Owning a camcorder does not a visual storyteller make. A 30-second visit to youtube.com or any other user-generated-content video website confirms this truth. Of course, we've been aware of this ever since America's Funniest Home Videos hit the broadcast airwaves. So it's not exactly a news flash to say there is a lot of bad video being recorded on planet earth.
Most of the irritating video recording habits listed in this article are developed during the early stages of learning to use a camcorder, but sadly persist in many cases. Be assured that I am guilty on all counts, as well. But unless these habits can be overcome, your video story will be "lost in translation." Continue to practice these nasty habits and you'll annoy your audience from opening title to ending credits.
1—THE SHAKY CAM
Buy and use a tripod. Unless you're a camera operator filming Earthquake 3, do not touch that record button until you've stabilized your shot. In short, if it's shakin' it ain't worth tapin'. I can't think of a faster way to render video footage unwatchable and even unusable (meaning you can not "fix it in post") than moving the camera around like the flight path of a bumblebee. Nauseating.
Think you're footage is "not that bad"? Ok, do this: Watch your raw footage with a small group of others. Painful, isn't it? And the larger the audience the greater your pain. I rest my case. Now, rest your camera on a tripod. A cheap tripod is far better than no tripod, and a great tripod is even better.
Lousy audio is almost standard in amateur video. But if we can't hear what is being said, then why are we watching this video? We won't get the message—so don't bother playing inaudible video clips. An inexpensive solution is a $25 wired lapel connected to your camcorder's mic input. A wireless microphone system in the $99 to $299 range is even better and will do wonders for your sound quality.
When learning video, everyone—and I do mean everyone—needs to shoot more close ups. The common mistake is to videotape like our eyes see—wide angle. Video is a close-up medium. The most powerful scenes and segments fill the screen with only the subject's head or head and shoulders. Yes, use the wide shot at the beginning to establish the context of the scene. But then get up-close and personal (and powerful).
4—ZOOM IN, ZOOM OUT
I know what you're thinking: "He just said shoot close-ups, and now he's telling us zooming in is bad!" This is not a contradiction to point number three. You might need to zoom in to shoot that close-up, but don't show us that zoom on screen. Ninety percent of the time we don't need to see it. Leave the zooming on the editing room floor where no one will see it. We only need to see the result of that zooming (the close-up or wide angle shot).
Shorten those scenes! I wish I could re-edit almost all the videos I shot and edited in the 80s. They would be far better today. Alas, I thought people actually wanted to view 21-second scenes of whatever it was I was showing for 21 seconds! Watch any TV show tonight (especially any show targeting the 30-and-under crowd) and use a stopwatch to time the length of random shots throughout the show. Notice how rarely the second hand reaches five seconds. Go and do likewise.
Many video shots die simply because they are a blurry mess. Ironically, the automatic focus feature is the prime suspect in these video deaths. Except for special situations like videotaping some sports or other fast-moving events, turn off the automatic focus feature and become adept at using the manual focus controls. Let's leave the "I see men as trees walking" testimony to the blind man healed by Jesus in Mark 8:24.
7—I SEE THE LIGHT
Put the light source behind the camcorder—not in your shot or pointing into the lens. There are only two sources of light on the planet: God-made (sunlight) and man-made (light bulbs, etc.). Don't point your camera at either of them when videotaping. Unless you really want a black, silhouetted subject, never position them in front of a window.
Most beginning videographers have an almost irresistible tendency to position the eyes of the person they are videotaping in the exact center of the screen. This results in a very poorly framed image and one that makes the viewer very uncomfortable, even if they don't know why. With few exceptions, the eyes of your on-screen subjects should be positioned approximately two-thirds from the bottom of the screen and off-center, looking in towards the side of the screen they are facing. If they are looking directly at the camera lens head-on, then you can horizontally center them (left-to-right) in the screen, but always vertically position the eyes approximately two-thirds from the bottom of the screen.
Poor video is often the simple result of not videotaping enough of the story to tell the story. If crucial scenes, sounds, and images are missing, then there will be tremendous gaps in your video's storyline. The best way to learn this is to edit a highlight video of an event like a one-day or weekend experience. If, while editing, you find yourself wishing you had more shots, then you are experiencing the "missing story" syndrome. The time to get the shots to tell the story is while the story is unfolding right in front of you with your camcorder in hand.
10—SPECIAL EFFECTS OVERLOAD
Flips, twirls, spins, wipes, strobe, mosaic, sepia, animated text and graphics, and innumerable video filters are the curse of quality video making and visual story telling. The psychedelic 60s are over—way over. Those 80s music videos need to stay in the 80s. If you don't have a purpose for using an effect then the best effect is no effect. Play with all those effects and get them out of your system before you actually start videotaping. Use them sparingly and purposefully.
Jay Delp is a veteran youth minister and 20-year video producer. He operates Jay Delp Productions from his Pennsylvania "campsite." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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