As video cameras become more compact and affordable, it seems that every paddler fancies himself a filmmaker. And thanks to modern computer technology, many of these Spielberg wannabes are turning out videos that look like real movies.
If you want to launch your own career behind the camera, you’ll need to know a few basics. And there’s no time to learn like the present—after all, how many times are your bros going to sack up for Death-or-Glory Falls if you forget to take off the lens cap?
The market is full of video cameras, and while some may seem attractive due to price or size, be sure to carefully compare their strengths and weaknesses before you buy. Things to consider include resolution, settings and white balance. Remember, as your skills and interests grow, so will your equipment needs, so invest in a video camera that will allow you to evolve.
Don’t settle for a camera with less than a 1/6-inch CCD and 340,000-pixel resolution. CCD is an acronym for Charged Coupling Device—it’s the sensor that actually captures your immortal exploits for posterity. Don’t skimp on it. If you want to make professional-quality videos, you’ll need a three-chip (3-CCD) video camera. Though slightly more expensive, 3-CCD cameras generally have a higher resolution (690,000-pixels or more), which results in richer colors and better low-light sensitivity.
Most cameras present a variety of ways to deal with different conditions and maximize the quality of your footage. The automatic exposure and focus settings are easiest to use, but as your skills develop, so will your need for manual settings that allow you to fine-tune the quality of your footage and deal with difficult conditions. For example, shooting into the sun will fool your automatic exposure every time, and the camera frequently blows the exposure on whitewater, rendering that burly drop as a bright white blob. Manual settings allow you to compensate.
White balance is another important setting to understand. White balance adjusts your camera so that a white object records as true white, and all the other colors follow suit. This is a very important control, because under varying light conditions—indoors, a cloudy day or under full sun—your camera will record colors differently. Look for a camera that has different white balance presets and practice adjusting the white balance before you go out to the river. Set white balance at the start of each shoot and reset when lighting conditions change.
Videography, like every art form, is subjective. What looks good to one person might not look good to another. This said, there are several general composition rules that most people agree make for better imagery, including The Rule of Thirds, Camera Angles and Lead Room.
The Rule of Thirds is the most important principle of good composition. To practice this, imagine a tick-tack-toe pattern that creates four intersection points in your viewfinder, each one roughly one-third of the way across the frame. Now place your subject where the lines intersect, rather than in the center of the frame. Placing the subject off-center often makes the composition more dynamic and interesting.
Remember also to be aware of the action. Always allow a little space between your subject’s head, or the river action, and the top of the frame. Videographers call this head room.
When you’re filming a moving subject, always allow some extra space in front of it. This technique, called Lead Room, lends a feeling of action to the footage.
Another good practice is to shoot from many different angles. Changing angles provides a fresh perspective, and makes for a more interesting footage. Try kneeling, or putting the camera on the ground, and then film from a high point so you are above the action. Also, combine a variety of shots including wide (river and surrounding scenery), medium (whole boat and paddler), and close-up shots (details, spray from the boat, whites of the eyes).
It’s also good to practice zooming between different shots so that you can avoid jerky motions, which make the shot look amateurish.
Perhaps the most important river videography lesson—which I have twice learned the hard way—is to keep your camera dry. Do this with the help of a quality dry box or dry bag. If you are working around the spray from a rapid, shield the camera from the spray between shots and have a lens cloth (kept with your camera in the dry container) ready to promptly remove any water from the camera. Be careful, but when it’s go time, do what it takes to get the shot. You can swab your camera when the goods are in the can.
After you’ve shot the footage, it’s time to edit it. Editing is a true art form, just as important as the footage itself, and a subject for another time. Until then, watch movies. Pay attention to the timing of the transitions, the sequencing of clips, and the role of music. Read books on editing, and practice. Find your style and develop it. And have fun.
–Ammen Jordan is the Director of Photo and Video for Confluence Water Sports and the producer of the award winning Wet-House. His newest release is the 2006 Wave Sport Sessions, available for free while supplies last.