12 Filming Mistakes to Avoid

In the process of learning how to make a video, we all make rookie mistakes. That is, unless we are warned about them. I made a lot of mistakes when I first began making science videos. However, I avoided some of the most common filming errors by reading about them or watching tutorials. I recently gave a lecture to a university class about how to make a video with a smartphone. This particular science course requires the students to make a video about one of the topics covered in the course. One of the topics I always cover in these lectures is common filming mistakes.

When I finished the lecture and was walking back to my car, the thought occurred to me that I could use my lecture presentation (made with Prezi) to make a helpful video about avoiding common filming mistakes. Later, I recorded that part of my lecture about filming mistakes with the screencapture software, Screenflow, along with my voiceover. All I had to do was play my presentation fullscreen on my computer while Screenflow recorded the screen and my voice. I then edited the footage in Screenflow to trim out unwanted sections and to insert The Scientist Videographer intro/outro at the beginning and end of the video. It took about fifteen minutes. My point is that recording your lectures, seminars, or conference presentations is a really easy way to make a video.

If you have a presentation made in PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, or some other application, you should be able to use that as the basis for a video about your science topic. Some journals are even encouraging authors to use this approach to create a video abstract that will accompany their scientific article. So, it may be worthwhile to know how to make a video this way.

Here is the video I made:

What To Do With All Those Research Photos: Tell a Visual Story

chasingmudsmallMany researchers, especially those of us who conduct fieldwork, have thousands of photos taken during the course of studies we have conducted—of field sites, equipment, procedures, study organisms, and people. Take the photo at left, for example. I took it during a helicopter survey of marsh sedimentation following the 2011 flood of the Mississippi River. The data we collected were ultimately reported in a couple of journal articles, here and here, but most of the photos remain unpublished.

Photos like this, however, are useful in documenting the conditions encountered during field trips, the procedures employed to collect samples, experimental setups, laboratory protocols, as well as many other aspects of the research. In this study, I additionally photographed each sample site from the air and on the ground, generating a visual record of the vegetation and landscape features.

Scientists most often use such research photos in presentations given at conferences or seminars and, to a lesser extent, in journal articles and book chapters. Some of us also share random images through social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). In most cases, though, these photos simply sit in our files and never see the light of day. This is unfortunate, however, because such images represent important and potentially useful information.

How can we put our research images to better use?

There are many possibilities, but I’ll focus on two options in this post, which is to use photos to craft (1) a visual abstract that summarizes a journal article and (2) a narrative that delves into those aspects of research that are not typically described in a paper (the challenges you faced during the study, the importance of your work to society). In both cases, the researcher is able to visually amplify their work and share it with others.

Create a Visual Abstract

One way to use research photos is to augment a journal article with a visual abstract, which is a summary that uses images instead of text to briefly describe the findings of a study. Research photos can be combined with diagrams, graphs, animations, and text to provide a visually-rich overview of the study. These are images that enhance understanding of the research methods, study sites, potential applications, and other aspects, but are typically not included in journal articles because of page limitations and other constraints imposed by traditional formats (this may change to some degree with electronic publications).

A visual abstract can be created and published alongside the article as supplementary online material, on an independent media-sharing site, or on the author’s website. Once online, the visual abstract acts to attract attention to the paper and allows a deeper exploration of the research described in the text narrative. Most importantly, a visual abstract organizes your research photos to create a coherent narrative—something posting individual images of research cannot do as effectively.

A simple way to create a visual abstract is with a slideshow organized to take the viewer sequentially through each stage of the research. I’ve recently produced two visual abstracts using the presentation application, Prezi. These abstracts are designed somewhat like a poster or infographic, except instead of a static image, they are interactive.

PowerPoint, Keynote, or some other application might be used to create a visual abstract or infographic. I chose Prezi, however, because of its multi-dimensional, non-linear canvas, which lets you create an explorable document that also can be shared easily via a link or embedded in a website. With Prezi, you can arrange the “frames” in a single plane to create a pleasing overview and then use the “zoom” function to bring each frame into full view, creating a narrative.

There are many ways to design a visual abstract. The two examples I created used a simple design with one photograph acting as an anchor image and other images and text provided in frames positioned alongside the main image. I’ve embedded the two Prezi visual abstracts below.

The first visual abstract summarizes a paper to be published in the Annual Review of Marine Science. Even though this paper was a review, I was able to produce an informative visual abstract using photos (and diagrams) that illustrated various aspects of the review topic. The visual abstract distills the paper down to a few key points, which are covered in greater detail in the technical paper. Here is the direct link: http://prezi.com/dtfasu6khdti/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

The second visual abstract summarizes a paper published in 2008 in the Smithsonian Contributions to the Marine Sciences. Although the paper was published seven years ago, the topic is still relevant. Unfortunately, the paper does not rank high in a Google search. Consequently, I decided to create a visual abstract to help raise the online visibility of the paper. My colleagues and I had taken hundreds of photos during that study that could be used to share information about the study location, the methods, the results, and the broader implications of the work. I selected the best ones and combined them with public domain images, graphs, and text to summarize the study. Here is the direct link: http://prezi.com/vaijezkevszk/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

As I said, there are many ways to design a visual abstract. Here is another option, which I’ve made available as a free template on the Prezi platform. You can download it and then replace my images and text with your own.

After creating a visual abstract, you can send the link to colleagues or embed it on your website. The ideal approach is to create and post a visual abstract before or concurrent with publication of the paper. That way, the abstract can act like an advertisement for the pending publication and build a pool of potential readers. But there is no statute of limitations on visual abstracts, especially if you’ve got a library of photographs from previously-published studies.

Create a Visual Narrative

Although researchers in your field may be primarily interested in the technical aspects of your work, there is a larger audience of people who want to hear about what motivated you to conduct your study or what it’s like to conduct research on a tropical island in Belize. This group includes students, scientists in other fields, policy-makers, the media, and the general public. Scientists have compelling stories to tell that help others understand the nature of research as well as why scientific research is needed. Such stories are also helpful in getting the average person interested in science and in topics of critical importance to society.

A visual narrative, constructed with a series of photos, can be used to tell the “backstory” of a research project….an expedition to the Congo, for example (see below). Visual narratives can provide insights into a research project that typically do not make it into the journal article but are useful in conveying the challenges researchers faced in collecting samples, the beauty of the ecosystem under threat, or the broader impacts of the findings on society.

Such stories appeal to students and the general public and can get people interested in your research topic.

As you will see in the video below, the filmmaker used mostly still images to tell the story of how researchers from the Woods Hole Research Center studied the Congo River. This example shows that with some creative editing, photographs can be arranged to tell a powerful and effective story.

Some Practical Considerations

You may be wondering just how long does something like this take? In the case of the visual abstracts, the time required was about what it would take to put together a PowerPoint presentation. In fact, for the second visual abstract, I imported a PowerPoint slide deck, which I had previously used for a presentation, into Prezi and then simply rearranged the images and added text. You don’t have to use Prezi, but if you do, it is relatively easy to learn. If you already know how to use movie-editing software (iMovie Tutorial for iOS), creating a visual narrative of still images should not be overly taxing either.

Of course, to create a visual abstract or narrative, you must have the necessary images, and this takes planning. I got into the habit early in my research career of photographically documenting experiments and fieldwork. I made a list of photos I needed and then set aside time during a field trip to search out and snap those images. I took photographs not only of things related to my research but also of the plants, animals, soils, landscapes, and people I encountered. During long field expeditions (a week or more), I would typically spend an entire day just taking photographs. Back in the days of 35 mm film, however, I had to be somewhat parsimonious and carefully select what to photograph. Once digital cameras became available, I spent more time photographing—to document changes in the habitats I studied or to record visual features that might later prove useful in interpreting my results. Now, with phone cameras in our back pockets, it’s even easier to take, store, share, and reuse research photos.

As I’ve explained in a previous post, visuals can help make your research more visible online. Although you might present your research photos individually in an online repository, the viewer likely will have no understanding of what they are seeing or why it is important. I think it is much better to organize those photos to tell a story about your work. Visual abstracts and visual narratives are a great way to accomplish this.

Communication Down Under

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I was recently in Australia (one of my favorite places in the world–despite the abundance of poisonous/dangerous animals). This was a combination work-holiday trip, and the following description provides some highlights:

Keynote Address at the University of Wollongong

I gave a keynote address “Communication Tools and Strategies for the 21st Century Scientist” at the Australian Mangrove & karenmckee_au_2015Salt Marsh Network conference held at the University of Wollongong in Wollongong, Australia. This was a great opportunity not only to reconnect with colleagues who study my favorite ecosystems, but to share my ideas about communication. You can see a version of this talk on the Prezi website (a few things were changed to fit this particular audience). I got lots of great feedback from the audience, especially students who had a number of questions about developing their own communication strategies. Also, I made contact with other scientists active in science communication:

Seminar at The University of New South Wales

In addition to the keynote address, I also visited Ben McNeil at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and gave a seminar entitled, “How Video Can Enhance the Communication of Science”. Ben is a co-founder of Thinkable, an online platform that facilitates crowdfunding of research and requires proposers to pitch their projects in a 3-minute video. We had interacted previously by email and Skype; so this trip was a chance to meet in person and share ideas about scientists using video. I also made some great contacts with science communicators at the seminar. Read more about Thinkable in this earlier post.

karen2Also, Thinkable is currently running a competition with a $5,000 award; the submission deadline has passed, but voting is ongoing until April 30, 2015. I mention this competition because you can see how some researchers are structuring video proposals and perhaps get some ideas for your next video (and don’t forget to vote!).


I also had the opportunity before the conference to do some traveling around South Australia and try out my iPhone 6 to shoot video. In the photo, I’m setting up the phone to shoot a time lapse of the surf on Kangaroo Island. I’ll be sharing my experiences and some of those videos in later posts.


As you may have noticed, I’ve not written any posts recently. Between traveling and a computer crash (aaaarrgggghhhh), I’ve not been able to write much of substance. I was really hamstrung without access to my photo and movie files. Fortunately, I had everything backed up….unfortunately, the backup was at home 9,000 miles away. However, I’m now all set up with a new laptop and ready to catch up with my writing.

More about this trip later….

How to Shoot Video and Avoid the Most Common Mistakes

cameraoperator_cartoon_klmckeeAre you thinking about making a video but are afraid of looking like an amateur? I get a lot of questions about shooting video, but most often about what equipment to buy. My response usually is that the equipment is not as important as knowing how to shoot and edit the film properly. If you make amateurish mistakes while filming or editing, it doesn’t matter if you used a $500 or a $5,000 camera. I know, because I’ve made a lot of those beginner mistakes.

When we adopt a new technique or purchase new equipment, we quickly discover that knowledge of what NOT to do is as important as learning what to do. When I worked for a government science agency, I wrote many SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) that were supposed to be followed by members of my research group. However, I found that in addition to writing a step-by-step description of how to conduct a procedure, I also needed to include a list of actions that should be avoided. The latter were typically things that an expert would have picked up through trial and error but that often were not mentioned in the standard instruction manual. I even discovered that I needed to write an SOP on how to use an SOP (those of you in government service will appreciate the irony in that).

I’ve previously posted some of the most common mistakes that beginners make in creating their first video, but they bear repeating. Below is my list of mistakes to avoid when making a video, with emphasis on the scientist as videographer. Below the list is an embeddable slideshow with additional information about each one.

1. Ignore Your Audience.

2. Have No Plan

3. Don’t Tell a Story

4. Use Bad Camera Moves

5. Overuse Zooming/Panning

6. Backlight Your Subject

7. Fail to Compose Your Shots Properly

8. Shoot Too Wide

9. Tell But Don’t Show

10. Drag It Out

11. Feature Talking Heads

12. Don’t Worry About The Audio

13. Have Speakers Introduce Themselves

14. Go Crazy With Special Effects

15. Make It Longer Than Necessary

16. Use Copyrighted Material Without Permission

And another embeddable slideshow in Prezi:

Create a Visual Abstract for a Research Article With This Template

visual_abstract_template_klmckeeDo you want to raise the visibility of your research articles but don’t know how? One way to make your work more visible online is to create a video or other visual description of your work and post it online. A text link to your paper may be buried on page 43 of a Google search, but a visual link (image or video) is likely to be ranked higher (and possibly featured on the first page of search results if there are few competing visuals on your research topic).

A number of journals and scientists are using video or visual abstracts to promote papers, but it can be a challenge to create a visual abstract from scratch. So I’ve been working on a template to help those researchers who would like to create a visual abstract for a journal article. I finally finished it and am making it available to everyone.

I created the visual abstract template with Prezi and posted it on the Prezi website where anyone can reuse it. You will need to set up an account (free) on Prezi (or purchase an upgrade if you want to work on your computer). The template has a basic design for a visual abstract and contains media and text placeholders, which allow someone to easily substitute their own material. Instructions are built into the template so that the user can follow along and understand how to modify the template and create their own visual abstract. There are tutorials on the Prezi website that provide additional instructions for using Prezi.

I’ve embedded a player window below so that you can view the visual abstract template (be sure to select full-screen for best viewing):

If you would like to use this template, go to this webpage and download it. Once downloaded to your account, you will be able to make whatever changes you like—even change the entire theme, if you wish.

You don’t have to acknowledge me as the source of the template (although that would be nice) but please consider retaining the link and embed code for the template so that anyone viewing your abstract will know where to find the template for their use.

More Resources and Guidance for Creating Visual/Video Abstracts:

1. The Scientist Videographer eBook (contains more in-depth guidance and tutorials on developing a visual abstract)

2. 8 Steps to a Good Video Abstract (another embeddable slide show with more dos and don’ts)

3. Getting Started with Prezi (official guide to using Prezi–good for beginners)