When I was in elementary school, I took piano lessons. I never got very good (and eventually quit playing in 6th grade), but I learned lessons from that experience that I still use today — even for shooting video.
Every day when I sat down to practice the piano, before I started practicing any actual songs, I began by doing “finger exercises”. This meant playing different scales in different ways. It helped loosen up my fingers and also strengthen them.
It was repetitious and boring, especially for a young child.
But of course – now as an adult – I see the benefit of doing those boring exercises. They helped me learn to move my fingers in a way that they might move when I played songs.
There’s a lot of value in practicing fundamentals. We hear it all the time with sports metaphors, but what about with art?
“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.”
– Ludwig van Beethoven
That’s taking “practice” to a whole new level!
Well, when it comes to video, there are endless things to practice, but we have to start somewhere, so…
I’m going to suggest different exercises to practice with your video camera aside from an “actual” shoot, similar to how you might practice scales on a piano aside from playing an “actual” song.
1. Practice with the focus ring
Frame two objects at two different distances in the video frame, and then practice moving the focus from one object to another. Then shift the focus back again. This effect is called a “rack focus”, and it’s great way to create visual interest by adding movement to a static frame.
This helps you know the feel of your focus ring. You learn which way you have to turn it to move focus further or nearer to your camera. This should become instinctual with enough practice.
Mount the camera on a fluid-head tripod for these next couple items.
2. Practice panning
Find something moving horizontally: a car, a dog, a bird flying across the sky. Practice panning the camera to follow the subject.
Try this with objects moving at different speeds and see if you’re able to maintain a well-composed frame even with variable speeds.
Are you able to anticipate where the subject will be? If they leave the frame, are you able to catch up to them again and bring them back into the frame?
3. Practice tilting
Find something tall: a tree, a building, a light post. Practice tilting from the top of the object to the bottom of the object, and then back again. Practice this with different speeds.
This helps you become accustomed to the feel of your tripod. You learn how to ease in and ease out of the movement. You see the effects of different speeds.
4. Practice with the zoom lever or zoom ring (whichever your camera has)
I’m not a fan of using zoom shots in a final video, but sometimes it’s a necessity. So if you absolutely must do it, you might as well capture a high quality zoom shot. Practice with a focus on smooth starts and stops.
Are you able to smoothly zoom and come to a nice resting spot on a subject, without any overly-abrupt movements?
5. Practice storytelling
Practice shooting a beginning, middle, and end of some tiny story with three different shots.
For the “story” of heading to work, get three shots:
- Person getting in their car
- Person typing on their computer
- Person entering through their home’s front door as their dogs rush to greet them.
That’s three shots that could tell the story of their work day. You could easily choose very different shots to represent the beginning, middle, and end.
For the “story” of having a bowl of cereal, get these three shots:
- Pouring cereal from a box
- Spoonful of cereal going into mouth
- Rinsing an empty bowl in a sink
6. Practice getting different angles
Take one object or subject and shoot it from at least 10 different angles — just get a few seconds for each clip.
Some ideas for angles:
- Low angle
- High angle
- Extreme close-up
- Wide shot
- Straight from the front
- From the side
- Straight down on the object
- Extreme low angle
- Extreme high angle
- Long shot (telephoto)
- Close-up with a telephoto lens setting
- Close-up with a wide angle lens setting
7. Practice getting to each button on your camcorder (without looking)
Do you sometimes need to push the auto-iris button while shooting, but you have to look to see where it is? Practice touching the button without looking.
Practice turning zebras on and off without looking.
8. Practice smoothly changing the iris (aperture)
Sometimes you need to adjust exposure during a shot, and it’s best if you can hide the change.
For Bonus Points…
If you really want to have some fun doing this, get together with other video shooters and go for a “video walk” where everyone practices these same types of skills along the way.
Go through a neighborhood looking for objects to capture from 10 different angles, animals to follow with your camera and tripod, etc.
This concept is the same as a “photo walk”, except you’re shooting video clips. And frankly, it’s enormous fun!