The Basics of Shooting Video for Photographers

In Photo Basics by Pete LaGregor5 Comments

Why Learn Video?

Having been an avid photographer my entire life, I always thought video was a completely different medium and that I shouldn't bother with it.  These days, though, that kind of thinking can leave a photographer behind the technology curve.  There will always be a place for still photography but video is the future.

There are many advantages to understanding and being able to shoot video for professional and hobbyist photographers, even if you never incorporate it into your primary work.

Video can be a key component in your marketing.  It can be used to demonstrate your techniques and talents to clients.  It is a great way to do some teaching to other photographers.  It can create an additional revenue stream for your business even if it isn't your primary focus.  It can make you stand out among the other still photographers in your area.  Finally, let's face it whether its home videos, a flowing waterfall in a landscape, or even drone footage…video is just fun.

For all these reasons, I have taken the dive into video in the past year.  So, as someone who still considers himself a beginner with video, I wanted to share some of the things I have learned with others photographers who are thinking about dipping their toes in.  This is certainly not an exhaustive tutorial on professional video shooting, but I hope that it can help some of you out there get started.

How Video is Different from Still Photography

Motion!  Well, of course motion is the difference but it is not really just that simple.  Motion affects everything, such as composition, shutter speed, exposure, focus, post-processing, and a bunch more.  Because of motion you are dealing with more planning, bigger file sizes, and more difficulty in post-processing.  Everything you do when shooting a video centers around this singular difference from photography. . . motion.

This matters most when selecting your shots.  Composition takes on a whole new dimension when incorporating movement.  You need to consider where the subject or camera starts, the path it moves on, and where they both end up and make sure that all aspects are composed properly.  It can help to do a few “dry runs” of the movement at a slow pace while watching the LCD to make sure that every aspect is composed properly.

Also, don't leave out the motion!  If you take a video of a stationary subject with no camera movement, all you have is a really large file size photograph.  So first and foremost, make sure shooting video is right for the subject and that it enhances your vision, not just because you want to shoot video.

Be Prepared, Then Get Creative

This is good advice whether you are shooting video or still images, but the need for preparation is amplified when shooting video.  While a photograph is telling a story of a moment in time, a video tells a story over the passage of time.  This means both the passage of the length of the video itself and the passage of time within the story being told.  You have to plan for both.

If you are telling a story that takes place over 20 years during a 60 minute video, you need to know, almost to the second, how much of those 60 minutes will be devoted to each portion of your story.  Even if you are only telling the story of a 8 hour wedding, you need to have a plan about how much time in the video is going to be devoted to each part of the wedding in order to shoot effectively and efficiently.

Within each of these sections of the video, you need to plan each shot.  What will you be shooting?  Where will you shoot it?  What time of day does it need to be shot?  Where will the camera be and will it be moving?  The questions go on and on.  Because each shot is not instant like a photograph, you have less time to re-shoot.  If it is an event like a wedding, you may only get one chance.  So plan your shots!

Also you need to plan shots to fill the gaps.  Not every shot needs to have your story's main subject in it.  You are telling a story over time, so you have the opportunity to devote some time to secondary characters.  These can be people or even things.  For example, you can pan across the decorations in a wedding venue or you can shoot landscape scenery in a documentary subject's hometown.

These shots are called b-roll.  You can use them to great effect as transitions from one part of your story to another or to illustrate the environment.  As a photographer, these may be the shots you will be most comfortable with at first because they can be something very simple.

Finally, don't let preparation stifle your creativity.  Get the basic shots down first, then see what else you can do.  Get creative with lighting, camera movement, shooting angles, etc.  If you have done your preparation, then it can be easier to build from there and get creative.

The Camera

Today's DSLR and Mirrorless cameras are perfectly suited for shooting video.

So at this point, we haven't even mentioned the camera.  Here is the good news!  If you have a relatively recent DSLR, then you can probably shoot high quality video right now.  But there are a few things you want to consider if you are choosing a camera to shoot video.  Of primary importance is the ability to control the exposure triangle…shutter speed, aperture, and ISO…while shooting.  Many consumer DSLRs do not allow such manual control while shooting video and only allow you to use one or more automatic modes.

All hope is not lost if your camera does not allow manual control while shooting video.  You can find firmware modifications for some brands that open up more features.  But use these at your own risk. Modifying the firmware is never guaranteed to work and it may turn your camera into a very cool looking paperweight.  If you are interested check out Nikonhacker and Magic Lantern (Canon).

So now you need a lens.  In short, any lens will work, but you can't just slow your shutter speed down in low light (even on a tripod) so a fast prime is a valuable piece of kit when shooting video indoors or in low light.  Another benefit of a wide aperture lens is the ability to have a shallow depth of field which, like with still photography, can help to isolate your subject and draw the viewer's focus.  When there is movement happening in the frame, controlling the viewer's eye becomes even more important.

Get Stabilized

We know that the camera captures movement, so the first step is to control that movement!  Start with something that every photographer should already have, a tripod.  You can shoot video with any kind of head on that tripod, especially if you are not moving the camera.

However , if you want to introduce camera movement, the most common (and useful) type of head is called a fluid head.  It allows for slow controlled movements and typically has longer handles to give you more control over fine movements.  Many fluid heads also allow you to limit movement to only one axis, so that you can pan side to side or up and down without veering off axis.  All of these things make for more controlled movement and less shake in the camera.

A monopod is another way to allow movement but in a controlled fashion.  These are great for shooting on location or during a shoot where you will be changing camera positions frequently.  It will not be as controlled as a good tripod with a fluid head, but it is generally more stable than hand holding.

A more advanced piece of stabilization is the gimbal or steady cam.  This is where things get really cool (and expensive).  This allows you to hand hold the camera and still get relatively stable shots.  With a gimbal you can shoot from more active positions such as following someone running without set up tracks with a dolly on them like you might see in a big movie production.

A gimbal can add some great action to your shots without making the footage shaky.

Last, let's talk about in camera stabilization.  Most new cameras are coming with either in body stabilization, in lens stabilization, or both.  In addition to letting you shoot still images at much slower shutter speeds than previously necessary, this also lets you shoot video with less camera shake.  It's not perfect and still requires good shooting technique, but good in camera stabilization can make a world of difference.

Framerate, Just a Bunch of Still Images in a Row

There are always two different framerates of which you need to be aware, your shooting framerate and your output framerate.  I have found that the best way to approach this is to start by figuring out what you want the output to be and work from there.  Most often you want them to match up.

The most common output framerates are 24 fps (“frames per second”) , 30fps, and 60fps.  24fps is what many feature length movies are shot at and gives you a more cinematic look.  30fps is most common on broadcast television and internet video such as YouTube.  60fps is usually used for action such as sports on television.

You can use these creatively as well.  If you shoot at 60fps but play it back at 30fps then the action will be played at half speed.  Most post-processing software let's you adjust the playback speed for such effects.  However, the more you plan for this when shooting, the better the effect will ultimately look.

Make sure your framerate and shutter speed are working together to give you the best looking video possible.

Settings, the Exposure Triangle Plus 1 (So Exposure Square?)

Just like still photography you can control shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  But, as we will discuss below, shutter speed flexibility is limited, so when you have a bright scene you may need to darken it down.  This is where a neutral density (“ND”) filter comes in as the “plus 1” to the exposure triangle.

One of the biggest differences between still images and video is that you really do not have a lot of flexibility with your shutter speed.  Depending on your shooting framerate, you are locked into a couple options for shutter speed (at least you are if you want your video to look good).

Here is why…  If you start shooting at a shutter speed of 1/500 for example, your video will look very jittery.  That is because you are likely shooting at a framerate 24, 30, or maybe 60fps.  So if your shutter speed is 1/500 of a second, there are gaps in the movement and it will look very unnatural to our eyes.  We counter this unnatural look by shooting at slower shutter speeds to create motion blur to fill these gaps.  Just wave your hand in front of your face and you will see that the human eye sees motion as a blur, so this looks very natural to us.

The general rule is that you want to shoot at a shutter speed that is the that is the reciprocal of double the frame rate.  If you are like me, you now want to go look up what a reciprocal is so I'll save you the time.  If your framerate is 24fps then multiply that number by 2 (you'll get 48) and take its reciprocal (which is 1 over that number) which is 1/48.  That is the ideal shutter speed for 24fps.  In that case, most cameras don't allow you to shoot at 1/48 of a second so just round up to 1/50.  Applying this rule to footage shot at 30fps, the ideal shutter speed is 1/60 of a second.

Like all rules there are exceptions made for creative reasons but that goes a little beyond the basics and so we can save that for more advanced discussions.

So how do we shoot in bright sunlight without cranking up the shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second?  We use a neutral density filter.  As a photographer, you may have heard that variable ND filters are not as sharp as standard ND filters.  That may be true when shooting at 24 megapixels, but if you are shooting at 1080p or even 4k, a variable ND will do just fine, and you will need the flexibility to adjust and fine tune it.

We will not discuss aperture or ISO at length because they function relatively similar to still photography.  Just remember that if your subject is moving, a shallow aperture can be difficult so plan accordingly.

So the process for finding your ideal exposure is to set your shutter speed first as described above, then find your ideal aperture.  Next you need to go in one of two directions.  If the scene is too bright, then you need to adjust that variable ND filter and if it is too dark then you need to raise your ISO.

Lighting

What do you do when the scene is too dark and requires you to raise the ISO beyond a value that looks good?  Add lights of course.

Video lighting is one of those subjects that can be very simple while at the same time take a lifetime to perfect.  So we will cover it as simply as possible.  First, the obvious.  Your speedlights won't cut it.  You need constant lighting.  Once you get that, its not so different from using a flash because, well light is light whether you are shooting one frame or 24 per second.  Keep in mind that some constant lights get hot and many modifiers are made of plastic or fabric, so try not to set anything on fire or melt it.

LED lights are a great way to add constant lighting to a video set.

Also keep in mind that if your subject is moving, then your lights need to either cover the entire area of their movement or move with them.  Remember that part about planning everything out?  It's very important here.  Unless you have an assistant or two, shooting moving subjects with artificial light can get tricky and is probably not the place you want to start if you are here to learn the basics.

Focus

If you are shooting a stationary subject, then pre-focus, turn off auto-focus, and leave it alone.  But things get real tricky when shooting moving subjects.  You can either shoot at a depth of field large enough to capture the entire range of their movement, have them move from an area of blur into an area of focus, or follow them.  The latter option requires a good deal of practice and skill but when done effectively, can look great.

Generally speaking, manual focus is the way to go when it comes to shooting video.  Although some current cameras are making great strides with the smoothness of their autofocusing systems and the future may see a decline of manual focus even in filmmaking.

If you are using manual focus and trying to follow a subject, it helps to pre-plan the subject's path and the focus.  For example, if you are know they are walking from point A to point B, then figure out where the focus ring needs to be to have each point in focus, mark it, then practice moving it from A to B as the subject walks.

Audio

One of the biggest differences between photography and video is the sound.  While video shares many similarities to photos in the way it is captured, audio is an entirely new element that most photographers have never worked with.

We tried a whole bunch of services to find the best places to get stock music for video projects, and Improve Photography's favorite is Audioblocks.com.  You pay a low fee per year and you can download as much as you want.  Awesome!  We also like that they have very liberal licenses that allow you to use the music in just about any commercial or personal project you could want.  Most of the stock audio libraries have stingy licenses that limit you to 50,000 or 100,000 listens to your project.  That's crazy because if your video goes viral on Youtube, you violate the license.  I like Audioblocks because they actually let you use what you pay for!

While a full discussion of audio is likely beyond the scope of this article, there are a few things to remember.  First, the microphone on your DSLR is not very good, so if your video is dependent on sound, especially clear speaking, then you should invest in a quality microphone or a dedicated sound recorder.

Second, if you are using an external recording device you will need to sync up the audio in post production so keep the built in microphone on and start the video with a clap or other loud noise to help you (or audio syncing software) to match it up.  That is one of the reasons you see them using a clapboard when filming movies.

Remember, good audio can take your video to the next level, but bad audio can make it unwatchable.

Post-Processing

It would take 10 articles to fully dive into video post production, so this will be more of an overview on where to get started.  If you already have the complete Adobe Creative Cloud, then great, you have Premiere Pro and that is a quality, full featured, video editor.

However, if you are like me, just beginning to get into the world of video, and reluctant to spend the extra money to “test out” your affinity for video production then there is an amazing free option.  Davinci Resolve is a tremendous program and with its new version 14 has become probably the most full featured video editor, color corrector, and sound mixer in one program out there.  And yes, it is totally free.  There are a couple features that are only available for the paid version, but nothing that would prevent you from producing professional quality video productions.  One year into my  video journey and I have not run into anything I could not do with the free version.

 

Davinci Resolve is a great full featured editor and it's FREE!

Conclusion

We hit a lot of topics here about getting started in the world of video.  There is a huge amount of information we have not covered and probably many things I have missed.

So if you are a photographer who has gotten started shooting video either for fun, for marketing purposes, or even as an add on service to your clients, leave a comment below about your experience and get a discussion started that can help others.


About the Author

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a trial lawyer in NJ but he has had a passion for photography since he was a kid. When he is not in the courtroom he pursues his photography business through both landscape and portrait work. You can see his work at www.lagregorphotography.com

Comments

  1. Perfect timing!! I’ve been taking video, haphazardly, for a few years with my trust Canon 70D and its sidekick, the 60D. But, now that I’ve upgraded to full frame, I want to be a bit more serious about the video aspects. Hugely appreciate the detail above. VERY useful, especially the exposure and fps information; all things I wish I had understood, better, when running amok in Grand Teton last fall. And many thanks for the Davinci resource! Excellent article!!

    1. Author

      Thanks Cindy. Hope the information helps. Feel free to come back and post about your adventures in video. Things you have learned, questions, etc.

      Running amok in Grand Teton sounds like a lot of fun!

  2. Great stuff, Pete! I’ve been thinking about trying my hand at a few videos but wasn’t too interested in spending the money for Premiere. I had heard of DaVinci Resolve but didn’t realize it was free. Any idea if they have a function comparable to warp stabilizer. That’s something I’ve used in the past to saved hyperlapse footage from being too choppy.

  3. Thanks Pete.
    Just switched from stills to video by request form Ballet Victoria. A new learning curve.
    Also just bought the new Nikon D850.

Leave a Comment