Nonprofit Film School Primer: Or, The Idealware School of Video for Nonprofits Who Don’t Video Good (Part 1)

As a species, we watch a lot of videos on our computers. Heck, being able to share short videos—a disproportionate number involving cats—helped make the internet so popular. You may even have been watching one just a few minutes ago. The rise of YouTube and other video sharing sites has made it possible for anyone to upload and share their own videos, and many nonprofits have jumped on board the video bandwagon without paying much thought to cost, equipment, or the experience needed to make videos worth watching.

Because we’re so saturated with movies, videos, and television, we know what looks good and what doesn’t. You don’t need to have a film school degree to make low-budget videos that don’t look low-budget. If you follow the basic principles of video production, and know how and when to use certain equipment, you can avoid such common mistakes as shaky video, poor lighting, inaudible audio, and boring scenes that make videos look amateurish and cut through the crowd of bad cat videos.

Over two posts, we’ll look at simple fixes to these common issues.

Part One: Improving Video Quality


The single easiest and cheapest way to improve a video is to use a tripod. Skilled camera operators can successfully shoot good-looking video without a tripod, but they have years of experience, special equipment (like Steadicams), and the physical stamina to carry a large camera for a substantial length of time. You don’t. A tripod will make your video steadier and spare your audience from headaches and motion-sickness.

Is there a time and place for shaky footage? Sure. Sometimes you have to shoot video at unexpected times, when you’re not prepared for it—at a political rally, for example. In “breaking news” situations, shaky footage can bring your audience into the energy and emotion of a scene, and help lend them legitimacy over a highly-produced video. Some of the most powerful videos have been shot simply with smartphones.


Your video is worthless if people can’t see it. Shadows make subjects difficult to see. The basic principle to learn here is “three-point lighting.” Basically, you have three sources of light: two from the front, called the key light and fill light, and one from the back, called the back light. The key light, your primary source of light, should go on your subject’s most visible side (if they’re looking to the left, the right side of their face gets the key light). The fill light gets the other side of the face, and the back light gets the back of their head.

andrei1.pngYou don’t really need complicated lighting for a simple video, but each additional light you use will improve the overall appearance. If you have the time or want to get artistic, play around with the angle of the lights—this can alter or improve the mood of your video.

Professional light kits can be expensive, and only make sense if you’re planning on shooting a lot of videos. For a low-budget way to improve your lighting, open the blinds—a window can provide plenty of free sunlight. The sun provides a nice warm (reddish or orange as opposed to bluish) light, which is flattering to just about everything. Because you’re at the mercy of the clouds, and the light could change in the middle of your scene, the window should therefore be a supplemental light source. For one that’s more consistent, use a simple desk or reading lamp—something small to fill in the shadows and go wherever you need it. I prefer the kind with a clip for that very reason.

If you’re shooting a video outside, try to choose a nice sunny day, and use a reflector to provide fill light. You don’t need to buy anything—just use something shiny, like aluminum foil over a sheet of cardboard, or one of those folding window shades for your car.

If you’re using a window for light, or shooting outside, don’t point the camera directly at the window, sun, or anything reflective to avoid distracting glare or lens flare.

Shot composition

If you’ve dabbled in video or photography before, you may have heard of “the rule of thirds.” This principle is a guideline for knowing how to frame, or set up your shot. Imagine that the frame of your video is divided up like in the picture shown, into horizontal and vertical thirds. When setting up your shot, you want to align things along one of those lines: the horizon, eyes, people, etc. For example, if your subject is two people standing next to one another, try to align them with the vertical lines. It takes some practice, but eventually this rule of thumb will become second-nature.

andrei2.pngFollowing the rule of thirds will help correct or avoid many common composition mistakes, like “head room.” Just what it sounds like, head room is the space between the top of a person’s head and the top of the frame. Too much headroom will make your subject look short, too little and they’ll be missing the top of their head. If you keep your subject’s eyes on the top line, however, you’ll always have the right amount of headroom. Similarly, you want to pay attention to how much space is in front of or behind your subject (“lead room”). If the person on camera is looking to the right of the frame, and you line them up to the vertical line on the right, then you’ll have very little space in front of their face, and a whole lot of empty space behind them. Your viewers will wonder what’s going to happen there (A shadowy figure? A knife in the dark?), so it’s best to give the extra space to the side where your subject is looking.

In part two, we take a look at improving the quality of your audio—and, more importantly, of your content.

Kyle Andrei
Research Analyst
As Senior Researcher, Kyle is responsible for researching software through demos, interviews, and surveys, and using that information to create Idealware’s reports and articles. In addition, Kyle also produces Idealware’s Ask Idealware videos, drawing on his broadcasting experience. Kyle is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he split his time between managing the student radio station, researching video game communication and working on local elections.