Learning to shoot video takes a lot of trial and error, and can be frustrating to say the least. When you’re just starting out you’re more likely than not to come home from your fair share of shoots only to realize that the footage you’ve captured doesn’t look right. 9 times out of 10 the issue is a technical, not creative – which is good news as 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 run through in your head before rolling the camera. All seasoned cinematographers go through this mental checklist almost unconsciously, but when you’re first starting out you really need to train yourself to double check this specific set of settings every single time. While this article can largely help up and coming camera ops/DP’s that are just getting started, it also serves the purpose of highlighting the importance of each of these settings for more advanced shooters as well. The problem with becoming an expert on something is that you sometimes forget why you’re doing something. You don’t need to stop and think any more when you set up your camera, and although it may get reliable results every time, they may not always be the best results and you may not be experimenting any more. So for the beginners, I hope you take away some basic fundamental knowledge from this. And for the more advanced user, I hope you can take this as inspiration to go a step further when setting up your camera, and experiment with these settings to start getting more unique looks.
Let’s take a look at each of the settings and why they’re important.
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 – that’s a whole article in itself, but you absolutely need to be consistent with your frame rate throughout any given scene that you’re shooting. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s precisely because this seems so obvious that you may forget to double check before every take. Not to mention, some cameras can get buggy in certain modes and may change to a different frame rate if you’ve turned the camera off and then on again, or stepped into a different shooting mode. The point is, taking 5 seconds to check this each time will be a lifesaver, as you’ll never get a perfect 24p image from a 30i video clip that you’ve accidentally recorded, even when using advanced software to do a clean pulldown (meaning you de-interlance, and re-compress to make it a 24p file).
Here’s an example of film-style motion blur that’s associated with shooting at 24p. As a still it may not look ideal, but it can make motion look much more organic:
Advanced Tip: Stay open to shooting more material in different frame rates other than 24p. Personally speaking, about 90% of my work is shot at 24p, but some of my best looking shots have been slow-motion (over cranked) or time-lapse (under cranked). If you’re shooting a scene that is MOS (without sound) or an action sequence, don’t be afraid to try out a few takes at a different speed – you may end up liking the results.
When editing footage that has been shot by another DP, the most most common issue that I’ve come across is footage that was set to the wrong shutter speed. In fact I’ve had some extremely good, professional DP’s deliver footage to me that was basically unusable because the shutter speed was off. This is often because the setting for shutter speed (especially on DSLRs) is often on a place on the camera that is easy to change accidentally. The other issue that can occur is that the DP is changing frame rates, but forgetting to change the shutter speed to match (your shutter speed is dependent on your frame rate). The easiest way to know what your shutter speed should be is to use the 180 degree rule. In other words, your shutter speed should be exactly double your frame rate. So for a 24p frame rate, you’ll want to have your shutter set at 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 it to 180 degrees rather than 1/48. This is ideal if you’re changing frame rates a lot as your shutter speed will always be set properly no matter what frame rate you’re at.
Shooting at a higher than normal shutter speed can be a great technique for high-action scenes. All of the motorcycle chase shots in ‘Place Beyond The Pines’ were shot this way:
Advanced Tip: Remember when you were first experimenting with shooting and you would shoot at strange shutter speeds all the time? Why not consider experimenting with some more unique settings on your next shoot. Shooting at a slower shutter speed can look great as an effect or to simulate a dream-like state, and a high shutter speed is amazing for high action scenes, music videos, and other scenarios. Personally speaking, there have been some great shots that I’ve captured that I later wished I shot at a different shutter speed to get an in camera effect that couldn’t be fully replicated in post.
If you’re shooting on any compressed format (in other words if you’re not shooting RAW), it’s crucial that you get this setting right. The same could be said for the other items on this list, but the reason I emphasize the point with ISO is because most compressed cameras will work much better at their base ISO than at settings that stray far from it. For instance my Canon C100 has a beautiful 12 stops of dynamic range, but to actually capture all 12 stops I need to be shooting at the base ISO of 850. Even if I’m shooting a bright exterior shot, I’ll always stick with 850 and just add ND filters or stop the lens down if I need to. It’s really important that you know your cameras base ISO. Do your research and figure out what it is, and try to shoot using that ISO as much as possible. That said, there are times when you’ll need to shoot at a lower or higher ISO and that’s perfectly fine. Just be aware that it will have an affect on the performance of the image, especially as you get really far away from the base ISO.
This is a quick sample image from exposureguide.com showing how grain can start to sneak in at high ISO’s:
Advanced Tip: Knowing your base ISO is great, but you should also know which ISO’s on your camera are better than others. For example, on my Lumix GH2, certain ISO’s can be ridiculously grainy – far more than they should have been given their relatively low rating. ISO 640 was particularly grainy and looked much worse than higher ISO’s like 1600. With the GH2 I needed to stick with ISO’s that were multiples of 200, otherwise I would have issues. Do some tests with your camera – cover the lens with a lens cap and shoot a few seconds of black at every ISO. The results will tell you which ISO settings you should avoid at all costs!
You should always be using manual white balance, and never go automatic. Auto white balance will change from take to take and make matching your shots in post a nightmare. Even if you haven’t moved your camera an inch, the lighting may change slightly in the background, or an actor enters the scene with a shirt that throws off the cameras automatic sensor. The only way to get reliable and consistent results is to always have your camera set manually. In general you’ll want to use the ‘Kelvin’ setting and dial in 5600 for exteriors (lit by sunlight) and 3200 for interiors (lit by warm, orange artificial light sources). There are situations where you’ll have mixed lighting in the shot, so don’t feel like you need to either be at 5600 or 3200. Play with the settings until they look right, but make sure whatever setting you land on, you maintain throughout your scene. If you’re shooting on a DSLR or any format that shoots highly compressed video, you need to be extra sure that you’re nailing your white balance. You can change it around a bit in post, but unless you’re shooting RAW, this look will be baked into your image.
This image was taken from the film ‘Traffic’, where the white balance was intentionally pushed to be very cold looking for stylistic effect:
Advanced tip: Next time you’re shooting a scene that’s well lit and technically set up correctly, but just doesn’t ‘feel right’, try messing around with your white balance. It may or may not change your mind on the image, but just like how making a picture black and white can revitalize it, making your image warmer or cooler than it should be (in camera) can open a world of possibilities. Sure you can do this in post and typically you want the most balanced image to color grade with, but if you know you want to go for a really cool look for example, why not get it in camera? Your final image will look that much better as you won’t have to stress the codec as much when color grading.
Like the shutter speed setting, Aperture is most often controlled by a dial on your camera and is therefore at risk for getting knocked around and changed by accident. Some cameras have an option to lock in your settings, but unfortunately most don’t – so be sure that you always double check your aperture before every shot. Unlike some of the other settings on this list, your aperture (or F Stop) is regularly changed throughout your shoot, not just set at the beginning and left for the entire scene. You might be shooting a closeup and are set to F2.8 to get a nice shallow depth of field, but then go to shoot the wide master shot and need to be at an F5.6 to get everything in focus. The idea here isn’t to just make sure that you maintain the same F-stop, but rather to be constantly checking it, making sure that your exposure is consistent through every shot in the scene. You can shoot every shot in your scene at a different F-stop and it will look great, as long as your lighting is adjusted to make sure the exposure is correct across all shots.
This is an example of a shallow DOF shot that I captured last year:
Advanced Tip: If you come from a DSLR or any other large sensor camera, you’re used to having the luxury of achieving shallow DOF whenever you’d like, and are probably shooting that way more often than not. But shooting with a shallow DOF can sometimes make things too easy, making the background, set design, and other elements less important. Try to challenge yourself by shooting some shots or scenes with a deep DOF and see how it makes you to develop your eye in different ways. In most unplanned shooting situations, shallow DOF is going to look best, but when you’re forced to make it look just as good when everything is in focus, you’ll start to think about designing and framing your shots in a whole different way.
The above 5 settings are the most important to have on your mental checklist. Before every shot you should be double checking those settings to make sure you don’t run into major technical issues with your camera once you get to the editing room. That said, there is an honorable mention that I’d like to add to this list which is your picture profile. Almost every camera has a picture profile setting – your camera might have a mix that looks something like the following: standard, high contrast, cinematic, sepia, black and white, etc. Always make sure that you’re set to the most neutral setting (usually called standard, natural, or something similar), and don’t opt to use any other setting. To go a step further, you should always dial back specific settings within the picture profile to as low as possible. For example you may have your camera set to a standard or natural picture profile, but you still will want to fine tune the profile to reduce the amount of contrast, saturation, noise reduction, and sharpness being applied in camera. Every camera is different, but as a general rule you’ll probably want all of these settings turned down as low as possible. While it may seem advantageous to have these settings working for you in camera, you’re better off making these adjustments in post. The idea is to get an image off of your camera that is as ‘raw’ as possible. I can assure you that reducing noise in post for example, will always give way better results than in camera.
The only reason picture profile wasn’t included in my list was because your camera should always be set this way and never changed. All of the other settings will change from scene to scene.
Taking It A Step Further
When you start shooting professionally it’s crucial to know the above settings like the back of your hand. But like I’ve been alluding to in the ‘Advanced Tip’ sections of this article, there is a time and a place to break these rules. As with anything else though – you need to know the rules to break them.
If you’re constantly shooting with the most technically perfect settings, you will always end up with useable footage. But sometimes falling into the trap of having your image look too perfect can be a bad thing and cause your final image to look clinical and sterile. Each of these settings should be thought of as an opportunity to set the look of your scene just the way you want it. Before you set your white balance, think about the mood of your scene. Do you want it feeling warm and inviting, or cool and unsettling? Do you want the viewers attention on the face of your actor (shallow DOF) or the entire environment (deep DOF). You get the picture – the idea is to approach these settings creatively, making decisions that not only work on a basic level, but that make your image consistent with the story being told.
If you’re just getting started and haven’t yet set up your camera package, read my last article ‘Building A Cinema Camera For Under $1000’.