This is the 3rd part of my mini-series on video for the unrepentant still photographer. The over-arching premise is that, no matter how in love with still photography you happen to be, there is always a enough time to add in a bit of videography. If you need real reasons to press that play button, check out Part I. For tips on things to watch out for when getting started, check out Part II.
Note that in order to watch the videos here you have to click the title at top left. That will take you to my Vimeo page, where you simply press play to watch them. There’s a full-screen option. By the way, they haven’t been edited, even for length. On my to-do list. Now let’s get into it!
Video & Focal Length
Last time I recommended starting out simple, by placing your camera on a tripod and recording without moving the camera. You can also keep things still while hand-holding the camera. But choose a fairly wide-angle lens for this. If you zoom in beyond, say, 70 mm., it will be next to impossible to hold the camera still enough. Even with focal lengths around 50 mm. it’s hard. Use a tripod.
There is another issue with focal length when recording video. When you use a medium focal length, on the order of 50 mm., you are replicating the approximate field of view for human vision. It means that the viewer will not be distracted by either an unusually wide angle, with its distortion, or by any unsteadiness and jittering of the frame that may happen when you zoom in to longer focal lengths. This doesn’t mean you should avoid those different focal lengths; that’s one big advantage of shooting video with a DSLR. It’s just that as a rule of thumb 35-60 mm. is a good baseline, or default, focal length.
Camera Movement: Panning
If you do follow my advice from last post and start out by locking the camera down on a tripod while recording (and in that case you’ll be choosing moving subjects that are interesting in some way), it won’t be long before you get bored and start moving the camera. The most basic kind of camera movement is panning. If you shoot a lot of landscapes like me, panning will show you the whole area. It’s sort of the video equivalent of an establishing shot in still photography.
You have two basic choices. You can just pan like most people do with their phones, pivoting around while pointing the lens at what you want to include. Or you can pan while on the tripod. An in-between option is a monopod set up for video. In the first case, just winging it by hand, you should realize that a camera phone has a very wide-angle lens. Any deviations from a smooth pan (short of tripping over your own feet!) are masked by the wide angle of view. Speaking of hand-holding for video, there are stabilizer rigs that you hold/wear that will make it much easier to keep things smooth while panning and otherwise moving the camera.
For the video below, I bushwacked to a very beautiful & secluded spot in Olympic National Park. I climbed onto a rock beside a lovely falls and panned through the scene by hand. Even though I used a wide-angle, you’ll see a couple small errors toward the end. If I had used a stabilizer rig it would have been smoother.
Panning on the Tripod ~ Which Head?
If you pan on a tripod, which is what I’d try first for longer focal lengths, you have another choice to make. Do you buy a so-called fluid panning head? And how nice/expensive? You can literally spend thousands on a super-smooth fluid head for video. You’re thinking why can’t I just use my regular ballhead? Sure. But if you go this route you will have to develop quite the steady technique. You’ll also need to limit how long a focal length you use and probably accept small hitches in the final product.
‘But’, I hear you saying, ‘my ballhead has separate panning movement.’ Yes it does. But it’s there for shooting a series of still shots on a plane (a panorama, for e.g.). It’s movement isn’t really smooth enough for video panning. That said, I have used my ballhead (not the panning base) to pan through shots. I use the ballhead itself though, not the pan. And I don’t do it with particularly long focal lengths.
Panning Heads: What to Buy
If you go for a panning head, and if you’re not yet a serious videographer, I would buy an intro. model. But intro. doesn’t mean cheapest. Cheap fluid heads are like cheap tripods. You’ll soon regret your purchase. Get one a bit further up the scale, one with some good reviews by practiced videographers on a budget. Figure on spending at least $100 and probably closer to $150 or even a bit more. Look at the Manfrotto fluid heads in that range.
EXTRA ~ FOR OWNERS OF LONG TELEPHOTO LENSES ONLY
If you have a long telephoto or zoom, and especially if you plan on shooting wildlife, you’ll probably want a Gimbal head. Wimberley is a popular brand but there are others just as good. Gimbals aren’t cheap. But when using big lenses they are more stable, balanced and move more easily than on a ballhead. As a bonus Gimbals allow smooth panning and other movement during video recording. So with big lenses it is your go-to head, whether you are doing still photography (following a bird in flight, for e.g.) or video. There are partial Gimbals that clamp onto your ballhead. Cheaper than a full Gimbal, these are better than using just the ballhead but not as good as the full version that replaces your ballhead.
Next time, more video on the move: tips for when you’re in the field and want to shoot a video or two to go along with your still shots. Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!