How to Shoot Better Video with an iPhone

Filming with a cellphone is easy…if you know the basics. You might think everyone knows those basics by now—for example, that video shot in portrait mode (phone held upright) will not play back properly on 16:9 aspect monitors (phones, computers, TVs). Apparently not everyone got the memo, judging by all the wrongly-oriented, amateur videos shown on news outlets. And there are several other simple, but often overlooked, ways to shoot better video with a phone.

So I’ve created a brief video to cover all the essentials (plus a few extras), which will improve the quality of videos filmed with an iPhone (direct link to video):

16 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Your First Science Video

karen_bookshelfPicture this scenario: A scientist is nearing the end of a research project funded by NSF and is preparing the required summary report written for the public. She decides to create a short video to submit along with her written report. She’s never made a video before—only shot occasional footage with her iPhone. Undaunted, she buys an expensive camcorder and after a bit of practice in her backyard, dives into shooting. She films herself explaining the project in detail from behind her office desk. She goes through all the methods, results, and statistics, making sure to cover all the uncertainties and limitations of the research. She doesn’t bother to edit the footage, not really knowing how to do this. In any case, the clips she shot in her backyard garden look nice and add a bit of scenery to the video. The final video is 29 minutes long. Proudly, she shows it to her lab group, most of whom worked on the research project. At the end of the viewing, there is stunned silence. Then, one graduate student tentatively raises his hand and asks, “You’re not going to put this on YouTube, are you?”

Uh oh.

Novices typically make the same mistakes when they first attempt to create a video. I know because I’ve made quite a few of them myself. I see the same glaring blunders made over and over again in what are clearly first-time videos made by a scientist or science educator. However, many of these errors are easily avoided. Some simply require awareness to side-step them, while others take a bit of practice and/or the right equipment.

I came up with a list of 16 common mistakes (and how to avoid them) based on my own experience. I either made the mistake myself at some point or would have had I not been forewarned about it. I’m sharing them with you in the hopes that they will help you avoid some of the most common errors:

1. Ignore your audience. The number one mistake that you can make is to fail to identify your target audience or fail to keep them in mind when designing your video. I find that scientists too often explain their work as they would to their colleagues, even if their audience is composed of non-specialists with little or no background in the field. It never occurs to them to put themselves into their audience’s shoes.

Solution: During all phases of video production, ask yourself the following questions. Will it make sense to my viewers? Will they find it memorable, interesting, informative, and/or enjoyable? Find more information on how to keep your audience engaged here: Keep Your Audience in Mind and Are Your Science Videos Understandable by a Diverse Audience?.

2. Have no plan. Novices rush out with their cameras and just start shooting. The result? A long-winded, rambling monologue and/or poorly composed footage, which often has no bearing on the topic of the video.

Solution: Prepare a script and storyboard your shots beforehand. Write out what you want to say and also describe or sketch out the sequence of shots (storyboard) you plan to use. Don’t memorize the script, however—just use it to organize your main points and to ensure a smooth delivery. Follow your storyboard to set up your shots and also to guide you in editing.

3. Don’t tell a story. A common mistake that scientists make in a video is to string together a series of facts designed to “educate” the viewer. These facts are presented in a logical and unemotional manner—which is how we are trained to convey science information. Unfortunately, viewers, especially the general public or students, may not react well to this approach. In addition, they may not remember material presented this way.

Solution: Frame your science message in the form of a story. People love stories and will stick around to see how everything turns out. They also tend to remember stories better than bare facts. Explaining science in the form of a story also helps you, the science communicator, make a connection with the audience. A good story asks and answers a dramatic question: What motivates a scientist to study deadly viruses? How does a volcanologist collect (and carry) samples of molten lava? Why should I care about climate change? By using a story, the videographer can present science information accurately and concisely but in a way that engages the viewer.

For more information on the use of dramatic questions and storytelling in science videos, read The Dramatic Question and I’m Not Interesting, But My Research Is.

4. Use bad camera moves. Inexperienced videographers often shoot with hand-held cameras, which produces shaky or blurry footage (and no, it’s not the same as the jerky footage sometimes used by professional filmmakers). Another common mistake is sweeping the camera around erratically (“firehosing”). These problems happen when the videographer has no idea what they want to shoot (in other words, they have not planned anything and are just filming everything in the hopes of getting something useful).

Solution: Carefully plan and set up each shot and use a tripod to steady the camera.

5. Overuse zooming/panning. The controls on many modern cameras encourage novices to overuse the zoom feature, which can be annoying to viewers and also adds unnecessarily to the video length. Too much panning (swinging the camera from side to side across a scene) is also a sign of inexperience.

Solution: Zoom with your feet. Instead of using the camera to zoom in for a close-up, stop and walk closer to your subject and resume shooting. The time spent during a zoom is wasted time and does not add anything of value to your video. Use zoom and pan sparingly and only when you have a specific reason for it.

6. Backlight your subject. Another common error made during filming is to position the subject in front of a light source such as a window, which causes backlighting. The camera automatically selects the brightest light as reference and adjusts everything else accordingly. The result is to put your subject in deep shadow. Backlighting can occur outdoors as well when the sun is positioned behind the subject or is overhead, casting shadows onto the subject’s face.

Solution: Ensure that the light source is behind the camera; if necessary, use extra lamps or reflectors to light your subject. This post and video explain more about backlighting: How to Deal with Lighting Issues.

7. Fail to compose your shots properly. Many novice videographers/photographers put their subject in the center of the frame, which is less interesting to the eye.

Solution: Use the “rule of thirds” to compose shots. Most cameras have an option to show a grid in the viewfinder that divides the frame into thirds from top to bottom and left to right. Use this guide to frame your shots. Read more about this composition tip in this post: The Rule of Thirds.

8. Shoot too wide. Novice videographers (and photographers) often shoot too wide, putting their subject far from the camera lens. The result is often a poorly-composed shot in which details of the scene, the subject, or the action are difficult to see.

Solution: Wide shots are fine if you are trying to show something in perspective—otherwise position the camera close enough to your subject to capture the action and/or details, such as facial expressions. If they are gesturing or demonstrating something, then periodically use a medium shot or possibly a close-up of their hands (and whatever they are holding).

9. Tell but don’t show. Those new to video often rely on verbal descriptions and fail to show what is being described. This approach reveals a lack of imagination and is boring to the viewer.

Solution: Let visuals tell your story. Use text and verbal descriptions to augment the visual depictions—not the other way around. You are making a video, after all. For more information, read Show and Tell and What Is B-roll and Why Should I Care About It?

10. Drag it out.  Some videos seem to drag because the scenery never changes, or the story does not move forward at a good pace.

Solution: Use a variety of footage (or still images) shot in different locations or from different perspectives (close-up, medium shot, wide shot). By changing scenery or perspectives, you add visual interest and move the story forward. For more information, read Keep it Moving.

11. Feature “talking heads”. The novice videographer films long sequences of people speaking to the camera—an approach that is guaranteed to bore viewers. This effect is enhanced when the talking head is a scientist speaking in a robotic manner.

Solution: Use cutaways to other footage, images, animations, or graphics to illustrate what the speaker is describing. By giving the eye something new to look at while the speaker is explaining, you add visual interest and avoid boredom.

12. Don’t worry about the audio. Novice videographers fail to use proper microphones and often don’t pay attention to ambient noises (people talking nearby, dishes clattering, machinery droning, traffic rumbling, wind blowing) during filming.

Solution: Use a lavalier-mic (lapel microphone) to ensure a speaker’s voice is clearly heard. Also use a good quality microphone for voice overs (not the built-in computer microphone). When shooting, review often and listen to the sound with headphones or earbuds. For more information, see How to Improve the Audio of Your Videos Without Breaking the Bank.

13. Have speakers introduce themselves. Having a subject introduce themselves on camera sounds awkward and also wastes time: “Hi, I’m Dr. Hotshot, and I work on a very important subject.”

Solution: Identify people with a simple text caption that appears briefly while the speaker is talking about their topic. The person is clearly identified without adding to the length of the video.

14. Go crazy with special effects. Movie-editing applications often include a library of special video and audio effects. Novices get carried away and use dramatic transitions between clips or glowing text that zooms in and out of the frame. Overuse of fancy effects in an attempt to spruce up otherwise boring footage will fool no one—and will likely annoy the viewer.

Solution: Stick to basic transitions (cut, dissolve) and simple (and consistent) text styles. Use special effects sparingly and only if you have a specific reason to do so.

15. Make it longer than necessary. Scientists making their first video will try to cram as much information as possible into it. They also feel the need to explain every detail and uncertainty (in the interest of accuracy). By the time they finish all that hemming and hawing, the viewer has clicked away to another video.

Solution: Strip your video down to a core message and include only those elements necessary to get that message across. If you can deliver your message in three minutes, then don’t go any longer by trying to cram in more “facts”. For more on the topic, read Strive for Brevity and Can You Describe a Scientific Method in a One-Minute Video?

16. Use copyrighted material without permission. Novices often are unclear about what can and cannot be used in a video. Instead of creating original material, they download images, video, and music from the Internet to create their videos. Unfortunately, they may be guilty of copyright infringement.

Solution: Assume anything on the Internet (or fixed in any other medium) is copyright protected until evidence to the contrary is found. Just because you can download it, does not mean you are justified in using it. The best solution is to use media that you’ve created or media in the public domain. Otherwise, you need to obtain written permission and/or pay a fee to the copyright holder. For more information, see Sources of Public Domain Images.

Well, that’s my list of common mistakes to avoid when making your first science video. This is not an exhaustive list—just the ones that I found to be most problematic for me, a scientist. Some of these are no-brainers, but others you may find difficult to avoid even if you know better.

Want to learn more? I go into greater detail about these and other pitfalls to avoid in my book, The Scientist Videographer. Check it out.

How to Improve the Audio of Your Videos Without Breaking the Bank

The success of your video will depend in part on good audio, which will require a decent microphone. You will need a good microphone during filming with a video camera as well as for doing voiceovers during editing. Which microphone you need and can afford will, of course, vary with your situation. Although there are many microphones that provide excellent audio quality, these are often quite expensive and may be out of reach for students and scientists with limited budgets. If so, there are some inexpensive options that will improve your audio, which I will emphasize here. In this video report, I demonstrate a few ways to improve the quality of your audio without breaking the bank.

Most camcorders and other cameras that shoot video have built-in microphones that will work fairly well–as long as the speaker is close enough to the camera, and there is not a lot of background noise. Many of my videos were filmed using the built-in microphone on the camcorder or digital camera. This approach works fine when the speaker is stationary and speaking directly to the camera from no more than a few feet away. If the speaker is moving around or standing a distance from the camera, however, then it’s best to use some type of external microphone to boost the quality of the audio. The lavalier or lapel microphone is likely to be what the scientist videographer will find most useful. These are tiny microphones that clip onto the lapel of the person speaking and are connected via cable or wirelessly to the camera or a separate recording device.

Unfortunately, not all video cameras come with receptacles for microphone jacks. One of my favorite point-and-shoot cameras, which shoots outstanding HD video, has no option for attaching an external microphone. My solution is to use my iPhone as an audio recording device and an external microphone with a jack designed to work with the headphone receptacle.

The other situation requiring a good microphone is when doing voiceovers for your video. If you rely on the microphone on your computer or an inexpensive external microphone, your voice will likely sound “tinny”, and the overall quality of the audio will be noticeably poorer. I invested in a studio-quality microphone with a USB cable to connect to my computer. The better microphone has made a huge difference in the quality of my videos.

Science Video Tips: Say What?

In the last post, I started talking about some of the challenges in using an iPad to shoot video and audio.  I mentioned some of the issues with audio in particular.  Some of these points are relevant to any device you may be using to capture audio.

For example, during interviews should you record your voice (as the interviewer) along with the response of your subject?  The answer is yes.  It will make things much easier when you sit down to edit your movie project later, especially if you are not going to be able to edit soon after shooting.  Although it may be clear from the interviewee’s answer what you asked, it’s not always apparent, especially if your subject tends to ramble and does not answer your questions directly.  Another consideration is that although I plan my questions ahead of time, I always think of something extra to ask during the interview (these unplanned questions often yield some of my best footage).  You can remove your voice during the editing process so easily that there is no reason not to record it.  Also, depending on your desired interview format, you may wish to record both interviewer and interviewee and retain both in your finished product.

So overall, the iPad did pretty well in recording audio, even in situations with a lot of background noise.  I did find, however, that I needed to get pretty close to my subject in order to have their voice record well enough to be distinguishable from the background.  That tended to interfere with framing the shot I wanted.  Because what my subjects were saying was more important (in this situation), I compromised on the visual aspect.

I did not try using a lavalier (lapel mic) with the iPad during this field test. However, a lavalier would definitely enhance the audio of any movie project and avoid the problem mentioned above.  In the future, I will look into appropriate adapters for connecting a lavalier microphone to an iPad and give it a test run.

A Real World Test of the iPad to Shoot a Video II

In the last post, I began describing my experience using the iPad to shoot and edit video.  This was my first movie project with the iPad in a “field” setting.  The previous videos were done in a controlled setting (my home office).

So, how did things go in the real world where you don’t have so much control over your surroundings and subjects?  You never know whether there will be problems with background noise or shy interviewees who are self-conscious on camera.  Well, it went better than expected.  There was quite a bit of background noise to contend with, as you might imagine at a conference. However, I got around some of that by scheduling interviews in quiet corners away from the crowds. Of course, I wanted to capture some of the noise and activity surrounding the meeting events, so I did try some interviews in the midst of loud crowd scenes.

I was surprised at how well the microphone on the iPad picked up my subject’s voice in spite of the background noise.  However, I ended up having to import those clips to my full iMovie version on my computer to decrease the background noise and enhance my subject’s voice.  These expanded options are not available on the iPad version of iMovie.  All you can do is raise or lower the audio on the clip, but this will raise the volume of the background noise along with the desired audio track. I may do a tutorial later to show how to enhance an audio track (e.g., someone’s voice) while dampening the background noise (using iMovie 11).

Another thing I noticed with the iPad is that it was easy to accidentally cover the mic openings with my hand, especially when my attention was diverted toward dealing with my interview subject.  So I had to be careful how I held the iPad while shooting video.  If you make this mistake, it will definitely muffle your audio, rendering your interview useless.  This has never been an issue with my camcorders, which are designed for capturing video and audio.

In the next post, I’ll continue my critique.