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!
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!
Nearly every digital camera sold nowadays has video. In fact, I can only think of one DSLR without video that I would shoot with. It’s the excellent Canon 50D, a camera that I used to own (I even took it to Africa). Camera makers are building video in for a reason. I don’t have to tell you that videos are very popular on the web. But even for those of us who buy a camera thinking only of still photography, to have the option of shooting high quality video through high quality glass (lenses) is very tempting. So it’s usually not long after that shiny new digital camera arrives that we switch to video mode and start winging it.
I say winging it because, while there are important similarities, video is quite different than still photography. Mistakes are inevitable and can easily make our videos look amateurish. This series is designed not to make you an expert videographer. I can’t claim to be, after all. It’s meant to get you thinking about capturing motion and sound rather than still scenes. It’s also to give you a baseline from which to start your journey into videography. This is the first time I’ve posted videos on this blog, and so it’s a bit of an experiment. I’m inserting them from my Vimeo page. They’re unedited but not too lengthy.
So why shoot videos at all? Other than the novelty of capturing motion through a variety of lenses, videos are good for…
- Mixing things up. Anything you can do that’s different will help to keep you from slipping into a shooting rut.
- Adding value to a shoot. Even if you are shooting a portrait, where the goal is clearly to get a great still shot of your subject, a video is the kind of bonus that’s guaranteed to make him or her very happy. Only video can show the laughs, changes of expression, and all the interactions that happen on a typical shoot.
- Showing context. If you put in a lot of work and money to get someplace great to photograph, you’ll want to bring home something that, while perhaps not your best stuff, is nonetheless critical for documenting your visit. A wide-angle, so-called establishing shot or two that shows the wider area is one thing. A video that pans through the area can show even more. Plus it includes sound!
- Showing movement. I know, duh! While it’s often interesting to show movement in a still photo, only a video can show movement as it actually is.
- Including the sound-scape. For me this is one of the most valuable (and challenging) aspects of video. Still pictures have a huge shortcoming: lack of sound. A motion picture overcomes that.
- Profit. If you are thinking of going pro at some point, there is another major advantage to capturing video. You’re getting practice for that (inevitable?) moment when you make the transition. If you follow a number of pro photographers you may have noticed that many if not most of them eventually make the jump to video. They are doing this not because they like it better than still photography. Most of them would much prefer to stick with what they love. No, they’re doing it for money. For reasons I don’t completely understand, it’s much easier to make a good living being a videographer than a photographer.
Next time we’ll dive into the nuts and bolts of shooting video. Have a fun weekend everyone, and press play!