There are few things that last forever. Cell phones, cars, computers, and clothes slow down, die, depreciate, or deteriorate. That’s why many travelers focus on making memories, since they’re one of the few things that do survive.
There’s something that can last even longer than your memories, though: the stories you tell through your travel videos. Upload them to the Internet, and they’ll be available for generations to come.
In my last article, I talked about ways to improve your travel videos with better tools. This time around, I’m going to show you how to create better travel videos using time-tested advice.
The Golden Rules
Rule of Thirds
As with photography, following the “rule of thirds” is a quick way to make your compositions more interesting. Before you start recording, take a moment to identify what the subject of your shot is, then move your camera to place that subject in one of the thirds of your screen. To help with this, most cellphone apps have a grid that divides your screen up into thirds by default.
If there’s a secondary subject, try to align it with another third of the screen. If your subject is a person, an easy way to decide which third to place them in is by which way they are looking.
Your subject should be looking inside the frame. For example, if your subject is looking down and to the right from your perspective, place them in the upper-left part of the screen.
This way, whoever watches your video later can get an idea of what your subject was looking at, rather than guessing what was happening outside the frame.
The Golden Hour
Lighting is extremely important when trying to capture the essence of any place you’re visiting. Unfortunately, you don’t always have the luxury of bringing a lighting rig with you while traveling… but you may not need it.
The best lighting you could ask for is available twice a day around the world. Sunrise and sunset. The period right after sunrise and before sunset is called the Golden Hour for good reason. This time of day offers the most flattering light for any landscape, city, or person you record. Take advantage of it by planning ahead.
I use sites like Flickr for inspiration when looking for appealing places to record. Once I’m settled in the city, I get up an hour or so before sunrise and head out to get set up. Sure, sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, but most of the time I’m left with shots that wouldn’t have looked half as good had I left the house at noon.
Why? Recording with the sun overhead is great lighting for the top of your head, but it casts horrible shadows on your face. We tend to see things from the side, not the top, so that’s where you want your lighting coming from.
For that reason, stick to recording as close to the Golden Hour as possible.
Angles and Stability
Level With People
As much as it’s rude to talk down to someone, it’s not nice to record down at them either. By “not nice” I mean it doesn’t look good on them — you’ll end up making your subject look small and insignificant if you don’t find a good angle.
Small and insignificant might be the look you’re going for if you’re recording someone in a vast landscape and want to show scale, but otherwise, it’s not.
If you’re recording someone else, especially a child, move the camera down to their eye level. Then you’ll get to see the world from their perspective. The world looks a lot more interesting through the eyes of a child, but this tip can work for everyone.
If you move down slightly below eye level, people and objects tend to look taller and more important. This technique is so common in Hollywood that people often mistake celebrities for being taller than they actually are.
Smooth and Steady Wins the Race
In the last article I talked about stabilization, and ways to help achieve it using technology. A good take starts with you, of course, and a steady hand can achieve great results.
A steady hand and the right technology, though, can make a shot look like the camera was floating through thin air. The trickiest shots to capture are often when trying to follow someone else. Practice walking smoothly for best results.
When you’re ready to record, bend your legs slightly. Take one step forward, but be careful to land on the heel of your foot and roll it towards your toe as you get ready for the next step. You should adjust how much your legs are bent to compensate for any changes in height while walking forward.
Don’t be afraid to look funny while recording. Getting the shot is what matters most, even if strangers happen to think you work at the Ministry of Silly Walks while you’re getting it. Also, any time you plan to pan or tilt, make sure you do so gradually. You’ll be thankful you took the extra effort when it’s time to edit what you’ve recorded.
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What to Shoot
The Right Stuff
The worst things about making a travel video is returning from a trip, only to realize you didn’t get the shots you wanted. It’s like going to the grocery store to buy milk, only to return home with a bag full of groceries and no milk… except getting to that grocery store required a $1000 plane ticket.
Make a list of some of the shots you’d like to get before your trip. It helps to develop a vision of the end result, even if things don’t go the way you expected. Then, when you find shots you like, try getting a few takes from different angles. When I find something interesting, I usually do three ten second takes: one wide shot, one medium shot, and a close-up.
Data storage is cheap these days. Going back to record something after the fact is not. Keep your camera at the ready, and don’t be afraid to start recording in anticipation of something happening. You never know when action is going to strike.
A good way to make sure you have enough footage, even when you’re on a short trip, is to record b-roll. B-roll is supplemental footage you can use to cut away from the main action, and it makes for great filler while editing your video.
Try using your camera’s slow-motion features when recording. You can use slo-mo footage later to turn a hurried two-second recording into ten seconds. This gives you the time you needed to explain how you were feeling in that moment with a voice-over.
For example, Chichen Itza is one of the modern wonders of the world, but visiting the site at the weekend to appreciate its majesty feels a little bit like racing to be one of the first into Walmart on Black Friday.
If you get there right when it opens, you have about fifteen minutes before getting crowds of strangers in your shot is inevitable. Be prepared, and switch your camera to slo-mo mode. This can buy you some time. Quickly get some shots of the pyramid and surrounding site before the crowds move in.
Later, in post-production, you can record your narration over the top of this footage. I prefer this approach as it gives me the most flexibility when I’m ready to edit.
It also helps to capture plenty of transitional moments. Going somewhere? Record five seconds of you getting into the bus or car, and some of the scenery. Arriving somewhere? Get a shot of the welcome sign. I like to make sure I have at least one sunrise and one sunset time-lapse from each trip. These make for great transition material from one day to the next.
Getting beautiful footage from your travels requires a combination of technique and know-how. Follow the advice in this article, and you’ll be well on your well to making better travel videos. You’ll need good lighting, a steady hand, a keen eye, and good timing… plus, of course, you’ll need a good story.
Now you’re ready to put some of these principles into practice. Go out and make some travel movies!
Any questions or thoughts? As always, I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.