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KnowHOW: Shooting on location

KnowHOW: Shooting on location
Casey Hawkins

KnowHOW: Shooting on location

Green Acres Baptist Church’s Casey Hawkins covers the main audio, video and lighting considerations when shooting on-location

Most of the time, worship and church video gurus are set up in a chapel or worship centre using cameras, lights and sound systems that for the most part never move. They can get used to the same shots from the same angles and can even get complacent about audio levels, quality of audio, the quality and amount of ambient light and camera stability. But when shooting on location at special events, you do not have that “comfort zone”.

Jewish men pray while social distancing outside a closed synagogue in the coastal city of Netanya
Jewish men pray while social distancing outside a closed synagogue in the coastal city of Netanya


One of my mentors once taught me that audio is the hardest part of video. I was just a teenager then and I thought that was funny, because I considered video and audio separate things entirely. Over my career I have found his wisdom to be quite true. You can have audio without video, that is radio. But a video without audio is generally useless. So, make sure to get good audio.

You can do this in many ways. More than 10 years ago, the ideal solution would be a wireless lapel for speakers or a wireless handheld mic. That is still a good option, but with all the wireless competition these days, being able to tune your set and get flawless performance without interference has become more of a challenge.

I operated a wedding video business for 10 years and I learned the best way to mic a minister and the groom and anyone else who needed a mic, was to pair a cheap lapel mic and a small digital audio recorder. I would then sync the audio up with the video in post. It worked great, once I had realised that people like to turn things off after an event. I got burned once or twice by a person turning off the recorder improperly and damaging the files or losing the recording altogether, or muting the mic. I quickly learned to buy recorders that have a “hold” feature, which essentially disables the controls. This also prevents accidental failure should any control buttons inadvertently get pushed when the person puts their hand in their pocket or brushes up against something. I would also ask the person being miked not to touch anything and that I would be approaching them immediately following the event to remove the mic. I learned to purchase lapel mics without a “mute” switch, or at least use some electrical tape or gaffer tape to tape the mute switch off so that they couldn’t purposely or accidentally render the recording useless.

In a more confined and controlled environment, you can use a boom mic and a boom pole or stand. That is a good solution if you have a stationary subject or if you have a second operator that can manage the boom pole and follow the subject carefully. One benefit of this is that the mic is not visible in the camera shot. One downside is that the audio quality can be worse because the mic will be further from the voice than a lapel or handheld would and therefore pick up more ambient noise and room echo.
A boom mic is generally a directional shotgun mic. When using a handheld mic in a noisy environment, make sure to use a directional mic and not an omnidirectional. Invest in a windscreen so that wind noise is reduced as well as plosives when people speak into the mic. These elements always ruin good audio. Also, make sure you have a good on-camera mic to record ambient sound like crowd/audience response. It makes for a great sync track, too. Make sure to take spare batteries for all your audio devices.

Finally, monitor your audio levels. There is no point to any of this if you have zero level or if you have over-modulated (too high) levels to the point of distortion. If you are not used to adjusting (riding) levels on the fly, then consider setting your device to auto level. If you do not have an auto audio level feature, then I suggest you practice and get good at monitoring and adjusting your levels manually. Once you get good at maintaining good audio levels, you will never want to use auto again.

Many worship events take place outside the comfines of a HOW
Many worship events take place outside the comfines of a HOW


Poor lighting can really ruin a great video. In a normal church environment, you might be accustomed to at least good amounts of light. It may be uneven, but you have it. On location, there are many situations where lighting is not adequate for video and means that you should have your own. In many cases, a good on-camera light is great but in others, like a nice interview setup, you need fixtures and stands so that you can position them to achieve the look you desire. Generally, the three-point lighting technique is acceptable – one light on each side of the front of the subject, and a back light behind the subject that separates them from the background.

I recommend in all situations and setups that you have fixtures that allow control over the intensity and colour temperature. You will never regret having that creative control. I also recommend not to use too bright of a fixture, because your subject will not appreciate a blooming bright light staring them in the face. Take spare bulbs if your fixtures require them. LED fixtures are so common today that spare bulbs are not necessary. Take spare batteries if your fixtures are battery powered. The lights are no good without power and bulbs and they will go out on you eventually.

When covering events that are conference style, like a deacons meeting or volunteer training class, where the lighting is not in your control and all there are is fluorescent lights in the ceiling, all you can do to iris (shade or brightness) and white balance your camera properly, because introducing your own lights in these cases is generally not allowed. The same goes for venues that have nothing but a wall of windows directly behind the subject. In most of those cases you will just have to blow out the windows (allow them to be too bright) in order to avoid having your subject looking like a silhouette.

A solid lighting technique can really take a video from good to great as much as bad lighting can take it from good to bad. Do not forget to plan before going on location and this is a good reason to always scout beforehand whenever possible.

Worshipers gather outside and practice social distancing during a service celebrating Pentecost in the parking lot of St Andrews Lutheran Church in Park Ridge
Worshipers gather outside and practice social distancing during a service celebrating Pentecost in the parking lot of St Andrews Lutheran Church in Park Ridge

Camera Stability

Picture this – you are watching a video that has bad audio, poor lighting and it is shaky. That is the trifecta that ensures no one will like or want to watch your video. Do yourself a favour and use camera stabilisation, or which there are many kinds. The most popular is of course the tripod. But did you know there is such a thing as a monopod? It is basically a stick, like one leg of a tripod., that has height adjustments and a foot that operates on a gimbal. Some more advanced ones have a full fluid camera head complete with a pan handle. These are super handy when you are going to be moving around a lot, but you still want stable shots. These are not as stable as a tripod, there will be some body movement in the shots, but it will look natural and much better than handheld results alone.

The monopod is not good for slick, motion shots, however. For those you will want a gimble-style stabiliser like a Steadicam or a Glide Cam. These can get expensive, can be extraordinarily complex to balance and set-up and even cumbersome to use, but over time you get better at it. For other applications you might just need a stationary mount, like for a GoPro when driving in a car. Whatever the logistics of the shoot are, carefully planning for camera stability is crucial.

Finally, be sure to take charged spare camera batteries and formatted memory cards with you to all shoots. Trust me, when you need those and do not have them, it can shut down your shoot and even cause you to miss precisely what you are there to get. Professionally, it makes you look very incompetent to not have spares and backups on-hand.

So, when you are heading out to shoot on location next, make sure to remember these three major areas of video production. You cannot predict everything that will happen, but you sure can plan to do your best. Begin with the ability to get good audio, lighting and a stable shot, and you are off to a great start.

This feature appears in the November - December edition of Worship AVL. Subscribe at

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