Filming Your Kids with Rob Adams
In this day and age of iPhones and uber-camera-equipped Android devices, do we really need to consider anything else to film our children? It’s a valid question. Phone cameras are getting better with every iteration. Some can even rival DSLR and mirrorless image quality in outdoor, daylight conditions. I would say, however, that if filming your kids is a project that you really want to inject with your full arsenal of photography and videography skills, a phone will be limiting.
Here are some ways to use that high quality, expensive DSLR or mirrorless to get the best results when filming kids and all of their crazy, sugar-fueled antics without causing yourself too much grief when checking focus or editing the video. The first question I get asked when people approach me for camera advice is, “Should I use a DSLR or a mirrorless?” Again, it’s another valid question because not many DSLRs I know of have both in-body (or on-board) image stabilization. You can certainly use a lens that has IS, but a mirrorless (depending upon your choice) will likely offer you both. So the first step to chase those little “tricycle motors” around is choosing a camera that offers both 5-axis O.I.S (Optical Image Stabilization) and a lens that allows for dual IS. There are plenty of camera/lens combos on the market that will do this. My choice at the moment is the Canon EOS-R with the 24-70mm f/2.8 IS.
Now, aside from image stabilization (we will get into the reasons why) you will also want to try and use a camera that excels in the area of video autofocus. Filming kids is always going to be easier when you’re not chasing them at f/2.0 trying to manually rack focus. There are times that shooting them shallow in manual mode can yield a beautiful result, but it’s not the optimal setting for the run-and-gun filming of rug rats. Canon cameras, by far and in my opinion, have the best autofocus technology. Their dual-pixel AF is snappy and accurate. Combined with newer auto-focus features in their latest models like face and head detection and eye-tracking, Canon reigns supreme in this autofocus realm. Next in line would be Sony. Don’t trust Panasonic Lumix autofocus. It just doesn’t get the job done even in the newer full-frame systems. Not saying you can’t film kids with anything other than Canon, but the dual-pixel auto-focus and tracking will make life much easier, plus you’ll have more in-focus shots.
So let’s talk about the methods of shooting children and how to capture the action and fun easily. You’ll want to work in good lighting conditions to give your camera the best chance for autofocus success. Outside in daylight is obviously the way to go because you really want to try to focus on not shooting too shallow. If you’re capturing kids running about or on swings you’ll be able to keep the ISO low and your aperture around the mid-ranges of your lens for nice clear video. You’ll also want to abide by the universal video shutter-speed rule. By setting your shutter speed to double your frame rate, you achieve realistic motion blur (that’s a good thing with video, most of the time) without experiencing rolling shutter, which is a jelly effect that can happen to your image when the subject or camera moves too quickly. So for example, if you are filming video at 24 frames per second or 24p, you will want to set your shutter speed to 1/50th to get realistic looking video. If you are shooting at 60p, you will want to set the shutter to 1/120th. If you can’t get 1/120th, go with 1/125th. This rule can be bent or broken for practical effect. If the kids are really running about and you are outdoors and there’s water being thrown everywhere and kids running in and out of the water between each other, you may want to consider increasing your shutter speed to freeze the action slightly more. You don’t want to go too high but definitely think in terms of doubling the existing setting for the best result. If you are filming 24p at 1/50th it would be fine to jump to 1/100th to capture more detail in moving objects. Just don’t go too far up or you may start to see unsightly artifacts in the footage. The choice of shutter speed in a situation is purely a personal preference. Just keep in mind that if the kids are inside a dimly-lit room and jumping on the bed, you probably won’t be able to get higher shutter speeds without cranking up the ISO and introducing more noise into the image.
When filming kids, shooting handheld is fine and probably the best way to go. Handheld motorized gimbals are great but they do take a fair amount of practice to get ultra-smooth shots. I opt to just brace the camera as much as I can against my body or lean on something stable and get nice stable shots. If I have to swing the camera around, I can do so in a smooth motion and this is where the camera/lens combination image stabilization really comes into play. I don’t suggest running while filming because while the O.I.S may help to remove some of the jitter, you will likely get a warping effect from the camera’s sensor being jostled around by the electronic stabilization mechanism. O.I.S is definitely made to help reduce mild motion and increase stability in shots, not completely remove all camera motion.
Now let’s discuss focal length choice. I usually opt to shoot wider when kids are moving around quite a bit and only use my longer, compressed focal lengths for when they are sitting static so I can perhaps shoot a bit more shallow for a portrait style shot. A good zoom lens with IS will be your best friend when filming children. Another good reason for using a wide angle lens when shooting kids is because kids look adorable when filmed up close with a wide lens. Their features become exaggerated the closer they are to the lens and this can make for a cute, comedic effect. Paired with some light playful music and it’s a winning combination in the final video. The idea is to put your kids in situations where you can control the outcome of your video images by having the right tools for the job. If they’re sitting nice and playing, you can film for more depth-of-field. If they’re raising hell, back up and go wide then spray and pray.
One of the cutest things I’ve seen done with a kid-vid is strapping a GoPro to a child’s head. They make head-mounts, so no need to use duct tape. Placing the GoPro on the mislaid child in the group gave a great worm’s eye view of the action and was fun to cut the other video footage showing the larger context. If you’re really feeling froggy, strap it to the dog and let it play with the kids.
Once you are done, take your footage and bring it into iMovie or Adobe Premiere and start splicing. You can even use an online slideshow maker to trim the clips and make short videos. There’s much to be done with audio too. Always record the natural sound of the kids playing on your camera because that can always be used under the footage to bring it to life while mixing with music. You can even ask your kids questions about their favorite activities and use that as a voice-over. No special equipment required. Just make sure they are speaking someplace near the camera’s built-in microphone and be sure the audio is recording.