There are no two ways about it – video is king of the internet and every business, big or small, should be making use of it in their marketing and social media efforts. But what if you don’t have much budget? Is bootstrapping video production an option?
Essentially, yes. Professional video may be somewhat pricey, especially for start-ups and micro-businesses, but before you reach for your smartphone or webcam, think about this: are you filming something truly unique, highly entertaining or generally mind-blowing in any way (yes, cat videos fall in the same category, evidently)?
If that is the case – phone camera will suffice, but otherwise it’s worth trying a bit harder. In this post, we cover everything a complete beginner needs to know about the essential equipment and skills needed to produce a professional-quality video on a boostrapping video production budget.
We want to show freelancers and micro businesses that they can also get involved in video production without a budget of more than a few hundred pounds/euros/dollars and some time invested.
Choosing the right camera and equipment
The world of digital video has exploded in the last few years, with even basic consumer cameras offering things like ultra-HD resolution (4K) or slow-motion capabilities.
As alluring as those might be, they come second when choosing a camera. Most important distinction facing the prospective buyer is whether to go for a DSLR camera (semi- and fully-professional HD video-enabled photographic cameras) or a flip-out compact camcorder?
For a video beginner, the difference here is in manoeuvrability. If you are planning to shoot on the go, with rapidly changing circumstances and situations, or to film long events like conference speeches without a camera person – a camcorder is your friend.
Sony and Canon have some very decent HD and 4K camcorders which are light, and produce good, stable image and sound quality without much user expertise needed.
A Go-Pro camera is an even better option, especially if any sports or remote travel are involved, providing powerful capabilities in ultra-compact size (as big as a matchbox). Have a look at what you can do with one of those (if this doesn’t inspire you about video, nothing will):
If you want to go for a more professional, cinematic look and are intending to film in more predictable situations, like interviews for example, a DSLR camera will offer an amazing range of creative possibilities and superior quality.
The main drawbacks of these cameras as opposed to the camcorders are that they largely lack in automatic focus and image stabilisation, only record in 12-minute chunks, have generally unusable audio, and are battery- and memory-hungry monsters. So, if you go for any of these, you will need some extra kit – more batteries, memory cards, microphone, audio recorder.
In terms of lenses (which are changeable for these cameras, unlike the camcorders) – for a beginner, the lens which comes with the camera will be enough.
If wanting to splash out and buy lenses from the start – the lower the aperture can go on a lens (4.0, 2.8, 1.8 are all aperture numbers) the better the lens will be in low light. If buying variable lens – look for ones in which the aperture stays the same at any focal length.
Also, lenses with image stabilisation (marked by IS) are great for video as they prevent shaking. For detailed information on these cameras and others go to DP Review or watch YouTube comparison videos.
Another thing that marks professional from amateur-looking video is using a tripod. Tripods come in many shapes and sizes, but for video it’s important that they have a fluid head. This allows smooth movements while filming. A great starting tripod is the Velbon D7000.
Getting your sound right
This brings us to probably the most important aspect of professional video – sound.
Nothing pushes attention astray as a bad audio, unintelligible speech, loud noise and crackling sounds. Camcorders generally have useable audio, but when it comes to DSLRs – it’s a different story. Audio is getting better with each new camera, but still not great. Therefore additional elements are needed. For portability attaching a directional microphone at the top of the camera and feeding it directly into the camera is the best option. A good start is this one by Rode.
Directional mics are great at picking speech amongst noise, but will not produce good surround sound. The other (cheaper) beginner’s option is to buy this little handheld recorder device by Zoom for more versatility. Great for bootstrapping video production!
Here’s a great little article by Wistia on what the differences are and how to choose the best microphone.
Another common pitfall of amateur video production is bad lighting. Murky, brown-red shots don’t make for the most exciting visual representation of your business.
There are two ways of going about lighting – using natural light (daylight that is) or artificial lighting. Lighting is an art in itself, but in daylight a lot can be achieved without spending money. Buying a reflector disk is a great start and probably the best investment of all time. This basic kit is dirt-cheap and can do miracles when using natural light. Professional artificial lighting is rather expensive, but with the advent of LED lights, things have become more affordable. Buying an LED panel like this battery-powered one or this larger mains-powered one can be the difference between a successful and failed shoot.
Computer hardware and software
To edit HD video to a good standard you would also need a powerful computer. Video files are big, and editing them is a resources-heavy task. Here are the official requirements for Premiere Pro (for both Mac and PC) and Final Cut (for Mac). If your computer falls short on stats – there is a way of doing editing on slower machines by creating proxy files.
The importance of video pre-production
Now that you’ve gathered your equipment, whether by buying or renting (there is an abundance of renting websites in the UK and US and it’s fairly easy to hire equipment from them), it’s time to do some planning.
Not planning your production is usually a grave mistake and will most definitely come back to haunt you in the post-production process.
To achieve the maximum with your idea and resources, you should try to imagine what you need in terms of content. Writing your idea into text (called Treatment) is a great start. Collecting images from similar videos or stills from the internet and making a Mood Board will also help a lot. From then on, you should do some planning and write a Production Schedule and a Shot list.
It’s good to include an Equipment list to the Production schedule – this will help you to remember to charge batteries, wipe lenses and so on before each shoot and only bring what is necessary.
You should also acquaint yourself with all your equipment before the shoot, watch videos on how to use different functions to be really prepared. Other useful items to have with you on a shoot are duct tape, lens wipes, charged phone.
Filming your video
Recording video with a DSLR requires having some technical knowledge. For starters, learn what all of these are: frame rate, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus, exposure. Now, considering you have acquainted yourself with these basic terms, here are some tips on how to make the most of your filming:
- Set your frame-rate. In Europe most video for web is recorded at 25 fps. Change your camera settings to that and the highest resolution possible (often that is 1080p).
- Set Exposure to Manual. Very important – this is found usually in the menu and is essential for allowing you full control over the camera.
- Set your White Balance to Auto. This usually produces good results, as the camera will adapt to changing light and even out the colours to make them realistic.
- Use shutter speeds incremental to 25. This has to do with the way digital video is recorded, but in short – if shooting at 25fps only use shutter speeds that are multiples of it like 50, 100, 150. This prevents defects like rolling bars and flickering (to do with artificial light). Generally with video – the lower the shutter speed the better.
- Use as low ISO number as possible. The smaller the number of sensor sensitivity (ISO), the better quality the image. If not enough light is available – crank up the numbers, but try to avoid going above 800. Don’t leave on Auto.
- Use low aperture number for a blurred background or at low light. The lower the aperture number (2.8, 2.0, 1.8) the bigger the opening in the lens through which light comes in.
A low aperture number will allow more light in (especially when light conditions aren’t great), but will also make the focus more ‘shallow’. This is great for static interviews and smaller details because it blurs the background nicely and emphasises the subject’s face. For the opposite effect or in sunlight use a larger number – this will produce a ‘flatter’ image with ‘deeper’ focus, where objects both near and far will be more equally focused. Good for landscapes, crowds, etc.
- Watch your exposure. One of the biggest problems with beginner video. A badly overexposed or underexposed image is often not fixable, so make sure the whites aren’t bleach-white, and the darks aren’t pitch-black. Best thing is to trust the camera – all cameras have a built-in light meter. Change settings to make the indicator be in the centre of the scale.
- Pay attention to focus. One of the major flaws of DSLR cameras is the lack of automatic focus. First-time users may find this a bit difficult, but there are tricks to help you. The best way is to let the camera find the focus through pressing the shutter button half-way and wait for the confirmation beep. To help the camera use central point focus and once focused check it further by using the focus zoom button (on Canon this is indicated by a magnifier icon). Another thing to keep in mind is that the lower the aperture number, the more difficult it will be to focus.
- Learn about the Line of Sight and the Rule of thirds. Тhose are basic composition rules which apply to both photography and video. The line of sight is very important at interviews – you should always offset the person to one side of the frame and let them look at the interviewer through the empty space. They shouldn’t be looking at the edge of the shot. The rule of thirds has to do with how we perceive images. Anything of interest should be placed on the intersection points of the lines or aligned with them.
- Learn about shot types/sizes and shot variety. There are many ways to frame a subject and each has its value and use. Interviews are usually filmed at medium or medium-close up shots. Landscapes are wide shots, and so on. When filming it’s good to have a variety of those. A good beginner’s rule is the Wide-Medium-Tight rule which is a reminder to take different shots of your subject in order to have enough to tell the story in the edit.
- When you shoot visuals (also known as B-roll or Cutaways) keep the shot for at least 10 seconds. This is essential for your editing later.
- Avoid camera movements. Crash zooms and swipes should remain in the 1980s. Movements are great when executed properly, but this is often impossible without the right equipment and experience. So keep your shots still for now.
- Monitor your sound levels. Make sure your levels are set to manual. Do a test run and set levels so that the indicators peak (jump at loudest sounds) at 2/3 of the height or width of the indicator scale. Keep your headphones on while recording if possible.
- Watch your light. If natural light is available – great. Face your subject towards the window, rather than against it. Sunlight is best avoided. Use your reflector disc to ‘fill in’ some of the shadows. If using artificial light, have a look at what Three-Point Lighting is and try to recreate. Here’s a little video on the topic:
Editing your video production
For very basic projects and some trimming, iMovie or Windows Movie Maker might do. But for any real editing, you will need professional software. Premiere Pro could be bought for as little as £17.15 per month, or Final Cut could be purchased for £229.99. These are very powerful editing platforms which will help you create professional–quality video from your footage.
Great editing is invisible, yet it’s what makes a finished piece out of a bunch of files. Watch this amazing animation on the importance of editing:
Editing takes a bit of time to get right but here are some useful tips to start you off with your bootstrapping video production:
- When you create your sequence, make sure it matches the specs of the footage (the frame rate, the resolution, etc.)
- Both in your browser and in the actual project keep your footage well-organised in dedicated folders (Footage, Project Files, Audio, Graphics). Once imported into the project, don’t move or rename the files in these folders.
- Create sequences of visuals to cover cuts. These can be made of as many shots as you like, with varying length, but unless very interesting, try to keep them short. Average shot is often between 3 and 5 seconds long.
- Cut on action for visuals (if action is continued in the next shot), but don’t cut in the middle of a word in interviews. If you are using music, don’t cut on the very beat (unless you’re doing a music video). Here’s an article we wrote on how to pick the right music for your video.
- Don’t use video transitions between shots. Good cutting doesn’t need transitions, unless the narrative require them (like fades to black for passing of long time, etc.).
- Use audio transitions to get rid of clicks between bits of footage. Keep audio levels such so they don’t distract and overwhelm the audience.
- Find your workflow. Some people pull best shots from the source monitor directly onto the project timeline. Others first sift to find best shots and then create sequences. Find what works for you.
- Learn the shortcuts on your keyboard and use a mouse when editing.
- Export your final project using presets for YouTube, Vimeo, etc.
There is a lot to know about making good-looking videos and this post provides only the essential knowledge to start this learning process for bootstrapping video production. You should have a look at great places like Vimeo Video School, Creative Cow, and Wistia’s blog.
Bootstrapping video production? Just go for it!
The best way forward, however, is to go try it out. Set yourself little projects, as tiny as a 30-second film about your friend and her dog, or about your gran’s knitting circle.
Planning, filming and editing these small micro-films will benefit your learning immensely, as you will be able to make all the mistakes and learn how to avoid them before you go shoot something that matters.