Updated: 04/09/2012


Twelve Guidelines

for Better Videos



1. Use a tripod or a solid camera support. This is especially important in close-ups.

The exception is where you want to show a subjective camera effect, communicate a fluid or unstable situation, impart a documentary-style effect, or in news situations where you will miss the shot if you try to use a tripod.

However, we commonly see handheld camera shots on episodic TV (Law & Order, etc.) and even on feature-length films (The Bourne Ultimatum, etc.).

Although this saves money by reducing camera setup times, when viewed on a large screen viewers are apt to complain that bobbing and floating camera shots make them a bit "seasick" -- especially in HDTV.

2. Rely on medium close-ups and close-ups for your basic visual material. Wide shots should only be used for establishing (and reestablishing) shots. HDTV doesn't require this same close-up emphasis, but for some time we'll have to shoot with both formats in mind.

3. Eliminate shots that don't contribute to the project's goals or your basic story idea. The rule here is: If in doubt, leave it out!

4. Cut away from a shot as soon as the basic information is conveyed, especially if the shot is a static one. Almost all of the student videos I see could be judiciously cut by at least 50% and be much improved in the process.

5. Resist the temptation to keep the camera rolling, and pan, zoom and tilt the camera to get from one shot to another.

Zooms and pans are generally just lazy and time-consuming ways of changing shots. A cut is almost always stronger and faster. Pans and tilts are best used when you need to incrementally reveal something or when you need to follow subject movement.

True, we see a lot of zooms, pans and tilts in videos, but take a look at a good feature-length film — especially one that has won an award for cinematography. You won't often see many of these.

6. Make sure your key subject matter (the talent) is not wearing white, or is against a white (or very light) background. The sky, windows, bright walls and lights in the picture are the biggest problem. The result is gray scale compression or white clipping.  If you can't avoid this, you can manually open the camera's iris or engage the camera's "backlight" switch and carefully observe the effect while you make adjustments.

7. Unless you are "editing in the camera," observe a five-second roll cue at the beginning of each take. Otherwise, especially considering the pre-roll requirements for many video editors, you may find it impossible to use the full segment during editing.

8. Cue up your piece to the very beginning of a ten-second countdown leader before submitting  your work.

9. Use a auxiliary mic for interviews, never the built-in camera mic. Use mics, especially non-directional mics, as close to the subject as possible. If you don't want the mic to be conspicuous, use a clip-on, or personal mic, hide the handheld mic close to the subject, or use an off-camera directional mic.

10. Select instrumental music as background for narration, not vocal, rap, or hip-hop music. You can't have two voice tracks going at the same time and expect the audience to follow both.

11. Use B-roll footage with interviews whenever possible. Don't just hold a shot of a "talking head" unless the person is very dramatic or animated. Whenever possible supplement the interview footage with shots that help explain or illustrate what's being said.

12. Completely and thoroughly think through and plan your piece before you start. Remember: The most important phase of production is preproduction.

Plan for visual and audio variety and only include shots that are essential to getting your point across.

(Related reading: The Quintessential Element in video production.)

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