Quick Tips for Better Interview Video

Quick Tips for Better Interview Video

by Scott Pennington and Dean Rehberger

Moving from audio only to video and audio recording is not a small transition. Frame composition, lighting, and background are only a few of the considerations now affecting oral history recording that previously- when only recording audio- were of less importance. With that in mind, there are five basic principles for capturing better video:

  1. Always use a tripod
  2. Use good microphones and check your audio levels constantly while recording.
  3. Be aware of lighting and strive for even light
  4. Use the rule of thirds to frame your subject

1. Tripods

Even a cheap tripod bought at the job site will be markedly better than shooting by hand. Get a tripod, make sure it’s easy to level (look for ones with a leveling bubble), and use it for every shot.

2. Audio

We recommend and highly encourage the use of external microphones to capture good sound.  A video interview cannot be good if it has bad audio.  We explain this in more detail in ….

3. Lighting

Turn on as many diffused (indirect, or covered with lampshades) lights as possible when shooting indoors. The image may look decent in the small viewfinder, but dark video is noisy and lacks detail. The darker someone’s complexion, the more light needed to allow the camera to focus and record properly.  Be aware of “washout” when shooting outdoors or near windows. If a subject sits next to a window, one side (the bright side) may wash out compared to the shaded side. Strive for even lighting across your subject.  Doug Boyd had an excellent primer on lighting, “The Art of Lighting for Recording Video Oral History Interviews.”

4. Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most basic rules of photographic composition. This framing technique applies equally well to video. Divide the frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. The points where those lines intersect are optimal locations for the placement of your main subject.

Take a look at this wonderful interview with Kara Van Malssen:

Now imagine seeing this grid of thirds on top of the video image:


When we visualize the grid on the video, we see that the top line of our horizontal grid cuts across the subject’s eyes and the side of the subject’s face is touching our right vertical line.  This creates what’s referred to as a “tight shot”  (often used for interviews to frame the head and shoulders). When shooting for online audiences, these tight shots are very effective and preferred, since online video is often shown in relatively small windows within a Web browser. Subtly imposing the rule of thirds (never be an absolutist) creates a sense of perspective and intimacy that is often lost with a straight on, centered shot.

We see a very similar use of the rule of thirds in this fascinating video of Terrell Frazier:


Often it is the simple things that can take a video from ordinary to extraordinary.  Here are a few more tips that you can see were followed by Doug Boyd to create the Thinking Big videos:

  • Make pan/tilt movements slowly and deliberately (and sparingly). Constant movement of the camera, adjustments, and zooms can be very distracting to viewers. Frame a shot, and do not adjust unless absolutely necessary. Be deliberate when making adjustments; don’t make changes without a reason.
  • Avoid shooting with your subject against a blank wall. Even if video taping someone sitting on a chair or other furniture, pull the furniture out from the wall. This avoids shadows and gives some depth to your shot.  Note how in the video samples above, the subjects are pulled away from the background.  The background is interesting but remains blurred to keep the focus on the subjects.
  • Avoid letting subjects sit in wheeled and/or rotating chairs when possible.  Subjects can tend to move and if they do, it can make noise and become very distracting for the viewer.

A few more tips to help you not miss or forget the important moments:

  • Watch your time carefully, and know how long your tape, internal memory, or memory card will last. Recording storage is relatively cheap; missing a shot or an important statement because space ran out is expensive.
  • Avoid lights, windows, or reflective surfaces in the background. The camera will set the iris to expose for the brightest part of the picture, and then all you will see is a window and a black silhouette of the person in front of it.
  • Have a spare, fully charged battery standing by as you are shooting. It’s amazing how fast they discharge when you aren’t looking.
  • At the beginning of the recording, say where you are, the date, and subject to be recorded. This tests the audio and also provides identification (and may be removed later by the editor making final product).   If the tape labels falls off or files get missed up, this will provide great preservation information.
  • Don’t worry about a few moments of silence at the beginning and end of a recording.  In most cases it is a good thing to have around for editing.  And if your camera uses tape, before beginning a recording session, leave the lens cap on and shoot 10 to 12 seconds of black onto the tape. After your shot is complete, replace the lens cap and shoot another 10-12 seconds of black onto the tape. Much of the tape contamination and damage happens at the moment the tape begins to move. Also, some recorders may not be making a good recording right after they start.


Shooting good video is an art, but an art that everyone can learn to do well. The trick is to keep it simple and keep your focus on your subject.  It is a simple as 4: use tripod, capture quality audio, use good diffuse light, and think in thirds.

Citation for Article


Pennington, S., & Rehberger, D. (2012). Quick tips for better interview video. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/08/quick-tips-for-better-interview-video/.


Pennington, Scott and Dean Rehberger. “Quick Tips for Better Interview Video,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/08/quick-tips-for-better-interview-video/


This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.

Permanent link to this article: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/08/quick-tips-for-better-interview-video/

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