Why Your Camera’s Auto Function Isn’t Your Friend: An Excerpt from You Can Be a Film-maker e-Book

With his new e-Book You Can be a Film-maker, British documentary and corporate filmmaker Martyn Moore offers budding moviemakers some simple but valuable technical and business advice.

The e-Book, published by NorthLight Media and available now, tells Moore’s personal story from shooting professional vacation videos on cruise ships in the 1980s to running his own production company. The following excerpt, from a chapter entitled “Me, a cameraman,” encourages new moviemakers to quickly venture beyond the automatic functions their cameras provide. – MM Editors.


The two qualities I have in my favor as I strive, constantly, to be a better camera operator, are a reasonable level of photographic skill and an interest in the technology. Both areas of expertise come together to provide the basic skill set for operating a film or video camera in a competent and creative way.

The first thing to learn with any camera, stills or video, is how to stop relying on the automatic modes. Don’t get me wrong, the auto functions are great and, as I will later explain, I use them all the time. But one of the biggest differences between an amateur and a professional is that the professional understands when and why automatic modes will get things wrong.

I learned still photography on a camera that didn’t have an auto mode, so I messed up a lot of photos and worked out how to do it for myself. My default setting for my video cameras is now 0dB gain, manual white balance, manual shutter speed, manual aperture and manual focus.

I always use my camera’s “zebra” function to show me when and where a scene is overexposing. The zebra function can be set to appear at a certain percentage of white. So I can adjust it to put flickering stripes across all areas of the scene that are, say 80 percent white or higher. Looking at a scene, experience will tell me that there will be certain areas of a pure white subject, like a wedding dress or white car, that will “blow out”—hitting 100 percent white with no detail data. Using the zebra stripes I can reduce the exposure with aperture, shutter speed and ND (neutral density) filters to ensure the maximum amount of detail in white areas is captured and keeping blow out to a minimum.

Martyn Moore, author of You Can Be a Film-Maker

I can’t tell you where to set your zebra patterns because it can vary between subjects, shooting style and other camera settings, such as picture profiles, but 70-75 percent seems to work for me when checking Caucasian skin highlights. And remember, once it’s blown out, it’s gone. You can’t get overexposed white back in post-production because there’s nothing there to get back.

I shoot in a lot of locations with mixed light sources—offices, factories and schools all have natural light contaminated by tungsten bulbs and fluorescent tubes. Natural light has a cool blue hue; tungsten, in comparison, is yellowy and warm and fluorescent is green. My own lights are daylight-balanced. Chuck ’em all together and you get a right dog’s breakfast.

The only way to sort it out is to hold a white sheet or card in front of the subject, where it is under exactly the same lighting as the subject itself. Then set the camera’s white balance. Even with the adjustment correct for the subject, it’s essential to know what will be happening to the color temperature in the rest of the scene. Warm tungsten-lit interiors look lovely, green offices look weird.

If there is a lot of mains-powered lighting in the scene, you have to get that shutter speed down to 1/50 sec to get rid of the banding caused by the 50Hz cycle of mains electricity in the U.K. (1/60 sec for 60Hz in other parts of the world). All that’s left is to set the aperture and a decent monitor will help with that enormously. You need to make sure you know how your monitor represents the scene. Monitor brightness needs to be adjusted to suit your preference and knowing how that will translate to the image on screen in post-production is also vitally important. In the early days, I had my monitor brightness set too high. This helped me to see shadow detail clearly but my footage was recorded underexposed. Once you know and trust your monitor or viewfinder settings, you can trust your aperture choice.

Shooting outdoors is much easier. Working without lights during the day you don’t need to worry about the mixed light sources but you still need to do the white balance adjustment—the color of daylight changes according to the time of day and the weather. Low light will require slower shutter speeds and wider lens apertures, accepting the inherent blur and shallow depth-of-field they represent. Bright light demands fast shutter speeds, small lens apertures and, with my new Sony FS5, maybe ND filters to restrict the light hitting the sensor.

The skill I most wanted to master at the beginning of my filmmaking career was to “rack focus,” or to shift focus between two objects different distances from the lens. It’s one of the most common techniques in camera operation and I love it.

Although my cameras offer automatic assistance, my best rack-focusing is done by hand. Only you know what you want to focus on, so you should shift the focus. As my eyesight has become a bit less reliable I have found the “peaking” function invaluable. With peaking turned on, the areas of sharp focus are emphasized with a colored highlight and with a bit of practice I can very quickly get focus to shift in exactly the way I need it to.

I promised to explain when I might switch to auto and, to be honest, that only happens in one situation: when I’m in a panic. When things over which I have very little control are happening, and I have very little time to think, I stick it on “full auto.” I trust full auto on my Sony and Panasonic cameras enough to believe I will get something usable. It might not be great but I can probably make it watchable in post-production.

I read the camera’s user manual from cover-to-cover. It is vitally important to know how to work your kit. Every purchase must be followed by several hours of reading the manual. Many of us hate doing it but to ignore the book often means ignoring the full potential of your new tool. At worst, your filmmaking will never be quite as good as it could be; at best, you’ll look like an amateur in front of your clients or crew as you try to remember how to navigate the menus.

Which automatic camera features do you love and hate, and why? Join the conversation below with a reply and tell us what turns you on when you turn it off. MM

For more information on You Can Be a Film-maker, and to purchase the e-Book, visit its website here. Excerpt courtesy of NorthLight Media.

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