DSLR tips for beginners: How to shoot better HD video

Before you press the video record button on your digital SLR, read these tips for making movies your friends and family will want to watch.

Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
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Joshua Goldman
5 min read

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Maybe you initially bought a digital SLR for faster performance, better picture quality, more creative control, or all of the above. But then -- either before or after you got it home -- you realized you could use it as an HD video camera, too.

After you shot your first few movie clips, however, you may have discovered that shooting good video with a dSLR or other interchangeable-lens camera isn't necessarily as easy as just pressing Record.

Admittedly, this is more or less the situation I found myself in. I have plenty of experience with using point-and-shoots and regular camcorders for video and digital SLRs for photography, but I'm new to using a dSLR for HD video.

While I had my own thoughts on what would be important for beginners to know, I also asked a couple of experts to weigh in: Chuck Westfall, technical advisor for Canon USA's Professional Engineering and Solutions Division, and Ami Vitale, a documentary photographer, videographer, and Nikon ambassador.

Whether you want to get more from your camera investment or want to improve your current movie-shooting skills, here are some things every beginner should consider doing when learning to shoot movies with a dSLR.

As always, if you have your own tips, please share them in the comments.

Make a tripod your best friend

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You may have mastered controlling your breathing and keeping your elbows in for steadier still photos, but when you're starting out with video you'll want to put your camera on a steady tripod.

"Without stabilization, your video will look shaky and unprofessional," Vitale said. "Don't hand-hold your camera unless you have no option and use the strap or a ledge or anything you can find to stabilize it."

Also, while you might be used to fast panning -- moving the camera quickly from left to right or vice versa -- when shooting photos, it isn't good for handheld video. Using a tripod can help you with slow, controlled panning. Along with fast panning, Westfall suggested avoiding rapid zooming, unless you're going for an intentional effect.

"A steady tripod is very useful on its own or in combination with other accessories such as sliders to create video content that looks more professional," he said.

Take focus into your own hands

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If you're a first-time dSLR user, you're probably used to having a camera that does everything automatically. However, to get the best movie results, you'll want to find, learn, and experiment with all of its video controls, including manual focus.

"Autofocus is a good tool to have, especially for moving subjects, but manual focus is a valuable creative technique that works particularly well when shooting relatively stationary subjects from a tripod," Westfall said.

Learning to manually focus takes practice, though. In fact, Vitale said it's one of the most difficult parts of learning to shoot video with a dSLR.

She starts by composing her scene in camera and then magnifies her subject on the camera's LCD to see more detail and check the focus. Once everything is sharp, she changes back to normal view on the screen and starts recording.

For moving subjects, Vitale recommends practicing on subjects moving parallel to the camera. Once you've got that in hand, move on to subjects moving toward and away from you.

If you do use autofocus, keep in mind that many lenses -- old and new -- can be noisy when autofocusing, which will be picked up by built-in mics if you're using them for audio. Of course, if you're putting a separate audio track over top, this shouldn't be a problem.

Shoot in sequences

Though you may be tempted to continuously record an event and then wade through everything that you capture to select the best sections, there are a couple of reasons not to do this with a dSLR or ILC.

First, these aren't camcorders and long continuous recording could cause the camera to overheat. If you need to capture the entirety of something like a lecture or school play, use a camcorder.

Second, long, static shots can be dull to watch. Shooting in short sequences using a variety of different types of shots makes for more interesting results. Vitale suggests shooting at least three or four separate shots of the same subject at different distances.

"A good ratio to shoot is 50 percent close-ups and extreme close-ups, 25 percent medium shots, and 25 percent wide shots," Vitale said. Also, don't rely on just a zoom lens to get these shots, but move the camera closer or farther away.

Vitale also recommends making clips a minimum of 10 seconds. "As a still photographer moving into video, I felt like I was shooting for a long time but when I got back to the editing room, I realized many of my shots were only a couple of seconds. You will need space to cut for the edit on both sides of the 'moment,'" she said.

Learning to shoot sequences is key to good storytelling. "When you're a beginner," Westfall said, "it's very important to devote time and concentration to learning the art of storytelling with video. There are several good textbooks available, but you should also study classic films to learn the difference between establishing shots, medium close-ups, and tight close-ups."

Don't tune out on audio

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Anyone who has regularly shot video has ended up with some awkward bit of conversation or extraneous noise captured in the background while you were busy concentrating on your subject.

Before you press Record, it's best to take into account all that's going on around you. You'll also want to make sure that the sound you capture from whoever or whatever you're shooting is loud and clear by checking your camera's level controls.

"In-camera microphones work best in quiet environments at close range, but when you don't have that luxury, it's better to use external microphones," Westfall said. "If you have a cooperative subject, try using a wireless lavaliere [lapel] microphone to improve audio quality when recording human voices in noisy environments."

Practice, experiment, and practice some more

Don't wait until an important event to test out your skills. Change a setting to see what happens, such as using a different white balance to evoke a particular feel, or play with changing subject focus in the middle of your shot.

"The more you shoot, the easier it will be for you to see what needs to be improved in your video captures," Westfall said. "It doesn't cost you anything except your time to experiment with different techniques so you can expand your repertoire."

Just like you might do with your photos, for example, try shooting video from a position other than eye level.

"Find different angles to make it more interesting -- get on the ground or get up high," Vitale said, adding, "don't be afraid to allow your subject to move out of frame, rather than trying to follow them with your camera."