Getting plenty of shots means getting plenty of B-roll.
When reporters get the opportunity to write, shoot and edit their own stories, they begin to understand the importance of shooting plenty of video. In some newsrooms, the shooter does not edit the story, but the editor hopes the shooter understands the editing process. With quick-paced editing designed to hold the attention of the viewer, a story demands many different shots. One shot may be used for a mere one or two seconds, so that if you cover a one-minute story with two-second shots, the story would need 30 different usable shots. Despite your best effort, not every shot will be usable, even though every shot will take time and energy to set up,—another way of saying it's hard work.
At an accident, the photographer shoots the wrecked vehicles from different sides and different angles, but he or she also looks for other pictures that can enhance the story or provide transitions or cutaways: the rescue vehicles, the bystanders, the road signs, the skid marks, the emergency medical team, the police officers directing traffic and those writing reports,the license tag, the cracked windshield, the backed-up traffic. This list includes 10 possibilities. A wide, medium and tight shot of each subject would yield 30 shots.
Video projects often require an entire day of shooting that will show up as a few seconds on the final broadcast. Prepare to spend lots of time achieving the quality that the average viewer takes for granted. The effort sounds thankless, but broadcasting colleagues recognize the effort, the audience knows whether the story is good or bad and, more importantly, you know whether you did your best. Get plenty of shots.
Shoot Wide, Medium and Tight
One way to get plenty of shots is to shoot wide, medium and tight on everything.
The wide shot or establishing shot gives the viewer a sense of where the action is taking place. At the scene of a fire, first shoot a wide shot, perhaps showing a street sign in the foreground or some other identifying landmark with the burning building in the distance, to give the viewer a sense of location. The next shot will show a medium-distance view that includes the burning building, but none of the surroundings. Then find close-up shots of rescue workers or other interesting pictures. Remember, you can shoot wide, medium and tight on everything. Shoot a full-screen shot of the rescuer administering CPR and then tighten in to show a waist-up shot, followed by a tight shot of the rescuer's sweating face and furrowed brow.
Shooting wide, medium and tight also applies to interviews. The entire interview does not need to be shot with the same composition. The variety of wide, medium and tight on the interviewee also makes it easier to edit the interview without the necessity of B-roll.
Take Angled Shots
In striving to get plenty of interesting shots, the photographer should work at finding interesting angles. Unusual angles can give the audience a perspective it would not ordinarily have. The standard angle for shooting video is tripod height—around stomach or upper-chest level. We are accustomed to seeing the politician speaking from a podium or the view of the horizon from this perspective. Shooting from different angles can add variety and interest to video. Consider a shot of the basketball team during a time-out where the photographer shoots from his back on the floor looking up into the center of the huddle. Instead of the expected tripod-level or shoulder-level shot from outside the huddle, the audience sees a view they would not ordinarily have access to. (The coach might veto the idea, or the photographer could get trampled, but the shot would be an interesting one.)
Angles and creative shots should reflect the viewer's perspective on the scene—and should not confuse the audience. For example, in a story about the boredom of life behind bars, an extreme close-up shot from above a water faucet as a water drop falls and hits the drain of the sink could be either interesting or confusing. Assume the story begins with a shot looking from a walkway through prison bars and into the cell. If the next shot looks down onto the drip from above the faucet, the audience may not understand the connection to a prison cell. A more careful setup, however, could make the shot more effective. The viewer sees a wide view of the cell. Next, there's a tighter shot from behind the prisoner, where he sits on the bed looking toward the sink and the dripping faucet. Then, the angle above the faucet looking down as the water hits the drain makes sense. The photographer leads the viewer through a logical series of pictures and places the unusual angle on the drip into a context the audience can understand.
If your job is to capture video in a classroom, the first shot will be a wide shot of students at desks—the establishing shot. If the next shot is an extreme close-up from an angle at floor level showing a shoe digging into a spot on the floor, viewers may have difficulty understanding why they're looking at the shoe. When the photographer precedes the close-up of the shoe with a medium shot of one student at a desk staring into space and wiggling a leg, the next shot makes more sense and gives the audience more understanding about the student who is not paying attention. The floor-level angle is placed in context.
Shots from different angles may require some reference point to help the audience maintain its perspective. If a news story requires pictures of an open land area chosen for the location of a new shopping center, shooting from different angles could confuse the viewer. If the wide shot of the land includes a barn, however, the medium shot could include one side of the barn and some of the area behind it. Keeping the building in the shot helps viewers understand what they are seeing. If the series of shots leads us toward the barn and beside the barn, a shot from the loft of the barn might provide an interesting angle on the property and make sense to the viewer. A shot toward the window of the barn before the shot from the loft might help the audience maintain perspective.
If you're shooting a building, shoot from an angle rather than head-on. Finding an angle will give depth to your shot. Try shooting from the corner so that the texture of the building shows. Frame the shot so that a clump of grass or a bunch of flowers adds interest, depth and texture.
Angles sometimes have social meaning. For example, the judge's bench sits on a level higher than the rest of the court participants. The judge's height forces attorneys and jury members to look up. We "look up" to people we respect. Arrogant people may "look down" on others. These angles can reinforce a message in video, so the photographer must make sure to choose an angle that appropriately represents the story. If a little girl is dying because her state's health care system will not pay for a kidney transplant, you would use a different angle from what is appropriate when a judge issues a ruling. The photographer might choose to angle the camera downward slightly to show the child in the hospital bed—the way she is most commonly seen. When the doctor is examining the girl, the photographer might kneel on the floor beside the bed and shoot up toward the doctor, for an angle that reflects the little girl's perspective. Reversing the normal angle can also be interesting. Instead of looking down on the homeless man sitting on the street and begging for money, the camera operator could sit on the concrete beside the man to capture his image. The audience is no longer "looking down" on the homeless man and may gain insight by seeing the world from his perspective. In short, rather than automatically shooting head-on, think angles.
Consider Pans and Zooms
Remember from the discussion of holding the camera still that the action should happen within the viewfinder, not come from the movement of the camera. This principle basically means to avoid pans and zooms. Few people will disagree that camera motion can be distracting, but beginning videographers insist on zooming and panning despite all advice to the contrary.
Avoiding Pans and Zooms
Let's assume you're shooting a story about jail conditions and you want to show the rusty, leaking pipes, the broken handles and the falling-down ceiling in a narrow shower stall. You don't have much room to move, and you really can't get a good wide (establishing) shot. One possibility would be to start at the top and move the camera down to show the pipes and the handles and continue the movement to show the stopped-up drain—a pan from top to bottom. We might reason that this shot will show the entire shower stall, in all its broken, nasty condition.However, the result is a moving shot that gives the viewer a quick impression without detail. A much better approach would be to begin with a shot as wide as possible of the broken handles and stall. This allows the viewers to know they are seeing a shower stall, and they will understand the shots that follow: a tight, clear closeup of the broken handles; a tight clear shot of the rotting ceiling; a tight shot of the stopped-up, moldy drain. This approach gives the viewer more detail than can be provided in a pan.
Pans and zooms also make editing difficult. In the field, you might shoot a nice, steady 10-second zoom. When the narration is
ready, however, you need only five seconds of video. To use five seconds of the zoom, the editor has three alternatives: (1) starting the shot in the middle of the zooming motion and ending at the end of the zoom, (2) starting at the beginning of the zoom and ending the shot in the middle of the zoom, or (3) using the beginning and end of the zooming motion. None of these choices is easy to execute effectively. Special editing effects make it possible to fade or dissolve into a zooming action and diminish the jolt of a sudden, unnecessary movement. However, it's usually best to avoid pans and zooms—unless there's a strong motivation.
Motivated Pans and Zooms
If we always followed the rule to avoid pans, the video of a football game would be pretty dull. The football play will demand camera action—a motivated pan, a pan that follows real movement. Imagine the photographer composing the shot on the quarterback as he prepares to throw the ball. The camera remains focused on the quarterback as the ball leaves the quarterback's hands, sails down the field and is caught by a wide receiver, who then dodges tackles and makes his way down the field—all unseen by the camera. Obviously, the photographer needs to follow the action of the ball. What's the difference between panning to follow the football and panning from one building to another or from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other? The difference is that the movement of the football provides a reason to pan. With two stationary buildings, you can show their relationship with one steady wide shot. When someone is walking, you will follow the action. The camera moves to follow real movement.
Rules always seem to have exceptions. In fact, the motivations for palming and zooming do not always require real movement. We sometimes need to move the camera to the right or left or move in or out of a scene to show a relationship between a person and another person or object. Suppose you are shooting video of a rescue worker at the scene of an accident, and the worker is administering CPR in close proximity to high-speed traffic. In this case, showing the worker and then showing a shot of the traffic would not reveal the risk involved in the rescue, so you may choose to show the rescuer working on a victim and then do a short pan to the right or left, where the viewer can see cars speeding by.
Pans and zooms can be used effectively in other situations, but, again, they are seldom required. In an interview, the photographer may zoom in for an extreme close-up when the source begins to reveal sensitive information. When a public official begins a statement that the reporter and photographer know to be a lie, the zoom-in emphasizes the fact that the public official is lying. The photographer may zoom out to reveal something about the surroundings at a particular time.
The motivation may be to provide movement in an otherwise static shot, such as in a news story that requires using still photographs. If you use a snapshot of a family that includes a murder victim, a zoom from the full picture to a close-up of the face of the victim would be an effective way to convey information about the victim's life and to emphasize the person's individuality. In a story that relies on historical photographs, pans and zooms can add action and interest to the shots. As the narrator indicates that an inventor married at age 19, the camera pans right from a view of the inventor in an old photograph to reveal the bride at his side. A motivated pan or zoom can work. Otherwise, avoid them.
How to Pan and Zoom
When there is a motivation to pan or zoom, the rule is to begin with a still and steady shot, then pan or zoom slowly and end with a steady, still shot. The hold time allows flexibility in the editing process. Think of the shot as if you're counting out dance steps. Frame the shot and hold-two-three. Pan slowly until you stop and hold-two-three. The same with a zoom. Frame a shot and hold-two-three. Then zoom in or out slowly until you have another nicely composed shot and hold-two-three. We say hold-two-three when we're talking dance steps, but in reality the count-to-10 principle is much better.
Panning and zooming slowly is an important part of the rule. If the movement goes too fast, viewers will be dizzy rather than informed. Again, there are exceptions. Sometimes the intention is to put the viewer somewhat on edge. In a television show about the gritty work of police detectives, the introduction to the show might have the sound of pounding drums and video with lots of short, quick pans and zooms. The result sets the mood for the show in style and pace: a gritty, edgy, pounding city, and crime that makes our heads spin. Even though the technique works for a television drama, it would be primarily limited to the introduction. A full hour of the introductory pace would be impossible to bear. Television news photography can have a dramatic impact, but this impact comes from helping the audience understand a real situation. In news coverage of an actual crime scene and police activity, the viewer needs to see and understand what's happening rather than be led into a mood-setting montage of fast-paced camera action. If you use pans and zooms, make them slow and steady.