Top Lessons Learned as Trip Films Video Correspondent – Part 1

Anyone following this blog has watched as I’ve been working with Trip Films to record some of the best sights, sounds and experiences a traveler is likely to encounter while in my current home base of Portland, Maine. Recently, I completed the project, posting my 13th video in the series.

You can peruse those videos here.

Lesson 1: Learning the Dynamic Nature of Video

Every new project is a learning experience, and my work as the Hometown Video Correspondent for Portland was no exception. While I’ve been a travel photographer for years, when I started this project I had only used my new video-camera a handful of times. I had edited a total of two videos. When I applied with Trip Films, I thought, I’ve been shooting for years, how different could it be?

The answer is more complicated than I’d realized.

I quickly found out that video is far more forgiving than shooting still photos. (I can already hear all the cinematographers cringing.) Just because it’s forgiving, doesn’t mean it’s easy.

What makes video forgiving…

First of all, after shooting adventure sports, where you have to hit the shutter at exactly the right moment to capture the dynamic action, shooting video feels like cheating. I can just compose the shot and hit the trigger. I can get everything, then go back and edit down to exactly what I need later. If that isn’t awesome enough, in Maine’s perpetually low-light, I have to employ tricky lighting to my still photography to minimize blur. Blur is part of the action in video. And the kicker is that I have a built-in model! No more trying to compare schedules with my friends–I can shoot video of myself. I just set up my tripod, frame my shot, then climb or ride my bike past as I did in the Tumbledown Mountain and Bradbury Mountain Biking videos. Magic!

…does not make it easy.

There’s got to be a down-side, right? Yeah, bring on the learning curve.

My biggest frustrations came from the thing that separates video from still images: movement. Sure, I can just blaze away at moving objects like Stalone in Rambo and still capture a dynamic moment, but I also captured a lot movement that I didn’t want.

During the series I found myself in a lot of fast and loose situations where I wanted to keep my camera in hand and ready. With a still camera, if you have enough light, you can hand hold it. Not so with video. I quickly learned that a tripod is a must. Shots that looked solid on the LCD looked like a wino in rehab on the screen. Trying to piece together footage like that caused hours of frustration in editing. Some shots that I really liked had to be tossed. Of course, there were a lot of times I wanted to pan a shot in ways my tripod would resist. The shaky footage that results is an irritating fact of life in those situations, and I would shoot several takes to maximize the possibility that I’d get something usable.

Getting comfortable with the joy of movement took a lot longer than I’d expected. Panning across a scene or zooming in or out to emphasize a small detail within a larger scene led to much frustration in the editing process. While I love the effect of these techniques, I had a lot of trouble gauging the speed at which to operate. Too fast and the scene looks rushed and the details are blurred beyond recognition. Too slow and the scene drags on for what feels like an eternity. The middle ground wasn’t always easy to judge on location. There are two solutions. One: shoot every conceivable speed pan or zoom, and spend a lot of extra time editing footage. Two: always try to keep in mind the amount of time you’re trying to fill, plan where the shot is going to be in the finished film and shoot accordingly. I must admit, I adhere to a combination of the two, trying to keep in mind what I think I’m going to want, then shooting a couple different speeds, just in case.

The easiest-to-remedy problem I had was with the differences between my personal style and the limitations of my camera. As a still photographer I like to get as much of the scene in the frame as possible, employing some super-wide-angle lenses to do so. My camcorder, like most video cameras on the market today, was built to satisfy the advertising hype of mega-zoom capabilities at the expense of a good wide-angle. I solved this problem in two ways. First, and most inexpensively, I changed my style. I started to use the longer focal-length more often. The result was that I composed very different shots than I normally do with a still camera. Solving these new visual problems pushed me out of a rut I’d been in. Now, when I pick up my still camera, I find myself switching lenses a lot more often than I used to and using the full range of focal lengths available. A very good thing. As much as I like pushing my personal style, however, having the right tools for every situation is important to me. I scraped together the money for a wide-angle converter. These are screw-on lenses that change the focal length of the lens. Most cameras will accept one and it really opens up the options you have with your camera.

Here are a few things I use to help me get the best footage:

-I use a tripod, even if it’s just attached to the bottom and acting as an extra grip (like a steady-cam) for panning. Eventually, l’ll also be getting a good ball-head for the tripod giving me the freedom to pan whatever direction I need to.

-If I absolutely can’t use a tripod, I use as much of my own body for stability as possible. I pull my elbows tight against my torso or if I’m kneeling, I rest the camera against my knee. I also hold my breath while I shoot, which is a technique learned from shooting stills.

-I get as many shots as I can: if I pan left, then I pan right. Also, I try not to get stuck doing the same type of shot all the time. I like to mix it up.-I’m working to understand the camera. I’d shot a half-dozen videos before I realized my camera was capable of doing some of the cool effects I saw in other, more “professional,” videos. Which brings me to…

-I watch as many videos as I can. Inspiration can come from anywhere: Trip Films, Matador TV, movies and even TV commercials. I saw the filming of a TV commercial where the camera operator panned from an object at eye level to a sign high overhead. It looked weird in real life, but in the finished product, it looked great. See how others compose their shots and how they handle movement. Watch videos, get ideas and get stoked!

And finally…

-I’m always trying to push the limits. Often I’ll get the standard shot, then I’ll experiment. Try new things. I’m not afraid to copy techniques I see others do, then try to invent some of my own. Data is cheap. You can always dump it in editing.

More Video Tips

More Posts in this series:

Sound Off! Quality Audio is Essential for Good Video (coming soon)

Talk to Everyone Getting Out of the Shell and Giving Travel Videos That Personal Feel (coming soon)

Everyone’s a Character-Even Me Travel Video Hosting (coming soon)

Story is Key Notes on Story Arc (coming soon)

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