9 Actions You Can Take Now to Improve Your Video Quality
High-quality video: it’s crisp, clean, and beautiful. When you’re watching it, it grabs your attention and sucks you right in. But achieving high levels of video quality can be difficult. Boosting video quality involves questions of equipment, but also lighting, color, scene, and more. It’s just as much art as science.
In this blog post, we’ll introduce you to some of the main elements that effect the quality of video recordings. In each section, we’ll describe a few ways to leverage better equipment or a different approach to maximize the quality of the final output. After reading this blog, you should have some great ideas for how to make your videos look better.
1. Light Deliberately
In video as in photography, light is everything. All that you are capturing when you record video is light reflecting off objects (and people). Light is the essence of the recording. As such, “good lighting” can make a boring scene interesting, while “bad lighting” can ruin content that would otherwise be excellent.
Light Communicates Information
Generally, good lighting helps communicate. In a simple interview, this communication could simply entail being able to see the expressions the person being interviewed is making. If you can’t read their facial expression because of poor lighting, critical information could be lost.
On the other hand, a concert or music show might use strobes, colored lights, and other such devices to create excitement and rhythm in the viewers. Imagine watching a rock band headbanging under flat, office-style lighting. It would look pretty ridiculous, right? The lighting sets the scene.
In a drama, contrast between well-lit areas of the scene and dark areas is often used to create visual tension. For example, imagine a policeman interviewing a suspect in a jail cell; they point the lamp at the face of the suspect, and the background remains in dark shadow. It wouldn’t be very intimidating or dramatic is there was warm sunshine coming in a wide bay window.
Similarly, a romantic scene in a movie may use warm colors and reddish orange hues to communicate feelings about love or lust. Blue light tends to convey a cold, institutional feeling—perhaps appropriate for a shot inside a prison or a sad scene.
Even in a short broadcast or a live stream, color can tinge the emotional takeaway for the viewers. Businesses may want to encourage a certain image, and use color and lighting to help them do so. Consider Apple, for example. Their product ads and video always feature the color white, well-lit subjects, and clean backgrounds. It conveys certain values—simplicity, ease of use, transparency—that they value in their business model.
Lighting for Beginners
Even newcomers to video recording can use light effectively and in simple ways to improve their video quality. The most important element is, perhaps, quantity of light. Too little light will often make your camera use higher ISO settings (commonly called ASA or Gain), which increase the amount of grain in your video. This can lower perceived quality.
Another quick fix to improve lighting and thus video quality is to make sure that all the lights used in your video match in color. Almost all light sources have a color cast to them—they’re not pure white. This can be fine if all the lights are the same—simple corrections can be applied (and often are automatically by your camera) to make colors look natural.
But as soon as you begin to mix and match different light sources in the same video, color correct becomes very difficult. You may have one side of your subject’s face slightly blue-tinted, while the other side is yellow. This can be used for creative effect, but for beginners it’s usually better to control this effect before you attempt to use it.
2. Consider the Background
To improve video quality, you should also consider what else is in your shot besides your subject. As one obvious example, it’s a bad practice to shoot against a very bright background. This will usually either result in a blown out background (which reduces image quality all around the frame) or an underexposed subject that’s too dark to be useful.
The actual content of the background can be important to your shot, as well. Often, you should use the background (and foreground) to add more information to the scene. For example, if you’re filming a documentary and interviewing a professor, you may want to record them in their office, surrounded by books. If you’re recording a religious person, you should consider using the background of a house of worship.
Generally simple, clean backgrounds that convey some contextual information about the subject of the shot can add a great deal to video quality.
3. Stabilize (and Move) the Camera
One of the single biggest detriments to video quality is excessive camera movement. You know what we’re talking about: that home-video camera shake that makes you feel sick to your stomach. It’s a sure sign of an amateur production, and can ruin an otherwise quality recording.
The simplest way to solve this issue is to use a tripod—always. However, that won’t always be possible. For scenes that require camera movement, consider the tools used by video professionals, such as cranes, dollies, and tracks. These tools can provide sweeping or panning motion to a shot while the camera remains rock-solid.
Another option for shots that require a lot of motion is a Steadicam or some variant. These tools provide a counterbalance system that allows an experienced operator to carry a camera around a space, up stairs, around obstacles, and so on without shaking. These tools are ideal for many live streamed events.
4. Use Quality Lenses and Cameras
The biggest technical factor effecting the quality of a video may be the lens. Professionals understand this and invest is quality “glass” for their cameras. High-quality lenses cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, but simply deliver a better result that cheap lenses do. All other factors being equal, a better lens will produce a better result.
Many consumer and prosumer level cameras do not accept interchangeable lenses, but instead feature a single fixed lens. This usually represents a disadvantage, though some of these lenses are good quality.
Similarly, the quality of the camera you are using will also have an important impact on the quality of your final video. Generally, more expensive camera will produce videos with more accurate, rich colors, better definition and resolution, improved contrast, and sharper focus. Better cameras also tend to produce much better results in low-light situations.
5. Achieve Magical Bokeh
One element of beautiful video in our culture is what is known as “bokeh,” or depth of field. This refers to the quality of the “out of focus” areas of the image or video. The quality of bokeh depends on the lens that is being used and the size of the image sensor in your camera.
All other factors being equal, a lens that allows more light inside (has a larger aperture or T-stop), a lens that has a longer focal length (or a “higher zoom”), or a camera that has a larger sensor will produce out of focus areas that look more blurred. This is generally considered to be an aesthetic and desirable quality. If you want better bokeh, consider one of those factors.
However, bokeh isn’t everything. There are plenty of video recording situations in which you actually want depth of field—you want your viewer to be able to focus on anything. A good example is a concert. If you can only get one member of the band in focus at once, that won’t result in a very good recording, will it? It’ll seem like you’re forcing the viewers to focus only on one person at a time.
Bokeh, or depth of field, should be thought of as a tool that you can use to produce a beautiful video and focus the audiences attention where you want.
6. Use Filters
There are few video recording situations in which the use of a filter can make or break the quality of your video. For example, when you’re experiencing strong reflections of filming during a bright sunny day, the use of a polarizing filter can cut reflected light and make the sky a deep shade of pleasing blue. No amount of post production or other changes can make the scene look quite as good.
There are a variety of other filters that can be useful for various video shoots. These include ND (or Neutral Density) filters—which reduce the intensity of all light and allow for slower shutters speeds and wider apertures in bright conditions. Another example is the split or graduated ND filter, which allows you to reduce the brightness in a portion of the scene (often an overly bright sky) while leaving the rest of the scene unchanged.
7. Capture Good Sound
Ironically, sound is an essential element in video quality. Audiences simply won’t tolerate watching a video with poor sound quality, even if the video itself is fantastic. This is reflective of human nature: just as we are visual creatures, we are also auditory ones. Humans have great hearing, and a bad-quality recording just sounds a lot worse than a high-quality one.
Check out the samples on the NPR article for an example of just how dramatic the difference can be. And keep in mind—all those recordings were taken using professional-grade equipment in a studio setting.
To improve your audio quality, you can go through a multi-step process. First, choose a location with soft surroundings and lots of furniture to avoid echoing noise. Next, ensure that refrigerators and other large machinery and sources of background noise are turned off or otherwise minimized. Next, make sure you’re recording at the correct volume.
Next, you should consider equipment. The built-in microphone on most cameras is relatively low quality, so consider an omni-directional mic, shotgun mic, or external audio recorder. All of these options will result in much better sound that you would likely otherwise capture.
The final step in improving audio quality is to take test recordings and listen to them, very carefully, using a pair of studio-grade headphones or speakers. Listen for problems, and try to isolate and eliminate the source. Then, you’ll be ready to record quality audio.
8. Use Correct Camera Settings
The settings you choose on your camera will also have an impact on the quality of the video you produce. While different cameras have vastly different settings and menus, these are some of the items you should consider.
ISO / ASA / Gain
As mentioned earlier, try to get this number as low as possible (unless you’re deliberately cultivating a grainy, film noire look). Higher settings should be used rarely, if ever.
Generally your shutter speed should be no more than the inverse of double your frame rate. If you’re filming at 30 FPS, your shutter speed should be no higher than 1/60th of a second. Even better would be to stick with 1/30th of a second. Too high can produce a stuttery, strange appearance.
Make sure the white balance is set properly to match the color temperature of the light in your scene.
The aperture of T-stop your lens is set to will impact the quality of the image that is produced. Generally, a wide open aperture (a lower number) will produce more bokeh, but may lower image quality—especially in the corners of the image. Often, mid-range apertures like f/5.6, f/8, and f/11 will produce the sharpest possible image.
How many times have filmmakers captured a critical scene, only to realize later on that they were out of focus? Our guess is millions. Be sure to double check your focus before (and during) every shot. Out of focus video is usually worthless.
9. Choose Efficient Compression Settings
Finally, there are a number of elements related to video compression that are especially important for videos that will be hosted on live streaming or on-demand video platforms like DaCast. In these cases, video compression is essential, but the wrong settings can ruin quality.
The most important compression settings related to quality are bit rate and resolution (or frame size). Resolution simply determines the size of your compressed output—often 240p, 360p, 480p, 720p, or 1080p. Bit rate is a measurement of how much data per second will be delivered by your video.
These two settings are independent, but work in dynamic equilibrium to determine the final quality of your video. For example, you may choose to record in 1080p full HD, but your internet speeds may not be enough to stream video at that quality. If you were to do so you’d have to choose a very low bit rate for that frame size, which would result in a pixelated, grainy image.
In this case, choosing to output 720p HD video at the same bit rate would result in a better experience. In general, it’s better to provide a better quality video at a smaller frame size than to attempt to stream in higher resolution without enough bandwidth. That approach is asking for trouble.
You can learn more about compression and bandwidth here.
Putting the Pieces Together
As you can see, video quality is the result of a dynamic process with many different elements. Improving quality is often a process of elimination, assessing each element until you find the limiting factor. Hopefully this blog will help you in that process.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions about video quality or live streaming, let us know in the comments.