The other day I was at my son’s football class, and my friend Elinor got out her camera to film her daughter scoring a goal.
She was sitting by the side of the pitch, which meant that when Lizzie scored, she would be running away from the camera – so you’d never see her face.
I dragged Elinor off to the side of goal, and the resulting film showed Lizzie running towards the goal with the ball, scoring the goal then running towards her mum in triumph. Far nicer!
And it struck me that I take completely for granted my years of accumulated experience while directing and filming for the BBC (about six years working in news, a rough total of 14 documentaries, and dozens of live events, ranging from Live8 to Crufts to Remembrance Sunday).
So perhaps it was time to pass on a few tips. Here goes:
1. Think about the position of the camera
The aim is to show as much of the action as possible – and to see people’s faces, rather than their profile or the backs of the head. So put yourself somewhere that will enable you to do that.
If you’re filming something small – like a young child – keep the camera low down, aim to be on their level. We used this trick filming on Crufts – you got a great dogs-eye view if the camera was near the ground.
2. Are you filming inside or outside?
If possible, film outside (unless of course it’s pouring with rain, completely inappropriate/impossible, or dull and dark).
It means you don’t have to worry about lighting, and if you pick your location well, you can choose a nice setting with no problems like air conditioning or the other ambient sounds like the radio next door, that the camera will pick up inside.
You do however have to think about passers-by, traffic noise, airplanes …
There’s an art to lighting – and I’m by no means an expert, having just had the most basic training from the BBC.
However, if possible, you need the lighting to be cast on your subject. Switch off any strip lighting and if you’ve got access to lights, position them at an angle facing towards your subject.
If you’re filming someone inside, avoid sitting people in front of a window as they become ‘backlit’ and you can’t see their faces properly. It only takes a minute to spin the camera around and film with your back to the camera.
This is really important. Bad framing can absolutely ruin a shot.
Put your subject to left or right of frame, and think about what’s behind them. You either want the background to be as neutral as possible so people focus on what you’re saying, or to be interesting and reflect whatever you’re trying to say with your film. One other thing – make sure there’s not something silly sticking out of the back of your head!
I’ve seen one so-called media expert’s video of tips recorded in his messy kitchen. Given that his job is to offer advice about the media, the fact he didn’t appear to know even the basics of how to film, completely destroyed his credibility for me!
An example of how framing is used: when I worked on the BBCs Remembrance Sunday programme, we filmed many interviews with war veterans, and our aim was always to have a simple, tasteful backing for their interviews, with perhaps just flowers, a simple table lamp or a framed photo behind them to the left or right. It meant that the audience focused on their words rather than what was behind them.
Such a simple thing, but it’s really annoying if a film isn’t in focus. If you’re planning to use the film on your website or for any promotional purposes, it will just look extremely unprofessional and sloppy. By all means use Autofocus – it’s much easier – but wait for the focus to settle down before you start filming.
Another simple thing, but just as vital. After all, it’s important to hear what people are saying! Aim wherever possible not just to use the ‘top mike’ on the camera, but to have a ‘directional’ mike which will pick up what people say far more clearly. If possible, have a ‘clip’ mike, which you can attach to your subject’s clothing, with far better results.
There’s always a temptation to use the zoom to get closer to the action. Avoid this. If you zoom, your shots are much more likely to be wobbly. Instead get closer to the action. And if that doesn’t work, you can always sort it out in the edit by changing the size of the shots there (a line much used by self-shooters working in TV and hated by their VT editors who then had a much harder job to do!).
By the way – you can’t sort out wobbly shots in the edit, or out of focus shots, or terrible sound!
9. Moving the camera around
AKA: Panning and tilting
Don’t do this. It’s ok for professionals. But if you’re not a professional, if you’re filming an event or some action, keep the camera still. ‘Panning’ – moving the camera to left and right – and ‘tilting’ – moving it up and down – is incredibly difficult to do well.
Keep the camera still and don’t be tempted to follow the action. Let your subject ‘enter shot’ and ‘leave shot’. Believe me, this will make it much much easier when you’re editing your film.
Following these simple rules, should help improve the quality of what you film – and the resulting video.
But the most important thing to do is practice, practice, practice! The more you get out there and film, the better the results will be.