Solutions: Video Fundamentals

A primer to get you started shooting video with a DSLR
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Canon EOS 5D Mark II

For most photographers, the biggest hurdle to getting into video with a DSLR is taking the first step. That’s because the first step isn’t all that simple. In this short Solutions article, we’ll cover the basics so you can get started with some confidence.

The allure of video, obviously, is the ability to capture moments instead of single images. There are two fundamental classes of video: narrative video and motion snapshots. As a nature photographer, you’re likely to be most interested in the latter, at least until you get some practice. The narrative video has a story that unfolds, while motion snapshots are snippets of action that are better suited to a few moments of video than a single frame.

Manfrotto 501 Video Head

Memory Card
The first thing you need to do is make sure you have sufficient memory. A 4 GB memory card might be able to hold a few hundred high-resolution JPEGs, but it’s only going to hold a few minutes of video. And if you’re shooting still and motion to the same card, which is common for still photographers, you’re going to run out of space quickly. Consider investing in a 16 GB or even a 32 GB memory card. Be sure the card is UDMA 6 or higher (check your camera’s manual for specific recommendations and requirements). UDMA 6 and higher means the card is rated for the higher data rates encountered with motion. Lower-cost cards may not be able to handle full motion, and you can get annoying frame dropouts.

Camera Setup
A sturdy shooting platform makes a huge difference. If you’re trying to handhold while shooting video, you’ll find that you end up with bouncy motion that’s almost unwatchable after a few seconds. Anchor your camera on a solid tripod for the best results. Also, your standard ballhead, while outstanding for still capture, isn’t well suited for motion unless you’re going to keep the camera completely motionless. If you’re thinking about any sort of panning or tilting, a proper video head is important. Video heads allow you to make these camera movements smoothly. You can get a video head quite inexpensively, and it will do the job well. Large, very expensive models are geared to professionals with heavy movie cameras and lenses. As a DSLR video shooter, you can get a much lighter-duty model that will do everything you need it to do.

When you’re ready to shoot, you usually have a few options as far as the look the camera will generate. If you’re just starting out, you may like the look of the normal image settings. Like a standard JPEG, these motion clips will have slightly enhanced color, contrast and sharpness. Once you get used to shooting motion, you’ll probably change to a more muted look that will give you more options in postproduction. Don’t stress too much about this at first. You’re just getting your feet wet. There will be plenty of time to find a picture style that works best for you.

Your DSLR probably has several options for image resolution. It’s debatable which one is best for you, and as always, there are trade-offs to choosing one resolution over another. In general, it’s best to go with the highest resolution you can. So-called full HD is 1080×1920, meaning 1080 horizontal lines of resolution by 1920 vertical lines of resolution. Your HDTV set at home is probably only capable of 720 horizontal lines, so some people suggest that it’s overkill to choose a higher resolution. It’s a valid point, but by choosing the higher value, you’re future-proofing your videos as much as possible. On some cameras, you’ll see the resolution expressed as a single number followed by a “p” or an “i” (e.g., 1080p or 1080i). The letter refers to “progressive” versus “interlaced.” Without delving into the technical virtues of each, you’ll get the best results by selecting the highest progressive setting you can. If you have 720p and 1080i, go with 720p.

The biggest trade-off to selecting the higher resolutions we suggest is in memory. Higher resolution takes up more space faster. This is why we recommend that you always have plenty of memory card capacity. Once you’re importing your video into the computer, you’ll also find that higher resolution is more cumbersome to edit together and process, but as long as you have a reasonably up-to-date system and software, this really won’t be a huge issue, and the higher resolution will be well worth it when you’re watching the finished video.

Shooting Tips
Shooting motion isn’t exactly the same as shooting stills; it helps to think a little differently. Even for motion snapshots, try to imagine the action unfolding on the screen before you shoot. Think of an establishing shot that shows the broad context, followed by a tight shot that shows the intimate detail. If possible, have some action sequences. You don’t need to sketch detailed storyboards, but try to make a mental list. The variety really will pay off when you’re editing things together down the line.
When it comes to the action shots, remember video should record action, not create it. Beware of doing a lot of zooming—usually no zooming is best—and keep pans and tilts smooth, steady and as minimal as possible. Let the action in the frame carry the moment.

Keep your shots short. You can control this while you’re shooting, as well as in the editing process. Keep shots brief to keep your audience engaged. The next time you’re watching a movie, notice how many cuts there are in just a few minutes of the movie. Keeping shots short makes for interesting video. Remember, you don’t need to make something several minutes long here. A good 30-second video is much more interesting to watch than a boring 2-minute video.

These are just some of the basics to get you going on your first project. In future issues of OP, we’ll explore the basics of editing and making more narrative videos. Once you take the first steps, you’ll find that you’ll quickly get the hang of making something that’s fun to watch and fun to make.