Do you ever feel like the video footage that comes out of your DSLR or mirrorless camera just doesn’t match the stuff you’re seeing on Youtube? Maybe it’s not even close – maybe it just looks straight up bad.
In this case, “bad” means that it looks like.... digital footage: crunchy, contrasty, and jittery. If you’re going for that look – and in that case, you may be a pioneer of a new movement – this article probably isn’t for you. But if you’ve ever felt like your footage looked nothing like the cinematic stuff you see on Youtube, TV, or in the theaters, it’s probably because of these 3 reasons.
How Sharp is Too Sharp?
Surprise! Visually, the single biggest betrayal that your footage came out of a DSLR, mirrorless, or iPhone camera is what’s known as ‘over-sharpening’, and frustratingly, it often occurs in-camera.
Here’s what’s happening to create this look. The cinematic look As soon as you stop recording, your camera – in an effort to be helpful and give you usable, out of the box footage – runs an algorithm that applies coloring, contrast, and sharpening to the edges of all the details in your scene.
So how do we combat this crunchy look? There are a few ways.
Haze filters, star filters, Vaseline on a UV filter – whatever you have to do to drop the contrast and clarity on the light going in to your lens. I pair my star filter with the ancient, moldy Helios lens for a beautifully glowing, cinematic look that almost takes you back to 1920.
In post, we can drop contrast, specifically raising the black point so that the harshest areas of sharpness don’t look quite so crunchy. Another great thing you can do in post is to add rough film grain as an overlay, hiding any unwanted sharpening artifacts and giving your footage a subtle texture and soul.
Now, if your camera shoots in RAW like the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera, there’s no sharpening applied. In fact, many cameras don’t have this pitfall, so take this one on a case-by-case basis. The next tip is applicable to everyone.
Tone Curve and Avoiding the Sky
Photographers and videographers alike are in a constant pursuit of the ineffable qualities of film. And it’s not just about ‘hipster colors’ – the reason film emulation is so popular in digital photography and the reason cinematographers prefer shooting on film for big budget productions has everything to do with the dynamic range and latitude of film.
Don’t get me wrong – some modern-day sensors blow traditional film dynamic range out of the water, but it’s actually not about how much values of light and dark you can fit in to one scene. Instead, what makes film so beautiful is in the gradation and transition.
You don’t have to use film-emulating LUTs to address this, but it’s a quick and easy start in to an otherwise intimidating world of color grading.
If you’d prefer to try your own hand at it, here’s where to start: adjust your tone curve to ensure that the shadows have a very smooth, creamy transition in to the darkest point, which should be set above pure black. If your brighter areas are choppy and ‘digital looking’, try bringing down the white point to a point slightly below pure white, and drag highlights slightly down.
You’ll end up with less dynamic range than you started with, but the only reason we’re so passionate about dynamic range as creators is to be able to capture what we want to capture in camera. Now that you’ve got it in post, it’s up to you to use that dynamic range creatively. With some fiddling on the mid-points, you should end up with a much more natural looking image.
But if you’re looking to make this even easier in-camera, here’s an important bonus tip: avoid the sky! Wide angle lenses are the cinematographers weapon of choice for too many reasons to count (better stabilization, more depth of field at lower apertures, combats sensor crop), but if you want a cinematic look, it can be what’s holding you back.
The sky is insanely bright – duh, we use it as our key light for 90% of video shoots – and it’s a rare day that the light values of your subject match the sky. That means your camera has to straddle exposure between the highlights sky, the mid tones, and the shadows. A Herculean task, even with a best-in-class sensor.
But even if you can capture all the data, the real problem comes when you’re color grading your footage. Having a sky in your composition is incredibly difficult to keep looking realistic and filmic through the process outlined above without a lot of masking, and it’s even worse if you had to blow out your sky to properly expose for your subject.
Harsh contrast with a blown out sky is the hallmark of crappy digital footage, so avoid it like the plague when you can!
The takeaway? With wide angle shots, it’s much harder to keep your tones isolated and controlled in a composition – so when you can help it, try shooting tighter to keep all of your dynamic values in check. Note: this matters less if you’re indoors, but it’s still a great thing to keep in mind.
Frame rate, shutter speed, and stability
This tip is a 3-in-1 that I wish I learned sooner.
Getting in to the world of stabilizing footage is a slippery slope that can set you back thousands of dollars (IBIS, OIS, gimbals, steadycams, jibs, sliders, the list goes on), but assuming you don’t already have those things in play and typically shoot hand-held, here’s some advice you can put in to practice today.
When you’re out shooting and stability is a concern, use the widest angle you have at your disposal (keeping in mind the sky, as outlined above!) before your composition falls apart, shoot in the highest resolution available to you (4K if possible), and move as much as possible.
Wide angle lenses introduce far less camera shake into your scene than a tight composition from a telephoto lens would. The difference here is truly staggering, so keep this burned in your brain.
Shooting in HD, UHD, 4K, etc. is essential when you’re concerned about the shakiness of your footage. Warp stabilization in Adobe Premiere is essential, but it eats up a lot of pixels on the edges – and even the auto-crop feature is sometimes too generous, leaving in parts of your frame that look like they’re made of 3D jello. The more pixels Premiere has to analyze and crop in from, the more of your scene you’ll retain, and with better results from the algorithmic stabilization.
Even better? Try shooting in 30p, 60p, to even 120p – whatever your camera can handle, and whatever works for your project. The one-two punch of slowing footage down and stabilizing at the highest possible resolution is your best bet to getting long swaths of usable, even footage without any wobbly corners or distortion.
Finally, remember to keep moving! You can test this out yourself right now – record some hand-held footage while holding completely still, and then record some footage while panning or turning.
Digital strategist, writer, and image maker based in Manhattan working with clients in the tech and entertainment industry.