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1. Control the Light When Shooting Outdoors
One of the biggest mistakes an amateur filmmaker can make is to shoot a scene without having a handle on the lighting involved in the shot. If you are shooting outdoors, make sure that the sun is not a distraction. It can cause bad shadows, it can hide behind clouds and it can silhouette your subjects, ruining the shot. It is never a good idea to shoot a scene with the sun behind the subjects in the shot but, if you have no other choice, carry reflectors to control the sun's light.
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2. Use a Tripod but Don’t Handcuff Yourself to It
A tripod is an invaluable friend when it comes to improving your filmmaking techniques. A lot of recent movies implement the handheld and shaky cam styles but, if not used right, that can cripple your movie. Use a tripod to steady your shot and allow the actors to create the story within your frame. When you do go handheld, make sure there is a reason for it because jerky camera movements can often be mistaken for amateur filmmaking.
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3. Breathe Through your Stomach
One invaluable piece of advice I was taught early on was to breathe through my stomach when implementing handheld camera shots. When you breathe through your chest, your shoulders raise and fall and cause the camera to move with each breath. If you breathe through your stomach, your shoulders remain steady and the only camera movements are the ones you plan.
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4. Use Manual Focus
Never use autofocus. You must control what the camera focuses on if you want to use your camera to tell a story. With autofocus, the camera will pick and choose what it thinks is important which will often leave other items in the scene out of focus, causing an ugly composition. Take control of your composition and manually focus everything to your liking.
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5. Start Shooting Early and Cut Late
Start rolling tape before you yell action and then leave it rolling slightly after the scene ends before yelling cut. Even if you are not the one editing the movie, understand the editor needs some room to transition into the next shot. If you cut too soon or start too late, you limit the ability to edit the best scene possible.
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6. Cut While Objects are Moving
Sometimes, even the best cuts can look wrong. To make cuts look seamless and improve the quality of your transitions from one scene to the next, cut when someone is moving something in the scene. If you cut when someone is moving an arm, lifting a cup or taking a drink from a bottle, it makes your shots look expertly crafted.
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7. Never Shoot Without a Shot List
A filmmaker who goes into a video shoot without a plan will end up disappointed with the results. Visit the shooting location and look around to figure out the color schemes, lighting conditions and power sources so you will know where you can and cannot place your camera and actors. Then sit down and plan out a shot-list you want to compose your scene with. Make sure you list all cutaway shots, close-ups and moving shots ahead of time. Then, when you go in to shoot the scene, you won’t overlook anything that might cause reshoots in the future.
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8. Always Adjust Your White Balance
When you begin to shoot a scene, set the white balance on your camera to allow the best look for the lighting conditions. However, lighting changes as you shoot a scene. If you move where light comes in, redo the white balance for that specific lighting change. If you are shooting outside and clouds roll through, adjust your white balance to account for it. This is something that must be checked continuously throughout the shoot.
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9. Know Your Location
Before shooting, understand everything that will appear in your shots. If there is a poster that has copyrighted material on it, take note to remove it to avoid an unusable shot. Take snapshots and study them carefully. If there is a picture on a table and someone moves it between shots, you have the photos to remind you to replace it. This eliminates continuity errors.
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10. Invest in Good Sound Equipment
A beautifully shot video is worthless if the sound is bad. Slightly out-of-focus movies are less distracting than audio problems. Invest in a shotgun mic and a windscreen to make sure you have the best sound possible. Avoid recording the main audio into the camera if possible. If all else fails, learn how to ADR in the post production to fix any problems that occur.
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Author's personal experience.
Photos from author's personal collection.