5 Camera Techniques for Better Filmmaking

Written by Josephine Babirye

So, you’ve been shooting for a while now and have gotten comfortable with your camera.

You understand how your ISO, shutter and aperture come together to build an image. You also know different types of shots, and now you’re looking to step things up a bit and shoot more professional and cinematic video.

But you don’t know where to start. It’s not that hard, I can assure you. With the understanding of a few simple tricks and techniques, you can make you films and videos look a lot better.

Let’s look at a few simple techniques you can apply to your filmmaking right now that will definitely improve your work.

1. Change those Camera Settings

Your image is made in the camera by the sensor, and understanding what your camera is doing to the image is important.

You don’t want the camera thinking for you and deciding what’s best. Why not?

Because you want control over how the image is recorded so as to give you the most flexibility when editing.

When you react to a scene, you are just capturing an image. But if you know your camera settings, then you’re making an image. The hallmark of a professional cinematographer is the ability to make an image.

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So how do you make an image?

To do this, you will have to dive into your camera settings and change a few things so you can record a much better-looking image.

All entry level and prosumer DSLR cameras come with preset colour profiles or picture styles. These colour profiles will tell your camera how to process the contrast, saturation and sharpening of your image.

Most cameras by default come with the contrast, sharpness and saturation at levels their engineers find ‘average’. The image from the camera is generic, and not always aesthetically pleasing. Which is fine for the average person.

But not for you. You’re a film maker. Part of that commitment is the responsibility to push further where others are happy to stop.

So, you need to experiment with these settings to get a much better image that will allow you more flexibility when editing and color correcting – or better yet, help you put your own stamp on the image.

In your camera settings, find the picture style/profile setting and open it up to change the values.

E.g., you can start by reducing the sharpening all the way and by reducing contrast all the way.

Reducing sharpening gets rid of that over-sharpened “video” look that is an obvious sign that it’s digital video. With the sharpness turned down your footage starts to look a bit softer and more natural. The skin tones are smoother and more filmic.

Adjusting your contrast helps your camera capture more detail in your image, especially in the shadows. High contrast in camera usually mean that the camera has to sacrifice important dynamic range especially in the shadow and highlight areas of your image.

As it is, mirrorless and DSLR cameras have limited dynamic range. You don’t want to reduce it even further.

With this simple change to your camera settings, you should be able to see improvement in the overall image quality. Here are two sample videos for different cameras that walk you through how to change a look to make an image more cinematic with great skin tones:

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2. Play with the Frame Rate and Shutter Speed

The frame rate of a video is the number of individual pictures per second that the video has been recorded at.

To put it simply, video is simply several individual frames (or pictures) played back successively at a given rate per second. 24 frames per second (fps) means the 24 individual frames will play back every second. 100fps means that 100 frames will play back to back in one second.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, to the human eye, playing back several frames successively at high speed creates the illusion of smoother more realistic motion. The rate at which the frames are played back determines how smooth we perceive the motion.

It was established several decades ago when film media was at its infancy that 24fps was a nice compromise between the cost of film and creating the illusion of motion.

This is important to your film making because higher frame rates are perceived differently by the eye.

You’ve probably also heard that your shutter speed should be double your frame rate. If you’re at 24fps, your shutter should be 1/48 or 1/50 of a second. The reason for this circles back to the illusion of motion and footage looking natural.

At 24fps, it was calculated that at twice the frame rate for shutter speed, i.e. 1/48, motion blur looks the most natural. Anything below that and the motion blur becomes excessive and looks unnatural. And thus, the rule holds to date. Your shutter speed should be twice your frame rate.

That’s not to say higher or lower frame rates and shutter speeds are bad. They have their uses and understanding what different frame rates and shutter speeds do for your story and your audience is what makes you a better film maker.

Now that you understand the science of it, how can adjusting your frame rate improve your filmmaking skills?

By increasing your frame rate, you can begin to ‘slow time down’ and achieve slow motion video. This works by packing more frames per second and then later playing them back at 24fps. For example, if you shoot your video at 60fps, you can then slow it down by 48%. This essentially stretches out the 60 frames you shot to play for 2.5 seconds, instead of one second.

There is a caveat though, your shutter speed needs to be between a certain range otherwise the footage begins to stutter.

By decreasing your frame rate, that is going below 24fps, you can begin to speed up time. Stop-motion, Timelapses and Hyperlapses are all as a result of decreasing your frame rate. This is especially useful when recording slow moving subjects or showing passage of time.

For example, you want to film a sunset or a sunrise. This takes some time and filming it at 24fps for 30min doesn’t make much sense. The amount of footage will be ridiculous and you’ll probably need the final shot to be 4-5sec long. Instead, you can set your camera to take a still photo (a frame) every 5 seconds for 30 min or an hour. You start before the sun rises and finish once it’s well over the horizon.

When you play back all the captured frames at 24fps, every two minutes in the real world will have been compressed to 1 second on your video. So, if your 30 min will be compressed to 15sec.

By playing around with your frame rate you can create all sorts of interesting shots that will serve your story better.

The shutter is an even more powerful tool. Here’s a videos that shows you how to use shutter speeds for maximum creative damage:

3. Don’t skip your Neutral Density (ND) Filters

Say you’re shooting at 9am outdoors and you’re at the lowest possible ISO and are shooting at 1/50 shutter speed. The only way you’ll be able to expose properly is by closing your aperture. Which sometimes isn’t enough or acceptable. Some situations will require you to increase your shutter speed quite a bit to get correct exposure.

But say you still want to get that nice, shallow depth of field?

This is where Neutral Density (ND) Filters (Amazon, B&H) come in. These are a filmmaker’s best friend, and will allow you to shoot outdoors during the day without a problem.

ND filters are like sunglasses for your lens. They cut down on the amount of light getting into your camera without altering the colour of the light. They come in various strengths and are measured in stops of light.

For example, if you want to shoot at f2.8 but it’s too bright, a one-stop ND filter would be equivalent to stopping your aperture down by one full stop to f4, but without changing your depth of field.

There are two types of ND filters, solid ND filters and Variable ND filters.

Solid ND filters stop down the light by one fixed value. If it’s a 2-stop filter, it stops down the light by 2 stops.

Variable ND filters on the other hand are adjustable, in that you can adjust the intensity of the filter as you go. This is especially useful if you’re in a situation where the light keeps changing, like on a partly cloudy day.

Just like any other gear you would buy, the quality of your ND filter (Amazon, B&H) is very important since it directly affects the image quality. Do not compromise on the quality of the ND filter, and instead save up and get a good one.

For more information on camera filters, read this comprehensive guide.

4. Make your lens choices wisely

I’m sure you already know what a lens is and its basic functionality.

Moving away from the kit lens that comes with the camera, your choice of lens has a major impact on how your shots and film look and feel.

E.g., a wide angle will give you a wider field of view than a medium or telephoto lens. You can fit more or less in your frame depending on what lens you use.

However, you can use lenses creatively to do more than frame and focus your image. Understanding what different focal lengths do to your image allows you to pull off some interesting shots.

For example, instead of using an 85mm for a close up, experiment with a wide 24mm to give someone a “warped” appearance. Or maybe use a short telephoto for an establishing scene. Your frame gets much smaller with such a lens and you have to get creative to make the scene work. Experimenting with different focal lengths for different shots forces you to think creatively and out of the box so as to achieve the shot.

The important bit is to understand what different lenses do to your image and using that to craft images that visually communicate your story.

For more information read The Importance of Lenses in Cinematography.

5. Camera Movement

Once you’ve kitted out your camera, figured out your settings, frame rates, exposure and all, the camera doesn’t have to stay in one position. It can move. Just like in real life, our eyes and body move to follow whatever is happening.

A static camera can get boring very quickly, especially when there’s not much happening in the frame.

The movement doesn’t have to be complex, it can be very subtle but the effect of it adds to the story more than a static shot would have.

There are a few basic camera movements that one can start using without a need for expensive, elaborate equipment.

Pan

This is simply turning the camera right or left while it’s in a fixed position, much like turning your head right or left. This movement is great for following action as it happens and allows you to keep the subject or the action in one place on the frame.

Whip Pan

This is an extreme version of a pan and like the name suggests, it’s very quickly turning the camera to one side to catch some action happening outside the frame.

Tilt

This is simply tilting the camera up or down to reveal the scene. A tilt can also be used as a very effective establishing shot. For example, the Netflix series “Stranger Things” starts almost every episode with a tilt down.

Push In/Out

A push in or push out is a very slow and subtle movement by the camera forwards or backwards which mostly serves to emphasize whatever is happening in the frame.

Dolly

A Dolly shot is one where the camera moves forwards or backwards. This is especially useful when shooting a subject that’s moving towards the camera or away from the camera. It essentially places the camera in front of or behind the subject, following them as they move. This is done on tracks placed on the ground or on foot with a stabilizer.

Tracking

A tracking shot is similar to a dolly but the motion is parallel to the action, following it as it happens. The camera is placed to the side of the subject and ‘walks’ alongside.

It can be done on a track that is laid down on the ground, or on foot with a stabilizer like a Steadicam or a Gimbal.

When a dolly or tracking shot is done on foot with a Gimbal or a Steadicam, the move is able to evolve and move around the action.

The versatility of handheld gimbals especially allows movements to get very complex by combining pans and tilts while still following and tracking a subject or action through space in any direction and through their environment.

For example, a camera on a gimbal can follow a subject from the first floor of a building, down a flight of stairs and out into a vehicle without the need for a cut. All the while panning and tilting when necessary to catch whatever is happening in the rest of the scene all in one fluid motion. This keeps the shots very dynamic and engaging.

Camera movement, while a necessary and invaluable technique, should not be unmotivated. The camera shouldn’t move just because it can. In fact, unmotivated movement can come off as looking really amateur. The choice of movement should add to the story, and it is still okay for the camera to stay static.

The best way to get an idea of the power of camera movement is to watch a great filmmaker do it. Here’s an analysis of Blade Runner that I think you’ll like:

Now that you’ve learnt a few more techniques, put them into practice, combine and experiment until you get something you like and works for your story.

There is no set formula, only what works and looks good. And you can only find out what that is by trying it out for yourself.