Video Shooting Tips

With your camcorder of choice in hand, it's time to venture off and shoot videos.

Here are my video-shooting axioms:

  • Stripe your DV tapes.

  • Adhere to the "rule of thirds."

  • Get a closing shot.

  • Get an establishing shot.

  • Keep your shot steady?use a tripod.

  • Let your camera follow the action.

  • Use trucking shots to move with the action.

  • Try out unusual angles.

  • Lean into or away from subjects.

  • Get wide and tight shots to add interest.

  • Try to match action in multiple shots.

  • Shoot sequences to help tell the story.

  • Avoid fast pans and snap zooms?they're for MTV only.

  • Remember to shoot cutaways to avoid jump cuts.

  • Make sure you don't break the "plane."

  • Get plenty of natural sound.

  • Use lights to make your project brilliant.

  • Plan your shoot.

I've jammed a lot into these 18 items. All will help make your video shine with a professional glow. I've discussed each in detail below.

Stripe Your DV Tapes

This is a tedious but ultimately timesaving step. Your DV camcorder lays down timecode as it records. Later, as you transfer DV to your computer, you'll likely use that timecode to create a video clip log. Once you've completed logging your tape or tapes, you'll tell Premiere to automatically retrieve the logged clips by automatically shuttling the tape to the timecodes noted in the log and then record them to your hard drive.

Most camcorders, when powered up, reset their timecode to zero seconds. If you do that more than once using the same videotape, you'll end up with several instances of the same timecode on one tape. As a result, Premiere probably will retrieve the wrong clip. Striping your tapes before doing any shooting resolves that. You stripe tapes by simply placing a fresh tape in your camcorder, capping your lens, pressing Record, and waiting for your camcorder to stripe the entire tape. Rewind the tape and you're ready to go. Now, as you use your camcorder, it'll record new video over the black video you taped but won't change the timecode.

Adhere to the "Rule of Thirds"

Composition is the most fundamental element of camerawork, and the "rule of thirds" is the textbook. When composing your shot, think of your viewfinder as being crisscrossed by two horizontal and two vertical lines. The center of interest should fall on one of the four intersections. See Figure 1.3 for a simple diagram. The standard amateur photographer mistake is to put the center of attention at the center of the image. The most common is portraits in which the eyes of the subject are dead center in the photo. One rule of thumb is to look around the viewfinder as you shoot, not just stare at its center. Check the edges to see whether you're filling the frame with interesting images.

Figure 1.3. The rule of thirds: Putting your image's most important element at one of these intersections will make it more pleasing to the eye.


Get a Closing Shot

This may seem like I'm taking things way out of order, but the one shot that should be uppermost in your mind is the closing shot (the opening shot or shots are important but have a much less lasting impact). Your closing images are what will stick in people's minds. They are what your audience will take away from your video production. If you start a shoot without knowing what your closing shot will be, you should be constantly on the lookout for that one shot or sequence that will best wrap up your story.


The importance of the closing shot came through loud and clear at a seminar I attended given by NBC-TV feature reporter Bob Dotson (see Chapter 6, "Story Creation, Writing, and Video Production Tips"). It could be as simple as someone closing a door, capping a pen, petting a dog, turning out the lights, or releasing a butterfly from their cupped hands. If you happen to see a Dotson feature story, consider its close. It's sure to be memorable.

Get an Establishing Shot

An establishing shot sets a scene. It doesn't have to be the opening shot. One of the greatest establishing shots of all time is in Robert Redford's The Natural. Those who have seen this marvelous film know what I'm talking about: the shot from the top row of the baseball stadium during a night game that takes in the entire field with blazing lights ringing the park. Anyone who has been to a major league ballpark gets goose bumps when that image appears onscreen. It tells a dramatic story in one image.

That should be your goal for your project's establishing shot or shots (you may need several if you're covering several topics in one video).


Although super-wide works sometimes?aerials make great establishing shots?it pays to think "outside the box." Don't fall back on the old standbys, such as the scoreboard, the corporate sign, or the medium shot of a hospital operating room. Try something different. A tight shot of a soccer ball with natural sound of children's voices, a low-angle image through a glass table of someone using your client's product, or a close-up of a scalpel with light glinting off its surface.

Each grabs the viewer's attention and helps tell your story.

Keep Your Shot Steady?Use A Tripod

We all know that photographers take the images we view on TV, and that someone uses a camera to create them. But as video producers we don't want to remind viewers of that. We want to give them the sense that they're looking through a window or, better yet, are there on location.

A shaky camera shatters that illusion.

Despite a recent trend away from the use of tripods?MTV started it and shows such as 48 Hours have run with it?there's plenty to be said for smooth-looking video. If you're doing a sit-down interview or grabbing close-ups, put your camcorder on "sticks." When possible use a tripod with a fluid head. That'll let you make smooth pans or tilts. Good tripods are not cheap. Reasonably high-quality sticks start at about $150. See Figure 1.4 for a top-of-the-line example.

Figure 1.4. The Sachtler DA 75 L aluminum tripod weighs only 2 kg. It's DV 2 fluid head works well with lightweight camcorders.



If a tripod is too expensive, cumbersome, or inconvenient; if the action is too fast paced; or if you need to move the camera during the shot, then try to find some way to stabilize the shot. For still shots, lean against a wall, put your elbows on a table, or place the camcorder on a solid object. For moving shots, get the camcorder off your shoulder, hold it about waist high, and let your arms work as shock absorbers.

Let Your Camera Follow the Action

This may seem obvious, but keep your viewfinder on the ball (or puck, face, conveyor belt, and so on). Your viewers' eyes will want to follow the action, so give them what they want.

One nifty trick is to use directed movement as a pan motivator. That is, follow a leaf's progress as it moves down a stream and then continue your camera motion past the leaf?panning?and widen out to show something unexpected: a waterfall, a huge industrial complex, or a fisherman.

Use Trucking Shots to Move with the Action

This is an excellent way to follow action (so named because using a camera on a moving vehicle is one way to get this shot). Truck right along with some action. If you're shooting a golf ball rolling toward the cup, tag along right behind, in front of, or beside it. When walking through tall grass, dangle your camcorder at knee level and walk right through it, letting the grass blades smack into the lens. Ever wonder how they get those cool downhill snow-skiing shots? The cameraperson skis backwards with a heavy electronic news-gathering (ENG) camera on his shoulder or dangling from his hand at snow level (see the next section). I've watched my good friend Karl Petersen (see the upcoming sidebar) do that amazing maneuver several times.

Try Out Unusual Angles

Move your camcorder away from eye level. Shoulder shots have their place?they represent probably as much as 80 percent of all video?but getting the camcorder off your shoulder leads to more interesting and enjoyable shots. Ground-level "ferret-cam" shots are great for cavorting puppies or crawling babies. Climb a ladder or use a tall building to get a "crane" shot. Shoot through other objects or people while keeping the focus on your subject.


You'll need "sticks" to create stop-action or time-lapse photography. Both methods require that the camera remain steady. The other requirement is that the focal length and aperture cannot change. So when you set your camcorder up to shoot the same scene for a long time, planning to compress time during editing, make sure your auto-focus, auto-white balance, and auto-iris are turned off.

Lean Into or Away from Subjects

Too many shooters rely too heavily on the zoom lens. A better way to move in close or away from a subject is simply to lean in or out. Lean way in and start your shot tight on someone's hands as he works on a wood carving; then lean way back (perhaps widening your zoom lens as well) to reveal that he is working in a sweatshop full of folks hunched over their handiwork. It's much more effective than a standard lens zoom and a lot easier to pull off.

Get Wide and Tight Shots to Add Interest

Most novice videographers create one boring medium shot after another. The reason: It fits our experience. Our eyes tend to take in things the same way. Instead, think wide and tight. Grab a wide shot and a tight shot of your subject. It's much more interesting.


When you grab your tight shots, try to avoid relying on your zoom lens. Instead, get as close as practical to your subject and then grab that tight shot. Unless you want your shot to look like you took it from a distance, it's much more interesting to change positions rather than simply toggle that zoom button.

Try to Match Action in Multiple Shots

Repetitive action?running assembly-line machinery, demonstrating a golf swing, or working in a barbershop?lends itself to matched action shots. A barber clips someone's hair and it falls to the floor. Get a shot of the scissors, the hair hitting the floor, a wide shot of the entire shop, and a close-up reflection of the scissors in the mirror or the barber's glasses. You'll later edit those separate shots into one smooth collection of matched action.

Shoot Sequences to Help Tell the Story

Shooting repetitive action in sequence is another way to build interest and even suspense. A bowler wipes his hands on a resin bag, dries them over a blower, wipes the ball with a towel, picks the ball up, fixes his gaze on the pins, steps forward, swings the ball back, releases it, slides to the foul line, watches the ball's trajectory, then reacts to the shot. Instead of simply capturing all this in one long shot, piecing these actions together in a sequence of edits is much more compelling. You easily can combine wide and tight shots, trucking moves, and matched action to turn repetitive action into attention-grabbing sequences.

Avoid Fast Pans and "Snap" Zooms

These moves fall into MTV and amateur video territory. Few circumstances call for such stomach-churning camerawork. In general it's best to minimize all pans and zooms. As with a shaky camera, they remind viewers that they're watching TV.

If you do zoom or pan, do it for a purpose: to reveal something, to follow someone's gaze from his or her eyes to the subject of interest, or to continue the flow of action (as in the floating leaf example earlier). A slow zoom in, with only a minimal change to the focal length, can add drama to a sound bite. Again, do it sparingly.


Don't let this no-fast-moves admonition force you to stop rolling while you zoom or pan. If you see something that warrants a quick close-up shot or you need to suddenly pan to grab some possibly fleeting footage, keep rolling. You can always edit around that sudden movement later.

If you stop recording to make the pan or zoom and adjust the focus, you may lose some or all of whatever it was you were trying so desperately to shoot. Plus you will miss any accompanying natural sound.

Remember to Shoot Cutaways to Avoid Jump Cuts

Cutaways literally let you cut away from the action or interview subject. One important use is to avoid jump cuts?two clips that when edited one after the other create a disconnect in the viewer's mind.

Consider the standard news or corporate interview. You might want to edit together two 10-second sound bites from the same person. Doing so would mean the interviewee would look like he suddenly moved. To avoid that jump cut?that sudden disconcerting shift?you make a cutaway of the interview. That could be a wide shot, a hand shot, or a reverse-angle shot of the interviewer over the interviewee's shoulder. You then edit in the cutaway over the juncture of the two sound bites to cover the jump cut.

The same holds true for a soccer game. It can be disconcerting simply to cut from one wide shot of players on the field to another. If you shoot some crowd reactions or the scoreboard, you can use those shots to cover up what would have been a jump cut.

Make Sure You Don't Break the "Plane"

This is another of those viewer disconnects you want to avoid. If you're shooting in one direction, you don't want your next shot to be looking back at your previous camera location. For instance, if you're shooting an interview with the camera peering over the left shoulder of the interviewer, you want to shoot your reverse cutaways behind the interviewee and over his right shoulder. That keeps the camera on the same side of the plane?an imaginary vertical flat surface running through the interviewer and interviewee. To shoot over your subject's left shoulder would break that plane, meaning the viewer would think the camera that took the previous shot should somehow be in view. Figure 1.5 shows an interview with correct and incorrect (broken plane) camera placements.

Figure 1.5. The "plane" is an imaginary vertical wall running, in this case, through the reporter and interviewee. Breaking the plane?particularly when shooting a reverse cutaway?leads to camera shots that cause viewer disconnects.


In general you want to keep all your camera positions on one side of that plane. This isn't true for all situations. Consider a TV show of a rock group performance. Camera crewmembers typically scramble all over the stage, grabbing shots from multiple angles, and frequently appear on camera themselves. That's much different from breaking the plane in a formal sit-down interview.


If you conduct formal, sit-down interviews with more than one person for the same piece, consider shooting each subject from a different side of the interviewer. That is, if you shoot one subject with the camera positioned over the left shoulder of the reporter, position the camera over the right shoulder of the reporter for the next interview. That avoids a subtle jump cut that happens when you edit two bites from two individuals who are both facing the same way.

Shooting Tips: Karl Petersen?Chief Photographer, KGW-TV, Portland, OR

Karl Petersen is my favorite TV news photographer. We met in Boise, Idaho, where we worked at competing stations. We later worked together at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City. We formed a video production company in Oregon called Glint Video (we always tried to get a "glint" shot in all our news pieces). Then Karl moved on to KGW-TV in Portland, where he is now chief photographer.


Karl has seen and done it all. Absolutely nothing fazes him. He'll venture into the tensest situation and shoot with aplomb. When we went out on stories we had an unspoken understanding?I never had to tell Karl what kind of images and sound I needed. I knew he would always get exactly what would make the story "work." Karl's regular beat these days is chopper photog. "Sky 8," KGW's Bell 407, has two Flir cameras. One is infrared and can operate in total darkness.

Karl's advice is worth much more than the price of this book. Take it to heart:

  • My first shooting advice is, don't do it. Pursue a career of doctor, lawyer, teamster, stevedore, whorehouse piano player, whatever.

  • Having failed that, my first tip is always to shoot as an editor. Always think about how to get from one shot to the next. Try to get some kind of transition shot with either an entry or exit. Close-ups are especially helpful in editing to get from point A to point B.

  • Get a good shot mix?wide, medium, close-up (extreme close-ups work well), and unusual angles. Get lots of shots. Variety is an editor's friend.

  • Get an establishing shot that tells viewers where you are.

  • Fundamentals: Make sure you have freshly charged batteries, always monitor audio by wearing an earpiece (if you don't you're guaranteed to get burned), and watch your color balance.

  • For all indoor interviews, I recommend using at least two lights, three if you have time (I usually don't?TV news is hectic). If I'm to the reporter's right, I place a light with an umbrella reflector slightly to his left. That means the interviewee is looking toward the light. I place a Lowell Omni with "barn doors" (to keep it from shining into the lens) behind and over the left shoulder of the interview subject (that is, to my right). This adds nice highlights. If I have time, I place a third umbrella well behind the camera to add fill. See Figure 1.6.

    Figure 1.6. A Lowel Tota with an umbrella (right), and a Lowel Omni with barn doors (left). Images courtesy of Lowel-Light.


  • If I'm shooting in a room with sunlight coming in a window, I use blue gels?especially balanced for daylight?and then color balance for sunlight.

  • For underwater photography I recommend using an Ewa-Marine plastic bag video camcorder housing (see They're good to a depth of about 30 feet, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive (about $350).

When shooting from "Sky 8" I sit in the warmth and comfort of the back seat and operate the cameras with a laptop and a joystick. Not many video producers have this luxury. For those who must shoot from a side window, here are some tips:

  • Think safety first. Make sure nothing can fall off the camera?such as a lens shade?or out of the back seat and possibly hit the rotor. That makes the chopper spin like crazy so you get real dizzy before you die.

  • Shooting with the door off is ideal (remove it before you take off).

  • Try to keep the camera slightly inside the doorframe to keep it out of the wind.

  • Have the pilot "crab" (fly sort of sideways) so you can shoot straight ahead. That's much more dramatic. It's a great way to fly along a river for instance.

  • Have the pilot fly low. This allows cool "reveal" shots, such as flying over a ridge to reveal an expansive vista.

Finally, don't forget to grab that "glint" shot.

Get Plenty of Natural Sound

This is absolutely critical. We tend to take sound for granted. But, relying on your camcorder's built-in mic is not enough. Taking extra steps to improve the audio quality will dramatically improve the production value of your projects. I'll cover audio issues in depth in Chapter 7, "Adding Audio." For now, think in terms of using additional mics: shotgun mics to narrow the focus of your sound and avoid extraneous noise, lavalieres tucked out of sight for interviews, and wireless mics to get sound when your camera can't be close enough to get just what you need.

Use Lights to Make Your Project Brilliant

Lights add dazzle and depth to otherwise bland and flat scenes. An onboard camcorder fill light is a convenient way to brighten dull shots. And a full (but admittedly cumbersome) lighting kit with a few colored gels can liven up an otherwise dull research laboratory. If you don't have the time, money, patience, or personnel to deal with adding lights, do whatever you can to increase the available light. Open curtains, turn on all the lights, or bring a couple desk lamps into the room. One caveat: Low-light situations can be dramatic and flipping on a few desk lamps can destroy that mood in a moment.


No matter what kind of lighting situation you're in, you always need to watch your white balance. Different lights operate with different color temperatures. Your eyes automatically compensate for those color differences but your camcorder is not that proficient. These days most camcorders have auto-white balance, and many have manual white balance as well. Auto-white balance works in most situations. As you move from room to room or from inside to outside, the camera "assumes" everything in its field of view is gray and adjusts its color balance accordingly.


Problems arise when you shoot indoors and have a window in the scene. In that circumstance, whatever you see through the window probably will have a blue tint. The other tricky white balance situation is when you shoot a scene with a predominant color, such as doing product shots using a solid-color background. The auto-white balance will "think" that solid color is gray, and the image will look horrible. That's when you need to place a gray or white card in the scene, fill the viewfinder with that card under whatever lighting you plan to use for the product shots, and click the manual white balance button. For a fun practical lesson in the value of a manual white balance, roll tape throughout this procedure or when you walk from indoors to outdoors to watch the colors change.

Plan Your Shoot

When you consider a video project, plan what you need to shoot to tell the story. Videotaping your kid's soccer championship match, a corporate backgrounder, or a medical procedure each require planning to ensure success. Know what you want your final video project to say and think of what you need to videotape to tell that story.

Even the best-laid plans and most carefully scripted projects may need some adjusting once you start rolling and recording in the field. No matter how you envision the finished project, be willing to make changes as the situation warrants.

    Part II: Enhancing Your Video