Tips to Stabilize & Improve Video (Part 1)

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It was around my first week as a PI, when I had a claimant exit his garage and start changing all four tires in his driveway. I may have been a newbie, but I knew this was a primo video opportunity! Now the company I worked for at the time insisted we use 8mm camcorders, and these were so archaic at the time that Sony only made one base model and it did not have any image stabilization. For the first few minutes I was doing ok, but as time wore on I began to get twitchy. I was really struggling to hold the camera steady. Every little shake seemed to infect the video. I tried using my dash, but this football-sized camera just stuck out and exposed me to neighbors, and I did not have full-on PI tint at the time. Then it hit me, and I was instantly transported back to my rifle range training at Parris Island. The Marines teach you all sorts of techniques to hold your weapon steady so your round hits its mark downrange. Wouldn’t these same techniques work on holding a camera still? Now sure, I didn’t have the benefit of a circulation-cutting sling, or a rifle buttstock to jam into my shoulder, but I surely I was able to utilize the technique of Bone Support, “the body’s skeletal structure provides a stable foundation” to support the rifle’s (in this case camera’s) weight” because “muscles can fatigue, while bones do not.” The main tip, for shooting positions, is to avoid bone-on-bone contact (elbow-on-knee), which can roll, and to make sure to use the soft-tissue just above the elbow or knee pressed against bone. So I looked around my car and decided to jam my left foot against the dashboard next to the steering wheel, letting my knee casually rest against the door. It seemed pretty locked in. Next, I stuck my left elbow into the meat of left leg (lower thigh), which I then used to assist my right arm which was pressed against the center armrest just above the elbow (see video). Using this position, I was felt really stable, and was able to drastically reduce shake, while minimizing the effects of muscle fatigue. I was able to really impress my case manager with over an hour of great video on that day! Ever since then, I have always looked at ways to use my car and body as aides to stabilizing my video and improving quality.

Who needs to learn these techniques? Aren’t there monopods, tripods, and tons of other tools for this?

Yes, there are, and I will cover those shortly, but basics first! You should definitely know the fundamentals of shooting solid video, in case you find yourself without such tools, which you will, at places like parks, sporting events, and outdoor activities. You won’t always be in your car, and these fundamentals apply everywhere, even on covert/indoor video. Plus, once you learn the basics, you can lock into a highly-stable shooting position far faster than you can setup a tripod or some other tool–really! I almost always shoot video from a body-and-car supported position for at least 10 minutes before I even consider pulling out any extra equipment for a more longterm shooting position, especially if the activity is too important to pause filming. If they’re active doing something, the client isn’t going to want you to pause for a minute while you setup gear to improve future, un-guaranteed video. Trust me!

Don’t all cameras come with image stabilization?

It better, if you’re using it as PI. That’s the bare minimum requirement in a field camera! But trust me, they can and do break, or start intermittently tweaking out you, and you really need to know how to shoot steady video without it. Not only that, but PI’s are often convinced their video looks great because they only see it through the 2-inch flip-out screen on their camcorder, but if you blow that video up on a computer monitor, or worse, project it on a large screen in a courtroom, you’ll quickly see it isn’t nearly as steady as you thought. Don’t become over-reliant on your camera’s cool features at the expense of good filming habits. The best video comes from solid, steady shooting positions combined with your camera’s internal image stabilization!

Newer private investigators and interns often ask me what are the best areas to improve. While you can’t fix mobile surveillance issues like losing people or getting made overnight, you can improve your video quality right now! It’s easy, and it makes you stand out instantly! Need a job or a sponsor? Use these techniques to shoot steady video, go out and make a sample reel, and send that to prospective employers. Good video will help you stand out; bad video gets ignored.

In the video (above) I show you a few positions I use almost daily. The main takeaway is to use the parts of your vehicle and your body to create stable, steady filming platforms. If you’re filming and your arm starts to shake, slowly guide it to something to steady it. Depending on your angle, you can use the carseat, the steering wheel, the armrest, or even tucking your elbow into your side. You should always look for easy ways to make slight improvements to your video! This will make you stand out in the industry and help you build a reputation based on consistently providing a quality product! At the end of the day, it’s your video, not the report, that the client really wants. So become a total video snob and learn to hate shaky, unbalanced video. (Note: I can’t even watch most of the Bourne movies. Great story and all, but the shaky-cam just infuriates me!)

Well, hopefully you found this useful. If so, stay tuned and keep checking back. I will be making a video and accompanying blog on tripods and other cool tools to help further improve your video quality shortly. For now, just work on tightening up your video!

Till next time,

Phillip
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