Moving pictures, Part 2 of My Take on the Basics of Videography

Photo by Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash

I’m not a camera snob. Just because I shoot with a full frame and its micro four thirds baby brother, don’t think that I am averse to using smart phone footage. On the contrary – many of my videos feature either stills or video taken from iPhones, either my own or my guest’s. Today’s smart phones have such sophisticated (and expensive) cameras that you are no longer buying a phone with a camera, you are buying a camera with a phone. I just prefer the versatility and creative control that comes with using my actual cameras. Not to mention the ease of transferring pictures from an SD card versus downloading from a phone.

To each his or her own. Whatever works for you and whatever you feel comfortable with is what’s most important. It seems to me that phone makers have learned a lot from camera makers and camera makers have been scrambling to keep pace for some time. The recently released Google Pixel 6 boasts incredible camera specs. Just a word of caution though: a single pixel on a full frame is much bigger, relatively speaking, to a pixel on a phone’s camera sensor. There is a lot of marketing gimmickry concerning pixel counts, very similar I find, to the kind of talk of watts and speakers for stereos or for guitar amps. It’s important to do your homework so you don’t get taken advantage of when it comes to things like those.

Continuing with my discussion of videography. In the last article in this series, I wrote about creating the image you want for your video through exposure and the exposure triangle, through lighting, and through setting some of the more technical controls of your camera. In this Part, I will talk about Composition and about what I think is the most important part of your video production, Sound. Let’s start with Composition.

Composition

Just like when you wrote stories in your grade school English class, a composition tells a story. Composing for video or photography is the story you are trying to tell through the images you create.

One of my pet peeves is seeing videos online of people talking directly into the camera, with the camera only a very few inches from their face. (When I use the term “camera”, I mean either a stand-alone camera or phone). It looks weird to me, and I find it very off-putting because it distorts the person’s features, making even good-looking people unappealing. Besides, you would never stand or sit that closely in live conversation. Why then would anyone want to see someone that close-up in a video? I consider that kind of video as a surrogate to an in-person conversation.

Think about what to include and what to leave out. Bob Seger said it best in his epic song, Against the Wind, “… what to leave in, what to leave out.” It applies to many things, especially creative endeavors, such as making a video.

How do you want your subject to appear? Wide angle; medium angle; close-up? Where do you want your subject to be positioned in the frame. Dead center; to the left; to the right? How busy do you want the scene to be? Minimalistic or filled with all kinds of visual elements? Do you want the camera look up to your subject? Or do you want it looking down or straight ahead? Do you want your subject’s entire body in the frame? Or just the knees up; waist up; or just the head? Lighting also comes into play in your composition.

These are all things to consider, and like lighting and sound, composition is a whole field of study unto itself. Taking time to seriously think about these elements will really impact the final product.

Sound

I consider sound to be very important, primarily because I mostly shoot videos of me interviewing people, instructional guitar videos, and videos of myself or my band playing music. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, you can usually get away with so-so image quality from time to time but if your sound quality is so poor that speaking and music is hard to hear, your over-all video quality will suffer greatly, more so than with a poor image quality. Of course, if you’re at all serious about videography, you want all three aspects (image, composition, and sound) to be the best they can be.

If your levels are too low, your viewers will have trouble making out what is being said or being played and will be forced to turn the gain all the way up on their speakers, usually leading to distortion. Trying to fix low sound levels in postproduction can be quite tricky and will not usually yield good results.

If sound levels are too high, you will end up with an even worse problem – clipping. Just like overexposing a picture, clipping is lost information that cannot be brought back in postproduction. This will lead to a distorted sound that is almost impossible to fix. Recording loud sounds in a small room with low head room is extremely challenging. I know as I lived the experience earlier this year when trying to shoot amplifier reviews in my basement. I tried a variety of mic placements to avoid clipping when the guitar was playing but the mic had to be loud enough to pick up the host of the video speaking. Looking back, I should have used lavaliere mics for when the host of the video was speaking and my condenser mic only for the amp. I could have muted the lavaliere mic when he was playing and muted the condenser mic when he was speaking – to avoid sound from one source bleeding into the other.

Getting the levels right is an important part of the sound equation but what you use to record them is also very important. As I mentioned in Part 1, I follow The Slanted Lens on YouTube and on their own website. The hosts, Jay P. Morgan and Kenneth Merrill are excellent. They are both extremely knowledgeable about photography and video. I highly recommend checking them out. I recently bought a course on videography from their website and what they had to say about sound was very interesting but similar to what I’ve seen other YouTube videography instructors say. Namely, a lavaliere mic (a little mic that gets pinned to your shirt, just under your chin) is perfect for recording a subject speaking, especially in an interview. They also recommend using a boom mic for back-up and for filling in the sound, to give it a more natural sound.

My primary mic in my last interview was my trusty ART C1 cardioid condenser mic. It requires phantom power so if you use a cardioid condenser mic like this one, make sure your sound mixer can provide 48V phantom power. I used to DJ and did a little sound work for live performers, so I’ve read up on sound production quite a bit. Like everything, doing your homework before you buy and especially before you use your gear, will provide much better results. My backup mic was a Rode hot shoe mounted camera mic, with 1/8″ jack. I connected both of those mics to my Comica CVM-AX3 dual channel mixer, made specifically for recording video. It can accept up to four inputs, two XLR or TRS and two 1/8″. This dandy little unit also provides 48V and 3V phantom power, depending on the mic’s requirements. It is an inexpensive mixer I purchased from Amazon but so far, it’s been great. Just a little noisy (humming) in certain situations, which I can live with most of the time.

One caveat that I leaned the hard way: keep cell phones away from your mics when recording. I am guessing here but I suspect the significant RF frequencies sent and received by cell phones are the culprits. I had to scrap a recent video because of this interference and resulting noise With a little detective work and reflection, I figured out that my iPhone sitting too close to me while recording was what caused all the interference. I turned it off for the next video and all went well. I’ve made it a rule going forward to keep all cell phones well away from my mics, or better yet, turned off.

Good quality lavaliere (or lapel, or simply lav) mics are definitely on my shopping list of future video gear. I also like the idea of filling in the sound with a boom mic or some sort of condenser mic to pick up ambient sounds. Lavaliere mics are very directional so they help to isolate the sound source but can come across pretty dry because of their close proximity to the person speaking. The extra ambient mic adds a little depth and echo to the soundtrack. Sound dampening is also helpful to tame echoes and transient sounds. Obviously, avoiding or eliminating external noises is also very important.

Conclusion

Making videos, especially making good videos, is not easy. I’ve tried for years and still struggle with a lot of this stuff. The more I study and the more I think about it, the better I get at videography. My workflow certainly has improved, and my editing time is much quicker too. That’s the great thing about getting better at photography and video – you don’t spend nearly as much time in postproduction. Working from a great source is so much easier and yields far better results. Spending time planning your video, thinking about your composition, being extremely careful with exposure, and taking pains to produce great sound, will all combine to improve the quality of your videos.

As Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions.”

Preparation and study always go a long way to creating great results.

Please click on the following link to read Part 1 of this series:

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