As a dad who spends his days cutting video for television, I take it as a personal challenge to capture the best possible videos of my kids and family. But even with my background, it’s not always easy ⏤ a lot of external factors come into play that can wreak havoc on what should otherwise be a pretty easy videos shoot.
We’ve all had the experience of going back to watch that clip of our child doing the absolute cutest thing only to find a shaky, grainy mess. It happens. Sometimes conditions aren’t ideal. Other times we’re in such a rush to capture the moment before it evaporates that we don’t have time to set up the perfect shot. Either way, thanks to the quality of video technology in our smartphones these days, we’re all capable of creating some amazing videos for our kids to cringe at when they become teenagers. It just a matter of following a few simple rules. To help make your videos even better, here are easy (and not-too-technical) tips I’ve put together from my experience.
1. Turn the damn camera sideways
With so many fleeting kid moments on a daily basis, it’s understandable that parents whip out their phones and immediately hit record without flipping it sideways. The unfortunate result, however, is an awkward vertical file that’s practically unusable outside of viewing on your phone. That cute shot of your toddler eating their first ice cream cone will look minuscule when played vertically on an HDTV. Not a good look. So, always shoot horizontally.
2. Get down to their level
In terms of composition, this single tip will change the quality of your videos most dramatically. Because you’re a good three- to five-feet taller than your kid, most of the footage you capture while standing is of the top of their heads ⏤ not to mention a whole lot of floor. But when you sit or kneel down at their level, you see their face, features, and the world around them. Whether they’re running down the sidewalk or picking flowers in a field ⏤ the only way you’ll capture the full picture is by shooting from their level.
3. Follow the action
This is where we can get a little Hollywood with our recording. While it’s easy to stand or sit in place while filming our kids (who doesn’t want a break?), sometimes the coolest videos are shot when we follow the action. If your kid is running through the playground, try holding the phone down by your side and chasing after them. By doing so, the video will look like it was shot from the point of view of a child playing alongside them instead of a passive parent from afar.
4. Get close
No, you need to shove your phone or camera in anyone’s face. But just remember that the closer you can get to your kids while filming, the better. Not only will it make your videos more intimate, but it will also allow you to capture the detail in their expressions and reactions. This is especially true for baby videos, where the little things such as opening their eyes or cracking a smile are actually huge.
5. Keep it rolling
If I’ve learned one thing over the past few years filming my kids, it’s this: the best stuff happens when I turn the camera off. Maybe my kid is being silly, so I grab the camera and shoot the action. No sooner than I turn it off, however, and he breaks out in song. And a good one at that. Now, I try keep the shot rolling just a little longer in hopes of capturing the real good stuff. In fact, pretending to turn it off entirely will sometimes make kids less camera-shy, and that’s when the magic happens.
6. Watch out for backlight
If your child is sitting in front of a window or light, recording them can be a nightmare. They’ll be cast in shadow and often all you see is a glow around them ⏤ and no, that doesn’t mean they’re suddenly an angel. In fact, what results is usually unusable and unrecognizable. Turn off the light behind the child or close the blinds, and if there are other sources of light, use them. If that doesn’t solve the problem, try relocating to another area to get a better shot.
7. Use the sun to your advantage
When filming outside, the sun can be incredibly helpful, and you can often use sun flares to capture some amazing shots. To create the effect, position or hide the sun either right out of the frame of the video, or behind your kid, tree or building. Then, by playing with the angle of the lens a bit, you should be able to make the flares dance through your shot. This one is worth practicing on your own sans kids, just to get it down.
8. The more light, the better
My kids tend to turn on their charm right about bedtime, when they don’t want to head upstairs. It makes for some cute moments. The only problem is that it’s usually darker in our house around that time, with no sunlight coming in the windows and the lights off, and videos can turn out dark and grainy. This rule is a bit of a no-brainer but bears reminding: Turn on the lights, it will reduce the grain and make for a nicer shot.
9. Check the background, and scooch over
Sometimes when recording your kids, there’s laundry or toys or other unwanted clutter in the background. Or maybe just a bland white wall. Either way, by surveying what’s behind your kids and either shifting over or relocating, you can remove unwanted elements and drastically improve the shot. A lot change change on screen with a little slide left or right.
10. Frame it
Entire classes are taught on composition, but the number one thing to be aware of is framing. For example, avoid awkwardly cropping off your kid’s head in the shot or pushing them over to one side or another. If they’re playing with something, show it in the frame. If your phone has a grid setting, turn it on and follow the basic rule of thirds ⏤ so don’t put your subject square in the middle. The main idea is this, really: Think about what’s in your shot and adjust to best capture the moment.
11. Keep it steady
It might be tempting to film your child like they’re staring in a Jason Bourne movie, but keeping your camera steady creates a better video and ensures nobody gets queasy watching it. When filming, treat your camera or phone like a live TNT ⏤ do not shake. Hold all four corners of your phone with your fingers and stretch your arms out. There are also handy phone tripods and grips you can buy to remove the shake entirely, depending on how serious you want to get.
12. Use the reveal
Your kid is doing something cute, so you should just point and shoot, right? Wrong. Sometimes you’ll get a funnier video if you start filming with your child offscreen, and then slowly pan over to them to capture the craziness. Especially if you can hear them in the background doing whatever hilarious thing it is that they are doing. You can also pan from one kid to another in order to show their reactions.
13. Try to stay quiet
In a lot of the early videos of my kids, you’ll hear my voice fairly often. I quickly got out of that habit. Whether it was offering praise, encouragement, or just saying, “Hold on, I’m filming!”, there was a lot of me getting in the way of some nice shots. I learned to hush up and, as a result, usually got much nicer videos.
14. Capture the detail
Whether it’s a drawing they’re coloring, a toy they’re playing with, or a shirt they’re wearing, pay attention the little things. Make sure you capture all the small details as well as the big action. When you look back in 20 years, it’s going to be those seemingly inconsequential details that cause all the memories to come flooding back.
15. Don’t force it
Nothing will ruin a cute moment or nice memory more than trying to over-direct your kids. There’s no need to go full Scorsese and treat their lives like a scene from a movie. It’s important to know when to turn the camera off, and when to take a step back. Fixing their hair, cleaning them up, moving them entirely to a studio set in an old warehouse district, or anything else for the sake of a better video, will always get in the way of a candid moment and make them feel more like actors than kids. Don’t force it.
Brendan Charles is a father of two and full-time video editor for a broadcast television station in Montreal, Canada.