Basic rules for shooting better footage

As imaging technology develops, camera prices continually drop. Now, a consumer-grade camcorder can have an aesthetic that’s surprisingly appealing. And now that DSLRs shoot video, film-like video is at our fingertips. This has made consumers very excited and professionals very cynical. An independent filmmaker once told me, “The good news is; everyone can shoot a movie now. The bad news is; everyone can shoot a movie now.”

Just because you have the gear doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. This post is to help spur your creativity. You just got your camera, you un-boxed it, you read the manual and now you’re ready to shoot. Now for the rules every videographer should know:

1. Abandon auto. Go manual.

First things first; get out of auto settings. You’re never going to learn anything on auto. Auto is your worst enemy. Set the dial to full-manual controls. Start playing with your frame rate, shutter speed, iris and gain. See how adjusting each will affect the feel and quality of the image. If you’re on auto, not only will your camera constantly adjust the settings while you shoot—which looks terrible, but you’ll never understand what’s changing and why the camera is doing it. Additionally, auto won’t always give you the desired results. Who’s smarter; you or the camera?

2. Gravitate toward the light.

In these early stages, you’re probably not using production lights. Don’t worry about that yet. You can get great footage with natural light. Daylight is great, but it can be harsh. An overcast day is better. Night is your enemy. At night, you have such limited light, that you’re forced to ride the gain/ISO in order to get an exposed image. Keep in mind that this will increase the amount of noise in your image. Incandescent lighting (like lamps in your home) can be bad for the same reason. They just don’t provide enough light in most situations. Fluorescents can be worse. While a brightly lit fluorescent room may light your subject, they may create “banding” on the image. A faster shutter speed will sometimes fix that.

Don’t just point the camera at your subject and start rolling. It’s important to find the best placement of your subject based on the light around you. Sometimes just moving the subject a foot to the left of right will dramatically change the lighting in your shot. Think about the science. Everything we see is just light bouncing off of objects. You don’t actually see your kitchen table. You just see the light bouncing off the surface. Learn how to paint with light and you’ll always get good footage.

3. Vary your perspective & composition.

It’s easy to film at eye level. It’s where you are most of the time. It can also be the most uninteresting technique, because it’s how all of us view the world. Try to vary your perspective by placing the camera in positions that add meaning and interest to your visuals. If you’re filming a home video of your toddler, it might look more engaging if you brought the lens down to his/her level rather than filming downwards from an adult’s “bird’s eye” view. Varying your perspective can dramatically change the emotional connection the viewer will have to your video.

You’ll also want to vary your composition, which is the way you “frame” the subject within the shot. People tend to only center subjects. This can become tiresome and adds little visual interest. A good technique is the Rule of Thirds. With the Rule of Thirds, imagine dividing your image into three sections horizontally and vertically. This creates a grid of four lines that intersect (two horizontal and two vertical). The Rule of Thirds states that you should place the focal point of your subject in one of the four intersections.

4. Get a tripod. Get a tripod. Get a tripod.

Last, but certainly not least: get yourself a damn tripod. I cannot say this enough. Shaky cam has been a recent trend in professional videography that annoys many viewers. There’s nothing wrong with handheld footage. It can be effective if used sparingly. But nothing can replace smooth tilts and pans. In the beginning, you don’t have to spend a fortune on a fluid-head aluminum tripod. Just lock the camera down and let it record. All of these tips will help you capture sharp, clean and smooth footage.

These four basic rules apply to novice / hobbyists and advanced film makers. Be sure to steady your shot, use light wisely, and vary your composition and perspective when filming. If you have more tips that we haven’t covered, let us know in the comments below.