Tips for shooting better online video

Online video and movies can help tell stories in ways printed words can’t. Here is some advice to help.

With the increasingly affordable equipment and editing tools available today, it’s possible to turn out professional-looking online video quicker than you’d expect.


The viewing window for online video, even for most broadband connections, is pretty small, so you don’t necessarily need a top-of-the-line lens. Try this CNet video camera buying guide to help you price, research and select a camera within your budget.

While you don’t need the best camera, you do need acceptable sound. A microphone for man-on-the-street interviews is very helpful and is a real improvement over the camera’s on-board mic. The following are specifications for a hand-held stick microphone. You should be able to find one at a Radio Shack or Best Buy for between $20 and $40, or even a little less.
– uni-directional (cardioid) pick-up pattern
– lo-impedence (ohm symbol) 600 ohms or lower
– frequency response range: 50-100 hertz to 10,000-15,000 hertz
– 1/8″ mini-plug or a 1⁄4″ phone plug with a 1/8″ adapter
– 10-20 foot cord (you might find it a pain to wrap up and store such a long cord, but it’s indispensable when you really need it; a detachable cable is OK)
– No battery required

A lavaliere microphone for planned sit-down style interviews is a plus, but it’s not imperative if you’re trying to save money at the beginning. Some stick microphones available in the price ranges detailed above come with those cheesy little plastic stands, and believe it or not, these are fine for getting started. Just place the mic on the cheesy stand outside of the frame and shoot. Try to shoot in a quiet place to minimize audio distractions, and you’ll be surprised how well this will suffice to get you started.

You must use earphones to check that your audio is working. It’s surprising how easy it is to forget to turn on a microphone when you’re busy setting up equipment, trying to look confident and, at the same time, working to put your subject at ease. A simple check, even with the cheapest earphones, can save your entire video.

You will also want a tripod. Video doesn’t look good if the image is shaky like you shot it during an earthquake. A tripod with a leveling bubble is a nice extra. If you find yourself without a tripod, avoid using the zoom. As you zoom in, it gets easier and easier to see even the most subtle camera movement.

Flip-around LCD screens are nice in case you need to film yourself. But beware of using the screen all the time because it eats batteries fast. And, an extra battery, though pricey, is worthwhile so that you’re never caught without one. Get a roomy case and don’t forget to keep a pen and paper inside with your camera gear. It’ll make editing easier later if you keep notes while you shoot.


Video stories have some basic elements that you will carefully edit together. There are other types of elements to include, but these will get you started:
– video accompanied by its own sound – called “natural sounds” or nat sound
– snippets of people sharing information that advances the story – “sound on tape” or SOTs
– your vocal track over video – your vocal track is the “voice over” or VO, and the background video under your narration is called “b-roll.”

As you report your story, you should be thinking about the visuals that will help you tell your story. Match the content of your video to the content of your audio. Remember too that each of the visual clips you’ll weave together to tell your story visually will only be short bursts of no longer than five or six seconds. Think of it as a patchwork quilt that has many different pieces of tiny fabric that all add up to create a unified whole – all of the little pieces contribute to the overall visual effect of the quilt.

It’s also important to establish context. For example, if you’re shooting a story about a beloved local grocery store that is about to close down, you want to show viewers the outside of the store within its natural setting. Is the grocery store one among many in a strip mall along a busy thoroughfare? Or is it a stand-alone store at the crossroads of a tiny no-stoplight village in the foothills? You’ll need to anticipate the kinds of questions your viewers will have and answer them visually and through the narration.

Interviewing people on camera

Here are a few tips:
– People don’t really understand how to hold and use microphones, so you should always be the one to hold the stick mic. This puts you in control so you can get the best audio possible.
– Leave a little headroom at the top of the frame.
– Position your subject a little to the left or right of center and leave nose room to the opposite side.
– Use the LCD monitor on the camera to watch the interview at the same time that you look over the camera and make eye contact with the subject. This puts the subject at ease, gives her someone to look at and makes the interview more natural-sounding. But don’t, for any reason, make any sound at all when your subject is talking. Even the littlest laugh or “Ummm” from the camera person sounds awful.
– Don’t shoot your subject in front of a window or with the sun behind him, unless you want your subject to appear in silhouette; the best light source comes from behind the camera.

General shooting tips

– Each shot should be 10 to 15 seconds.
– Use your tripod whenever possible and always use your earphones.
– Let the tape run for about 20 seconds at the beginning of a tape and leave a little tape at the end as well.
– Get as close as you can to your subjects and shoot close-ups whenever possible.
– For online video, avoid pans (horizontal movement of the camera) and zooms (focusing in or out using the zoom feature on the camera) because not only does it look bad on the Internet, but unnecessary movement also slows down the video stream.
– Divide up the frame mentally into three vertical strips and place your subjects within those strips in such a way as to create screen balance.

Putting it together

Sit down and create a log of everything you’ve shot. Even the briefest list of the video, audio and time code will help you create your script and will provide a time-saving tool during the editing process.

It’s helpful to write your script in two columns, with the audio narration on the right and the corresponding video on the left.

Select the SOTs (interview sound bites) that help move the story forward. Design visual sequences to flesh out the narration and be sure to include shots that help establish location and context. Remember that, except for SOTs, each snippet of b-roll coverage will usually run about five or six seconds at the most.

After you’ve finished writing, you will need to record the chunks of narration between the SOTs. If you don’t have access to a vocal booth, then get into a closet full of clothes or a carpeted room to record your vocal tracks. Use your stick mic and record your voice directly onto an unused part of the DV tape.

Editing software

There are a number of editing software packages available to get you started. The software you use will depend on many different factors, like your editing goals, how much money you want to lay out, your specific computer configuration and the software’s user interface.

Options include:
– Windows Movie Maker
– iMovie(for Macs)
– Adobe Premiere Elements
– Ulead VideoStudio
– Final Cut Pro
– Cinelerra (very powerful and it’s Free Software!)

Lay down your vocal track first and SOTs second so that you have a full audio version of your story to start with. Then go back and drop in your b-roll clips and video sequences to complement your vocal track.

At the end, equalize your sound by raising nat sounds when they are alone and do not compete with narration and by lowering nat sounds when they are too loud under the narration. The sound should flow evenly and naturally without any surprising drops or jumps in volume.

Posting online

If you have your own website, you could FTP your video to your server. But online video requires a lot of bandwidth, which could increase your web hosting costs substantially. Fortunately, there are several places where you can upload and host video online for free:

Open Media Network
Google Video

[Note: This article draws upon both Core Curriculum handouts at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Regina McCombs’ Online Journalism Review article “Shooting Web video: How to put your readers at the scene.”]


One Response to Tips for shooting better online video

  1. […] Daniel Henrich at Pacific Rim Media Notes has his own set of tips. […]

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