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Let’s start with an example.
It’s a beautiful, hot, sunny day outside and your kids are cooling off in the pool. They are splashing and laughing and having a ball.
What do most of us do to capture it?
We pull out our phone or our camera, place our kids in the frame and start following the action. We hold our arms out in front of us, stand still, and take a short video of them jumping into the pool. Maybe over and over again.
The problem is that without adding any thought to our camera angles or camera movement, this method will be boring and one dimensional. There’s no variety, no creativity.
Yet, isn’t this typically what we all do when we want film something?
In today’s post, I’ll share with you my absolute favorite camera techniques that anyone can master to add visual interest to any scene.
We are also going to get into some specific tips on how to smooth out your shaky, handheld shots - so stay tuned!
What is rack focus?
Rack focus is one of my favorite techniques for shifting your audience’s attention from one subject to another. Using either manual or auto focus on your camera, you simply ‘rack’ the focus to make the lens shift the focus from one subject to the next. Here’s a few examples in action:
How to achieve rack focus?
Lately, I’ve been spoiled by my Canon 1DX. Since it has autofocus, I simply tap the touch screen on the back of my camera to shift focus between subjects. If you have a DSLR with autofocus, you can take advantage of this ability as well.
However, for years I didn’t have this luxury. I had to manually focus all my shots. It’s not easy and takes a lot of practice, but eventually it will become second nature. You need to practice with your lens. Memorize which way you need to spin it to bring the focus closer and further away. Practice going back and forth between two different objects and you’ll see what I mean.
Make sure your aperture is wide open.
If you recall from our last lesson, we spoke in great detail about depth of field. What it means and how it’s going to affect the way that your shot looks.
In order to rack focus effectively, you need your aperture to be as wide open as possible so that your depth of field is very shallow. This will allow an object close to you to be on a different focus plane than something further away from you.
With a narrow aperture, everything in your frame will be in focus and there will be no way to ‘rack’ anything in or out.
Ah, and we have arrived at my FAVORITE creative technique. In fact, I love it so much that when I first learned this technique, it began to dominate my work. It was great for a time, but one of the lessons I learned was to use it in moderation. So, what is it?
What is free lensing (also referred to as lens whacking)?
We’ll simply refer to it as free lensing here. This is a creative technique where you actually remove the lens from the body of the camera. Holding the body of the camera in one hand and the lens in the other, you pivot or tilt the lens close to and then further away from the camera body.
It’s best to use a small, easy to hold lens since you’ll have to maneuver it using just one hand. Here’s my favorite lens to use for free lensing. Also great because it’s a very inexpensive lens, so no worries if it’s exposed to air or dust in the process.
What does it do?
By detaching the lens, you are essentially creating your own tilt-shift lens. Yes, they make these types of lenses, but they can be quite expensive and, like I said, it’s not a lens you would use all the time. Unless you were me in 2011, of course.
The effect is really amazing. Because the lens is detached, light enters the camera in very unique and surprising ways. You get buttery pink and purple lens flares, natural vignetting around the edges, and a super soft and shallow depth of field. It feels like vintage film. Did I mention that I love it?
It’s the epitome of cinematic. And it works great for adding a little something extra interesting here and there in your films. It’s great for portraits and other kinds of close ups. The lens flares also make really great natural transitions between shots.
Here is an example of a full video that I made back in my free lensing hay day:https://player.vimeo.com/video/34912776?app_id=122963&wmode=opaque
Here is a super easy technique that you can use just about anywhere to add a lot of depth and interest to your shots.
Simply find an object very close to you - a wall, a chair, a tree branch. Position your camera directly behind the object, start your shot and then slowly move out from the behind the object until your subject is in focus.
This simple move can be executed by anyone on any camera. It’s great for filmmakers using their phone or a go pro to capture footage since you really don’t need any extra equipment to take advantage of this technique.
It also works as a wonderful natural transition between shots. You can start your shot or finish your shot by moving out from behind a closer object.
Here’s another great idea that anyone can try. Get low.
I literally mean, get down on your hands and knees and put the camera as close to the ground as possible. This is going to give your film a whole new perspective, literally and figuratively.
It will add interest and contribute to the story line when you use it deliberately. Try it out and see how it changes the look and feel of your video.
Have your subject walk right by you. Get very close to your subject and put the camera on the floor. This also works if you set the camera on a table. Not only that but you can use the table or floor to stabilize your shot.
If you are filming a moving subject - a child for example - stay right on their tail during whatever action it is they are doing. If they are running on a path, run right behind them. Get low again and film their feet. Now turn around and film them coming towards you. Film them from the side running past you. Now run next to them.
If you are attempting this technique handheld, your shots are sure to be jerky. That’s ok in some cases. I have so many useable shots that are shaky. Depending on the type of film and the feeling behind it, your viewers will forgive a lot of that movement. Especially in cases where there is a lot of energy and action happening.
Go ahead and skip down to suggestion 11 if you want more tips about smoothing out those handheld shots as well.
You may also choose to use a handy little gimbal on your iPhone or camera, like this great one.
Here’s another great choice for a gimbal if you need something a little more heavy duty for a slightly bigger dslr camera.
In any case, following your characters is going to create a sense of intimacy in the film. It will directly connect your subject to the viewer, making them feel like they are there too. Perfect for lifestyle videography.
A dolly movement is when you move the entire camera forwards and backwards, very smoothly. With large productions, this is often done on a track or motorized vehicle of some kind, but is now completely and easily accessible with a gimbal, slider, or even handheld.
To achieve this effect, it’s most important that the movement is completely smooth and that you move forward or backward in space. It isn’t simply a zoom in or out with the lens.
The action doesn’t have to involve a ton of movement, and in fact, if you are attempting to dolly while holding the camera with your hands, your best bet are small, slow, easy movements to keep things as smooth as possible.
Here’s my favorite choice for a nice small gimbal, perfect for small cameras, phones, or GoPro cameras.
And the perfect choice for an affordable, fun accessory - a remote controlled dolly on wheels. Check the price on Amazon, this one goes on sale often.
The trucking movement is very similar to a dolly from back to front, except that you are moving from left to right. This can be achieved in the same way a dolly can be - a gimbal, slider, or short and steady handheld movements.
A classic and simple movement, but one that will never go out of style. Tilting is a simple camera movement from down to up or up to down while the base of the camera stays steady.
It’s a great technique for introducing a new scene or character, especially something grand or surprising. This is best done using a tripod, but you can also pull it off using your hands with a little practice. Go slow and use your elbows to stabilize your arms or wrists on your torso.
You can see an example below. I used speed ramp (done easily in Premiere Pro) to speed up the time in the middle and make the shot a little more interesting.
Another very basic camera movement is the pan. This is simply when you move your camera horizontally, from left to right or right to left. It’s a great way to define a new location or a new action coming into your scene.
This one is also best done with a tripod, but you can use your entire body to slowly pivot as well. Try to keep your arms fixed to your body and simply rotate your shoulders and hips.
While this technique is going to involve the most amount of skill and practice, it also gives you the most ‘cinematic’ bang for your buck. Using a gimbal is probably the easiest way to combine movements, but it can also be done using a slider or handheld.
A few examples might include following your character in a circle using dolly and tilt movements at the same time.
It could also be trucking out from behind an object to give a slow reveal. This could easily be done handheld or of course with the use of a dolly or gimbal.
In all reality, especially with lifestyle films, since you are filming reality, you won’t always have the time or access to fancy equipment. Sometimes the moments happen quickly and you have to just do the best you can. Here are a few tricks that you can implement to get super smooth movements without any extra camera tools.
1 - My favorite tool for smoothing out shaky footage once it’s already been shot is the Warp Stabilizer tool in Premiere Pro. It doesn’t always work, so you do have to play with it and review your clips carefully, but 75% of the time it saves a lot of my shaky shots. Here’s a little video I made if you want to know exactly how to use it.
2 - Shoot in slow motion. When the footage is slowed down, the exaggerated movement will be half as noticeable to your viewer.
3 - In body stabilization. Check to see if your camera has this feature. Not all cameras do, but many have it these days and it can dramatically improve the smoothness of your shots.
4 - Ok, confession, I was a marching band nerd. What does that have to do with anything? Well, we had to learn exactly how to walk super smoothly without bobbing our heads up and down. When you are walking with a handheld camera, it’s best to walk forward by rolling your feet from your heels to your toes as if you are balancing a book on your head.
5 - Create your own dolly. You don’t necessarily have to purchase an expensive slider or gimbal. You can experiment with a skateboard, roller blades, anything with wheels really. Safely place your camera on the skateboard or object and play around with your shots. Obviously this doesn’t work for every shot or in every location, but it’s worth a try when you can.
6 - Use your hips. You may look funny, but it will work. When you hold your camera out just using your arms and hands, the shake and movement is going to be heavily exaggerated. Instead use your own body like a tripod. Keep your arms and elbows locked in and use your body to sway in different directions to keep your movement more steady.
Best gimbal for camera phones: Hohem Isteady Mobile
Fun little remote controlled dolly for phones and small DSLR cameras: Tarion AutoDolly
Affordable slider for DSLR cameras: Neewer Carbon Fiber Slider
One recommendation above $100 - Best gimbal for DSLRs: Zhiyun Crane V2
I hope these suggestions give you some fresh ideas for your footage. Your homework for the week is to go out and shoot at least three varieties of camera movements between your shots.
Also remember to shoot each scene from three different angles, like we discussed in our crafting a story lesson. While you’re at it go ahead and think of a short story line that you can put together with your shots. It could be as simple as an afternoon outdoors eating popsicles or a hike with your dog.
Thanks for checking out a few of my favorite things. As an affiliate, I receive compensation for mentioning my favorite resources, however any commission that I earn comes at no cost to you. In fact, it goes right back into maintaining this website so I can continue to offer fresh content. Thanks as always for your support!
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