Wondering how your favorite filmmakers create movie magic? Have an idea for a video project, but not sure if your skills can do it justice? In this series, we’re introducing you to the basics of videography. Quiet on the set — we’re rolling!

Lesson Three: Tips for Beginners

Thanks to innovations in technology, everyone can become an amateur videographer without breaking the bank on costly equipment. All smartphones have the ability to shoot video, and there are plenty of free software systems available for editing. It’s possible to film a movie whenever you want nowadays.

That being said, there are a few key things to keep in mind when you decide to start shooting your first film.

First and foremost, always always always film horizontally. This may seem simple, but many beginner videographers hold their phone exactly as they would when shooting still photos — and switch from vertical to horizontal depending on what the subject matter calls for. But, with video, you cannot have a finished product that flips from one to the other and back again. If you’re wondering why, consider this: how many movies have you seen in theaters that use a vertical shot?

Photo by Elliot Teo
Photo by Angela Compagnone

There are a few other important shooting techniques that can be helpful if you’ve never shot moving pictures before.

Photo by Chris Murray

That shaky camera effect that horror films use so often? It’s not as cool in other types of video work. For stable shots, use a tripod. If you’re planning a moving shot and want to reduce shakiness, craft yourself a dolly. A dolly is a small, wheeled platform meant for holding cameras while shooting movement. Professional cameramen have expensive dollys, but depending on your location, you can craft one yourself for the same effect. (I once used a book cart while shooting at my college library.)

In considering movement, it’s also good to keep in mind that you don’t need to zoom or pan in every shot of your video. It’s perfectly fine to set the camera up and let it film an entire scene from a single angle.

Think about your favorite videos or movies. Moving shots are used, yes, but more often than not, movement is implied through the use of different types of shots. Filmmakers will transition from wide shots to medium, to close-up, to a different angle of the same close-up, and so on and so forth. You want to vary your shots to keep the audience engaged in your video.

Before starting, consider making a list of the types of shots you want to capture while filming — include some moving shots, but keep in mind that too much movement can be a bad thing.

Photo by Flavio Gasperini
Photo by Samule Sun

If your subject matter contains other people, make sure to give them enough headspace. Not in the figurative sense, but in the actual literal sense when setting up your shot. Don’t frame your shot with too little space between the top of the frame and the top of your subject’s head. Editing software systems are all different, and some may zoom in slightly on your footage. If that happens and you didn’t think about headspace, you may end up with people whose foreheads are cut off — no one wants that.

When making the transition from photo to video, photographers often have to curb their instincts. While shooting stills, it’s possible to switch between apertures and shutter speeds without consequence. However, while shooting video, switching apertures and shutter speeds can cause the look of your footage to change abruptly. Find the best settings before you start, and stick to them with the entirety of your video’s footage.

But, you don’t want to ignore all of your photographic instincts. Techniques for composition and framing — like the Rule of Thirds — will apply in videography too.

Finally, editing.

Photo by Jakob Owens

It’s always good to think about how you want to edit your video while you’re shooting. Being a few steps ahead will ensure that you get all the footage you need for the final product.

But, with that in mind, remember this important phrase: Shoot now; edit later.

Always film more footage than you think you’ll need. You never know exactly how something’s going to turn out once you start editing, and it’s better to have too much footage — too many options — than not enough. Stay flexible and innovative too. When filming, try new shots, experiment with angles, and be willing to shift gears depending on the situation. Unlike 20 years ago, there’s no way you’ll run out of film!

Key Takeaways:

  • Always film horizontally.
  • Use a tripod or dolly for increased stability.
  • Vary your shots, and remember that too much movement can be a bad thing.
  • Give your people enough headspace.
  • Ignore your photographer instincts (but only in some ways).
  • Consider how you want to edit footage while shooting.
  • Shoot now, edit later.