Video Notes for Missionaries

Don’t be clever with the camera. Make it work for you.

Today, thousands of churches send out missionaries – either short or long term – and ask them to videotape their work to show to supporters back at the home church. The problem is, most missionaries aren’t skilled camera operators, so the video that comes home is often jerky, badly exposed, with poor audio. Over the years, our team has helped train hundreds of missionaries in how to capture their work on video. But not every church can afford professional training. So if your church (or a church you know) is sending out Christian workers or missionaries this year, here’s a good list of suggestions for them to follow. These simple rules can set your video apart and make it far more effective.

1) Whenever possible use a tripod. It’s so easy to just grab the camera and run, and at times there’s no choice. But you’ll be far more satisfied if you use a tripod to steady your shots. If you don’t have a tripod, anything that will brace the camera to make it steadier will help. Otherwise – practice holding a really steady shot!

2) Panning (the term for camera movement from side to side) often seems to be the easiest way to get everything into your frame. Unfortunately panning creates needless motion and generally is done too fast. But in many settings we simply have no choice. When it becomes necessary to pan to capture the entire scene, try to find something moving through the area of your pan. A pig running through the village, a person walking or a vehicle driving can help add movement to your shot and make it more interesting. Remember that videos are designed to have movement in them – which is why we call them movies.

3) Posed pictures are boring, so always think about filming action.

4) Just because you have a zoom lens doesn’t mean you have to use it in every shot. Plus, when you combine a zoom with a fast pan it’s not hard to get several people in your audience to throw-up. Sometimes filming shy people or events that may be off limits to the camera, the zoom lens can make an impossible shot possible. The key is to use a good tripod at these long focal lengths (which means being “zoomed in”). Whenever possible get as close to your subject as you can, using a wider angle. This will generally produce a sharper, clearer picture. Don’t be afraid to get close. The warts and wrinkles on an old face can be very powerful, plus it’s always better to be up close to the action.

5) Since a lot of missionary filming takes place in dark jungles or inside huts or other buildings, lighting becomes an important factor. Just because your camera says it has enough light doesn’t mean it will give you the best possible picture.

It’s best to use as much light as possible, up to a point, of course. (Generally speaking, the wider the angle of your camera lens the less light is required for a good picture.) Even a hardware store light bulb can be used to make the inside of a dark enclosure come to life. But remember that florescent light can cause video interference – so avoid florescent lights if possible. And you don’t need to light an entire room. A camera mounted light will light up where the camera is pointing, provided that the light is mounted properly and the shot is kept inside the lighted area.

This kind of lighting may cause some harsh shadows but you’ll have to decide whether a shadowy picture is better than no picture at all. (You can try changing the direction of your light, bouncing it to where you want it. This may eliminate some shadows. )

We want to get as good a production as possible, but remember we want to tell a story, not produce a Hollywood feature movie. It’s also good to remember that shooting into the light source isn’t helpful. Don’t frame subjects with open windows and doors behind them, or you’ll end up with a silhouette. Open sky in the background can have a similar effect on your picture. You may have to move things around a bit or move the camera high looking down to get away from a bright background. One way to overcome a lack of light is to reflect sunlight into the shot. Mirrors, aluminum foil, or even white surfaces can be used to direct outside light in. You don’t want to reflect a bright light right onto your subject as this will create a glare, but reflecting light into a room will generally bring the light level up in the entire room.

6) Don’t feel that while filming you have to be saying something. After all, the camera has a mic on it, right? More missionaries have ruined good footage because either they, or some other person was talking while the camera was running. It’s always best to allow the camera to pick up the sounds that go with the picture. If an narration is necessary it can always be added later. You can’t separate one sound from others on the audio track once it’s recorded.

7)  Finally, don’t worry about not having professional equipment.  A DSLR is great, but today, the video camera on mobile phones can be remarkable.  In fact, there are film festivals today for movies produced entirely on mobile phones.  So the key is to worry less about your equipment and get out there and start filming!

Filming mission work can be a great way to share what God is doing with church members and other supporters back home. But the quality of the presentation can make a dramatic difference in how excited the audience will be when it comes to financially supporting your work. So on the next trip, take the time to think about how you’re composing the shots, what sounds you’re capturing, and if you’re telling a compelling story.

It can make a powerful difference!   Any other suggestions you’d share?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Richard

    Very helpful information Phil. We are taking our third trip to Portugal this summer to facilitate some sports camps. This information will be helpful as our past attempts at video have not fully captured the work there. Hopefully we can do better and have something more to show our church when we return. Thanks!

  • joesindorf

    Excellent post Phil! You are absolutely correct in all of your points. However, the big thing is telling a story, doing it well and in a way that compels people to want to be a part of what you’re doing. That’s why I created Global Video Academy (dot com), to teach these skills to people who need to know how to motivate supporters and prayer partners. You’re right on target, Phil.

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