While many of the standard photography tips apply to moving images as well as still images, shooting video comes with its own set of rules.
Understanding basic concepts like DSLR sensor crop and how to read a histogram are important. But there are settings, tools, and equipment unique to video that can take your footage to the next level.
With that in mind, here are some simple tips to help budding videographers shoot better video.
1. Shutter Speed = Frame Rate x 2
Have you ever shot a video and noticed that the movement in your shot is a bit jerky? Do you miss out on silky smooth motion blur like you see in the movies? That’s probably because you have your shutter speed set too high.
Conversely, if your footage looks a bit too soft (or becomes jerky) then you’re probably shooting a little too slow. A good rule to follow is to set your shutter speed at twice the speed of your framerate.
So if you’re shooting at 25p (that’s 25 frames per second, the PAL standard) then you should use 1/50 shutter speed. Shooting high speed 100p? Pick a shutter speed of 1/200.
Doing this will smooth out the movement in your shots, without the subject and still elements becoming blurry. However, you’ll probably need to…
2. Use Neutral Density Filters
If you’re using the rule of doubles, you might find your shutter speed is too slow for your chosen aperture. To get shallow depth of field when shooting with a wide aperture (e.g. f/1.4 or f/2.8), you’ll need to reduce your exposure so that your shot isn’t too bright.
Neutral Density filters are like sunglasses for your camera. They reduce the amount of light entering your lens, which allows you to push the aperture wider while maintaining optimal shutter speed. Exactly how much light you need to filter out depends on your shooting conditions.
For shooting in the midday sun, you’ll want a filter with a higher optical density. ND filters are measured in “ND numbers.” As an example, ND 0.3 reduces incoming light by one stop while ND 1.5 reduces the light by five stops.
You can either buy a full set of filters, or you can buy a variable ND filter which can be twisted to increase or decrease density. These screw on to lenses like a polarizer or UV filter. Generally speaking, the more you spend on an ND filter, the better the image quality. Variable ND filters can introduce banding and uneven results (especially the cheap ones).
In order to save money, it’s best to buy larger than you need to cover all your lenses and then get the relevant step-down rings you need to use them. This means you can use a single set (or single variable filter) on all of your lenses, simply by buying a few cheap step-down rings.
3. Shoot “Flat” Video if You Can
Many cameras allow you to shoot flat or “log” video, which sacrifices contrast and color for dynamic range. The result is a washed-out looking image, with more detail than standard footage, that can be better adjusted in post.
You’ll have to explore your camera’s abilities, but Sony shooters have access to professional-grade log video like Slog2 and Slog3, while Panasonic cameras come with Cine-D, Cine-V and an optional upgrade of vLog. Other gamma profiles like Cine4 provide tangible benefits over your camera’s basic settings.
Once you transfer your footage to an editor, you can adjust parameters like contrast and saturation as you would when editing a still photo. You can apply a tone curve to push the available dynamic range to its limits, and add a LUT (lookup table) file for an instant makeover.
The most important thing is to learn how to properly expose for a flat image, since there’s no hard and fast rule that applies to all gamma profiles. As an example, Slog2 should be overexposed by up to two stops to avoid color banding in the shadows.
4. Minimize Camera Zoom
In-camera zoom looks terrible. While you’ll sometimes see it used on the news and in documentaries, it’s rarely ever used in cinematic productions for a reason. If you want to zoom, you’re better off doing it with your feet instead.
Some lenses feature a “power zoom” slider which makes it all the more tempting to do this, but your footage will look better if you decide on a focal length for your shot and stick with it. There are exceptions to every rule, but most of the time this is one rule worth remembering.
5. Add Movement to Your Shots
While you should always strive for stable footage, that doesn’t mean you should avoid movement entirely. A solid tripod shot can work well for a straight interview or time-lapse, but you shouldn’t be afraid to pick your camera up and grab some handheld b-roll either.
A moving image is more appealing than a static one. When you walk down the street, your gaze is drawn to flashing lights and projected images. When you browse the web adverts flicker and dance for your attention. Even subtle movement, like a slow pull-in on your subject, can do wonders.
Wide-angle lenses emphasise even the smallest movement at the edge of the frame. If you’re shooting from a moving vehicle or on a gimbal such as the Zhiyun Crane 2, choose a wider lens for a more dramatic effect.
You might also want to increase your framerate (e.g. 50p if your camera supports it), which gives you the option of slowing down your footage in post. This will smooth out camera shake, allowing you to get away with more handheld footage.
6. Rethink Your Scene
Force yourself to think creatively in the moment. Shoot the exact same scene from different angles, be experimental, be bold, and you can always fall back on your “safe” footage. Shoot wide to add a sense of scale and expanse to your video. Get closer to interesting subjects in order to build atmosphere.
A good example is a street scene: shoot wide to cover the street, then get closer to interesting objects that provide more detail about your location. Shoot signs, street lamps, shop fronts, and people. Highlight the weather, the ambient lighting, the time of day, and other environmental factors.
This might sound like an obvious point to make, but you can never have enough footage.
Now Get Out and Shoot Some Video!
While tips like these may feel empowering, the only thing that’s going to improve you as a videographer is practice. Learn to use the equipment you need to the best of your ability, and remember that no amount of money or equipment can guarantee great footage. At the end of the day you’ll need to do most of the work yourself.