How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

How to Shoot Vacation Video that Won’t Bore People to Death


This palm symbolizes “vacation.” It’s a long article, so I figured it needed a photo.

When I was a kid, the Armbrusters had a slide projector.  Which meant that after every vacation they took, we’d troop dutifully to their house for endless carousels of badly-shot Kodachrome slides, narrated  live.  The slide show always seemed longer than the vacation itself.  Washed-out, badly composed views of Disneyland or Paris—dotted here and there with the back of the head of someone we knew.

Today technology has changed everything.  People can record hours and hours of vacation video on a single chip.  But they don’t trap you in their living rooms anymore.  Instead they email links to their hour-long video and quiz you about how you liked it.

Who would do such a thing?  Anyone with a smartphone.  We have met the Armbrusters and they are us.

Luckily for the bore-ees, technology is also a good defense.  Today if the video’s bad, we watch 10 seconds and click off to “Family Guy.”  Then we lie to each other’s faces about how good the video was.

Oh, wait– you actually WANT people to watch your vacation video?  No problem.  Start by shooting vacation video that’s entertaining.  It’s not hard.  All you need is a little bit of thought ahead of time and the awareness that– whether it’s you, your kids or your friends– your video just may have an audience.

Here’s how to shoot vacation video that won’t bore people to death:

1)  Shoot Short Shots: A shot is like a sentence—it has a noun and a verb.  Together the noun and verb are what keep the “move” in “movies.”

On your backpacking trip a random video clip of “Bob” is not a shot.  “Bob picks up his pack” is a shot.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is a shot.  To keep your shots short, stop shooting when the action is complete.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is interesting for about 5 seconds unless Bob falls off a cliff.  So once you’ve got the action covered, be done.  We don’t need to see Bob’s back for another 30 seconds as he heads off into the distance. [more on short shots]

2)  Shoot People, Not Scenery: Think about why you’re shooting vacation video in the first place—to remember.

The Empire State Building will probably look exactly the same 10 years from now,  In case it doesn’t, thousands of great photographers have already shot it better than you can.  What makes your vacation video special is that your kids went up the Empire State Building—and your kids are going to look completely different in 10 years.

“But the scenery’s so beautiful” you say.  It is–  in person.  Video of the Grand Canyon looks great in Imax, pretty good on your 60” flat screen, and like tiny blurry garbage on your iPhone.  Unless you’re shooting Imax, best not to dwell.

Frame a great shot of the kids looking over the railing and that stunning canyon vista will look great too—in the background, where it belongs.

3)  Find the Story: Instead of random shots of the family posing on a boat, find the story of everyone getting together and taking your parents on a cruise. Have your camera ready when you surprise them with the tickets.  Interview your brother, who hates cruises but is coming anyway, armed with Dramamine and wrist-bands because he loves his parents.  Shoot your dad tearing up as he gives a speech to the group at your first big dinner on board

What’s different about your vacation?  Is it the family’s first time out of the country?  Your daughter’s first plane flight?  The Disney vacation you’ve been saving up for for 5 years?  Think before you shoot.  Tell that story.

4) Interview the Family:  Video captures not just what we look like, but how we think.  Which is perfect for that embarrassing wedding video 20 years from now.   Don’t just interview the kids. Interview your spouse, your parents, strangers you meet on the trip.  It’s a great way to capture the emotion of a moment in time.

Your five-year-old will never be 5 again. Ask her open-ended questions about what’s going on.  Let her show you, explain to you, sing to you.

5)  Shoot sparingly. If you shoot just 2 ten-second shots  in each of 8 touring hours a day, that’s almost 3 minutes of footage a day.  A week-long vacation is pushing an Armbrusturian 20 minutes—longer than anyone, including you, will actually watch.  Practice being selective.  Sure you can edit later, but will you?  And even if you do, the shorter and better your footage when you start, the less work it is.


Do you have questions about shooting video?  Of course you do.  Click here and ask them!

How to make a How-To Video, Part II: The Journey

In Part I of this post, we laid down the basics for How-To Video. Now lets go for mastery.  The key to which, as with so many other elements of video, is story.

Think about your video as a real film, with real story elements. The simplest story in any how-to video is the journey, where the hero takes us from not-done to overcoming-obstacles to done. The more challenging the journey, the better the video.

How much journeying you can do in your how-to video depends on your audience’s needs. If people will watch while they do the how-to step by step, you want to play it pretty tight.  Just show me “How to replace the valve on my dishwasher” and get out.

But if you’re teaching “How to shop for fresh fish,” we’ll learn from the quest– visiting the docks, the early morning market, and different shops, trying to find the freshest fish at a great price. The viewer is walking away with an education (yes, we’ve taught a man to buy a fish), not a one-time-only mechanical process.  Telling a good story helps us remember the lessons of the shopping process.

This video from my friends at shows how a higher concept “how to” can be interesting even if you’re not following the steps while you watch. It’s a journey, from “you have no idea how to do this” through “practice” to “now you can pour a heart in your foam at home.”

Here are a few ideas to add a journey story to your how-to video. Use them sparingly, and only when your audience will really be willing to watch:

  1. Make a real documentary  Do your “how to” journey for real, on a real project. Take us with you, so we’re in suspense about how things turn out.  Show us disasters along the way (struggle is the essence of story), the real emotion, and the people you meet.
  2. Detail the prep  Don’t start the strawberry shortcake video in the kitchen.  Start it at the farmer’s market while you search for the perfect strawberries.
  3. Cut non-story details You don’t need to spend a lot of time in your video telling us where to buy a part if the order form appears on the page just below.  What can you cut to make your video pure story?
  4. Teach someone else Document yourself teaching a real class, letting the students stand in for the viewer. Their real questions– and real mistakes– keep the story interesting.
  5. Add Humor If you are actually funny, or in a funny situation, use it.  If nobody has ever told you you are funny, you may want to give this idea a pass.
  6. Look for a Payoff  If your how-to is “how to make a Mothers Day Bouquet” let’s see mom being surprised with it at the end. If it’s “how to train your dog” let’s see reactions when 1o-year old Keisha masters training the family malamute. How has learning this new skill made someone’s world better?


This article was written in response to a great question. Do you have a great question? You should ask it! Click here and start typing.

Mothers Day Video Tips

Ah, Mothers Day!  Burnt toast and coffee made with hot tap water in bed (“We aren’t allowed to use the stove.”) .  Macaroni-art “I love You Mom” cards.  Perhaps a meal at Mom’s favorite restaurant–say, Chuck E. Cheese.  The day is loaded with great material that can become memorable video.  Video you can use 15 or 20 years from now in that mandatory embarrassing/cute wedding video.

With that in mind, here are a few Mother’s Day Video Tips for the Dad behind the camera:

Find the Story: “Mother’s Day 2017” isn’t a story.  Stories are about people and action.  “Shaniqua and Kitain surprise Mom with a new Puppy” is a story.  “The Kids make breakfast” is a story.  “Taking Mom to a movie” is a story.  Each one of these stories calls for a different point of view when shooting.  Think a little bit about what the story is going to be in your family on Sunday, and your video will be that much stronger.

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 Mommy’s going to like they thought of it…if it’s a surprise or not. Interrupt as little as possible and you’ll be amazed at what you get.

Shoot at their level:  We tend to hold the video camera at eye level if we’re looking through a viewfinder or chest level if we’re looking at a screen.  Instead, get down to kid level and shoot at their height.  Stay close.  Suddenly you’ll be in their world,and everything will look different.

Interview Mom:  Moms don’t often get to be the stars, and they have a lot to say– especially about their kids.  And especially after the surprise/emotional impact/disaster that is Mother’s Day.  Your kids may not appreciate it now but 30 years from now, they’ll pull out a video of their mom talking to camera with gratitude for the guy who shot it.

Shooting a Boxing Match Three Ways

I’m new to video recording/ photography and just bought your book…ITS GREAT!

How would you shoot a live amateur boxing event if there is only one videographer and his DSLR? I read that you should not keep the camera continuously recording the whole time.  Should I record 5-10 sec of footage…stop  and move to another position, then hit record again? Or should I keep recording as I’m moving to another position so I don’t miss anything important during the move– like, say, the knockout!

–Eric Hernandez

Thanks for reading the book, Eric. Shameless flattery will get you nowhere, if you consider the top of my “must answer” file as nowhere.

As a novice shooter, you should re-read this post about the rules of video.  Spoiler alert: there aren’t any. The answer to how you shoot is embedded in this bigger question: Why are you shooting? Here are three ways you might answer that:

If you’re shooting a kind of training film so that your friend can review his punches later– or her punches, I don’t want to be sexist—  you need to shoot it all. Let the camera run non-stop.

But if you’re making a film to share with anyone who was not in the ring, you’ll need to make it watchable.

In these 20-teens, almost nobody who has a DSLR has only one camera.  Most of us have an entire camera crew in our back pockets. If you too have a smartphone, put it to work as a second camera.  Put your phone on a tripod (or a chair, or stick it to a wall with earthquake putty) for a static wide shot of the ring.  Operate your DSLR, recording continuously and moving occasionally for different angles. Multiple angles from the DSLR will cut nicely with each other and your static smartphone wide shot for a fast-moving summary of the fight.

It’s when you’re not planning to edit later AND you’re trying to make a short, watchable video that you need to make some sacrifices. Editing “in camera” (i.e. not editing at all) involves shooting a short shot, stopping, moving somewhere else interesting, and shooting another short shot.  You will definitely miss some stuff.

Editing in camera works great– but only if your video isn’t about covering the match.  Instead, tell a story about your friend’s first match, or the trauma of loss, or the pomp and ceremony of amateur boxing.  In short, tell any story that doesn’t require you to catch the key knockout moment.  Given that there’s a chance you won’t.


How to Make a How-To Video that Works: Part I

How do I create a series of online class videos that are How-to’s, but creative and interesting, while also teaching?

My upholstery course videos are pretty wide shot/closeup. I know I can do better.  I’ve asked every video and film maker I know if they can think of a clever technique for doing these classes. They’re all going to get back to me on that. (ha!)

–Shelly Leer

Before we get to the “creative” how-to video, let’s look at the basics- the marks a how-to video must hit.

How-to videos helped me save $200 replacing my own sump pump, figure out how my smoke alarm worked, and remove a tumor with a pencil.  Okay, not that last one.  But they’re invaluable when you need them.  “Need” being a key word.

We come to a “how-to” video in extreme need of information. And we are very grateful when our need is satisfied. This makes “how-to” videos great brand image builders for “the helpful plumbing supply company,” “The easy-to-use-smoke-alarm source” or “The ultimate surgical pencil company.”  Help your customers, “Shelly, the furniture-building teacher” and they’ll remember you.

The trick to making how-to videos work better is in the balance between these two goals:  get the information to the customer fast, and add just enough of your own personality and world-view to make it memorable and entertaining.

Your video, posted below, is a good basic how-to. You inspired this list of how-to make how-to videos better:

  1. Plan your information into bite-sized videos. Re-building a helicopter engine takes days.  But nobody will sit through a sixteen hour video of the whole process. I only want to see the stuff I’m not sure how to do.  If I want “how to replace the coolant,” I shouldn’t have to sit through 10 minutes on “how to machine pistons” to get to it. Your video should last as long as it takes to get this one piece across. If I need another piece, I will look for it in another video.
  2.  Get to the point. If we’re learning a crochet stitch, get right to the stitching. Please don’t bore me with a three minute introduction to a process that only takes 2 minutes to do. If I need special needles, or a certain kind of yarn, let me know. Otherwise, the words “Here is step 1” should be in the first 10 seconds.
  3. Stick with a Structure:  For example:
    (a) Here’s the first step to doing the thing.
    (b) You might notice these points as you’re doing this step so as not to break a part, gouge out an eye, or blow up the house.
    (c) Here is a VERY SHORT observation or joke that adds information the viewer can use.
    (d) Here is the next step.
    Delete (b) or (c) if you have nothing to say.  Keep everything tight.
  4. Show us closeups of the important stuff.  How-to videos need to show me how to, not just tell me. Get right in on the operation. Make sure it’s lit well and easy to see.
  5. Resist redundancy. During week one at my first professional radio job, my boss went over a tape of my show.  His first piece of advice: “Anything you say after the word ‘so…’ is redundant.”  So just stop talking whenever you get the urge to say it (see what I did there?)
  6. Edit. Cut the bad stuff. Cut the mediocre stuff. Cut the stuff that’s good, but feels kinda long to you now that you’re looking at it again.


In Part II we deal with Shelly’s question “Can how-to videos be creative?”

Perfect Holiday Video in 10 Easy Steps

Ah, the Holidays!

Chestnuts roasting, noses being nipped, and hours of incomprehensible video being shot of people you can’t see or hear all that well doing…I don’t know…something near a fireplace.

Each year web sites, magazines and newspapers publish millions of column-inches on cooking perfect holiday turkey, and virtually no column inches on shooting perfect holiday video.  Which seems wrong in that burned turkey lasts 4 days, but tedious holiday video is forever.

Fear not!  Your video doesn’t have to suck.  Here’s my checklist of the 10 steps you can follow to perfect Holiday Video.  (For even more detail, click on the embedded links):

1) Think about your story.  Stories have a beginning, middle and end.  “The night we got our Christmas Tree” starts with the family piling into the car, THEN shows us the kids walking through the tree lot checking out the Douglas firs, and FINALLY Mom finding that one perfect tree and everyone agreeing.  Beginning, middle and end.  Just thinking about how your story goes— before you shoot it– will make your video better.

2)  Shoot Action.  Every shot in your video should have a noun and a verb, just like those sentences Mrs. Cooper taught you about in 3rd grade. “Sarah whisks the gravy” is a shot. “Sarah” without action?  That’s a photograph.

3)  Shoot short shots.  You don’t need 30 seconds of Uncle Larry snoring in front of the TV after Thanksgiving dinner. Five seconds is enough to get the point.  Which is my point: when nothing else is going to happen, it’s time to end your shot.  Practice shooting 5 or 10 seconds (of action, remember?) at a time.

4)  Shoot for the face.  Home video is always about people.  Everyone you know will look totally different in 5 years.  Make sure you capture who they are now.  As a bonus, faces are where emotion lives.  If you want to really feel your video 5 years from now, show us your relatives’ faces– well lit and close up.

5)  Zoom with your feet.  Zooming in from far away makes your shots look shaky. Walk closer to your subjects and zoom out (stay wide).  The other advantages:  1) being closer to the action involves you and the viewer in the action, and 2) the sound on your camera mic is always better closer.

6)  Pay attention to that little video window on the back of the camera. If it looks bad when you shoot it, it will not magically look better when you watch it later.  If someone’s face is too dark, move until your camera finds the light.  If they’re out of focus, fix it.  If you don’t like the way the frame looks, re-frame. Now.

7)  Interview your relatives.  We often forget to interview people at family gatherings.  But kids say the darndest things– things you’ll want to remember (and play back to embarrass them at their wedding) when they’re adults.  Grandmas say the darndest things too. And so does anyone who’s been hitting the Holiday Cheer.  Frame your questions so they don’t yield one-word answers.  “Are you excited to get presents?” gets you a nod. “What do you think about Santa Claus?” gets you a story.

8)  Represent your kids. They may be too young to shoot their own video now, but in a few years they’ll watch yours to help fill in their memories.  They’ll want to know more about Grandpa, they’ll want to see what their little friends looked like then, they’ll want to see that long-gone doll when they opened their Christmas presents.  Great video with lots of detail is one gift that costs nothing.

9) Don’t shoot the boring stuff.  If you’re bored shooting it, you and everyone else you inflict it on later will be bored watching it.

10)  Change your point of view.  Put your camera on the ground in front of the fireplace and shoot back at the living room.  Shoot on your knees at kid height.  Put a GoPro on top of the tree.  Or in the refrigerator.  Get creative.  Have fun!

Of course you’re buying a print copy of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck for the video person in your family– but did you know the audio version is out now


Story Structure and “Arrival”

The Story Structure of "Arrival" (2016)

William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Princess Bride) wrote in his classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade that “screenplays are structure.” Because Goldman is a writing god, people listened.

They listened, but they may not have heard well. Goldman was saying that structure was necessary to a screenplay, but he wasn’t saying it was sufficient.  Yet many took Goldman’s point, misunderstood, and ran with it, pitching structure-first as the key to writing film.  Luckily, it mostly worked anyway, because most film beginners– and many professionals– fail to focus on a hero and a clear beginning, middle and end.

But here’s what Goldman never meant: He did not mean that simple, formulaic adherence to story structure rules was the ultimate endpoint to the art of film. He did not mean that movies should be about their structure.

But that’s where we’ve come to with most American franchise films.  A story structure you can set your watch to.  Reluctant, flawed hero is forced in act 1 to– at the 20 minute mark– take up arms; for the next 60 minutes to fight the villain and fail at the end of act 2; and in act 3 spend 30 minutes blowing up a boatload of buildings and saving the world. These films don’t just round the story bases, they stop on each one and have a picnic.

Making a movie about its own story structure has some advantages. You can tell where you are if you tune in in the middle. You can see the plot “twists” coming for minutes, so you feel smart.  It’s safer financially too, since simple stories sell better in other languages. It’s a win/win for everyone.  Kind of.  Because it’s also insanely boring.

The most artfully made superhero movies, like Marvel’s enjoyable Dr. Strange, combat boredom by hiding their rote story beats under millions of dollars in great acting, great joke-writing and beautifully crafted special effects. Yes, they blow up the world in act 3, but the “how” is smart and fun to watch (and in this case, backwards). But underneath the exciting ride, Dr. Strange is still traditionally structure-forward. Every question is nailed down, resolved and put away until the sequel. There’s not much of it still in your brain when you leave the theater.

This brings us to the lesson of Arrival, a brilliant new sci-fi film starring Amy Adams, directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on a Ted Chiang short story.  Arrival isn’t about its structure. Instead, the structure serves the filmmaker’s inquiry, holding up what it’s really about: ideas. The film lightly touches the bases as it heads toward home instead of stomping on them. It even screws with its own structure, re-ordering it and playing on your franchise-film expectations to create tension and surprise.

Story structure 101 would say that Arrival is about a professor of linguistics (the hero) who is called in to translate for visiting aliens (beginning).  Traitors at the top-secret military base and a potential mis-translation of the alien’s language (middle) threaten to cause the humans on earth to attack the aliens, and each other (end.)  Each of those beats shows up on screen, and in a normal studio movie, that’s all that would.  Big battles, ratcheted up tension. But Arrival isn’t about its structure.

Overlaid on this basic structure is the story of a woman who raises a daughter with a fatal disease.

Overlaid on that is the story of a woman learning a new language even though its screwing with her brain.

Overlaid on that is the story of a woman confronting the military.

Overlaid on that is the story of a relationship between a man and a woman who meet, have a child, and then split up.

Overlaid on that is the story of aliens teaching humans that time doesn’t really work the way they think it does.

Story on story on story, beautifully interwoven in a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. The stories connect and cross, each with its own clear structure. Some take place in flashes from another time and place, so they’re not in order. In some, the director blows by the story beat so subtly you wonder if you missed it.  But you didn’t: he takes a tired “ticking time bomb” beat and, to great effect, practically ignores it. In a normal studio film it would be a 15 minute setpiece with accelerating editing and tense military music. You won’t find any of that here.  But the result of all this sure-footed interweaving of story is that we feel secure.  The film takes us on a journey.  Supported, we willingly go along, even if we don’t understand all of it.  The not-knowing is called intrigue. It pulls us in, and makes us wonder.

What it makes us wonder about are three important questions: First, scientists tell us that when you learn another language, your brain restructures itself to think differently.  What happens if you learn a non-human language?  Two: What if physicists are right, and time doesn’t flow the way we think it does?  And three: Is a life worth living if you know how its going to end?

These are important questions.  We care during the film, and we care afterward. The questions hold us in our seats, and give us something to think and talk about after the film.  Making a movie about it’s own structure is reductive, boring, and closes the door on a deeper interaction with the film. A movie that asks questions about our world is magic.

In an era where intrigue is the currency of modern entertainment, which should you do with your videos?  The answer depends on how ambitious you are.  First, be good at basic structure. Please. But once you are, use it to raise important questions.  And remember there’s nothing more intriguing than an inquiry into what it really means to be human.

As you might suspect, I think you should go out and see Arrival. Like, now. Then comment below, or tweet your thoughts @stevestockman.