Get creative with your video camera

As newspaper still photographers transition to shooting more video, they can get overwhelmed by all the non-creative tasks they have to do. With white balancing, audio monitoring and sequencing chores at hand, many new videographers forget to be creative with their video cameras. Here are some of the techniques I use to add a little visual variety to my videos:

  • Get on your knees or climb a tree. Take the viewer to a place they wouldn’t normally go. I love putting the camera on the ground to get that unique perspective. The ground also serves as a decent tripod. Shooting high will give you that overall establishing shot that you know you need, but like me, sometimes forget.
  • Don’t just shoot a tight shot. Instead, go super tight–as tight as your lens can focus tight. These shots are gold because they are as visually jarring as they are visually interesting. They also make for excellent transitions between scenes. I learned this from master TV news shooter Dave Werthelmer. His favorite line is: “Don’t shoot the donut, shoot the donut hole.” I try to remember that line each time I start shooting.
  • Look for that subject perspective shot. An example of this would be a shot following the feet of a mailman trudging through snow, or following a toddler around from their low perspective. I think too much of what we shoot tends to be tripod or eye-level. You just have to anticipate when to drop the pod and move with the action.
  • Which brings me to rule number 134 from the manual of good video shooting. Let the action leave or enter your frame. Doing so allows you to compress time in your video.  You can quickly transition to a different scene after the subject leaves the frame. It also helps you with sequencing, allowing you to edit together a wide, medium and tight shot of your action.
  • Turn off your autofocus and try a manual shift-focus shot. Try starting with a blurry shot, and then quickly bring your subject into focus. Or try racking your focus from a foreground subject to a background subject. It is pretty effective when done right. Just make sure you are rock solid on a tripod!
  • Layer your shots with foreground elements, just like you would as a still shooter. They are more complex to see, but done well, they  really ratchet up the visual variety of your video.
  • I don’t do this often, but at times it can be effective. Use a slow shutter speed to blur movement. I’ve used it on people dancing and it gave the video clip an interesting romantic look, especially if I followed the action in time like a pan shot with a still camera.
  • Try speeding up the action or slowing it down either in camera or in your video editing program. Here, I am careful how I use this. Like the slow shutter shot, it has to be done for a reason. Don’t speed up the action just because it is cool. Do it because it adds something to your story such as compressing time. Over and under cranking your video is already overused, so be selective.
  • Shoot more telephoto shots. One thing I’ve learned since I got the tripod religion is that a solid, tight telephoto shot will fill your frame with intimacy. Because video cameras have so much depth of field, anytime you can make the background go soft so that our subject pops, you should do it. While tight on your subject, don’t forget to pull out and shoot a medium and wide shot. It’s an instant three shot sequence.

What do you do to get creative with your video camera? Please share.

13 thoughts on “Get creative with your video camera

  1. I like your ideas.

    Here are some more …

    Use a monopod to lift your camera up high above the crowds or just to give a look from up above.

    Use a small camera on a monopod and swing the monopod through space for a dramatic “cheap jib arm” or “cheap camera crane” effect.

    Learn how to counterweight your monopod and how to walk smoothly to follow your subject on foot – with practice and a decent wide angle, you can achieve 75% to 80% of a professional steady-camera set up.

    Use a tripod as much as you can, especially if you intend to compress for the web.

    Shoot in progressive mode, if you can – again, its pretty much necessary for decent web viewing without having to de-interlace in post.

    Use a shot gun mic or wireless mic. Audio is often half the presentation, sometimes more!

    Learn to be a pack animal. Some times I carry 25 pounds of “stuff”, which can get very tiring with a whole day spent on foot, or walking the Lilac Parade – twice!

    If appropriate and you have permission, get into the action – don’t stand way off and watch through a telephoto. Put your camera in the midst of the action – let your viewers know what it looks like to be a participant.


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  5. Hi there,
    Can I shoot in DV or HDV and transpose to progressive somehow?
    I edit with final cut pro.
    Can I shoot in progressive and transpose to DV or HVD?

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  7. We do a lot of nature videography for a health care network, and have had to find many exciting ways to shoot inanimate objects. Of course, anything that moves is best. Depth of field. Sweet compound zoom/pans do wonders if you have a good fluid head. Forests and trees are the hardest. Dollies can do amazing things with a forest. Jibs can pretty much make anything look good with some practice, but it takes some. Our next trick is helium balloons into forest canopies!

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  11. Hey, you I notice a common theme of “use a shotgun mic” on many websites. Any recommendations? I spent my whole budget (it was only 350 bucks, but thats what I had) on the best camera I could get, so any lower end mics that are at least better than the on board camcorder one?

  12. Kirk, chances are with a $350.00 video camera, there will not be an external 1/8 mic jack to plug a shotgun mic into. Depending on the make and model, the camera might have an accessory shoe to connect a proprietary mic into.

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