I firmly believe in following checklists when performing complex tasks under pressure and when working under tight deadlines. Pilots follow safety checklists before take off, and surgeons use checklists in the operating room. There’s no reason why shouldn’t use them, too.

So here’s a short camera checklist you can use each time you go out to shoot video for a news story. Do everything in the order listed. It doesn’t matter which type of camera you’re using. The list is short and real easy to remember. Just use the acronym…..

SWEFF, which stands for:

Sound – check mic connections and mic placement, then check audio levels (while wearing headphones!)

White Balance – set up lights and check the camera to make sure that colors appear “true.” Perform a manual white balance if needed.

Exposure – check the brightness and contrast of your shot, adjust the shutter/aperture/ISO to get proper exposure on your subject.

Focus – use manual controls to make sure your subject is in focus (zoom in on the target, adjust the focus controls so subject is sharply in focus, zoom out)

Framing – check the framing of the shot, follow basic video aesthetics (proper headroom, leadroom, lookroom, etc.) to compose the shot. Use the appropriate camera angle and field of view (CU, MS, WS, etc.) for each shot.

Why this order? The most important and technically complex task is at the top. If you’re getting good sound, you’ve accomplished a lot. If not, you should make adjustments before moving on to the visual aspects of the shot. Gorgeous video is great, but your story depends on good audio. Deal with that first!

Try to commit this checklist to memory. Learn it and understand it, then do each task in order, over and over, so the process seeps into your muscle memory. The goal is to be able to roll through each item without having to stop and think about what to do next. It should eventually be like brushing your teeth in the morning. You probably don’t have to stop and think about each step after waking up. It’s not like you say, “hey, I just put toothpaste on the brush, what do I do next?” You just brush your teeth automatically, giving your brain a chance to plan the day or think creative thoughts.

Make SWEFF a part of your everyday routine. You’ll be able to quickly set up shots without missing an important step. And, at the same time, you’ll be able to devote more of your mental energy to thinking about the content of the story.

Hat tip to the BBC for this list. I was reading through one of their old documents and learned that they used something similar for training their video journalists.

Helpful Shooting Tips
After running through the SWEFF checklist, you can turn your attention to the key story elements you need to capture with your camcorder. Here are some useful guidelines…

for shooting interviews:

  • ALWAYS use proper lighting indoors. That means light kits and/or portable, on-camera lights. No excuse for poor exposure!
  • DON’T shoot indoor interviews in front of a bright window. It will kill your exposure.
  • Use the sun as your key light when shooting outdoors during the day.
  • The eyes are the window to the soul! Set camera focus on the eyes of your subject.
  • Ask questions that require a complete sentence to answer. Avoid yes or no questions.
  • Ask questions that evoke feelings, emotions and opinions rather than basic facts.
  • ALWAYS shoot an OTS shot and a reverse OTS shot after every interview.
  • Adjust framing during interviews. Use a variety of angles for your main sources’ SOTs.
  • Interview important sources in multiple locations if possible.
  • Shoot some “walking and talking” SOTs with important sources. Let them “show and tell” during the interview. Then go back and get extra close-up shots of things they talked about.

for shooting b-roll:

  • Remember: the camera IS the audience. Take the audience INTO the story. Let them see and hear the action from a variety of angles.
  • Hold steady for 10 seconds before and after making a pan/tilt/zoom move. Then you’ll have usable, steady shots if the pan/tilt/zoom doesn’t work.
  • Use your tripod as much as possible.
  • Keep your shots steady even when you have to ditch the tripod. Let the world be your tripod!
  • Shoot b-roll sequences with one good wide shot, a few medium shots, and lots of close-up shots. Move to a new position and repeat the process.
  • ALWAYS record natural sound when shooting b-roll. Focus on the audio as much as the video.
  • If shooting music performers, record at least one long take with a full song being played. It’ll be helpful when editing.
  • Use wireless lav mic to record natural sound of your main characters while they work or do other activities.
  • Faces tell stories. Capture compelling close ups of people.
  • Reaction shots are just as important as action shots.
  • Try to compose every shot like a still photograph (steady and well-framed). Let the movement flow into and through the shot rather than the camera being the source of movement.
  • Make sure you have an opening and closing shot for your story.
  • Anticipate genuine moments and be ready to capture them.
  • Monitor your sound, ALWAYS.
  • Shoot tight shots with good natural sound for transitions.