I took a break last week from Friday Foto Talk. I hope everybody’s new year is starting off right. I’m going to conclude the series on video for still photographers with two or three posts focusing on common subjects that you might want to film, with tips on how to make the most of those opportunities. The first one is, you guessed it, landscapes. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with using the verb ‘to film’ when you’re talking about digital video. Is there? To view the videos here, first click on the title at top left. Then you can press the play button.
The Feel of a Landscape
Have you ever been out photographing a beautiful landscape, perhaps with a stream flowing through the scene or a breeze sighing through the trees, and wondered what it would be like for your viewers to hear and feel what you are hearing and feeling? How do you shoot a video of a landscape and not bore people? Nothing is really happening after all. Or is it? Although there is very little going on in the video at top, I think the intense dawn chorus of birdsong gives a strong feel of watching the sun rise over the Klamath wetlands of Oregon.
THE BASICS & BEYOND
It’s probably best to start out filming landscapes by putting the camera on a tripod and using a medium to narrow aperture focus about 1/3 of the way into the scene. It’s easy to screw up a video by leaving important areas out of focus. Now if you have close foreground in your video, you should not only focus closer, right on the foreground or slightly beyond it, you should also go with a wide angle lens and use a narrow aperture.
But if you’re trying to transmit the feel of the scene to your viewers, the procedure I just mentioned may not be the only thing you try. For me the reason to do videos is to give viewers an idea of what it’s like to stand where I’m standing and see what I’m seeing. It’s also one of my main goals in shooting stills, by the way. First of all, don’t worry so much about the boredom factor. For landscapes you’ll be trying to strike a balance between capturing the mood and boring your viewers, but don’t let that hamstring your creativity. Definitely don’t limit your video to when there’s a lot of action. My opinion is there are very few situations in still photography that cannot be successfully filmed.
COMPOSITION IS STILL KING (BUT AUDIO IS QUEEN)
Compose your video to take advantage of any movement in the scene, but make sure the movement is in keeping with the scene’s mood. For example you could try getting low and close to a moving foreground element (waving grass or moving water, for e.g.). Despite what I just said about focus, you could even leave your foreground out of focus if it doesn’t take up too much of the frame. It’s not quite as distracting to see out of focus foreground in a video as it is in a still photo. If it’s moving we don’t seem to mind as much if it’s blurry. Experiment with this.
Don’t forget audio. Sound is an important factor when trying to impart mood in your video. For native audio, note what part of the soundscape you want to capture and use the appropriate mic, if you have one. Or adjust position, recording short clips and listening back to them until you pick up the sound nicely. In the video below, which was shot with a fisheye lens so you can see both up- and down-stream at Zion’s Subway slot canyon, it didn’t matter what mic I used. Because of the closed-in canyon, the sound of moving water dominates everything.
We looked at wind already (check out this post), but it is part of nature so is a near constant concern. Use a windsock but realize the wind will still cause issues. Position and shelter the mic to minimize it. If it’s whistling around some object, you could get close and deliberately record instead of avoiding it. Or consider a video with audio turned off, and add separately recorded sound or music later. Whatever it takes to create the mood.
GET A MOVE ON!
A lot of good video can be done while locked down on a tripod if you select your subjects and compositions carefully. But moving the camera is inevitable. If you want to pan through a scene, check out the tips in this post. What I didn’t mention there is creating a sense of the scene with camera movement. For example, panning horizontally on a tripod allows you to change the view by pivoting the camera. But that can end up giving your viewers a vague sense of being disconnected from the scene.
By moving the camera itself you can give viewers a sense of moving through the scene. Moving in an arc is good when you’ve got focus locked on an important subject and want to keep it in focus. Just remember to either use a wide-angle lens with careful hand-held technique, or use some means of stabilizing & smoothing the movement (wearable stabilizer, rail, etc.). Jumpiness distracts.
The best way to find a video that captures the mood of a landscape is to try different things. Mix things up. Panning vertically in a forest is worth trying. In the video below I was walking through a Colorado aspen grove on a breezy morning and, despite the fact I knew the sound would include some wind interference, wanted to capture the quaking part of quaking aspen. It’s a lesson in not letting worries about the quality worry you too much. The wind only messed up the sound for a brief moment.
One final example: if you are lucky enough to have an interesting subject in the scene, you could try breaking a rule. Normally videos require slow, steady camera movement. But how about throwing in a sudden jump-over? Swing quickly over to that moose, or even a friend caught in a compelling action. You need to keep it steady once you’re there; that is unless it’s a dangerous critter, in which case viewers expect a little jumpiness. The point is to avoid getting stuck into some imagined correct way to do things.
Next time we will take a beginner’s look at the wonderful world of wildlife videography. And speaking of that, have a wonderful weekend!
The series on getting started in video is almost complete. Last week’s post provided general tips on recording sound during video capture. Let’s dive deeper into the subject of sound by looking at a few of the more subtle ways that it can mess up your video, and some solutions to help make sure that doesn’t happen.
The Ear vs. the Microphone
You’ll find that the way you process sound is different than what is recorded by a microphone.
- Your ears are placed perfectly for detecting sound all about you. But with those flaps they’re biased toward the front. A mic. (or two for stereo) can be placed anywhere. But if it’s a shotgun mic it will mostly pick up those sounds in the direction you point the mic. Omnidirectional mics are the opposite (see below). By the way, I saw a guy on the web who records sound using a stereo mic setup where the mics are worn like headphones and are even shaped somewhat like ears. His goal is to record as close to what he hears as possible. The rather funny-looking stereo mic setup was for sale, as long as you don’t mind some strange looks!
- It’s not just your ears that cause microphones to record sounds differently than the way you hear them. Your brain is involved too. Thanks to evolution you can pick up distant sounds and magnify them. And simultaneously in some cases, you have the ability to filter out loud, nearby sounds in order to better hear a faint, more important one. These natural skills allowed our ancestors to hear the sounds of a predator while near a stream. Of course mics don’t do any of this. An omnidirectional mic, for example, captures everything around it without bias. The louder the sound the more prominent it will be in the recording.
- Why is there a significant difference between the way your eyes and your camera captures images? The key difference maker is the brain. Just as it does with your eyes, your brain works in concert with your ears to weight various sounds differently. The brain also has the ability to make your head turn, like an antenna dish, to effectively corral those sounds you want to hear and at least partly block those you don’t.
- Let’s take an example. It took me awhile to realize that recording next to a stream is a mixed blessing. If your goal is to record the sound of the water it’s usually fine. But if you want ambient sound that includes birds, etc., the water can overwhelm everything else. Even when you’re going for the sound of the water, being close can make it sound too loud and harsh.
Just as you learned to pay attention to subtle features of the light, you should start tuning your ears to subtle differences in volume, tone, bass notes vs. treble, etc. But at the same time you need to factor in the above: your brain filters and evens things out while the microphone records actual sounds, without bias. Here are a few tips:
- Move closer to that interesting but not very loud sound even if you can hear it just fine. The old piece of photography advice, “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” applies to sound as well.
- But depending on what mic you’re using don’t get too close! Using the example above, recording next to a loud stream (a waterfall perhaps), and if you’re using a shotgun mic, avoid pointing it right at the water. Try pointing it an angle or even directly away from the sound.
- Adjust position to minimize loud sounds when you’re seeking balance and want to pick up more subtle sounds in the background, even if your ear hears a good balance. Simply putting a tree or rock outcrop between you and a sound source that is too loud can make all the difference. You can also use landscape features, such as rock walls, curved hillsides, etc. to focus and magnify key parts of the soundscape.
- If you get more involved with audio, field gear can help greatly with all of the above. For distant &/or faint sounds, a high-quality shotgun mic, along with parabolic reflectors, can make a huge difference.
- For the ability to adjust the balance of tones, bringing out the sounds you want and minimizing those you don’t, consider upgrading to a system that replaces your camera’s sound-recording. Basically a portable soundboard that mounts beneath your camera, it will allow you to adjust and equalize tones. These systems are often used along with headphones. They allow you to monitor the way the sound is actually being recorded, as opposed to the way you hear it.
- You could also choose separate sound recording using a portable digital recorder. You’ll have to sync the sound to your video later, but it allows you to focus on video and audio separately, thus doing a good job on both.
- Remember: all of this extra gear will only add to, not replace, what you can do in the field by changing position and using natural features, along with choosing the appropriate mic to use.
That’s all for now. I hope you are getting more comfortable with the idea of doing videos, even if you’re an unrepentant still photographer. Don’t be shy about asking questions or giving your two cents. Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!
Last week because of Christmas I skipped Foto Talk. I hope the holiday was fun and festive for all. The series on video is not done yet, so let’s jump back in with perhaps the most important (and challenging) aspects of video. I’m assuming that you wish to catch native audio; that is, the sounds that you hear during your video clips. Adding audio later, whether it’s music or something else, is certainly possible and in many way easier. But my initial goal is always to capture interesting audio at the same time as the video.
Check out the previous posts in this series for tips on the visual half of video. In order to view the videos in this post, click the title at top-left, or on the link. You’ll shoot to my Vimeo page where you can click on the play button.
There are several pitfalls to watch out for when recording audio. The main ones follow, along with solutions. As you do with photography, tailor your solutions for sound-recording problems to the specific subject and situation.
- Built-in Microphone. Your camera’s microphone, while usable, is essentially a starter mic. Depending on its quality, the sound can be tinny and harsh. It also can’t easily be used with a windscreen. But don’t forgo your internal mic entirely. It can be a better recorder of ambient sound than the shotgun mic that you’ll likely purchase (see below).
Solution: An internal microphone is okay for starting out. But sooner or later you’ll want to purchase a separate external mic (or two) that mounts on your hotshoe. There are two basic types of microphone, and what you most like to record will determine whether you get one or the other (or both). If you want to record discrete sound sources (bird calls, a person talking or singing, etc.) get a shotgun mic. If you most often record diffuse soundscapes with the sources scattered around you (the video at top is an example), get an omnidirectional mic. The shotgun mic (which comes in different types which vary in their degree of directionality) can cost a lot more than the omni mic. But it’s useful in a far wider set of circumstances. So I recommend buying a shotgun mic first.
- Wind. The wind often adds atmosphere to a setting (see link to video below). So why not record it? Not so fast! Your ears are designed in a wonderfully organic way. But when wind hits a microphone it doesn’t sound atmospheric. It just sounds like somebody trying to annoy you by blowing into a mic.
Solution: There is a deceptively easy solution to wind noise. If and when you buy an external mic, buy a windscreen for it and don’t take it off. They come in foam or hairy (“deadcat”) versions, or you can make one yourself. Depending on how strong the wind is they can be very effective in blocking out wind noise. But they aren’t 100%, so you should take steps to shelter the mic further from strong winds. Point down-wind and block with your body if at all possible.
Wind and Quaking Aspens: Colorado Rockies
- Image Stabilizer & other Space-outs. I hate to admit how many great soundscapes I’ve recorded that are immediate candidates for deletion. Why? Because I forgot to turn off the image stabilizer (IS on Canon, VR on Nikon). That little motor you barely notice while shooting stills will sound like a generator, even if you use an external mic. Another easy thing to forget is the sound setting itself. If you turn off sound recording in the menu (say you plan to add sound later), you’ll feel as dumb as a post when you play back to dead silence. You may think it’s hard to be this forgetful, but when you’re grabbing a quick video in the midst of shooting stills, believe me it’s easy to space out. Finally, if you have an external mic it can be easy to forget to turn that on.
Solution: Get in the habit, every time you switch to video mode, of checking to make sure that IS or VR is turned off. Also helpful is getting in the habit of reviewing and listening to at least portions of your clips. And before you do any video make sure that the sound setting is turned on. Then if you turn it off for a video or two, go in right after and turn it back on. Make it your default setting. Most external microphones have a little light that says it’s on. But get used to turning your mic on (and off when you’re done) every time you record.
- Planes. Aircraft (planes, helicopters, and now drones) are a type of unwanted noise that deserves its own category. Whether you’re recording the human voice or the sounds of nature, planes just seem to show up at the worst times. Soon after you press the record button, you’ll hear one buzzing overhead. It’s almost guaranteed. I never fully appreciated the amount of air traffic in our world until I started shooting video and recording natural sounds.
Solution: Mostly patience is all that is required. Planes don’t take too long to pass over, though while you’re waiting it can seem an eternity. If you’re under a flight path it may take awhile to get a silent window. If a helicopter is working in the area you’re stuck with it and should probably return another day. If somebody has a drone and insists on flying it near you, well that’s what a slingshot or pellet gun is for (just kidding..I think).
There is more to sound than the above, and next time we’ll dive in a little deeper. But if you can overcome these simple stumbling blocks, you’re well on your way to recording quality sound with your videos. Thanks for reading, and have a happy and photographic New Year!
The Grand Tetons, Wyoming.
A worthy theme for this week, Photo Challenge: Path, so here goes. Paths can be literal or figurative. Each time I find myself on nature’s path the figurative comes to mind. It is easiest to be present on the path I’m on and not elsewhere, possibly on another’s path. It’s easiest to stay in this time and place for long enough to appreciate it before charging off to another place. The constant need to move forward is not something that is easily avoidable, being human after all. But I tire of the race sooner than many others do. I don’t relish it as some do. What I do relish is the feeling of climbing upward and outward into the world, and the contrasts of the descent off the mountain, and of the path home.
Have a happy New Year!
A path through the tall trees: Humboldt Redwoods, California.
Guadalupe Mtns., TX
The path home: Gokyo Ri, Nepal.
This is my most Christmasy image from the past year. Since I haven’t yet gone out in winter to some forest to find a small fir tree in a meadow, decorated it (including lights), waited for a gentle snowfall, then returned with a small generator to photograph it, this one will have to do!
Merry Christmas to one and all! (P.S. Friday Foto Talk returns next week)
Wind and snow create spindrift after a rare snowfall at Joshua Tree National Park, California.
I’d love to know how much you all are getting out of this little series on video basics for still photographers. Are you getting excited about shooting a video or two to go along with your stills? Have you been pressing that red button more often lately? Or at least thinking about it?
Last time we left off with some gear-oriented tips on panning and moving your camera while shooting video. Let’s continue with the nuts and bolts on moving the camera through the scene. If you’d like to view the videos I’ve posted, resist the temptation to click the play button right off; it won’t work. Instead click the title at top left. You’ll go to my Vimeo, where you can press the play button.
A Word about Gear
Last week I mentioned tripod heads designed (at least in part) for video. But I don’t want to make it about buying specialty gear. This series is for you who are just getting into video or thinking about it. If you start getting serious and video becomes a big focus of your shoots, then it’s worth spending money on accessories. For an intermediate level of enthusiasm, I’d limit purchases to an external shotgun microphone plus a fluid video head.
In terms of camera movement and shooting video on the fly, one of the more useful pieces of gear is one I already mentioned: a stabilizer rig. Many times I’ve wished I had one, but it is another piece of gear to haul along. For the following clip I had to hike up a rugged Utah canyon to get there. So I’m not sure I would have brought a stabilizer along even if I owned one. Despite the rock hopping, I think it turned out pretty smooth. To see that video go to Canyon Hike
Another piece of gear (or two) to consider, if and when you get serious about video, is a rail and/or cart. They both allow you to swing the camera through a smooth path or arc like you see in professional shoots. The technique is used most often in portrait & event shooting, but landscape videographers sometimes use rails. If you’re handy you can make them yourself.
Video Tips On Location
Now let’s go somewhere cool and see how to get started making moving pictures. The advice below doesn’t include some major issues of sound. Those are worth saving for a coming post devoted to audio. A few tips is all you need to get started:
- Focal length matters. I talked about this last week but it’s worth expanding on. The shorter your focal length and wider your angle of view, the easier it is to move the camera without shaky frame edges. This applies whether you’re doing it by hand or on a support. And it means that when you zoom in to long focal lengths it can be next to impossible to avoid a jittery look. That’s what happened in the clip below. In the excitement of being so close to Everest and its neighbours, I used a relatively long focal length and panned by hand, ending up with a jumpy video.
But before you slap that 16 mm. lens on, there is another effect when you’re shooting at very wide angles. It depends on how close you are to scene elements (especially the foreground), and also how fast you pan the camera, but the frame edges can move in a rather distracting way. Try it yourself and see: shoot a few panning video clips at a focal length of 16 or 17 mm. It may be best to use a focal length near 50 mm. when panning, at least when you’re just starting out.
- Go Manual. Although there is nothing wrong with automatic mode when you want a quick video, I recommend getting used to shooting manually right off the bat. Manual exposure and manual focus. For example, in a nature scene where you want everything in focus, go about it this way: While you’re in aperture priority mode, pick a smallish aperture (f/8 – f/11) for good depth of field. Then point the camera at a place in the scene that represents the (approximate) average brightness of everything you’ll be panning through. Note the settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO). Then go to manual mode and switch to those settings. Autofocus on something about 1/2 to 2/3 into the scene. Then switch to manual focus and leave it there for the duration of the clip.
- Plan your clip. Figure out ahead of time where to start and stop your video, then do a quick dry run before you press play. Of course if you’re shooting live subjects you may decide to continue the clip or cut it short. Still, getting an outline of the clip in your head ahead of time is a good idea. Adjust your position to get the smoothest and quietest (if you’re recording ambient sound) motion. While panning I generally try to avoid moving my feet. Even if on a tripod, how you change position through a pan will affect the final product.
- Slow down. The most common beginner mistake is to pan and move the camera too quickly through the scene. As always with camera movement during video, focal length is a factor. The longer your focal length the slower you need to pan. When you pan too quickly the scene appears to race by. A further influence is how far away you are from whatever you’re filming. When fairly close to the subject, go more slowly. But don’t go to the other extreme. A super-slow pan will bore your viewers, leading them to not finish the clip. The best way to know the right speed for different lenses and various kinds of scenes is to experiment and play the clips back on your LCD.
- Review & Repeat! When you first start out shooting video, just like when you started still photography, you’ll shoot a lot of junk. The key is to review the shot before moving on. You’l likely find that it requires a number of takes to get it right. For the waterfall at bottom, I did 3 or 4 takes before I got one I liked. As you gain more experience you’ll more often get it right the first time. This is a worthy goal. You want to catch the most interesting goings-on, not to mention the most interesting light.
That’s it for this week’s Foto Talk! Please don’t hesitate to share your own experiences with video. Or ask a question about anything at all. Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!
This post is one day late for International Mountain Day. But right on time for Mountain Monday! It highlights a relatively remote place in western New Mexico. I’d been wanting to go to this part of the southern Rockies for a long time, and earlier this year I finally made it. I drove up a dirt road that ended at a gate marking the boundary of the Gila Wilderness. The road continued beyond the gate, growing worse and clinging to the side of a mountain.
I parked and began to hike along the rough jeep track, recognizing it as an old mining route. I followed it toward the head of a canyon. Poking around I found some weathered shacks, a couple adits and other remnants of the gold & silver boom of the late 1800s. There is a ghost town not far from here called Mogollon. On the way back, as the sun sank lower, the air cooled and fog began to form over the mountains to the west. It made for a mystical scene. The sunset that followed was nice, but this shot was my favorite because of its mysterious feel.
The Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness march off into the distance.
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!