As a professional travel photographer with nearly four decades of experience under my belt, I never thought that I’d be interested in capturing my travels in video. But when HD video became part of my DSLR’s feature list and I began to realize the awesome storytelling potential of the moving image, I was hooked. The way I see it, the still image was great for the printed page, but most of us are consuming our media (and our vacation memories) on a screen these days, and such screens naturally demand motion and sound.
While a lot of the skills we have as still shooters—a sense of light and composition—will stand us in good stead as cinematographers, there are some new skill sets we need to acquire in order to make the most of the medium. But before we go on to discuss them, let’s look at why the video from a DSLR or mirrorless camera is so special.
Most conventional camcorders had anywhere from one to three very small chips and recorded their video in 60 interlaced frames. The resulting look was very distinctly “video.” It was characterized by front-to-back-sharp depth of field (thanks to the small chip size) and a very electronic look, thanks to the frames-per-second rate (FPS) and the interlaced capture.
Our DSLRs and mirrorless cameras sport bigger chips, from Micro Four Thirds to APS-C, right up to full-frame, 35mm-sized chips, and they capture video in progressive frames (like motion-picture film) and offer 24 fps, exactly the same as a motion-picture film camera.
The bigger chip offers the option of selective focus (just like in the movies), and we can utilize the bokeh, or the out-of-focus areas in the frame, as an artistic statement. So, between the frame rate and the depth-of-field options, we are able to produce moving images that are stylistically more cinematic and not electronic. Suddenly, we don’t need a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar 35mm movie camera to make films that look like Hollywood cinema; all we need is a several-hundred-dollar still camera.
The biggest difference between shooting stills of our travels and shooting video is that we’re no longer just in search of that one killer shot...we need to think in terms of killer sequences, multi-shot takes of a place that help to tell the story.
We’re all very familiar with this type of visual storytelling (thanks to growing up with TV and the movies), but we don’t really realize it, because it is integrated so seamlessly into our lives. The best way to see how a moving story progresses through sequences of shots is to watch your favorite TV drama for 15 minutes with the volume turned completely down (if you leave the sound on, you’ll get caught up in the story, and you’ll forget about watching shot selection).
Here’s a hypothetical sequence you might see in, say, an episode of Law and Order. It’ll start with an establishing shot, a wide shot showing where the action is taking place, like the New York City skyline. Then you’ll see several medium shots, of the traffic in Manhattan and the crowded sidewalks. Then the camera will cut to a portrait or a twofer shot of our hero detectives walking down the street, eating hot dogs from the street vendor, then whammo! Quick cut to a close-up (CU) shot of the victim lying in the gutter, then cut to a point of view (POV) looking up from the body to the detectives looking down at the “vic,” then cut to an extreme close-up (ECU) of one of the officers saying something like, “looks like it’s gonna be a short lunch hour today.”
In the first 10 seconds of the show, with skillful shooting and editing, we know the gist of the story, and the stage is set for the rest of the episode.
So when we capture our travels, we need to use the same five-shot formula, mixing up our coverage with establishing shots, medium shots, portraits, POV shots, and lots and lots of close-ups (they make it easy to make transitions and move from scene to scene).
Unless something important is happening over a long stretch of time, I like to hold each of those shots for 6-10 seconds or so. Chances are you won’t keep any given shot up on screen in a final edit for more than 3 or 4 seconds, but it may take you a few seconds to settle the camera down and get stable, so it’s helpful to have a little slack to play with in the editing suite (i.e. your laptop!).
As visual people, we tend to overlook the importance of good, clean audio. But studies have proved that while a video viewer may excuse less-than-stellar visuals, bad, scratchy, or windblown audio will send them scurrying for the escape button. So it pays to pay attention to your audio. Most of our cameras offer the option of plugging in a small, portable shotgun microphone, and these will raise your production value by leaps and bounds.
The other audio component I keep in mind on the road is music. If you’re traveling in the Peruvian Andes, for instance, it might be nice to pick up some examples of the local style of pipe music. I always keep my eyes open for street performers or bands in a bar or restaurant who might be selling CDs. When I buy them, I ask if they would mind if I use their music as background for my videos (and credit them in the credits) and I’ve rarely been refused.
The other thing you can do is travel with a small audio recorder and make your own recordings of local musicians. This is often tough because bars, cafes and street corners are host to a great deal of sound pollution, but it can be done. Again, make sure to ask for permission to use the music in your film.
As a still shooter, I only use a tripod or a monopod in very low light, but nothing looks worse and more amateurish in video than a shaky, moving camera. Avoid the tendency to “fire-hose” your camera, that is, whip it back and forth between various aspects of the action you’re shooting. Instead, shoot those as separate shots, to be edited together later, and for goodness sake, don’t shake that camera.
I have a number of portable devices I use to steady my video. My current favorite is a kind of hybrid monopod by Manfrotto (the 560B-1 and the larger, heavier 562B-1). These monopods feature a small, fluid-head mini tripod on the bottom, which will either lock and hold your camera upright like a tripod, or you can use it while panning and tilting for extra stability. It’s like having the benefits of a tripod with the convenience of a monopod.
When even that is too big to carry or can't be used, I have a small tabletop tripod that I use as a chest brace, and this simple device greatly improves the steadiness and watchability of my footage. I try to avoid the video rigs sold for DSLR video because they are often so big, unwieldy, and hard to pack that they become totally inappropriate for travel. You look like you’re shouldering a bazooka, and in most places in the world, the less attention you call to yourself, the better your travel images and video will be.
One other issue when shooting video is that of shutter speed (or more descriptively, the lack thereof). It has been determined over the years that the proper shutter speed at which to shoot video, for the most natural-looking movement, is at twice the number of fps, or twice the frame rate. If you shoot much faster than that, you get a bizarre staccato look (like the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan; the high shutter speed creates a deliberate effect that director Steven Spielberg had envisioned). Shoot it any slower, and you get blurry videos (some directors use this too, usually during scenes depicting hallucinations and dreams).
So, if you’re shooting 24 fps, your ideal shutter speed would be 1/48th of a second, which can be rounded up to 1/50th for DSLR work. You can easily appreciate how essentially having one shutter speed can limit your exposure possibilities. You quickly find, in low light, the usability of the upper levels of your ISO, and you'll understand why videographers seem to crave faster and faster lenses (f/1.4, f/1.2, and even f/0.95!) for low-light work.
But even bright light presents difficulties. How, for instance, can you get that wide-open aperture look in bright sunlight, when at ISO 100 you're reading 1/50th of a second is f/16? The answer is neutral density filters, specifically variable neutral density filters.
These screw into the front of your lens and you twist them like a polarizing filter to “dial-in” the amount of neutral density you need. Most range from about 2-8 stops, and a good strategy is to buy one that is big enough for your largest-diameter lens (say, it’s 77mm for your 70-200mm f/2.8) and then use step-down adapter rings to use this larger filter on your smaller-sized lenses.
I like to use Variable NDs for most situations, but if I’m shooting with a long lens, or at the long end of my telephoto zoom, I might replace the variable ND with a single-strength ND filter: less glass means it’s easier to retain sharpness, and the longer the lens, the more the lack of sharpness becomes obvious.
But thanks to the use of the NDs, as well as some of the techniques covered above, you’ll be able to make moving-picture memories of your travels that will make you appear Oscar-worthy to your friends, family, and Facebook followers!
My current favorite DSLR for video is the Nikon D5200. It’s compact and it has the oh-so-important flip-out LCD screen (a must for video shooting). The new chip from Toshiba provides superb video quality, free from the moiré and aliasing that sometimes plagues DSLR video (because the image has to be down-sampled to HD, which is only 1920 pixels across, aliasing and moiré are a common flaw in DSLR video).
The D5200 also has an external mic input, which is important for good audio.
For traveling lighter, I also like the Sony NEX series cameras. The Sony NEX 6 is a terrific little camera, with a choice of frame rates (24, 30, or 60 for slow mo), focus peaking, onscreen histogram, and a number of other refinements usually found only on expensive video cameras. It also has a built-in Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), so when it’s bright outside, you can still see what you’re shooting without using an awkward sensor loupe, as you must do with DSLRs.
While the NEX 6 doesn’t have an external mic input, it’s got Sony’s Multi-Interface Shoe, and they make an auxiliary mic that fits it perfectly. Combine all this with the fact that with an inexpensive adapter, you can use any Nikon lens on this camera, and you’ve got a very appealing second camera for a DSLR shooter.
The Sennheiser MKE 400 is an ultra-compact mic that runs on one AA battery and does a great job. Make sure to buy the auxiliary wind muff (the shaggy mic covers also known as “dead cats”) as it will greatly improve the reception outdoors in windy conditions. The Nikon ME-1 mic also does a great job.
The “tripod-footed” monopods are the Manfrotto 560B-1 and the larger 562B-1. The fluid cartridge mini-tripod on the base of these monopods is a design marvel. I only wish Manfrotto would put a nice lightweight carbon fiber monopod on them instead of the clunky aluminum and white metal. For a small tripod, the Oben line can’t be beat. For my NEX series, I use the Oben T300 Tabletop Tripod. I also like the Sima SV-3 mini VideoProp chest Support for an easy compact brace that will fold up and fit in your camera bag.
Bob Krist’s assignments have taken him to all seven continents and have won awards in the Pictures of the Year, Communication Arts, and World Press Photo competitions. He has been named “Travel Photographer of the Year” by the Society of American Travel Writers—three times. He is a contributing editor/photographer at National Geographic Traveler.