How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

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.


News: Brew Dogs, a Free Story Guide- And More!

The only thing worse than a blog post cobbled together out of all sorts of short things you don’t really feel like fashioning into a full blog post is a post explaining why you’ve been too busy to post lately.  So here is the second-worst blog post I will ever write.  Although, to be fair, there is a lot of free stuff in this one:

1)  Craft Beer Fans can rejoice at the return of Brew Dogs!  Season three starts Wednesday, April 1 at 10pm on the Esquire Network.  If you haven’t seen the show, it’s sort of like Top Gear for beer.  More of a humor/travel/stunt show than something you need to be a hophead to enjoy.  Although if you are, you will.  Here’s the great new season kickoff promo Esquire put together for us–

2)  My friends at Discmakers just posted a free Story Guide I wrote for them, mostly with my favorite story advice right out of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck.  It’s 10 pages of exercises and story-telling fun, and totally, entirely, free!

Check it out here!

3)  Speaking of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck– it’s holding fast at number one (!) on the Amazon Cinematography list.  Sure, I’m bragging.  And no, I don’t check my Amazon sales rank every day.  Mostly.  (As with another famous solo sport, any author who tells you they don’t is lying.)

I mention this not because I wanted to go off the innuendo deep end, but rather to say that there is now an audio version of the book that is also picking up steam.  Better still, you can get it free on as part of their trial deal.

That’s three FREE things in one post (assuming you already have cable).  Not bad for something cobbled together out of parts.


Do you have a question about video? Ask it here, now!


Intent vs. Results

Hi Steve,

Ordered your book from Amazon and devoured it in 2 days; awesome stuff.

I have a question on chapter 2 re: intent. Coming from an internet marketing background I am unfortunately ingrained with ‘results’ driven approaches   (increase conversion, ROI, etc). I was wondering if I could give you some examples of intent just to clarify if I am on the right track.

The video I will be shooting is in fitness. One intent I brainstormed was ‘Inspire viewers to workout’. Is that a result because viewers work out later at some point after the video is done?


In its simplest form, intent helps you make your video. A result is something you measure later to see how successful you’ve been.

To use your fitness example, your intent is to inspire.  You can do “to inspire” in your video.  You can examine each line of dialogue to see if it’s inspiring.  You can use inspiring music.  You can shoot inspiring bodies as models.

Your results might be measurable, in which case you can determine your Return On Investment.  “I spent $500 on that video, and made $2,000 in sales.  That’s good ROI!” you might say– later, after the video runs. But because you can’t measure ROI until after the fact, you can’t edit your video for ROI. You can’t choose models based on ROI.  You can’t choose music that’s better for ROI.*

ROI doesn’t help you make the video.  And that’s the distinction.  Your intent guides your creativity.  A result happens later, and can’t.

“I want to be discovered by an agent” is a result– and perhaps a legitimate reason to make a video.  But it won’t help you make decisions on what to cut, or where to shoot, or what actors to select.  You need something actionable for that.

“I want to make people laugh” can guide your choices.  “I want to help people understand global warming” can guide your choices.  You may not always succeed– but knowing your intent will give you a way to choose.

More on intent...

*Geek Note: Okay, you can make some choices based on measures. For example, if you test your video with two different songs and measure how many people watch each version all the way through, you can choose the stronger song.  But how you choose both those songs and choose each edit and what color to make the graphics– that’s all about intent.  You can’t measure your way to great video– there would be an infinite number of choices to test.


Did you know you can ask questions here? And that the good ones will be answered on this site? And you could become famous as a great question-asker like Ryan? Wouldn’t that be cool? Why are you still reading and not clicking the link

Best Way To Learn Video: Play With Your Toys

When I was seven, my new Kodak camera came with a thick instruction manual.  My dad solemnly sat me down and told me how important it was to read the manual before I played with the camera.  After all, I could break something.

I love my dad, but what was good advice then isn’t as good today.  The major working parts of your new smartphone, DSLR, pocket camera or editing software are microchips.  Short of running over your new toy with the car, they’re hard to break.  Instead of expensive film you’re recording data.  Store the original movie in a separate folder on your hard drive and you can’t break that either.

Forget what Dad told you.  If you got something technical in your stocking and you’re still looking at the outside of its box, it’s time to dive in.  The best way to learn video production is to practice.

Go shoot something.  Start on the simplest “auto” setting and fire away.  As you play more and get more comfortable with your new toy, then it’s time to try the bells and whistles (but never the digital zoom!)

Got editing software?  Duplicate your footage, load up a copy and screw around.  You can always hit “undo.”

Much of what you start with will look awful.  Which is fine.  You expect to eat a little snow your first time on a snowboard.  You don’t get to level 3 on Call of Duty on your first day.  Why should you be a video pro from minute one?

Learn video the best way possible– Dive in!


PS:  You can, of course, also get instruction from a book.  Say, this one.

Holiday Video Thoughts 2014

Last Minute Holiday video thoughts:

1)  This is the time of year for me to humbly remind you that How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck makes an excellent stocking stuffer.  It’s not too late to pick up a dozen copies.  There’s an audio version too!

2)  Take a moment to read my post about The True Meaning Of Holiday Video. Or this post on 10 Great Tips on Shooting Better Holiday Video, or  this one with more tips.

3)  And finally, a repost of a Christmas video I directed a while back.  So long a while back that one of the kids in the video is a director himself now, and the other a standup comic.  But if you’re a fan of either Black Sabbath or dumb humor, you’ll love it:

Have a great Holiday!

10 Tips for Great Holiday Video

Ah, Holiday memories.

Like the time you think your dad told a hilarious story– but you can’t hear him on the video.  Or the time young Sarah– or was it Matthew?– kept talking about “Santa Paws”.  Hard to tell which, because whoever’s face is too dark to see. And let’s not even talk about the video you shot of the lights and place settings and decorations and presents and…um…hardly any people at all.

Shouldn’t your Holiday video bring back memories… of the Holiday?   Of course it should.  And from now on it will.  Just follow these 10 tips for great holiday video:

1. Spare us the scenery: Holidays are about memories, and memories are about people. In ten years, nobody’s going to beg you to haul out “that great video—you know, the one with the fireplace and logs and stuff!”  But the one where Eric got Gretchen that sexy underwear and she poured eggnog over his head?  You’ll play that one a lot.  By all means shoot the lovely place settings, the tree, the outside of the house decked with menorahs—but remember that unless they’re really unusual this year, they’re each good for a maximum of 5 seconds of screen time.

2.  Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes: If our memories are about people, people are about their faces.  We don’t just talk with our faces, we show our complete personalities with what goes on in our eyes, our foreheads, those creases around our mouths. Remember the face, and you’ll remember the time. Another reason to focus on faces– your 4-year old daughter’s face will be completely different next year. And, sadly, so will yours.

3.  Zoom with your feet. Don’t shoot from across the room . Zoom lenses make your picture shaky, and the more zoomed your lens is the less light it sees. Instead, turn off the zoom and walk closer.  You’ll also get better sound—there’s no such thing as a zoom microphone.

4.  Change your angle: We tend to hold the camera at chest height all the time so we can see the monitor screen.  But that’s not always the best way to tell the story. Might you get a better view of the table full of relatives if you raise the camera over your head?  What if you get on the floor with the kids when they open presents?  Different angles make more interesting video.

5.  Ask questions:  And make them open-ended questions.  Not “Do you like the tree?” (answer: “Yes, Mom” then silence) but “Susie– tell me about where the tree came from” or “Grandpa, what was Hanukah like when you were little?” Don’t forget the interviews!

6.  Shoot first, yell later:  Which story are you more likely to tell—the time you had a perfect Christmas and everyone was very nice and polite, or the time your son “helped” the cat climb the tree and the whole thing fell over?  Misbehavior makes great video.  Unless someone needs first aid, make sure your camera doesn’t stop rolling until it’s over.

7.  Represent your kids: Your three-year old can’t tell you what to shoot.  But you’re a big part of his life—don’t forget to include yourself and your spouse in the video.  Then every once in a while think about what you wish you had video of from your childhood, and shoot that.  In 20 years your kids will be grateful for the memories you’ve preserved.

8.  Careful of tricky holiday lighting. Candlelight, strings of colored lights, crackling flames—all very lovely, but frequently insufficient for shooting. It’s fine to try the romantic firelight shot, but if it looks dark in the monitor it won’t get magically less dark later. Turn on the overheads, pull over a floor lamp or open a window shade—whatever it takes for you to see a sharp, clear picture on your viewfinder

9.  Use Ritual to your advantage:  What are the things your family always does?  Shoot at least a little of the annual trip to the tree farm, the out-of-control-latke party or family ice-skating debacle every year to make it easy to see how your family changes and grows over time.

10.  Don’t try to hide the camera: Kids (and many adults) may be camera-shy, but they’ll be much worse if they think you’re trying to trick them into being filmed.  Be obvious about shooting.  Soon they’ll get bored with you and start acting natural.

Last minute gift ideas:  Who couldn’t use a dozen copies of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck?  Now available in audio version too!