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Old February 23rd, 2009, 01:56 PM   #1
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Lessons learned moving from stills to videography

Having come from a background of birding and bird photography, I have had a month to get to grips with my new HD camera, a Canon XL-H1A. My previous experience with video is limited, mainly videoscoping through a birding telescope. I thought it might be helpful to post on my initial experience making the transition from still photography to video. For most of you on DVinfo, these will be laughably obvious observations but this is what I have learned about the transition to video in a month:

(i) TRIPOD. A tripod designed for a DSLR simply isn’t good enough for videography. It’s possible to get away with an unsteady support with a DSLR because of the ability to bang off a dozen shots in a couple of seconds – one of them is likely to come out reasonably well. With video, an unstable support is obvious, especially at full zoom, if the surface is not stable, or if there is any wind. I ordered a new tripod after my first day out with the HDV camera.

(ii) TRIPOD HEAD. It doesn’t matter too much if the head doesn’t move smoothly when setting up a still shot. It matters a lot with video. Jerky pan shots are horrible to look at and are inevitable with a cheap head. A good quality fluid head is a must, with a long handle to control the rate of pan / tilt. I had no appreciation that this makes as much difference to the quality of the end result as the camera itself.

(iii) LEVELLING. Again with stills, a non-levelled tripod isn’t a big deal and can be compensated for by the head. A level tripod is extremely important for videography otherwise sideways / panning movements will lift or drop the horizon.

(iv) MANUAL versus AUTO modes. Automatic modes can really work against you with video – again I hadn’t thought of it but using automatic mode ruined some sequences I shot of a large flock of starlings displaying before going to roost. The problem was that the flock were sometimes in the sky, against a relatively light background, and sometimes low to the horizon. As I followed the birds with the camera, the exposure continually adjusted to the frame content so the sky and foreground exposure fluctuated a lot to compensate. Also the autofocus tended to oscillate between the subject and foreground objects and I quickly moved over to manual focus. The lesson was quickly learned and the next day I shot in shutter priority – which brings me to the next point:

(v) SHUTTER SPEED. It matters an awful lot when panning to follow a moving target. Whereas with stills, a burst of relatively slow shutter speed shots may eventually capture a decent photograph of a bird in flight, it makes for a real blur with video. Day two with the starlings, I ran with far too slow a shutter speed resulting in no definition at all of the flock in flight (but actually some rather attractive artistic shots which will make for a nice introductory sequence – so all is not lost by experimenting). Day 3 was done in manual mode, much much better as full control over aperture and shutter speed gave the best result – sacrificing a bit of light for the sake of a fast enough shutter speed and some depth of field eventually worked well.

(vi) EXPOSURE MONITORING. It’s very difficult to judge whether exposure is correct using the viewfinder display. The zebra stripes overexposure feature really helps avoid overexposure. The same problem exists with video exposing for a white bird against a dark background as with stills – manual mode and overexposure monitoring works very well to avoid this.

(vii) BE QUIET! You are recording audio as well as video, and have to learn to be quiet – this includes not moving your feet on a noisy surface, breathing too loud near the mic, talking. Also best to secure any accessories, camera straps etc which might otherwise get blown around when windy and make a noise. To be honest it’s best to film alone or with someone who will keep quiet. I have already spoiled a few nice clips by talking while filming.

(viii) DUST. Dust on the front of the lens may not be too obvious on a still frame – it’s very obvious on video when the frame is moving, especially against a light sky. So keep the dust cap on between shots, and keep the objective clean – a skylight filter is probably the thing to use here. As with DSLR change lenses in as clean an environment as possible and use a blower to remove dust from the rear of the lens and from in front of the sensor.

(ix) SCENE SETTING AND MIXING THE SHOTS. Go to a good quality birding website such as Birdforum and take a look at the gallery pictures. Many of the photographs are of very high quality and a credit to the photographers. But look more closely at the thumbnail page. Nearly all of the shots will be medium to close-up shots of the birds. The temptation is to shoot close all the time. But put together a short movie from 60 minutes of close-up footage and it gets monotonous. The mindset has to be different when making video – scene setting is important, so a mixture of wide, medium and close shots really helps along with video of interesting landscape, objects and non-target birds (i.e. birds which aren’t the main subject of the video) for cut-aways and bridging clips, opening and closing scenes.

(x) PRACTICE MAKES……. well, I have a long way to go! The above has been learned by taking the camera out close to home and filming whatever birds are around at the time. Better to make elementary mistakes on a practice run than when my real subjects – ravens, peregrines and green woodpeckers – start nesting in the spring.

Linked are two videos which illustrate some of the problems noted above. I have posted these as object lessons – they are clearly badly flawed but I had a whole lot of fun shooting them anyway:

Waxwings video: Waxwings at Tranent, East Lothian on Vimeo

The start sequence, of the flock in flight, illustrates the problems of an unlevelled tripod and the use of a non fluid head – very jerky panning and a horizon which isn’t horizontal. The unsteady tripod is betrayed during the slow zoom in on the birds on the wire and by wind buffeting shortly after. There are a few elementary composition errors too, such as the electricity cables cluttering the medium zoom shots of the birds on the bushes, and shot sequences that don’t run too well together because consecutive shots are taken against grey sky then blue sky (it was that kind of day!). Autoexposure results in underexposure of the birds against the blue sky. On the plus side, shooting a mix of wide angle and close in video makes the sequences more interesting than if all the shots were close in.

Starlings video: Starlings go to roost at Sherriffhall (v2) on Vimeo

This is the end result – I haven’t included low shutter speed shots. Still, you will notice a sloping horizon because of an unlevelled tripod in several places – looks horrible, doesn’t it! Also, at 18 seconds note the sky exposure changing because of the use of auto exposure mode, when following the flock along the horizon. Dust on the lens is obvious in the lower half of the frame during moving shots. I had some difficulty sequencing together close and wide shots of the birds coming into the tower as the sky exposures were quite different. And the final close shots illustrate the problem of noise when pushing the zoom to the limit in these very challenging dusk lighting conditions.

So these are my novice mistakes – I hope it’s useful to display them for other forum users who are making the switch from stills to video.

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Old March 30th, 2009, 10:04 AM   #2
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I soon learned these lessons when I took up video a few years ago. Still make some of the same mistakes, mainly because I don't have as much time as I'd like to keep in practice. But I have to say that my stills photographs have improved - probably largely because of what I have learned doing video.
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Old April 7th, 2009, 08:52 AM   #3
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Thanks for the tips. If it is alright, I think I'm going to run these off, laminate and put in my camera case. It never hurts to remind oneself of things that are unfamiliar.
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Old April 7th, 2009, 09:17 AM   #4
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when I moved to video from stills in 83 the hardest thing to remember for me was that as a still photographer I was taking 1 picture every 30 seconds and with video i was taking 30 pictures a second. Moral of the story; learn how to hold the camera steady. :-)
What do I know? I'm just a video-O-grafer.
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Old April 7th, 2009, 02:09 PM   #5
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I partially disagree with 7, true you can ruin shots if dialog and ambiance are THAT IMPORTANT, however, with your birds... just layer some music under those shots and mute the sound. Or take a long picture with good ambiance that you don't like the video and cut the video out and use that sound under the good picture. Most of the sound won't be coming from the bird in the shot (unlike dialogue) so it shouldn't be noticeable at all if it's not the same shot.
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Old April 8th, 2009, 10:44 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Chris Rackauckas View Post
I partially disagree with 7, true you can ruin shots if dialog and ambiance are THAT IMPORTANT, however, with your birds... just layer some music under those shots and mute the sound..
Yes, but it's just as easy to keep your own yap shut in the first place and then NOT have to fix it with trickery or music or... it's a GREAT habit to get into. And in my line of work (doc-style mostly), wild sound is an intrinsic part of the story. Often I'm using a sequence based editing model and not a montage model so background music is often entirely inappropriate. It's one thing if bystanders are talking among themselves, it's another altogether if crew doesn't have the discipline to keep quiet on a "set".
Shaun C. Roemich Road Dog Media - Vancouver, BC - Videographer - Webcaster
www.roaddogmedia.ca Blog: http://roaddogmedia.wordpress.com/
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Old July 25th, 2009, 03:44 AM   #7
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Great information. I am a lot like you, Due to changing market conditions I needed to learn video and learn it fast! I am A Nikon still shooter. My next Video Camera Upgrade is the same one you got. Give us an update let us know in a few more months the lesons you learned.... Yesterday I did a video and didnt have any audio when I plugged my external mic in.. Guess what... i forgot to turn the mic on! LOL......BUT at least i had enough experience to check for audio. It would have been catastrophoc to shoot this whole video without audio! Still learning!
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