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In a studio setup, having a set of three lights gives you a lot of flexibility and improves the look of your production significantly.

The convergence of video and fire safety

Using video for fire safety outreach is nothing new, many people and departments are doing it – just search YouTube using the words “fire safety” and you’ll get 1.1 million results. However, this raises the question – how effective are they and how do you measure this effectiveness? Is the number of views a good indicator? Are these videos as good as they can be?

I’ve been involved with helping to produce videos in various roles over the years, and it has become easier than ever with the explosive growth of smartphones, but this could also be creating a bigger problem – 1.1 million fire safety videos.

So, you want to make a video, or maybe you want to make your videos better, how do you go about it? There are some pretty simple things you can do.

Camera

The resolution on today’s smartphones is remarkable and they may very easily be all you need. The other possibility is a digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR. These are the traditional still photography cameras that have been around for years, but they are now building them with video capabilities as well.

Probably the biggest differentiator between them is the capabilities when it comes to focus, depth of field, lens types, white balance and all of those other buzzwords associated with video production. There are apps that help emulate these on a smartphone, and you can get clip-on lenses for telephoto or wide angle to help enhance the smartphone’s capabilities. A DSLR has these features built in, and while it is possible to use the camera on full auto mode and get right to shooting, I would really encourage you to learn how to use all of these features in manual mode.

A shotgun microphone, whether it is on a boom pole or on top of the camera, will help improve your sound. Feeding it into an external recorder, such as a Zoom H1n or H4n will make it even better.

A shotgun microphone, whether it is on a boom pole or on top of the camera, will help improve your sound. Feeding it into an external recorder, such as a Zoom H1n or H4n will make it even better.

Sound

Some say that any video is 50% visual and 50% sound, but I would say that it is more like 25% visual and 75% sound. Think of any clip you have watched with poor video but good sound, the mind is good at filling in the blanks for poor video. But, if it has poor audio, most people will just click out of it and move on.

Sound is REALLY important, and no matter which smartphone or DSLR you choose, it is going to be terrible at capturing sound, there are no two ways about it. They are just not designed to do it.

There are a few workarounds. The first is you can have an external microphone that feeds into the camera, such as a lavaliere or shotgun microphone. In both cases, however, you don’t have much control over the signal coming in and, depending on your setup, you might not be able to monitor the sound through headphones (and always use headphones, not ear buds!). A microphone going into an external recorder is an ideal situation, this gives you a lot more control over the sound, as well as the capability to monitor it.

Lights

Remember, if people can’t see what you are recording, it is then called “radio,” and that is why lights are important. There are two categories of lights we’re looking at here, artificial and natural (also known as The Sun). You don’t have as much control over natural light, but you can do things such as move your subject, move yourself, use reflectors or block the sun. Certainly, if you are on an incident, you have no choice and will have to make the best of the situation.

Artificial lights can be lights in the apparatus bay, clamp lights that you get at a home improvement store, floodlights or specialized lights for video production.

Techniques

No matter what camera you are using, you can make your video so much better by using some of these standard, tried-and-tested techniques. Remember, the goal is to get people to want to watch your videos, and shaky, poorly composed video that zooms in and out is just going to look amateurish and not engage the viewer.

Hold Your Camera Horizontally.

This is probably the most basic rule, and one that is most universally violated (and I am raising my hand, guilty as charged). Why?

First, think about your eyes…are they placed next to one another or above each other? Second, when you take a video with your camera held vertically, and you play it back, you now have a very narrow video with black bars on each side on your television or computer. You see a lot above and below your subject when there was probably a lot more happening to the left and right, and you are going to have to pan more to capture it.

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is key to helping you compose your shot. Imagine dividing your screen into nine rectangles, or a tic-tac-toe board. Where the four lines intersect are points where you want to position your subject, whether it is an interview or a fire scene, to create a more dynamic image.

It’s also important to have your subject looking into what is called the “lead space,” or in other words, into the longer portion of the frame. Why? Just trying doing it the other way, and you’ll see why in a second.

Your viewfinder probably has a feature where it will divide it into nine rectangles. You should position your subject, or the action, on one of these four intersection points.

Your viewfinder probably has a feature where it will divide it into nine rectangles. You should position your subject, or the action, on one of these four intersection points.

Stabilize your video

You want to try and keep your footage as stable as possible. Shaky, unstable video will cause the viewer to click away. If you are handheld, brace your elbows against your body, not out at arms length where your arms are quickly going to get tired. Rest the camera, your elbows, or your body on something, such as a wall or the hood of a car.

A tripod is a vital piece of equipment. A DSLR has a screw mount on its base to attach to a tripod, but you will have to get an adapter for your smartphone, and these are easily found online and are an invaluable investment. You can start out with an inexpensive tripod and move up because you will find a hundred uses for an old tripod, trust me.

Zoom and movement

Zooming in and out, panning the camera left, right, up and down – avoid it because this is something that will drive your viewers crazy and it often doesn’t add much to the video. If you do have to zoom in, it is often better to “zoom with your feet” or, in other words, move closer to the action, especially with a smartphone. The digital zooms on smartphones sacrifice image quality to get that closer look.

Stabilizing your shot is key to making your production look more professional. A tripod is best, but even using the hood of a car can be a good fix in the field.

Stabilizing your shot is key to making your production look more professional. A tripod is best, but even using the hood of a car can be a good fix in the field.

Getting Seen

I use YouTube as my video library. Once I upload videos, I then have the ability to send them as a link in an email, embed them on a website or share them on Twitter. You never, ever, want to send a video file as an email attachment because they are so large it eats into bandwidth, and think of the poor person trying to download it on their mobile.

Another advantage to hosting on YouTube is analytics. You get incredibly useful information on how many people are watching your video and, more importantly, how long they are watching it. If people are dropping out 15 seconds into your 2-minute video, then it’s time to look at how it was laid out and fix it for the next time.

All of the social media platforms are making video more seamless than ever before, and if you are shooting on a mobile, you can edit and upload directly into a tweet or a Facebook post. While you can link to a YouTube video from within Facebook, it’s not quite as seamless; they want you to upload your videos from within Facebook. Facebook’s analytics aren’t quite as robust as YouTube, but you still get what are called “Insights” on video traffic, and you can’t argue with the visibility that your video will get on a platform like Facebook.

I have learned most of what I know from others on YouTube, and I have been posting a series of short tutorial videos on my YouTube channel (www.tinyurl.com/writerdashtech) that may be helpful. I also have links on there to these other channels where I have learned a ton of information.

I love hearing from people that are doing video work, so feel to drop me a note at ecomeau@writer-tech.com and let’s talk about what you’re doing.

As with anything, the best way to learn is by doing, so write, shoot, edit – then repeat!

For more information, go to www.writer-tech.com

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Ed Comeau is a technical writer focusing on fire safety and digital communications through his company, writer-tech.com. He is a former chief fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association and was a fire protection engineer for the Phoenix Fire Department’s Special Operations and Training Division where he helped develop training programs in hazardous materials, technical rescue and recruit training. He was a fire fighter with the Amherst Fire Department while receiving his degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He can be reached at ecomeau@writer-tech.com.