Photography / Tips and Solutions

Shooting Travel Videos with Your Digital Camera

As prices continue to plummet and resolution continues to rise, it is becoming commonplace for amateur and hobbyist photographers to purchase a high-quality digital stills camera—mirrorless or DSLR. Even a photographer with a $500 camera can capture amazing clarity with just about no training whatsoever. Almost every one of these cameras now has the option to shoot video, usually in an HD resolution (or even 4K video, on some models). Lots of photographers, even the professional ones, are clueless when it comes to picking the best settings, knowing what kind of supporting gear is needed, and how to get the best video image quickly and confidently. In this article, I’ll dive into camera settings and best practices, explain what those wacky video terms really mean, recommend some gear additions for building your video kit, and give you tips on all of the little things you can do to up your game when it comes to capturing video.

Getting Started with Your Camera

Before taking a 24 frames-per-second leap into a pool of weird file formats and audio tracks, go through your manual or look for a button/setting on the camera itself so that you’re sure it has the option. In my experience, just about every (newer) Canon, Sony, Panasonic, or Nikon DSLR that you can buy these days will have it. If you’re just rocking a point-and-shoot camera, there are about 180 of those available at B&H that have video at a resolution of at least 1280 x 720, or 720p for short. If you haven’t bought one yet, I’d highly recommend a camera that has a tilting LCD screen, like this Nikon COOLPIX P900. It’s much easier to see what video you’re shooting when you can move the LCD around!

In some cases, you might only have a button to switch over to video mode, but there will almost always be an option or two in your camera’s menu worth mastering to get the best video for your situation. The cool thing is though, the “auto” setting, which is often the default, will get a decent image without much work on your part.

When you’re ready to step away from the auto setting and control the functions, you might look for something called “Creative Video” or just “Manual.” In the case of some DSLRs, when you place your camera into a manual setting for stills, once you press the button to switch over to video, it’s already set up for manual operation. The more expensive your camera is, the more likely you are to find the settings listed below. If your point-and-shoot is older, you may only have a few of these settings.

Grid or Overlay: This will place guides on your LCD so that you can line up the horizon or vertical lines in the frame. These will not appear in the recorded video, so use these if they help you maintain a balanced shot.

All photographs and video by Mike Wilkinson

1080p, 720p: These are different resolutions. Your camera’s manual should detail each one, but know that the 1080p setting is the highest resolution; it will also use up the most memory. If you’re short on card space, 720p might be a better option until you can get another card. 720p is a little bit smaller, but still offers much better quality than SD (standard resolution.)

24p, 30p: These are frame rates. 24 will yield a more “cinematic” feel to motion, while 30 will have a standard “video” look to it. Some cameras might even offer a “high-speed” or “slow-motion” frame rate. These might show up as 60p, or something higher. Be warned though, that the higher frame rates are sometimes only available at lower resolutions! A little experimenting will go a long way here.

16:9, 3:2, 4:3: These are aspect ratios, or the size of the width relative to the height of your image. Typical HD video should be shot in a 16:9 frame, which is wider than a typical still-photo aspect.

Audio: Along with a video clip, you get an audio recording through a built-in microphone! Most times you can leave this set to Auto, but if you’re in a particularly loud or quiet area, manual adjustment of levels will be necessary. Check your menu for control options.

While I’m always recording audio, I don’t always use it. Adding a piece of music behind a montage of video clips is sometimes all you need on the audio side of things, like in this montage video I shot and cut for a Southwest Colorado Tourism project.

Video Settings are Different than Still Settings

Shutter Speed

The beautiful thing here is that the basic principles for exposing and capturing still photos applies to video, as well. So aperture, shutter speed, ISO (or gain), work in the same way for getting a proper exposure. However, it should be noted that shutter speeds are limited, and will render motion quite differently in video clips with lots of movement. In most cameras, you won’t be able to set a shutter speed any less than your frame rate, so don’t think your camera is broken. A good rule of thumb is to set the shutter speed to twice the amount of your frame rate, so 1/48 or 1/50 is best for 24p video for the most “realistic”-looking motion. On bright, sunny days, you might not have any other choice but to shoot with a shutter speed around 1/2000, which is fine, but the motion of moving objects might look a bit “strobey” or staccato-like. If you’ve ever watched the action scenes from Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator, those are good examples of this effect.

White Balance 

White balance tells the camera the kind of light conditions in which you’re shooting. In video mode, this works just like it does with still photos, but be careful when using the AWB (Auto White Balance) setting—the camera will constantly try to “balance” the color white, and indoors especially, you might get color shifts during recording, which are not ideal. Your best bet is to set the white balance to the lighting scenario you are in, every time you change locations, whether it’s shade, indoors, outdoors, cloudy, etc.

Image Stabilization



 

If your camera has built-in image stabilization, or the lens you are using has it, it helps you to shoot photos with reduced blur. This is one of the most useful features for video shooters, hands down. Shaky video is probably the biggest problem with footage when people start to shoot video clips on their stills cameras. By making sure the image stabilization (sometimes called optical image stabilization) is turned on, the small shakes and bumps will be smoothed out considerably!

Autofocus

Autofocus is a feature that most cameras offer, but whether or not it works while recording in “continuous” autofocus is the real question here. Manufacturers have been developing AF lenses to work with the video mode on DSLRs—STM lenses from Canon, for example—but oddly enough, point-and-shoot cameras with integrated lenses often have autofocus that works during recording, and that’s not half bad!

In the video above, most of the video clips were shot handheld with a Panasonic GH4. The image stabilization on the 12-35mm f/2.8 lens was great, and using built-in focus tools to make sure the image was sharp, I came away with some nice-looking clips.

When is a Good Time to Switch to Video Mode?

That’s a tough question! But here’s what I suggest for what might capture a memory or event, more appropriately, in video form rather than as a still.

For example, if there is an event in which there is audio that might be important, capturing the sound should not be overlooked! Perhaps there are some interesting birds singing in the trees, a waiter explaining a small batch wine, or someone telling a story around a campfire. Just make sure your finger isn’t covering the microphone! (Tip: look for the mic’s portholes on the camera body.) Good audio can be what makes or breaks a good story in a video, so don’t forget to capture some.

Another time to switch over to video mode is when action is about to occur. A dog doing a trick, a street performer, a waterfall crashing onto rocks, it could really be anything. Additionally, video has the advantage of being able to move while recording an image, so video can render depth in a way that a still photo simply cannot.

If you’re expecting to edit together a collection of your clips for a short video to put online, take a moment to think about what shots will help you to tell a story. Including wide, establishing shots of a place or sign can easily give your viewers a sense of place or context for the rest of your clips. Unique angles and detail shots are nice, but remember that when showing a video to someone who wasn’t there, a few visuals to show them the “big picture” can go a long way.



 

A time NOT to switch to video is when something is far away, and you don’t have a tripod or other means of holding the camera absolutely still. Zooming in on something and trying to capture a decent video clip, handheld, is next to impossible.

Set Yourself Up to Be Ready for the Action

When you’re traveling, things can happen suddenly, and you want to be able to switch your camera over to video mode as fast as possible. Every camera model is going to vary slightly, but there are a few tricks you can try.

Many cameras have a mode dial, and the video setting is often one of the selections. That can be easy enough, but if it doesn’t, look to see if your camera has a “custom” mode setting on that dial, like on the popular Canon 5D Mark III. First, make adjustments while in the video mode, like setting the shutter speed and white balance to what you want, and then you can map those settings to one of your custom modes, so that it is always at those settings. This basically turns that selection on the mode dial to a video mode! I do this with all of the cameras I own that have custom settings, including my Panasonic GH4, so no matter when or where I’m shooting, I’m just a few turns of a dial away from proper video settings. With three custom setting modes, I set each one, usually for indoor settings, outdoor settings, and one for slow motion.

Don’t forget that many cameras will let you take still photos while in video mode. So you could potentially walk around with the video mode selected, ready to record, but snap a still whenever you need. Some cameras can even take a still while they are recording! I don’t recommend that, as the quality can vary quite a bit, plus it will interrupt your video recording but, again, it’s worthwhile to check your manual and experiment with your particular camera.

Do You Need to Buy Other Gear?

If you’re planning to start shooting more video clips with your stills camera, you don’t necessarily need any special gear. But there are a few items that will make life easier.



 

The first and most obvious one is a tripod. Having static video clips might sound boring, but trust me when I say that a stable image is better than a shaky one. You might want to consider getting a tripod that has a head that can pan smoothly—something that a ball head will not do. The Benro Aero 2 tripod is a great entry-level set of sticks for small-camera video shooting while traveling.

You might want to grab another memory card or two, and make sure that they are fast! Recording video clips is almost always more data intensive and will quickly eat up space on small cards. Batteries are also subject to draining faster, so make sure you have more than just one battery that is fully charged.

If you’re working on an interchangeable-lens camera, like the Sony a6000, you might want to look at getting a neutral density filter. By threading an ND filter on, you can keep your shutter speed at something like 1/50 when shooting outside on a sunny day. You can then lower your aperture, which increases your depth of field (makes the background blurry) and you can capture more dramatic images.

If you’re thinking about getting into video a bit more, embrace it but don’t rush it. Just like with photography, learning the skills needed and developing an “eye” for it can take years. Enjoy the experience of learning something new, and when it comes time to build a rig, get into audio recording and video editing, you can put your gear-head face on and buy a bunch of new toys to play with.

Mike Wilkinson’s interest in sports and the outdoors have taken him across the country and back again, many times over. After years of living in Colorado, Wilkinson has “gone mobile” and completes video assignments for productions all over the United States from the back of his truck, with a little help from cafes with Wi-Fi. When not freelancing or producing video for Wilkinson Visual, he is an avid adventure photographer. In the last few years, his images and videos have been seen in Backpacker, Rock & Ice, Climbing, Red Bull, and Outside. Besides creating images, Wilkinson also loves to share his knowledge, giving presentations at national conferences while regularly contributing gear reviews and editorials to the creative blogs Resource Online and FStoppers.