How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Shoot Better Labor Day Video

As you cruise to the beach or barbecue this weekend, take your video camera.  And think about these tips to shoot better Labor Day video:

1)  Memories are about faces. Faces are where emotion lives. The eyes are the window to the soul and all that.  And faces are how we chart time– when you want to remember who you were 5 years ago, a long shot of a crowd drinking beer won’t do the job. When you watch video of small children or elderly grandparents later, you’ll never wish you were farther away.

Thinking of shooting distant closeups of vague human figures in front of a smoking grill?  You’re doing it wrong.  Get close.

2)  Ask real questions and you’ll get real answers. “How’s the beer, dude?” may get you a high-five from your buddy, but asking him what he did this summer will be a lot more interesting. Ask people to describe the guests, ask kids to tell you what they did today– anything that requires just a little thought reveals more of the real people in your life on video.

3)  Shoot action. “Dad” is not a shot.  “Dad putting too much lighter fluid on the grill” is.  Subject plus action = interesting. “Grill blowing up.” or “Mom sprays Dad with fire extinguisher” should also be good.

4) Shoot what interests you, and it will be interesting. Just because you’re going to Ocean City for the weekend doesn’t mean you have to shoot a video showing the family lying on the beach. Make your video about something instead.

Anything will work.  Your video can be about your quest for the perfect oyster, your two brothers taking their first vacation together in 20 years, or how much you hate tourists.  It’s up to you.  But the trick is to go one step past “point and shoot” in your head.  Have a point of view.  If you shoot something you’re interested in, we’ll be interested too!



Video Boot Camp Lesson Guide– Free Download!

Video Boot Camp Lesson Guide

Video Boot Camp Guide for Teachers and Trainers. Download Free!

It’s the start of the school year.  Coming up: a year of student video projects.  And hours of misery for viewers.  If only there was a way to make student video better.  Hmmmmm….

Wait– I’ve got it!  How about this free 5 hour lesson plan to help your students do better video?  Teachers and trainers have been downloading it in droves, and why not?  It’s free!  Nothing to buy, no email address to leave.

If you’re a teacher or trainer, or know one, check it out.  And if you HAVE used the Video Boot Camp lesson guide in your classroom how’d you do?

Click this link to download the Video Bootcamp PDF.

And please feel free to share the link– or download and email directly to your favorite teacher!

 Teachers:  Questions on how to use video in the classroom?  Ask them here!

Respect the Process Podcast

I just discovered commercial director Jordan Brady’s podcast, Respect the Process.  I discovered it when he invited me to be on it, but it turns out I’m late to the party– he has a ton of subscribers and some really great guests.

The podcast is now up.  Jordan’s beat is creativity and (surprise!) process in film, video and entertainment, which I’m always happy to talk about and learn more about. We covered a lot of information– about shooting video, how to get started in unscripted television, and how he once shot a spot in my garage.

You can see that commercial, admire my garage and hear the podcast here or check it out on iTunes.

Mr. Brady also runs a commercial directing bootcamp in September.  Worth checking out.

Shooting like the Pros

Watch any film or TV show and you’ll see a series of very short shots (read why here). I argue that most people should get out of the habit of running the camera non-stop when shooting. And every so often I get a letter like this:

I am a professional videographer, and your advice to “shoot short shots” is totally misguided. Pros shoot more than they need so they can make their video perfect in the editing room. Turning the camera on and off is an amateur move.  How have you made a living in this business?

–Chris F., New York

Chris isn’t wrong.  My advice to try in-camera editing isn’t based on professional videographers, who do shoot differently. But the underlying principle is true– for pros and everyone else. To understand, let’s break it into two cases, the editors and the non-editors :

If you don’t edit later: Dads at soccer games. Employees at the company picnic. Grandparents at graduations.  For anyone documenting a live event and not likely to edit later: don’t run the camera non-stop. Not only will that 45 minute ballet recital be horribly boring to watch, but if you shoot everything in real time, you’ll need an extra lifetime to view it. For these people, shooting short shots instead means their video will fall out of the camera looking professionally edited— and way more interesting to watch.

If you do edit later: Pros still plan their shoot because pros know that shooting and editing aren’t free. The more you shoot, the more time it takes and the more money you pay your crew.  The more footage you shoot, the more time you need to edit later. Yes, pros shoot differently than someone going with friends to a rock concert.  They budget extra time and money to try multiple takes, repeat moves, and take more flyers on things that might not work (but would be awesome if they do!) But even pros can’t run the camera non-stop.

Your movie has to be shot in 45 days and edited in 10 weeks.  Or your commercial has to be shot in 12 hours, and delivered in 2 weeks. To make those deadlines (and the budgets that come with them) you need to carefully plan your shooting and know when to stop.

To summarize:  If you’re not editing later, edit “in camera” by doing short, thoughtful shots and your video will be way more watchable. If you are editing later, keep an eye on your time and money. In both cases, the more you plan and think about your shots in advance, the better.

Running the camera non-stop just means you have no idea what you’re doing.


5 Tips for Father’s Day Video that Doesn’t Suck

Father’s Day Video.  Memorable–or as undercooked as the runny eggs and cold toast the kids bring Dad in bed?  Here are a five tips to improve the video you shoot this Father’s Day.

1. Find the Hero: Focus your attention on someone– anyone!  Having a hero invites us to think about our videos as stories about someone, which makes them more intriguing.

Choosing a hero changes the video.  For example, if Dad is the hero, your story might be “Dad gets woken up for breakfast in bed– at 4:30am.”  Told from Dad’s point of view, the story might alternate shots of the kids sneaking toward the bed, dripping coffee everywhere, with shots of sleeping Dad.  The grand presentation would focus on Dad as he gamely chokes down breakfast.

If your daughter is the hero of the same video, it might be called “Sarah surprises Dad.” That video might spend time with 7 year-old Sarah in the kitchen making eggs in the microwave (and a colossal mess) because she’s not allowed to turn on the stove.

There’s no wrong answer here– just focusing on someone will make your video better.

2.  Interview your kids:  We see interviews on TV all the time for a reason:  They work.  They work especially well at capturing the precious moments of childhood. You’re only 6 once.  Start before the big day and ask them to show you what they’re preparing, tell you how Daddy’s going to like they thought of it…if it’s a surprise or not. Interrupt as little as possible.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get plenty of material for the inevitable embarrassing wedding video in 15 or 20 years.

3.  Interview Dad:  Dad’s less likely to say something cute, but your kids will want to remember what he looked like way back…um…now.  And future birthdays may also call for embarrassing video.

4.  Change your perspective:  We tend to stand and hold our video camera at chest height so we can see the monitor.  But where you hold the camera changes the look and feel of your video. Shoot kid shots at kid level for more intimacy.  Try shooting Dad shots from slightly to the side, or over his shoulder as the kids visit, or super close-up.  A different point of view reveals a different world (see also 50 Ways to Shoot My Daughter Doing Homework.)

5.  Stay Close. Zooming in may look great for a few shots, but as a shooting member of the family it also puts you far from the action.  This can make your video feel less intimate.  Father’s Day is full of subtle emotion.  Stay close to the action and your family’s faces to catch it.  Added benefit: you’ll actually be able to hear what they say.  There’s no such thing as a “zoom microphone.”

Free Download: The Power Of Story

Have you had this experience? You grudgingly agree to watch a friend’s video. You click on the link. The first few shots are good. Cute kids. But about 10 seconds in you start to get a sinking feeling. This video isn’t about anything. It’s a bunch of shots that aren’t leading anywhere. And you’re stuck having to watch enough to lie to your friend about how much you loved it.

You are watching a video without a story. Your friend took out a camera or phone, pointed without thinking, and shot for a while, also without thinking. The result is a series of unrelated images that become more boring the longer they continue. Your brain is trying its best to make sense of the images cascading before your eyes, but failing. That failure induces boredom, distraction and tension.

This happens in pro video too- it’s the difference between a satisfying ending (and a rush to be the first to share with friends) and something that’s cute but just peters out.

If you know story, your videos will be better– whether they’re birthday parties for the kids or short films with actors. But talking about “Story” scares people.  Screenwriting books are filled with stuff like “three act structure,” “inciting incidents,” “act 2 turns” and “petting the dog.” Here’s a secret: it’s all jargon you don’t need to know.  Story is simple.

The real secret to story is right here– 12 pages of it.  Jargon-free, with exercises you can try right away.  No registration required, so feel free to share the link with your story-challenged friend.

Click the cover for the free PDF. No registration required!

Adding Information to Your Video

What’s the best way to shoot a stunning place, like a summit with great views in all directions?

I have tried slow panning for 360 degrees a couple of times, but I am not satisfied. If we pan slowly for better view, the whole 360 takes substantial time– if we pan fast…not good either. If we just record short clips 5 secs each in several directions, people might not get the idea of how stunning the place really is.

What do we do?


Instead of shooting stories like most people, you shoot a genre we in the business call Nature Videography (because you’re, you know, shooting video of nature.  We people in the business are geniuses.)  In Nature Videography, beauty is paramount.

Yet even in nature videography, beautiful shots can still be boring.  And I suggest that they are boring for the same reason they’re boring in any other video: they stop adding information.   “Too long” = “I’ve already understood the shot, you’re not telling me anything new, but I’m still looking at the same thing.  Yawn.”  Shots that don’t tell us anything new don’t work in any kind of video.

A pan is essentially moving the camera direction from right to left, or vice versa.   There is nothing magic about them, but they can be a great tool to add information.  For example:

CUT to a man’s shocked face.  The Camera PANS RIGHT to reveal a hand holding a gun.  It FIRES.

We didn’t know the gun was there until we moved the camera- the pan revealed this information. After the gun fires, the shot has no more information to give us.  No new information = boring.  So we CUT TO something else.

Here are some ways to think about using pans to add information to nature videos, but the principals apply to any video:

Pans don’t just show, they reveal.   Carefully choose the starting and ending point for your pan to convey information.  Start on FACE, pan to GUN.  The same rules apply to nature video.  What makes the shots special?  In a nature video it might be the light, the composition or a surprising vista. Make sure you end your pan on a shot that really pays off for the audience.

Judge the length of the pan by how much information it conveys. If you’re bored, speed it up or cut out the boring parts and make the pan into multiple shorter pans.

The In-Between must add information too. What’s going on between start and end points in your pan?   It needs to be worthy of the time allotted.  If there’s nothing brilliant in-between, don’t pan.

Pans aren’t the only way to do “stunning”.  You can get a sense of grandeur by starting with the mind-blowing ultra-wide shot of the mountaintop, then cut into a series of tighter and even more stunning still shots.  The geography we remember from the wide will make the tighter shots more interesting.   Or do short pans that overlap to give us a sense of scope.  There are no rules here– panning the camera isn’t the only way to move it.  Experiment on your next video, and find alternatives that work for you.

Milosh’s video, below, looks great.  I’ve cued up to one of his panning shots.  If you like nature video, it’s worth watching from the beginning.  Nice job, Milosh!

Do you have a question?  Ask it here.