Shooting Better Digital Video - dummies

By Keith Underdahl

Once your digital camcorder is configured and set up the way you want it, it’s time to start shooting some video. Yay! One of the most important things you’ll want to work on as you shoot video is to keep the image as stable as possible. Your camcorder probably has an image stabilization feature built in, but image stabilization can do only so much. You’ll be better off using a tripod for all static shots, and a monopod or sling for moving shots.

Pay special attention to the camera’s perspective. The angle of the camera greatly affects the look and feel of the video you shoot. You may find that lowering the level of the camera greatly improves the image. Some high-end camcorders have handles on top that make shooting from a lower level easier. Virtually all digital camcorders have LCD panels that can be swiveled up so you can easily see what you’re recording, even if you’re holding the camera down low.

Be especially careful to avoid letting the camera roll to one side or the other. This skews the video image as shown in Figure 1, which is extremely disorienting to the viewer. Try to keep the camera level with the horizon at all times. The following sections give additional recommendations for shooting better video.

Don't let the video image get skewed like this — it's very disorienting.

Figure 1: Don’t let the video image get skewed like this — it’s very disorienting.

If you’re shooting a person in a studio-like situation, complete with a backdrop and fancy lighting, provide a stool for your subject to sit on. A stool will help your subject remain both still and relaxed during a long shoot, and (unlike a chair) a stool will also help the subject maintain a more erect posture.

Panning effectively

Moving the camera across a scene is called panning. You’ll often see home videos that are shot while the person holding the camcorder pans the camera back-and-forth and up-and-down, either to follow a moving subject or to show a lot of things that don’t fit in a single shot. This technique (if you can call it that) is called firehosing — usually not a good idea. Practice these rules when panning:

  • Pan only once per shot.
  • Start panning slowly, gradually speed up, and slow down again before stopping.
  • Slow down! Panning too quickly — say, over a landscape — is a common mistake.
  • If you have a cheap tripod, you may find it difficult to pan smoothly. Try lubricating the tripod’s swivel head with WD-40 or silicon spray lubricant. If that doesn’t work, limit tripod use to stationary shots. Ideally you should use a higher-quality tripod with a fluid head for smooth panning.
  • If you’re shooting a moving subject, try moving the camera with the subject, rather than panning across a scene. Doing so reduces out-of-focus issues with the camera lens, and helps keep the subject in-frame.

Using (not abusing) the zoom lens

Most camcorders have a handy zoom feature. A zoom lens is basically a lens with an adjustable focal length. A longer lens — also called a telephoto lens — makes far-away subjects appear closer. A shorter lens — also called a wide angle lens — allows more of a scene to fit in the shot. Zoom lenses allow you to adjust between wide-angle and telephoto.

Because the zoom feature is easy to use and fun to play with, amateur videographers tend to zoom in and out a lot. For the best results, you should avoid zooming during a shot as much as possible. Overuse of the zoom lens not only disorients the viewer, it also creates focal and light problems whether you’re focusing the camera manually or using autofocus. Some zoom lens tips include

  • Avoid zooming whenever possible. Yes, you’ll be tempted it to zoom in on something cool or interesting in a video shot, but you should exercise restraint whenever possible.
  • If you must zoom while recording, zoom slowly. You may need to practice a bit to get a feel for your camera’s zoom control.
  • Consider repositioning the camera instead of using the zoom lens to compose the shot. Wide-angle lenses (remember, when you zoom out you make the camcorder’s lens more of a wide-angle lens) have greater depth of field. This means more of the shot is in focus if you’re zoomed out. If you shoot subjects by zooming in on them from across a room, they may move in and out of focus. But if you move the camera in and zoom the lens out, focus will be less of a problem.

Avoiding timecode breaks

Each frame of video is identified using a number called a timecode. When you edit video on your computer, timecode identifies the exact places where you make edits. On your camcorder, a timecode indicator tells you how much video has been recorded on the tape. This indicator usually shows up in the camcorder’s viewfinder or the LCD panel. A typical timecode looks something like this:


This number stands for zero hours, seven minutes, eighteen seconds, and seven frames. If you have a 60-minute tape, timecode on that tape probably starts at 00:00:00:00 and ends at 00:59:59:29. In some cases, however, the timecode on a tape can become inconsistent. For example, suppose you record one minute of video, rewind the tape 20 seconds, and then start recording again. Depending on your camcorder, the timecode might count up to 00:00:40:00 and then start over at zero again. An inconsistency like this is called a timecode break. A timecode break is more likely to occur if you fast-forward a tape past a blank, unrecorded section and then start recording again.

When you capture video from a digital camcorder into your computer, the capture software reads the timecode from the tape in your camcorder. If the software encounters a timecode break, it will probably stop capture and be unable to capture any video past the break.

The best way to avoid timecode breaks is to make sure you don’t shuttle the tape (fast-forward or rewind it) between recording segments. An alternative approach is to pre-timecode your tapes before shooting. If you do have to rewind the tape — say, someone wants to see a playback of what you just recorded — make sure you cue the tape back to the end of the recorded video before you start recording again. Many camcorders have an end-search feature that automatically shuttles the tape to the end of the current timecode. Check your camcorder’s documentation to see whether it has such a feature.