Learning to record video requires a lot of trial and error and can be frustrating to say the least. If you're just starting out, you'll likely come home from your fair share of footage, only to find that the footage you've shot doesn't look right. 9 times out of 10 the problem is technical, not creative – This is good news because you can always learn the technical side of things. As for the creative side, you usually either have it or you don't!
The purpose of this post is to outline a simple checklist that you should always go through in your head before rolling the camera. All experienced cameramen go through this mental checklist almost unconsciously, but when you start out for the first time, you really need to practice checking these specific settings every time. This article can help emerging camera operations / DPs just getting started, but it also serves to highlight the importance of each of these settings for advanced shooters. The problem of becoming an expert on something is that sometimes you forget why you're doing something. You no longer have to stop and think when you set up your camera. Although it gives reliable results every time, it may not always be the best results and you may stop experimenting. For the beginners, I hope you get some basic knowledge from it. And for advanced users, I hope that you can take this as inspiration to go one step further when setting up your camera and experiment with these settings to get a more unique look.
Let's take a look at each setting and why it matters.
Most indie films, music videos, and even commercials these days are shot at 24p (or 23,976 progressive frames per second). You may or may not want to use this setting – this is a whole article in its own right, but it is imperative that you match your frame rate in every scene you shoot. This may sound like a no-brainer, but precisely because it appears so obvious that you may forget to double-check it before each shot. Not to mention that some cameras will malfunction in certain modes and can switch to a different frame rate if you turn the camera off and on again, or switch to another shooting mode. The point is that taking 5 seconds to check this is a lifesaver every time because you never get a perfect 24p picture from a 30i video clip that you accidentally captured, even if you use advanced software, to do a clean pulldown (this means that you unlatch and re-compress the interlance to make it a 24p file.
Here is an example of motion blur in film style associated with 24p shooting. It may not look ideal as a still image, but it can make movement look much more organic:
Extended tip: Be open to more material with frame rates other than 24p. Personally, about 90% of my work is shot at 24p, but some of my best looking footage was slow motion (cranked) or time lapse (cranked). When recording a scene with MOS (no sound) or an action sequence, don't be afraid to try some settings at a different speed. You may like the results.
When editing footage captured by another DP, the most common problem I've encountered is footage set at the wrong shutter speed. In fact, I received some extremely good, professional DPs footage that was basically unusable because the shutter speed was off. This is often because the shutter speed setting (especially for DSLRs) is often in a location on the camera that can easily be changed accidentally. The other problem that can arise is that the DP changes the frame rates but forgets to adjust the shutter speed accordingly (your shutter speed depends on your frame rate). The easiest way to find out how long your shutter speed should be is to use the 180 degree rule. In other words, your shutter speed should be exactly twice your frame rate. For a frame rate of 24p you should set the shutter to 1/48. Most DSLRs don't have this setting, so 1/40 or 1/50 will work. Some cameras have the setting in degrees instead, so you can actually set them to 180 degrees instead of 1/48. This is ideal if you change the frame rate significantly, as your shutter speed is always set correctly regardless of the frame rate.
Shooting at a slower shutter speed than normal can be a great technique for high-action scenes. All motorcycle chases in "Place Beyond The Pines" were recorded as follows:
Extended tip: Do you remember the first time you experimented with photography and the whole time you were shooting at strange shutter speeds? Why don't you experiment with some more unique settings on your next shoot? Pictures with a slower shutter speed can look great as an effect or to simulate a dream-like state. A high shutter speed is ideal for scenes with high action, music videos and other scenarios. Personally, I took some great shots that I later wished I had taken at a different shutter speed to get an in-camera effect that couldn't be fully replicated in the post.
If you are recording in a compressed format (ie you are not recording RAW), it is important that you set this setting correctly. The same is true for the other items in this list, but the reason why I point out the point with ISO is that most compressed cameras work much better at their base ISO than at settings that are far from it. For example, my Canon C100 has a nice dynamic range of 12 f-stops, but to actually capture all 12 f-stops, I have to shoot with the ISO base of 850. Even when I take a bright outdoor shot, I always stick to 850 and just add ND filters or stop the lens when I have to. It is really important that you know the ISO base of your camera. Do your research and find out what it is and try to shoot as much as possible with this ISO. However, there are times when you need to shoot at a lower or higher ISO, and that's perfectly fine. However, keep in mind that this affects the performance of the image, especially if you are really far from the base ISO.
This is a short sample image from exposureguide.com that shows how grain can creep in at high ISO values:
Extended tip: It's great to know your base ISO, but you should also know which ISO values are better on your camera than others. For example, on my Lumix GH2, certain ISO values can be ridiculously granular – far more than they should have received for their relatively low rating. ISO 640 was particularly grainy and looked much worse than higher ISO values like 1600. With the GH2 I had to stick to ISO values that were a multiple of 200, otherwise I would have problems. Do some tests with your camera – cover the lens with a lens cap and shoot black for a few seconds at each ISO. The results show you which ISO settings you should definitely avoid!
You should always use manual white balance and never work automatically. Automatic white balance changes from shot to shot, making balancing your shots in the mail a nightmare. Even if you haven't moved your camera an inch, the lighting in the background may change slightly, or an actor may enter the scene with a shirt that sheds the camera's automatic sensor. The only way to get reliable and consistent results is to always set the camera manually. In general, you should use the Kelvin setting and choose 5600 for outdoor (illuminated by sunlight) and 3200 for indoor (illuminated by warm, orange artificial light sources). There are situations where the shot has mixed lighting. So you don't have to be at 5600 or 3200. Play around with the settings until they look right, but make sure you keep the settings you land on in your scene. If you're shooting with a DSLR or other format that shoots highly compressed video, you need to be extra sure to improve your white balance. You can change it a little in the post, but if you're not shooting RAW, this look will be burned into your image.
This image comes from the film "Traffic", in which the white balance was intentionally set to be very cold to look for stylistic effects:
Advanced tip: The next time you shoot a scene that is well lit and technically correct but doesn't feel right, try messing around with your white balance. It may or may not change your mind about the image, but just as creating a black and white image can revive it, heating or cooling your image (as in the camera) can open up a world of possibilities. Sure, you can do this in the post and you usually want the most balanced picture with color level, but if you know you want to get a really cool look, for example, why not in the camera? Your final image looks much better since you don't have to strain the codec so much with color correction.
As with setting the shutter speed, the aperture is usually controlled by a setting wheel on your camera and there is therefore a risk of it being accidentally knocked around and changed. Some cameras have the option to save your settings, but unfortunately most do not. So make sure you always check your aperture before taking a picture. Unlike some of the other settings in this list, your aperture (or aperture) changes regularly throughout the recording, not just at the beginning and left for the entire scene. You may want to take a close-up and be set to F2.8 to get a nice shallow depth of field. But then go to the wide angle master shot and you have to be at F5.6 to focus everything. It's not just about making sure you keep the same aperture, but constantly checking to make sure your exposure is consistent with every shot in the scene. You can shoot every shot in your scene with a different aperture, and it will look great as long as your lighting is set so that the exposure is correct for all shots.
This is an example of a shallow DOF shot I took last year:
Extended tip: If you're coming from a DSLR or other large sensor camera, you're used to having the luxury of getting a shallow DOF at all times, and you're likely to shoot this way more often. However, shooting with a shallow DOF can sometimes be too easy and make the background, set, and other elements less important. Try to challenge yourself by taking some shots or scenes with a deep DOF and see how you can develop your eye in different ways. The shallow DOF looks best in most unplanned shooting situations. However, if you are forced to make it look just as good when everything is in focus, you will think about designing your shots in a completely different way.
The 5 settings above are the most important ones on your mental checklist. Before each shot, you should check these settings to ensure that you don't have any major technical problems with your camera when you reach the editing room. However, there is an honorable mention that I want to add to this list, which is your picture profile. Almost every camera has an image profile setting – your camera may have a mix that looks something like this: standard, high contrast, cinematic, sepia, black and white, etc. Always make sure you have the most neutral setting (usually as standard, of course or similarly named) and do not use any other setting. In order to go one step further, you should always reset certain settings in the image profile as low as possible. For example, your camera may be set to a standard or natural picture profile, but you want to fine-tune the profile to reduce the contrast, saturation, noise reduction, and sharpness of the camera. Every camera is different, but usually you will probably want all of these settings to be as low as possible. It may seem advantageous to use these settings in the camera for you, but you should make these adjustments later. The idea is to get an image from your camera that is as "raw" as possible. I can assure you that reducing noise in the post, for example, always gives better results than in the camera.
The only reason the image profile was not on my list was that your camera should always be set up and never changed. All other settings change from scene to scene.
Go one step further
If you take photos professionally, it is important to know the above settings such as the back of your hand. But as I indicated in the "Advanced Tip" sections of this article, there is a time and place to break these rules. As with everything else, you need to know the rules to break them.
If you constantly shoot with the most technically perfect settings, you will always get usable footage. But sometimes it can be a bad thing to fall into the trap of making your image look too perfect and make your final image look clinical and sterile. Each of these settings should be seen as an opportunity to set the look of your scene exactly how you want it. Before setting the white balance, think about the mood of your scene. Do you want it to feel warm and inviting, or cool and unsettling? Would you like the viewer to draw attention to your actor's face (shallow DOF) or to the entire environment (deep DOF)? You get the picture – the idea is to approach these attitudes creatively and make decisions that not only work on a basic level, but also align your picture with the story told.
If you're just getting started and haven't set up your camera package yet, read my last article "Building a movie camera for under $ 1,000."
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!