Good video is not the result of having the latest camera, support gizmo, etc. Ultimately conceptualization, good composition, smooth movement, and clean sound are the most important components of the shooting process. Here are twelve guidelines to assist your production practice and in your reflection on your results:
1. Do not keep your distance and zoom in to get different shots, but discover the normal to wide range of the lens and get in close to your subjects. You will discover the beauty of the close-up and the mobility of the camera, getting really close with interesting and unusual angles will help you develop your own visual style.
2. Work on getting interesting foreground and background elements in your frame. Position yourself to get the “angle plus angle” so that you show the three dimensionality of your image. This may mean ducking down or looming above your subject, if appropriate, play around until you find the most pleasing angle. It’s not just your subject in the frame, the background plays an important part of the story too, you need to be aware of frame, angle, foreground, and foreground at the same time. In most cases avoid shooting subjects in front of a white wall unless you want a “floating in limbo” effect.
3. Fill the frame with what is significant. The size of the object in the frame is relative to its importance. This also means that the space around the subject should be significant, so don’t fl￼oat your subject in a lot of space if you don’t need to. Do not be shy of using partial images of an object, as this suggests that the image continues offscreen. Use the standard shot sizes for the human figure, but remember that due to the size of the screen on which many people will watch videos (mobile devices and computer screens) you should favor the close-up side of the spectrum. Use a close up if in doubt. Avoid the natural divisions of the body, e.g. don’t give a “lollipop” shot of the head, try to include a hint of shoulder. Avoid excessive headroom. Give subjects some space to talk into whenever appropriate to the left or right.
4. Cover the action using a variety of different shots in terms of both shot sizes and locations, and make sure you have points of overlapping action or good starting and end frames when there is camera movement so that it will be easier to edit them together. Variety is the spice of life and in the editing room you’re going to be cursing yourself if you don’t come back with a variety of shots.
5. Compose your frames using the rule of thirds to make sure you end up with pleasing, balanced compositions. This may require tha￼t you shift your framing to attain the best composition after you’ve zoomed in to focus and then zoomed back. This is a good rule to learn, then break it whenever needed. See Composition: Rule of Thirds for more details.
6. Plan your shoots for good lighting, but this does not mean you need lots of gear. Open curtains. Choose to shoot scenes outside during the morning or evening when ￼lighting is best because the sun is at an angle instead of directly overhead. A key light coming from the side or behind the subject is more pleasing than harsh overhead light. Don’t shoot someone in front of a window unless you’re using it as side lighting, or when you can provide sufficient interior light to compensate for the window. If it’s too sunny try to find a position in the shade, away from direct sunlight. Dark skinned subjects should preferably not wear white tops as that will wreak havoc with trying to set to a balanced exposure. Side lighting is always more beautiful, position your subjects so that they are lit by the natural light coming from a side window.
7. Keep the camera still while you are filming, this may very well be the most important rule. If you move the camera, move from one well composed shot to the other, and make sure the move is smooth and motivated. Make sure to provide each shot with a “head” and “tail” to make editing easier. Editing means the action is revealed in the cut, not in the movement of the camera. Avoid the firehose technique: searching left and right with the camera never still for a moment. Avoid your natural instinct to dart left and right and up and down and discipline yourself to count for seven seconds “one thousand, two thousand…” until you have your shot. It’s OK if your subject enters or exits the frame, those will provide you with great cutting points later. Resist the urge to always follow your subject, but again, like any rule, break this if it makes sense. Keeping the camera still does not mean you can’t move from composition A to composition B, but stay on A and B long enough so you have choices in the editing room of when to cut in and when to cut out.
8. Video is about time and space, the frame is rarely static like photography, therefore, think about the role of movement, shapes, texture, dimension, etc. as components of your storytelling, find ways to incorporate the spectacular visuals that are available to you in terms of sequences that follow one another over time. Look for those shots that help tell your story in a visual manner. Each shot is part of a sequence helping to create meaning though the juxtaposition of shots. Take time to appreciate the wonder of the visual landscape that surrounds you, and any natural sequences you observe along the way, what are the processes change over time in the realm you’re observing? The moving sun? Machinery? Traffic? Wind? Pedestrians?
9. Sound is the other half of the picture. In addition to shooting interviews, cutaways, and b-roll, record sound effects and ambient sounds that help create the aural texture of a place, situation, or event. Take time to appreciate the wonder of the aural landscape that surrounds you, the sounds of the environment you’re shooting in will add to the emotional, evocative quality of your work. Under most circumstances built-in camera mic audio is going to suck unless you are shooting close to the subject and in a very quiet room. If you’re not using an external microphone, plan your video so that you can use sound that you recorded afterwards in a quiet location. But always get the best ambient sound you can. Position your microphone (preferably an external one) as close to the sound source as possible. If you are placing a lavaliere mic on a subject, place this in the upper chest area. When you record dialogue on location, always make sure the background is quiet. If you can ask people to stop making a noise, go ahead and take this extra step. When shooting outdoors, shield the microphone with a windjammer to avoid wind noise. When shooting indoors, close windows and doors, switch off sources of noise like air conditioners. Wireless microphone kits are perfect for mobile subjects but add a layer of complexity to your productrion.
10. Don’t be afraid of multiple textures. If you have a video-capable mobile phone, shoot with that too! It’s good to mix footage shot with different cameras to add a variety of textures to your work. In addition, since each type of camera has its own strengths and weaknesses, it’s good to understand the differences while expanding your visual palette.
11. Shoot in the right video format. Shoot in a progressive video format and avoid shooting in a interlaced format. Decide on whether you’re going to shoot your project in 30p or 24p and learn the pros and cons of these two formats (that could be an entire post in and of itself). If you want less motion blur and better slow-motion, then shoot at 60p.
12. Pay attention to exposure and white balance. Be meticulous and shoot everting with proper white balance and perfect exposure, which makes it easier to do post-processing effects and to make image processing decisions in postproduction rather than while shooting. In most cases, it is better to start with a perfectly exposed and color balanced video, and then take care of looks and effects processing to the postproduction phase where you can try things and back out changes. Over exposing or under exposing video results in the permanent loss of highlight or shadow details, respectively. Learn how to use the exposure tools provided by your camera (e.g. histogram and/or zebras and/or waveform monitor).
All that said, I want to end on one of my favorite quotes, which sums up for me the essential attitude of an observational documentary maker:
The making of sequences is, for me, at the heart of film making. I had always assumed that you just got the bits of an action and put it together and Bingo! you have a sequence. But there are all kinds of things that you may want to convey with a sequence and it was not until I worked as cameraman on Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story that I started to learn from him, the complexity of this process. […] We shot and shot. If something appealed to us, never mind that it wasn’t in the script, film it. A beautiful cloud, swallows wheeling through the sky preparing to migrate, a water-lily pad with a drop of water on it in perfect light, a spider completing the building of its web. Often the camera in motion or panning and tilting, no rules except look, look through the camera lens, search. — Richard Leacock, “A Search for the Feeling of Being There,” May 20, 1997 (download PDF).
This and Ricky’s other essays on filmmaking are inspiring and highly recommended reading for anyone making documentaries. On a related note,
The following tutorials are available through lynda.com (if you are a student, check to see if your academic institutions provides free access):
- “Foundations of Video: Cameras and Shooting w/Anthony Q. Artis”
- “Video Production Techniques: Location Audio Recording w/ Anthony Q. Artis”
- “Video Production Techniques: Location Lighting w/ Anthony Q. Artis”
- “Foundations of Video: Interviews w/ Anthony Q. Artis”
- Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary by Nancy Kalow (Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, 2011) provides a concise introduction to making short documentary videos with modest equipment and is available as a free PDF download.
- The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide by Anthony Q. Artis (Focal Press, 2nd edition, 2014) is the best no-nonsense handbook on low-budget video production I’ve come across covering essential tools, technique, and guidance for achieving the best results on a low budget, well worth worth the price!
- The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and breaking) the rules of cinematic composition by Gustavo Mercado (Focal Press, 2011) a good next step for those interested in composition.
These guidelines are based, in part, on guidelines developed by Alette Schoon, Lecturer in Television Production, Rhodes University, South Africa. Frame stills from Farm and Red Moon, a feature documentary currently in production by Audrey Kali and David Tamés.
Minor edits were made to this post on February 12, 2018 to fix broken links and update the resource list at the end.