8 mins reading and 3 mins viewing
Yesterday’s blog on the benefits of Being Visible raises the question of how one might best do this in the medium of video. Over the years I’ve done a lot of things right and I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong, so I thought I’d take you through the ‘evolution’ of my use of YouTube in my teaching. This post will cover things like camerawork, shot composition, lighting, and framing.
Right from the very beginning, I knew that if I was going to be making teaching videos of this kind, there were a few things I’d have to think about:
- I was going to need to be physically present (visible) on camera;
- I was going to need the means to keep the camera steady;
- I was going to have to work out some lighting solutions; and
- I was going to need to always think about what I placed in the background
Let’s talk equipment. Pretty much everyone I’ve chatted to about video-making over the years has over-estimated what you need and how much it costs – and typically people possess everything they need already to make some decent videos. The below photographs display the first camcorder and tripod I purchased in 2013. I used both constantly for 5 or so years, and I still pull them out every now and then.
When I asked a seminar group to estimate how much these items cost me a few years after I’d bought them, the highest guesses were $1,600 for the camera and $400 for the tripod. They actually cost $120 and $10 respectively. (I could have made quite a profit if I’d thought to organise an in-class auction!) 😀
I wouldn’t want to be filming outside on a very windy day with that plastic tripod, but this equipment always did the job I needed it to without any major difficulties.
For many years I was living in a rental without good lighting options. Beyond the standard room lights, I often used a small study lamp from my high school days (again, nothing very extravagant) to shine more light from behind the camera. A few years ago, I upgraded (for less than $100) to a slightly more complex setup from IKEA. The mobility of different globes on this lamp has proven extra handy for making sure I don’t shine light in my eye line too. I’ve even used bedside lamps for some backlighting in recent times. So while I’ve since upgraded my camera and tripod, you can see that improvisation is still a key feature of my video-making.
The overall composition of the shot is another factor to consider. If I’m going to be on screen, what else would I include? The background can layer a lot of meanings on top of those that are explicitly conveyed by voice, to the point that set design can even help shape one’s identity. A blank wall of white paint says just as much as a messy bedroom with clothes thrown everywhere – and neither of these options are typically ideal.
The capturing of board games in the background of my videos has over time become a strong and meaningful element of my professional-personal brand. There is no better indication of this than when former student Tim Hanlon wrote about my use of board game backgrounds in a very nuanced article, ‘When a Wall Isn’t a Wall‘. The choice of a video background is part of shot composition. Another important aspect of this is ‘the rule of thirds’.
Before I unpack my various attempts at shot composition over time, you might like to watch this video to reinforce and exemplify the points of advice outlined above:
My knowledge and skills in this area have evolved over time. When I made my first batch of teaching videos in 2013, I’d never heard of the rule of thirds (and I wouldn’t for some time). I certainly wasn’t giving myself enough head room in the video below:
At other times, I gave myself too much room at the top of the frame, which turned me into somewhat of a ‘diminished’ figure on screen. In fact, I distinctly remember being more worried about get all of the board games into the shot than how I myself was placed within it (#sorrynotsorry). Environmental factors such as the height of the table and the length of the shelf made this setting an imperfect one, but my confidence on camera was growing alongside my collection…
You’re probably starting to feel like you need to plan a board game intervention at this point, but by 2015 I had changed rooms and shelving. I still hadn’t discovered the rule of thirds, but the head room was better.
As Tim Hanlon writes in his post on the rule of thirds, ‘Being positioned off-centre… helps a presenter seem intimate without being challenging or confrontational’. Centering myself within the frame as I do above (as journalists tend to do) probably worked for these videos in some ways, given I was very explicitly positioning myself as a lecturer delivering instructions and advice (unlike in some of my later vlogs), but there is still some unnecessary ‘distance’ here. The fact that I was able to deliver a relaxed, more personable performance also worked to dilute any chance of coming across as ‘intimidating’, yet there was still room for leveling up.
A few years, I was living somewhere else with the challenge of working out a whole new setup and putting into practice the rule of thirds. As you can see below, I was literally using the frame of my shelves in the background to position myself consistently:
This was much better and allowed me the flexibility to compliment what I was saying with visuals without always shifting to full-screen overlay footage. There was still room for improvement though. I needed to bring myself forward to prevent me from ‘blending into’ the background, as well as introducing some backlighting if I could manage it (see use of bedside lamps above). I also needed to angle my body toward the camera to create a more intimate space for the viewer to engage with me…
This isn’t perfect – nothing ever is when it comes to media-making. The size of my study alone prevents me from moving the camera much further back and maintaining the ‘bleeding’ edges of the background I prefer (you can already see one edge in the above frame, though it won’t be noticeable to many). The main point to draw from all of these examples is that you need to keep learning.
Things Change, Constantly
The last thing I want to emphasise really strongly here is that perceptions and expectations of framing and many other facets of video-making change over time. As a results of this, people who make videos need to keep up-to-date with new genres, new conventions, and the new platforms that shape these in new ways. While I won’t dwell on the details here, the birth of Instagram’s IGTV in mid-2018 and the broader privileging of vertical video have thrown lots of assumptions about social media video-making into the air.
When I first started to make YouTube videos without a clue of what the rule of thirds was, nobody cared. When I failed to give myself enough head space, nobody noticed. And when students watched my comparatively uncomfortable performances on camera, speaking without anywhere near as much variation in tone as I do now, nobody commented (if they did notice). Perhaps everyone was simply too ‘shocked’ to see a lecturer engaging with them in this way. But I actually think it was more likely that user-generated content on YouTube more broadly has changed over time. Certainly, many of the board game reviewers that I’ve watched for years have improved their approaches and performances just as I have.
Audience expectations change, and if I still made videos now like I did in 2013 it would understandably be laughable – although probably still considered ‘acceptable’ enough to watch by a majority of students. The more media you make, the better you get. Fortunately, stepping out of your comfort zone and learning by doing always means that you improve with time, often without realising it.
That’s just all part of being on camera.