Al Tompkins’ 10 commandments of shooting video

Back in the mid-1980s, when I was in graduate school, journalism students shot video on three-quarter-inch tape, using (if they were lucky) electronic newsgathering (ENG) cameras that weighed in at about 13 or 14 kilograms — even without the cumbersome battery belts. Those not so fortunate lugged bulky cameras and hefty tape decks with them wherever they had to shoot. As for editing audio for radio, we did it by cutting — literally — half-inch magnetic tape, using grease pencils and razor blades.

Al Tompkins
Al Tompkins

Digital media have made everything a lot simpler and more accessible to the average consumer. When it comes to shooting video, however, a few laws still apply for those who plan to take raw video and audio into some form of post-production.

At a seminar this week for college educators, Al Tompkins, left, on faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., offered up his own version of the Ten Commandments — not a moral code but series of laws for those who want to shoot video, especially the kind that provides coverage of a person or event. Tompkins is Poynter’s broadcast and online team leader, and a highly regarded practitioner and consultant. I fully expected what was the cardinal rule of videography when I was in J-school to be high on his list: Don’t ever “cross the line” (an imaginary line that runs through the spatial plane on which your subject is positioned). Alas, it wasn’t there at all, although I suspect it’s still important for many types of video photography.

Here, then, is his list for those still fairly new to shooting video:

1. Thou shalt not zoom or pan. When these techniques are used, they must be motivated — there for a reason. Otherwise, stay clear. Don’t use those buttons just because they’re there.

2. Thou shalt compose thy shots in thirds. Frame your photos in interesting ways by keeping your subject in one of the screen’s “thirds.” Forget your mother’s commandment to centre the subject in the frame.

3. Thou shalt keep each and every shot steady for a least 10 seconds. Otherwise, you’ll kick yourself in the editing process.

4. Thou shalt seek subjective sound bites. Get your subjects to open up and talk.

5. Thou shalt shoot cutaways, sequences and transitions. Again, they’re invaluable in the editing process.

6. Thou shalt focus thy story into three words. Who did what? Noun-verb-object. Unless you can express it that way, you don’t yet have a clear idea of what the story is.

7. Thou shalt always wear thy headphones. Otherwise, you don’t know what sound you’re recording — or if you’re recording any at all.

8. Thou wilt seek great natural (or ambient) sound and wilt shut up while shooting.

9. Thou shalt honour great natural lighting and put the shadow side to the camera.

10. Thou shalt look for a strong open and a memorable close.

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