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A Serious Amateur's Guide to Making Movies - Step 3: Shoot the Video

By  Aug 11, 2010

Topics: Digital Audio, Video

Shooting is the process of gathering the building blocks for your movie.

With shot list in hand, and all your other preliminary planning in mind, you’re ready to shoot or acquire the video footage. As you might imagine, this is a critical part of the movie-making process. Your movie can only be as good as the video you build it with.

I can’t instruct you how to use your camera to shoot video. I can, however, provide you with some terms and concepts that you need to consider when shooting. I can also offer some tips for getting the job done effectively. That’s what this part of the series is all about.

More is Better than Less

There’s one thing to keep in mind here: you’ll likely need at least ten times more video footage than you’ll include in your final movie. So for every one minute of final video, you’ll need at least ten minutes of raw footage. When in doubt, shoot more. We’re fortunate in that we work with digital video which has low acquisition costs. Film—remember that?—was costly to buy and process, so movie-makers were always trying to shoot as little as possible to avoid costly waste.

That’s not to say that you should shoot indiscriminately. Remember, you have to review and catalog all the footage you shoot. If you shoot ten hours of video for a ten minute documentary, you’ll spend hours of time wading through footage before you can even begin to assemble your rough cut.

Non-Linear Editing

It’s also important to remember that you don’t have to use the footage in the same order it was recorded on your camera. Video editing software allows you to do non-linear editing. That means you can take video clips and put them in any order you want. This makes shooting a lot easier.

For example, I knew that the beginning of my cherry harvest movie required footage of pickers coming to work. The only problem is, the pickers arrive just before dawn when the light is bad and I haven’t had my coffee yet. Keeping that in mind, I shot footage of them later in the day as they were leaving (Figure 03-01). Because of the way I framed the footage, I could use it as either arriving or departing footage. Non-linear editing made that possible.

Figure 03-01: Although the narration implies that these workers were just starting their day, in both of these clips, the workers were actually leaving at the end of the day.

Another example in my movie includes the offloading of empty bins. Although the footage about the empty bins appeared near the middle of the movie, I actually shot it on the second day. I used video clips from roughly the same time to document the truck arrival and departure scene that appeared at the end. Again, non-linear editing made this possible.

The point is, the order in which you obtain footage on your shot list doesn’t matter. If you see a shot you need, grab it when you see it. You’re shooting to edit, not to tell a story inside your camera.

Coverage Basics

The term coverage refers to the way you shoot various scenes for your movie. This includes how subjects are framed. There are three basic options:

•    A wide or establishing shot is a big view of the subject that puts it in context. My cherry harvest movie, for example, starts with an establishing shot that shows the orchard in relation to its surroundings along the Columbia River (refer to Figure 03-02). A movie of a kid’s soccer game might have an establishing shot that shows the entire soccer field.

Figure 03-02: An example of a wide or establishing shot.

•    A medium shot is a closer view of a subject or activity. My cherry harvest movie includes many medium shots of activities such as pickers on ladders, swampers transferring cherries from lugs to bins, and forklift operators moving cherry bins (refer to Figure 03-03). A movie of a kid’s soccer game might show a cluster of players around the coach, the bench where players are waiting, or the few kids involved in a play. A medium shot focuses more on a subject than a wide shot, thus focusing the viewer’s attention.

Figure 03-03:
In this medium shot, you can see a lot of activity among the swampers.

•    A close-up is a close view of a subject or activity. It could be a tight close-up, such as a view that frames a referee’s whistle hanging from a lanyard around his neck or a looser close-up that shows a worker using a hand-held scanning device (refer to Figure 03-04). As you might imagine, a close-up tightly focuses the viewer’s attention on a specific thing because it shows only that thing.

Figure 03-04: This loose close-up helps you see exactly how the scanner is used.


You may be tempted to add motion—by actually moving the camera or its view—as you shoot. This may be appropriate, but it’s easy to do it poorly or to overdo it.

There are four types of added motion:

•    Zoom (refer to Figure 03-05) changes the focal length of the camera’s lens to make the view closer (zoom in) or farther (zoom out). Zooming is done with a zoom control on the camera. There are a few things to remember when zooming. First, zooming needs to be done smoothly; starting a zoom at one speed and then changing the speed could distract viewers. Second, zooming must be done at an appropriate speed. If you zoom too quickly, the image could blur. If you zoom too slowly, the scene may take too long to complete. If your camera has a digital zoom feature, turn it off. The quality of a digitally zoomed image is usually far inferior to non-zoomed video.

Figure 03-05: One of the opening shots of my cherry harvest movie starts close in and zooms out.

•    Pan moves the camera’s view across a scene, from right to left or left to right. In most cases, you’d use this technique to follow the action—perhaps a soccer ball bouncing down the field, chased by a bunch of kids.

•    Tilt moves the camera’s view vertically in a scene, from bottom to top or top to bottom. This might be an effective way to show the height of a tall cherry tree or provide a close-up view of a kid in a soccer uniform.

•    Dolly refers to moving alongside the subject—perhaps that moving soccer ball and bunch of kids. This is a tough technique to do well without proper equipment, such as a camera dolly on a track. Personally, I’ve never used this technique because I know I can’t do it well.

In all these instances, it’s important to keep the motion smooth. This can be extremely difficult with a hand-held camera—especially one that’s very lightweight. Practice as much as you can before shooting actual production footage. This will help you develop your own technique and give you a chance to review resulting footage before you need to shoot.

Finally, don’t add motion if it’s not necessary. If you’re shooting a high action activity—like that soccer game—why not let the actors provide all the motion? You’ll likely wind up with better video if you leave it up to them.

The Two-Shot Rule

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve read is what I now refer to as the two-shot rule. This specifies that you must get at least two shots of every scene you need to include in your movie. Here are some examples:

•    Shoot a person or activity using at least two different framing techniques; for example,  medium and close-up.
•    Shoot a person or activity using at least two different angles; for example, from the right and from behind.
•    Shoot a person or activity using at least two different motion techniques; for example, still and zoom.
•    Shoot a person or activity using any combination of techniques or angles; for example, still close-up, zoom establishing shot, pan medium shot.

This is a vitally important part of movie making. As you’ll learn later in this series, long, continuous clips of one subject are boring. If you need to show something while it’s being described by a character or narrator, you may need several different views to keep movie viewers from getting bored. This is impossible if you don’t have enough shots of the subject.

And just because this is called the “two-shot” rule doesn’t mean you should limit yourself to just two shots. The more shots, the better. In general, you can’t have too much coverage of a topic that must be included in your movie.


B-roll is also a part of coverage. B-roll is footage that isn’t necessarily on the shot list but might be useful for cutaways or other story-telling techniques.

For example, when I shot my cherry harvest movie, I captured several minutes of footage of the truck arriving, parking, disconnecting from the trailer, and connecting to the waiting trailer. Footage included tight shots of the reflection in a very shiny hubcap, the driver getting in and out of the truck, and the driver cranking a handle to raise the trailer’s parking legs (refer to Figure 04-06). I used bits and pieces of this footage, along with clips of what the narration described, to break up the visuals. It would have been boring to show a 15-second clip of a truck backing up. This b-roll footage made it possible to cutaway to related visuals.

Figure 03-06: I shot this scene as b-roll, but it came in handy in the movie’s truck departure sequence.

While b-roll can be any footage that might be related to your movie, you should try to get b-roll that’s either interesting or visually pleasing without being distracting. For example, b-roll for a soccer game might include footage of people watching the game. But suppose a spectator is wearing an outrageous Elvis costume. Including footage of that person will make viewers wonder why he’s dressed that way. You’ll need to explain in your movie to prevent this apparently unrelated video clip from distracting viewers.

Composition and the Rule of Thirds

Composition is the way you frame your subject. Is your subject centered or off to one side? Which side? Why? What else is included? Excluded? Are you looking down at the subject? Up? Straight out? Is everything in focus? Or just the subject? Or everything but the subject?

My personal view on composition is that it’s not something that can be taught. It can only be learned through experience—experimenting with scenes to see what works visually.

That said, there is at least one tip that can help you frame subjects for photography or videography: the Rule of Thirds. This basically advises you to take a scene and mentally draw a grid with three columns and three rows over it, then place a subject on any of the grid lines (refer to Figure 03-07). The resulting composition—if you choose the right line!—should look aesthetically pleasing. Give it a try and see for yourself.

Figure 03-07: This might be the only good example of the Rule of Thirds in my cherry harvest video. Note how the forklift operator is positioned on one of the lines.

You might want to consult some photography books for more composition tips. You’ll find that whatever works for still photography usually works for videography.

The Importance of Light

Light is a main ingredient in any kind of photography, although it’s often overlooked by beginners. Light can not only determine the color or warmth of a scene, but it can set a mood. It can also really mess up a shot if you don’t pay attention to it.

Most photographers agree that the best light is usually during the so-called “golden hour.” There are really two golden hours each day: in the morning, it runs from sunrise to an hour afterward; in the afternoon, it runs from an hour before sunset to sunset. This is the time of day when the light is most likely soft and warm. Of course, this light isn’t always ideal for videography. You might not like the long shadows or might prefer a different kind of light.

One thing you must remember, however, is the effect of light when it is behind your subject. A backlit subject will appear in silhouette. Sometimes you might want that kind of effect, but I’m willing to bet that most times you won’t. To avoid keeping your subject in the dark with a washed-out background, keep the light either behind you or to the side of you and your subject. For natural light situations, that means positioning your camera properly. When you control artificial lighting, you can light your subject the best way to get the job done.

Camera Shake will Ruin Your Video

Hand-holding a camera will very likely result in shaky video. While some of the vibration can be removed in post-production using editing software filters, you should not rely on these tools. To get the best final movie, you need to start with the best source video. That means eliminating as much camera shake as possible.

Because I’m so bad at holding my tiny Sony Handycam steady, I never shoot video without a monopod or a tripod.

A monopod (refer to Figure 03-08) is a single “leg” support with a camera mount on top. The camera mount screws into the bottom of your video camera. You can then extend the leg to the proper height for shooting video. Because the camera sits atop this leg as you shoot, it’s vertically stabilized—in other words, it won’t move up or down. It can still sway from side to side (almost like a very short-range dolly), lean back or forward (tilt), or pivot (pan). My monopod gives me flexibility with a small level of stabilization. The resulting video has undesired movement, but not usually enough to ruin the clip.

Figure 03-08: A one-legged support is better than no support at all. This is a Manfrotto monopod like the one I use.

A tripod (refer to Figure 03-09) is a three legged support with a camera mount at the apex. Once the camera is screwed into the top, the legs are positioned, and the tripod head’s pivot points are locked, the camera will not move. This should result in steady video that’s completely free of all undesired motion. The drawback, of course, is that you have to reset the tripod to change the camera’s view. That can be time consuming and bothersome, especially if you have a long shot list.

Figure 03-09: A sturdy tripod can eliminate all camera shake.

A “steady cam” support system uses a gimbel and maybe even one or more gyros to give you full movement capabilities while minimizing camera shake. These are generally very costly devices, but both Manfrotto and Tiffen make lower-cost models for lightweight cameras in the prosumer market. I just ordered a Manfrotto 585 Modosteady (refer to Figure 03-10) but haven’t been able to experiment with it yet. If you do a lot of action movies that require you to move the camera a lot while shooting, you might want to check one of these out.

Figure 03-10: The Manfrotto 585 Modosteady uses a gimbel to minimize camera shake.

What you’ll find is that the closer the shot is, the more important it is for the image to be free of camera shake. For example, if you’re zoomed in on a soccer ball sitting on the field, it’s simply not acceptable for it to be bouncing all over the frame just because you can’t hold the camera steady. At the same time, if you’re making a wide, establishing shot of the whole soccer field, a little bit of bounce in the frame is not likely to be noticed at all.

Clip Length

A clip is a video segment that begins when you pressed the record button on your camera and ends when you stopped recording. It could be any length. Ideally, you should have at least two (remembering the two-shot rule) clips for each item on your shot list, as well as various additional clips for b-roll and other items you shoot.

A clip’s length shouldn’t be much longer than it needs to be. While it might be tempting to set up your camera at that soccer game and just let it record for minutes on end, it’s really not a good idea. Chances are, you won’t use any clips longer than 15 or 20 seconds, so having extremely long clips will make it tougher to find the segments you want.

(Yes, you read that right: 15 to 20 seconds. I tell you more about that in Step 4.)

Unless I’m shooting an interview or a specific activity that takes a while, I try to limit my clip length to somewhere between 10 and 60 seconds. Less than 10 seconds will likely not give me enough good footage to make the clip usable, since there’s often a bit of camera shake when I start and stop shooting and I’ll need to exclude that from the movie. More than 60 seconds gives me too much footage to wade through when selecting the portion I want to include in the movie.

Keep in mind that this is just my opinion, based on what I’ve learned. You may want to work differently. Just remember this advice when you begin editing; you may come to agree with me, even if you don’t agree right now.

Stick to the Shot List, but Be Flexible

Your goal during the shoot is to sufficiently cover all the shots on your shot list. That means using the two-shot rule to get at least two different shots of each item or scene.

But what if something happens that you weren’t expecting? Perhaps a dog runs out on the soccer field and a pair of youngsters try to chase it down. Roll the camera! This might make an amusing segment for the movie. Although your shot list is a guide, it shouldn’t prevent you from acquiring interesting footage. Its purpose is to keep you focused, not stifle your creativity or reporting capabilities.

Shooting Video is Hard Work…but Fun

Shooting the video you’ll need for your edited movie can be hard work—if you go about it seriously. But it can also be fun.

I shot my cherry harvest movie over the span of two days, spending a total of 10 hours at the orchard and making a third trip during the “golden hour” to shoot additional b-roll footage of the orchard itself. A lot of that time was spent walking around the orchard, preparing shots. After the first day, I reviewed the 28 minutes of footage I’d shot and compared it to my shot list. I then came up with a list of the shots that I’d missed and focused on getting them the next day.

I enjoyed walking around the orchard and talking to the workers to better understand what they did. It was also nice to be outdoors in a pleasant place on a pair of nice days. So although I shot nearly an hour of footage for a 5-minute final movie, I can honestly say I had a good time doing it—and can’t wait for my next shoot.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at Step 4: Create the Rough Cut.