Wednesday, 2 January 2013

10 Top Tips for shooting better videos

10 Top Tips for shooting better videos

If you plan using any kind of camcorder for your videos you will find this a handy blog when it comes to shooting your own media successfully. If you are using a web cam the comments on lighting, sound and performance will be helpful and relevant too. My tips are for both the novice and also the slightly more adventurous as the same "rules" apply.

Being dyslexic meant handbooks and instruction manuals were not for me when it came to learning about cameras and editing, so by trial and error I am completely self taught on the technical side. I ended up running a corporate video production company based in central London for 25 years.

Along the way I learnt and refined all the skills I needed to shoot, light, direct, manage sound and edit all my own work. I hate seeing charities pay through the nose for what is so often very average soulless work provided by an oversized team with fab offices all of which come out of a charities precious funding. So learning the basics and doing it yourself has to be the way forwards.    

What I have attempted to do here is to distill, from a very practical perspective gained over 30 odd years in the "biz", the things that I think will help people and organisations make better videos for themselves using their own kit.

Now that technology has made everyone a potential videographer I saw the government has published its own guidelines ,

I hope my blog might also compliment that initiative, as there is a big step between owning a video camera and making good engaging content, and the technical side of things is only half the story. So time spent investing in your skills now, will pay you back many times in the future.

To see what can be done with very basic kit and a team of one (including a couple of table lamps using regular low energy light bulbs) please take a look at the Skills for Care videos I produced below. Simple lighting, static camera, no effects, no music, no captions, no script, no rehearsals, no crib cards off camera, no autocue, no shots of anyone but the people we want to hear from.  

So my advice is that a one man crew is far less intimidating for the interviewee than a larger team. Ideally clear the room of people and take a few minutes to relax your interviewee. Make sure they have water, nerves can make for dry "claggy" mouths, and check they are happy with their appearance. ALWAYS get their permission to film in writing before hand, people come and go with jobs and you don't want problems down the line. 

I always take peoples notes and especially scripts away before I record anything, I want them to talk to me about stuff they know, not read a script and attempt to "play " a part. I get them chatting about what they were planning to say and off you go... works a treat, so record that chat every time...(an old directors trick so keep it under your hat:) ).

Show the footage to them, people often correct their own nervous habits if they see them without you telling them. If they have trouble maintaining eye contact with you, simply suggest they talk to your neck, that's often worked for me. The best interviews are a one to one conversation NOT a speech at conference.

Make sure you understand the subject matter, tell people you are filming and how much time you want for an answer, 30 seconds or 4 minutes, it helps them frame their response. So short chunks are the best way to work. Finally be sensitive, your calmness will rub off on them don't rush - you will know when they have relaxed. Perhaps re take the first two things you shot as many people get in to their stride after a couple of goes. 

With the exception of the Minister none of these people had ever been filmed before, they didn't have a script, they were all really nervous to start with but soon forgot I was filming. They were just themselves, and that is the key, when people speak from the heart they can move us, and speak to us rather than perform and just mouth the words.

 ALWAYS review both sound and  pictures  before leaving the "set" or location. If someone has given up precious time, better to re shoot then rather than later.

We all make mistakes and if equipment is going to play up it will always wait till you said "action" in my experience!

You can use short clips for a huge variety of applications and do very some clever things if you want, such as the quiz I made for Skills for Care.  IF you think a bit beyond the obvious "YouTube clip" strategy you can get much more mileage out of your media.

There is no great mystery to shooting decent videos on non-professional equipment but there are a few common mistakes that I see time and time again. Perhaps the most important thing to realise is what your equipment can and can’t do. Many of today’s cameras are almost entirely automatic but you want these systems working for you and not against you. Also spare a thought for your audience, 120 minutes of wobbly cam and wind noise isn’t much fun, so always think about your audience and how, when and where they will view your videos.

·         STAYING FOCUSED  Auto focus is great providing it focuses on your subject and not the background (or worse still the dust on the surface of your lens). So before you shoot double check your focus is where you want it. Don’t be frightened to use manual focus, in some circumstances it’s the only way to get the shot you want especially if the subject is not centre frame.

·       SOUND The next time you are sitting in a busy pub or restaurant try out this little trick. Find someone talking a few yards away from you and watch them (without staring please); you will be able to pick out their voice from the noisy background and understand them. Now shut your eyes, you will find it is impossible to pick out what they are saying if you can’t see their lips moving. Our brains help us fill in what we can’t hear with the help of sight, lip reading plays a huge role in "hearing". I have yet to find a camera or microphone with either brains or eyes! Remember when shooting, even if you have got headphones on, your eyes are still filling in the blanks as you lip read, shut your eyes for a second or look away, can you still hear what is being said?

    Remember if you are filming from the back of the hall, then that is exactly how it will sound, echoed, fuzzy and unclear. Better to get nearer the PA speakers, and nearer the speaker, shooting at an angle stops people being hidden by the lectern. It also looks so much more interesting.

·         ZOOMING  Professional camera people would normally only use zooms when the camera is sat on a tripod. The “Zoom” lens is great for long shots, if and when you need them, but when I teach people to use a camera I tape the zoom button up! By staying wide, it forces you to “go to the subject” and fill the frame. Getting in close in to your subject great for two reasons, you get less camera shake and the microphone is close to your subject so the sound is always better. So many beginners centre the interviewee in the frame leaving one third of the frame above the head empty. I call it centering, and with no disrespect, the shot on guide to video page is a classic example. (Draw 2 diagonal lines corner to corner over the frame and the bridge of the nose is centre frame). Look at the framing in my clips, there is no air above the hair:)  

·       MIX & MATCH Add variety to your shots, mix close ups with wide shots, keep each scene a sensible length. A ten-minute shot from the same angle can boring. Move about between shots, and again don’t pan left to right every time, slow wobbly pans look terrible and are hard to edit well, remember you are telling a story, and always remember your audience is not you. If you alternate between a nice close up (head and neck) and a medium wide shot (head down to elbows) with each question of an interview or each piece to camera, it will edit together and look much more professional. As well as it making the editing vastly easier if you want to remove a bit from the end of a scene.
·       COMPOSITION I prefer to compose my shot so all the action happens within the frame and I don’t have to move the camera unless I want to allowing people walk through the shot rather than following them.  Shoot your wide shots of a location or subject from one position and don't just zoom in for a close up. Pause the recording, move closer and shift your angle round relative to the subject by 30 degrees or so to the left or right, now you have re framed your close up start shooting again. When you come to edit your video will look much better as the cuts will be less "jumpy" and more natural. The trick with good camera work is that your audience are unaware of the camera, lumpy zooms, jerky camera moves are just an unwanted distraction from your content.

·        FIGHTING the LIGHT  None of us like staring into bright lights, cameras are the same, always try to keep the sun, or main light behind you. If it’s one of those bright but overcast days try and keep the sky out of the shot, raise the camera and looking down works well. What happens if you don't is the camera sets its exposure for the very bright sky and the subject is prone to silhouetting. A great rule of thumb is to have the sun or the light source 45 degrees to the left or right of the subject and the light coming down on the subject at the same angle, this is called "High 45" lighting by lots of the professionals.

·         HAND HELD  Watching some people’s work you might think that the camera was surgically attached to their shoulders or chest. Get the camera off shoulder height sometimes, try shooting at waist height sometimes. Maybe standing on a chair gives you a great vantage point of a team meeting, or drop the camera to floor level. Its not always appropriate but bear this in mind as this will add further variety to your movie. An elderly persons shuffle is so much more powerful from a low angle as is the rush of commuters feet shot that way. Preserves anonymity too:)

·         CUTAWAYS  For those that intend to have a go at slight more advanced editing this bit is important. These are the little shots "cutaways" are used to bridge one take/scene with another so the viewer does not see the edit. Here is the problem, if you cut 10 seconds out of a speech, the speaker with "Jump" where the cut is, so you need another relevant image to paper over the cut. You see it on TV everyday on the news, where they cut very briefly to the interviewer nodding and then back to the speaker. That's why they are called "noddies". So the final sequence might actually be two takes shot hours apart but"appears" to be one contiguous take.
    Perhaps you are cutting a 2 hour presentation down to 30 minutes. What you need is cutaway shots of the audience, or close ups of the on screen speakers support material. A very wide shot of the room can be useful too so you have material to cover the edits, so always take time to grab a few cutaways on any shoot. You can never have too many cutaways trust me they are the editors best friend and as you are likely to be the editor treat yourself:)

·       GOOD PRACTICE    Give each shot what we call handle bars, in other words, let the camera roll for a few seconds after you have hit record to give it time to stabilise before moving the camera or action beginning AND at the end of every take count to three before stopping recording, especially with dialogue. The other reason is that you need a few seconds before and after the shot so you can dissolve to it or fade out of it.  Shoot 1 minute of silence in the place you have been doing an interview. This is called a buzz track, having a minute of  uninterrupted ambient sound is invaluable if you are cutting dialogue where there is fluctuating background noise so for the more advanced editing it can be used to wallpaper over cuts in dialogue at a conference (they always have air con) seamlessly. 

·       GONE with the WIND   Wind noise is often a problem, not just the crew:) and the best cure is Walkman headphones, for you not them! It won’t reduce the wind noise but, you can hear what is going down on tape not what you think is being recorded so you can find more sheltered positions if you need to. Keep the wind on your back if you can. One great trick is to get some “fun fur” from a cuddly toy and make a little fur tea cosy for the microphone. The fur absorbs a lot of the buffeting wind and yet is acoustically transparent.
      Directors Tips
    My best advice is that there is no substitute for hands-on experience, so when you are shooting something important practice as much as you can beforehand. Learn to always shoot with editing in mind. Try simple exercises like filming the various stages of making a cup of tea, vary your shot angles, break the scene down, use wides and close up shots to tell the story, see what works and what doesn't in the editing stage.  
    When it comes to interviews, get the interviewee to build the question in to their answers so it becomes a statement. e.g. If I ask you "how long have you been working here?" and you say "6 years" unless we keep my voice in to hear the question or use captions the audience will not understand the answer. If the interviewee builds the question in to their answer it makes perfect sense "I've been working here for 6 years".

    The last thing to touch on is being in front of the camera, in my time the most unlikely and sometimes gifted public speakers have fallen apart and can't string two sentences together once you have said "action".
      Its very easy to become suddenly self conscious so my best tip is to make the camera your "friend", talk to it as though it was someone you know really well, don't try to act, or over script yourself.
    Shoot in short chunks so a fluff right at the end doesn't mean re shooting the entire thing again. There is much to be said for having a few goes at it, looking back over the results, sleep on it if you have time and then have another go, it's all about gaining confidence.
    I hope some of that was helpful.
PS  You can always post a clip on the web or send me a question   "how do you light if using a webcam?" and I will be happy to give          
                           you some constructive feedback.

 Training and Consultancy kept simple and affordable.

I deliver training to organisations including charities, focused on what they want to say and to whom and using the clients own kit for the session. I identify what they need to learn to produce media internally to a standard that achieves there communications objectives and the cost savings therein.

At the same time we also film the session, which the client then edits down so they have a shared resource, a video manual, that anyone can access in the organisation in the future. This gives clients much better value all round.

Interviewing people, or being on-screen yourself is another skill set I teach people, and have many tips and tricks of the trade that make life so much easier and the results so much more successful.

Being one of the team of developers that originally helped Microsoft get video on the web I can also advise in what platform to use, be it web, Intranet or Disc. Drawing on a wealth of experience in helping people and organisations up their game I can also suggest strategies for reaching their audiences.

Please email me at or tweet me @Chicustard if you would like to know more about training, I also do one to one coaching on Skype if a client has a very specific skill they need to understand.


As I didn't have the resources the big production houses in Soho had in the early days, it meant that I had to find ways to achieve the same production values with much less, which is why I always rather liked the following:

"The man that says it's impossible should not interrupt the man who is already doing it".
No idea where my Dad got that from

 Hope that helped a little
Please email me at or tweet me @Chicustard

Copyright 2013 Jon Bryant

No comments:

Post a Comment