If there’s one thing that YouTube taught us, it’s that compelling content trumps production value every time. That said, unless your goal is to make your video so bad that it’s good, which is a terribly fine line to walk, why not do it right? I’m not talking a $10,000 production team, right; I’m talking “You’re a millionaire so buy a freaking $20 tripod,” right. In this article, I’ll identify issues with several business videos on YouTube and point out some free or inexpensive fixes to common video mistakes.
So Bad it’s Just Bad
Deric Lipski is a real estate sales guy who posts a lot of videos on YouTube. His content must be good, because he’s got just under 7,000 subscribers and over 610,000 views. But the execution of many of the 316 videos that he’s posted leaves something to be desired. This video from his “Top 20 Tips for Sellers Looking to Make the Most Money” is a prime example.
First, and most obvious, the video is backlit, and apparently shot in automatic mode, which makes his face too dark. He could light from the front and turn off the overhead, which would probably make automatic exposure work well, or he could set exposure manually, so that his face was well lit. This would blow out the background (e.g. much too light) but the face is key, so that’s what I would worry about. If you’re looking for a good primer on which lights to buy and how to use them, check out B&H’s Three-Point Lighting.
Second, the reason an overhead fluorescent is in the background is because he’s shooting upward, which is technically a low-angle shot. According to Wikipedia, these shots are used to make characters look “menacing, large, and in-charge.” That’s okay if that’s the intent, but unless you’re trying to intimidate your viewers, most videos are best shot at a front angle, which is basically horizontal in the middle of the shot. If you’re shooting a medium shot, this means the camera about chin high; if a close-up it means about nose-high.
Third, while there’s nothing wrong with 4:3 videos, they look ugly in a 16:9 player. If your player will be 16:9, shoot in 16:9. Finally, while this is probably more preference than classic instruction, it looks like the hyperactive Mr. Lipski has watched one too many Gary Vaynerchuk videos. Sometimes, too much motion can get in the way of the message. Overall, while Mr. Lipski obviously has something valuable to say, paying attention to a few details will let his video enhance his message, not degrade it.
You Can Do Better Fellows
The next video, from CoolWave Marketing (sorry guys) also has lighting issues: The subject’s face is clearly too dark. This is particularly unfortunate given that this is from a demo reel, though there are many other elements of the video — the use of music and text in particular — that are quite well done. Perhaps there was a reason the director wanted the face so dark, but it’s not apparent to me.
To add a level of objectivity to the analysis, I downloaded the video and loaded it into Premiere Pro. The waveform monitor on the left below shows the IRE value (a measure of brightness) of the face to be under 50. I try for 75 with most of my shots, while references like the DV Show say you should shoot for an IRE value of 80.
There are two ways to resolve this problem. First, while shooting, you should use your camera’s zebra stripes to achieve the desired IRE value — that way you don’t have to fix it in post. Here’s a useful tutorial on this.
Once shot, you can certainly fix this in post; I used Premiere Pro’s gamma and brightness adjustments to boost the face into the desired IRE neighborhood and to improve contrast overall. If you’re working in Premiere Pro, you can check out my tutorial. For Final Cut Pro X, check out this tutorial.
Get a Tripod and a Windscreen, John
John Assaraf is a motivational guru that I turn to when my spirits are low — hey, it’s tough being a freelancer some days. But if John really did make the millions that he boasts about, you figure he could afford a tripod and a maybe a windsock for the microphone he’s using. There’s a lot to like about this video, including the framing and the use of natural lighting, but many viewers will find both the constant motion and the wind noise (notable at around 1:26) distracting.
When you’re shooting a static shot like this one, even a $20 tripod from WalMart will do. Spending more gets you more, but you should expect to spend around $300 minimum for a fluid-head tripod that you can use to smoothly follow the motion. And whenever you buy a microphone for outdoor use, you should always purchase a windscreen to go along with it.
You Are What You Wear
While it’s unlikely that the attorney being deposed in this video cares about video quality, his pinstriped shirt is a classic example of what can go wrong when there’s too much detail in either the clothing or background. The resulting moiré pattern is distracting and screams amateur.
When you’re planning your shoot, tell the on-camera subjects to wear solid clothing in blues, grays, or browns; whichever color contrasts best with the background. Advise them to avoid stark black and white clothing, which stresses the contrast ratio of cameras and codecs, and neon colors like reds, yellows, and bright greens, which can bleed after compression. Apply similar rules for your background, which should be free of bright lighting and excessive motion, particularly fine detail like blowing trees and bushes.
Bad Lighting at a Conference
Okay, I’ve talked about lighting and exposure before, I know you get it, but I wanted to make a point about conference videos. Certainly anytime you have a speaker you should stream it live, or at least record the talk for on-demand viewing. But recognize that stage and conference lighting is often video unfriendly. Such is the case here in this talk on the future of online video advertising by Pierre Chappaz at a conference hosted by The Guardian. As you can see, the lighting is all from the top, which is why the bottom half of Mr. Chappaz’s face is so dark.
If you want inspiration for how conference videos can look great, check out almost any Ted Talk video, like Brene Brown’s transcendent talk on the Power of Vulnerability (14.5 million views and growing). Give Ms. Brown credit for wearing the perfect shirt for streaming: a nice solid brown.
Achieving good lighting in a conference scenario isn’t cheap or easy because the affordable compact fluorescent softboxes that are perfect for close-in work don’t have the power to reach a stage 100 feet away. Rather, you need to use spotlights, or similar focused lights, from the back of the room. These lights are expensive to buy, and if your speaker will be pacing, you’ll need an operator to follow along.
Your best bet is to talk to facility folks at the conference venue and let them know that you need front lighting for video. To save manpower, you may have to instruct your speakers not to wander from the podium, which will also make the video easier to shoot.
Video Mistakes Not Suitable For Framing
Mark Wolters video How to Develop a Brand Strategy is so compelling that he garnered 38 likes against 0 dislikes, and one viewer who watched it credits the video with motivating him to start a brewery. But certainly the video could have been more visually impressive if Mr. Wolters followed a few simple rules.
First is the rule of thirds, which dictates positioning within the frame. There are multiple videos on YouTube explaining the concept; this is one of the better ones. Briefly, the rule of thirds divides the frame into thirds, as shown in the figure, and dictates that the main subject of the video be placed along one of those lines, preferable at one of the four intersections, often called saddle points. When the subject is a person, you typically want the eyes on one of the lines.
When the subject is facing the camera, the classic positioning is centered in the frame, with the eyes on the top line, as shown on the left in the figure below. When shooting a subject who isn’t facing the camera, position their eyes in one of the four saddle points, so they’re looking out over the largest 2/3 of the frame. Mr. Wolters is in no man’s land, which makes the composition less powerful than it could be.
Precise shot composition is more challenging when you’re shooting selfie-style, as Mr. Wolters is in this video (on location in Greece, poor sod). The best technique when you’re shooting selfies is to shoot in 1080p, frame a little wide, and edit and output the video at 720p or smaller. That way, you can adjust positioning on the timeline to the optimal framing.
If you’re working behind the camera, check if your camcorder offers rule of thirds positioning guides. Many do, and they’re a great tool for novice shooters.
The other area Mr. Wolters could improve is the visibility of his branding text, which you can just see in the upper left corner of the frame. There are many instances where the background makes text hard to read. In these instances, you can always choose one of the solutions shown in the figure: changing the text color, adding a border, or adding a background.
Let me make one thing clear; I mean no disrespect to those involved with the above videos. Video is never easy, and few productions are ever perfect, including none of mine. In fact, you can watch a YouTube video on how I fixed flawed lighting from a YouTube Live production I shot last fall, here. It’s just that as our parents used to tell us, it often doesn’t take any longer to do it right. Hopefully, Identifying the flaws that are common to online video productions — and potential fixes or workarounds — will help us all improve our craft, and produce better video in the future.