Cinematography

Shooting video with DSLRs—some tips for photographers

Use the basic tools of photography

When I tell my students that they should master photography before shooting video, they think I’m kidding.  But the tools of photography offers all the basic tools required to shoot good video:

  • Composition
  • Lighting
  • Color balance
  • ISO settings
  • F-stops
  • Focus
  • Lenses
  • Depth of field

Not to mention the more artistic techniques of looking at color, texture, patterns, line, space, and so on when crafting dynamic photos.

Begin to master those and photographers only really need to add one more skill to shooting video: camera and subject movement. The other issues deal with recording audio and utilizing an eyepiece for outdoor shooting.

Camera movement

Photography means “writing with light”, while cinematography — the art of photographing cinema projects — means “writing with motion (and light)”.

Fundamentally, photographers aren’t just working with one frame or a series of frames to tell a visual story, but they’re dealing with 24 (or 30 frames) per second. 

Here’s the four options when considering camera movement: 

  • Camera remains still and subject remains still
  • Camera remains still and the subject moves
  • Camera moves and the subject remains still
  • Camera moves and the subject moves

It’s up to you to decide which permutation to use for each shot. But there must be a way to know when you could move the camera.

When the story demands it. Don’t move a camera just for the sake of moving it. If the scene you’re shooting is mostly still, then choose to move the camera at the climax of the scene — at the moment it really counts.

On the other hand, if the camera moves a lot during a scene, than lock it down during the climatic moment. There’s also the consideration of when the subject moves from one point to another.

Create contrasts of stillness and motion in your scenes

The contrast of motion and stillness will enhance the power of the moment and fuel a scene with power, whether you’re working in fiction, documentary, commercials, or weddings. But this means you need to know your story (in order to know when to make the choice of keeping the camera still or when to make it move. If it’s a short, then  there will likely be one classic story structure containing a hook/introduction, conflict/rising action/complications, climax/crisis point and resolution (even commercials and weddings express such a structure).

If you’re shooting multiple scenes for a longer project, then you should structure your scenes around this story model (minus, perhaps, the resolution). Furthermore, you can not only apply movement to the right moment in the scene, but can you apply other photographic techniques to the climax of a scene, creating a contrast between deep focus in the other story moments, but switching to shallow focus at the decisive moment of the scene, for example?

Take the tools you’ve learned in photography, and apply the power of those tools to your story structure. It will makes the scenes more dynamic and when you add motion to a scene you’re expressing the poetry of cinema.

There are several tools you can use to help express strong camera movement. Some people handhold their cameras, but if you’re like me, that can be too shaky for your audience. How do you keep the camera stable?

Handhold work

For handhold stability, check out the Redrock Micro nano – RunningMan: ~$470

This allows for a low-profile run and gun approach, which is great for getting guerilla style shots and in the field documentary footage.

If you’re doing longer takes, you may want to consider a shoulder mount, such as the Jag35 Field Runner: ~$310

 

The above two options will provide fairly steady handheld work when you stand in place, allowing you to use your body for tilts and pans, but they won’t be that smooth when you start walking around.

The kind of shots possible with this setup can be seen in Philip Bloom’s “Cherry Blossom Girl” (shot on Zacuto’s Tactical Shooter support rig).

If you’re looking for smoother tool when following someone around, then the Steadicam Merlin (~$800) is a good option:

But it’s not good for outdoors on windy days, since it’ll knock the balance off. However, when used properly, it’s smooth, as can be seen in Ken Yiu’s wedding video.

Dolly work

If you’re trying to get a smoother tracking shot, where you follow a subject laterally or if you want to push in or pull out on a subject, then a dolly is essential in getting that cinematically poetic look.

Do a word search for the DIY dollies on YouTube and you’ll find inexpensive ways to build your own, such as this one here:

A lot of DSLR shooters use the Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly. The Traveler version is small enough to carry on a plane inside a tripod bag. It mounts on a tripod and allows you to do short dolly and tracking shots.

Pocket Dolly v2.0 – Traveler: ~$630

Noted video journalist and DSLR shooter Dan Chung shot this video of the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami with the Pocket Dolly.

Viewfinder

Another piece of equipment to consider is an eyepiece. The Panasonic GH2, Canon Rebel T3i, and Canon 60D have flip-out LCD screens, which make shooting video easier. But when shooting outdoors it’s difficult to see the LCD screen when shooting in daylight. Several companies have come up with a solution in order to see better. The viewfinders also have the benefit of providing another point of contact for image stabilization when doing handheld work. Zacuto viewfinder: ~$360.

Audio

When shooting video, most likely you’ll need to record sound. The built-in microphone is inadequate at a professional level, and it’s recommended that you at the very least use a Rode Video Mic to record adequate sound or utilize an external audio recorder, such as a Zoom H4n and sync up sound when editing (Final Cut X will sync audio for you).

For a recommended list of equipment, see my Production Techniques course website equipment page:

These are just some of the issues and equipment photographers need to consider when shooting video with DSLRs.

Be sure to check out our sister site MasteringPhoto.com!

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