Your Film Questions—Answered by an Expert!

Courtesy jgoge/Flickr

A few weeks ago we shared the top five tips for shooting great video from documentary filmmaker Roger Sherman. At that time, we asked you what else you'd like to know about capturing your favorite moments on film and you came back with some thought-provoking questions. Here are Roger's answers to your queries:

Q: What type of video cameras would you recommend for a beginner? My family is going to Italy this summer and I'd love to put these tips into action.

A: The camera really doesn't matter. It's technique that counts. Most of the bells and whistles that come with today's cameras are useless. Find one that has easy-to-use controls and a large easy-to-view monitor. A monitor that tilts up and down can come in handy for high and low shots. The more you practice BEFORE you go on your trip, the better your videos will be. There are a number of quick, easy-to-follow teaching videos in my book to get you seeing like a filmmaker, and many I've shot on the website to give you ideas and inspiration.

Q: What is the best (and cheapest/free) video editing software out there and is it easy to use?

A: My easy learning system teaches you how to shoot so your film is finished when your trip is over. It's called "editing in the camera." Most people don’t want to battle an editing program after returning from their holiday. They'd prefer to watch and enjoy.

I haven't done a complete survey, but I like iMovie for Mac. It's easy to learn and fairly intuitive. I'm afraid I don't know PC editing software. I turn to CNET reviews when I'm looking for a new piece of software or a gadget. Then, I check out the forums to see what problems people are having. I also watch YouTube instructional videos of that product to see if I like it. Is it too advanced? Will I be able to learn the program?

Q: Out of curiosity, what are your favorite places to shoot?

A: I love places with lots of people, especially markets where I'll go even if I'm not buying food. There's so much going on there: great colors and shapes and variety in the food and people, lots of energy, and fewer tourists. It's not hard to blend in and shoot without feeling like I'm intruding. I make eye contact, smile a lot non-verbally asking permission. If it's quiet and I want to get close-ups, I'll ask the vendor if I can shoot their produce while commenting how beautiful it is. The only time I've ever been denied is when shooting religious shoppers.

Q: I have trouble catching the right natural light when I am shooting video. What are your tips for getting the right lighting when shooting outside?

A: My teacher used to say there are three rules to great images: light, light, and light. I did a video blog post about it that you might find helpful: The best light is early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I often get up before sunrise to capture the best light and meet my family for breakfast. During the middle of the day, especially in summer, the light gets harsh and flat and video look terrible, stills too. It can go bad by 9 a.m. That’s when I'll go to a museum. If I must shoot that beautiful church or piazza at mid-day, I try to keep as much of the white sky out of frame as possible and not shoot my family and friends in direct sunlight.

Q: If I am filming someone and the person moves to another area—say, another room or far enough outside—what is the best way to film that person as he or she is moving without the end result having too much jerky-type moving?

A: You're right, it's hard to walk and hold a steady shot. It takes practice to get good at it. As I say in the book, walk in an athletic posture, knees bent, absorbing shocks, walking very softly. If you walk normally the camera will float up and down and jerk with every hard step you make. Keep the camera in the same position and plane, staying very aware of what your hands are doing.

Q: I didn't get a chance to shoot everything I wanted to shoot while I was on vacation in Rome. Now I want to intersperse static photos into the video to capture some of the things that I missed. Is there a smart way to do this that won't ruin the video?

A: Inserting photos into video is a great idea. You'll need an editing program to do that. Make sure you're not holding on the still for too much time or cutting too quickly for that matter. The pacing should match the pacing of the video footage you've shot. If you can cut in two or three related photos one after another before cutting back to the video it will seem intentional, not choppy.

Q: Do you have any tips for recording sound at a higher quality (especially when using a smartphone)?

A: There's no improving the sound of a smartphone. Stay as close to the subject as you can, as with any recording on any camera. For that matter the sound quality on all video cameras is adequate at best. I bought an external microphone to improve the quality of mine. I also purchased a windscreen to minimize the detrimental effect of wind noise which can ruin your sound. It's worth the investment.

Q: I recorded a video outside (using the camera light) and the footage is so dark it's hard to tell what's what. Is there a way to lighten the video on my computer? What should I do next time to ensure that the picture isn't so dark?

A: You can try to lighten the scene with a video editing software, but the image will get all grainy, with what's called "noise." Personally, I don't use camera mounted video lights. The image is very harsh and you need to stay near the subject. Depending on the camera, you can turn the "gain" up, which is like changing the exposure. It will be in the manual aperture setting. The more gain you add, the more noise will be added and the worse it will look. Experiment to see what's acceptable. The bottom line is that sometimes you just can't shoot at night.

Q: Any tips for filming speeches in conference rooms?

A: A tripod is key to filming a speech. Not only can one not hold a zoomed in shot steady—"zooming is death," as I say in my book—but trying to hold steady for a long period of time is next to impossible. A fluid head tripod allows for smooth pans and tilts (moving the camera left to right and up and down) and will be rock steady when zoomed in. Test your camera microphone ahead of time to know how close you have to be to the subject to get good sound.

Q: What program can I use to remove the sound from a video and add music?

A: Almost all editing programs have the ability to remove the sound. When you import your videos sound and picture show up as distinct tracts and can be separated. You can delete the sound or un-check that sound track and add music. What you might want to consider is lowering the sound level of what we call the production or natural sound, sound that is recorded at the same time as picture. Allowing some of that natural sound to be heard often makes the film feel more real. Of course, if there's lots of wind noise or other undesirable sound, or if your film has lots of very quick cuts, it will probably be better with music only. Test it to see what works best for each individual film you make.

Q: Going on a beach vacation in the Exumas and would love to video while snorkeling. How do I get the cool 1/2 under the water and 1/2 above the water shots. I've tried it before but always looks like water splashing on the lens.

A: I love those effects too. But since I'm not an underwater shooter I asked some pros. Mark Evans, editor of Sport Diver magazine says, "The first thing you need to get a good half-and-half shot is a dome port, whether you are trying to do it with a stills or a video camera. You will get distortion of the image if you try it with a flat port, whereas with a dome port, you get a distortion-free image. The next thing is you need is a calm day! You will undoubtedly end up with splashes on the dome port if there is any swell at all. Ideally, you should polish the dome port so it is nice and clean, and then slowly lower it so that the lower half is in the water. It does take some practice, but if you persevere, you will be rewarded with some good half-and-half images."

Bob Halstead a professional underwater photographer agrees, "If you polish the dome with a non-wetting agent (sometimes used on car windscreens eg."rain-x"), the water runs off the dome as soon as you lift it from the water. Without the agent the water will still usually still run off but you have to hold the port in the desired position for a few seconds before shooting. Next, think about what you wish to focus on as depth of field is a problem. Remember, the underwater part is magnified. Using a high f-stop (small aperture) helps and careful focusing midway between subject underwater and background may do the trick too. Usually it is not going to work if you focus on the background or too far away. A fuzzy foreground never looks good, you will probably need manual focus."

Mark and Bob tell me dome ports can even be fitted to some point and shoot underwater housings.

Still have questions? Check out Roger's new book, Ready, Steady, Shoot: The Guide to Great Home Video.


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