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Ten Ways to Improve Your DSLR Filmmaking Skills

In order to make the next DSLR movie better, you have to continually find way to improve your filmmaking skills. Here are the top ten things you should consider to make the best possible movie.

Plan your shoot

Whether you’re making a feature film, shooting a music video, or documenting a family documentary, the idea is the same: plan it out and stick to the plan.

Consider the following:

  • Work with a script.

  • Calculate your shots.

  • Budget the necessary time.

  • Prearrange cast and crew.

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Film a concise story

Whether it’s a feature-length film, film short, three-minute news package, or a simple sequence, the idea is the same: clear storytelling. Stick to the basics before going back and trying more experimental shots.

Shoot to edit

Remember to shoot your movies with variations of the scenes you plan to use. There’s a misnomer that suggests shooting as much footage as possible, so you have a lot to put together later. Not the best plan. It will take you a long time to make sense of it.

Instead, try to capture the necessary shots with the appropriate variations of camera angle, focal length, and camera-to-subject distance.

For each scene, consider the following variations:

  • Vary the width of shot. Wide shots give context.

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Medium width adds perspective.

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Tight shots add emotion.

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  • Hold each shot. Whether you need two seconds in your movie or two minutes, always shoot the scene much longer than you anticipate on using it.

  • Vary your angles. Break up shots by placing the camera up high or down low.

  • Establishing shot. Be sure to shoot a strong opening shot for the film and for each key scene.

  • Limit each take. This is when rehearsing comes in handy.

Use the proper stabilization tools for your camera

Stabilization is anything that keeps the camera steady. This includes mounting it on a tripod, using a rack system, or choosing something like a dolly or jib.

  • Be sure to have a good tripod. Make sure it reaches your eye-level and the legs are steady.

  • Make sure the tripod head is right for video. Using a video or fluid head allows you to smoothly tilt and pan.

  • Make sure the rig is comfortable and everything is exactly where you need it.

  • Rehearse your moves. Practice your shots before hitting the Record button.

Understand your DSLR

Nothing is worse than fumbling with your camera in front of your cast, crew, or subjects. That little bit of uncertainty can hurt their confidence in your ability.

Here are some key functions to consider:

  • Exposure: Get comfortable with its placement.

  • ISO setting: You may need to adjust sensor sensitivity.

  • White balance: Placement differs with each manufacturer and model.

  • Movie mode: Get comfortable with it.

  • Other functions: Making numerous adjustments go more smoothly when you're familiar with them.

  • Study the manual, constantly: Each time you read the manual, you’ll learn something.

Bring your own film lighting

Waiting for the right light requires a lot of waiting, but you have to do it. Besides, there comes a point when you can’t mooch any passive light. So, consider bringing your own lighting.

Try the following:

  • Go with the on-camera light. It lets you bring light to static subjects that are relatively close to the camera.

  • Bring a light kit. They’re inexpensive, powerful, and let you add the necessary accessories to illuminate your movie.

  • Use the poor man's light. Set up some lamps or bulbs to light your subject.

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Never skimp on frame composition

How you fill the frame determines the strength of each shot, and, before long, the overall tone of the movie. The more you consider what happens in that rectangular world, the better your movie will look.

Remember these pointers:

  • Look before you leap. Make sure elements in the scene are properly arranged.

  • Don’t forget the rule of thirds. Plopping the subject in the center of the frame rarely looks good.

  • Watching for blocking. Use minor visual cues to keep actors in the right places.

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Get plenty of cutaway shots

Although they’re not the main subject, the cutaway shot is an essential part of the sequence, and ultimately, the movie. A cutaway is that shot of anything other than the subject that either cues the audience to something they need to know or serves as an interruption to the action.

Here’s some other things to consider:

  • Crowd shots: Think concert films.

  • Animals moving away quickly: A barking dog can let the audience know something bad is about to happen.

  • Exterior details: Sometimes the location of something spoken about in the scene.

  • Subject moving out of the frame: That often provides a nice alternative for editing because it’s plausible for you to cut to just about anything and have it appear seamless.

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Movie audio

A great movie doesn’t just have sound, it has great sound. Take the time to make sure you’re getting a clean, clear sound. Capture it as best you can and then fine-tune it in postproduction. Try to limit the use of your on-camera microphone, opting for one more suited for the task.

These include

  • Stick microphone: These work great when used close to the subject.

  • Shotgun: This microphone excels at picking up sounds directly in front of it.

  • Lavaliere: The microphone is always at the proper distance.

  • Voice recorder: Attach the microphone directly to the recorder and the pole or stand.

Watch a lot of movies

Observing how different filmmakers show you endless variations. When you try different shot types, angles, and approaches to the subject, you begin to develop your own style:

  • Watch the masters.

  • Break down really bad movies.

  • Have a healthy DVD collection. You can watch them frame-by-frame or in slow motion to learn from the best and the worst.

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