Photography / Tips and Solutions

Moving from Stills to Video: Getting Started

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Love it or hate it, high-quality video is now a significant part of the latest DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and point-and-shoots. This is, in part, because of a greater consumption of video content, thanks to faster Internet, impressively good mobile screens, and what I see as a natural evolution of visual media. So, with this higher demand of stellar video content, many dedicated still photographers are making the leap to video. This series is designed to help guide a photographer through the often confusing world of digital filmmaking.

A few basic rules

Now, this is usually the part where a guide might tell you to forget everything you know. Luckily, the basics of video and photography are essentially the same, meaning all that time spent learning about focal length, aperture, ISOs, shutter speed, and lighting will come in handy here; you just have to apply it in a different way.

To start, you should know about a few “rules” of filmmaking. Much in the way photography has rules, filmmaking has its own set of rules that can help guide you in making good-looking video. One of the first to know is the 180° shutter rule. This came about due to the way motion picture film and shutters operate. Without getting too technical, the shutter exposes each frame for about half of the time it takes to run the frame through the camera, meaning that when you shoot at 24 fps, the exposure is 1/48 second, at 48 fps the exposure is 1/96 second, and so on.

This shutter design created a “look” to cinema that has a certain amount of blur to create what appears to us as fluid motion. So, in general, it is best to stick to a shutter speed of double your frame rate, or as close to it as you can get, and it may mean that you need a neutral density filter to help cut down on light to do so. Now, feel free to break this rule if you want a crisper image or a rapid-fire staccato effect. A famous example of this was the beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, where a higher shutter speed created a more frenetic and hectic feeling for viewers.

Confusingly enough, there is another 180° rule, though this applies to character placement and framing as opposed to your settings. When you have two characters talking to each other, a common occurrence in most films, you never want to cross their eye line. Doing so is jarring for the audience and anything that is distracting will remove the viewer from the story you are trying to tell.

Under the 180 Degree Rule, cameras must remain on one side of an imaginary line bisecting characters.

Along with this is yet another “degree” rule, this time 30°. Basically, if you are cutting between two different angles, make sure they are at least 30° apart, otherwise you will create a jump cut that can also be jarring to some viewers. While more of an editing rule, it is important to know when you start filming to make sure you have appropriate coverage of the scene. But enough with the “rules” for now, let’s get into some of the numbers that come with digital filmmaking.

Some technical know-how

We are going to jump right to one of the most discussed specifications of a camera: resolution. Right now, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras feature two main options, Full HD and 4K. Now, there are obviously many other options and variations available, but I’m going to stick to these because they are the most commonly used. Full HD refers to 1920 x 1080, a 16:9 aspect ratio standard I’m sure many of you are already familiar with, since most televisions and monitors these days are around or at this resolution while 4K muddies the waters with UHD at 3840 x 2160 and DCI at 4096 x 2160. UHD is the natural evolution of Full HD with a 16:9 aspect ratio, whereas DCI 4K refers to a cinema standard with a slightly wider ratio. As a side note, there is a DCI 2K option at 2048 x 1080, but this didn’t really take off in the DSLR/mirrorless video realm.

In most cases, you will simply be choosing the highest resolution because it offers the best quality, but be cautious with 4K as many computers still struggle with it and it takes up a lot more space than Full HD. If you are just starting out, it may be advisable to stick to Full HD in the meantime, since most places don’t even have a way to present 4K footage in its native resolution. There are huge advantages to shooting 4K even if you can’t view it though, including future-proofing and ability to crop and reframe in post without loss of quality.

Along with the resolution, you will occasionally have to choose a compression format or codec. Compression boils down to two major options, intra-frame or inter-frame. Intra, such as ALL-I on Canon cameras, refers to a method that individually compresses each frame, resulting in higher quality but correspondingly higher file sizes. Inter, a more common method that compresses the video as groups of pictures (GOP) and records the differences between each frame instead of rewriting each frame individually. This saves on space, but can struggle when it comes to very busy frames or fast-moving subjects. At this point, you will have to do some digging into the manual of your specific camera to find out which settings are the best and then choose which one is best for you.

Additional concerns

One thing that still photographers have generally never had to worry about was audio. With video, audio is almost as important as the video itself. For some general tips, you are going to want to pay attention to any room tone or noise that could be detrimental to your audio. Also, if you have actors, you want to make sure they are speaking loudly and clearly, to get the best quality audio you can. Ideally, you will pick up an on-camera mic and a set of good monitoring headphones to make sure what you are recording is of good quality. You wouldn’t record video without a monitor, so you shouldn’t record audio without headphones. There is definitely a lot more to get into in regard to audio, so stay tuned for a future piece dedicated to getting high-quality sound for your video.

Another thing that changes when you switch over to video is focusing and aperture control. Depending on your camera system, you may have a decent autofocus system. In most cases, however, video on DSLRs and mirrorless cameras has pretty much unusable AF. Video pretty much requires manual focus; though more modern cameras are definitely providing some quality autofocus in certain situations. Manual focus is more reliable and gives you a lot more control over the image. Also, depending on the lenses you own, you may not have access to the aperture, and if you do, it may not be smooth or de-clicked. This means that any jarring aperture adjustments will show up during the recording, which can ruin a take. Some manufacturers have developed smooth aperture transitions to alleviate this but, in general, you won’t be shifting the aperture too much during a single take. There are also some tools that can help you get better control over your lenses and exposure.

Hopefully, this serves as a basis to help you hit Record on your camera. You can even check out this article on The Still Photographer’s Starter Video Kit to help you pick up some key essentials that can improve your videos. And, stay tuned for more articles on video for the still photographer that delve more deeply into certain topics, for an even greater understanding of filmmaking.

Part 2: Helpful Tools

Part 3: Audio, Audio, Audio

Part 4: Log, Codecs, and Post Production

Part 5: How Video Complements Stills

8 Comments

Enjoyed reading this, but the Part 4 link is bad.

Hi Mike,

Thanks. And that link is bad because that article hasn't been published yet. Sorry, it is coming soon though!

Advice for maximum (and minium?) rate of panning.   For zooming?   And zoom while pan?

Hi Bob,

Rate of panning will depend heavily on your camera and your style. On a DSLR/mirrorless camera I would recommend slower, more controlled pans in order to limit rolling shutter, but a fast whip pan may fit the scene better, or provide a better cutting point. As for zooms, that will be slowly based on your creative vision, though in a technical sense there won't be any limitations like rolling shutter so you can go as fast or as slow as you want. Without a power zoom lens though you will have to be careful to keep it smooth and constant speed throughout, so it comes down to practice.

What exactly do you mean by "When you have two characters talking to each other ... you never want to cross their eye line?"  This discussion was unclear.  Do you mean that the camera should never be 90 degrees perpendicular to the line between the two character's eyes? ​

Think of an automobile coming down the road.  You are filming on one side of the road, but then cross the road to film as it is still coming toward you.  The projected image will make the auto to appear to be  going the other way, or direction.  Left to right and then right to left.

Still not clear. The different directions that result when filming the car from both sides is obvious.

Hi Brett,

Bill does a great job giving an example, but for a simpler understanding the graphic created below the image with the half circle shows all the different points that can work, including three places that the camera can be placed without issue. In regards to placement it is that you shouldn't walk to the other side of your characters without good reason. For basic, simple edits sticking to this rule can help.

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