Digital video essentials

The filmmaker's rule book

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When it comes to making movies that people will actually want to watch, getting a good video camera is only part of the battle. You also need to know how to use your camera. Shaky video, muffled audio, and wild camera movement can ruin your movie—and exasperate your viewers. For video you can be proud of, follow these ten simple rules:

Rule 1: Know your camera

A roller-coaster isn’t the best place to learn how to use your new camcorder—and neither is your daughter’s wedding. Before you set out on a trip or show up at a big event, become familiar with how the camcorder works. Practice changing tapes and accessing important functions, and experiment with different shooting modes. The more comfortable you are with your camera, the better your chances are of getting the shot when it really matters.

Rule 2: Use a tripod

Few things are more irritating to viewers—or more emblematic of amateurish filmmaking—than jerky video caused by the cameraperson’s shaky hands. To see an immediate improvement in your video’s quality, use a tripod or monopod whenever possible.

If you don’t have a tripod handy, brace yourself against a wall for added support. Hold the camcorder with both hands, keep your elbows close to your body, and use the viewfinder to frame the shot: you’ll have an easier time keeping the camcorder steady if you hold it against your face.

Rule 3: Zoom and pan slowly

Quick camera movements can be very disorienting. To ensure that your relatives don’t become ill while watching your vacation films, slow down when zooming or panning.

Zooming You should take at least 30 seconds to complete a full zoom (moving from the camera’s widest angle to the end of its optical zoom). And be careful to keep the camera steady throughout. By taking your time, you’ll also help keep the video in focus: quick zooms can confuse the autofocus feature, resulting in a blurry mess as the camcorder tries to catch up.

Panning Camera movements should also be slow and smooth. It’s difficult to appreciate the beauty of a long tropical beach in three seconds, so take your time when panning. If you’re worried about pacing, take the shot again at a different speed. When you edit, you can choose the clip you like best.

If you’re following the movement of a fast object (such as a sports car or a football player), the panning motion should come from the hips, not from the hands. As your upper body follows the action, keep your elbows locked to your side and watch the scene through the viewfinder, not the LCD. This will help keep the action smooth. To prevent jerky camera movement at the beginning of the shot, start panning before you press the record button. As you pan, try to keep the subject in the center of the frame.

Most importantly, never zoom and pan at the same time—that’s guaranteed to nauseate viewers.

Rule 4: Skip the special effects

Most camcorders give you the option of applying effects—such as fades, black-and-white, and sepia tone—while shooting. Don’t use them if you plan on editing your movie later. You’ll have a wider range of options and get much better results by applying effects in a video editor such as iMovie. Plus, you can undo the effect if you later decide you don’t like it; when you apply a special effect while shooting, you’re stuck with it.

Rule 5: Get a decent microphone

Although adequate for general use, most camcorders’ built-in microphones don’t do a very good job of picking out a voice from a crowd or recording someone talking from a distance. To get sound that you can be proud of, invest in an external microphone.

One option is to get a zoom microphone, such as the $70 Sony ECM-HGZ1 Shotgun Microphone, which clips onto the camera body and synchronizes with the zoom to better isolate the sounds made by the subject you’re zooming in on. This can make a big difference, especially in situations such as concerts and lectures.

Another option is to invest in a wireless lapel microphone, which clips onto the subject’s shirt and transmits audio to the camera. These can be expensive (anywhere from $80 to several hundred dollars), but they do a much better job of recording voices.

Rule 6: Silence the wind

Although it may not sound like much to you, wind can wreak havoc on an unprotected microphone, leaving you with a video in which the only audible sound is rushing air. Some camcorders include a wind cut feature that attempts to filter out this noise. But it can’t work miracles—voices will still be drowned out. Whenever possible, try to shield the microphone from wind by blocking it with your body or by covering it with a thin piece of fabric, such as a T-shirt.

Rule 7: Add light

Although most camcorders come with built-in lights, they’re pretty weak. If you’re shooting in a poorly lit room, consider getting a separate light that mounts onto the camcorder’s hot-shoe (such as the $40 Sony HLV-HL1). Another option is to buy a couple of tripod work lights from a home-supply store to light the scene. For example, Wel-Bilt makes a 500-watt model that sells for around $40. For more lighting advice, check out Bill Holshevnikoff’s The Power of Lighting for Film and Video DVD series, which explains how video professionals light their scenes ($35 each).

Rule 8: Avoid backlighting

Camcorders can’t pick up the range of tones that the human eye can. So if you position someone against a bright background (such as a sunny sky), the camera will expose for the bright light—turning the person in the foreground into a silhouette. If possible, avoid pointing the camera directly at a light source. Instead, move around so the light is to your right or left. (Don’t shoot with your back to the light, as your subject will then have to squint to see you.) If you can’t move, see whether your camcorder offers a backlight control, which changes the exposure to compensate for backlighting. You’ll usually access this feature via the LCD menu or, in some cases, by pushing a backlight-compensation button on the outside of the camcorder.

Rule 9: Use multiple tapes

MiniDV tapes are relatively inexpensive, but memories are priceless. Rather than trying to squeeze an entire vacation onto one videotape, use a fresh tape every day. At the end of a full day of shooting, flip on the tape’s write-protect switch and store the tape somewhere safe. This way, if your camcorder is stolen, you won’t also lose several days of video.

Rule 10: Keep shooting

It’s always better to shoot more video than you think you need. If you’re visiting a picturesque location, take video from several different angles, letting each shot run for at least 30 seconds. People in the business call these establishing shots: they give the viewer a sense of place.

[ Richard Baguley has reviewed digital camcorders and cameras for Macworld and PC World.]

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