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10 Ways to Improve Your Home Movies

by Stewart Wolpin on October 22, 2010

We've all been forced to sit through someone else's home movies. They’re usually boring affairs filled with shaky footage, blurry far-off scenery shot out of car windows, and unending shots of the ground or the sky, because someone forgot to hit "pause." Or does this describe your own fairly unwatchable footage?

To avoid this fate, here are some tips to follow when shooting your own home movies.

1. Use two hands

This might sound like advice you'd give your child trying to catch a ball, but it's the best way to avoid shaky footage – in addition to your camcorder's image stabilization feature. By holding the camera in both hands, it and your footage will remain steadier, with less headache-inducing shakes.

2. Don't be a jerk

When the action shifts, or you're shooting a wide scene, you'll be tempted to jerk the camera around. Not only does this result in unwatchable blurry footage until the camcorder is able to refocus itself, but you add shakes to both ends of the blurry shot.

If you need to follow some action, keep your hands and arms still and instead swivel or bend your hips to pan across, or up-and-down, to capture the scene. This will keep everything in focus and the shot steady.

3. Don't move the camcorder and zoom at the same time

Simultaneously zooming and panning (moving the camera) results in too much motion, and the resulting footage can make the viewer nauseous. Don't zoom until you're done moving the camcorder, and vice versa.

4. Linger

Don't start shooting something then hit pause two or three seconds later. These quick cuts are disconcerting and don't reveal enough of what you want to capture. If you're going to commit something to video, spend at least 10 seconds exploring it with your camcorder.

5. But, don't linger too long

Don't spend an inordinate amount of time exploring one particular thing. Keep the action moving and your audience interested by limiting your shooting time to around 30 seconds on any one particular scene.

6. Mix up people and scenery

No matter how spectacular the scene may seem to you at the moment, it will always lose a great deal when you play it back. So put someone in the shot if you can. This not only lends size perspective to the object of your video affection, but it also gives your viewer something familiar to look at. Then, like on reality shows, do a little 10 to 15-second close-up of someone talking about how they feel about what you just saw before moving on to the next bit of scenery.

7. Don't shoot scenery ahead of you out a car window

Aiming a camcorder ahead of you or perpendicular from a car window results in loud wind noise and blurry footage. Your camcorder simply cannot focus quickly enough to compensate for the constant changes in distance to whatever it is you’re shooting. Instead, point the camcorder behind you and hold it still, allowing it to focus on scenery that isn't rushing by its lens. You'll cut down on wind noise as well.

8. Don't shoot "still video" of objects that don't move

Please don’t make anyone watch a 10 second video of a building, mountain, lake or anything else that doesn't move. That's why you have a digital still camera. If you are shooting stationary objects, make sure the camera moves. Start your shot with a zoomed-in close-up of some aspect of the object in question then "reveal" the object by pulling out from the zoom, then slowly pan across or up and down the object.

9. Use a mic, lights and a tripod when interviewing

If you plan to interview people as part of your video, use a camcorder with a microphone input and mic your subjects, and use a tripod or a table top to keep the camera still. Otherwise, your jittery talking head will sound hollow and far away, their voice disconnected from the hand-shaky footage of their face. If your camcorder doesn't have a mic input, keep your talking heads as close to the camera as possible, and conduct your interview in as quiet a room as possible.

And make sure your subject is well-lit. If you don't have enough lights, have your subjects face a window with sunlight coming in, or outdoors with the sun behind the camera.

Finally, if your movie includes multiple talking heads or multiple interviews with the same person, make sure they're all looking one way — either into the camera, or at you standing either camera left or camera right.

10. Edit

Many camcorders include in-camera editing, which will allow you to remove poor footage, unintentional start-stops or shots of your feet because you forgot to hit pause. If you're going to share your footage with others, do them a favor and use editing software to create a more viewable finished product.

Many camcorders come bundled with their own movie editing software. If you're a Mac owner, iMovie is simply one of the best editing programs out there (and it's free). If you have a WIndows PC, Microsoft's Movie Maker will let you do very basic editing, but if you want more advanced features (and you will if you like shooting video), pick up a copy of Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10 ($99; currently $75 on Amazon).


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