I bought a video camera! Now what?


posted Monday, August 6, 2018 at 11:40 AM EDT


I abhor beginner guides. It's not because I don't appreciate them or understand their usefulness, but mostly because I find that in dumbing down something complex, a lot of the nuance that makes for proper understanding is lost. Does that matter for a beginner? Well... no, but I am becoming a curmudgeon in my old age and... wait a minute, I don't owe you a darn explanation.

Sorry. See? I have a problem.

Anyway, I feel like this is the man in me that hates to read directions. I detest Ikea instruction manuals, and I struggled through a build of a greenhouse cover for my raised bed garden because I refused to read the directions carefully. I fully understand that not following directions results only in my discomfort, but I'm set in my ways now.

As most men will agree, following directions sucks and beginner guides are usually slow-paced explanations of things we really don't want to think about. We wanna do, not think. I just wanna make art, dammit!

It was this mentality that led my friend Jon to me when he decided he was going to start shooting some video to accentuate his wedding business. He did not have any grand plans of actually selling his video services but rather wanted to create a better sense of himself through video blogging. I think. That's the gist of it anyway. Look, he wanted to make videos, and so he bought himself a video making device.

Well, more accurately, he bought a handheld gimbal and planned to use his iPhone. And there is no shame in that! The iPhone makes really good video, especially for what he planned to use it for.

NOTE: If you wanna skip straight to the important stuff, scroll down till you see the first bolded headline.

Not long after strapping his phone to his new toy, Jon realized he had no idea what the hell he was doing. A photographer for his entire life, it occurred to him that though both video and photo capture image data, it felt like reading a different language.

"What shutter speed should I be doing?" He asked. "And 24fps? Teach me about quality and resolution."

I took for granted my own response.

"Well, it depends," I said, not fully considering how dickish I was about to sound. I take for granted my own knowledge and simply assume he would know. "24 frames per second, or 24p, is most likely how you'll see how many frames the camera records in a second. While shutter speed (also known as shutter angle) refers to how much motion blur the video has."

I said this fast. And I kept going.

"Your shutter speed must be at least one over your frame rate, and then the general rule is that for the best result it should be about one over double. Unless you're shooting for slow motion, then you can go for a bit more than double before it looks weird."

Jon bought a gimbal to start shooting video with his iPhone, only to realize he has no idea what he's doing.

Jon staggered, "Oh my god, what the f**k," It took him a second to compose himself. "I got Filmic Pro, just tell me what my normal shooting settings should be."

Oh Jon, you sweet summer child. I responded in kind:

"That's not a fair question. It's as if I asked you what your normal aperture setting should be for taking photos. The answer is, it f**king depends!"

After chatting with Jon for a bit longer, he was able to grasp the things he needed to know, but I appreciated one thing about our conversation that I wanted to pass on through this short guide. He told me that after realizing there is a lot more to this, he wasn't satisfied with just knowing it would work. Instead, he told me, "Now I want to know why."

Well Jon, you asked for it.


The Very Basics of Getting Started with Video

If we ignore framing, pacing, camera movement, and all the other jazz that makes for great cinema, we're left with just the very basic stuff you need to know in order to make a video that doesn't, at the very least, look bad and leave you scratching your head as to why. To do this, we will look at two main areas where photographers are going to find incongruity with their library of knowledge: frame rate and shutter speed.

Essentially, these are the numbers and data points you'll be greeted with from pretty much any video camera and how you as a shooter should approach them.

Frame Rate

Frame rate is often confused with shutter speed, and that's not totally unfair as they do both relate to each other in video. But frame rate on its own refers to the final output of frames per second that a camera embeds into the video file. The reason for Europe and the Americas using different standards (for example, 25fps is common in Europe, while 24 fps is common in the Americas) is entirely too deep of a rabbit hole to get into for beginners and for simplicity's sake we'll only be looking at the American standard in this article, but suffice it to say you'll run into a pretty consistent selection of frame rates when you power on any video camera: 23.976, 24, 29.97, 30, 59.94, and 60 frames per second.

Of these, only two of them are outliers and should be approached differently: 59.94 and 60 frames per second.

For most, the 23.976, 24, 29.97, 30 frames per second frame rates are where you'll want to hitch your wagon, and of these there is only a minor difference. Some argue that there is no visual difference at all, while others insist there is a big difference. Major motion pictures are generally shot at 24 frames per second, and most films made for broadcast television are shot at 29.97 or 30 frames per second. If you can close your eyes and imagine for a second... imaging seeing the difference between film and tv, other than lighting and special effects budget. You might notice that they just look different.

Generally, around 24 frames per second is regarded as what most mimics what the human eye sees normally. When you're walking around outside, you may notice that when you move your head or look around, things blur a bit. This is considered normal motion blur, and it's what our brain is used to perceiving. This is why, many argue, that the aforementioned Hobbit film looked so bizarre to many people. Our eyes just are not used to seeing a world that has less motion blur than you'll see at anywhere between 24 and 30 frames per second. This also plays with shutter speed, but we'll get to that.

If you want to shoot at 60 frames per second, that's totally your prerogative. Many video gamers swear by 60 frames per second as the absolute minimum for a great gaming experience (I'm starting to agree with them). The difference there though is that video games do not look like real life (at least not yet). Therefore, it's less of a brain twister to those who prefer it. 
For me, when I shoot at 59.94 or 60 frames per second it is specifically with the plan to slow that footage down and bring it to 24 frames per second in my editing software. I won't get into why, as many of you likely understand the benefits of slow motion, and it's something that I think goes beyond "basic" video knowledge. Suffice it to say, if you're just getting started with video, stick with either 24 or 30 frames per second?

Final Question: What is the difference between 23.976 and 24 frames per second? Well, it all comes down to how video is displayed. Films, or major motion pictures, were shot on film at a rate of 24 frames per second (as mentioned, it was considered the closest frame rate to human vision) but video on television was (and still is) broadcast at 29.97 frames per second. In order to properly fit the 24 frames per second of film into a 29.97 frames per second video signal, you have to first convert the 24 frames per second frame rate into 23.976 frames per second. These days, both options are included with many cameras, and some don't actually capture at a perfect 24 frames per second. Does it matter for nearly all uses? No. Don't fret over it. 

Last Notes: Whatever you do, don't mix frame rate footage. That's can result in some weird artifacts and quality loss. I mean this as in, don't shoot at 30 frames per second and then mix those with 24 frames per second clips in the same project. The only time you want to do this is if you're using slow motion and bringing down the frame rate of one clip to match the frame rate of the slower clips, such as 60 frames per second into a 24 frame per second timeline. 60 frames per second fits nicely slowed down into eitehr 24 frames per second (2.5 times slowed) and 30 frames per second (2 times slowed) whereas you can't really divide 30 and 24 the same way.

Shutter Speed

Ok, so as briefly mentioned above, shutter speed (or shutter angle as it is sometimes referred to for video) affects motion blur, which isn't actually too different for what it does in stills. What is different is how we as viewers perceive it. In video, shutter speed can indeed affect exposure, which is great... but on the flip side, it also affects our perception of movement.

When you want to freeze motion in stills, you crank up your shutter speed. This will result in motion with very little blur. This is often what photographers are going for in sports, as that motion blur can be distracting in a still image and take away from the story you're trying to tell.

But a still image isn't how our brain perceives movement. When we look around using our eyes, everything has blur to it. If we remove that blur, real-life objects start to look... funky.

Take, for example, the movie The Hobbit. This movie was shot at 48 frames per second and this fact is the main culprit for why it looks so bizarre. It's effectively double the speed your eyes are used to seeing "natural" motion. However, even if you shoot at 24 frames per second you can get that same weirdness if your shutter speed isn't set correctly.

The higher your shutter speed, the less blur subjects in each frame will have. You clearly don't want to have too much blur as then your footage will "shutter," but you do want to have some so that your viewers are seeing things as they are and it won't look like a video game.

The general rule is your shutter speed should be 1/double your frame rate. So, if you're shooting at 24 frames per second, your ideal shutter speed will be happy at 1/48th of a second. Through a lot of practice and thousands of hours of video shot, I've found that you can generally push that to 1/60 or even 1/80 without a problem. Those shutter speeds apply to 30 frames per second as well.

However, if you go any faster you will start to see some... funkiness. The best way I can ask you to grasp it is to intentionally go out and shoot at a very fast shutter speed and then watch the resulting footage.

Go do it. I'll wait. 


Got it? Looks weird right? Unnatural, jittery, or overly sharp? Those are generally the words used to describe what you're seeing, but you probably now realize why I asked you to actually go look at the footage rather than rely on my adjectives. It's something that is best seen rather than described. Some filmmakers use this look to show frantic action, like in Saving Private Ryan. But for the most part, you should stay away from this look unless you're making an artistic choice.

So in short, keep the shutter speed at least equal to 1/frame rate but ideally, somewhere close to 1/double the frame rate.

Final Question: But how do I properly expose if I can't use shutter speed? This is a common question because many of you are probably now realizing that if I cap your shutter speed, your options for creating a proper exposure just lost one arm of the holy trinity. It's true, filmmakers will not use shutter speed as a means to properly expose, instead leaning on ISO and aperture to keep footage from getting blown out.

But as you can imagine, even shooting at very closed down apertures might not be enough, and even if it is you don't really want to be shooting at f/18 or f/22 most times. That can create too much depth of field and also gets you fighting with diffraction. Additionally, ISO can only go so low. To combat this, videographers use neutral density filters. Some video cameras come with an ND filter built-in, which is great, but the mirrorless and DSLR cameras that are popular for burgeoning filmmakers don't. You can buy screw-on neutral density filters from a wide array of retailers, just make sure you get the right size for your filter mount. I also recommend getting variable ND filters, which allow you to adjust how much neutral density you get by turning the filter ring. They're extremely handy for moving from outdoor shots to indoor shots, and generally, they're nice because you don't have to keep changing the whole filter to get different densities.

Last Notes: Don't be cheap. Your footage will only be as good as the glass in front of the sensor. You can buy the best lens on the market and totally ruin it with a cheap filter. Just like with most things, better quality means a higher price. I recommend these: Vu, Syrp and Aurora PowerxND. They are all quite good.


There is quite a lot more to cover with video like bit rate, bit depth, aspect ratio, and don't even get me started on audio. But those aren't necessary for you to know before you go out and just try making cool videos. Make stuff you like. Go try and create. By just grasping the very basics, which is what we have covered here, you're well on your way to trying new things with your video camera.

Video isn't as scary as many would have you believe. Just have fun with it!