SciCast – Film School

Practicalities — Using a Camera

If you suddenly find yourself with a camera in your hand, wondering how you’re suppose to use it, here are our top tips. We’ll assume you’ve worked out which end of it to point towards the action, and that you’ve found a big red button that starts and stops it recording.

Keep the camera still!

We’ve all seen wobblycam home video, and we’ve all felt vaguely ill from it. Hold the camera still. No, really still. Think ‘clamped solidly to a tripod’ still.

Leave the zoom control alone!

The zoom lever is there to help you compose shots, but as a rule-of-thumb, don’t touch it when the camera’s recording. Zooming in and out makes your audience’s eyes go funny. If you feel like you need to zoom in to see detail, you really need to stop, set up another shot, record that, then go back to where you were.

Note that stick cameras like Flip and Kodak ranges, or mobile phones, don’t really have a zoom control. They have buttons called ‘zoom,’ sure, but all they do is throw away the edges of the pictures and scale the middle bit up. Awful. Zoom with your feet, it’s much more effective.

The audience sees exactly what you show them

If you show two people in the middle of the picture with lots of wasted space around them - that’s what everyone will see, every time they watch your film. For ever. Wasted space.

If, on the other hand, you show lots of detail of the demonstration — that’s what they’ll see. Better, no? So:

Work out what’s important, and fill the frame with that

This is the basic rule, the thing you should be thinking all the time. Whatever your camera is showing — why are we looking at that, specifically? You’re in control, so choose carefully!

Show context, then detail

Make sure your viewer understands what’s going on: start with a wide ‘establishing shot,’ so we get a sense of how the people and everything else in your scene fit together. Once we’ve taken that in, we’ll start to wonder what that blurry little thing is in the middle of the frame — so that’s when you show us a close-up of that thing.

Shoot what you might want, not just what you think you need

Once you’ve packed up, going back for the thing you missed will take twice as long. So film everything you can think of. However…

Don’t go nuts

For a two-and-a-half minute film, you’ll shoot maybe ten minutes of material. If you fill tape after tape it’ll take forever to sift through to find the good bits. It’s a tricky balance.

If you’re not sure you got it, film it again

Looking back at stuff in the camera is a waste of time, and it’s risky — you might tape over something crucial. If you think you missed something it’s always quicker to go straight back and do it again.

Remember to press record!

Start recording before anything happens. Obviously. Less obvious is that you should stop recording well after the action’s finished — give it a good five seconds. You never know what might happen, and it’s tragic to miss something important or funny because you hit ‘stop’ too early.

It’s also incredibly embarrassing to be recording at the wrong time. Everyone in TV has a nightmare story of the time when they got out-of-sync with the red button, and at the end of the day they found a tape where they’d recorded twenty minutes of setting up, then the director shouts ‘start recording please… action!’… and the tape cuts out. Oooooooops.


Rules are made to be broken. You might, for example, want to start with detail, and only reveal the context later in your film, to build suspense or mystery. Or you might move the camera to achieve a particular style or feel, or to show detail without zooming. By all means break rules — but break them deliberately, for good reasons.

In general, the clearer and more specific your ideas are before you start filming, the smoother your filming and editing will go. That’s why people draw storyboards (sequences of sketch diagrams of their film) — to help them visualise how their film is going to slot together. SciCast films are usually simple enough that you don’t really need a storyboard, but they can still be a tremendously useful exercise.