Pre-Production Tips from the Pros

You know those wooden (or fake wood), paintings with sayings on them that some people hang in their homes? They’re usually inspirational or say things like “Family and Love,” Or “Believe”? I’m thinking of making my own painting with part of “The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video” on it. I’ll hang it at work. The question is, which part should I use?

This part, on page 76, is one of my favorites. But it’s too big for a sign by my desk:

“There is a tendency among camerapersons, especially beginners, to be continually moving the camera—zooming in, zooming out panning left, panning right, tilting up, tilting down. I guess they feel they’re not earning their one if they just hold the camera still. They’re wrong.”

Author Tom Schroeppel really hit home with that one. Maybe it’s because I read it a few hours after I was looking over video a student shot that didn’t include many steady sections. It was a struggle for another student, who was editing the piece, to find anything long enough to use.

Reading & Writing

Anyway, this book is full of Schroeppel’s tips. He writes that he was teaching photography to a lot of people in different countries and decided to make a book when he realized that he kept making the same sketches over and over again to illustrate his points.

So now, we all have access to his sketches and explanations.

One of his interesting points is that a camera lens acts somewhat like an eye. Our eye can focus on something extremely close or something far away, better than any camera lens can. But still the idea is there. (And he recommends you do focus your camera yourself, because you never know what the camera will choose to focus on.)

Schroeppel also discusses light temperature and the importance of a tripod.  He says shaky shots are distracting.

Then, he explains some common terms. For example:

  • Rule of Thirds. Essentially, you need to picture a tic tac toe board on the photo you’re taking and put the interesting thing at one of the spots where the lines cross on your imaginary tic tac toe board.
  • Head room/Lead Room – don’t have someone face off the side of the frame
  • Balance masses- if you have something huge on one side of the photo, you should have something on the other, even if it’s smaller, to balance things out
  • Camera height- he suggests playing with the height of the camera when you take a picture
  • Framing – and also says you should use something in the area to create a frame within a frame

The article “Acting Tips: 12 Camera Shots Every Actor Should Know”, expands on the camera techniques by listing lots of different shots a photographer can take – from wideshots and establishing shots to extreme closeups. The article discusses low and high angle shots (varying the camera height), as well as using someone’s shoulder to frame a shot.

When it comes to zooming and panning, Schroeppel says a zoom in focuses you on a person or thing – a zoom out, reveals new information. He also suggests not panning too quickly, and something I try to tell my students, start and end each pan with a static shot – that way, you end up with three shots you can use.


Next, I looked for examples of some of these techniques. Whenever I need some visual inspiration, enjoy searching for NPPA Awards on YouTube. These are the awards for the National Press Photographers Association, which is an organization for visual journalists (both still and video).

They frequently have contests. So I knew I’d find some examples of great shooting with just a few clicks.

One of the things I really wanted to find was a good ‘leading lines’ example – lines that lead to the most important part of the picture. I remember learning to draw perspective when I was young, by drawing a road with telephone poles on one side that met at a point in the distance. I wanted to get some other ideas, and luckily for me, an example popped up on the very first click on my NPPA search results.

These leading lines are tire tracks in the snow, that head to a small plane. I’m wondering if they used a drone to shoot some of this. The whole package is beautifully shot and written. What a gorgeous, empty area. (Not something you usually see on jam-packed Long Island.)

Leading lines at :61

This Trailer for the new Top Gun movie is full of examples of rule of thirds and lead room. The shot at :54 has both, Maverick’s eyes and face are right on the cross of the tic-tac-toe board, for rule of thirds — and he is looking into the frame, for leading lines.

The shot at :54 shows the rule of thirds and leading lines

Next, I decided to look for some fun examples of framing, when a photographer uses something in the scene as a frame for the main object. I’ve done plenty of still photography framing, using a branch or some sea grass. Here’s an NPPA example that uses a woman’s shoulder and the back of her head.

A shoulder acts as a frame at 1:20

So, now it’s time to plan my montage.

In Video Pre-Production Planning Check-list – 11 Steps to a Successful Project”, author Jimm Fox says you should “really think this through” before you start. He says if you don’t plan, you’ll fail… meaning, you won’t meet your objective. That means getting all the shots you want, and being efficient in getting the work done.

He writes that the planning includes defining your key message, your objective and your audience. The process also includes creating a storyboard, which is a way to outline all the shots you plan to get during your shoot so you can put your great message together.

I’ll leave you with one shot of my storyboard in progress here, and more on my project… in my next post.

Part of the storyboarding process for my video montage

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