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!