Adventure film-maker Tom Allen offers five practical tips that will improve your shooting when you’re actually on the road
You wouldn’t go on a bike trip without knowing how to ride one. You wouldn’t bake a cake without a recipe. And you wouldn’t jump in the sea without learning how to swim. Why, then, would you begin a film-making project without a basic knowledge of videography?
It sounds ridiculous, but it happens all the time. If you don’t know how to focus, how to expose, what ‘white balance’ means, how to get audio levels right and what the differences between aperture, shutter speed, gain and filter density are, your footage is going to suffer – and/or you’re going to miss what you need to capture while you’re figuring out which button to press.
The solution starts with reading the manual, but it doesn’t end there by a long shot. It means practicing for weeks before shooting anything that matters. The goal is to be able to set up and operate the camera in any situation without thinking. Creativity can’t express itself until you reach that stage. Get the basics down way before you begin your trip.
It’s no use being at one with your camera unless you can grab it and start shooting the minute the perfect opportunity rears its head. On the road, these opportunities will come out of the blue. So the more accessible your camera, the better. I kept mine at the top of my bar-bag, and with practice could transition from pedalling to pressing the record button in less than 10 seconds.
Ultra-keen filmmakers may like to keep a tiny second camera handy for this purpose, keeping the ‘proper’ camera for shooting more in-depth scenes. The picture quality of some of these little cameras nowadays is frankly astonishing.
It’s easy to see stopping and setting up for a shoot as a chore – indeed, one of the most oft-asked questions I get at screenings of Janapar [see below] is how I kept up the motivation to spend so much time shooting.
Far better, then, to see it as an opportunity instead of a burden. If, when a shooting opportunity arises, you dedicate yourself to the art of film-making, relishing the opportunity for creative expression and to produce your own best work – well then you’ll certainly enjoy the process more, and you’ll certainly produce better footage as a result.
But do keep your film-maker hat separate from your traveller hat. I’ve found it’s best to wear the latter a lot more. Don’t forget why you’re on the road, nor what the core of your story is, lest your trip turn into a TV production.
Excuses for poorly-shot footage are diminishing, given the amount of free videography advice on the web. Even though much of it is aimed at art indie filmmakers, it can all be applied just as well to travel videographers.
Knowing how to choose and use a camera is the first step, of course. But basic composition and framing, a knowledge of different types of shot, understanding focal length and depth of field, knowing how to work with available light and knowing how to capture good audio are all non-negotiable if your footage is going to be usable in an edit suite.
You’ll also need to be familiar with the various indispensable accessories for capturing quality footage – lenses, tripods, camera mounts, microphones, filters, video lights, lens hoods and more (just because they’re called ‘accessories’ doesn’t mean they’re optional, by the way, it just means they’re not part of the camera itself).
This is perhaps the point that requires the most complicated blend of experience and preparation. Because, thanks to cheap, high-capacity memory cards, it is wonderfully easy to capture hours and hours of interesting-looking stuff. But every second of footage exponentially increases the time you’ll need to develop, edit and produce a finished film.
The trick is to understand that films are built from lots of sub-stories, linked by cuts or short transitional sequences. Before you hit record, ask yourself: is what I’m about to shoot part of a usable, individual story that has relevance to the narrative of my film? Or is it just ‘interesting stuff’ which is unlikely to really be of use to me in the edit?
If the answer is the latter, leave the camera packed away. It’s OK to experience your trip without a lens getting in the way. In fact, most of the time, it’s better that way. You’ll probably find that the quality goes up as the quantity goes down. So keep your shooting focused.
The best way to keep focused, of course, is to develop the idea for your film before you begin your trip – as I did for this winter ride to the Arctic, where I shot just 25 minutes of footage for a very specific short film I’d already visualised. As a result, editing and post took just a few hours (as opposed to the ten weeks of 12-hour days it took to edit the 300 hours of footage that went into Janapar.)
The overall theme here is that practice makes (almost) perfect – and that film-making is a far more complex art than it might appear. There’s a lot to learn, but there’s also endless scope for creative storytelling. Just be sure to lay the foundations well in advance.
For more information about Tom's award-winning travel video, Janapar, visit his website, Tom'sBikeTrip.com. Make sure you check out the Advice and Resources section for further tips on improving your travel videos.
You can also try out your new skills by taking part in Alastair Humphreys' Summer Solstice Micro Adventure and enter your film in the micro-video competition for the chance to win great prizes and wider recognition.