Make a Splash with your Conservation Video: Tips for Effective Filming

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By Toni Parras, Communications Professional, toniparras [at] yahoo.com

Inform. Demonstrate. Persuade.  Assuming your purposes for filming are similar to ones I’ve encountered in my years of marine conservation work, the following are some tips for documenting project activities (issues, site overview, workshops, interviews, etc.) on video. 

Perhaps you are trying to create awareness of the initiatives that are being undertaken in a community to manage or protect marine resources.  Or perhaps you want to demonstrate the state of marine resources or habitats to various audiences (decision makers, community members, resources users), or illustrate the effects that particular management efforts have made upon them (either positive or negative) by showing underwater footage of those environments or species.  This is all with the ultimate goal in mind – trying to change the behavior of resource users or policymakers in support of conservation or management efforts.

Whatever the reason, if the video is poorly conceived or filmed, it won’t do much to strengthen your cause.  Here are some tips to guide you in making the best possible product with the resources you have.  Some of these may sound obvious, but it is surprising how often they are overlooked when one is in the field, in a rush or otherwise under pressure, or when it is thought that “this isn’t a professional video; it’s just for a community meeting, so it’s not important.”  Quality is always important.  

General

  • Use a tripod whenever possible.  The shake from even the steadiest hand will show up on screen, and become irritating to watch after a very few minutes.  If no tripod is available, a flat surface such as a table or hood of a car will do. 
     
  • If the camera must be handheld, the cameraperson should brace the camera on their shoulder or against their body and brace their arm tightly against their body to minimize shaking.
     
  • When filming from a moving vehicle such as a car or boat, make sure the camera lens is in wide angle – that is, the lens is as short as possible, or ‘zoomed out.’  If the lens is in telephoto, or ‘zoomed in’ (lens will be long), the camera shake will be much more apparent. 
     
  • When filming outdoors, aim the camera away from the wind (in other words, the wind is at your back) to minimize wind shake and noise, especially if people are speaking (use a clip-on microphone if available).  Also avoid filming with the sun glaring directly into the lens or heavily backlit against your subject (unless it’s for a specific effect).  Generally, the sun should be at your (the cameraperson’s) back, illuminating your subject (person, landscape, etc.) head-on.  However, you don’t want your subject to be squinting, either; place in a comfortable position or in the shade if very sunny.
     
  • When shooting indoors, use lights, preferably two or more set up at different angles to provide even lighting.  If you don’t have video lights, turn on all lights in the room (even desk lights) and place the person facing the window (or light) to get the sun or light to fall on their face.  If their back is to the window or light, the shot will be backlit and the person’s face will be too dark. 
     
  • Be sure to clean the lens with an appropriate lens-cloth and cleaner, and an air dust blower, if available.  If none are available, a soft clean bandana will usually do well.  Clean the lens often (every time you change locations and before you begin filming), as the amount of dirt buildup and smudging that occurs in the field (and even in interior locations) is surprising.

Workshops & Lectures

  • Use a ‘shotgun’ microphone (separate from the in-camera mic) aimed at the presenter or lecturer when filming in a large room.  This will help prevent ambient noise and murmur of other people from muffling what the speaker is saying, especially if the camera is placed far away.
     
  • Try to get close-up shots of key points or graphics in presentations or reports, people in the audience, and any interesting shots of the venue.  This will provide a sense of place and purpose, and help keep the footage from being too monotonous.
     
  • To avoid unnecessarily obtaining the typical extensive and monotone workshop footage, the following pointers may help:
    • Use proper lighting and external microphones for a workshop setting.  You want to ensure that we will be able to see the speakers and participants clearly and in good lighting conditions, as well as obtain some good close-up shots of reports and presentations.  You also want to make sure the sound is not only audible but very clear, as oftentimes this is overlooked.
       
    • While tripod use is necessary to avoid camera shake and blur, it is also nice for the cameraperson to move around and get shots from many different angles rather than just setting the camera on a tripod and letting it roll.  You want to capture footage that is engaging and visually interesting while at the same time captures the important messages that are being shared. 
       
    • You also want to make sure you get clear, steady close-up shots of participants as well as speakers.  At the beginning of the workshop, you should inform all participants that you are filming and ask if anyone has a strong aversion to being filmed; you should be considerate of this in the final product.

Interviews

  • Use a clip-on or directional microphone when conducting interviews, especially in the field where wind, traffic or other ambient noise may interfere. 
     
  • When filming interviews, avoid the direct, head-on angle.  A one-third, slightly angled frame with something interesting in the background works well. 
     
  • Place the person being interviewed in front of something interesting.  If in the field, this could be a pretty landscape or marine setting with some movement in the background (not a lot, otherwise it could be distracting; kids playing or people working could provide an interesting backdrop, as long as they are not too close and do not look at the camera, which will take away from the interview). 
     
  • If in an interior space such as an office, this could be anything that provides color or pattern to the background, such as a poster, framed picture or award, or anything else relevant to the interview.  If there is a window in the office and there is interesting movement outside, this could be a good background, but be careful that the light from outside doesn’t backlight the person (otherwise you cannot see their face).  Play with the angles until it works.
     
  • Ideally, the person conducting the interview should not also be the cameraperson.  The interviewer should stand next to the camera so that the person is looking at and speaking to you, rather than directly into the camera.

Some Final Tips

  • Always try to get pickup shots from wherever you are.  These pickup shots will help provide a sense of place and connection to the interview and interesting visuals for your audience.
    • If in the field, get shots of the setting – the village, the scenery, animals, people carrying out their normal activities – children playing or in school, women cooking, men farming, people swimming, fishing or monitoring.  Wide landscapes and seascapes are also nice, such as shots of fields, mountains, streams, beaches, as well as closer shots of flowers, fish, people, symbols of the community, and anything else that strikes you. 
       
    • If in an office, close-ups of awards, reports, books, artwork, mementos or anything that conveys what the person being interviewed is about will make good pickup shots.  Also get shots of the outside of the building or any other interesting parts of the building (e.g., classrooms or hallways with activity) to provide a sense of place to the office interview.
       
  • Ensure that visits to the underwater locations for your film are scheduled during the best time of the day for underwater filming (i.e. high or slack tide; clearest water; best angle of the sun is typically not directly overhead).
     
  • Always be conscientious when filming in communities.  Make sure you get permission from whomever necessary (chief or elders) and ask permission to film people before doing so.  To avoid having people feel self-conscious, which can lead to staring into the camera or nervously laughing, it is useful for one person (the interviewer or producer) to talk to the people and explain what they are doing and answer any questions, while the cameraperson is a bit away and filming from a different angle.  This way, the attention is on the interviewer, not the camera, leaving the cameraperson free to take more candid shots.  (If someone does not want to be filmed, the interviewer should simply motion to or tell the cameraperson to avoid that person.)

I sincerely hope this helps your marine conservation efforts, and truly value your feedback.  In my next post, I’ll be talking about the broader implications of using images and video via social media and how this can spark discussion and action.  Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Condensed from “Video Tips”, prepared for The Locally-Managed Marine Area (LMMA) Network, by Toni Parras.

Toni Parras, Communications Professional. 
Specializes in helping organizations improve their efforts through sound communication and evaluation; exploring innovative approaches to creating awareness, influencing behavior and evaluating efforts; and incorporating information design, photography, video and storytelling into marine management, conservation and education efforts.  Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect upon any bodies with which she may be associated.

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