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Filmmaking: Video camera basics

Posted: Tue, 27th Apr 2004, 10:24am

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Simon K Jones

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Chromanator Tutorials: Filmmaking

Video camera basics

The details of cinematography could fill several books, so we won't be attempting to cover that side of things in this tutorial. Instead, we'll be looking at some of the common pitfalls and things to watch out for when using standard video cameras.

Of course, sometimes you may be lucky to work with a cinematographer who already knows the ropes, but even then it is a good idea to have at least a passing familiarity with how cameras work. Most of us, though, especially when starting out in filmmaking, have to do a lot of the camerawork ourselves, in which case there's only one place to start…

Read the manual
Manuals are incredibly boring – I should know, I've written a few myself. The last thing you want to do having just bought an expensive new piece of hi-tech equipment is read through a few hundred pages of badly-translated instructions, accompanied by increasingly surreal black and white Rorschach images purporting to be ‘illustrations'.

When it comes to operating a camera, however, the manual is where to begin. Most modern video cameras, from the bottom of the range camcorders all the way up to semi-pro and professional digital cameras, are packed with all kinds of features and gizmos, some of which are actually useful. If you don't at least have a quick flick through the operating manual, chances are you won't even know half of them exist.

Setting up a scene can often be a hectic time, as you try to arrange your lighting, your actors, your crew and all the other aspects. If you don't know your camera inside-out and upside-down then you'll not only delay things, but you could also end up with sub-par visuals. You need to be able to set up every aspect of your camera in mere seconds, as sometimes that's all the time you have to capture a fleeting shot. The only way to do this is to know every button, switch and menu option that you have at your disposal.

Manuals were written for a reason. They might not make fun bedtime reading, but I do heartily recommend that you give them at least a glance.

The essentials

There are a few vital things to check on your camera before you shoot a single shot of your movie. Although they seem like simple things, they can make the difference between exciting and professional footage and reams of unusable material.

Auto-focus can be an extremely useful feature if you are shooting a documentary-style film with lots of hand-held movement. However, for dramatic situations you will want to switch over to manual focus, especially in low-light situations or when using extreme perspective of one kind or another.

Most cameras auto-focus on the centre of the screen, which is fine for the average holiday video. However, in dramatic filmmaking the centre of the screen is not always where the main action is taking place, which can often result in the camera becoming confused and trying to focus on the wrong object. Even worse is when the auto-focus racks back and forth constantly throughout the shot, which is ugly and extremely distracting.

Manual focus allows you to set the focus and know that it will not change unexpectedly. You can have objects move close to the camera and the focus will remain in the distance, and vice versa. In low-light situations the camera won't be constantly refocusing. This also enables you to manually alter the focus during the shot to achieve a certain effect – perhaps shifting the focus from the foreground to the background.

Don't let the camera decide the shot composition: do it yourself.

This is the other setting that is vital to achieving high quality visuals. Exposure determines the amount of light that is let through the lens and consequently has a huge impact on the shot. Not enough light and you'll end up with dark and unclear images; too much light and you'll have over-bright and indistinct images.

As with focus, the auto-exposure function on cameras tends to do an adequate job, especially when dealing with documentaries, holiday videos and the like. However, a camera's auto-exposure has little knowledge of how to create an exciting and dramatic shot, so the first thing to do is switch to manual.

Cameras tend to over-expose rather than the other way around, especially in dimly-lit areas, in a constant, desperate search for all the available light. Consequently your video can seem very grainy in black areas when shooting on a dark set. Lowering the exposure will ensure that blacks are black and minimise the grain.

Framing of shots is very important when it comes to exposure. If you position your actors against a bright window, you will have to choose between either having them in silhouette with the exterior visible, or raise the exposure so that you can see the actors clearly while the background becomes a bright white bloom. This is because the interior is much darker than the exterior – something that is easy to overlook due to the human eye's ability to compensate remarkably when it comes to exposure. Alternatively you can apply lots of light to the interior set, which should enable you to have both the actors and the view out the window exposed correctly.

Mastering the use of these two aspects of your camera can vastly improve your movies, either to achieve a particular visual style or simply to ensure a standard and professional feel throughout. It should be remembered that a lot of grading and visual tweaking can be done in post-production nowadays with programs such as DigiGrade, but this is no substitute for learning how to use a camera properly – post-production grading is of little use if you source footage is of poor quality.

Last edited Wed, 12th May 2004, 4:16pm; edited 1 times in total.

Posted: Tue, 27th Apr 2004, 3:49pm

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That was really helpful, thanks Tarn, now i know what to look for in a camera.
Posted: Tue, 27th Apr 2004, 4:33pm

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Simon K Jones

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These are just the very basics, but they're both things that I've noticed a lot of people don't check. Unless someone tells you specifically to take note of them, they're easy to miss, and you can be left staring at your footage, knowing something is wrong...but unable to put your finger on it.

Anyway, glad to know it was useful! Hopefully we'll have some more tutorials on general filmmaking in the near future.
Posted: Fri, 30th Apr 2004, 9:51pm

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Rating: +1

As a third camera basic I would like to mention is white balance. If you want to go for that really amateur "look what we shot at our holidays" view you can always leave the camera on auto white balance but it is really incredible how much your image quality improves if you spend just 20 seconds with a bit of white paper (or slightly coloured for those who like to grade their images during shooting).
Ok, this also depends on the light you are shooting in, sometimes auto white balance does a fine job, but in general a correctly set white balance improves things a lot.
And yes, I sometimes still make the mistake not to check it. Hmm, it might be a good idea to make a small checklist. A lesson also learned the hard way is that forgetting one of those 20 second things during shooting will take you easily half an hour to correct in post production, if it is possible to be corrected at all.
Posted: Sat, 1st May 2004, 11:38am

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Simon K Jones

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You're absolutely right, EelcoG. I may add a section about white balance to this tutorial in the future - I didn't include it originally as not all cameras have manual white balance, unfortunately. If you do have it, however, you should definitely use it.
Posted: Sun, 2nd May 2004, 2:29pm

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Why isn't it possible for Cameras to see the world as it is? - just ONE preset colour mode which the camera uses in all conditions.
Posted: Sun, 2nd May 2004, 7:04pm

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There is no preset colour in the real world, the colour temperature of a lightbulb is different to daylight.

Your eyes can adjust to see white properly under these different conditions without you even noticing. The camera however has to be told what lighting conditions it is in, by holding up a white bit of paper and shouting "This is white you stupid camera", (of course you could just press the white balance button).
Posted: Sun, 30th May 2004, 2:48pm

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Some of the things, like exposure helped me! smile Thanks Tarn! wink