Rule #1: Manual Focus
Follow your subject as it (or the camera) moves to maintain sharp, professional image quality. This takes a lot of practice, and is difficult to do with a small viewfinder. Also, some lenses are easier to focus than others. *Cinema lenses are easier to focus than photography lenses because cinema lenses are designed to be resistant for smooth, precise focusing, and photography lenses are designed to be loose for quick auto-focusing.
Rule # 2: Manual Exposure
Use cameras and lenses that give you the option to set exposure manually, including the aperture/iris, shutter speed, and ISO/gain. Learn to use your camera’s histogram to ensure that you are not loosing too much detail in the shadows or highlights. Expose for the important information, and remember that sometimes it is OK to over or under expose an area as long as the subject (or important part) is well exposed.
Rule # 3: Custom White Balance
Observe your shooting conditions to determine if there is any mixed lighting. (Example: Sunlight through window mixed with table lamp.) Some areas of the room might have different degrees of color temperature than others. Mixed or not, always custom white balance. Much like you do with exposure, adjust the white balance based on the subject or important information. This will save you A LOT of time in post-production. Do this even if you intend to go for a black and white look, or day-for-night to keep your options open. The time to build looks is in post-production, not while shooting!
Rule # 4: The 180 Degree Shutter Rule
Your starting point for shutter speed should be double your frame rate. Once get comfortable with this rule, you may break it to achieve a different look or effect. All effects should be used sparingly.
Rule # 5: Take it easy on the ISO/gain
Don’t push the camera too far in low-light situations. Your image will become too noisy, and you will lose detail by removing the noise in post. Generally, the more expensive cameras can be pushed further on ISO and still maintain a nice image. But even on my 5D Mark III, I keep it as low as possible in multiples of 160 to maintain the best possible image.
Rule # 6: Understanding Aperture/Iris, and Depth of Field
“Stopping down” is increasing the f/stop number. So if you’re going from f/2.8 to f/4, you are stopping down. The aperture blades are closing to allow less volume of light to enter the lens. This affects depth of field, and sharpness.
Lower f/stop numbers = More light entering lens = Shallow depth of field = smaller area in focus, blurry background. Typically used for selective focus if other parts of the composition are not important to the story.
Higher f/stop numbers = Less light entering lens = Deep depth of field = larger area in focus. Typically used for landscapes, or wide shots.
Every lens has a different “sweet spot” so to speak, and not necessarily sharp at every stop. Generally, the more expensive lenses are sharper all-around and better for low-light. There is no right or wrong here, but by understanding aperture as an element of exposure, you may use it with artist’s discretion.
Rule # 7: No Neck Strap
Leave your neck strap behind. These are for photographers, but we don’t need them for video. In my experience, they just get in the way. Your camera should either be on a rig, or back in the case.
Rule # 8: Go to the transitions menu in your editing program. Say your goodbyes. Delete every last one. Picture fades should be used sparingly and created manually using a pen tool.
Rule # 9: Just because your camera is good in low light doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have to light your shots. Using available, household, cheap light sources is still better than not using anything at all. Sure, you can still nail the exposure without the use of lighting, but your image will probably end up looking very two-dimensional and unattractive. Lighting techniques are for a different blog post…
Rule # 10: Understanding Picture Profiles
Finding an appropriate picture profile takes trial and error, user preference, and really depends on what your plans are for post-production. When I shoot Web/TV or corporate stuff that just has to get the point across and doesn’t need to be artistic, I will choose a standard picture profile because I know I won’t be color grading much of anything. When I shoot stuff that, well… I care more about… I go for a really flat, washed-out option that doesn’t look great right out of the camera, but is more ideal for color grading because more detail is preserved. Think of it like a blank canvas.
Rule # 11: Understanding In-Camera Sharpness, and Post-Sharpening
The best form of sharpness comes organically from your lens. But you will also need to digitally enhance the sharpness of your image. In-camera sharpening, and sharpening in post-production are both forms of artificial sharpness. Remember: You can always add if there is too little sharpness, but you can’t reduce sharpness if it was recorded too high. The safest way to shoot is with the in-camera sharpness turned all the way off. Like I said before, looks should be built in post, not while shooting, so concentrate on recording clean shots and worry about the looks later. Post-sharpening will not magically fix your shots that are improperly focused. Also, over-sharpening will make flaws more apparent like noise, moire and aliasing.
Rule # 12: Always use a rig… even for handheld effects. You can use a tripod for handheld effects by simply lifting the tripod with the camera on it. Handheld is an effect and all effects should be used sparingly. Having a good, fluid-head tripod is critical. It will become the most important equipment you have. It will last your entire career, while cameras go obsolete after just a few years. I would rather have one good 1,500 dollar tripod than have multiple rigs, sliders, glidecams, etcetera that total the same price.
Rule # 13: Don’t forget about sound.
This is a separate blog post as well. Please, don’t forget about sound. Record clean sound.
Rule # 14: Trust your eyes, and your gut
If it doesn’t look or feel right, and you’re worried about the rules, throw out the rules and trust yourself. Create new rules. Find out what works for you. Get out there, and shoot!