Basic Steps to Making a Science Video with a Smartphone

One of the biggest barriers for scientists to use video as a communication tool is the perception that video making is time consuming, expensive, and technically challenging. I know that this idea is out there not only because of comments from colleagues, but because this was my impression before I got involved in making videos. What I eventually learned was that advances in communication technology have made it possible for anyone to make a video—with inexpensive equipment and a minimum of time and effort. We now have (1) devices and software that make it ridiculously easy to create an effective and powerful video message and (2) the Internet where we can instantly share our knowledge globally.

To address this particular barrier, I’ve created a new tutorial that is designed to show the science professional just how easy it is now to create a video to share science. My goal with this brief tutorial was to demystify the video-making process for colleagues and students unfamiliar with it and to show how easy it is to plan, film, and edit a video with a smartphone (iPhone). I’ve emphasized the use of smartphones in this particular tutorial because: (1) most people already have one and know how to use it, (2) they have excellent cameras that can produce high definition video, (3) there are excellent movie-editing apps for mobile devices, (4) both the camera and editing software can be readily mastered with minimal training and effort, (5) their Internet accessibility facilitates sharing the video with others, and (6) filming, editing, and sharing a video is accomplished with a single device. Although other types of recording devices and more sophisticated editing software are available, they require somewhat more time and effort to master.

Here’s that tutorial (click here for a direct link):

Filming with a Smartphone: 20 Basic Camera Shots

Remember the opening scene in the original (1978) Halloween movie? In that scene, we see the exterior of a house, but from the point of view of one of the movie characters, which happens to be Michael Myers, the crazed killer…but as a child. He is creeping around looking in the windows of the house at the people inside. The camera faithfully shows us what he sees as he enters the house, opens a kitchen drawer, and takes out a large knife. We don’t see him, only his hand and what he is looking at. The suspense builds as he climbs the stairs to the bedroom…

That scene from Halloween used a point-of-view shot, which is one of a variety of camera shots used by filmmakers. A shot is the space seen in a frame of film. Different types of shots (wide shot, close up, cut-away) are used to show a film’s setting and its characters, as well as to set a mood or otherwise convey unspoken information to the viewer.

You are probably vaguely aware of the different camera views and moves that are used in the making of movies, even if you can’t name them. Of course, professional filmmakers know all the basic shots because that knowledge is essential when making a film that people want to watch. But did you know that you, the scientist videographer, can use the same set of camera shots to add visual variety to your science videos?

In the following video tutorial, I provide examples of 20 camera shots that you can use to make a video with a smartphone. I’m focusing on shots that can be done easily with a smartphone since many people are now using them to make their videos. I’ve illustrated each shot with one or more clips from my own video library. Most of these are traditional shots used by filmmakers, but I included some additional ones that I, well, totally made up. But I think you’ll find that they all will give you some ideas of different ways to shoot your videos, which will make them much more interesting to your viewers.

Here is a list of the 20 basic camera shots, along with a brief explanation, that I cover in the video.

  1. Extreme Wide Shot: In an extreme wide shot, the subject is visible but the emphasis is on showing him in relation to his environment.
  2. Wide Shot: The subject is closer to the camera in a wide shot, but he is still shown in perspective to his surroundings.
  3. Full Shot: A full shot is even closer, but the subject’s body is still in full view.
  4. Mid Shot: In a mid shot, only part of the subject is visible but the view gives an impression of the whole.
  5. Medium Close Up: A medium close up shows more detail by framing the subject’s face and upper body, for example.
  6. Close Up: One portion of the subject, such as a face, takes up the entire frame in a close up.
  7. High Angle: A high angle shot looks down on the subject or scene, perhaps to show an activity as in these examples.
  8. Two Shot: A two shot is a shot of two people in the same frame.
  9. Group Shot: A group shot shows three or more people in a frame.
  10. Cut-in: A cut-in shot focuses more closely on some aspect of a scene or subject. This can be done by moving the camera, as in this example, or by the subject moving closer to the camera, as in this second example.
  11. Cut-away: A cut-away shot moves the view away from the main scene or from one subject to another, as in this example.
  12. Pan: A pan moves the camera horizontally to sweep across a scene. It’s better to use a tripod to pan smoothly, but if you don’t have one, you can also move the camera freehand as in these examples to gradually reveal your subject.
  13. Tilt: A tilt shot moves the camera vertically. For example, to reveal a tall object.
  14. Tilt & Pan: A combination tilt and pan shot can be used to follow an object moving through space such as this quadcopter.
  15. Aerial Shot: An aerial shot is a view from a plane, a helicopter, or a drone.
  16. Point of View (POV) Shot: In a point of view shot, the camera shows what the subject is looking at. This shot can be used to put the video viewer into the subject’s shoes.
  17. Moving Vehicle Shot: The moving vehicle shot is a view of subjects being transported through a scene in a boat, car, or other vehicle.
  18. Selfie Shot: The selfie shot is when the subject is holding the camera and filming themselves talking or engaging in some activity. The selfie shot is accomplished with the aid of a selfie stick and a phone mount.
  19. Selfie Arc Shot: In an arc shot, the camera circles the subject. The selfie arc shot is one in which the subject twirls in place while shooting a selfie. This shot sustains the same view of the subject but reveals the subject’s surroundings in a 360 degree turn.
  20. Entrance/Exit Shot: With the camera fixed in place, a subject can move toward or away from the camera. Such shots can be used to open or close a video.

Halloween Special: iStabilizer Dolly Review

Sometimes we may want to use a smooth tracking shot in a video; that is, one in which the camera moves smoothly along a preplanned trajectory. The resultant shot adds a fluid, visually-interesting motion to a static scene or allows a smooth tracking shot of someone or something that is moving.

A “dolly” is used by professional filmmakers to capture this type of shot but is often an elaborate contraption and too expensive for the average scientist videographer. What is needed is something that is relatively inexpensive, small and portable, and can be used in a laboratory or other setting in which we might be filming.

There are a few lightweight dollies on the market for those of us shooting video with our Smartphone, GoPro, or other small camera. The ones I’ve seen are fairly similar to each other in size and function (but with some design feature differences). In this review, I take a look at a lightweight dolly made by iStabilizer ($59.95). Watch the video below to see how it works and the results of some real-world tests.

As you can see, the dolly is an inexpensive way to get some interesting tracking shots, but works well only on a smooth surface. It is well-made with solid components and should hold up under all but the roughest handling. I like the flexibility and the modular construction, allowing replacement of any parts that break (or if you want to modify something). The poor performance on rough or uneven surfaces is a negative, especially if you primarily film outdoors in a variety of environments. However, if your intent is to film mostly indoors in a laboratory or other facility, for example, where you can work on a table or a smooth floor, then this dolly would be an inexpensive choice.

A tracking shot can add a professional touch to your next science video. The iStabilizer dolly can help you accomplish this.

Are you interested in learning more techniques like this? If so, check out The Scientist Videographer eBook, which is an electronic guidebook packed with information, tips, and tutorials and designed for the 21st century scientist, teacher, and student. For more information, visit this page.

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.

How to Make a Video Abstract for Your Next Journal Article

As I’ve tried to demonstrate in this blog, video is a fantastic way to show off your research in a way that goes far beyond the traditional text-based paper. Today, I’d like to talk about a specific use of video to augment scientific articles. Science journals are beginning to publish video abstracts along with technical papers, an approach that is designed to increase the visibility of authors and their work.

What is a video abstract? A video abstract is a brief description of a technical paper in which the author(s) explain their work on camera, physically demonstrate their methods, use animations or simulations to illustrate concepts, and/or discuss the implications of their findings. By using video and other multimedia, authors can explain their work in a way that the print article cannot, an approach that provides a richer, more diverse experience for the readership. The following is a video abstract I created with a smartphone to demonstrate how easy it is.

Example of a video abstract:

Transcript of video abstract:

Download (PDF, 42KB)

Why would an author want to create a video abstract? Video allows much greater flexibility to an author in describing their work and to more effectively explain the significance of their findings. By posting a video on the internet, an author can raise the visibility of themselves and their research. Because search engines rank video high in relation to text-based descriptions, a video abstract can make an author’s work more visible and accessible to people searching for papers on that topic.

What journals or publishers accept video abstracts? At the moment, several science journals routinely accept video abstracts, including the New Journal of Physics and Cell, to name a couple. Other journals are experimenting with video abstracts but have only published a few so far. Many of these video abstracts are hosted on a YouTube channel (rather than the publisher website), which then means that the author can embed the video on their own website without worry of copyright infringement.  If journals in your field do not currently publish video abstracts, you can still prepare and publish your own video abstracts for any of your papers.

How do I make a video abstract if I do not have a media specialist to help me? So far, there are few guidelines or tutorials available to guide authors in this regard. In the tutorial below, I show how to create an effective, engaging, and professional-looking video abstract entirely with a smartphone. I emphasize use of a smartphone because many people already own one and know how to use it to shoot photos and video, the quality of the cameras in smartphones is high (and getting better), and movie editing software for smartphones is cheap and easy to use. These points are especially important for scientists working in developing countries and who have limited resources and budgets.

Make a Video Abstract Tutorial:

Transcript of tutorial:

Download (PDF, 54KB)