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Filmmaking 101: Shooting a Video from Start to Finish

Filmmaking may seem like a beast. However, you can learn every aspect of this storytelling medium. Let’s start by picking up a camera.


How to Capture Video

Now that you’ve got your hands on your paintbrush (the camera), time to learn how to paint with it. We’ll discuss three elements in creating an image—shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Each one plays a unique part in working together to bring light into your camera to touch the sensor in a specific way. So, let’s get into it.

Aperture

Now, let’s just start with the basics, like what your lens is going to look like. You’ll see numbers that wrap around the lens. They usually start anywhere from 1.8, 2.8, 4, and may go all the way to 22 or 36. These numbers are referred to as “f-stops,” or “t-stops” for cinema level lenses.

The smaller the number—f2.8 or f4—the wider the iris will open (letting in more light). When you have a bigger number like f22, it means the iris will close almost all the way, letting in as little light as possible (darker). This is nothing but a way to control the amount of light that comes in through the lens.

So, when do you close or open the aperture? Well, if you’re in a bright, heavily-illuminated situation—like standing outside in the middle of the day—you’ll want to close your aperture to avoid overexposing your image. When you’re in a darker situation with less available light, you’ll want to open your aperture up. This will also give you a shorter depth of field, meaning less will be in focus.

Shutter Speed/Frame Rate

Think of your camera’s shutter as a gate that closes and opens, allowing light to hit your sensor. You can control the speed at which this gate opens and closes, therefore allowing more or less light in for your shot. Shutter speed is often measured in terms of seconds, so you’ll see commonly used shutters as 1/50th, 1/60th, 1/125th, 1/250th, 1/500th, or even 1/1000th of a second.

Long exposures are literally keeping the shutter open for an extended period of time, allowing light to hit your sensor continuously (or no light). Most photographers take these shots at night in order to collect enough light for a usable image.

ISO

What’s important to understand is that ISO is not just a tool that magically makes your image brighter. When you raise the ISO, you’re doing something very specific with your image and there are certainly limits to how much you can push this tool.

To take you on the journey of exposing an image, let’s follow the light as it makes its way through your iris. First it passes through the shutter and lands at your sensor. The sensor contains millions of small light receptacles called photosites. These photosites take the red, green, and blue light and then interpret it all, creating electrical signals that lead to the image you see in the back of your camera. Now, when you raise your ISO, you’re essentially intensifying this signal, giving you more information. However, this usually leads to noise and artifacting if you push it too far. It’s like trying to work with light that just isn’t there.


Understanding Light

Exposure Triangle
The exposure triangle. Image via BeeBright.

Exposure Triangle

You’ll hear this at some point so let’s talk about it a little bit. The exposure triangle consists of the three components we just talked about: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These three factors are (almost) everything you need to know about properly exposing your image. The general idea is that you need to balance these three factors in order to pull off a perfectly exposed image. So, what does a perfectly exposed image look like? Well, there are a few ways to determine this as you tweak and play with your camera. Let’s start with the histogram.

Histogram To put it plainly, histograms are a way for you to check exposure while acting as a safety net for when your eyes deceive you. You could be looking at your monitor and the image looks totally fine. However, sometimes different factors might lead you to not see that part of the image that’s slightly over or under exposed. The histogram is here to tell you exactly how your image is being read through the camera’s sensor. Let’s take a look at how you can read a histogram so that you’ll know how the final image is coming along.

When you look at a histogram, you’ll see that it breaks down into three vertical sections. The left section represents the shadows in your image. The middle section represents the midtones. Then the right section represents the highlights. These are just the different levels of light in your shot. So, super bright areas of the image will show up on the right side, and the dark areas of the image will be on the left. What does it look like when the shadows, midtones, or highlights are too far on one side of the spectrum? The wave extends to the top of the histogram, which will tell you the image is either too dark or too bright.

That being said, if you want a perfectly exposed image, you’ll have to keep these sections of your histogram in check, meaning somewhere in the middle and not too prominent on one side or the other.

White Balance

What is white balance? A simple take is that it’s your camera’s way to tell what color temperatures currently exist in whatever your lens is pointing at. It can also remove or change unwanted color casts. So, what is color temperature?

You’ll notice on the back of your camera, there will be an option to change or alter “WB.” If you’re just setting up your camera, you might see “AWB.” There should also be a few options represented by symbols of possible lighting situations. For instance, you might see a sun, a sun with clouds, clouds, a house, or a sun being covered. These are just ways to help you predict what the accurate color temperature of a scene is, based on the time of day or location you might be shooting at. If all of this is confusing, just use your eye and judge what looks right for what you’re seeing. Sometimes, it’s best to just eyeball it and go with your gut.


Which Camera Should You Buy?

Camera Choice
Choosing the right camera is essential. Image via yoshi0511.

The obvious question, what camera should you get? Cameras are constantly getting updated, reduced in price, or made seemingly irrelevant overnight. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few staples that will fit this “starter” role perfectly for you. Let’s take a look at the best options starting with the most affordable. Then, we’ll talk about where you can set your sights in the future.

Mirrorless

A mirrorless camera is different than a DSLR because it doesn’t use a mirrorbox to send the image to the viewfinder. This just means that when you look at the screen or through the viewfinder, you’re looking at a digital representation of what the sensor is “seeing.” These cameras often excel in the actual size of the camera body as they don’t require much room, low-level performance, and believe it or not—affordability.

Micro four thirds Micro four thirds is in fact a mirrorless camera. The “micro four thirds” descriptor is just referring to the overall size of the sensor. So, how big is this sensor exactly? Well, often, they’re referred to as the middle-man between Super 35mm and Super 16mm (referring to the film sizes). If you’ve heard the fuss about the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, this camera has a micro four thirds sensor. If you’re looking to upgrade from a mirrorless or DSLR camera and don’t have enough for a cinema-level camera, the BMPCC4K is an excellent alternative I recommend trying out.

DSLR A DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) is what you’ll probably find the most affordable and available to start your filmmaking journey with. So, how does this camera work? The simple answer is—light moves through a mirror, flipping up or down, hitting the viewfinder. This then allows you to see the image you’re shooting. There’s a sensor, and while some cameras have bigger, more powerful sensors, overall they operate similarly.

Cinema If you’re reading this article, you probably aren’t going to need a cinema-grade camera. These are typically expensive and usually require a large amount of gear just to support it. However, it’s worth talking about because this is ideally what awaits your future! Cinema cameras typically have incredible sensors, color science, and fun features like built-in ND filters and dual ISO. (We’ll have more on ND filters in a moment.)

They’re also much bigger in size, heavier, and require an experienced and advanced understanding of cinematography, composition, and color grading in order to maximize their capabilities. For a good breakdown of what some of these cameras can do and if they’re ever worth actually purchasing, check out our article below.


Lenses/Focal Length/Types of Shots

Now you have the perfect camera and the capabilities are everything you need to make your ideal image or film. So, what lens do you invest in? With all the numbers (focal lengths), which model and number fits the visual aesthetic and capabilities you need?

Firstly, focal length is a measurement of the distance of two focal planes inside the lens. A simple way to look at it is that big numbers equal a longer distance and short numbers are wider (shorter). So, with a 100mm lens, you can see farther away. With a 24mm lens, you’ll get a much wider field-of-view

Lenses

There are two types of lenses that you’ll find: zooms and primes.

Zoom lens Zoom lenses are self-explanatory. They’re able to zoom in from one wider focal length to a longer focal length. Here are some typical zoom lens sizes you’ll see in stores and online:

  • 18-35mm
  • 24-70mm
  • 24-105mm
  • 70-200mm

Prime lenses — If zoom lenses can change focal lengths, allowing you to pull off different looks, prime lenses are the opposite. You’re fixed with one focal length. For instance, if you buy a 50mm lens, you’re only going to be able to shoot video at that focal distance. The reason these lenses are popular (and even exist) is due to the lens sharpness manufacturers have been able to perfect. I keep a 50mm in my camera bag at all times.

Filters

Filters
Choosing the right filter enables you to capture the right image. Image via EnriqueDCorral.

Now that we’ve covered how to expose a shot with your desired composition, let’s talk about controlling the light and image through the use of filters. There are several types of filters you can use, whether it’s a neutral density, black pro mist, polarizing, or graduated filter. They all provide a different effect or level of control. So, let’s explore what each type of filter can do to help you get the image you want.

Neutral density — A neutral-density filter reduces the amount of light hitting the sensor without altering the image’s hues. This allows you to increase your aperture and control your exposure more precisely. Instead of stopping down to f22, or however small your lens will go, you can shoot with a shallow depth of field or something like f5.6 – f8, giving you a much sharper image.

Graduated density filter — Often used for photography, this filter is used as a way to lower the exposure of one half of your image. For example, if you’re dealing with a bright sky that’s setting, the foreground (meaning the ground in front of you leading out towards the horizon) might be darker. So, you’d want to lower the exposure of the bright sun while keeping the ground exposed. For a good video on what this looks like, check out our tutorial below.

Black Pro Mist filters These filters will give your footage a filmic, hazy look as they’re meant to add a soft spill to the highlights. You’ll see this a lot in commercials. It’s become YouTubers’ favorite tool for capturing dreamy footage.

Another way to describe it is the lights have a very bloomy look to them, almost a heavenly glow that’s meant to emulate the look you get from film called halation. To see a good example of this filter, check out this video below.

Polarizing filter When you buy a new lens online, you’ll probably get one of these thrown in for free. What this filter does is reduce the glare or flare caused from blown highlights resulting from water, shiny snow, or anything else that’s reflecting light from the sun. This filter just helps manage flare that can often distract your viewers and lead to your image not looking as professional.

Types of Shots

When you pull your camera up to capture an image, the image you’re looking at will depend on which type of lens and focal length you decide to go with. Within this, there’s also the decision of how you want to compose your image, meaning how will things look in the frame you create? What space will they take up?

A shot of a person can look very different based on the standard ways we identify compositions—like wide, medium, long, extreme close-up, extreme wide, etc. So, let’s talk about some of the standard shots you’ll be asked to shoot or what the type of video you’re making requires.

Medium Shot

Medium Shot
A medium shot of Daniel Craig in Skyfall. Image via Sony Pictures.

A medium shot frames your subject/actor from their waist up. It should be considered a personal shot, as it frames a character so that the audience feels like they’re having a direct conversation with them. If you’re choosing a lens for this type of shot, you will most likely use something between a 35mm and 50mm.

So, what types of scenes or videos are these good for? Think interviews (documentaries or corporate) and dialogue (narrative and short films), as well as character introduction scenes.

Long Shot

Long Shot
Here’s a perfect example of a long shot in the film Road to Perdition. Image via DreamWorks SKG.

Often used for landscapes, the long shot is about coverage. You want to get as much of the environment or scene as possible in this shot. If your character is in the shot, make sure to have their entire body, from their feet up, in the frame. These shots aren’t typically used for conversational scenes, as they are usually impersonal in nature. Instead, if you’re in need of a good establishing shot to start your scene, try a long shot. So what is the best lens for a long shot? Try something wider like an 18mm or 24mm. This should give you more in the frame.

Close-Up Shot

Close-Up Shot
A close-up shot of Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Image via United Artists (now MGM).

A close-up shot is just that, a close up to your subject. You might use these for intimate, emotional, or visceral scenes that need your audience to feel like they’re inches away from the actors. You can also use this technique to emphasize an object or something specific that you need to show, like a hand, pencil, or book.

To get this focal length right, make sure to use a longer lens. Something like a 50-200mm will do just fine. If you use a wider lens on something up close, expect there to be some distortion around the edge of the frame.


Camera Moves

Once you’ve framed up a good, comprehensive composition, it’s time to move the camera. Moving the camera can elicit many different emotions from your audience. Camera movement follows certain genre rules and meanings that can work to increase the emotional effect your story is trying to create. So, what are these moves and how do you pull them off? Let’s discuss.

Pan Think of this as a turn of the head. A swivel, if you will. The idea is to start your field of view at one point, then pivoting along the horizontal axis as your field of view ends up at another point. The best way to pull off this shot is to have your camera placed on a video tripod with a swivel head, which just means it operates in a pan/tilt fashion, moving up or down and left or right.

Tilt Tilting would be the opposite of a pan. Instead of moving left to right (or right to left), you’d be moving up to down (or down to up). For the movement, think about looking down and then looking up. It’s just a swivel along the y-axis as you start from the top or bottom and make your way to the other side. Just like the pan, the best, smoothest way to pull off a tilt is to use a tripod.

So, when would you use this move? Most of the time it’s for a perspective shot, meaning the camera is seeing what the character would see. The basic idea, though, is to start by showing one object or subject, and tilt up or down to reveal another.

Zoom While pan and tilt are about physically moving the camera, a zoom will be using the lens to magnify the image. So, let’s say you start with a house and tree in the field of view. After zooming in, the viewer can only see the house. This movement usually consists of physically turning the wheel of the lens as the glass inside the lens is separated, bringing what’s in front of the lens seemingly closer.

There’s also the option to perform a digital zoom, which just means taking your shot in post-production and zooming into the image. If you don’t have a zoom lens on you, consider trying this route. It can save you money in the long run by allowing you to bypass renting an expensive lens for a single shot or two.

Tracking Think of tracking as if you’re following your subject or moving towards a point in your frame. This move consists of you actually moving the camera forward (or backwards), usually in sync with your actors.

Remember Birdman and 1917? Those were long, drawn-out tracking shots. You can pull this type of shot off with a gimbal, steadicam, or on a literal track or dolly. I’ve included some resources below for finding the most affordable options, as well as a DIY method you can try out on the cheap.

Pulling focus — Often referred to as rack focusing, this move isn’t so much moving the camera as it is moving the image. You’re changing focus in the middle of a shot to divert the viewers’ attention from one subject to another. To do this, you’ll need a shallow-ish depth of field so that the focus shifting is clear. If you want to know how to pull this off, start by marking where on your lens (you can do this with a sticky note or tape) the first “focus” is, then focus on the second point (marking it with a second sticky note). This will help you know exactly where to turn your lens when you’re rolling.


How to Choose a Memory Card

Memory Cards
Make sure to select the right memory card for your particular camera. Image via AdrianNunez.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but selecting a memory card can be tricky. Different cameras require different types of cards, and of course, there are a plethora of brands and sizes to choose from. So, let’s discuss the basics of what to expect when looking to buy a memory card.

SD card — A security digital card is a memory card, essentially. This is what you’re going to use for most DSLR, mirrorless, and micro four thirds cameras. Now, different SD cards will come in different speeds and sizes. The speed has to do with how fast your data transfers will go during an offload, meaning when you drop your footage onto your computer or drive. It’s up to you to decide how much space you need and what speed you want the data to transfer at. Expect to pay more for more space and faster speeds. If you’re just starting out, I’d buy something like a 32GB or 64GB card. This should be more than enough for your first test shoot or footage you want to capture.

CFast card — The CFast card (the compact flash card) is going to be the more expensive, more powerful memory card built for bigger cameras. On most CFast cards, you’ll see a small clapboard with a number. This refers to the minimum/guaranteed write speed. This number is important because it is the speed at which a camera can write to the card. Your needed card speed will all depend on the resolution, codec, and camera you’re using. So, check reviews, specs, and videos on the camera you’re looking at to make sure the card/camera combo are a good fit.


What Gear Should You Buy?

Okay, now you have your camera ready to rock. However, you’re not quite done yet! How will you keep your shot steady? Do you need something small, more portable? Or would a steady tripod setup be exactly what you need? Let’s take a look at what you should consider when buying the next round of gear for your videos.

Tripod

I know you know what a tripod is—three legs. But there’s a reason this staple of filmmaking is still our go-to piece of equipment. You’re always going to need a good tripod and you can’t put a price on a well-composed, stable shot. For a list of the best tripods and tripod systems available right now, check out our list below.

Shoulder Rig

When you think of a director of photography or camera operator, you probably imagine someone with a shoulder rig moving around a scene (or actor) very slowly. The shoulder rig is a classic piece of equipment that helps give some stabilization to the shot while still allowing the operator to move freely. The idea is simple—the camera is attached to the front, usually on a plate, with two support rails extending on the left and right side with some type of handle grip attached. The weight is distributed to your back as the rig rests on your shoulder, usually with some type of cushion or padding to allow for extended periods of shooting. This will cause some shake in your shot, but that’s okay. Just be prepared for it— it will still be steadier than holding the camera in your hands with no support.

Gimbals

A gimbal is essentially a pivoting support for your camera that moves along a single axis. This just keeps the shot steady as the camera rests on a plate, usually with you holding the handle or rig behind it. These have exploded in popularity over the past five to six years, and they’re only getting cheaper and cheaper.

This is just a way to get a smooth shot that gets rid of the need for a dolly track or steadicam, depending on your camera setup. Which actually brings me to my next point. Single-grip gimbals are made for light-weight setups, usually for DSLR or mirrorless cameras. You can also get bigger versions of these for bigger cameras, and if you’re interested in seeing how these rigs work, check out this video here.

Slider

A slider is simply a rig or setup that allows your camera to slide either left, right, forwards, or backwards on a horizontal plane. Usually you will place your camera on a tripod head, hi-hat, or plate that lays on top of two rails that allow it to “slide.” This movement gives you a sweeping, tracking-style shot.

You can buy actual sliders, or you can make your own. Either way the idea is to give your video subtle camera movement that doesn’t require a big dolly track or forking out cash for a gimbal.


Recording Audio

Now this might seem obvious, but you’ll need a microphone. Knowing that, what type of mic should you get? Better yet, what type of mic do you actually need? I know this is going to come as a shock, but different productions require different microphones of different sizes and quality.

If you’re interested in learning good practices for editing these audio files once you’ve recorded them, check out a full list of the best audio tutorials you can follow below.

Boom — This is perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of equipment on a film set. A boom mic is simply a microphone attached to a pole that’s used to get close to your actors or subjects without being seen in the shot. To do this, you will usually extend the pole over your head with straight, extended arms, or resting on your back or your torso, angled towards the dialogue or sounds.

Lav — A lavalier microphone is a little mic that you can clip onto your subjects, hide in their clothing, or place in props around the set. These mics are ideally meant to be hidden as they allow you to record dialogue or audio without having to use a boom mic. The way these little mics work is there’s a receiver usually plugged into an external recorder or your camera. The signal from the lav mic is broadcasted to this receiver and your audio is recorded.

External Recorder

External Recorder
Manage your audio with an external recorder. Image via Dimitry Galagnov.

An external recorder is just a way for you to control and manage the audio files you’re recording in a safer, more efficient way. These recorders usually allow you to plug the microphone or XLR cable (an audio cable) into it while you control the volume and where the recording is going. Usually, you’ll need an SD card for an external recorder. For a list of some good audio recorders worth checking out, see our list below.


Now, I know this wasn’t the most in-depth look at every step in the production process. But, the single best way to learn how to use a camera is to just start shooting. Your footage isn’t going to look good at first and that’s okay. That’s why you keep shooting and don’t be afraid to fail!

Say you’ve taken these steps, shot your first video, and now you’re wondering what to do with the footage. Good news! We recently put out a full course on how to edit a video from start to finish. Check it out below.


Cover image via Virrage Images.

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