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Top Ten Digital Video Tips

by Derrick Story, author of the Digital Video Pocket Guide
06/13/2003

Unless the guy next door happens to be Steven Soderbergh, you'll probably have a hard time getting good advice about how to master your DV camcorder. Yes, you can pore over every dryly composed paragraph in your multilanguage owner's manual, but chances are, all that will improve is your French.

To save you from this agonizing peril, as well as sparing those who patiently watch your videos, I've put together a collection of DV essentials in my new Digital Video Pocket Guide. It fits nicely in your camera bag, ready to assist you whenever you want to bone up on camcorder components or movie-making procedures, and best of all, its professional tips will instantly elevate your productions above those of your camcorder-toting peers.

Just in case your pocket guide hasn't arrived yet from Amazon.com, I've assembled my top ten list of DV tips to keep you occupied until the UPS package arrives. Apply one or more of these tips to your movie making, and I guarantee you'll be rewarded with terrific results.

So, lights, camera, and action!

Tip 1: Limit Your Light Sources

Your eyes and brain can quickly adapt to mixed lighting situations -- such as tungsten, daylight, and fluorescent -- but your camcorder has a much more difficult time. fluorescent lights often cause a greenish cast, while tungsten makes things orangish; even good ol' daylight can color your scene blue if you're in the shade or next to an open window.

How the heck do you deal with all of that?

The best solution is to try to limit your light sources, and then use your camcorder's white balance setting adjust for the dominate light source. So if you're indoors with lots of light streaming in the windows and bright fluorescents overhead, then either turn off the fluorescents and balance for the daylight, or pull down the window shades and adjust for the overhead lighting.

Once you start thinking about mixed lighting sources, you can take steps to avoid those situations. When you can't, try to limit the different types of illumination and adjust your white balance accordingly.

Tip 2: Shade Your Lens

Nothing will deteriorate image quality faster than sunlight shining directly on to the front of your lens. To give you a comparable example, you know how it feels when you walk out of a darkened movie theater into direct sunlight? Everything looks sort of washed out and icky. That can happen to your camcorder too, if you don't take steps to protect its "eyes."

The best bet for preventing lens flare is a custom lens hood designed by your camera manufacturer. If your camcorder doesn't accept a lens hood, then you can use your hand to block the harmful rays of the sun. But that can be awkward if you're taping without a tripod.

Using a flare buster.
If your camcorder doesn't accept a custom lens hood, consider using a flare buster, as displayed here mounted on an UltraPod. In use, the flexible arm attaches to your camcorder's accessory shoe.

Another solution is to use what is known as a flare buster, which is an adjustable lens shade attached to a flexible arm that's mounted in your digicam's accessory shoe. Not only will it help you reduce flare, it can be used to attach filters, reflectors, and hold small objects for close-up taping.

Tip 3: Battle Backlighting

One of the most common mistakes in amateur videomaking is capturing footage of a backlit subject. Often this happens while panning, when a brightly lit background enters the frame. Everything in the foreground suddenly turns dark as the camcorder's metering system measures the bright sky or light streaming in through an open window.

There are three basic ways to combat backlighting:

  • Use a reflector or video lights to add illumination to the subject.

  • Lock your exposure on your subjects so they don't silhouette when the camera pans to a backlit scene.

  • Avoid this type of lighting all together.

Reflectors and video lights are helpful in backlit situations when you want to add light to the subject to help offset the strong background illumination.

Backlighting with subject underexposed.
Backlighting with subject properly exposed.
Watch out for backlighting! In the top figure, the camcorder set its exposure according to the light coming in the window, which underexposed the subject being interviewed. In the bottom figure, exposure was locked in on the background, but light was added to the underexposed subject to balance the overexposure.

If you don't need to preserve the background information and only want your subject properly exposed, locate your camcorder's exposure compensation control and set it to "+1" or "+1.5". Another trick is to meter directly off of the subject then use exposure lock to preserve that setting, regardless of changes in background lighting.

Above all, learn how to identify backlit situations. Avoid them if you can, and if you can't, use the solution that works best for the situation.

Tip 4: Black Your Tape

Timecode is the language of video. It's the system your camera uses to assign a unique number to every frame you shoot, enabling you to accurately log your scenes and find them later without burning out your camcorder's drive mechanism shuttling back and forth in search of that elusive magic moment. Clean timecode is also required by many video-editing applications for batch processing. Even if the application you're using now doesn't need clean code, as is the case with Apple's iMovie, another (such as Adobe Premiere) might.

The best way to maintain timecode is to make sure you never start recording when your LCD monitor is displaying a blue screen (some camcorders show black instead). If you were to start taping with a blue screen, then your timecode would start from zero, even though you're somewhere in the middle of the tape. That's what we call "broken timecode." What you want instead is continuous footage without any blue screen breaks. That way, a timecode number will be assigned to every frame.

Because unbroken timecode is of vital importance, sometimes pro videographers will black the tape before they go out on location. They simply load a brand-new blank tape into the camcorder, put the lens cap on, mute the sound, press the record button, and let the tape roll for its duration. Now timecode has been established for every second on that cassette. No more blue screens! Then they simply rewind the tape, label it, and they're ready for assignment. No matter what happens during the excitement of shooting, the timecode will remain unbroken.

Tip 5: Limit Your Dependency on the Built-in Mic

Whenever possible, use an external microphone, either wireless or with a cord, to capture the audio during taping. Resist the urge to go the easy route and use your onboard mic. Not only is it of less quality than a good external microphone, it will also pick up noise from the camcorder's drive mechanism.

Using an external mic.
Yes, sometimes you have to use the built-in mic on your camcorder. But when you can, use an external wireless or handheld model such as the one shown here.

If a wireless or handheld mic is impractical for a given situation, put a microphone in the camera's accessory shoe to record sound. Most camcorder manufacturers provide accessory mics for this purpose. The sound might not be as good as a lapel mic for an interview or an external mic on a boom for dialogue, but the audio will be superior to the sound recorded by the on-camera mic that is picking up the grind of the camcorder motors.

Tip 6: Use a Monopod

When you think about shooting video, most likely you're thinking about recording motion -- capturing someone or something moving. Of course! You're not going to make a movie of a flower arrangement sitting in a vase. So, if recording motion is the essence of video, why do so many home movies make viewers queasy?

The problem is that many DV enthusiasts don't understand how to "hold the shot." In other words, it's the subjects who are supposed to be moving, not the camera.

This error is particularly common in "action" videography, where the cameraman is handholding the camcorder and trying to follow the play at an event such as a soccer game. Obviously you have to move the camera some, or you'll never record any of the play on the field. But it's how you move the camcorder that's important.

Most professionals mount their camera on a tripod for this type of assignment. There is no better way to steady a camcorder than to secure it to a rock-solid tripod with a fluid head. But that probably won't be practical for much of the shooting you do. In the real world, people are already schlepping way too much stuff, and a bulky tripod could be the straw that breaks daddy's back.

The common sense answer is a simple, compact, and very effective accessory called a monopod. Essentially, it's a one-legged tripod. Even though they are extremely compact and easy to transport, monopods are an excellent tool to help you properly hold your shots. Your footage will improve immediately.

And when you're finished shooting, you have a stylish one-legged walking stick to accompany you as you stroll off into the sunset ... instead of lugging a three-legged albatross over your shoulder.

Tip 7: Take Advantage of Low-cost Illumination

Powerful video lights on light stands are great for indoor training tapes when you're close to an electrical outlet, but they're not much good for interviews in the great outdoors. And those horrid little video lights are sometimes necessary in a pinch, but they can drain your battery faster than forgotten car headlights at winter twilight.

So when Mother Nature is kind enough to provide the juice, why not take advantage of her hospitality and use reflectors to illuminate your subject? You can purchase collapsible lite discs at just about any camera store, and they can be handheld or mounted on a stand.

Lite disc not reflecting.
Lite disc reflecting.
Portable folding reflectors, often called lite discs, help you quickly redirect light both inside and out. In the top photo, the subject is displaying the lite disc, but no light is being redirected. In the bottom image, you can see a noticeable difference in the model's clothing and skin tones, due to the reflected light.

If your movie project is already running way over budget, go to the office supply store instead and by a couple sheets of sturdy white cardboard or foam core. They don't fold up nice and neat like the collapsible discs, but they reflect light just as well.

Tip 8: Soften Those Backgrounds by Fooling Your Camcorder

Have you ever wondered how to "soften" a busy background so it won't distract viewers from your primary subject? In still photography, you simply switch to "aperture priority" mode and change the f-stop. The problem in videography is that you can't mess with the corresponding shutter speed like you can when using a digital still camera.

So what's the answer? Fool your camcorder into opening up its aperture (without messing with the shutter speed) by adding a neutral density filter. These filters are available in a range of densities, usually one to four f-stops. The darker the filter, the wider the aperture and the softer the background.

If you don't want to trudge down to the local camera store to buy yet another accessory that I've said you just can't live without, then a polarizing filter will work too. Polarizers usually have a density of two stops.

Tip 9: Get to Know Your Hardware Store

Pro-caliber lighting units, light stands, backdrop supports, and utility clamps can end up costing you more than your high-tech DV camcorder. Before you max out your credit card at the Video Boutique, catch a ride to your local hardware store and make friends with the customer service staff.

You can load up your cart with shop lights, PVC pipe, and wood clamps for about half the price of what they would cost you from a video specialist.

Tip 10: Go to the Movies and Watch Television

The cheapest pro filmmaking course you can take is to park yourself in front of the television and observe how the big guys shoot a scene. Once you start to analyze the work of others, you'll see that good movie making is often quite fundamental -- strong lighting, clear audio, and simple cuts between scenes.

Take notice of how long scenes last, where the camera (or cameras) are positioned, the types of transitions used (if any), and how the director has composed the shot. Have a pad and pen handy while you watch so you can make notes on how steal techniques from the best in the business.

Final Thoughts

Like so many things in life, the daunting task of recording a training video or capturing a birthday party becomes much easier once you know the secrets. There are still lots more tricks to learn, but these ten tips will put your videos on the road to success and you on the path to inspiring the envy of family, friends, and peers.


O'Reilly & Associates is releasing Digital Video Pocket Guide in July 2003. Beta Excerpts are available free online.


Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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