Why a Video Project Might Make You a Better Creative

Why a Video Project Might Make You a Better Creative

Way back when the Canon T3i was the camera to have, I dabbled in video just enough to get frustrated and quit. Years later and after a lot of trial and error, I’ve made the switch almost entirely to creating short films and commercial work. Here are the big takeaways from my experience.

The T3i was a big deal in some regards in that it was inexpensive and was capable of “glorious HD quality” which was just the same as “glorious 4K quality” in today’s marketing, but that’s for another article. It had a mic jack and flip-out screen. It was small and light, and even better, it had a Canon mount so your lens options were limitless.

After using the camera to learn still photography for a while, I slowly but surely found a yearning to venture to video mode and see what it was about. To save you from too much boredom, I was frustrated that I didn't get similar results to my stills. I thought it would all look amazing like my photos. The camera takes great pictures, right?

At the time, I had no idea how to really create a meaningful video of anything. I knew how to use Premiere and Final Cut and drop some definitely-not-licensed music over it and make a sick video, but not how to really organize an idea. Organization is critical to just about every step of the filmmaking process. That, and having a point that you arrive at before you start shooting. Both of these things quickly became evident as I made many more failed attempts to make short films.

For some time, filmmaking was shelved. I told myself that I needed a crew to make anything worthwhile, which is sort of true, but the definition of that will change with time. This was all partially because I had become pretty damn good at photography and I wasn’t seeing the results translate into my video projects. There are a few reasons for this.

Plan Everything

I didn’t plan anything. For a photoshoot, I could put together a rough color scheme, maybe a general outfit guideline and location, and come away with something good. If I did the same thing with a video, I could potentially get nice looking footage, but it wouldn’t assemble into anything noteworthy. This all comes back to good planning, which it turns out, has a few different meanings.

I know that this sounds obvious for a lot of people, and I almost feel embarrassed to have ever worked this way, but if you don’t have a clear vision for a shoot or project before you ever start shooting, you are dead in the water. I learned very quickly that the best way to make good work is to be able to imagine good work and then have the technical aptitude to bring it into reality as closely resembling your imagination (which is limited by nothing) as possible. I know a short film is going to be worth pursuing if the first idea blossoms into an entire film in my head. If you can only come up with a single scene of a short film, nothing compelling will likely come of it because there’s no room for a story.

Before launching yourself into a project, ask yourself if it is a compelling project and not just an excuse to make something look pretty. Good writing and structure is good planning. A fancy camera can’t make people feel or care about anything.

I never struggled so much with this, but I’m sure others may as they start out: plan your shoot days to a T. Or as close to a T as possible, the phrase “shit happens” always rings true. Before I moved into filmmaking 100 percent, I got in the habit of having a thorough schedule and knowing my location ahead of time. When you add all of the extra crew members, gear, vehicles, and talent necessary for a film into the same time frame I was used to to shoot stills, it can get hectic quickly without a good plan.

Have a shot list and script broken down so that you know what time of day you need to finish each portion. If it’s a shoot that’s a few hours long, you can still utilize a shot list to make sure you aren’t over shooting and also so you aren’t forgetting anything. My first dabbling into filmmaking was rife with just run-and-gun, spray-and-pray, awful technique. It was about what I thought looked good at the time. We would show up to a location and just say “yeah that spot looks OK.” Filmmaking teaches you to use your time and locations much more efficiently.

The last thing is planning your editing. For photographers, this is much less of a headache. If you’re shooting video, you need to have a good workflow established sooner rather than later in order to keep you or your editor from going insane or running into major technical issues along the way. This also keeps you committed to a working style with filming, file organization, and communication early on in the project. If you don’t have story structure or even file structure together beforehand, you’re going to have a bad time putting the pieces together.

Having a Point

Filmmaking is a long process. It can’t start and end in a day. It often takes weeks from inception of an idea to a edited and finished product to come to fruition. To take all of that time and never have an organized idea in mind that you want to communicate to the viewer would be, in my opinion, a waste. A video, whether it’s an advertisement, a documentary, or a feature film, exists to make you learn or feel something. If your project isn’t accomplishing that, your project likely needs more thought.

How is any of this relevant to the bit about me sucking at making things with a T3i? None of the above disciplines were known to me yet. It took me a while to understand the rhythm required to pull of a shoot day. It took a while to learn how to look at my projects in a way that was as unbiased as possible to know if my ideas sucked or not. And it certainly took me a while to start thinking of ideas more than I was thinking about specific shots. I would encourage anyone with a camera to try their hand of shooting a video project of any kind, because it will quickly expose the lacking areas of your workflow and ideology as a creative and help you get better at making your art.

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Aaron Walker's picture

Very good article. If I could find a way to put food on the table I'd certainly pursue short documentaries and short films. I love still photography but there's always been something about moving images as a more visceral way of storytelling.

David T's picture

"I want a cover photo. By the way, do you also do videoclips?"

So many people want video nowadays... which I feel is much more work than photography... on the other hand that's more hours you can bill. Customer is always right I guess.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

It doesn't have to be more work, David. See my comment below. In one hour, I can record however many of those videos a person can make (someone really good MIGHT make ten, but I haven't met that person yet), and then edit each video in five to ten minutes.

Or I can not edit them at all and deliver the raw clips and give the person the option to edit it themselves to save money (people like having that option) or use someone who specializes in editing (I refer them to someone). I always leave it up to the client to handle editing now.

Either way, it's much less editing work than if I had an hour session of headshots or event photography to process, for example. And there's no dilemma of "I can't let someone else edit my art" (which I don't suffer from even with photos) because there's no real artistry to recording someone talking for sixty seconds. Some people might choose to get all fancy, but I keep it simple and create the simplest possible video that can help someone sell whatever they're selling.

For short-format videos like the ones I do, if you get the lighting and the audio right at the time of recording, the editing is very easy and takes very little time.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

While it's not the kind of video making that the article describes, I have derived great benefit from learning how to shoot video. In January 2017, I started recording short format, "talking head" videos for marketing purposes. Basically, 30-90 second videos of a person either speaking directly to camera or speaking to me standing right next to the camera.

These are very simple videos to make, but they have a huge impact. I use them to market my business and promote them as something that other business owners should leverage, as well. It's the closest thing to an in-person presentation that you can do.

I did a personal project in March for Women's History Month. My objective was to record one woman business owner per day for the entire month (or at least have it average out to that). It started out as just doing a simple elevator pitch: look into the camera and present who you are, what you offer, and how people can reach you, all in 60 seconds or less. You'd be surprised how well a person can sell themselves using that simple format.

Based on the response to the videos, I started doing a short interview with them after the elevator pitch. I'd just ask a few questions that I thought potential clients for their business might have. It worked really well.

One person told me this week that she's gotten 3 clients who told her they hired her because of her video. She reached out because her chamber of commerce wants to hire me to record more people. That's going to be a project of a few thousand dollars, Aaron Walker and David T , and it's not a lot of work. I'm not even going to edit the clips. I'm putting them in touch with a video editor I work with. All I'm doing is camera on tripod, lighting and audio, and delivering clips via Dropbox.

Strangely enough, a second business owner from that project contacted me this week for the exact same reason. Her business networking group wants to hire me for the same reason. That's two paydays that are coming from a personal video project. And given that these are business organizations, more business owners in those orgs are going to see the videos and want the same for themselves to remain competitive. More paydays.

Here are the two business owners that I'm referencing (youtube links):


Nothing fancy. I'm no great interviewer. I just did the best I could with what I have. For interviewees that didn't have an office or it was too far for me to go record a video for free, I just put them in front of that collage wall in my house.

The attorney had seen another interview I recorded against that wall in b&w (I'd done it just to experiment) and she specifically requested b&w, so that's what we did. Given that she's a family lawyer, I guess the collage wall kinda works, if you think about it. It was good enough to bring her three new clients (so far). She has that video on her LinkedIn profile and on her website and people have hired her because of it.

And now people are hiring me because of that thirty-day personal project. I had no idea this was coming and it wasn't my intent, but I can sure use the money. I'm now doing the same thing with a local chamber of commerce, knowing full well that the seeds I'm sewing will bear fruit. I recorded the president just a couple of times and then the pricing inquiries started. Here's an example of what I do for the chamber: https://youtu.be/sfi71nxQA3c

As you can see, I'm no cinematographer. I stay in my narrow lane. Camera on tripod, proper lighting and audio, 90 seconds or less. These videos take five minutes to edit, but they have a huge impact for the person on camera and for me.

David T's picture

That's a great niche!

DJ Toman's picture

I have just developed a passion and interest in video (see my first effort at a travel video here if you're bored: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgFeSywKZfQ), and these ideas are extremely helpful. I'm thinking that this is a fantastic way to bundle basic video with portrait or headshot photography to start.

Thanks for the input and ideas.