Making better travel videos

Release your inner Scorsese and shoot better holiday videos to take YouTube by storm

Here are some general tips (several of which are shameless cut-and-pastes from my Photography Tips).

Many of these are designed to save you from yourself and your own worst instincts when you're out there shooting, and to make things ten times easier once you get back to the editing room, by which I mean downloading the raw footage to your computer and using iMovie, Adobe Premiere, or whatever other out-of-the-box video editing program you have:

  1. Shoot Long. What, that DV tape is precious to you? No way. For help later in the editing studio (a.k.a. iMovie or somesuch), give yourself some wiggle room for adding voiceovers or music that might go on longer than the actual action, for slow dissolves into or out of the scene, and for plain old breathing space.

    I know a lot of videography is about trying to catch a particular moment (little Johnny starts grandstanding hilariously, or a street festival breaks out in front of you, or the lion finally decides to make his appearance on your safari), so you tend to begin shooting after the spontaneous action has already begun. However, if you have the chance do try to start shooting for at least 10 seconds prior to what you consider the core of your shot, and always keep it rolling for at least 10 seconds afterwards.

  2. Shoot B-roll. That's videographer speak for getting stock footage of elements that can add depth and context to any story. When, on the evening news, you see planes taxiing around aimlessly and passengers milling about the airport check-in area while Brian Williams drones on about the latest air travel story, that's B-roll.

    Whenever they're introducing an expert they're about to interview and they show her walking down the hallway at her office, or sitting at her computer typing, that's B-roll. (I've done the talking head thing before, and that staged stuff makes you feel ridiculous; they ask you to grab a sheaf of papers or something and hold it as you walk past the camera two or three times, then to sit at your computer and pretend to type while some cameraman hovers over your shoulder.)

    Whenever they do a segment on obesity in America and show (always from the neck down) footage of a bunch of fat people crossing a city street, that's B-roll.

    B-roll is scene setting footage that you can splice in between the "action" shots of your family wandering around St. Peter's, climbing up inside the cathedral dome in Florence, or biking through the Chianti.

    For travel video, try to grab some footage of the following stock travel scenes: People milling about in a famous square or in front of a famous sight; a hillside in Tuscany covered in vines and topped by a medieval town; a train chugging alongside a river or up a mountain; boats puttering along a city river; people enjoying a sidewalk cafe; any particularly gorgeous landscape; a castle top a hill; skiers in the Alps; a tranquil farm scene of sheep or cows; basically anything that makes you point and say "Oh, look honey!"

    Resist the urge to pan, zoom, or do any other camera effects (we'll get to those in a second). Just keep the camera steady on the scene, letting any cars/trains/ boats/people/whatever pass in and out of frame, for a least 10 seconds (that's the standard), preferably 15 or 20 seconds if you can.

  3. Frame the shot. Make it interesting: shoot through an open window or archway or flanked by a pair of ancient columns on a temple. Get a Dolomite mountain reflected in a lake or a town hall reflected in a puddle. Make sure that shot of the bar shows the line of scooters parked on either side of the door. If you can’t quite get the whole thing in a shot, don't sweat it. Remember: this is video; you can pan and zoom.

  4. Zoom and pan for revelatory effect. Start in close up on, say, a wavering pool of water. Now zoom out slowly to reveal that the water is in a fountain; as you continue slowly zooming out we see that the fountain has a colonnade behind it, and as we ge to the wide shot...oh my goodness, look: If it isn't St. Peter's! OK, a bit cheesy in the explanation, but trust me: The effect works.

    Same goes for panning (standing still and pivoting the camera slowly). Start by showing the cityscape of Florence (perhaps starting from a tight shot of pretty little San Miniato al Monte church on its hillside, then zooming out to a wider angle). Now pan across the cityscape slowly as the viewer realizes you are clearly stationed at a high vantage point. Continue panning until suddenly the nave of a church roof veers into the scene below you and a curve of orange tiles then, in the foreground, the smiling faces of your family, standing atop Brunelleschi's dome on the Florence cathedral and gazing off to the right of frame, looking out over the cityscape that you thoughtfully just shared with the viewing audience (which, one assumes, will be the same politely bored relatives and friends to whom you subjected your slide shows in the 1980s).

    Not only does it look more dramatic, but it contextualizes the shot (not the mere fact that your family climbed the Duomo, but also showing what they saw) and adds extra layers of information to the imagery. You can also pan vertically (or even at an angle, though that's disconcerting): start at the people milling around the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, then pan up to the top, or vice versa.

    I once did a close-up of the pope (this was in 2000, so it was John Paul II) shuffling up to his throne, helped along by some cardinals. The shot stays with the pontiff for a few seconds, panning along with him, then fixes on him as he folds himself into his throne. Then the shot starts slowly zooming out to reveal that he is on the steps before St. Peter's. As the zoom-out continues it shows that we're at a public papal audience, the Piazza San Pietro packed with the faithful and the curious. At the full wide angle (zooming out complete), I pan to the right and suddenly the parents (of the Boy Scouts I took to Europe) watching this video see that their very own sons were there, in the presence of the pope. (The fact that half of said sons were asleep was only a testament to how hot the day was out in that summer sun. The parents were still impressed.)

  5. Try for slow, steady zooms and pans. When you start in close and pull out slowly, its far more effective that just spinning the zoom ring (or flicking the zoom lever, or mashing the "zoom out" half of the toggle button with your thumb, or however your zoom works). Actually, those now-nearly-standard zoom pushbuttons make careful, paced zooming rather difficult; the key is a light touch.

    Same goes for pans. No whip-pans, please, jerking the camera from one site of focus to another located 90 degrees to your left. It looks ugly and is disconcerting. Whatever you do, do not give into the seemingly universal temptation to zoom in and out quickly and repeatedly. It looked dumb on Laugh-In and it looks dumb now (and you don't have the benefit of the fact that the focus of that rapid zooming on Laugh-In was a young and nubile Goldie Hawn's nearly-naked body covered in psychedelic temporary tattoos.)

    The good news: should you later discover you want a fast zoom or whip-pan, you can always quickly and easily achieve this effect with your editing software—and, with basic digital video and out-of-the-box editing software, you get much better results from speeding up a slow zoom (it just drops out frames at regular intervals) than trying to slow down a fast one (you get that trippy, slow-mo effect that really only works as a visual shorthand to imply true speed, à la "Bionic Man" or "Chariots of Fire," or when a badass hero or villain is walking directly toward the camera, preferably with something exploding in the background).

  6. Try different angles. Choose any angle that will get you a shot different from everybody’s else’s. Eye-level is boring. Climb a tree, squat down, stand on a bench, hold the camera high above your head and point it in the general direction of your shot. One of the best angles: lie flat out on the ground. I do it all the time, and while I get funny looks, it makes for some great shots.

    Ponder this: Spielburg shot E.T. entirely at the eye level of its two main characters, the young boy Elliot and E.T. (neck extended). This is why most adults in the film are seen mostly at waist level: the science teacher handing out frogs to dissect, Elliot's mother putting away groceries. In fact, until the final scenes of the movie, the the ominous government scientist tracking E.T. is shown almost exclusively as a set of keys hanging from a belt.

    If you must, take a production note from the directors of B-movies and Star Trek: Shoot people at slightly-too-close-range from chest level. Suddenly everyone looks looming, impressive, and (melo)dramatic, even tiny Captain Picard (though that rich, Shakespearian baritone also helps).

  7. Get the sun behind you. Try to get any light source at your back or glancing in from the side if you’re going for special shadow and light effects. One of the only times it's effective to let the light come right at you is to shoot a sun setting or rising directly behind a column on an ancient temple—a marvelous effect.

  8. Look for the unusual in the everyday. What sums up a country or culture? Half the things you’ll remember most about any trip won’t be the attractions but rather the sights and oddities of daily life over there. Go ahead, film old men playing cards, tiny Fiat cars and Vespas buzzing by, busy vegetable markets, an emergency vehicle whizzing by making that distinctive NYER-ner, NYER-ner European siren sound, nuns on a scooter, or a sheep jam on a country road.

    Film your meals and picnics (just for a minute; eating them is far more important and interesting). Candid shots of other people can be great, but may get some people mad. Be discreet and diplomatic. In fact:

  9. Ask permission. It's a bit embarrassing, and it may often spoil the un-posed shot you want, but it is only polite to ask someone before filming them whenever possible. In some cases, people get outright mad if they catch you filming them on the sly, whether it's a cultural thing or they're just plain shy and/or mean. Always ask—just say "foto?" and hold up the camera while pointing to them; they'll get the idea.

    Don't worry that they will turn rigid and pose or amp up the antics for you, just sit there filming long enough and they'll get bored with you, start acting like themselves again, and go back to hanging the laundry, playing bocce ball, or whatever it was that drew you to them in the first place. Then you'll have the shot you wanted.

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