Using Manual Settings When Shooting Video

Shooting video, just like capturing still photographs, provides each of us with a number of options to consider in terms of the settings we use with our gear. This article discusses some of the reasons why using manual camera settings when shooting video may be something worth considering.

For many of us using our DSLR or mirrorless cameras to shoot video is a strange, new world. I’ve found shooting video to be more complex and challenging than capturing still images. As a result I tend to find that video projects are more creatively rewarding on a personal basis.

While this short article cannot possibly hope to address the myriad of issues potentially involved with a video production, hopefully it will do a decent job explaining why I choose to use manual camera settings for all of my video projects.

Understanding the type of client work I do will help put my choice of using manual settings in context.

As regular readers will know, the vast majority of my client video work revolves around industrial safety. Unlike more ethereal subject matter, proper safety practices need to be communicated in clear, unambiguous ways. This subject matter tends to need more depth-of-field rather than less, in order that key safety messages have very clear and understandable context. Much of that context comes from being able to see a particular control lever/knob, or operator action, in relation to a good portion of the entire machine or work area.

The camera that you own likely has a number of different controls and settings as compared to my Nikon 1 V2s. As a result this article will address issues in as broad a perspective as possible.

Setting Shutter Speed Manually
To have smooth, natural looking motion when shooting video with a DSLR or mirrorless camera it is important to match up shutter speed with frame rate. For example, when shooting with a frame rate of 30 frames per second a shutter speed of 1/60th would typically be used. Shooting at 60 frames per second would necessitate a shutter speed of 1/120th and so on.

Faster or slower shutter speeds can certainly be used with the same frame rate and often are in more artistic types of productions. Shutter speed creates the amount of motion blur in your video clip. Faster shutter speeds create crisper details in each frame and may make the video clip look a bit jumpy or ‘hard edged’. Slower shutter speeds create more motion blur in each frame for a smoother, more dreamy look. Again, for natural looking motion using a 2X factor tends to create the best results, e.g. 30 frames per second shot using a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second.

Using an automatic setting on your DSLR or mirrorless camera removes your ability to control the amount of motion blur in each frame of your video clip, and thus reduces your creative control significantly.

Setting Aperture Manually
As with still photography, the aperture selected for a video clip affects the amount of depth-of-field in the scene. Using an automatic camera setting can result in the aperture shifting during the recording of a video clip and cause elements in the scene to go in and out of focus. This can create an inconsistent and unprofessional look to your videos.

Using Manual ISO settings
One of the things we typically want with a video clip is for the exposure to be consistent throughout the clip. Shooting video often involves the movement of our cameras on sliders, jibs etc. which can obviously change the exposure slightly as the camera moves from its original position. It is also possible that we may have people and other subject matter coming in and out of frame and reflecting light differently. All of these things can affect the exposure in various parts of a video clip. If we use a Manual ISO setting we lock that ISO into the entire video clip and thus reduce the risk of the exposure shifting during the recording of a clip.

Locking exposure and focus.
Many people use manual focusing when shooting video with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. This reduces the risk of the focus changing part way through the recording of a clip. Manual focusing is also used when a follow-focus unit is engaged with the camera. Some cameras, like my Nikon 1 bodies, do not have ‘operator friendly’ manual focusing controls. For example, only two of my 1 Nikkor lenses have external focusing rings. The balance of my lenses are controlled in-body for manual focusing. This is cumbersome to say the least.

When shooting video with my Nikon 1 gear I use AF-S (Single AF) with Single Point in terms of the AF-area mode. Even when people are in the scene I never use AF-F (Full-time AF) or Subject Tracking. The reason for this is quite simple. DSLR and mirrorless cameras typically do not track moving subjects very smoothly when it comes to continuous auto-focus. There certainly has been significant improvement with newer generation cameras, but dedicated video cameras tend to do a much better job tracking moving subjects.

When shooting video with a DSLR or mirrorless camera using a continuous auto-focus setting, it is fairly common for subjects to shift in and out of focus as they move in the video clip. This can be especially true when the subject is approaching the camera. This is caused by the camera adjusting its continuous auto-focusing as it attempts to keep up with the action. Not only is this distracting visually, but the sound of your lens adjusting its continuous auto-focus on the subject can transmit back onto the sound recording of the video clip. This can be difficult to deal with in post.

After I have chosen my preferred Single AF point for the scene and have my exposure set, I lock both of those in with the AE-L/AF-L control on the back of my V2. I can now shoot the scene and not worry about subjects going in and out of focus, or the exposure shifting during the clip. Basically I’m ‘locked and loaded’ and ready to record the scene.

Choose the right camera for the job
When most of us start shooting video we tend to capture quite long video segments. While this sometimes works for nature productions, it can create terribly boring productions for most other subject matter. Some cameras, like my Nikon 1 gear, are not designed to capture extended, continuous video clips and will overheat and shut down after about 15 minutes or so. If you want to record family events with long, uninterrupted video segments, you’ll likely be happier with a dedicated video camera, than using your DSLR or mirrorless camera for this type of application.

Think in snippets
Where DSLRs and interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras really shine is when they are used in more professional looking productions, constructed of numerous video snippets. The next time you are watching a well-edited television drama or a motion picture concentrate on how frequently a different shooting angle, lens focal length, or depth-of-field are used.

The same thing holds true with business-oriented videos. I rarely hold a video clip on screen for more than 8 seconds. It is quite common that a 25 second voice-over segment could have 6-8 supporting visuals changing throughout the voice over. When shooting this many video clips it is important to reduce the number of takes needed when doing on-site work. Using manual camera settings really helps in that regard. While using manual settings to shoot video takes some time to learn, it is worth the additional creative control that you’ll have over your work.

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