Basic Guide to the Flip
This document is a guide to the use of the Flip video camera and similar miniature camcorders.
It is assumed that the reader of this document has read the Introduction to Digital Video, the Basic Guide to Shooting Video and Audio/Video Production: Recording Lectures, Seminars and Events.
The phenomenal success of the Flip camera and similar miniature video cameras has had a significant impact in the educational sector. Its portability combined with its ease of use and one to two hour recording time mean that it is being used to record lectures, presentations and discussions which can then immediately be played back or posted on the web.
A lot of videos shot in this manner look, to put it bluntly, awful. This is not due to a problem with the camera. Rather, it is because there are certain things which, while always of some importance on any camera, become absolutely vital when using a miniature camera. With a little bit of knowledge and effort, the quality of these videos can be improved significantly. This document is intended to impart that knowledge so that the results won’t look “like they’ve been shot on a Flip” but rather, like good videos.
Note that in this document we will not reiterate advice given in other documents: the reader is assumed to have read the advice documents which relate to the task they are undertaking. We are solely concerned with the additional points that must be kept in mind when using miniature video cameras like the Flip.
Note too that while this document looks at the specific features of the Flip, its advice can just as easily be applied to any miniature camcorder.
While the original Flip Ultra takes two AA batteries, the newer version and the Ultra HD can use a rechargeable battery pack. The Mino and Mino HD have an internal, non-removable rechargeable battery. Whatever the power source, it is important to ensure that the battery in your camera is fully charged. In the case of a camera using AA batteries, be sure to bring spares; you might consider bringing a fully-charged spare battery pack if your camera takes those. Remember, while it is possible to run the newer cameras directly from the power adaptor, you cannot ensure that you will be near a mains supply.
The need for a full charge is particularly important for the HD versions of the Flip as they consume significantly more power when they are running.
You should also ensure that your camera has enough record time; it’s good practice to download all files from your camera regularly so that you have the maximum record time available whenever you use the Flip. Remember that shooting an event can take a lot longer than you anticipate. In addition, you may realise that you need to do additional recording when you are at the event. Having 5 minutes of spare recording time in your camera isn’t a problem; having 5 seconds too little is.
Bring a tripod, and not a flimsy one. The single most common problem with videos shot on a miniature camera is a wobbly picture. It is no easier to hold a miniature camera still than it is a big one; in fact it’s arguably harder, as with a miniature camera it’s often hard to notice that you’re wobbling it. If it is at all possible, always use a tripod. If a tripod is impractical or unavailable, use a monopod, a mini-tripod or a Gorillapod. If they are unavailable, use a beanbag or jacket or some other thing that the camera can be steadied with. And if those are unavailable, consider using a table or a wall.
If you have input into the location of the shoot and the clothes the subject or subjects are wearing, use it. What the viewer sees in the finished video necessarily affects how they interpret the content of the video, and a video full of cluttered or confusing or inappropriate visuals will have a corresponding impact on that video’s effectiveness.
As mentioned above, one of the most important things you can do to improve the quality of your video work is to steady the camera. Obviously a tripod or other steadying device is best, but failing that, find a way to brace yourself and use both hands to hold the camera steady. Not only will you hold the camera more steadily, but you will restrict your ability to unconsciously add camera movement and your arms won’t get tired as quickly. (For more about steadying a camera with or without a tripod, see the Basic Guide to Shooting Video.)
Note that a steady camera is not the same as a static camera. Panning the camera can provide a very professional look to your video work – provided it is done smoothly, and this is done best with a tripod with a fluid head. Remember, however, not to add such movement gratuitously: camera movement should be there for a reason.
The Flip camera, like all cameras that don’t have the ability to focus, has a very wide angle lens. This is because the great depth of field of a wide angle lens means that practically everything you shoot will always be in focus. Note, however, the word ’practically’ in the above sentence. In actual fact, the Flip Ultra cannot take sharp images of objects less than 0.8m from the camera; for the Mino the minimum distance is 1.0m and for the two HD cameras no sharp images can be taken at a distance of less than 1.5m. These distance are fixed and cannot be changed: never video something less than this distance from the camera.
The fact that everything in shot is sharp means that everything in shot will be noticed. It is a standard technique in both still photography and moving images to draw the viewer’s attention to something by using a narrow depth of field to make other things in the frame out of focus. Because this is not possible with the Flip you should be particularly careful to ensure that the image you capture is free of distracting, inappropriate or confusing elements.
The Flip has, like all modern camcorders, autoexposure. Unlike most modern camcorders, it has no facility to override the autoexposure. As a result you should think carefully about the lighting in your shots. A subject appearing in shot with a much brighter object such as a bright window or a projected image on a screen will appear as a silhouette. A subject lit much the same as the background will not stand out from the background: this is particularly problematic with the Flip’s wide angle lens. If possible, give your subject a bit more light than the background.
Experiment with the lighting if you are able before you shoot. Even without proper lighting equipment, the image quality can often be improved simply by turning a light switch or closing a pair of curtains.
The way you frame your images naturally has a great effect on the quality of your video. One other characteristic of very wide angle lenses is that they make all but the closest objects very small in the frame. This of course has its uses, but in general you should be trying to keep the objects in the frame large. If possible, try to shoot closer rather than further from objects. Perhaps the most common difference between video shot by untrained amateurs and by professionals is the size of the subject in the shot: professional video has many more close-ups.
There is the temptation with a small camera like the Flip to rotate the camera to fit things into the shot. This is a legitimate cinematic technique sometimes used to give an expressionistic feel to a film; however, it is not recommended for the Flip. Rotated images will generally look at best confusing and at worse clumsy. Keeping your camera upright and steady is the best policy.
If you need to shoot a television or computer monitor, do not shoot a CRT. If you do your image will have either a rolling or an intermittent stationary black bar on it, depending on the refresh rate of the CRT. Take the TV or computer images from an LCD or plasma screen – or even shoot a projected image on a wall screen.
The Flip’s weakest point is undoubtedly the absence of a socket for connecting an external microphone. Sound is generally more important than image in a video and the Flip’s microphone, while perfectly adequate, could easily be improved upon if an external mic could be used. More importantly, the optimum camera position for a good image (far enough back to see everything) is not the optimum position for good sound (very close up), so your sound will generally suffer.
There are a few things you can do to improve the sound. If you can, make sure that the recording is made in an acoustically favourable location: somewhere quiet where there is no noise leaking in from outside and which doesn’t have a lot of echo. If possible, make sure that you and your subject and everyone else has switched off their mobile phones. Make sure that the only person talking during the recording is the person you want to hear. Finally, where you have a choice, try to shoot closer to the subject – but not too close: remember the minimum distance for a sharp image as described above.
The quality of a video can always be improved by editing the footage you have shot. If you intend to do this remember to shoot more rather than less: start shots early and end them late, and be sure to take extra footage for cutaways.
If you are not going to edit your footage you should take the opposite approach: since everything you shoot is going to be seen, try not to shoot any more than is required. On some camcorders you can perform limited editing in-camera by starting and stopping the camera between shots. This is not really feasible on the Flip because it only plays back one shot at a time: to approximate an edited video it would be necessary to be continually advancing to the next shot and playing it. As a result, your videos will be a single shot and, as such, will benefit from advance planning. Think about what you need to shoot and when. Come up with a scheme that will allow you to capture everything you need to capture smoothly and efficiently.
The following video illustrates the steps that can be taken to improve a video shot with a pocket camcorder.
Please use this link if you can't see the video above or to open the file in a new window.
There are a number of other things you can do to improve the quality of your videos which can be found in the documents relevant to the particular type of shoot you are working on. Look at the Basic Guide to Videoing Lectures, the Basic Guide to Videoing Interviews or the Basic Guide to Videoing Groups.
While the video produced by the Flip and similar miniature camcorders is never going to challenge that produced by professional or even prosumer equipment, quite reasonable results can be obtained with a little preparation and a little care. Preparing the venue, both in terms of lighting and audio, and thinking about how you use the camera, particularly how you hold it, where you place it and how you frame the images, will enable you to get the most out of these handy and inexpensive cameras.