Improving Your Shots

By Jim Church

In the last lesson we discussed the three main video shots: the long shot (LS), medium shot (MS) and close-up (CU).

The LS established location and conditions and provided transitions and endings. The MS moved in to feature something of interest in the wide view LS and the CU pinpointed the action. One commonly used sequence of shots is the LS, MS, CU and LS. In this lesson, let's concentrate on improving individual shots.

Planning Your Shots: Beginners often begin shooting before they begin thinking. They don't have a strong subject, haven't thought about what shot (LS, MS or CU) they should use, how they will end it or what the next shot will be. Before beginning a shot (or a series of related shots), think through each of the following questions:

  1. What is your subject?
  2. How will you start the shot; LS, MS or CU?
  3. When will you start and end the shot?
  4. What is the subject for your next shot?
Question #3 is often the hardest to answer. Divers swim into your camera's view, change their minds and leave. Fish do what you wanted them to only after you stop shooting. Shooting a still photographer at work can be exasperating. You think the photographer is about to take a picture, you begin filming and the photographer takes forever to compose the shot. No sooner do you give up and stop shooting when; whamo! ; the strobe flashes. If you are shooting action, start early and keep shooting until you get a natural ending.

Plan Your Zooms: Beginning underwater videographers often zoom erratically from shot to shot; LS to MS to CU; while shooting. The resulting footage is often painful to watch. If you must zoom while shooting, try gliding in for an LS to MS. I usually turn the camera off, zoom to the new image size and then start shooting again. When working close, the smoothest way to zoom is to move your camera in closer, rather than fumble with the zoom control.

Plan Your Pans: Panning means moving the camera to show a wide area. Underwater, you can pan horizontally, vertically or diagonally. (Topside, panning refers to horizontal movement. Underwater, I broaden the definition to include any movement.) A pan shot can take the viewer from one area to another or show a panoramic view. Most beginners pan too quickly and in a random manner. Here are a few suggestions for panning:

  1. Pan from one subject to another. For example, follow descending divers from the surface to a shallow bottom or pan to show the expanse of a shipwreck or reef.
  2. Avoid the indecisive pan. Once you start a pan shot, don't back up if you miss an important subject. Finish the pan and then go back to the subject. (Unless the new subject is a must have shot.)
  3. When panning with a swimming subject, follow its general direction, not its every movement.
  4. If a close-up subject, such as a juvenile Spotted Drum, is moving within a small area, don't follow its movements. Let the subject swim in and out of frame and around in the picture area.
  5. Don't pan unless you have a reason.

The Golden Rule: The golden rule is simple: Change image size (LS to MS or CU), camera angle or both whenever you start a new shot. Changing camera angle implies action and motion, even with non-moving subjects. To see how this works, watch the constantly changing image sizes and angles in TV commercials.

Shot Length: If you plan to edit later, start shooting several seconds before the action begins and leave the camera running several seconds after the action ends. This gives you some 'editing space' and keeps you from missing important action. Select the best footage while editing. In the final edit, don't use shots longer than about 12 seconds unless you have an action sequence or a unique subject.

If you are editing in camera, remember there will be a slight delay between the time you trigger the record mechanism and the time the camcorder starts recording. Thus, start your shots early. Don't stop shooting too soon; let the diver or fish exit the scene. If you want a long view of a sedentary subject, use several shots taken at slightly different angles rather than a single long shot.