When I was a kid, I had an uncle who owned a film camera. The only way he could get decent exposures indoors was to use lights. There were several of them, set in a bar that was mounted on his camera. When those lights were on, you could see nothing else. I can remember smiling sheepishly, waving, trying to be natural, all the while staring into what seemed light a million kilowatt glow.
While family members on the "business end" of today's consumer video cameras may not have to deal with blinding lights, we all know how uncomfortable many people are when they know they're being recorded; they feel self-conscious and so come across as stiff, nervous and unnatural on screen. What can you do to set your subjects at ease and ensure a more satisfying result? Here are some tips:
1. Start wide. A standard video technique is to start every scene out with a "master" shot. Simply put, this means first recording the entire scene as a wide shot. If you're taping a party or a dinner, for example, set up your camera so you have a view of the entire room and everyone in it. Then start recording. If the camera is in a secure enough place you can even walk away from it for a couple of minutes so you don't call attention to the fact that you're taping. Set the camera on a bookcase, or on top of a TV, anything that gives you a panoramic view of the room or area. Even a tripod in the corner of the room can work; while people may notice it at first, they'll get used to it and ignore it after a while.
2. Let people be themselves. Walking up to people, sticking a camera in their faces and telling them to act naturally is a sure-fire way to suck the spontaneity out of any shot. If you know your subjects are a bit skittish around cameras, hang back a little bit and use your camera's zoom control to get that closer view instead of thrusting the camera into the middle of things. On the other hand, if your subjects are comfortable around you and your camera, don't be afraid to move in close. You can even engage them in conversation if it suits you.
3. Don't be afraid to direct. While you want to intrude as little as possible on a family scene, there may be times when a little direction is called for. Maybe you have an idea for an opening for your video - let's say you want to show a long line of relatives, arms filled with presents, filing in through the front door. Don't be afraid to tell everyone what you want them to do and enlist their cooperation. Set up your camera, place everyone where you want them to be, tell them what they need to do and where they should go after they do it. Then cross your fingers, press the record button and yell "action!" Remember to have fun and also accept the fact that you're not working with professional actors. Be happy with what you get on one or, at the most, two tries.
4. Look for special moments. In every family gathering there are countless small, precious moments that help tell the story of your family. Maybe it's a grandmother reading to her first grandchild, or a group chatting and cooking in the kitchen, or your cousins hanging holiday lights on the porch. Keep your camera close by. When you see moments like these, don't hesitate to capture them on tape. An added plus is that when people are having fun and are truly engrossed in what they're doing, they're less likely to notice you and your camera (and if they do notice they'll be less likely to care that you're taping). Case in point: Years ago I was hired to shoot a profile of an insurance salesman. He was a wonderful, elderly gentleman. We spent a day with him and his family and, as my crew was packing up, I saw the salesman's granddaughter sit down at the family piano and begin to practice. I quickly asked the salesman to join his granddaughter at the keyboard and hustled my cameraman over to the scene. The result was a lovely moment with grandpa and granddaughter enjoying some private time - totally oblivious to the camera.
5. Vary your shots. Shoot your subjects and action from below, above, straight on, from behind and in profile. Change your focal lengths from shot to shot, moving from close to wide. The more variety you have in the way you frame your shots, the more visually interesting your finished video will be. You can use the flip out monitor on your camera as a view finder to help you get those ultra high or ultra low shots you wouldn't be able to get if you just relied on your camera's eyepiece.
6. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. Relax. Laugh. If your family sees you, the cameraperson/director, having a good time, the more likely they are to relax and join in the video fun with you.