If you’re an independent filmmaker or a photographer and you’re thinking of using a DSLR to shoot a movie then the video-making old guard are afraid of you.
Well, maybe not of you personally, but of what you represent.
The evolution of consumer camcorders has slowed significantly in recent years, and taken a few wrong turns into the bargain, whilst DSLRs have shown no such decline. The result is that just half a decade after Nikon added a video mode to one of their DSLRs, it’s now possible to shoot better video on a DSLR than you’ll manage using a dedicated camcorder that was built for the job. Sharper pictures, less picture noise and interference and a far greater control of depth-of-field mean that the footage produced by an average DSLR trumps that produced by a very similarly priced camcorder.
Old school videomakers, who have spent years working with and upgrading their videomaking kit now fear that the indy film market, the wedding and corporate videography business, and local TV channels that have made up the core of their work are going to be snatched away from them by a horde of DSLR wielding students and ex-photographers.
Before you let that go to your head, however, you should remember that traditional videomakers have skills that few photographers have ever needed and, arguably, a more refined grasp of many of the shared skills. A piece of video footage is not one simple composed image, but numerous ones strung together over several minutes, evolving and changing. To shoot a video you need to know when and why an editor will cut from one shot to another, you need to regard focus and exposure not as a variable to get right before hitting the shutter but as a mutable condition that needs to be monitored and adjusted on an ongoing basis. Oh, and let’s not forget sound recording. Or dramatic editing. Or camera moves…
For all that, the languages of photography and videography are a similar mix of focal lengths, pixel counts, CCDs and lenses, the skills behind the two disciplines have as many differences as they do similarities. Over the next few pages we’ll be pointing out new ways to use your existing photography skills when shooting a video, and guiding you through the acquisition of some new, video-specific skills.
Buying a Video DSLR: The Basics
Buying a DSLR capable of shooting video can be a wise move but requires a little research prior to parting with the cash…
There’s a simple reason why DSLRs are overtaking dedicated camcorders as a tool for shooting video: they’re better at it. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but these days the odds are good enough to put money on that the average DSLR outperforms the average camcorder. That means there’s a very good chance that if you’ve already got a DSLR of a fairly recent vintage then you’re already tooled up to shoot good video, but if you’re planning to go out and buy one, there are a few things to take into account.
First and foremost, you’re shopping for a good camera. We’ve yet to come across a DSLR that’s average as a camera but brilliant as a camcorder. Good design and a quality build will out, so you’ll need to start by shopping for a good DSLR, then narrow your shortlist by considering video specific factors. Of course, there are plenty of factors that are important in both video and stills shooting. We’ll be covering the fine details of camera technology as it relates to specific cameras in our other sections later in the magazine, but knowing the fundamentals will help you put together a valuable shortlist.
No matter what the High Street salesmen try to tell you, there’s no single component in a DSLR that’s more important than the others. A good lens feeding a poor quality chip, or a high megapixel chip feeding data to an image processor that can’t keep up with the deluge of data it needs to compress, is a recipe for fizzy pictures or ropey colours. Don’t be tempted by cheap internet deals, go to a specialist camera shop where the staff are experienced photographers and make use of their knowledge to get a DSLR that suits your needs.
Chips on the side
DSLRs use one of two types of chip, the CCD (Charge Coupled Device) or the CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductors). Both do essentially the same job, registering the chrominance and luminance (colour and brightness) values of the light landing on their pixels and feeding that data to the image processor. Traditionally, CMOS chips were slightly weaker in low light situations, but compensated by drawing far less power from the battery and being less expensive, lowering the cost of the camcorder as a whole. If you’re buying an older camera, this is a factor to consider, but these days the tech has advanced to the point where there is little to distinguish between CMOS and CCD in themselves, and you should instead consider the pixel count and sensor shape.
On traditional camcorders, you’ll often see pixel counts similar to those found on DSLRs, yet the chips themselves will be tiny – often only a fraction of an inch in size. DSLRs benefit from having larger imaging chips, so the photoreceptors themselves are larger and more sensitive meaning that, all things being equal, a 10-megapixel DSLR should shoot cleaner footage than a 10-megapixel camcorder.
Of course, all things are rarely equal, are they? In this case, the dimensions of the chip itself can play a role. You’ll most commonly find that you have a choice of APS-C, Four Thirds or Full Frame. Technically, the differing dimensions of these chips can affect the quality of the footage recorded, but in practice the skill of the photographer will be the most important factor. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering what you’re likely to be shooting: APS-C sensors tend to have a narrower field of view than those of a Full Frame model, so your trade-off is that a smaller, less expensive APS-C equipped camera will need a wide-angle lens if you want to capture David Lean-style epic panoramas. The Four Thirds system takes this ‘crop factor’ even further, but compensates for it by greatly reducing the likelihood of vignetting at the corner of your images and allowing for telephoto lenses with sizeable magnifications to be created in very small, light barrels. This can be a big deal for certain types of videomaker, such as wildlife shooters, who need a powerful zoom lens but don’t want the arm-ache that comes from having an enormous chunk of glass attached to the front of their camera.
Speaking of glass, the other major benefit to shooting video on a DSLR is the wide variety and easy availabilty of camera lenses – video lenses don’t come cheap, and camcorders that can use them barely exist outside of the professional market. By comparison, you can get a good DSLR and a couple of lenses and still have change from the price of a similarly capable camcorder with no extra lenses.
Video is hungry
As more and more TV and motion picture productions moved from film to video, a saying arose amongst cameramen – “video is hungry”. Naturally, all photographers are aware that they’re working with light, but when you start shooting moving pictures you come to realise just how much light video wants. When buying a DSLR for video, you want one with a high light sensitivity. Look for a model that offers ISO settings up to 1600-3200.
The form factor is one of the most vital points when it comes to shooting video with a DSLR. Imagine your basic handheld photo – you spend a few seconds composing the shot, a few more tweaking the exposure and fine tuning the focus, double check everything, then shoot. It takes maybe thirty or forty seconds to set up and a fraction of a second to take the shot. With video, you’ll frequently find that the shot itself lasts at least as long as the set up time, if not longer. Those tiny little weight imbalances on your camera body, that little bulge in the handgrip that makes you flex your wrist? They may only be a minor distraction over the space of forty seconds, but over the course of two or three minutes shooting they’ll become genuinely uncomfortable, and could potentially induce some footage ruining camera shake in your wrist.
Because of this, you might want to balance the higher quality of a Full Frame camera against the smaller, lighter form of an APS-C or Four Thirds model. Practice holding, shooting, panning and moving with the camera over several minutes at a time and see how comfy it is to use – when shooting video it will spend more time in your hands than hanging around your neck, unlike when you’re shooting stills.
Given the greater likelihood of shooting from high and low angles, you’ll also want to consider a model with a maneuverable LCD screen. These come in a variety of forms. Sony, for example, offers a screen that can be flipped up or down, and extended a significant distance from the body of the camcorder, while Canon and Nikon tend to keep the screen close to the camcorder body, but offer a greater variety of angles and pivots. This sort of feature is a convenience for photographers, but for videomakers it’s a godsend. Ask any camera operator about the hardest shot they’ve taken and they’ll rarely describe a complex camera move or difficult lighting conditions – it will always be the uncomfortable shot. The shot where they spent two hours on a step ladder holding a camera level with the ceiling, unable to see either a remote monitor or the camera’s viewfinder.
The last thing to consider is that there are some things your DSLR won’t do as well as a camcorder: chances are you’ll need more storage than it comes with, and you’ll almost certainly want an external microphone, or even an entirely separate audio recording system. Set aside a little bit of your budget for useful accessories, we’ll be covering the most important ones in a few pages time.
Pros and cons of DSLR video
Using a DSLR and associated kit can revolutionise the way you capture footage, but there are a few drawbacks to be found along the way…
There are still a few people out there who will tell you that you need to use equipment to do the job it was made for: stills cameras for stills, and video cameras for video. These people would be right, if there were any hope that the video cameras of recent years had been made with excellent video capture in mind. Alas, that hasn’t been the case: the primary design aim of most consumer camcorders in recent years has been to become smaller and more web-connected. In itself this has produced plenty of products that are great for live blogging or taking on round-the-world tours, but less suitable for serious videography.
In the same period, DSLRs have increased their pixel counts, gained the processing power to handle video compression and, most importantly for budding videomakers, have done all that whilst maintaining the larger sized image chips found in DSLRs compared to camcorders.
The size of the chip is the main reason why DSLRs have become so popular among filmmakers. The larger chips found in DSLRs are more light sensitive and allow users to make far larger adjustments to the aperture than is possible with a 1/4in video chip, which would suffer from under-exposure and image fizz as the available light decreased.
With a DSLR, not only are the controls designed to allow for easier aperture adjustment (on a camcorder the aperture controls are usually electronic and tucked away in a menu), but the larger chip means that you can stop down much further than a camcorder will allow, so users can move from the sort of vast depth-of-field in which everything is seen sharply to a far narrower field in which certain elements of the composition can be sharply focused, while others remain soft-edged. A filmmaker would probably refer to it as the difference between an Akira Kurosawa shot and a David Lean shot or, as our old photography lecturer would have had it: “Take That are breaking up, Gary’s in the foreground, crying, Robbie’s in the background, blurred out.” Joking aside, the ability to convey such a clear message simply by controlling the depth-of-field is incredibly useful to filmmakers, and stills cameras offer it far more reliably than video.
Depth-of-field is the main factor in a DSLR’s favour, but not the only one. The ability to swap lenses is a given on full DSLRs at almost every price point, but is almost unheard of on most consumer camcorders with the exception of a few at the upper end of the price range. Even lens filters are harder to use on camcorders, as far fewer of them are made to match the smaller thread diameter found on camcorder lenses. DSLR users have an array of lenses and filters available to them that allow them to customise their images to a degree that most videomakers can’t begin to dream of.
Finally, there’s the simplest factors of all: size and price. Even those video cameras that can compete with a DSLR on performance can rarely match them on price, while the camcorders that can beat a DSLR for size and weight usually can’t match it for performance.
Lest you think we’re completely blinkered, however, it’s worth remembering that there are some hefty drawbacks to using DSLR for video that have to be overcome.
The most commonly cited difficulty in shooting DSLR video is maintaining a focus. Not only can you not trust the inbuilt auto-focus to keep up with the job, but the combination of camera moves and moving subjects will ensure that you’ll be refocusing constantly during a shoot. Fortunately, a combination of preparation, practice and a few amusingly simple yet invaluable shooting techniques covered in our technique section will mitigate this problem
Next up is the rolling shutter or “jelly effect” seen on many CMOS equipped camcorders, where the data from the image sensor is continuously fed to the processor line-by-line from the top to the bottom of the sensor, rather than feeding the entirety of the sensor data at frequent intervals. This means that there can be a fractional time difference between the recording of the top part of the frame and the bottom, causing objects moving through the frame to bend or even wobble annoyingly.
For larger productions, the lack of external monitoring can be a problem. DSLRs don’t have the outputs necessary to repeat their display “live” on an external monitor – the HDMI output on all but the priciest DSLRs is for playback of recorded footage rather than live monitoring. Single-operator jobs won’t find this particularly problematic, but if you’re shooting a larger production or a corporate video in which clients directors or DoPs want to have a look at what the camera operator is capturing, then the absence of an output can be at best annoying and at worst a source of genuine tension on the shoot.
Then there’s the absence of any serious audio-recording capability. Surprisingly, this isn’t quite as problematic as it may seem. A DSLR’s built in microphone is almost certainly not up to the task of recording decent sound for a video, but if you ask any serious videomaker they’ll tell you that the exact same caveat applies to video cameras themselves. The built-in mic has always been something of an afterthought in camcorder design simply because it’s assumed that casual users don’t care enough about their audio, whilst serious users will care enough to follow the golden rule of audio-recording: “Place the mic as close as possible to the source of the sound.” The assumption is that you will eschew the on-board mic in favour of recording separate audio on separate mics, and our technique section will teach you how to do that.
Finally, there’s the uncomfortable question, does size really matter? Ask any professional camera operator and they’ll tell you it does, but for the strangest of reasons. As cameras have become smaller and smaller they’ve been afforded far less respect from the casual passer-by. Gone are the days when simply hefting an ENG cam onto your shoulder would stop traffic for miles around. Small cameras simply don’t command a great deal of respect, and DSLRs even less, so-shooting a video on a DSLR in a public place will require endless reshoots as you’ll be repeatedly photo-bombed by people who wouldn’t dream of walking in front of a full-size video camera. While our technique section will show you how to solve all the other drawbacks of shooting DSLR video, for this one we can only suggest that you develop a zen attitude and take it in your stride. Or buy a big, imposing tripod to restore lost gravitas.
Do the paperwork
Any kind of video project is largely dependent on some careful planning. So get your project off to a great start by ensuring that you’ve got all of the paperwork covered
There’s no guarantee that doing your paperwork will definitely save you time, but you can be certain that if you don’t do it, you’ll end up accidentally wasting hours here and there, hours that could be spent polishing your shots to perfection. You’ll have far more time to make a great film if you take a deep breath and tackle the admin in advance.
The number of printouts, notelets, scraps and jottings accumulated by even a very small scale production is immense, but you need to concentrate on the big four, the quartet of papers that always make your production run smoothly.
Whether you’ve been onto the London Underground’s Film Office (http://tinyurl.com/dhroj5), begged access to parks after dark from your local council or been allowed into the nearest stately home by the Lord of the manor, chances are that at some point every production will need special permission to shoot at a specific location. The chances are also pretty good that someone on site won’t have been told that you’re allowed to be there.
The single biggest timewaster in independent productions is the spell in which the entire cast and crew stands around doing nothing, while a security guard spends half an hour on the phone to his boss. It’s never enough to get verbal permission, you need written permission that you can print out and carry with you at all times.
Two pieces of paper that are useful on their own and a godsend when combined. The shot list takes the linear progression of your script and storyboard and breaks it down into a non-linear, but extremely useful list of shots grouped by location and actor. Go over your script and establish every location at which you’ll be shooting, every shot that needs to be taken at each location, and every cast and crewmember that needs to present, then group them together and shoot them in that order, rather than visiting each location two or three times as each set of actors becomes available.
Next, take the locations on your shot list and draw a plan view of each of them. Mark on it all the camera positions you’ll be using. Then, break down all the shots according to the camera position you plan to shoot from and see which positions they cluster at. The finished diagram will allow you to capture all the shots from a given position at the same time, rather than lugging all your gear from position one to position two to position three, then back to position one again. As an added bonus, the diagram will also prevent you from accidentally crossing the 180-degree line. Because you’ll be shooting out of story order, you’ll need to mark the shot number on a clapperboard at the start of each take.
The Shooting Script
As soon as your production includes anything more than one actor and one director, you’ll find that your shooting script ends up being revised on an almost daily basis. Even short scripts for small crew productions go through several versions in the course of a production, and there’s nothing more disruptive to a scene than discovering that someone is working from an older version of the script. Even if your entire cast and crew consists of less than ten people, and your script is for a ten minute short, the cost of printing out new copies for everyone each time there’s a revision will be shocking.
Take a tip from professional productions – each time you make a revision, reprint only that page, and print it on a different coloured sheet, which can be slipped into the existing scripts, providing the entire production with a visual key to which script they’re using. Traditionally, the colour order for revisions goes: white, blue, pink, yellow, green, goldenrod, buff. A professional production may revise through several more colours, but for short films, any more than five or six revisions would suggest that the entire script needs more work.
Putting a picture together
Photographers and videographers compose their images using many of the same rules and instincts, yet the end results are very different. That one, striking moment of perfection in which the light, camera position and subjects come together in a photograph is inaccessible for a filmmaker, who isn’t seeking to freeze time so much as capture its passing.
The fact that the camera or subjects may be moving, and the need to cut from one shot to another to unfold a story mean that filmmakers usually use forward planning to move smoothly from one strong composition to the next, with as little “poor” composition as possible inbetween.
Where a photographer thinks in terms of composition, a filmmaker thinks about “mise en scene”, the combination of everything in front of the camera: this includes not only the subjects, their arrangement, the lighting and focus, but also their movements, interactions and their place in the overall scene – the flickering eyeline that will cause the editor to cut from one shot to the next, the change in perspective caused by a tilted camera.
Composition remains the largest part of mise en scene, it’s the reason why Orson Welles tore up the floorboards to get those dramatic low angle shots of Charles Foster Kane, it’s why Carol Reed dutched the camera in The Third Man, it’s why Reservoir Dogs starts with a circling camera. Where photography uses composition to capture a moment, video uses it to convey elements of the story, such as a character’s stature, paranoia or unity.
While many of the rules of composition are the interchangeable between photography and filmmaking, there are a few areas where the use of a DSLR can catch you out. The extra sensitivity, potentially narrower depth-of-field and the presence of an AF system designed for stills rather than moving pictures means it’s much harder to maintain a sharply focused shot when shooting video on a DSLR.
For static or mostly static shots you can set the camera up on a tripod and rely largely on the focus ring for minor adjustments. Zoom in on your subject, or on a nice sharp-edged item in the frame, and bring it into perfect focus, then zoom back out to the actual composition you want. New camera operators occasionally baulk at the idea of not focusing on the composition you intend to have in the finished shot, but professional videomakers will usually announce “it’ll only get sharper” as they zoom out to where they want to be.
Sadly, not all shots are simple enough to be set up with a simple twist of the lens barrel. Moving shots are comparatively easy if you’ve got enough depth-of-field to allow your subject plenty of moving room, but if you’re shooting video on a DSLR then you’re doing so because you want a shallow depth- of-field.
In this case, your best bet is to plan your shoot as best you can, mapping out or making educated guesses as to the movement you’ll be following and attempting to maintain a constant or near constant distance between your camera and the moving subject. With scripted shoots, this can all be planned out in advance and marked on your shot diagram, but in documentaries you’ll need to buy yourself as much wiggle room as possible. Try not to have too low an aperture – you want the depth-of-field to be narrow enough to throw the background out of focus, but not so narrow that a small change of focal length turns your subject into a screen smear.
Finally, if you’re planning where you simply can’t maintain a consistent distance between camera and subject, you could invest in a Follow Focus, a calibrated set of rails and gears that allow you to note the lens setting required at various focal lengths during the shot and accurately adjust your focus during the shot. It’s a sizeable expense for a tool that still requires your input to work properly, but if you master the use of a Follow Focus it will add a professional sheen to your work.
The next element of your picture is its main ingredient, light. Exposure for DSLR video isn’t quite as tricky as focus, but it still demands a little extra attention. The good news for photographers moving to video is that two of the main elements of exposure work in a fashion that’s unchanged between the two disciplines. Aperture size allows more or less light to reach the sensor with a corresponding effect on depth-of-field, while ISO increases the sensitivity of the sensor to the light that reaches it, with a potential increase in unwanted picture noise, much like the gain setting on a traditional video camera. The ability to use a high ISO setting is particularly useful when shooting DSLR video as the increased sensitivity allows you greater leeway in adjusting your aperture.
The auto-exposure modes on a DSLR are a vital timesaver when shooting still photos, instantly registering the available light and setting the camera up for basic shots. As soon as you start shooting moving shots, however, they become a liability. Anything that lightens or darkens the scene will cause them to re-adjust their settings over several seconds: move your camera past a brightly lit window and the AE mode will overcompensate, darkening the entire image before bringing it back to a setting in which everything is visible. The period between the overcompensation and the return of a decent image is referred to by videomakers as lag. A stills photographer can simply wait out the lag and then hit the shutter, but a videomaker wants to be able to record continuous footage without having it constantly waver between over and under-exposure.
The simplest solution is to use your DSLR’s exposure lock to fix on the exposure on the main subject of your composition so it can’t be thrown out by momentary hotspots. A briefly blown out window or lamp is far less disruptive to your shot than a constantly meandering exposure. For scripted productions such as short films, interviews and corporate videos, you can maintain total control over the exposure not by constantly tweaking your camera, but by properly lighting the scene, something we’ll cover later on.
The next factor governing your exposure is the shutter speed. In essence, this dictates how long the light is allowed to hit the sensor for each frame. In stills terms, shutter speed is simple: the longer the shutter is open, the brighter the image but the more blurred any captured motion will be. For video, it’s slightly more complex, as you want there to be a small amount of blur to make movements look natural. The amount of times the shutter exposes a single frame of video (or, in fact, any moving picture) can have a huge effect on the amount of motion blur in the shot.
Each sequence of moving film or video is made up of numerous ‘still’ images, and the shutter speed determines where the motion in those images is ‘frozen’. If you watch an old western you’ll often see what’s known as the “wagon wheel effect” in which the shutter repeatedly captures the spokes of a wheel in the same or slightly shorter positions – the spoke at the 9 o’clock position in the first frame moves to 12 o’clock in the next, but only reaches 11:30 in the next, and 11:15 in the one after that. In truth, it’s a different spoke covering a different distance each time, out of synch with the shutter speed, but to the eye it appears that the wheel is juddering backwards. This is the exact opposite of the natural motion blur that you want to achieve to trick a viewer into thinking the movement in your video is a natural, cinematic look.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure that your shutter speed is approximately double your frame rate. We say approximately because you can’t always marry the two perfectly: if you’re shooting 24 frames per second of video on a consumer DSLR you might find that there is no 1/48 shutter setting, so you’ll have to use the 1/50 instead.
The potential downside to using such a slow shutter setting is that you risk over-exposing the shot, but this is where the versatility of DSLRs again pays dividends. Where a camcorder owner will often struggle to find filters that fit the tiny thread of a consumer camcorder and would be forced to increase the shutter speed, reintroducing the stutter effect, the highly standardised size of DSLR lenses means you can simply attach a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light passing through the lens, whilst maintaining the camera settings.
Having covered how you’ll capture your shots, the next step is to consider what goes in them. If your shoot allows you the luxury of planning ahead then try to scout your location and see it the way your camera will – are there unlit objects, obstructive chunks of scenery or items that are easily missed at first glance but most unwelcome in your finished shot? We recently shot beautiful footage of cyclists crossing a stone bridge over a sparkling brook in front of a blooming flowerbed, and amidst all the colour and highlights we completely failed to notice a squat, grey wheelie bin in the background. Thank heavens for a second take.
Rule of Thirds
Having policed your scene for unwanted extras, you can begin assembling your shot. As with stills photography, the ideal starting point is usually the rule of thirds. Yet again, DSLRs are a boon to videomakers, as they often have a rule of thirds setting that superimposes a grid onto the viewfinder dividing the screen into horizontal and vertical thirds. Placing the objects in your shot in the intersections of these gridlines creates a natural division between the primary and secondary parts of the image-a person will dominate the empty space around them rather than obscuring it, the horizon will fall dramatically across a shot rather than simply allowing equal portions of land and sky to neutralise each other. Unlike in stills photography, it’s usually impossible to maintain a rule of thirds composition throughout an entire shot, but if you establish a scene with a well composed shot and attempt to use rule of thirds as often as possible throughout it, you’ll find that your foreground and background complement, rather than compete, with each other.
Crossing The Line
One thing that stills photographers rarely have to consider is the way in which moving the camera will affect the position of their subjects relative to the previous shot, but for filmmakers this presents a constant hazard known as “crossing the line”. It’s a simple mistake that can sneak up on you so easily it’s often thought of as a rite of passage error for inexperienced filmmakers.
Imagine two people facing each other and conversing and draw an imaginary line between them, bisecting an imaginary circle. If your first shot takes place on the nearside of that line and person A is on the left and person B is on the right of the screen, then all subsequent shots on a 180-degree arc of that line will maintain those respective positions. Should you cross to the far side of that line, the other side of the imaginary circle, then person A will appear to have swapped positions with person B, a jump that will shatter your audience’s concentration.
Ideally, you should pick a side of the line and stick to it, or shoot a mix of shots from one side of the line and intercut them with over-the-shoulder shots to create a realistic conversation without crossing the line. Conversations between larger groups of people, such as the café and pub scenes in Reservoir Dogs or Trainspotting, present a far greater logistical challenge and need to be meticulously planned out. Draw a diagram of your scene and then go through your script, carefully working out where the uncrossable line will be for each camera position needed to capture the dialogue. Keep in mind that an all encompassing master or safety shot will give you something familiar to cut away to regularly, allowing you to maintain consistency throughout the scene even as your other shots are more carefully placed.
Capturing movement is a comparatively easy task, but one in which simple errors can have unexpectedly distracting results. The most important is to always allow moving and looking room within a shot.
Say, for example, you’re panning to follow a car racing from left to right of the screen. The instinctive urge is to highlight the speed of the car by allowing it to race across the still screen before panning to follow it. Unfortunately, this will have the counterintuitive effect of slowing the action down, as the car will appear to be ‘pushing’ against the right-hand edge of the screen. Instead, use a rule of thirds composition to create space to the right of the car onscreen and maintain the space throughout the shot until your pan stops, at which point the car will move naturally out of shot.
Slower or more direct shots will still require moving room. A person walking towards the camera rather than across the frame needs room between their feet and the bottom of the frame to walk into, or else they will appear to be walking on thin air. With slower movements, or shots in which the subject is moving towards a static camera, it’s often best to shoot from a slight diagonal to add a changing perspective rather than the appearance of someone simply moving across a flat plane.
In any shot shorter than a Long Shot you’ll find that you have to cut off part of your subject’s body within the frame. Always make sure that the cut-off point doesn’t fall across one of their joints. If the bottom of your frame falls across their knees, the shot will look clumsy, whereas a reframed shot that places the cut-off at mid-thigh will look natural.
On the subject of perspective, the rules are slowly changing thanks to the introduction of 3D TV and twin lens adaptors. We used to say that it was the filmmaker’s job to put back the sense of depth that a 2D screen took out, but these days it’s perfectly possible that you’re capturing depth as you shoot.
If, however, you’re using good old fashioned 2D kit, then engineering depth is going to be an important part of your composition. Fortunately, this one of the areas where the technique is unchanged between stills and video photography. Try to make use of available space to shoot from angles rather than flat, head-on perspectives. Positioning your camera below eye level and looking upwards, or placing it at 3/4s to your subject can allow people or scenery to loom over the shot, or isolate them from a background that then recedes to a vanishing point.
In cases where it’s not possible to create the impression of depth in the background, then position the camera in such a way as create it in the foreground: shoot through natural frames such as arches, or allow a bit of foliage to enter the screen between lens and subject. We knew one professional camera operator who took a tenon saw and a Hague superclamp on every outdoor shoot so that if there were no branches nearby to provide foreground interest, he could simply hack one down and set it up where he needed it. Not that we’d condone such things of course, but it neatly illustrates the ease and importance of adding depth to your shot.
Shooting for the edit
It’s not only the presence of movement that distinguishes stills and video, but also the presence of narrative – the sense that events are changing, evolving and building upon each other. Your shots are the building blocks of narrative, but editing is the mortar that joins them together, and it’s vital to shoot in such a way that you have room and reason to edit.
Room is simple – allow a space at the end of each take in which to cut from one shot to another. This sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how much tail time you’ll need between the end of the action. An excellent example is Shane Carruth’s Primer. Amidst its evocative mise en scene, strong script and mindbending plot you’ll find a scene in which the ingenious but inexperienced director/editor/actor can be seen mouthing the word “cut” at the very end of his dialogue.
Reason, or motivation, can also often be provided by just giving the camera time to run, but sometimes you’ll need to be more proactive. In general, editors like to have a motivation to cut from one shot to the next. It’s occasionally a small gesture from an actor, such as the brushing back of some hair, but more often it’s something subtle, like a flicker in the eyeline, or a small noise from offscreen. These tiny signals make the transition from one shot to the next feel as natural as a page turn. It’s possible to cheat by adding them in post-production, or to occasionally cut without motivation, but as a rule you should try to make sure that each shot contains a reason to cut to the next, ideally something naturally occurring rather than staged.
While photography is often a solo pastime, once you start making short films and videos the chances are that you’ll be working with other people, either as part of a director’s crew or as the director yourself. As soon as other people are involved you’ll need to start using precise terminology to make sure that everyone knows what their goal is, and nowhere is this more important than in describing your shots. Get this wrong, and you’ll find that lights, actors and microphones end up in the wrong place. Fortunately, the defining feature of most shot types is the size of the subject in the frame. For the sake of convenience, we’ll assume the subject of each shot is a person, but it can just as easily be an establishing shot of a building or landscape.
From head to toe, the subject now takes up almost the full height of the screen except for a small amount of head and foot room.
Medium Long Shot
The Medium Long Shot frames a person from just below the knees upwards. Move in to shoot from the waist upward and it becomes a medium shot: the subject is close enough to convey moods without having to exaggerate their facial movements. Unless they’re really bad actors!
Medium Close Up
Framed from the chest upwards, it’s unlikely that the character’s actions can be seen in shot, but their expressions will be very detailed and readable.
Framed from the tops of the shoulders up, the subject is now dominating the screen and can create an intimate effect on the audience.
Extreme Close Up
Now framed so closely that only about a third of the face can fit on the screen. At this range, even the subtlest of facial movements look highly exaggerated. This is the shot that can make a ham out of even the best actor.
Profile 2 Shot
The P2S combines the 2-shot and the Profile shot and is the basic set up for shooting a conversation between to people. Variations include the ¾ P2S and the Over The Shoulder 2 Shot. Keep in mind that the close framing of this type of shot can highlight the different stature of your actors – you might have to politely ask someone to stand on a box!
Very Long Shot
The subject is close enough to take up about half the height of the screen from head to toe, and details are just starting to become clear. Any further away and it will lose all recognisable detail and become an Extreme Long Shot.
There are a whole series of crucial camera moves that can mean the difference between success and failure of your movie project
Movement lets you tell a story. Movement lets you show events as they happen. Movement lets you show time passing. Movement is why you chose to shoot video rather than stills. As a rule, however, you don’t want to move the camera without a good reason. The surest sign of inexperience is what professionals call ‘hosepiping’: waving the camera around wildly with no thought to why you’re shooting what you’re shooting. Much like edits, camera moves need to have a motivation – either to reveal relationships or contrasts between what’s on screen, to follow an action, or to reveal a previously unseen but relevant detail.
It’s important when planning camera moves to remember that using a moving camera involves much more work for everybody, not just the camera operator. Actors have to hit specific marks at specific times, the focus puller will have to make regular adjustments throughout the shot, and you’ll substantially increase the area that the crew will need to light. It’s almost a film-school rite of passage to plan a tracking shot introducing your main character, only to abandon it upon realising that you need to light 30 yards of set! Camera moves also tend to call attention to themselves, so if you’re not revealing anything relevant or interesting with the move, it’s best not to do it at all.
It’s ironic that all the video advantages that a DSLR offers will make you more enthusiastic and ambitious about what you shoot, which usually mean lots of moving shots that throw a DSLRs video disadvantages into sharp relief: camera moves will make it far easier to accidentally lose your subject to a narrow depth-of-field, and will stutter violently if you’ve got your shutter set too fast. Whenever possible, shoot a couple of practice shots first to make sure you’ve got the camera set up for the movement, not just for the scene as a whole.
The basic moves and their meanings
A Dolly is a dedicated cart or a set of wheels attached to a tripod that allows the camera to follow the action in a scene as it moves. Tracking shots are similar to dolly shots, and are often carried out using the same equipment. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but most filmmakers like to make the distinction that a tracking shot maintains a consistent distance from the action and are designed to feel unobtrusive, whereas dolly shots are often more dynamic: the camera may follow a subject from behind, pull alongside them or even overtake them and, possibly, turn to look back.
The advent of the Steadicam has allowed dolly and tracking shots to be shot in places where a traditional dolly and track won’t fit, such as confined hallways, bustling rooms or up and down stairs. If you can afford to buy a dedicated dolly or steadicam you can achieve incredible results, but for most low-budget productions there are simpler methods: anything with large, stable wheels can be used as a dolly – the most common option is an old-fashioned wheelchair, while a sportsbag with weights in the bottom and a slit for the lens can be used to simulate the stable but free swinging look of a steadicam through all but the tightest of turns.
Try another angle
While track and dolly shots involve moving the entire camera, panning, pedding and tilting all take place on the same spot.
Panning is a horizontal movement used either to follow the action or simply to reveal the size of an object or landscape. In many ways it’s the simplest camera move there is, as it’s pretty much what we do with our heads when watching any movement. There are still rules to follow, of course – you should always start and finish on a still shot. Cutting into or out of a pan is extremely jarring for your audience. If you’re planning to shoot a handheld pan, try to work backwards – hold the camera with your elbows tucked in and twist your body towards the start of the shot, steady yourself, then slowly unwind to follow the action. This has the effect of taking the tension off your muscles through the shot rather than loading it on, and will produce far smoother results.
The other options
Tilting is the vertical equivalent of panning and follows the same rules – start and end on a still shot. Tilts have an added effect of altering perspective – tilting up a tall object will make it appear larger and loom into the shot, while tilting down an object will make it seem smaller. Pedding or pedestalling is the classic ‘reveal’ shot used to move the camera from an innocuous scene to a vital detail. The camera remains in one place and at a fixed angle, but is raised or lowered to reveal details previously hidden above or below the frame.
Finally, there’s the zoom, the unmoving camera move. The most sensible professional advice any filmmaker receives is that a zoom is a tool for framing shots rather than adding drama. In theory, you should use your zoom control to compose your shot before you even hit record, and then leave it alone afterwards. In practice, everyone wants to dolly-zoom for that onrushing background effect used so powerfully in Vertigo and Jaws, or crash zoom for dramatic effect, and that’s fine, but try to do it sparingly if you want it to have any impact.
If you find yourself struggling to aim properly when crash zooming in on a subject take a tip from the pros and cheat: zoom right in and line everything up exactly how you want it to look at the end of the shot, hit record, then zoom out. Most mid- to high-end editing programs will let you play the shot backwards in the final edit, creating the impression that you’ve got a sharper eye and steadier hand than any normal human being.
Lighting for video
Getting the light just right for your project requires patience, some carefully chosen kit and a few rules…
Whilst the flash is the fundamental lighting tool for stills photography, video requires a more persistent and consistent light source. Persistent in that a shot that lasts for thirty seconds needs to be lit for thirty seconds, and consistent in that the light source needs to maintain an unvarying intensity and colour temperature.
As a DSLR shooter, you’re fortunate that your equipment is less likely to require extra lighting than that of a videographer – your DSLR’s ISO settings allow it to operate in lighting conditions that would reduce even an expensive camcorder to capturing murky footage with unwanted grain.
Despite that, there comes a point where every shooter finds they can’t work with the available illumination and needs to break out the lighting kit. The basic function of your lighting kit is simply to make sure your audience can see what you want them to see, but the way you light your shots can have an artistic effect as well as a practical one, allowing you to create hard contrasts between light and shadow within your shot, or affect the feel of a scene by giving it warmer or colder colour casts.
On the subject of temperature, all colour has one, measured in degrees Kelvin. Lower light temperatures such as a candle (1,900 degrees Kelvin) or a household bulb (2,500 degrees Kelvin) tend to have a warm colour cast at the orange/red end of the spectrum. Brighter lights such as a camera flash or the sun at midday tend to have a temperature between 3000 and 5000 degrees and are much whiter in colour, and as you progress to higher temperatures, you’ll eventually get a blue cast to the light. Your eyes naturally level out these colour casts to keep the world consistent, but they can cause problems for your camera.
Your DSLR’s Manual White Balance Setting can be used to set its basic interpretation of colour temperature – point it at a piece of pure white card and hit the ‘set’ control and it will use pure white as it’s reference and work out all the other colours from there. You can even use faintly tinged pieces of card to trick your camera into thinking white is a different shade than it really is, affecting the rest of your shot – setting your white balance to a blue-tinged card, for example, will result in the rest of your shots looking much warmer. We know of one professional camera operator who deliberately balanced off-white in order to make a George W Bush look green around the gills at a press conference. For serious productions, we’d suggest you buy a proper White Balancing card and use it to make sure your camera works out colours as correctly as possible.
Sadly, it’s not enough to just accurately set your White Balance, as very few shooting situations feature only one light source. Accurately balancing your camera gives you the best foundation to work from, but if you spend a day shooting in a room that had morning sun coming through the window and artificial lights on the ceiling, you’ll find that the colour temperature changes throughout the day. It’s a gradual process, so an abrupt resetting of the White Balance will only highlight the change. Your best bet in these circumstances is to control all the available light – either by blocking one of the sources and balancing for the other, using gels to adjust the colour temperature of all the light sources (placing an orange or red gel over the window, for example, to give the daylight a similar cast to the artificial light) or simply by blacking out all other light sources and setting up your own from a lighting kit.
For most small productions, documentaries or interview shoots, single-point lighting is the easiest and quickest to accomplish. With just the one light source, your options are comparatively limited: you’re really choosing between a hard light source that shines very directly and creates bold shadows, or a soft source that illuminates gently and creates shadows of varying depth. In general, a soft source will look natural, while a hard source will be dramatic. The best starting point for single point lighting is to figure out where the natural light would be coming from, and place your light there. A soft source in a high position is almost always the best solution for a natural shot. Light from underneath or directly in front will produce a more stylised effect, but will almost certainly require you to use a softbox or diffuser to avoid a clichéd torch-under-the-chin effect.
Two-point lighting allows you far greater versatility. You’ll still find yourself arranging the position of the lights in order to place the shadows where you want them, but a two-point set up will give you far greater control of the shadows themselves, and will look much slicker onscreen.
Your two sources of light are referred to as the Key and the Fill. The Key is a hard source that creates strong shadows and clearly defines all the shapes within a shot. The Fill is a soft source, most commonly positioned opposite the Key, that gently reveals some of the detail that the Key has thrown into shadow.
Three-point lighting is where things get serious – the skills used to light a scene with three luminaires will serve you well on shots where you might use six, or eight, or more. The new component in three-point lighting is often referred to as the backlight, if it is used to illuminate a subject from behind, or as the Kicker, as it serves to kick the subject out from the background.
Again, the Key light’s temperature and intensity will determine the actual look of the shot, while the Fill will restore some of the detail that the Key has obliterated and eliminate unnaturally placed shadows. The backlight, positioned either directly or at an angle behind the subject, is a low intensity light that subtly highlights the edges of the subject, giving it a rim of illumination that helps it stand out from the background.
The position of the lights is extremely variable, depending on where you want the shadows to be placed, but under ordinary circumstances the natural rule will apply – you place your key light where the natural light would be coming from, and build things from there. It’s not always necessary to have three luminaires to carry out three- point lighting – outdoor shoots can make use of the sun as the Key, and reflectors can often be used to turn light from the Key into Fill light.
Finally, if your three-point lighting set-up is positioned in such a way that all the shadows fall onto the background, consider adding a fourth light to the mix, a soft source placed in a high position and aimed at the background, to bring it out of the shadows created by the subject lights.
Types of video light
Video lights, or luminaires, come in four main flavours: Tungsten, Flourescent, LED and HMI. Within these flavours are a truly mindbending array of wattages and housing types that alter the actual light output of the bulb, but for most small scale shoots you’ll ether be using one, two or three-point lighting.
Tungsten lights are the most common type of video light and have been around for years. They’re inexpensive, widely understood and produce a colour temperature around the reddish 3,000 degree point, meaning that you’ll need to colour balance for them, or add a blue gel.
Unlike the fluorescent tubes found in most office ceilings, fluorescent video lights don’t have a grisly green tinge to their light. A basic fluorescent unit can have numerous tubes fitted to it to increase the intensity of the light, and the tubes themselves come in an array of colour temperatures, giving you control of the shot’s warmth.
HMIs, or Hydragyrum Medium-arc Iodide lights are favoured in the movie business, thanks to their high output. Compared to tungsten or fluorescent luminaires, an HMI will give you more light for the same wattage.
LED video lights are probably the most expensive choice to go for, but also the most versatile. They use very little power and can be run from batteries, making them ideal for location shoots or small scale productions, and they can be used as hard or soft sources.
The soundtrack to your project is another vital part of the production process that requires both care and the right kit
The Artist may have won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2012, but all that talk about silent film making a comeback is just hyperbole. Sound is as vital a part of your movie as it ever was, and while it’s a subtler ingredient than visuals, poor quality audio is just as ruinous for your video.
DSLRs often take a critical hammering when it comes to their audio recording capabilities. The argument goes that manufacturers treat the onboard microphone as an afterthought, that it’s usually poor quality, badly placed and anything it records will be ruined by the codec used to compress and save it. Experienced videographers scoff at the idea that this makes DSLRs unsuitable for shooting video, and point out that the exact same argument can be made about the microphones found on video cameras, even ones costing up to four times the price of the average DSLR!
The fact is, shooting a DSLR video presents no challenges that you wouldn’t encounter when shooting with a video camera, and the solutions are the same as well. In essence, you have three options. The first is to just make use of the on-board microphone. For simple, on-the-fly shoots it should do a perfectly adequate job of picking up speech and background noise, and its weaknesses will only really be apparent when it’s too far from the sound source or, more commonly, a sudden spike in volume causes its attenuation to kick in, momentarily dimming the audio. The first problem can be dealt with by using an external mic, while the second can be tackled by recording all of your audio separately using a microphone plugged into an external sound recorder – this is known as double system sound and while it involves more work, it also produces the best results.
Plugging an external microphone into your DSLR’s microphone input and then attaching it to the camera’s accessory shoe will provide an instant improvement over onboard audio, simply because the mic will be in an unobstructed position away from the camera body and your fingers. If you plan to use this method, keep an eye out for microphones that are mounted in a padded or sprung cage that will isolate the mic from the vibrations of your fingertips as they operate the camera. You can also buy external mics that have their own audio gain control built in – this will mitigate the sound dimming effect that follows peaks in the volume of the sound you’re recording.
An external mic will go a long way towards overcoming the deficiencies of a built-in version, but it will still be passing the recorded audio to a video codec for compression, something that can’t help but degrade the quality of the audio recording. This is why the dual system sound is so popular: by recording to a dedicated audio recorder you can guarantee that your audio will either be uncompressed, or at least compressed sympathetically by a codec designed specifically and solely for audio.
To record dual system sound you’ll need a digital audio recorder and an external mic. We’ve seen people use everything from digital dictaphones to a Creative iRiver through to a Zoom H4N, but the most important thing is to make sure you achieve the highest possible standard, while maintaining compatibility between your mic and your recorder. There’s very little point using an expensive recorder to copy sound via a cheap 3.5mm mic. An XLR microphone is the ideal option, as its balanced design shields it from external electrical interference, and its status as an industry standard means it’s widely compatible with everything from Beachtek boxes (for recording direct to the camera) to external recorders. It’s important to check that the file output of your recorder (WAV/MP3 etc) is of a type that can be used by your NLE program.
Aside from simply recording better quality sound in the first place, the other great advantage to dual system sound is that the mic isn’t tied to the camera. If you need to re-record some dialogue, you don’t need to light and shoot a second time. More importantly, you can build a far more nuanced soundtrack by recording a separate file of ambient noise (known as a wildtrack) that can be layered into the background of your main audio. Combining video with separate sound is something we’ll cover in the post-production section, but making sure the audio is of a worthwhile quality comes down largely to four things: using good quality equipment, using a wind or pop-shield to protect against ambient noise and plosives, remembering to hit record on both the camera and the recorder (don’t laugh, everyone forgets at least once) and placing the microphones correctly.
Microphone Placement: The Golden Rule
Very few disciplines are helpful enough to present you with a golden rule that will always provide good results, but is also flexible enough to allow you to be practical in how you use it. Fortunately, audio recording is one of them. The golden rule of good audio is “Always position the microphone as close as possible to the source of the sound.” It’s a great rule – simple, clear, but with enough wiggle room in “as possible” that you don’t have to follow it slavishly.
If you’ve ever wondered why TV and film crews favour a mic on a boom rather than just a set of room mics placed around the set, the golden rule is why. The boom mic is always within a few feet of the sound, and if that source happens to be a person moving around, then the mic can follow them, maintaining that distance. An inexpensive boom or fishing pole is ideal if you’re recording people on the move, but if they’re staying still it’s even easier. Just have someone crouch at their feet holding the mic just out of shot. You’d be amazed at how many Medium Shots on TV could be tilted down to reveal a mic-wielding intern just beneath the shot.
In some circumstances it’s not possible to have a boom operator or a crouching sound recordist. No Church or Town Hall is going to let you record sound that way when you’re shooting a wedding video, for example. When shooting documentaries of corporate videos you’ll often find that you’ve got long pieces of dialogue or interview delivered straight to camera, and it can be distracting for your speaker if you use a boom or handheld mic for that length of time, especially as the shot is likely to be static. In these circumstances, positioning a handheld mic on a stand or getting the speaker to wear a discreet lavalier microphone is your best bet for getting the mic near the sound.