Videographers in the federal government come from a variety of backgrounds—commercial television news, the armed services or broadcast/film school. Many of these individuals continue to hone their craft through the years, adopting new technology, taking training courses, learning new editing software, and expanding skill sets to add graphics, animation and photography capabilities to their production toolbox.
With the growing need for video content for communicating messages internally to agency/department employees, or educating and informing the American public through social media, there’s a growing number of people in federal service who are picking up recording devices to tell video stories.
Whether you have never picked up a camera, have dabbled in video storytelling or spent years perfecting your technique, there are common mistakes we all make that set us apart from private sector professionals. Here are some things to watch out for to elevate the quality of your content when shooting footage/interviews with a video or DSLR camera.
Shake, Rattle and Roll
If your video looks like a remake of the Blair Witch Project, then you’re guilty of this—you didn’t use a tripod! There’s nothing more distracting than very shaky footage, especially when you’re on a wide shot (your shaking is magnified) or you’re attempting to do a handheld pan or zoom. Always take a tripod with you on a shoot. A monopod with feet works well too. Don’t have one? Then find a natural tripod in your environment—a tree stump, a rock, a desk, a chair, etc.—find something that you can brace the camera against to minimize the shaking. You can also use small bean bags or sand bags to rest the camera on. Remember, your viewer should never think about you or ask the question, “Why can’t this person hold the camera steady?” The second they do, you’ve lost them!
Show Me The Wire
When you put a lavalier microphone on your interview subject, take a few seconds to hide the wire. There’s nothing worse than seeing a cable running down the front of a person’s outfit. Your viewer is now caught up in the technical aspect of your video and is likely not paying attention to a word your interviewee is saying. If the person is not wearing a jacket or tie, ask them to run the cable up under their clothing or run it up along their back and tuck the cable into their neckline. Be respectful and turn around when they do this, or talk them through the process. You are invading their personal space after all.
There’s Something On My Head
Before you hit record, check your surroundings and your frame. If there are poles, trees or other objects protruding from your interviewee’s head, it’s going to appear as if they’ve sprouted antennae. Ask them to move, or find a better location. As a video producer, it’s your job to make the people appearing in your video look their best.
It doesn’t matter how many lights you have on location—unless perhaps you have a Hollywood film crew—but there’s one source of light that will ALWAYS win … the sun. Avoid shooting interviews between 11:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. when the sun is directly overhead. This will cause some pretty hideous shadows on your interviewee’s face, making the details of their face completely disappear. If you absolutely have to talk to them during that time, find a shady location.
Fluorescent lighting may be efficient for office buildings, but they cast some pretty unflattering light. Most fluorescent tubes have a green cast, which highlights all the imperfections on a person’s face. If you have to interview someone in an office setting, turn off the overhead lights and use portable lights to illuminate the set, move them closer to a window so that natural sunlight falls on their face, or better yet, move them outdoors.
Up the Nose
Low angles of people are great and provide an interesting viewpoint, but not when a viewer is looking up a person’s nose. Move your camera off to the side, or raise the tripod, so you’re not looking directly up someone’s nostrils.
Watch out for garbage cans, port-a-potties, litter, dirty dishes … anything that will clutter the background in your shot. You want viewers to focus on the elements in your shot that are the focal point of the story.
Blinded by the Light
There’s nothing worse than someone or something that’s backlit because the videographer decided to point their camera directly into the sun. This leads to a blown out background and your interviewee or subject becomes silhouetted. Move your subject or your camera so the light flatters them. If they squint too much, or need to wear sunglasses, it’s time to find another spot, unless you want them to wear the shades.
Watch out for light streaming through trees; this can cause some weird plays of light and shadow on a person’s face.
Ever seen someone who resembles a Smurf, or may just be redder than usual? Different lights are different colors, so it’s critical to set your ‘white balance’ at every location to tell the camera sensor what type of light you’re shooting under. Yes, there’s an auto setting on your camera, but it’s not perfect, so leaving it in auto mode is one way to get a weird color cast in your footage.
Did You Hear That?
If you can hear that wind, or airplane or those cicadas, then it’s highly likely your microphone is picking up the noise too. ALWAYS take headphones with you on a shoot to monitor your audio. Not only can you keep an ear out for strange sounds, and a buzzing if you have faulty wiring, the headphones will save you some serious embarrassment if you forget to turn on the microphone!
Crazy for Pans and Zooms
Put down your camera, now use your eyes to zoom into an object. No luck? That’s because you can’t! So, if your eyes can’t zoom and pan, your camera shouldn’t either. Use the feature when you’re not recording to get close to the object to change your framing, focal length or to check your focus. Don’t use zooming as a shooting technique. Instead, pick up your gear and walk closer to or away from your subject. Forget the panning too; just get to higher ground for a great vantage point.
Cutting off a person’s head, not showing the entire object, sticking things in the middle of your shot every single time—these are all signs of poor framing. The ‘rule of thirds’ will guide you to keep your subject in the correct part of the frame to maintain balance in the shot and provide visual interest for the viewer. Don’t forget the ‘look space!’ Make sure you have some leading room or space in front of your subjects if they’re heading screen left or right; otherwise it looks like they’re falling off the edge of the frame.
Take just a few extra minutes to think through your shot, then set it up and review your frame and audio before you hit record. It will make a big difference in the quality of your final product.
Jini Ryan is an Executive Video Producer, in the Office of Multimedia at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The photos feature the multimedia teams at U.S. EPA and U.S Customs and Border Protection/Office of Public Affairs/VISCOMMS.Edit