Future Tense: Shooting Video

Maximum PC Staff

One of the problems with our accelerating technological progress is that the evolutionary path is strewn with dead formats. Remember cassettes? VHS? Betamax? Laserdiscs? I was reminded of this again when I got involved in some serious de-cluttering. I found multiple boxes of SVHS-C cassettes left over from ten and twenty years ago. Many of them are treasured memories so I decided to dub these to DVD with the eventual goal of importing into Avid to edit them.

For dubbing purposes, I picked up a Sony VRD-MC6, which Sony calls a “multi-function DVD recorder.” It’s a convenient little box for burning DVDs from various other sources. It has a small screen to show you what’s being burned to the DVD and it can write to single and double-layer discs. Perfect for my needs.

Working my way through ten years of recorded videos was both joyous and frustrating.

Image Credit: Andreas Levers

The joyous part was reliving my son’s adoption, watching him learn how to swim, seeing his excitement at his first Christmas with me, catching moments of him playing with a long-past dog or snuggled up with our favorite cat. Another joyous part was reliving moments with family members who are also gone from our lives, remembering them and missing them again. And of course, there were all those wonderful trips we took together, Hawaii, Australia, and all over Europe.

The frustrating part of going through all that video was all the stuff I’d missed—all the stuff that was badly shot, all the stuff that should have been wonderful, if only I’d known what I was doing at the time. And even more important, if only I’d known what I should have been shooting.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from several decades of shooting personal videos and candid stills.

Make sure you have a camera that suits your needs — whether its portability, ruggedness, resolution, whatever. If you just need point-and-shoot, don’t overbuy and end up with a camera too complex for you to understand what you’re doing. Likewise, don’t underbuy and end up with a camera that can’t give you the range of usefulness you want. And whatever your options, always get the best camera you can afford—this is good advice for all electronics.

Make sure you have extra batteries and memory cards.  Carry at least one extra battery.

Get a memory card with at least 16gb. You might never fill a 32gb card, unless you’re using a 24-megapixel DLSR and shooting burst mode on everything, but it’s nice to know that you have that extra space. Memory card prices are very reasonable now, don’t skimp. Lexar sells 128gb SD cards for $200.

If you’re going to shoot video, make sure your memory card is fast enough.  Class 10 should do the job.

Get a good tripod and use it. A cheap or flimsy tripod will only make things worse. If you’re going to do panoramas or if you intend to set a timer and be in the picture with your family, a tripod is essential. And if you’re going to shoot video, a tripod is your very best friend.

Sometimes you don’t have a tripod handy. Learn how to brace yourself and your camera so that your videos are steady.  You can always run your video through anti-shake software, but you’ll lose a bit of resolution.  Or invest in a mini-steadicam.

Fast auto-focus.  Honest. Few things are more annoying in video than losing your focus during a great shot of baby’s first steps.

Pan slowly.  Really.  Really slow. Trust me on this.

Turn off the super-imposed date and time unless you’re doing surveillance.  If you’re shooting on tape, always write the date on the included label.

Your voice-over is the least important part of the video.  Shut up.

Yes, it’s nice to get photos of the koala bear or the elephant, but the real joy in looking at your videos will always be the shots of your children reacting to the koala bear or the elephant.  Concentrate on getting shots of your kids and your relatives.  If you want to look at animals, Animal Planet will have better photography than anything you can do.  But ten years from now, being able to see gramma and grampa again, or even a favorite pooch, will outweigh anything else you shot.

Identify your video.  Have someone at the beginning of the tape introduce time, day, who’s here, where you are, and what’s happening.  “Hey, Dad, we’re at Wall Drug in South Dakota and you promised me a bag of genuine buffalo chips.”  Don’t depend on your memory. Okay, yes—newer cameras include metadata when and where the picture was taken, but if your camera doesn’t do that, it’s no fun to sift through old pictures trying to guess when and where they were taken.

It’s also a good idea to identify every person in the photograph. You probably won’t remember everyone’s names ten or twenty years from now. And if they’re family members, you’ll be doing a marvelous service to whoever inherits your collection. “Is that Aunt Lena or Aunt Rose?” Well, she’s standing next to Uncle Sidney, so maybe it’s Aunt Esther…?”

Shooting the roller coaster ride is a good way to have your camera fly out of your hands.  Use a wrist strap. In fact, use a wrist strap everywhere.  If you lose the camera, you lose everything in it that you haven’t downloaded.

Occasionally have someone else take a picture of you.  The kids will be happy to do that.  Be part of the record yourself.  Teach your kids to hold the camera steady or the result will be unusable. (I have twelve hours of video that my son shot that is unwatchable, but you can hear me saying, “Dammit! Hold the camera steady!”)

During family events, keep your camera on and ready to go. Candid shots are even more fun than posed shots. Posed shots are either boring or awkward.  Shots of Cousin Jon with whipped cream in his hair are much more fun, especially if you’re uploading to Faceook.

Shoot everything. If you have a camera that shoots both stills and videos, shoot both. Use burst-mode for action shots and candids—especially if you’re shooting children.

Do not shoot pictures of grownups eating. They don’t like it and you rarely get anything useful. Children, however, are fair game. The messier, the better.

If you’re going to photograph your children naked in the bathtub, do not post the pictures on Facebook.

Get lots of pictures of your cats and dogs doing cat and dog things. Go out in the back yard and shoot stills and videos. Other people won’t appreciate these pictures, but you will.

Every time you buy something new or expensive or something you don’t want to lose, take a photo of it and put it in a folder for Insurance purposes. Also include serial numbers. You can photograph the serial number too. You should photograph special items of clothing, your car, your computer, and even your bookshelves, so you have a record of what was there.

(For still photos.) Pump up your ISO and turn off the flash. People find flashes annoying—and the odds are you’re either going to be too close or too far anyway for your flash to produce a properly-lit photo. The farther away you are, the less effective your flash will be. If you’re shooting portraits or groups, use an upward-pointing flash. You’ll always get more interesting photos if you use the flash for fill than head on.

Check your white balance. Incandescent lighting turns your pictures orange, fluorescent lighting turns them blue.  You can fix it in post, but why make extra work for yourself?

Edit your videos. Trim away the dumb stuff.  Asking even the most devoted gramma to sit through all that filler is an invitation to have her talk over your best stuff.

Add music. Let’s say you’ve got great video of little Tyler taking his first baby steps, but the soundtrack is all gramma chattering about your potty training. Strip off that soundtrack and find some fun music instead. (Do not use “It’s A Small World.”)

Most cameras and cellphones now shoot HD video and very high resolution stills, but if you’re going to use your phone or a still camera for shooting video, be aware that the device may have limits.

For instance, the painfully loud sound levels at Walking With Dinosaurs will certainly overload the audio on your smartphone, giving you terribly distorted sound. (Replace with music.)  Shooting HD video with a Sony A-55 limits you to approximately four minutes per shot. When the chip overheats, the camera stops recording.

Know what your technology can and can’t do. Experiment. Play with it. Now that purchasing film and developing and printing it is no longer part of the equation, it doesn’t cost anything to shoot video and stills. In fact, the more you shoot, the more you amortize the cost of the camera.

Now, let’s talk about editing:

Brevity is a virtue. Make your point and move on. Trim the heads and tails of shots to tighten the pace. You don’t need all that extra stuff. It just gets in the way and slows things down. Honest.

Add titles and subtitles. You can use overlays too. Put dates and locations on your first or last title card.

Include still pictures in context. If you’ve shot a series of stills in burst mode, you can have some fun semi-animating them.

There are many excellent video-editing programs. I’ve used Pinnacle Studio, it’s both economical and powerful enough for most people’s needs. There are other worthwhile and well-recommended packages too.

Don’t be afraid to use effects where appropriate—but don’t go overboard with effects either. A wipe or a dissolve can be useful, but make sure that your effect is appropriate to the moment.

Movavi and Windows Movie Maker can generate videos for you, based on the style you select and the music you choose. But these only work well if you’ve carefully selected the photos and videos and are willing to tweak the process as you go. These can be useful when you need something quickly, but they will never be a substitute for your own good judgment.

These are some of the things I’ve learned about shooting stills and videos with digital cameras—including smartphones.

What would you add to this list?


David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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