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Composing a Shot for Your Vlog

Shot composition is one of the sexy phrases that film and art students use to answer the question, How does it look on camera? A lot of factors can influence how well-composed a shot is. So here's the basics of using background, color, and framing in composing shots for video.

Emphasizing or de-emphasizing backgrounds

One of the eternal truths you'll run into when you shoot a lot of video is that human beings are really good at glossing over the backgrounds. For example, have you ever had friends or family members over to your house, and been surprised when they noticed some neglected item in your home (or just some embarrassing dirt or clutter)? And then you realized that you had had that thing there for about six months — and looked it every day without really noticing it?

People are good at ignoring things that they see too often. Unfortunately, when you open your world to the Internet on video, suddenly you're broadcasting all your dirty laundry (perhaps literally) for the whole world to see.

Sometimes this is a good thing. For instance, if you have a terrific back yard, why not use it as an outdoor studio for your vlog? If it's pretty and you like showing it off, go for it!

But then, some unnoticed details of everyday life might barge in — the pile of unraked leaves, the thistle patch in the back, your old Bronco that you're going to sell when gas prices go down a bit — and you didn't even see any of these until you played back the video to edit it. Suddenly, what you thought looked terrific turns out to make you look like the world's worst gardener!

De-emphasizing a background (say, if it's too distracting) is generally tougher than emphasizing the background. If you want to make sure the viewer's attention isn't drawn to what's in the background, you can either control your camera's focus or replace (even remove) the background from your frame.

Showcasing the background

To emphasize a background, just light it up as much as possible. In addition to lighting your subject, stick an additional lamp behind the person, either off camera or on. If you're using a directional lamp, point it at the background.

For outdoors shots, just step back a few paces. If you have an auto-focus on your camera, it will automatically refocus to include the background behind your subject.

When you film outdoors, though, be alert to the sun's location and intensity. Overcast days are excellent for filming, because the clouds even out the sunlight and result in softer shadows. If you have a strong overhead sun, or if the sun is behind your subject, you'll get strong shadows on the face. Bring along a light (even a strong flashlight) and point it at your subject — this is the optimal time to use a camera-mounted light. The light will offset the strong overhead or backlighting and soften the shadows as well.

If you light the background without lighting your foreground subjects, then your subjects will be backlit and will appear more or less as silhouettes, which may be an effect you like. The anonymous informant shot from television is a pretty common technique, and you can use it in your vlogs even if you're not ratting out your crime-boss Uncle Ned.

Blurring out the background by controlling the camera's focus

Depending on your model of video camera, you may be able to control the lens focus enough to blur out the background when you're filming.

You can determine whether your video camera has a manual focus by whether the ring around the camera lens moves when you twist it gently and it changes the image in your viewfinder. If it does, then you have a manual-focus camera. Most people use the autofocus on their cameras most of the time, but if you practice a bit, you can get the manual focus to work in your favor.

If you have a manual focus, first turn off the autofocus feature on your camcorder. Then get as close to your subject as is comfortable, and turn the focus ring until the subject is in focus. Keep turning the ring. With luck, if the background is far enough away, it will start to blur. Start filming when your subject is still in focus but the background is blurry.

If you don't have a manual focus camera, you can still de-emphasize the background by putting as much distance as possible between your foreground and your background. Suppose you have a subject, such as someone you're interviewing. Put the person much closer to the camera than the background, such as a building on the street. Keep the camera close and all the background far away. The camera will focus automatically on the image that dominates the foreground — your subject. Because the background is outside the focal length of the camera, it'll be blurry and de-emphasized — which is fine.

Blocking out the background

The simplest way to de-emphasize a background is to cover it or shoot away from it. You can do this by draping a cloth over the background, by placing a large picture just behind your subject to block out the background, or by turning the camera so that it misses the distractions in the background entirely.

For example, suppose you have a nice sofa where you want to conduct an interview, but the view behind it is your front window — which looks out on your neighbor's garage. If you can't simply close the blinds or curtains, you can prop up a large picture or poster behind the back of the sofa and film close enough to your subject that you don't capture the window behind the person.

If you have a really hard time getting the picture to stay propped, consider investing in a small easel you can attach to the picture and position as needed.

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