How to Choose the Right Camera Settings for Video Production

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Cameras today have lots of settings to choose from which can seem quite daunting if you’re just starting out.

But you don’t need to fiddle with all these at first, because some of them are meant for very specific tasks.

So what are the important basic settings on a camera for shooting video?

The basic settings you need to know on a camera for shooting video are the…

  • Framerate
  • Aperture
  • Shutter speed (and shutter angle)
  • ISO
  • White balance

These are the same features, you need to know if you’re doing photography.

There are some differences though, in how you need to approach these settings when you make videos, which we’ll cover in this article.

But, but…. why did you leave out this and that??

I haven’t included manual or autofocus. This is because the focus is related to things like aperture and distance from your subject. But of course, keeping the right things in focus is also important.

I’ve also not included color profiles. This is because color profiles differ from camera to camera. My advice would be to start from a neutral/natural color profile and learn the know the basic settings covered in this article. Then you can always get into things like LOG-profiles at a later point.

In reality, I’ve left out A LOT. But I firmly believe, that if you can understand and control the five topics explained in this article, then you’re well on your way to be able to get good image quality in most of the environments you’ll end up filming in.

But first, in order to make qualified decisions and choose the right settings, it is important to understand what the different camera settings mean and what they do.

Framerate

Variable frame rate (slow motion) setting on the Panasonic GH5

The framerate is the rate at which the consecutive images (frames) in your film or video sequence are recorded and/or displayed per second.

Framerates on a digital camera are written as fps meaning frames-per-second.

The human eye is capable of seeing 10 to 12 images per second and perceive them individually. When you go above that, a series of images will start to be perceived as motion.

Since the late 1920s, the industry standard for films has been 24 fps. This standard has made it into the digital world and is still available on most film cameras today.

Though many more framerates are available today, 24 fps is still considered to provide the viewers with the most cinematic experience by some movie connoisseurs. This is probably because we’ve simply grown accustomed to this look over the years from thousands of films.

Two other common framerates are 25 fps (most of the world) and 30 fps (US). Both are popular in broadcast television because they can portray things like fast-moving sports without looking jagged.

It is beyond the scope of this article to get into the details about why they differ (and why 30 fps is sometimes written as 29.97 fps etc.). But in short, the differences between the two have to do with the mains frequency in the US (60 Hz) and the rest of the world (50 Hz), as well as the PAL and NTSC standards in television.

Higher framerates are not that common and the viewers actually object to them. For example, when Peter Jackson chose to shoot the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 fps (because it worked well with the high-paced action scenes 3D), the viewers didn’t like it. The film’s image looked simply too sharp to many movie-goers.

Despite the fact that the audience didn’t take well to watching a hobbit trod along in 48 fps, a frame rate of 60 fps has become very popular – especially since the advent and democratization of 4K cameras.

The 4K-resolution lends itself well to 60 fps and vice versa. This is probably because of all the information available in the number of pixels in 4K as compared to e.g. FullHD. The higher resolution needs a higher framerate to look good.

Recording in 60 fps is also a good trick if you want to playback your footage in slow-motion in your edit. Some cameras crop the image size when they record at high frame rates (in slow-motion) of 120 and above.

So instead of recording a cropped version of 120 fps, you can end up with a better image quality by recording in 60 fps and slowing down the footage to 120 fps when you edit your video.

Aperture

How aperture is related to the depth of field

Aperture means opening, hole, or gap.

In a camera lens, the aperture is the opening in the diaphragm through which light passes.

The role of the diaphragm is to control the amount of light passes through the aperture at its center.

The light travels the aperture in the diaphragm through a series of optics and – in DSLR cameras – mirrors, before it finally hits the camera sensor.

When you open up the lens diaphragm the gap in the center gets bigger and lets in more light. When you close the diaphragm less light is passed through.

The relationship between aperture, F-stop, and depth of field (DoF)

The aperture on lenses meant for photography is written in F-stops. The ‘F’ stands for ‘focal length’.

Lenses for photography are the most common for entry-level and prosumer videographers (I use them myself all the time), so I’m going to focus on these types of lenses here.

The F-stop is a theoretical value that designates the relationship between the lens diameter and length.

You can set the aperture to a number of predefined steps – the ‘stops’, which is written as f/X.X.

E.g., a row of F-stops can look like this: f/1.4, f/2.0, f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0, f/11, f/16, and f/22.

The smaller the f-stop number, the more light is let through the aperture. E.g., f/1.4 lets in lots of light, and f/22 doesn’t let in much light.

How F-stops are connected to the depth of field (DoF)

The F-stop influences the depth-of-field. The DoF is the area around the plane of focus in which the image appears acceptably sharp.

At f/1.4 you’ll see a clear separation between the foreground and the background, i.e. either the foreground or the background is in focus. This is known as a shallow depth-of-field.

Shallow depth-of-field nyhavn copenhagen
Shallow depth-of-field in Nyhavn in Copenhagen
© Jan Sørup

At f/22 you’ll see no clear separation between the foreground and the background, i.e., both the foreground and the background are in focus. This is known as a deep depth-of-field.

Deep depth of field. Shot at 140 mm at f/18 on a micro four-thirds sensor. A photo I took in Southern Spain in the Sierra Nevada National Park. The castle is La Calahorra, which has been featured in numerous films. The latest one (that I’m aware of) is the movie Assassin Creed from 2016, where the opening scene is in La Calahorra
© Jan Sørup

This is a simplified explanation, of course, because the DoF also depends on the focal length of your lens, and how close you are to your subject.

For example, at 24 mm at f/2.8, I need to get much closer to my subject in order to get at shallow DoF, than I need to at 150 mm at the same F-stop.

On manual lenses, the f-stops are set on the lens itself, whereas on automatic lenses, the f-stops can be controlled in the camera.

How the diaphragm of a camera lens affects the bokeh

The diaphragm in a camera lens is made up of a series of blades that can be either rounded or straight.

The number of blades varies from lens to lens. On cheaper lenses, it is common to find 5 or 6 blades. On professional camera lenses, it is common to find 9 blades. But I’ve seen lenses with both 14 and 17 blades!

The number of blades combined with their shapes has a big effect on how the bokeh will appear.

What is bokeh?


Bokeh balls in the background. Screengrab from a low light test I did in Copenhagen a while back © Jan Sørup

Bokeh is a name for how a lens aesthetically renders the out-of-focus parts of an image.

How a lens renders bokeh becomes apparent when you look at out-of-focus lights, which result in bokeh balls.

High-quality lenses often have bokeh balls that are round and very smooth looking. Cheaper lenses might have bokeh balls, which is skewed.

Sometimes you can even count the number of blades of the diaphragm because you can see the edges of the aperture shaping the bokeh.

That’s not to say, that you can get cheap lenses, which produce nice round bokeh too though.

For some people, perfectly round bokeh is a must in a high-quality lens. But bokeh is so much more than just bokeh balls.

Personally, I don’t think one type of bokeh is better than other types.

Actually, when I see shots taken with some very expensive high-end lenses, which produce perfectly round bokeh balls and a silky smooth background, I find it to be too much.

I prefer a bit of grit in my blurred backgrounds.

A quick note on some of the main differences between cinema lenses and photography lenses

Cinema lenses are a bit different from photography lenses.

First, cinema lenses come with gears on the outside, which are meant for manually pulling focus.

TIP: You can buy cheap cinema gears, which will make it possible to manually pull focus on photography lenses.

Second, cinema lenses are often parfocal, which means they will keep focus even as you zoom in or out of a frame.

Third, cinema lenses often have de-clicked apertures, so you can smoothly control the amount of light, you want to let through.

Fourth, cinema lenses have a huge throw on the focus rings, so you can dial in your focus very precisely.

Fifth, the aperture on cinema lenses is written in T-stops. The ‘T’ stands for ‘transmission’.

T-stop is a tested value of how much light, the lens actually lets through the aperture, through the optics, and all the way to the sensor.

All the glass in a lens will hinder a little bit of light. It is actually physically impossible to have a 100 percent transmission through the optics of a lens.

The T-stop can actually differ from the F-stop by quite a bit and vary from lens to lens.

For example, one lens with an F-stop of 2.8, might have a T-stop of 3.1, while a similar lens with an F-stop of 2.8 from another manufacturer might have a T-stop of 3.4. The first lens will actually let more light through to the sensor even though, they share the same F-stop number.

For photography, this is no big deal because you can compensate for variances in post-production.

But if you’re working on a large-scale production with multiple cameras, in different lighting conditions over multiple days, these numbers matter when you have to match all the footage in post.

Sixth, some cinema lenses are anamorphic, which is renders nice elongated bokeh and gives the footage a distinct look.

Because of the extra testing and technology involved in producing cinema lenses, these are in general more expensive compared to their photographic counterparts.

Read more about the differences between cine lenses and photography lenses in Why are cine lenses so expensive?

Shutter speed

Shutter speed

The shutter speed in a camera is the amount of time the camera lets light travel to the sensor for each photo or frame of a film.

The shutter speed is usually written as a fraction of a second when the shutter speed is less than one second. Short shutter speeds are referred to as short exposures.

If the shutter speed is more than one second it is written in seconds. Long shutter speeds are referred to as long exposures.

For example, the shutter speed can be written as 1/25, 1/100, or 1/5000 for times less than one second. Or it can be written as 1″, 5″, or 30″ for times higher than one second.

Very short shutter speeds make it possible to freeze the time in a frame.

Here I used a shutter speed of 1/12800 to freeze the water droplets in the air
© Jan Sørup

Long exposures let in lots of light and make it possible to shoot in low-light conditions. Long exposures also introduce motion blur – especially if your subject is moving a lot.

Motion blur can be desired or undesired depending on what it is you want to achieve.

An example of a long exposure photograph, I took at a train station in Copenhagen
© Jan Sørup

How to choose the correct shutter speed for video

The general rule of thumb is, that the shutter speed should be double the frame rate.

For example, if you’re using a frame rate of 24 frames per second (fps), the shutter speed should double that i.e. 1/48.

If your camera doesn’t let you choose 1/48, you should choose the number closest to it like 1/50.

By using a shutter speed that is double the frame rate you get a screen result, which mimics the way the human eye sees in real life.

Shutter speed vs shutter angle – which one should you choose and why?

Traditional cinema cameras don’t refer to the time interval when light is allowed through to the sensor as shutter speed.

Instead, on traditional cinema cameras, you’ll find the term shutter angle instead.

On some digital cameras, you can choose whether you prefer shutter speed or shutter angle.

The general rule of thumb is, that the shutter angle should be set to 180 degrees which corresponds to a shutter speed that is set to double the frame rate.

The benefit of using a shutter angle of 180 degrees instead of shutter speed is, that the camera will automatically adjust the exposure time to your frame rate.

In other words, with a shutter angle of 180 degrees, your exposure time (shutter speed when we think in terms of photography) will always be set to double your frame rate.

So whenever you change your frame rate during a shoot, your exposure will always follow – no need to set it manually each time like you will have to if you use the shutter speed.

However, if you come from a background in photography, it might take some time to get used to thinking in terms of angles instead of speed. Especially if you want to get creative.

Why shutter speed is tied to shutter angle

Sounds confusing? Here’s the explanation:

Today it is common to produce a video on digital cameras, and the terminology of using shutter speed has followed.

Traditional cinema cameras don’t use the curtain style – or focal-plane – shutters like DSLR cameras do. Instead, traditional cinema cameras use a rotary disc shutter – a semicircular disc – which spin and alternately allow and block light from getting through to the film.

Moviecam schematic animation

The disc can be adjusted to certain angles (using more or less of the semicircular disc) to change the exposure time of each frame. Just like when you change the shutter speed on a digital camera.

Source: Wikipedia user Plowboylifestyle

When the disc is adjusted to 180-degrees it will let light through to the film for half the time period of each frame.

For example, if you shoot at 25 fps, each frame takes 0.04 seconds. When the shutter angle is set to 180-degrees it will let light through for 0.02 seconds for each frame. An exposure time of 0.02 seconds equates exactly to 1/50 of a second.

In other words, that’s why you should double the shutter speed of your frame rate if you’re going for that cinematic look, we’ve grown accustomed to.

It is possible on some digital cameras to switch between shutter speed and shutter angle.

Break the rules with shutter speed/angle and frame rates

While it is good practice to use a shutter angle of 180 degrees or a shutter speed that is double the frame rate, it is also a rule which is meant to be broken.

In fact, sometimes it is necessary to break it in order to get usable footage.

For example, if you’re filming in a public space with lots of LED screens running ads or other types of information, your frame rate and shutter speed/angle combination might cause a lot of flickering in the footage.

Unfortunately, producers of LED screens for ads and LED bulbs for household usage don’t think about us poor video producers when they make their products.

That’s why when you buy LED panels for video production, you should always make sure, that they are flicker-free.

When you’re dealing with a lot of flickering from LED screens or LED bulbs it is necessary to tweak the settings a bit in order to get usable footage.

Shutter speeds/angles can also be used in a more creative way. For example, maybe you want to shoot footage with lots of motion blur. In that case, you should go for longer shutter speeds/wider shutter angles.

My advice is to get creative and see how different combinations of shutter speeds/angles and frame rates render the footage.

ISO

ISO and digital noise
The higher the ISO, the more digital noise is introduced into your footage.

In digital cameras, ISO is used to digitally enhance the brightness of your footage after the light has passed through the lens and hit the sensor but before it is converted from analog to digital signal.

In essence, ISO is a digital gain of the analog signal coming from the sensor.

New high-end mirrorless cameras get usable results for still photography all the way ISO up to ISO 51200. But a camera such as the Sony a7iii is cable to shoot in an ISO range of 50-204,800.

At such high ISO settings, it is possible to see in the dark but the noise levels make the footage extremely grainy.

The higher the ISO value, the more brightness is introduced.

Higher ISO values equal more digital noise.

For example, let’s say that you are shooting a scene in low-light where extra lighting isn’t an option.

You’ve opened the aperture as much as you can. You’ve also decreased the shutter speed to let as much light as possible hit the sensor without any motion blur. But still, your scene is coming up too dark.

Now you have the option is to increase the ISO. But if you boost the signal too much, you’ll also introduce digital noise to your image.

Native ISO

Digital cameras come with a “base ISO” or “native ISO” – whichever you prefer.

The base ISO is the level where the camera has the highest signal-to-noise ratio i.e. where your footage will come out the cleanest in terms of noise – that is if your scene is properly exposed. And that is a big if because conditions are rarely ideal.

The native ISO varies from camera to camera and even in different recording modes. E.g. the native ISO of the ARRI Alexa Mini is 800. The same goes for the RED Scarlet. The Panasonic GH5 has a native ISO of 400. The native ISO for Sony a7S II when shooting in 4K, but 3,200 when shooting in FullHD.

Dual Native ISO

Some cameras have dual native ISO. This means that they have two separate circuits running from the sensor. In essence, this means, that there are two optimal settings for the camera.

For example, the Panasonic GH5S has a dual native ISO of 400 and 2,500.

When you boost the signals you start to increase the ISO up from ISO 400 you also increase the noise. But when you hit ISO 2,500 the noise disappears again as the second circuit takes over.

Because the noise floor is reset once you hit ISO 2,500 the camera is able to take more usable footage even in low-light situations.

Don’t (always) blame the ISO for a noisy image

Keep in mind, that ISO isn’t the only factor when it comes to noise. The sensor size also plays a crucial role.

Bigger sensors allow for more light to be captured in each frame which in turn leads to less noise than small sensors.

A full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera will generally produce less noisy images at the same ISO than a micro 4/3 sensor camera.

In photography, you can use techniques such as photo stacking and long-exposures, (up to 30 seconds or more), and still shoot at a fairly low ISO and get good results.

In video production, we’re can’t utilize the same techniques. Instead, we’re limited by the relationship between frame rate and shutter speed/angle
– at least to some extent – if we want to get natural-looking movements in our film.

If your scene is underexposed and you can’t add more lights, crank up the aperture or change the shutter speed, then it is better to increase the ISO instead of capturing underexposed footage.

The noise you create through ISO in order to get a good exposure during recording (shot noise) will always be less than the noise you get from trying to correct underexposed footage in post-production (read noise).

This is because ISO works by boosting the analog signal from the sensor before it is transformed into digital. Boosting an analog signal is less noisy than boosting the digitally stored footage.

The exposure triangle

The aperture, shutter speed, and ISO make up the exposure triangle.


The Exposure Triangle © Jan Sørup

The exposure triangle shows the interrelationship between aperture, shutter, and ISO in a graphical way.

One of the things it shows is that there is more than one way to achieve a brighter, less noisy image in-camera. However, every change you make will affect the image in some way or the other.

Also, when you’re working with video the shutter speed/angle is often limited to being double the frame rate (e.g. set to 1/50, or 1/60 of a second if you’re not filming slow-motion footage). This only leaves you with the ISO and the aperture to play with.

White balance

You access the White Balance settings on your camera by pressing the WB button

The purpose of white balance is to display any white objects in a scene as white.

Setting the right white balance is crucial if you want to display the correct colors as close to how we perceive them with our eyes.

White balance is also important if you want to match several hours of video footage taken at different times and locations to look the same in terms of color balance.

Sounds easy, right? I mean, white is white.

The problem is that white looks different under different lighting conditions.

For example, if you take a white t-shirt and place it under candlelight, the t-shirt will have an orange tint. If you take the same t-shirt and place it under a fluorescent light, it will look bluish.

Different types of lights have different color temperatures which are measured in Kelvin.

White balance color temperature film video production

For example, a candle will give off an almost orange light and has a color temperature of around 1,000-2,000 Kelvin.

Regular tungsten bulbs shine with yellow light and have a color temperature of 2600-3600 Kelvin.

Normal daylight has a color temperature around 5500-5600 Kelvin whereas a bright clear blue sky can have a cold color temperature all the way up to 15,000 Kelvin.

You can read more about natural light and lighting setups for video here.

How to choose the right white balance settings in your camera

The white balance setting in your camera is there to help you overcome the challenges of colors appearing differently under varying lighting conditions.

You access the white balance settings on your camera by pressing the button labeled WB.

How you dial in the white balance influences the colors in your video production.

You need to set the white balance so that it corresponds to the surrounding light of the scene you’re filming.

Keep in mind, that setting the “correct” white balance here refers to getting back to a neutral state of white. There are a lot of times, where you don’t want that, but you instead want a certain tone or color to your image. I’ll get back to that in a second.

It should also be noted, that no two brands of cameras are created alike. One brand might set the daylight preset to 5600 K, where another will set it to 5900 Kelvin.

Auto white balance

Most beginners set the white balance to “auto”.

The problem with this approach is, that if the light suddenly changes in your scene, e.g. if a cloud blocks out the sun or you move around a lot in the scene, the light can change rapidly.

If you film under mixed lighting conditions the camera can also have a hard time figuring out the right white balance.

The camera will continuously try to match the changes in lighting by adjusting the white balance automatically. The result is, that you will end up with footage that changes colors all the time.

Auto white balance presets

Auto white balance presets. From left to right: Auto, Cloudy, sunny/daylight, fluorescent, tungsten.

The next best thing is to take advantage of the auto white balance presets in your camera.

The presets are dialed in, so they match the corresponding color temperature in Kelvin.

For example, the tungsten setting will tell the camera that a white t-shirt appears orange because it is filmed under warm lights at around 3200 Kelvin. That way, the t-shirt will actually show as white instead of orange on your final footage.

When you use a preset, the white balance setting in your camera will stay locked, which means you won’t end up with footage that changes colors every second.

The problem with this approach is, that the presets might not match the lighting conditions perfectly. So you’ll still have to do some minor color correction in post-production.

Custom white balance

The best way to set the right white balance is to adjust it manually.

Most professional cameras allow you to dial in the precise color temperature of the surroundings.

But how do you know what the color temperature of your surrounding environment is?

There are several ways you can go about this, and it is beyond the scope of this article to go into the fine details on this. And how precise you’re able to dial in the settings depends on your camera. You’ll have to dive into the manual of the camera and see what is possible and how you can do it.

Working in a controlled environment

If you have the luxury (who does?) of working in a controlled studio environment, you can dial in the exact temperature on your lights.

So if you set your lights to e.g. 5600 K, then you simply set the white balance on your camera to 5600 K as well. And voila! Perfect white balance.

Now you just need to find a studio with no windows where you can control all the lighting.

Use a white card

By using white, grey, and black cards, like the ones pictured above, you can make sure you have a common reference point for e.g. white in all your shots.

You have your subject hold up the white card before each change of scene or lighting. When you come to the editing phase, you can use a tool like the “white balance picker” in Adobe Premiere Pro to quickly choose the white in the scene by simply clicking on the white card in your footage.

Use a grey card

The grey card can also be used for setting the white balance.

A grey card is usually 18% grey (in reality, though, there are slight variations depending on which card you buy).

The reason for this is, that digital images are made by using varying amounts of Red, Green, and Blue (RGB).

An equal amount of each of the three colors results in grey.

Both white and black are just shades of grey.

White is RGB=255, 255, 255
A shade of dark grey is RGB=180,180,180
Middle grey (18%) is RGB=50,50,50
A shade of dark grey is RGB=15,15,15
Black is R=0, G=0, B=0

You take a picture of the grey card under the lighting conditions you’re going to film in.

It is good practice to make sure that the grey card always fills the whole frame, so the camera doesn’t get confused by other colors in your scene.

Make sure the card is in focus to avoid any blur of colors. Switch to manual focus if necessary.

Now go into your camera’s menu setting and choose set custom white balance. Then choose the photo and tell the camera to set the white balance from this photo.

Every camera is different, but the principle remains the same. Some cameras even allow picking the grey card area in the photo if you weren’t able to make the card take up the whole frame.

The grey card is also helpful for setting the right exposure, e.g., if you shoot in LOG. But that is a topic for another article.

The black card is a remnant of the past and is rarely used these days. I’ve never found any use for it myself.

Use a color checker passport

Another way to set a white balance is to use a color-checker passport.

A color checker passport includes different shades of grey and also white and middle grey. So you can use the principles explained above.

But a color-checker passport also lets you keep track of how a lot of other colors appear under different lighting conditions. This is useful for color correction and color grading in post-production.

Get creative with white balance

Here I had some fun with the white balance on my Samsung Galaxy S10e. I took a series of photos a few seconds apart with a different white balance each time.

The last photo (bottom right corner) is an HDR created by layering three photos together.

This example shows how you can drastically change the look and feel of a photo/video simply by getting creative with the white balance in the camera.

This is useful fx if you want to shoot an interior scene with moonlight coming through the windows – but you have to shoot it during the day when the sun is out. By simply choosing a tungsten setting (3200 K), the sunlight coming through the windows will have bluish look to it – like moonlight.

Don’t be afraid to move away from the correct way and use a white balance setting in a creative way.

There are a lot of times where you don’t want that neutral look. Instead, you want to keep that warm orange or cold bluish tint.

You can also deliberately completely change the look and feel of a scene with white balance.

For example, you can choose a tungsten setting (3200 Kelvin) under normal daylight to get a bluish image. Or you can use a cloudy/shade white balance (6,500+ Kelvin) during the golden hour just after sunset to really enhance those golden colors.

Also keep in mind, when shooting video if you’re moving around a lot in a mixed lighting environment, your color temperature will change all the time. In that sense, there’s is no “correct” way to set the color balance. Use your eyes and judgment.

I hope this guide has been a help to get you started shooting video on your camera? Let me know if there is anything that needs improvement or further explanation – either here or in a separate article.


About the author:

Jan Sørup is a videographer and photographer from Denmark. He’s the owner of filmdaft.com and of the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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