July 12, 2010

Using a DSLR for HD Video Part 1: Shooting

Travel

Using a DSLR for HD Video Part 1: Shooting

After my second attempt to put together a video, I thought I would share some tips and learning from the process. First, please take a look at this video, which was my first foray into HD DSLR video using the Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 7D:

Babylon of the Orient from Zac & Betty FengLong Photography on Vimeo.

One caveat, this is not my first edit of course! It took a lot of trial and error to get this one looking like it does above in the cutting room floor of Adobe Premiere Pro. However, I will speak about what works and what didn’t work as far as shooting the actual footage. This video will not win Best of the Internet 2010 by a long shot, however being my first real attempt I am proud of it and learned a lot along the way. I’ll go into actually editing the video in a future blog post (which is another whole process), but for now I would like to share my tips for actually taking the video.

When we took our trip to China a short while back (see our blog posts Beijing Day 1 & 2: Temple of Heaven and Great Wall as well as Beijing Day 3: Summer Palace and Winter Palace – more to come!) I wanted to grab video footage in addition to the stills we were taking. Unfortunately I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the video afterwards. So this is Tip #1 – Have a vision as to what the final outcome will be. I took a LOT of video in Beijing, which I have not used yet. I found my vision at the end of the trip in Shanghai and Hong Kong, where the majority of the footage in the Babylon of the Orient video comes from. One predominant theme in the video is the car ride through the streets of Hong Kong at night; I knew I wanted to tell the story of our journey through these mega cities of China, as well as interspersing everyday life. Most of this footage was shot on our final days in Hong Kong and I really wish I stuck to Tip #1 and had a clear vision when I was in Shanghai and Beijing.

Zachary Long shooting in Beijing
Zachary Long shooting in Beijing

Tip #2 is to use a darn tripod! Looking back at the video I feel like I got some pretty good shots, but it doesn’t have that professional feel of a steady camera. I did have my monopod with me during the trip, but not at all times for some of these videos. If you want that professional look, grab your tripod and actually use it! You’ll thank me later J. As mentioned, I did bring my Induro Carbon 8x Monopod CM25 with me, however I felt I should have either lugged the larger Induro Carbon 8x Tripod CT-214 full-size tripod or at least our Benro A-169M8 Travel Angel Aluminum Tripod with us. Consider the smaller folding tripods if you are traveling, the Travel Angel is only a few pounds and folds up nicely into luggage.

Getting creative a GorillaPod in lieu of a tripod in Hong Kong
Getting creative a GorillaPod in lieu of a tripod in Hong Kong

Another quick tip on the technical side of things, and I am sure you have heard this before if you have been reading about HD DSLR video, but it bears repeating. Tip #3 – Use a Neutral Density Filter! I shot all of the footage using Canon DSLRs and L series prime lenses – namely the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and Canon 35mm f/1.4L. The great thing about sticking to the Canon family of prime lenses (including the 135mm and 85mm L lenses) is that they all use the same filter size (72mm)! This means you will save money by not needing to buy and carry multiple filters with you, sweet! I also use the 24mm f/1.4L II which has a 77mm filter – luckily this is also the same filter diameter as those mainstays of wedding photography: the 24-70mm f/2.8L and 70-200mm f/2.8L! Back to the real tip though, after shooting for one day in semi-bright light you will realize the need for a filter. Shanghai was fairly overcast the entire time we were there and I was shooting some outdoor scenes of flowers and people and had to crank the aperture up to f11 or f/16 to compensate for the sunlight and to get a balanced video. If you are shooting in manual mode for 1080 24p video that means your settings should be a shutter speed of 1/50 which is pretty darn slow and requires you to really clamp down your aperture to let in less light. Using a ND filter allows you to get back that shallow depth of field you were looking for and allows for more creative shots with out-of-focus backgrounds.

Out of focus background at f/2.8
Out of focus background at f/2.8

To wrap things up, I submit to you Tip #4 – Composition and subject still matters. Going through the footage that was shot in China, frankly a lot of it was just not that interesting. You can image the scene yourself: you’re in a foreign country on vacation so you start the video rolling to take it all in. Now flip things around, and when was the last time you really enjoyed watching someone’s home video from vacation? 30 minutes of the camera panning around to show some museum or national monument. While this does say “I was here,” is it telling a story? Just as in our photography where the photo needs to tell a story, so does your video. Don’t get me wrong, you will still need those random shots. As the Bui Brothers mention on their interview with Dave Warner on Lensflare 35, the B-Roll footage is equally as important as the main subject (listen to the Bui Brothers interview on this podcast episode if you are interested in video). It will really be helpful later in the editing process to have those little snippets of B-Roll to cut to here and there during your video. Think of any movie or TV episode these days, the camera never stays fixated on one scene for more than a view seconds. We have been trained as viewers to expect the rapid scene switching, so those stereotypical home movies that go for 10 minutes on one scene will not cut it anymore. Intersperse your footage with interesting B-Roll and make sure the main subject is interesting to begin with. What story are you trying to tell?

Break from shooting the Summer Palace to actually take in the scenery
Break from shooting the Summer Palace to actually take in the scenery

That wraps up my basic tips for the nuts and bolts of actually shooting the footage. Have a vision, shoot interesting subjects, grab some B-Roll for later edits, get creative with ND filters for shallow depth of field, and use a darn tripod to steady that shot!

For the follow-up post to this I will talk about the tips I have picked up from editing together all of that footage you just shot. It is a whole other can of worms to actually make the footage look good, so make sure you capture some good things the first time you’re out there! Good luck in your shooting!

Zac and a group of photographers shooting the sunset at Hou Hai in Beijing, China
Zac and a group of photographers shooting the sunset at Hou Hai in Beijing, China
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