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How to Video Spontaneous Events with NO Pre Planning

Videotaping Unplanned Events Tips And Techniques – How To Shoot Spot News

Most of the advice you get on how to make video probably starts with a description of pre-production, the detailed planning that happens before the camera and lights are ever turned on.

Most videos are indeed made that way.

Often however, videographers find themselves having to shoot video with absolutely NO prior planning. They’re thrust into a situation where they have no clue what will happen, yet are still tasked with shooting quality video.

The video in this post is an example of just such a situation. It’s video I shot last Saturday of a huge apartment complex fire near where I live. I heard tons of sirens, saw the smoke and grabbed my camera. Given that I worked for years as a TV News Photographer, this is second nature for me!

In the world of TV news, spontaneous events are called SPOT NEWS. Fires, murders, storms, all sorts of things fall under the category of spot news. But certainly, it is not just TV spot news where a videomaker has to work without planning out what to do in advance.

Lots of documentary-style videomaking is shot with the same style as spot news. Often, spontaneous shooting will get you the most dramatic, natural-looking footage. Staging everything always LOOKS staged, unless you have great actors. Since most people are not great actors, preplanned, staged footage is often stiff, boring and unbelievable to the viewer.

NO STORYBOARDS ALLOWED!

Pre-production planning often includes storyboarding, which is a method of drawing out on paper (or computer) each and every shot you plan to take. The storyboard is considered an indispensable tool by lots of commercial video producers. In the long run, it will save time and money. It also allows you to get an entire group of folks on the same page understanding your concepts.

High-budget commercial video production is always a group effort. The storyboard is created by the production team then shared with the client. The storyboard might change hands a dozen times because that many people need to sign off on it before the production phase begins. The storyboard is also shared with production personnel so everyone knows what the goals are.

Spontaneous shooting on the other hand, does nothing of the sort.

In order to shoot quality spontaneous footage, the videographer has to be experienced. They have to be able to “edit in their head” as they run around videotaping the action. In other words, they have to know exactly what kind of footage is going to be needed in the editing room. They do not have time to think much about it, they just have to do it.

This is often called run-and-gun video production. Often it is the best and most efficient way to do it.

TIPS FOR SHOOTING SPONTANEOUS FOOTAGE

Even if an event you are videotaping has been planned in advance, it still can be advantageous to shoot it in a spot news style. People on-camera will feel less inhibited and things will go faster. So please read on even if you will never be called upon to videotape fires and murders!

First, as the nickname “run-and-gun” implies, you will need to move quickly. Chances are high that whatever is happening is not going to last a very long time and you will NOT get another chance. So get a move on!

Not only do you have to be fast, but you need to race around and get every conceivable angle. DO NOT rely on your zoom lens to move you around the scene. Sure, the zoom can help, but it is vital for you to be right where the action is if you want good footage.

tripod for video camera

To Tripod or not to tripod, that is the question!

Lots of run-and-gun style video is handheld and done without a tripod. Tripods slow you down and make it difficult to be as agile as you need to be. The fire I shot in the video was handheld.

Now this is not to say that you ALWAYS shoot handheld in these situations. Sometimes it is indeed best to stay back and shoot off a tripod using your zoom. A riot is a good example of this. Videotaping a riot is often best done by sticking your zoom lens out of a window from an office above the action. Needless to say, a tripod is the only way to go in a situation like that.

If you are hand holding, you still need to get steady video. It helps to brace yourself against a tree, fence or whatever is available. At the fire, I propped myself up against a metal fence and it made all the difference. Some of the shots are on full zoom but yet they are reasonably steady. (The close-up of the water coming out of the hose.)

SHOOT WIDE

As you might already know, being zoomed-in makes your video look shakier. Every tiny movement of the camera is magnified when you are zoomed in. For this reason, use your wide angle lens as much as possible when hand holding. By the nature of its optics, a wide angle lens will produce a shot that looks steadier. A wide angle is also going to be easier to keep in focus.

When I watch videos on YouTube of spot news types of events, the single biggest problem is horrible camera shake. Earthquake footage I call it. Now if you’re in the middle of an actual earthquake, that’s all well and good, but any other situation needs to have STEADY VIDEO. Earthquake video is obnoxious to watch and can actually induce sea sickness. Shaky footage is the sure sign of an amateur. It sucks!

Staying on your wide angle lens and running your butt up to the action, plus bracing against something are the two best ways to avoid shaky video. But you also have to remain calm. Novices usually are so excited they do not even think about keeping the camera steady. That is a huge mistake. Terribly shaky video is simply unwatchable.

NATURAL SOUND

Audio is ALWAYS important to your video. When shooting any kind of spontaneous event, it is critical to have a microphone plugged in so you pick up whatever sound is going on. This is called natural sound, sometimes abbreviated nat sound.

Natural sound helps the viewer experience the event in a more realistic way. Generally speaking, natural sound is the type of sound that your on-board camera mic is designed to pick up. Professional videographers use shotgun microphones. Shotgun mics pick up best from a distance.

When you watch the footage of the fire I shot, turn the sound down and see how much of the dramatic feel is lost.

SUMMARY

To be good at videotaping spontaneous events, it takes experience. You can practice by videotaping any action you have access too. Videotape your dog running around the back yard. Videotape children at the playground.

Think while you shoot. Anticipate events. Move to where the action is. Stay on your wide angle.

Videotaping action spontaneously has lots of advantages over staging stuff. If you’re making a video that is non-fictional and comprised of real people doing real things, often, it is absolutely the best way to go.

I hope this helps you make better videos!

Lorraine Grula
Internet Video Gal. 🙂

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Lorraine Grula


Lorraine Grula enjoyed a fast-paced, multifaceted career in the television and video business, producing, shooting, writing, and editing documentary-style videos in both news and corporate settings. Later, she got to teach media and video production in two high schools, which then morphed into instructional design and corporate training. Lorraine is now dedicated to sharing her vast knowledge with others who wish to learn the art of video making, with an emphasis on storytelling and creating professional-quality videos for the internet as simply, yet creatively as possible.

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  1. I found this to be quite interesting. I have made a few videos where we planned it out to the hilt, so I can not fathom having to just do it all on the spot! Thanks for the post.

  2. Great post! I was really impressed with the steady video – no doubt your past TV news experience helped but it’s good to know what can be done with run-and-gun shooting; worth practising.

  3. Hi Penelope.
    Glad you enjoyed the post! Staying steady is one of the biggest challenges to this kind of shooting. Propping the camera up against the fence and shooting as much as possible on a wide shot are two of the best ways to stay steady. Too, in a situation like this, the adrenaline gets to pumping and it is easy to get over excited. People who are new to this sort of thing will usually have big problems due to that. I see lots of video where the camera is moving so much you can barely tell what is going on in the shot. So staying calm is really important. That definitely comes with experience! Thanks for your comment.
    Lorraine Grula

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