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Use the Power of Video to Supercharge Your Message

By Jay Black

Here’s a statistic that should take root in our brains: “Up to 56% of nonprofit followers take action, such as donating or volunteering, after seeing a compelling story from a nonprofit they follow on social media.” This is a fruit-bearing idea if we grasp it.

So we must learn to tell stories. Stories about our vision, about how we have brought about change, stories that spark people to action. The best, most pithy way to get your stories in front of the people who need to see those stories (donors, volunteers, etc.) is through video. IF … they’re done well.

Most likely you’ve seen many talking head videos that have as much creative energy as a tax return. They might have good stories, but visually they’re uninspiring, listless. Fortunately, you can learn simple techniques to use in a video of any budget to spark it to life. It helps to know these techniques so that, whether you’re creating the video yourself or hiring someone to do it; whether you’re using your cell phone or a professional camera, you can improve its quality. The tips we’ll cover in this blog all have to do with the background.

What’s in the Background?

The background of any shot in a video is, very nearly, as important as the subject. That’s because every element in a video frame delivers information, be it foreground or background. A well chosen background will create visual interest, “production value.”

The worst background is, most of the time, a flat wall of one color. It delivers no visual interest and says nothing about your video. In many amateur videos the background and the subject blend together, creating a muddy, lifeless image, for the following reasons:

  • the background and foreground are both in focus

  • they both have the same color scheme

  • they both have the same exposure value (the same amount of light).

This sameness creates a muddy, lifeless image. Depth and soft focus are two factors that diminish muddyness.

Soft Focus

Now, please take 1 minute and 19 seconds to watch the following video.

Notice that in every shot there is a lot of depth behind the subject, a lot of space behind her. Depth, of itself, can improve the appeal of an image. But, with the right lens choice, it also allows the background to be thrown into soft focus. And soft focus in the background creates a pleasing separation between the background and the subject.

Take time to find a location that will add texture and depth to your shots.

Earlier I mentioned “the right choice of lens” to create the soft focus background that doesn’t compete with the subject for visual attention. There’s not enough space here to write in depth about lenses, so I’ll break down the usual method of achieving a soft background into two easy steps for those shooting their own videos, whether on a professional video camera or on a phone.

  1. Move the subject far away from the background. Even if you’re inside an office, do everything you can to set your subject as far away from the background as possible.

  2. Move the camera far away from your subject and zoom in on them until you have good framing. When you zoom in you get a “long” lens that decreases the depth of field, and you should get a softer background. The longer the lens, the softer the background.

Color Difference

The next factor that prevents muddyness is the color difference between the background and the subject. Notice that the background in the following image is made mostly of gray scale colors (whites, grays and blacks), while her shirt is vibrant orange. This color difference further separates her from the background. If the background colors are too close to the colors of the subject … muddyness. No separation.

Beautiful Light

Again, there’s not enough space to write in depth about lighting. But, with a few good rules in your toolbox, you can make a dramatic difference. And for most social media videos, these are all you need.

Do your best to create a difference in the amount of light on the subject versus the background. This will further enhance that separation you want.

If you’re outdoors, do your best to not have the sun shine directly over your subject, creating harsh shadows, or racoon eyes. (Too much direct sunlight on a subject will cause them to squint, which usually isn’t flattering.) Either place your subject in the shade so the light on the face is evenly distributed, or shoot so that the sun is behind the subject, throwing the face into shadow. This can work nicely because the sun will create a natural backlight, rimming the hair and shoulders.

Notice how, in this indoor image, the subject's face is underexposed, not enough light compared to the background. ALWAYS expose the image for the subject; let the background go too bright or too dark if needed. It is for just such situations, though, that professional videographers bring lighting fixtures. Do your best to acquire some plug in light, even a work light from a hardware store, to get more light on your indoor subject when needed.

Clearly seeing the subject's face is paramount.

Notice how this video ends with a creative and amusing twist by having the background directly reflect the dialogue when she says, “Because there is hope,” and then she turns and the neon sign behind her has the word “Hope” in it. Nice job.

This video is certainly not perfect, but it has creative energy, and comes across very much like a well scripted elevator pitch. And they did a nice job of choosing their backgrounds.

Next time we will talk about how the videographer used whip pans as transitions, varied subject size for visual interest, and a moving subject for more energy. There is also more to say on the subject of light.

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