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Six useful tips for shooting better video of anything

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Angela Grant, the first full-time video guru at the San Antonio Express-News, gave me some fantastic tips for anyone who wants to improve their skills in shooting and editing video. If you’re tired of uploading shaky cell phone clips to YouTube, these pointers are for you.

Angela saved my butt when I was in Portland doing a story about light rail. I had a point-and-shoot Panasonic Lumix with me that takes QuickTime video. My boss, David Sheppard, suggested I shoot some footage of the rail system to show San Antonians what it’s like.

Great idea. Just one problem:

I had no idea how to take good video.

In a mild panic, I called Angela and she gave me a quick primer on some of the fundamentals:

Don’t walk around filming things with your camera like a clueless tourist

Stand still and hold the camera steady. If possible, use a tripod.

In most cases, avoid panning and zooming in mid-shot

Set up your shot first, then start filming. Don’t move the camera around — unless you’re shooting video of a compelling scene like a bank robbery where you should be following the action at all costs.

Be aware of where the sun and strong lighting is in relation to your shot

Usually you want the sun behind you or to the side of you — not behind the subject you’re filming. There are exceptions to this rule, but if you’re not careful your subject will be backlit and the result will be a dark silhouette in your video. Not good.

Take a range of wide shots, medium shots, and close ups

This will help when you’re editing your clips later. You don’t want to string a bunch shots together that all look the same. You need give the viewer variety. Count to at least 10 seconds for each shot, even though you’ll be editing these shots later and cutting them down. Close ups are especially good for online video.

Using video-editing software, edit the shots and audio together, preferably in sequences of about three to four seconds apiece

Shorter sequences grab the viewer’s attention and make a long video go by seemingly fast.

If possible, use an external microphone to capture better sound, which can help you make an awesome video package

Clear, compelling audio is often more important than the actual video.

How to film and edit video like a champ

The cool thing about these video techniques is that anyone can use them. Imagine how much better your family videos could be. They don’t have to be boring to everyone but you!

Related: A review of the Sigma 17-70mm lens for videographers

To illustrate the huge difference these techniques make for just about any topic, I took two videos of some stray kittens my girlfriend and I found in our backyard. Here’s the first video loaded directly from my camcorder with no editing and no real thought of composing shots — a style you see all the time on YouTube:

See how annoying it is when the camera is shaky, panning around, and zooming?

Here’s a video that followed Angela’s advice:

Same kittens, different video techniques, better results.

Yes, it took a little longer to shoot and edit. But if you want people to watch your videos, isn’t it worth a little extra time to make something interesting? As a newspaper reporter, I think it’s challenging and fun to figure out new ways to tell a story with video, which can reveal some things better than the written word. The two methods compliment each other.

Related: A handy tool for journalists: Stabilize your shaky smartphone videos with Google’s photo app

In the second kitten video, I used a tripod to keep the camera steady. For both videos, I used an external microphone, which vastly improves the sound quality, and an Aiptek high def camcorder. I edited the clips in Sony Vegas Movie Maker 9.0. You can also use free video-editing software available on Macs and PCs.

There will be times when setting up a shot isn’t feasible. If you’re covering a sporting event or getting compelling video like a police chase, by all means get the shot and follow the action.

But in most cases, these are some useful methods that will drastically improve the quality of any video.

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