Tag: videography

Should beginner videographers learn photography first? Yes and no.

(This is my response to the question in the title, posed somewhere on Reddit.)

Filmmaking is a combination of creative writing, audio recording, photography, and motion handling. There are so many things that go into even the simplest decent-seeming video production work that it’d be difficult to say “learn this first” to any one of them. You need all of them or you’ll have glaring deficiencies in your skill set. Even “just a guy who points cameras” benefits from understanding the editing process, how audio works, etc.

That being said, I got into photography as a hobby in 2010 when I purchased my first DSLR, and it was definitely a huge benefit by the time I got the filmmaking itch around 2015. Understanding composition, lighting, and manual controls is absolutely critical to good filmmaking, and you can experiment with all of that in photography. Things like audio can be learned with education and a little bit of experimentation, but composition is difficult to teach since it’s an artistic thing more than a technical one. You can learn about handy shortcuts like the rule of thirds and still take a very poorly composed photo.

When I started offering my video services professionally instead of just making short films in my backyard and office for fun, I had been doing photography for 7+ years and filmmaking as an occasional hobby for about 2 years. The biggest problems I ran into once I started professional work were as follows:

  • Audio can require a lot of experimentation to get right, and having good audio gear is extremely important. My Zoom H4n has been the best tool in my toolkit. It was hard dropping $200 on a recorder, but I challenge anyone to get better audio on a budget than my H4n attached to the podium with a SmallRig double-ball arm clamp. Shotgun mics and booms look cool, but are not appropriate for everything.
  • Poor gear choices from photography plagued me. I have a Targus (read: real cheap) tripod and a Manfrotto Compact Advanced ($90, pretty nice for photography, not a great choice for any kind of pan/tilt video work) and I had two video cameras. I bought a Magnus VT-350 7ft fluid-head tripod because the pan/tilt motion was so sticky on the other two and I had a severe problem with people walking in front of the camera during a packed event. On another event, I put the wide camera on the Magnus to avoid the people problem and was stuck with my manually operated camera and telephoto lens on a sticky tripod, ruining 70-80% of my close-ups due to the painful jerks when I’d move anything. I ended up buying another VT-350 that night and had it before the other two shows they were doing. Know what gear you need to have and spend the money on good support hardware. The VT-350 is still a cheap tripod and suffers from some issues like low weight and a little flex in the plastic QR plate, but in practice these are not major issues. GET GOOD GEAR.
  • I didn’t want to spend $25 on gaffer’s tape. It seemed stupid to pay that much for tape. BUY GAFFER’S TAPE. Pro tip: also buy a small roll of glow-in-the-dark gaffer’s tape and tape it to stuff like your tripod and wires so they’re very visible at events.
  • Every hour you spend in pre-production work will save you two or more hours in production and post-production. Anything you can plan ahead will spare you tons of pain. Arrive 90-120 minutes before an event begins to set up so you can test your stuff way before the people show up. Write and revise a script a couple of times before you shoot interviews or a wedding or anything else that requires storytelling; don’t “do it live” because you’ll burn tons of time planning on-the-spot and produce an inferior work product while doing so. Make sure your equipment is good to go the day before a shoot, with charged batteries and empty memory cards and bags all packed and all required wires and adapters accounted for.
  • Clients generally don’t know jack about video, and nothing prepares you for dealing with them and their grand dreams or demands. Think of yourself as the guy with cameras and lenses and light kits, and then think of the client as the guy with an overpriced iPhone that loves shooting in that fake bokeh wannabe “portrait mode.” These people might understand videography, but more likely they’ll think that you can do anything they’ve ever seen done on YouTube or cable TV. You’re going to have to explain to them exactly what can and can’t be done, and temper their expectations. No, you don’t have a camera boom like they used at that concert on TV, so those cool sweeping shots aren’t going to happen. Be polite but firm on what you can and can’t do. If they want something more than you have, they’re gonna pay for the required rentals.
  • Video is photography with motion. This seems like a silly and obvious point, but it’s a major problem when moving out of photography to video work, especially for someone else. If you do event coverage or sports especially, you’re going to have to track subjects that move in ways you can’t easily predict. You’ll have to learn how to do this one way or another, and it’s really hard at first. The best thing to do is to leave enough room around the subject to allow for your reaction delay without losing them when they move around. A field monitor can be especially handy for sports video. Don’t let your shoots get compromised by a sudden movement. If you need practice, go outside to a place with birds or dragonflies or other fast-moving natural things, and take something telephoto (a camcorder with a nice optical zoom will do), and try to anticipate their movements and keep them in frame as much as possible. It will get easier as you practice it more.

One thing to note is that the lines between photography and videography are blurring. I recently helped a local mayoral candidate with video and photo work, but the only traditional photography involved was the portraiture. All of the photos on the site are really just 4K frame grabs. I shot the 4K footage with the intent of frame-grabbing any needed photos later, so I used a 1/100-1/125 shutter instead of 1/60 to significantly reduce motion blur. It makes the video portions a little less smooth-looking, but it’s worth it for the ability to pull clean 8MP photos out all day long.

Protip: filmmakers, STOP “shooting flat” or using cinema color profiles on your camera

Update: I’ve written a much more comprehensive article on the subject of shooting with flat/log color profiles at the Gazing Cat Productions blog. This post is a good short example, but I show better examples and explain the problem in great depth at GCP. If you have the time and want to grow your knowledge about digital video, it’s definitely worth investing the time to read the 3000+ word post there instead of this one.

I plan to do a much deeper video on this subject later, but for now I’ve found a perfect example of the sort of “you should shoot flat [for that coveted film look of course]” bad advice I see online all the time. If your camera does not output files that have 10-bit (or higher) color channels, you should NEVER SHOOT FLAT, LOG, or CINEMA COLOR PROFILES, EVER. (Hint: if you don’t already know whether your camera produces 8-bit color or 10-bit color, it produces 8-bit color.) I’ll point you to this article  “Should I Shoot Flat and Underexposed?” with a Technicolor CineStyle example image so you can read their advice and then I’ll show you with THEIR OWN IMAGE why shooting flat on your DSLR is a really bad idea, then I’ll explain what’s really going on.

Here’s their original image which was shot with Technicolor CineStyle, a “flat” picture profile that supposedly helps you get more dynamic range and therefore better looking video:

Technicolor CineStyle example image
Technicolor CineStyle example image from The Association Blog

And here’s what it looks like after I pull it into an image editor, boosting contrast, saturation, brightness (a little) and gamma (a little) to make it look “normal” again:

CineStyle image after color correction
Color-corrected image. Note the blocky artifacts and unnatural colors.

Let’s take a closer look at the face side-by-side, before and after.

Original CineStyle, vs Corrected
Original CineStyle, vs Corrected, double size to show detail more clearly

Keep in mind that this is a small JPEG image from their website, not a lossless shot of the original frame. There are JPEG artifacts visible in both images, but those artifacts help us get a better picture of why “shooting flat” on cameras without 10-bit color is a bad idea: notice how the JPEG artifacts in the corrected image are WAY more obvious and the quality loss after my simple color correction drastically lowers the apparent “production value” of the image? That’s a big part of the problem, but the other part is the colors. The reduced saturation requires heavy saturation boosting to look normal again but the damage caused by discarding a lot of the color DIFFERENCE information cannot be undone; the face has color banding issues that make it look more “plastic.” The flatter you shoot, the nastier this color banding gets. No amount of correction or magical LUT will ever make it look normal again.

When you shoot flat, the 1/2-stop of dynamic range you gain comes at the cost of effectively ruining your color and increasing blocky compression artifacts and noise. That’s why you can’t color grade properly. That’s why it looks like garbage when you push it in post. It’s not your fault; you were given advice intended for $10,000 cameras and you’re holding a $500-$1000 camera. This applies to any flat, LOG, or “cinema” picture style. Technicolor CineStyle, Panasonic Cinelike-D and V, V-LOG, Canon S-LOG, all of them will permanently damage your 8-bit footage and possibly make it useless. You can’t outsmart the basic math: 8 bits of space can’t hold more than 8 bits of data.

Normal vs. Flat Profile
Stretching flat or log picture profiles back to normal curves results in banding artifacts. Once visual information is lost by shooting flat, it’s gone for good!

Use a standard picture color profile with all tweaks set to zero or their default values (turn noise reduction all the way down though, especially on Panasonic mirrorless cameras), take test shots, push the footage in your editor to see how far it goes before falling apart, tune your settings, and repeat until you get the best results possible straight out of your camera.

As I mentioned before, if you happen to have a camera that can output 10-bit color (to the files on your memory card, 10-bit HDMI without an external 10-bit or RAW-capable recorder doesn’t count) then you have 4x or more added color detail that will be lost in the 8-bit final product after editing anyway, but the only DSLR or camcorder I am aware of that is affordable to consumers and has 10-bit color is the Panasonic GH5. Even Canon’s expensive new 5D Mark IV DSLR only outputs 8-bit color! In the camcorder world, 10-bit color is available on the Panasonic DVX200 which is about 40% more expensive than a Canon 5D Mark IV.

If you want to read more, this excellent article does a great job of explaining further, including images that illustrate the problem of “breaking up the histogram” brought about by shooting “flat.” I will post a  video about this eventually, so subscribe to my YouTube channel if this topic interests you.

One final note: picture profiles only apply to compressed video formats. If you’re shooting in a RAW video format like many very high-end cameras can produce, you’re getting 100% of the sensor information already, so picture profiles simply don’t apply in the first place and you don’t have to care about any of this stuff for that camera. Of course, if you’re shooting on a $50,000 camera rig, you probably aren’t reading this post, either…