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HDSLR Video Tips

Husband-and-wife team Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg have been taking photos for  National Geographic magazine for more than three decades. Here they share tips for shooting HD video with your DSLR camera.

Almost every new camera that gets sold today comes with high-definition video capture built in. An HD-enabled DSLR allows you to shoot HD video with nothing more than a lens and a high-capacity memory card. But if your aim is to produce professional looking movies and movie clips, the following accessories will certainly help.

I have been a still photographer for over 30 years and for the past couple of years have been transitioning into the motion world. When you’re shooting a video, there are a lot of differences in the way you think and shoot, interact with people, and edit material.

With still photographs, your intent is to have the viewer stop, pause, and think about the image. A photograph’s purpose is to tell the whole story, to elicit an emotional response. A motion clip, however, has no set duration. Its goal is to fit together with other pieces, footage, and sound to tell a story, take the viewer on a journey, and provide a unique experience.

When you mentally switch gears and start to shoot moving subjects, a lot changes. Think about it—we’re no longer trying to freeze a moment. Instead we’re following our subjects and recording their sounds as they move. In order to accomplish this, we need to equip our cameras with a couple of simple accessories that will provide a cinematic look. There are many available resources on the Internet that provide tips for shooting independent and low-budget films. My focus is primarily on the preparation for shooting documentaries. In other words, I like to keep the gear setup simple. I want to share with you what I’ve learned and make it easier for you to transition to this exciting new media.

Let’s get started.

  • Support System: Shooting video handheld is challenging and requires a lightweight tripod with a fluid video head. How you move the camera is one of your biggest challenges. You’ll need separate lockable pan and tilt controls so you can lock the tilt and pan the camera horizontally with reasonable smoothness to follow the action. It’s the fluid head that is so important—this is what will guarantee a pan shot as you track your subject across the frame. Also, be sure to balance the weight of the camera front to back so you can guarantee smooth tilt shots. Having a ball head also helps you level the shot before you begin your filming. As good as your regular photo tripod may be for stills, it will prove to be a frustrating and difficult tool when shooting video. Another really good and inexpensive accessory is a beanbag, which is small, light, and easy to travel with. Some people like to use a product called the Pod. This support, made from tiny plastic pellets wrapped in a small durable bag, screws directly into the bottom of your camera and is easy to carry and lightweight.
  • Sound: Your camera may come with a built-in microphone, but in order to capture more realistic sound, you should use a small external microphone that you can plug into the 1/8 inch mini-plug microphone jack and attach to the hot shoe on top of the viewfinder. Sound represents more than 50 percent of the total experience, so do yourself a favor and record the best possible sound. Sometimes it might make sense to record the ambient sound on a separate recorder and then mix that track in with your video during post-production.
  • External Optical Viewfinder: It’s easy enough to switch your camera into live view, put it in focus, and hit the record button, but having an external viewfinder to attach to the back of the camera’s LCD screen makes focusing and tracking so much easier. Most of the time it’s much better to manually focus on the subject. Remember that the auto focus servo on the lenses makes noise as it tracks the subject, and this will be picked up by the microphone. Having a large optical viewfinder will help you maintain critical focus and stay sharp and will make a difference in the overall quality of your footage.
  • Manual Settings: When shooting HD video, you want to shoot in manual mode as much as possible. This becomes difficult when we’re filming nature and can’t control the situation, so during these instances, it might make sense to resort to using the auto focus controls. But if your situation enables you to manually control the aperture, shutter speed, and focus, you should do so.
  • Storage Media: Bring along fast read/write SD and CF cards. I suggest cards with a minimum transfer of 8 MB/second, over 133x. There are many of these cards on the market at very affordable prices.
  • Batteries: Today’s camera batteries are very reliable and long lasting; however, I suggest you bring along an extra set. Both HD video and live view mode pull much more current from the batteries than normal still photography. Always have a spare, fully charged battery in your pocket at all times, ready to be used. Also, don’t forget to bring your chargers on trips.
  • Latest Firmware and Manuals: Most camera manufacturers are frequently updating the firmware for your camera. Check the website support section of your camera’s manufacturer to download and install the latest firmware. This way you’re guaranteed to have the latest video features, which are changing all the time. Also, don’t forget to have your camera manuals available, either printed or stored on your computer electronically.

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