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How to Shoot

Got a New Camcorder? Here's What to Do With It. By DMN Staff Writer

So there it is: A brand new DV camcorder. This is going to be great! You're ready to get out there and spread your extraordinary vision to the rest of the world. But maybe you've never shot any video before. What do you need to know to effectively communicate your ideas to your audience? If you're just starting out, there will be lots of tips in this two-part series that will help you avoid the distractions that can ruin even a well-thought-out video presentation. If you're a seasoned veteran, read along anyway, while smugly assuring yourself that you're doing everything exactly right. Whatever your level of experience, I'm here to help.

Who am I? Well, normally I write about digital video topics, as well as direct various TV shows. But in a past life, from the mid-70s until the mid-80s I was a full-time camera operator for a national PBS program. I was involved in all aspects of framing up video shots, from chasing presidents around (starting with Carter, ending with Reagan) and fighting with other network cameramen for a good shot, to running a studio camera every night for five years. Allow me to offer some tips on framing up shots and "shooting for the edit."

Beginner Mistakes
First, avoid the beginner mistakes that nearly everyone makes when they pick up a video camera. The worst offender is the constant zooming and panning that pervades every shot. Before you reach for that zoom control, think about why you're doing it. Do you really need to get a closer look at your subject? Or are you just playing around with that zoom because you can? If you can't think of a really good reason to zoom or pan, don't. Keep in mind, some directors like Spielberg and Hitchcock have shot entire feature films without zooming one single time. Instead of zooming, consider stopping tape and moving in closer to your subject. Then, you can edit it later. If you must pan (moving from side-to-side, moving up or down is called a "tilt"), move slower than your instincts tell you to. Almost every beginner video has a pan that is so fast that it elicits laughter among the initiated. And, by the way, don't call what you're doing with that camcorder "filming." You're not filming anything. Look inside the camcorder. See any film in there? You're using video, so call it "shooting video," or "taping."

Lens Characteristics
Remember that when you're zoomed all the way out, you're dealing with a shorter (wide-angle) lens that has different visual characteristics than a long (telephoto) lens. The short lenses give you more depth of field, that is, objects in the background are in focus as well as those in the foreground. A shorter lens also makes it so that "objects are closer than they appear" (that's why that phrase is printed on rearview mirrors -- which are, in effect, like wide-angle lenses). Use a short lens when you want to see everything in the frame focused. Also, use a short lens when you're trying to hold the camera steady -- the longer the lens, the more difficult it is to avoid "shaky-cam." On the other hand, a longer lens will have less depth of field, but can be very effective if you want to have your subject in focus while the background is out of focus. Try an experiment to illustrate this concept: Frame up an object, and as you walk toward it, keep it the same size in your frame by zooming out as you walk. As you get closer, you'll see the background coming into focus as your subject seems to mysteriously gain depth. It's a wild-looking effect, called foreshortening, that will instantly show you the differences in lenses and their focal lengths.

Here's another common beginner mistake: Shaky-cam. Of course, some highly professional music videos and commercials have elevated shaky-cam to an art form, and if you're going for that effect, more power to you -- shake away! But the majority of the time, you won't want that shaky look in your videos. I learned this the hard way -- I had a cantankerous boss who saw one too many of my unintentionally shaky shots and screamed at me, "If you ever fail to use a tripod on any shot, you will be called into my office to explain exactly why!" I still think about that dweeb every time I set up my tripod. Do yourself (and your viewers) a favor. If you haven't already, invest in a good tripod with a fluid head, so your shots will be rock-solid and your moves smooth.

How many home videos have you sat through where everyone's heads are cut off? When you're taping, keep in mind that there's a phenomenon called overscan in nearly every consumer TV set, where it cuts off about 10% of the top, bottom and sides of your carefully-framed shots. Allow for that while you're shooting. When I was first starting as a studio camera operator, I would always allow the width of my pinky finger between the person's head and the top of the frame, and that would end up giving the perfect amount of head room for viewers at home. But we were using five-inch studio viewfinders on our cameras. A pinky-width would be entirely too much headroom for a DV camcorder. So, experiment with it. Take a few shots, noticing the amount of headroom you're allowing, then look at it on a TV set. Try not to overdo the headroom, though -- you'll end up with your subject appearing to be sitting in a hole, with tons of space over his/her head. That is equally amateurish. You can always tell a pro shooter's work by the amount of headroom allowed.

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Related Keywords:DV camcorder, How to Shoot, video presentations, camera operator, beginner mistakes

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