Shoot or Shoot Not, There Is No Try – Some Hard-Learned Do’s and Don’ts of Event Videography

I sometimes have the pleasure of working with other videographers on projects. Usually I am quite pleased with the results, However, nobody’s perfect, and some people, especially when starting out with DSLR event videography, could use some pointers. Most of the problems I have with footage are pretty straightforward, here are a few tips that apply mostly to DSLR event shooting, but should help anyone shoot better videos. I’ve personally made every mistake here, and really these are just things to keep in mind as you shoot.

  • Don’t underexpose (use lights or a better lens or a slower shutter speed). If you do, it will be dark and grainy and generally almost impossible to salvage. Many DSLR resources advise you to not clip highlights, meaning not let your whites go to pure white, at which point any detail in the image is destroyed. I would advise shooters to be even more careful about not exposing enough. You might have heard of the 180-degree shutter rule. Basically, on most DSLRs you should set the shutter speed to 50 to get the proper amount of motion blur when shooting at 24p. However, this rule can be bent and broken, especially if you absolutely need an extra stop or two of light. There is very little latitude in the h.264 files encoded by DSLR cameras, so you should expose properly every time (tools like Magic Lantern can give you a live histogram and zebras which is invaluable to me when I am shooting. Also, if using Technicolor Cinestyle on your DSLR, overexpose a stop, because the picture style lifts the blacks and makes the image appear lighter than it will be when properly colour graded), and being overexposed a little will still allow your viewers to see what is going on, whereas a soupy mess of dark shapes will make your clients weep, and for all the wrong reasons.
  • Raise your tripod to eye-level (higher if you are short). I understand why some people like to shoot waist-level: when shooting models it is said that you should have your camera pointing roughly at their belly buttons to maintain their proportions and protect from lens distortion. This is really not a good idea when shooting events, since you will almost always end up shooting people’s backs, buttocks, and clipping off people’s heads. Get your camera up to eye level. Raise your tripod up or get a shoulder mount which allows you to move freely. Your back will thank you too.
  • Get above the crowd (stand on a chair if all you are seeing is the backs of people’s heads. Shoot across the crowd to frame the people that are looking at you. Especially shooting Jewish weddings, you MUST get above the crowd because very often the crowd will be dense, with all the action going on in the very middle (the hora, dances, whatnot) and everyone directly in front of you will be facing away from you (toward the action, of course).
  • Have the right lens. Use a lens with image stabilization if you are producing shaky images. Don’t use the kit zoom lens that came with your camera, it’s maximum aperture is likely 3.5, which is not good enough for low light. Purchase a nice zoom lens with a fixed aperture of 2.8 or better (Sigma has one which is 1.8). I use a Tamron zoom. Learn more about aperture here. Prime lenses are great for low light. I have a Pentax 50mm 1.4 with an EF adapter, and a 35mm Samyang Cine T1.5 lens which let in a lot of light. The only danger with these lenses is that you are stuck with a certain framing (no zoom) so you have to plan ahead, and there is no image stabilization, so unless you are built like a rock, you should use a tripod or something to give weight to your camera rig and smooth out shake.
  • ALWAYS ask yourself, “what is my shot of?” Every shot should be like a painting, there should be subjects (i.e.: an object you are trying to capture. A person counts as a subject, so does two people hugging, and so does a flower on a table at a wedding). his will help you frame correctly, and reduce the number of shots you take which the editor will throw away, whilst shaking his or her head. If your shot is not “of” anything in particular, why are you shooting?
  • Keep your horizon. Always make your shots appear level. In cinematography, lines are language, and if you tilt your camera, even unintentionally, you are saying something about the subjects being filmed, at worst the message will be that you are inexperienced.
  • Learn the golden rule and the rule of thirds. Learn about negative space and when to use it and when not to.
  • Develop a system that lets you run-and-gun that doesn’t make your footage look like you are running and gunning. I have a shoulder rig, slider and a jib, but the tool I use the most for my shoots is my Manfrotto tripod. Nothing will make your shots look better than a tripod correctly used. And creatively used, a tripod can duplicate some of the motions of sliders, jibs, glidecams and can even be used to stabilize your camera. I’ll write more on this in a future post.
  • Be aware of what’s going on around you. Try to follow who’s who, and anticipate great moments before they happen, so you can be in the right place at the right time. There are hints all the time during weddings and events as to what might happen next–that group of guys approaching with a chair is going to hoist the groom up and parade him around, and that scream coming from those girls dancing means that they are all dancing with the bride while holding the hem of her dress… you get the idea.

I’m definitely more of a documentarian on my shoots than some wedding videographers. I search for those real, wonderful moments, and I don’t give a lot of direction because I want it to be authentic. This means I shoot a lot of footage, and I am always trying to make 100% of my shots useable. Usually I achieve (guessing here) around 70%, which is still quite good for the amount of footage I shoot. If you are shooting less useable material than that, you need to develop a system with the right equipment and the right technique to get the job done.

See my next post about repairing poorly lit or generally terrible footage. Coming soon.