Quality video cameras have become widely available the past few years. Most smartphones can record HD quality video, and many stand-alone video cameras are available on the market.
Selecting the right camera can be difficult if you aren’t familiar with what specifications to look for. Generally the more expensive the camera, the higher video quality. But, the most important specifications to look for are resolution and frame rate.
Video resolution refers to the pixel size of the video. The higher the resolution, the more pixels in the video, and therefore the higher the quality of the video.
The chart below shows a comparison of sizes of common video resolutions:
The numbers in parenthesis refer to the number of pixels in images at that resolution. So, a standard definition (SD) video is 640 pixels wide and 480 pixels tall.
Any resolution that is 720 pixels tall or more is considered high definition (HD), though typically 1080 and larger is considered true HD.
In recent years 4K recording is becoming a much more common feature video cameras. While 4K is much larger and higher quality than 1080, 4K televisions and monitors are not widely available yet.
For an example, play with the video resolution on this video to see the difference in quality between 480 (SD), 720 (HD), 1080, and 2160(4k). You can change the resolution by clicking the gear in the lower right and selecting quality:
You’ll probably notice a difference between SD and HD, but unless you’re watching on a 4K monitor, you probably won’t notice a difference in quality in jumping to 4K resolution.
4K video also results in much larger video files, so it may make sense to record at 1080 resolution instead.
However, 4K monitors and TVs will likely be much more common in the next few years, so it may be worth it in the long run to record at a higher resolution. The video quality will hold up more in the future. Additionally, recording at a high resolution gives you the option to zoom in and crop on the video if necessary, and you won’t lose as much quality as if you had recorded at a lower resolution initially.
In reality, videos are a series of still images (called ‘frames’) shown in rapid succession, creating the illusion of movement. The speed at which these frames are displayed is the frame rate. If the video is 24 frames per second (fps), that means that every 1/24th of a second, a new frame is shown. The higher the frame rate, the more frames in the video. As a result, a higher frame rate will result in a larger video file.
The three most common frame rates in videos are 24fps, 30fps, and 60fps.
Almost all movies are 24 frames per second, and this has been true since the 1920s. As a result, audiences are accustomed to seeing movies at 24fps, and consider it the “most cinematic” frame rate. Since it is the slowest frame rate however, it is also the least realistic.
Because it is a faster frame rate, 30fps appears more realistic. It is more common on television, particularly sports broadcasts. It is easier to see precise sports action at a higher frame rate than is common for movies.
This high frame rate is becoming much more common in recent years, particularly web video and video games. Of these three frame rates, it is the most realistic, but also the “least cinematic.” Because many viewers are not accustomed to such a high frame rate, they can find it distracting or even uncanny.
For a comparison between 24fps and 60fps, see this video:
Many video cameras that can record at 60fps can only do so at lower video resolutions. For example, a GoPro Hero5 can record 60fps at 1080, but only 30fps at 4K.
Depending on your camera and your options, it is best to experiment with different resolutions and frame rates to see which quality you like the best.
Once you have a camera, some other settings can help fine-tune the quality of your video recording. Using auto settings will usually result in decent quality, but playing with these settings could improve the quality even further. Not all of these settings are available on all cameras, it is best to look to see what options you have.
This setting could also be called the camera’s color balance: how much blue or yellow are emphasized, for example. The setting tells the camera what color it should consider true white. Since in digital video white is the sum of all colors, if white is recorded properly, all other colors will be correct as well.
This guide to white balance by photographer Jacqui Barr shows how different white balance can dramatically change the appearance of a photograph.
White balance is very dependent on the lighting situation you are filming in. Therefore you should always adjust the white balance setting before every shoot and if you change lighting conditions. Additionally, if you’re filming outside in the morning or as the sun is setting, you should adjust the white balance periodically.
The level of control over the white balance depends on your camera. Some cameras only let you select between auto and typical lighting conditions, such as sunny, cloudy, florescent, and tungsten lighting. If this is your only option, select your lighting condition or which setting gives you a result you like.
Some cameras give you the option to set white balance manually. This means taking a white piece of paper, filling the entire frame of the camera image with the white piece of paper, and activating the setting. Once it has made the adjustment, the camera then will treat that white paper as true white and adjust everything else accordingly.
One thing to keep in mind while performing white balance is whether you want accurate color or if you want a certain aesthetic. In some cases you may want the color to be as accurate as possible, such as for preservation or a documentary. If you’re making a movie and want a sterile atmosphere, you may want to white balance for cool and desaturated colors. Conversely, warm colors can create an atmosphere of comfort. Play with the settings until you get the effect you want.
Aperture refers to the size of the hole in a camera lens. The size of the hole is measured in f-stops:
As you can see, the smaller the aperture, the larger the f-stop number, and vice versa.
Aperture has a significant impact on the brightness and depth of field of the image. Because the aperture is smaller, large f-stops let in less light but also have a deeper depth of field. As a result, landscape photos and videos use a larger f-stop, where both distant and nearby subjects are clearly in focus. Smaller f-stops let in more light but have a shorter depth of field, where nearby objects are in focus but the background is blurry.
Playing with aperture can allow you to take creative shots, such as having a blurry background to deliberately emphasize something important in the foreground. If you’re shooting indoors though, it is best to have a lower f-stop to maximize the amount of light in the camera. Because you aren’t likely to have a distant background indoors, you do not need to worry about having a wide depth of field.
Shallow depth of field, f/1.4
Deep depth of field, f/22
Shutter speed, also called exposure time, refers to the amount of time each individual frame is exposed while video is recorded. Shutter speed is measured in fractions, so if you are recording at 1/100, that means each frame is exposed to the image for 1/100th of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the less time the frame is exposed to light, resulting in a darker image.
Faster shutter speeds also result in less motion blur in the image, which makes the motion in the video look jittery and unrealistic. As a result, typically the recommendation is for the shutter speed to be set at approximately double the frame rate, so a frame rate of 24fps should be shot at a typical shutter speed of 1/50. a 60fps video should be shot at a shutter speed of 1/100 or 1/125. This is known as the 180 degree rule.
This video explains and demonstrates how shutter speed changes the motion blur in video:
You can break the 180 degree rule if you want the video to look shaky and jittery for a specific effect, such as in an action or horror scene.
ISO refers to the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera is to light, and therefore the resulting image will be brighter. However, higher ISO also results in a grainier image. Changing the ISO is typically a last resort for improving the lighting of a video.
This video demonstrates different levels of ISO and how they affect the lighting and quality of the image:
Adding lights to a scene can drastically improve its quality and appearance, negating the need to adjust ISO or other settings to brighten an image. There are many different ways to arrange lighting in video, but we will just stick to the most basic: a three-point lighting setup. This consists of a key light, a fill light, and a back light.
As its name would suggest, the key light is the most important, and performs the primary role of lighting in a scene. The key light is usually the brightest of the three lights and points directly at the subject of a scene, but its angle and distance from the subject can be adjusted.
In outdoor day scenes, the sun often functions as the key light. As a result, you have less control over the lighting in an outdoor scene.
Due to its direct intensity, the key light generates intense shadows where it does not hit. This strong contrast between light and dark is known as chiaroscuro. The fill light is used to reduce the chiaroscuro of the image by pointing at the side angle not hit by the key light. The fill light is less intense than the key light, usually 50% to 70% as intense, though the degree of intensity can be adjusted to increase or decrease the chiaroscuro.
In some cases you may want chiaroscuro for some sort of effect. It can be used to pop out the light parts of the image and increase the moodiness of a scene. Chiaroscuro was widely used in film noir and other black and white films. If you want chiaroscuro, either reduce the intensity of the fill light or forgo it altogether.
The back light, also known as rim, hair, or shoulder light, is usually placed behind the subject in order to create a subtle glow effect on the edge of the subject. This makes the subject stand out from the background and increase the 3D depth of the video. The back light is typically the least intense of the three lights.
Another typical light is the background light, which would be used in a four point light setup. This light is pointed towards background elements in the scene, which may be desired if there are excessive shadows cast by foreground subjects.
This video tutorial demonstrates the implementation of a three point lighting setup: