to center everything. Unfortunately centered …
Of course, if you’re feeling creative, you can always throw this rule out the window. But don’t go overboard: Many amateurs fall in love with their camcorders’ built-in special effects, then later regret filming an entire birthday party in “old movie” mode. Although these effects can be fun, use them sparingly—or not at all. Better you should start with pristine color video, then apply special effects using your editing software. Likewise, skip the camcorder’s auto-fade features; your editing software will give you far greater control over transitions, and greater variety as well.
Canberra Video Production ACT team tip 7. No digital zoom!
Optical zoom, good. Digital zoom, bad. Very bad. Sorry if you were suckered into buying a particular camcorder because it touted some astronomical digital-zoom number (240X! 300X! 800X!), you should never use it—unless you like grainy, pixilated video. Digital zoom is actually a big fake: As you increase the zoom level, the camcorder crops further and further into the center of the image, enlarging that cropped portion so it fills the screen. As a result, your video looks, well, awful. Stick with your camcorder’s optical zoom (usually you can turn off digital zoom from within the camera’s menu system), which relies solely on the lens for magnification. If you need to get closer to your subject, follow the old photographer’s maxim: zoom with your feet.
Photography Tip of the Day: Turn off digital zoom
While you’re out buying a new digital camera or simply taking pictures, remember optical zoom…
Canberra Video Production ACT team tip 8. Shoot B-roll
B-roll is secondary footage that you splice into your primary video to flesh out the story. For instance, if you’re filming a wedding, you might take shots of the church, the invitation, and the little bride and groom atop the cake. When the time comes to assemble your final movie, you can mix in this footage to add variety.
Anything can be B-roll. During the warm-up before the soccer game, for instance, get some footage of just the kids’ feet. Grab a close-up shot of the ball hitting the net. Get there early and record the empty field; then record from the same position during the game and you can do a neat fade-in. This is where planning comes into play: You should not only allow extra time to shoot B-roll, but also determine in advance what shots will make the best additions.