by David Crossman, DGGB

What follows, as in all things artistic, is born out of my own personal taste – but my views and techniques are from actual experience.


A couple of years ago I won an Award for the Photographing a video “short” called ‘The Extinguisher!’. The ‘film’ was shot on Betacam SP using a JVC KY-35 camera docked with a Sony BVV-5 back-end recorder.

Although the 700 lines/picture width KY-35 gave greatly defined video pictures, I used some techniques to make the video pictures less electronic and more like film.

The main techniques I used were:

  • 1. Don’t White Balance as per the book.
  • 2. Decrease the video camera’s electronic “enhancement”.
  • 3. Optically diffuse the image.
  • 4. Light like the Movies

1. Don’t White Balance as per the book.

Many films lack the budget to have effective Art Direction. Not enough time is given to how colours look in the frame. “The Extinguisher!” was set in a post-apocalyptic future and I wanted it to look cold and bleak. I decided to ‘white balance’ the camera so the pictures were slightly blue.

As a reference, I always white balanced the camera using the back of my left hand. The colour of my flesh caused the camera to drain away those warm hues when the white balance switch was operated – hence “cold” looking pictures. You might wish to use a pale blue card – this would give your pictures a warmer tone for more ‘romantic’ themes.

Purists might think what I’m suggesting here is bad practice – but there’s no such thing as right or wrong in Art!

2. Decrease the video camera’s electronic “enhancement”.

In my experience all video cameras have a degree of electronic “enhancement”. The picture output from even current CCDs is quite soft and lacks detail. Camera manufacturers design an electronic circuit which reacts to changes in brightness levels in the frame and adds an overshoot in the form of a black or white line to the picture. This is designed to make the picture look sharper. But if this circuit is adjusted too high, the resultant picture just looks “electronic” and unattractive – just the sort of ‘electronic’ look hated so much by the film fraternity.

You will find the adjustment of this circuit named variously as: “Contour” correction, “Aperture” adjustment or “Detail” Level. They are all the same thing in essence.

Viewing your camera on a good monitor, turn this “enhancement” down until you get the picture you like. It might be a small screwdriver adjustment or via a menu in the viewfinder. It might be called “Sharpness” in this context. You’ll certainly find it on all Sony cameras between the miniDV VX-1000 and the DVCAM DSR-500WS.

If your camera is a “domestic” (or consumer) camcorder it might not have any adjustable circuit. In this case, employ technique number 3 to bring about a decrease in “enhancement”.

3. Optically diffuse the image.

Many movies are optically diffused to give pictures a “softer” look and to decrease contrast – especially when shooting against the light. Diffusers – flat filters 3 or 4 inches square made of glass or plastic – can be purchased/hired in a range from “subtle” to “over-romantic”. Depending on “the look” you want for your video, decide which filter is right and shoot the whole film through it. Support the filter using a proper filter holder/lens hood. You should judge each shot since the diffusing effect changes with changes in zoom angle but in my experience the difference is not great if you shoot everything through the one filter.

The added benefit of this filtration is that in many instances it causes the ‘enhancement’ in electronic cameras (as in 2 above) to be much less effective – not a bad thing!

The best diffusing filters I’ve found are made by a company in the UK. They are called Supafrost.

Editor’s note: In the U.S. Tiffen’s Pro Mist Filters are nearly as nice.

Items 2 & 3 will give video a photographic quality which cannot be created in post-production – and will stop video pictures looking annoyingly ‘electronic’.

4. Light like the Movies.

Modern video cameras are made sensitive enough to shoot in any lighting conditions but there are still steps you can take to make your ‘cinematography’ as attractive as the movies.

Most video cameras are (still) unable to handle the highest contrasts between highlights and lowlights of a picture. For instance, if your ‘star’ is sitting with his or her back to a bright window you, must take some action to reduce the brightness differences between the outdoor scene framed through the window and the all-important face. The easiest way is by a white reflector – and you can get small collapsible ones from your local photography store. Professional film crews sometimes use sheets of white polystyrene but these can be noisy to hold and are dangerous in high winds!.

The benefit of using a white reflector is that the light coming from it will be the same colour as the rest of the light illuminating the scene. The idea is to just ‘fill’ the face with a little more soft light to make it more attractive.

There are also two further techniques which will make video look more like film if that’s what you’re into:

5. In post-production, ignore every-other video field.

Because film is actually still photographs, when it is scanned by a telecine machine for transfer to video there can be no movement between the two “fields” which make one TV “frame”. In video there *can* be movement between the fields – and this makes video _smoother_ on horizontal movement in the frame. Film, on the other hand, ‘strobes’ slightly on horizontal movement giving it its ‘look’.

6. Shoot Widescreen.

Many films are made with film formats that are wider than video’s standard 4:3 aspect ratio. Where possible shoot proper widescreen video to enhance your ‘film’ look.

But Full Height Anamorphic (FHA) 16:9 video should be generated from CCDs of this shape. Many cameras with a widescreen mode produce pictures of this aspect ratio by throwing away valuable pixels from a 4:3 CCD. Check your camera’s pictures in widescreen mode. If they are less sharp than in standard mode, then your camera does not have true 16:9 capabilities. You have two choices:

1. Shoot in 4:3 but with an optical anamorphic lens adaptor – Century Optics in CA make one. This will give you ‘proper’ widescreen FHA video.

But you might have problems with those folks who don’t have a 16:9 viewing capability so in Premiere or your favourite editing package, reduce the height of your video by 75% and you will have a 16:9 widescreen picture within a 4:3 frame.

2. Shoot in 4:3 but frame for 16:9 so black bars can “letterbox” your frame top and bottom in post-production. I appreciate letterboxing is wasteful of precious bandwidth but if it means your first effort as Director gets noticed, next time you might be using Panavision!

Some of the above photographic techniques were used by the old boys in Hollywood in the early days of the last century. If you think these techniques might be old-fashioned, remember light hasn’t changed its qualities even if our way of recording it has.

DAVID CROSSMAN is a broadcast television Director with credits in Drama Series, Music, Light Entertainment and Children’s programs in the U.K. and abroad. He shoots both multi-camera studio and single-camera technique for Channel Four and the BBC – and companies specializing in corporate communications and training.

Email David