Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck

Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck

Shooting high-quality video has never been easier and cheaper than it is today. Most digital cameras offer at least high definition 1080p quality and considering the applications of video from a business standpoint, it seems foolish not to offer this service as part of your photography business.

While much of your photography knowledge will transition seamlessly into the world of video, there are some hard truths you need to be aware of in order to create a video that isn’t boring. As I make the shift into producing more video, I decided to pick up a book and spend some time researching considerations for creating interesting footage. The title of Steve Stockman’s book says it all: "How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck." At 4.7 stars on Amazon, it has rave reviews and a lot of great advice. I had a chance to read it this past week and wanted to pass along some of the key takeaways.

Think in Shots

A video is simply a bunch of individual shots strung together. Each shot should have meaning and provide something of value to your viewer. If it doesn't, they will lose interest almost immediately. Therefore, you should always think is terms of shots. Shoot deliberately. Every time you point the camera, who are you pointing it at? What are they doing? Is it interesting? If not, cut and find something else. Simply running the camera nonstop will cost you enormous time later when you have to watch tons of useless footage.

Don’t Shoot Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes

People communicate half of everything they say with their mouths and the other half with their eyes. Miss the eyes, and you miss half the message. Skip more than a second or two of big, wide shots. Get in close to your subject and showcase their facial expressions. Your video will instantly improve if you always stay close enough to see your subject’s eyes.

By getting in close and capturing the emotion of your subject through their eyes, you bring a sense of life to your footage that is simply not as effective from 20 feet away

Keep Your Shots Under 10 Seconds Long

Great films or television rarely use shots longer than 10 seconds. Shooting shorter gives your video more impact. Try creating more shots that are interesting than simply shooting longer shots of any given situation.

Zoom With Your Feet

Zooming in with your camera often times results in very shaky looking footage. This is incredibly hard to watch. You can obviously use a tripod but as a follow up to our previous tip, try getting in closer to the action. In fact, challenge yourself by zooming as wide as possible and seeing how much of your subject you can get in frame. The wider the shot, the less shaky it becomes.

Stand Still, Stop Fidgeting, and No Zooming During Shots

Pros get to move the camera and you will too one day. For now, treat your video camera like a still camera. Point the lens, look at the LCD screen to make sure your shot looks good, and press start. Point, shoot, stop, move. Then repeat. The result will be a series of well framed shots in which the motion of the subject catches our attention without the distraction of the frame careening all over the place.

Keep the Light Behind You

Keep the light at your back to ensure your subject is lit and the brightest thing in the frame. If the light is in front of your lens, it’s always brighter than person you’re shooting and they’ll be dark (unless you blow the background way out). If you’re outside and they’re squinting, try moving them so the sun hits them at an angle instead of straight on.

Turn Off the Camera’s Digital Effects

There is no digital effect that your camera can do that you should ever allow it to do. Ever. If you shoot nice clean video, you can always add effects later. But if you shoot it in camera, that effect is baked in forever with no room for manipulation.

Filter effects like this crazy green, tealish look are ok if you're shooting raw photos or posting to Instagram, but are bad news for shooting video. Your ability to adjust color and tone in post is not near as robust as with photography so its best to leave filters off while shooting

Focus On What Really Interests You

Oftentimes you will find yourself shooting clips of things just to fill a void. Avoid this. Instead, stay focused on a common subject, theme, or organizing principle. Every video will instantly improve if you apply an organizing principle, regardless of what that principle is. For example, instead of focusing on the entire basketball team, find one player you think is interesting and shoot everything about him. His shoes, his hair, his facial expressions, his arm going for a shot. By giving your audience a focal point, they will remain more engaged.

Don’t Use Amateurish Titles

Unless you are a graphic designer, avoid titles unless absolutely necessary. When you do use titles, keep them both short and simple. Use an attractive plain font such as Helvetica. Keep the title small yet readable. Put it on the top or bottom third. No shadows, no glow, no outlines, etc. Keep them onscreen a beat longer than it takes to read them.

Keep Your Video Short

Here is an old show business expression: “Always leave them wanting more.” Anything worth saying in video is worth saying shorter. We don’t need to see and hear every detail, we just need to see and hear enough to form the story in our mind. The best way to do this is aim for short when you start. The second best way is another old adage: “When in doubt, cut it.”

Use an External Microphone

Most video cameras adjust their own sound levels. That means they take whatever sound they hear and boost it to a constant, listenable level. Unfortunately, if they hear noise around you such as traffic or sirens, they boost that too. If you’re close to your subject this is less of a problem. To make it no problem at all, buy a separate mic like this RODE Video Mic, plug it into your camera or an external recorder and control the sound on your own. Good (or bad) audio will make or break your film just as much as bad footage.

Take the Quality Pledge

Read these tips over and over. Make a point to follow them as you venture out and shoot your next short. If that next video stinks, make note of why and pledge to improve upon those aspects next time. Always strive for improvement by reviewing and modifying your approach. Quality footage and audio is key and should be sought over all other considerations.


The simple process of writing these tips down helped commit much of this information to memory and will be easier to recall during my next shoot. The first step however is getting out and actually shooting. Something as simple as cooking dinner or a local neighborhood basketball game can be an excellent opportunity to challenge yourself and put all of this advice to work. Will you nail a homerun out of the gate? Probably not, but I assure you that each consecutive attempt will be better than the last.

All images used with permission.

[via Pexels]

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I disagree on not using zoom during a shot.
Sometimes it works great.

But... only do it with parfocal lenses and stick to servo zooms unless you're going for that 70s-style whip zoom.

I disagree, too.

Point noted. In fairness to the author, he was primarily referring to using the "digital" zoom that most entry level, fixed lens cameras have today. Regardless, I think zooming in general is best left to action scenes or conferences where it is necessary at times. Doing so degrades the cinematic look of the footage which may or may not be the style you are going for in that particular shot

Keeping your shots under 10 seconds would need a little clarification. Yes the action in the shot should be under 10 seconds but you need at least 15-20 seconds of footage to make that 10 second shot work in an actual edit.

I agree with what you are saying Joey. Sometimes we shoot for 20 seconds but only 5-10 seconds of that footage is what we were looking for. For example, trying to capture a skateboarding coming through the frame at just the right moment may require us to record sooner than we would otherwise. These tips are aimed at someone just getting started in video and for all intensive purposes, it is best to encourage a new shooter not to simply press record and leave the shot going indefinitely as so many do. That is all the tip was meant to convey

I don't really see the downside to shooting WAY more than you intend to use. Media is cheap (unless you're shooting film), storage is cheap. Shoot. Keep shooting. Then shoot some more. Clients, editors, creative directors, et al will always appreciate options. Also, there's occasionally found gems in unintended footage. I'd advise to not shoot for the edit, but get your shot and then play around with it. Different angles, zooms, positions, most of the time I don't even stop rolling. Then, and this is very important, keep very good notes on set.

Everyone will obviously have their own preferences when it comes to how they shoot and edit. Media is cheap but only to a point. If you are shooting 1080p, low bit rate 4:2:0 footage all the time, then you are probably not consuming a ton of data. Jump into 4K, 10-bit, etc... and its a different story. You can blow through a 128GB card in less than 30 mins. Yes, drives and storage are getting cheaper per se but you still have to shell out a $100+ for 2+TB and it you'll need at least two for backup purposes. I don't care to throw that kind of money around needlessly. Clients and editors certainly do like to have options but they don't want to stare at the same composition for 5 minutes waiting to find out what you were trying to convey. Instead, as you've pointed out, they want coverage. And I think that is key point being made here. Setup, get a shot, and move. Keep doing the same thing again and again. If you decide to keep rolling through this process, no problem. But some may prefer to cut between shots as a way of defining start and stop points.

All good points, and I'm not disagreeing with you. I guess my point is, don't limit your shooting. Finding the ten seconds to convey your message within five minutes of footage is an editing skill. The title is on shooting footage, not editing the footage. I say this as an editor turned shooter, don't shoot for the edit. Get more than you need, you may not have the chance to get it again.

Right on Jonathan-this is definitely good advice. Especially if you're just starting out and aren't always sure what you are trying to get. Many times I have gone out and shot over a 2 span, most recently at SXSW, and come away feeling like I had plenty of footage only to realize I barely had enough for a decent 30 second spot. Love the positive feedback, didn't mean to sound like I was bashing your point either. Cheers!