How to Really Learn Video

Rob Adams – “Forget about audio….”

Random Photographer – “Okay. Wait, what?”

Rob Adams – “You’re not good enough for audio yet.”

Random Photographer – *blinks*

I don’t pull punches. This is what I tell every photographer venturing into the arena of HDSLR video for the first time. I also tell this to photographers who have been shooting (messing around) with their video functions for some time now. Why? Well, imagine WPPI, Imaging USA, After Dark, PDN and InFocus. These are all conventions dealing with photography, or nowadays imaging to be more precise.

Now imagine just about the same amount of conventions that are similar in size and attendance and that are geared towards only audio. That’s why.

Audio is its own beast and it’s the mitigating factor as to why I hear so many photographers say “I want to shoot video, but I just can’t get the audio to sound any good. I just gave up on it.”  This is not uncommon. It’s a hurdle and it can suck the passion right out of you. It’s not necessary to focus on audio when learning to shoot quality video. But you will get there.

You are image artists. Stick with that for now. Audio will come in time once you’ve mastered the basics of video. It will come when you are no longer staring at your 27” screen wondering why the heck your video looks so bad.

Want to start shooting video? Good video? Here’s what you do:

Turn off the audio (for the time-being).

It’s a distraction and will only frustrate you. If you can tell your story visually, you’re on the right track.

Stabilize.

Do NOT try to hand hold your camera like a news cameraman. It may look cool in Breaking Bad, but shaky footage is not professional when trying to please your wedding or portrait clients. They expect your photos to look clean and polished and so should your video. Get this monopod.

Yes, that one exactly.  It’s industry standard and the best in the world use it. You won’t find a better one cheaper and the more expensive ones are just not necessary. This is perfect for shooting high-quality, steady video. It comes with a quick release plate that you keep on your camera for fast, easy mounting.

Shoot SHORT clips.

Rolling on something for more than 10 seconds is only going to frustrate you in the editing process. If you are trying to capture an entire wedding ceremony, you are probably biting off more than you can chew at this stage in your video education. That’s also a common problem. Trying to take on too much too soon.

When you first started photographing did you immediately start shooting weddings by yourself without watching someone do it first? Perhaps you were a second shooter or an apprentice for a while. If you answered “yes,” I’m pretty certain you made some big mistakes and lost some sleep or hair over it. Maybe both. Keep your clips short and simple. Period.

For goodness sake, don’t zoom.

Let me ask you this: When was the last time your eye zoomed? It doesn’t. It’s not natural. Zooming is for 90’s wedding video (although I see it far too often today) and it is a telltale sign of amateur video. It’s the equivalent of using a pop-up flash for professional portraits. You just don’t do it. When you see the camera moving towards or away from something in a movie it’s called a “truck.” It’s when the camera and the lens move together relative to a subject on a Z-axis. It mimics the natural movement of your body in any one direction. Your eyeball doesn’t have glass elements that magnify light to make an object appear closer and with video, the lens should mimic the eye.

Don’t move the camera, yet.

Random Photographer – “But Rob, isn’t that what shooting video is all about?  Movement?”

Rob – “No.  It’s about storytelling”

Watch movies. Unless it’s some wild chase, a fight scene or some dialogue where the director is intentionally trying to impart a sense of drama on the viewer, camera movements are almost ALWAYS purposeful and controlled. Those camera operators on shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire didn’t shake because they were bad shooters. They meant to do that. This observation is especially prevalent in many romantic movies or romantic comedies. These types of films tend to be what our wedding films mimic the most.

Study the way the camera moves the next time you watch a chick-flick. From establishing shots to over-the-shoulder dialogue, street walking and car-scenes the camera doesn’t move unless it’s stabilized on some sort of motion control device. I just ruined movie watching for you forever. Welcome to my world.

Let the subjects be your “motion.”

So now that you have your camera steady and still the movement should come from what you are filming.  Filming people standing in front of a camera taking a portrait is boring.  Have them do something to make motion.  It’s as simple as that.  Then creatively, the sky is the limit.   Sometimes the sky is no limit at all.  Take the Mars rover for example.  It shoots video.

Pre-Focus.

One of the hardest things to do while shooting video with a large format sensor camera like a DSLR is to follow-focus. This means trying to keep a subject in focus as they move around, especially if your aperture is set to f/2.0 or some other shallow depth-of-field. Sure, f/2.0 looks great, but it’s going to take much practice and great damage to your vision trying to follow-focus on that tiny LCD screen. Instead, pre-focus. It’s the same as capturing a bride walking down the aisle in the good old days of film. You’d expose at f/8.0 somewhere on the aisle and when the bride walked into that area…pop. Try that with video. It’s actually pretty cool looking when something or someone moves into your focus range. Just make sure you are rolling before the subject hits the focused area.

Don’t change exposure while filming.

This will create a great deal of frustration when editing. If your light changes and blows out a dress or a skin stop filming, change the exposure, and resume. Trying to edit around exposure clicks in video can be a real challenge for a beginner. It looks unprofessional and amateur if they are left in there too.

Keep your aperture deep, for now.

Shooting video will be far less frustrating when you look at it later and it’s not completely out of focus. What you see on that 3” LCD screen is NOT representative of what you are actually filming focus-wise. You’ll understand this the second you look at your video clip full-size on your monitor later on. Trying to shoot subjects far away at f/2.0 is not easy, or wise.  Especially when they are moving.

Keep your depth-of-field deep for long shots (f/8 or higher) and shallower (around f/4) for tighter, more intimate shots. I know that shallow apertures look amazing, but think of it like choosing the right golf club for the situation. Beginning video shooters shouldn’t stop down below f/3.5…ever.  Trust me, it will build your confidence seeing shots that are in focus when viewed at full resolution and then you can build upon your shallow-depth-of-field shooting skill from there.

So turn off your audio and try these simple techniques. Practice makes better. Even the best cinematographers in the world have been chasing perfection for decades. Continued improvement is what keeps filmmaking fun.

Random Photographer – “So what can I do with video clips that don’t have audio?”

Rob Adams – “Good question.”

How about making a fusion slideshow? I bet there aren’t many photographers in your market doing them. It will set you apart, especially when you get good at it. Using web-based Animoto makes it easy. Or, how about having your subject(s) talk for a bit “on mic” about something or each other (if it’s a couple?). It doesn’t take much to add that in with music after, but that’s another article for a later time. With either of these you can also offer a “movie poster.”  My clients freak over them and you can use one of your awesome photos with my pre-made movie poster template packs.

What you should know is that you already understand a great deal about being a good cinematographer. The lighting principles are basically the same, composition still rests on the rule-of-thirds and shutter speed relates directly to blur and crispness. They are all variables. It’s how you equate them that will determine the desired look.

Below is one of the film trailers that I show to the many photographers that I teach. Notice the camera movements, the audio, and the storytelling. That’s my goal when I shoot and edit. Polished=professional.  Before you watch it mute the audio. Can you still follow the story?  That’s the idea.

(You can watch full-screen HD here)

Rob Adams is a New York City area based wedding filmmaker with more than 15 years experience in the wedding industry.  Rob speaks all over the world on cinema techniques and holds workshops regularly.  Rob’s next appearance will be at PDN in New York City on October 25th.  Rob is also holding a comprehensive wedding cinema workshop on November 6th in the New York City area.

To view more of Rob’s short videos and trailers visit RobAdamsFilms.com

To purchase a DVD of Rob’s full length feature wedding films click here.

Rob is holding a comprehensive Wedding Cinema Workshop on November 6th in the New York City area.

Rob and his wife (photographer Vanessa Joy) will also be holding a Photo/Video Fusion Workshop on November 7th in the New York City area.