Here are the top DSLR and mirrorless camera settings to achieve a cinematic film look with your videos.
Mastering Manual Mode
I remember when I first started shooting (in auto mode, of course). I had no idea what all the buttons on my camera controlled. But I fumbled through it, learning as I went, and slowly began putting the pieces together bit by bit.
I started playing around with my settings one by one so I could learn each individually. I suggest you do the same. Keep all else the same and only alter one function of the camera at a time (i.e. just aperture, just shutter speed, just ISO, etc). You’ll learn what they all mean in a moment.
As I continued to experiment, I realized that my work was becoming so much better, just as a result of getting comfortable with my settings and fully understanding what each one controlled.
If you stick with it, I have no doubt that it’s going to be the same for you. Not only will you not waste time in the moment trying to fumble with your settings, they will soon become like second nature and you’ll find yourself lost in the moment, enjoying the process of capturing.
It can be overwhelming at first, but with a little practice, you’ll get the hang of it.
We’re going to start with the basics. We’ll cover exactly what each setting does and I’ll share with you exactly how I set up my camera.
For family films, you really want your footage to look as cinematic and authentic as possible. Using the correct camera settings will help you to achieve exactly that style.
Here are the seven important settings we’ll cover:
- Frame Rate
- White Balance
- Picture Style
- Program Modes
1 | Frame Rate Settings
What is frame rate?
A video is a series of images (or frames) that are put together in a sequence. We’ve all seen the old flip book cartoons, right?
With video, you can alter the number of frames that are within each second of footage. The most common options are 24 frames, 30 frames, 60 frames, and 120 frames. They are often referred to as ‘fps’ or frames per second.
For real time footage, you should set your camera to shoot 24 fps.
This is the same frame rate that true film cameras shoot on and it will feel the most cinematic.
It’s a subtle difference, but shooting in 30 fps is going to look more like the old school home videos from the 90’s. Think ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ or your favorite soap operas 😉
For slow motion footage, you want to set your camera to shoot either 60 fps or 120 fps.
This will likely be determined by the type of camera you own since not all of them can shoot in 120 fps.
Yes, the higher fps means it will be slower motion. I know this seems counter intuitive, but when you think about slowing down time, you need more frames per second to fill in the gaps. So 120 fps will be the slowest motion, while 60 fps will be less slow motion… faster motion? You know what I mean.
2 | Aperture Settings
What is aperture?
Aperture is defined by how open or closed your lens is. This determines how much light is allowed to enter your camera through the lens.
More importantly it also determines how much depth of field your camera will capture.
What is depth of field and why is it important?
Your background and foreground can all be completely in focus (this is a wide depth of field). Or your subject can be completely sharp and in focus, while the rest of your photo is completely blurry (this is a shallow depth of field).
When to use Shallow Depth of Field
Using a shallow depth of field will most likely be your go-to setting for any family or lifestyle filmmaking. Here are a few reasons why.
- Draws attention to your subject: It can help your viewer focus right away on what is important in the frame.
- More aesthetically pleasing: Here’s that cinematic look again. With a blurry background or foreground, you get that dreamy, film-like style.
- Rack Focus: We’ll get into what this means in more detail later down the road when we learn the ins and outs of specific shooting techniques. This is a technique very common among filmmakers when you want to move from one subject to another within the same shot. You can ‘rack focus’ to change your focus point from point A to point B. It’s a very distinct way to make a point in your video without having to say any words.
When to use Wide Depth of Field
- Landscapes: Imagine a beautiful mountain lake scene with a child skipping rocks in the foreground. You may not want to lose all that beauty in the background or the motion of the rocks skipping on the water. Using a wide depth of field allows all these objects to be in focus at the same time.
- Sunny outdoor scenario: I have also used a wide depth of field to my advantage in very sunny situations outdoors when I can’t see what’s on my camera screen. If it’s difficult to see what’s in focus because of the glare, you can widen your depth of field to ensure that the majority of what’s in your frame will be in focus even if you can’t see it very clearly.
- Fast moving objects: great examples include following a running child, using a handheld gimbal, or capturing a child on a swing. In these situations, your auto focus may not be able to keep up with the speed of your subject. Using a wide depth of field will dramatically increase your chances of keeping your subject in focus.
Best settings for aperture?
Settings for aperture are called ‘f-stops’. The numbers can be a bit confusing, so stick with me here.
The higher the f-stop (f22), the smaller the opening.
The lower the f-stop (f2.8), the larger the opening.
- If you want a Shallow Depth of Field: f1.2-f4: You want to open aperture the widest your lens can possibly go. This amount will vary for each lens.
- If you want a Wide Depth of Field: f11-f22: Depending on how much available light you have, you want to keep your lens as closed as it will go. Note: you may find that if you are indoors or in low light situations, you cannot go past a certain f-stop without the shot looking too dark. This is just one of those things you’ll learn with practice. You don’t always have the luxury of a wide depth of field in those scenarios.
3 | Shutter Speed
What is shutter speed?
Shutter speed is how many fractions of a second the light hits the sensor of your camera. If your shutter speed is too slow, your footage will have a laggy, motion blur to it.
If your shutter speed is too fast, your footage will have a jittery and intense feeling to it.
Best Settings for Shutter Speed (for cinematic looking footage):
You want your shutter speed to equal 2x your fps (frames per second).
Shooting 24 fps = shutter speed of 1/50-1/60
Shooting 60 fps = shutter speed of 1/120
Shooting 120 fps = shutter speed of 1/240
Your shutter speed doesn’t have to match these guidelines exactly. I would never let it go under 1/50, but this is one setting that I am generally the most lenient with.
4 | ISO
What is ISO?
ISO controls how sensitive the sensor on your camera is to light. The lower the ISO, the darker your image. The higher the ISO, the brighter your image. However, ISO will add a certain amount of grain or visual ‘noise’ to your footage. You want to limit the amount of ISO that you use whenever possible.
I typically open my aperture as wide as it will go and slow down my shutter speed as low as I can before adjusting the ISO
Best Settings for ISO
This again will depend on your camera. Higher end cameras can shoot at higher ISO numbers without you noticing the grain as much.
In general, you should try to stay below 1000 ISO if possible, staying below 800 is even better.
5 | White Balance
What is white balance?
This can get super technical, so I’m going to keep it simple for our purposes. Each source of light (the sun, a light bulb, etc.) has a color and that color is determined by a temperature (measured in Kelvins). Different lights have different temperatures which will cast color hues in the correct or incorrect direction depending on how you set your white balance.
We’ve probably all seen images that look a little bit funky – way too blue or way too orange. Our eyes immediately tell us that it’s not what real life looks like. That’s an incorrect white balance in action.
Cameras are dumb. Or at least they’re not as smart as our eyes. You have to tell your camera what temperature the light source is where you are shooting.
It’s extremely important to get this setting right, because fixing it after the fact can be pretty difficult.
Best Settings for White Balance
Auto White Balance: If you aren’t sure, you can start here. Most cameras are pretty good at detecting the correct white balance, but you can always adjust if you notice that it looks off. I use this setting inside my house.
Sunny/Shade Auto Setting: My Canon camera has a preset option for these environments. I almost always just simply switch over to these once I’m outside and all is well.
If things still aren’t looking right, you can adjust manually. Here are the numbers to remember:
Natural Sunlight: 5200-5500k
Indoors with Incandescent Bulbs: 2000-4000k
6 | Picture Style
What is picture style?
Picture style sets the amount of sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone in your footage.
Some cameras have preset options. Canon’s options are: auto, standard, portrait, landscape, neutral, faithful, and monochrome. We aren’t going to use any of those presets. We are going to create our own. If you own a Canon, go down to ‘User Def. 1’ keep ‘color tone’ right in the middle, but slide all the other options down to zero.
If you own a different brand camera, the process should be very similar. Find where the picture styles are located and slide all the options down to the lowest possible setting (other than color tone).
If your camera allows you to shoot in LOG mode, do that.
Note: this is going to make your footage look very gray, soft, and not-so-great straight out of the camera. But trust me, this is the best way to shoot.
Shooting in LOG or a very neutral setting like this is going to allow your camera to capture the most information from your surroundings. You’ll capture the darkest blacks, the whitest whites, and all the shadows and colors in between. This will allow you the most freedom to edit the colors and exposure correctly in post production. I’ll show you exactly how once we start getting into our editing process.
7 | Program Modes
What are program modes?
Here’s another one that may vary a bit depending on your camera, but they all have something similar so it should still apply. These are all the little options that appear on the top left dial of your camera (on Canon anyway). First of all, I want you to go ahead and never shoot in any of the little icon modes. You may as well shoot in auto mode and lose all control of your own creative choices with these.
However, there are some very helpful ‘Creative Modes’ that I’m going to explain.
What are creative modes?
The Creative Modes on your camera are Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode. On most cameras, they are marked P (program), A (aperture priority), S (shutter priority), and M (manual mode).
Canon cameras will show “P, Av, Tv, M” for the same exact modes. “Av” is Canon’s version of Aperture Priority, and “Tv” is Canon’s version of Shutter Priority.
If you are just becoming familiar with how your camera operates and how to shoot in manual mode, then these are about to be your best friend. I am really only concerned with two of them and here they are in detail:
Ok, here’s my favorite setting of all time. Honestly, it makes things so easy.
Basically what this setting does is it allows you to be in control of your aperture setting and then it automatically sets your shutter speed and ISO for you.
I like to start with this mode and then if I notice that my shutter speed is too slow or my ISO too high, then I will hop into manual made and adjust accordingly.
If you are just learning, start here. Shoot in aperture priority for the next month. Only alter your aperture setting and let your camera do the rest. Notice what happens to your footage when you shoot in f2.8 or f4 versus f22. How did your depth of field change? Did you notice any grain or a slow shutter speed when you shot at f22?
Experiment in this mode until you start to feel more comfortable.
How are we feeling? You’ve made it to the end of the list. Congratulations! Seriously, that is a lot of information to take in. Manual mode is a bit obvious – you have complete control of your camera settings. Like I said in the beginning, after lots of practice, especially in aperture mode, start working your way into manual mode.
Your homework for this lesson is to pick one subject that will be easy to film for the next few days. It could be a child, an animal, or anything else that’s easily accessible for you to film. Start with shooting in Aperture Priority mode on your camera. Play around with your f-stop and see how it changes the footage. Keep playing with those settings and pay attention to what happens.
Now try manual mode. If your image is too dark, think through which setting you can change to make it brighter (aperture, shutter speed, or ISO?). Keep doing this.
I’m not gonna lie, it takes time and practice. Don’t give up. Keep doing it. I’m telling you, it will become like second nature, you just have to give it time.
Practice, practice, practice.
I know I keep saying it, but it’s only because it’s true. The only way to become a master of manual mode is by practicing. Let yourself experiment and make mistakes. That’s the only way to learn. And trust me, you’ll get there.
I’m here for questions, so leave yours in the comments below. Have fun and happy shooting!
In our next lesson we’ll dive into the top 10 easy and most creative filming techniques for getting great shots with any camera.
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