Fake it till you make it! How to shoot and edit amateur vlogs that look pro

It’s easy for just about anyone to produce and upload a video, so knowing how to make the content stand out is all the more important. Whether you’re interested in starting a vlog, making tutorial or demonstration videos, or doing your own hands-on product reviews, we’ve put together a few best (and easy to achieve) practices to help get you pointed in the right direction – using digital cameras and smartphones that you probably already own. With a little planning and effort, you’ll be well on your way to becoming the next YouTube sensation (although, we make no promises).

Pre-production

First off, start with a script. You may think it’s easier to skip this step, but taking the time to write up a script — or at least jot down your ideas — can save you time later on. We’re not talking about a formatted screenplay here, but rather just a text document that contains everything you’re going to say in your video. Working from a script will help keep you on task when you start shooting, and prevent you from going off on a tangent and needing to shoot way more takes than necessary to get something cohesive.

Don’t underestimate the importance of planning and practice.

You should read through your script out loud a couple of times to get an idea for how it sounds. One often writes in a different voice than how one speaks, and reading out loud will help identify anything that doesn’t sound natural. If you have a friend, roommate, or family member who can provide feedback, maybe ask them to listen to you.

It’s also not a bad idea to time yourself reading your script to get an idea for how long it will be, either. If you’re aiming for a two-minute video and it takes you five minutes to read your script, it will be much easier to make cuts now rather than wait until you’re in post-production with three extra minutes of footage to deal with.

If you plan to shoot B-roll or cutaway shots, you can map those out now to get an idea of where they will be used. This way, you’ll know which lines will be spoken on camera and which will run as voiceover during cutaways, and you can memorize accordingly, saving yourself even more time.

After you have a couple videos under your belt, you can probably skip some of the above steps once you have a feel for the timing, but don’t underestimate the importance of planning and practice.

Recap:

  • Script out what you want to say, or jot down talking points.
  • Practice your script for timing and flow.
  • Make notes of where you’ll cut to B-roll shots.
  • Only memorize your on-screen lines to save time.

Pro tip:

If you are finding it hard to memorize what you want to say, try using a teleprompter app, like Teleprompter Pro Lite for the iPad. Place the tablet as close to the camera lens as possible (without entering the frame), so that you retain eye contact with the camera.

Lights

When it comes to the look of your video, light is probably the most important factor. We’d take a cheap camera with good lighting over an expensive camera with bad or insufficient lighting any day. But this doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy an expensive light kit.

Light is the most important factor in the look of your video.

For indoor shoots, windows are your best friend — or your worst enemy. In general, facing a window will result in a nice, even light that makes you easily visible against the background. However, you should always avoid putting a window behind you or having one otherwise visible in the frame, as it may make it difficult to get a balanced exposure.

Also, watch out for mixed color temperatures when shooting indoors. Most light bulbs put out a different color of light than the sun, which can lead to shadows being too blue or highlights being to orange, or vice versa. If possible, turn off all the lights in the area where you’re shooting and rely on sunlight alone.

When outdoors, avoid direct sunlight. Find a shady area or shoot on an overcast day for even lighting. This will also put less strain on your eyes and keep you from squinting in the video.

Recap:

  • Having good light is better than having a good camera.
  • Indoors, windows can be an excellent source of light.
  • Outdoors, avoid direct sunlight if possible.

Pro tip:

  • Auto white balance is often good enough, but if you want to make sure the colors in your shot don’t change, you can set it manually on some cameras. If your camera lets you adjust the Kelvin temperature for white balance, start at 5,600 (daylight) as a base, and then tune up (cooler) or down (warmer). On DSLRs, make sure live view is on when you make these adjustments so you can see the effect in real time.
  • There are plenty of LED lights you can purchase for less than $50. Find one that lets you adjust the color temperature. But rather than splashing the light from your camera’s direction, try different positions and angles, or even using multiple light sources. Even a small, low-powered LED panel can make for a nice catch light that will help bring out your eyes.

Camera (and audio)

Canon Rebel T7i review
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

We love fancy camera tech as much as anyone else (probably more so), but simpler really can be better. Stick with what you know and don’t blow your budget on a top-of-the-line camera. An entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera is a great option for professional-looking results, but even a smartphone, GoPro, or a traditional point-and-shoot will produce high-quality video in the right lighting.

If you’re comfortable with it (and your camera supports it), shoot video in manual exposure mode. This will let you control the look of your video and ensure that your camera doesn’t over or underexpose an important part of the scene (like your face) while correctly exposing a less important area (like the background).

If you’re one-person crew, both producing the video and starring in it, one of the most difficult things can be getting the focus right. Fortunately, many modern cameras, including smartphones, feature face detection with focus tracking. We recommend using this mode when available, as it really can make things easier. We’re big fans of the Dual Pixel autofocus tech on Canon cameras such as the EOS Rebel T7i and EOS M6, which works in conjunction with face detection for smooth, sharp results.

Even more important than the camera is the audio. Most cameras have poor, omnidirectional microphones, meaning they listen for sounds coming from any direction. Such microphones will pick up an abundance of background noise, though, which may be okay for ambient shots, but is absolutely terrible for recording dialogue.

For simplicity’s sake, an on-camera shotgun mic, like the Rode Videomic Go, will make a drastic difference in audio quality (your camera will need to have a mic input, and you should also adjust the volume control in the menu settings). A wired or wireless lavalier mic can produce even better results, as it can be worn on a shirt right up close to your mouth, ensuring the sound of your voice is heard clearly over any background noise. There are also microphones specifically made for smartphones, which plug into the headphone jack or connector.

Recap:

  • High-quality audio is just as important as high-quality video; use an external microphone.
  • Work with what you know or have, even if that’s your smartphone.
  • When filming yourself, use face detection and continuous autofocus if your camera supports them.

Pro tip:

  • If you’re shopping for a new camera for the purpose of making videos, look for one that has a flip-out LCD, like the aforementioned Rebel T7i. This is handy for when filming yourself, such as a vlog scenario. Most camcorders will also have this feature, though, the reasons for buying a dedicated video camera are pretty few these days.
  • Do you need to shoot in 4K? It’s not a must right now — after all, few people are capable of viewing 4K content — but it’s a nice future-proof feature. However, 4K lets you downscale to great-looking Full HD, and it’s handy for cropping and adding digital motion to your shots.
  • A cheap, secondary camera can be used to capture an alternative point of view that you can then insert into your main video. With this camera, audio isn’t a concern, so you can even use a smartphone.
  • For smartphone videography, we like Filmic Pro, a video app that lets you adjust a wide range of parameters that you probably didn’t even know your smartphone could do. It’s currently available for both iOS and Android.

Action

Before you start shooting, take a look at the location. Hopefully, you’ve found a place with good lighting, but there are other things you can do to prepare the set. If you’re in your home, watch out for boring blank walls or cluttered backgrounds. Consider decorating the space with photos, posters, or other items that are related to the theme of your video or showcase your personality. This is where you can also get fancy with a bit of accent lightning if you want to really go for it, but keep in mind how this will affect the exposure.

A small adjustment to the camera can sometimes create a dramatic difference.

You can also use the camera itself to shape the set. Depending on the location, it might be possible to cut unwanted objects out of the frame simply by zooming in, changing the angle, or moving the camera slightly in one direction. This may sound like a no-brainer, but a small adjustment to the camera can sometimes create a dramatic difference.

When shooting outdoors, watch out for direct sunlight in the background, which could lead to distracting overexposed areas. As with indoor shots, avoid crowded backgrounds such as busy streets or power lines, unless such things pertain to the topic of your video.

When it comes to B-roll — that is, the footage that you will cut to, to illustrate your story — move the camera to make shots more interesting. A simple pan or tilt on a tripod can go a long way, and a slider is a great tool for achieving a professional-looking, side-to-side motion. If you don’t want to invest in additional gear, you can even get away with handheld motion shots, but make sure you’re using a camera with internal stabilization or a stabilized lens.

Most importantly, don’t overdo it. Some motion can really help a shot, but too much is distracting.

Recap:

  • Decorate your set to reflect the topic or your personality.
  • Incorporate motion into B-roll shots to make them more interesting.
  • Zoom or move the camera to cut unwanted objects from the frame.

Pro tip:

  • We always recommend a good tripod, but when one isn’t handy, use what you have: A stack of books, a high table or chair, a breakfast counter. Also, try your best to keep the camera level. If you’re working with a small camera or smartphone, there are plenty of table-top tripods out there that are very inexpensive.
  • Camera straps are annoying, but they help secure your camera and stabilize it while moving around. Pull the strap away from your body until it’s taut, and try to hold steady.

Post-production

ammentorp/123RF
ammentorp/123RF

If you’re new to video editing, don’t spend money on software. Even DaVinci Resolve, a professional editing application, has an excellent free version. And if you happen to already have an Adobe Creative Cloud membership, then don’t forget that you have access to Premiere Pro. But seriously, even iMovie works when in a pinch. There is software that takes your footage, analyzes it, and creates quick movies — such as GoPro’s Quik — but this isn’t the type of editing software you should use for the purpose of this article.

At least in theory, a vlog presents a fairly low-maintenance editing job that any piece of dedicated software should be able to handle with ease. You may want to go crazy down the road, but start with the basics and don’t spend more than you need to.

Whatever application you end up going with, one specific piece of advice we will offer is to learn the hotkeys. The less you touch the mouse, the more efficient you will be. You’ probably need to complete a few project before you figure it all out, but once you’re navigating, selecting, and trimming clips entirely with keystrokes, you’ll save yourself valuable time. You’ll also feel like a pro.

When it comes to editing, keep it simple. Avoid unnecessary dissolves, wipes, and other transitions or effects. These can be tempting, especially for new editors, but they are often distracting. And no, nobody will be impressed by your fireworks transition. Almost always, a hard cut between two shots will look more professional than any type of animated transition.

However, simple doesn’t mean boring. Depending on the topic of your video, a slower or faster pace may be appropriate, but know that people will likely grow bored quickly if they’re just watching a talking head drone on for more than a few seconds. If you have an engrossing personality and powerful stage presence, then more power to you. The rest of us, however, should be ready with a variety of B-roll shots to use liberally, which you hopefully planned for during the pre-production stage.

Finally, shorter is usually better. Hopefully you took care of this in the script, but don’t be afraid to make cuts while editing. There are times for exceptions, like if you’re doing a product review and it requires a bit more detail. Even in this case, however, you don’t want the video to go on for too long.

Again, if you have a friend or family member nearby, ask them to preview your rough cut and give feedback. If they even so much as think about yawning at any point, then consider cutting out that section of video. We tend to grow attached to our projects, so throwing away any part of them can be difficult, but the tough decisions are what will make your videos better.

Recap:

  • Keep it simple; avoid unnecessary transitions and effects.
  • Don’t spend money on software if you don’t need to — free editing programs will often do just fine.
  • Don’t be afraid to make cuts. Shorter is usually better.

Pro tip:

  • Sometimes, the best way to learn to swim is to dive right in. By that, we mean just upload a video to YouTube and see what kind of response you get. While commenters can be harsh, others are supportive. Use the constructive criticism to improve your next video, and don’t be afraid to reach out to the creatives whose videos you enjoy watching. After all, their videos may look polished now, but we bet their first attempts weren’t as pretty.

Camera settings to pick

  • Modern cameras have a ton of framerate options. For a more cinematic look, 24 (or 23.98) frames per second will mimic the look of motion picture film, while 30 fps is the standard for television and video. Many cameras offer a 60 fps option, which is now supported by YouTube, but won’t aid your video much unless you need to accurately reproduce fast motion.
  • When in manual mode, the general rule of thumb is to set your shutter speed to twice the framerate (e.g., 1/50 for 24 fps, 1/60 for 30 fps, or 1/120 for 60 fps). You can play around with shutter speed for creative effect, but for the purpose of this tutorial, we’ll keep to the basics. Note: When outdoors, you may have to use a higher shutter speed just to get a correct exposure. Neutral Density (ND) filters will help with this by cutting out light, allowing for a slower shutter speed, but don’t worry about this until you have some experience under you belt.
  • As for resolution, you should be totally fine with Full HD (1,920 x 1,080). If your camera supports 4K, however, you can certainly use it, which has some benefits as we mentioned above. Just know that when it comes to editing, 4K is going to require a more powerful computer and will eat up more space on your hard drive.
  • ISO sensitivity should be set low (100-200) if there’s plenty of bright light. You can raise it if you’re dealing with ambient light, however, like an indoor lamp. Unless your camera has very good ISO performance, we wouldn’t go higher than 800, unless absolutely necessary.
  • Do you want a blurry background, or to keep everything sharp? This is up to you, but the aperture setting is what controls this. Pick a wide (smallest number) aperture if you want it very blurry, or the narrowest (largest number) if you want everything to be in focus. The aperture values are dependent on the lens, but a nice balance is around f/5.6-f/8. This is a key benefit of using a camera with an interchangable lens compared to a smartphone or point and shoot.

Conclusion

The aforementioned guidelines are simply that: First steps to get you moving in the right direction. The most important thing is the content of your video; if you have a good idea to communicate, that’s more than half the battle. Good lightning, clear audio, and effective editing can only help your presentation — they can’t do anything to improve the actual content.

Remember, we’re talking about vlogs and home movies here, not professional productions with large budgets and experienced crews. Your video doesn’t need to be perfect, and it’s not worth agonizing over every detail until 3 a.m. for multiple nights in a row. You will undoubtedly improve and become more efficient over time, so don’t sweat the small stuff now. Get your ideas out there, keep learning, and most of all, never stop having fun.

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