Blogs

The CAN-SPAM Act and You

The “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act,” or the CAN-SPAM Act, has been in place since January 2004, but many organizations still aren’t clear on what it means for them. While the law is in place to stop floods of emails from unsolicited evil doers, it can have an adverse effect on even small nonprofits’ email marketing efforts. Whether the law affects your organization or not, the regulations outlined in the CAN-SPAM act can act as a good guideline for making sure your emails look professional, and that you are being courteous to your subscribers.
 
When the government talks about spam, they don’t necessarily mean that stuff that ends up in your unwanted Gmail folder. The CAN-SPAM act is a set of rules that applies to any message that is primarily commercial. While most nonprofit emails are not commercial inherently, they can be in some situations. Involvement from a corporate funder can put your message in a grey area, as can using email to market products. For example, Idealware advertises our annual “Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits” and recordings of our training sessions through email. While fundraising appeals do not count as commercial content in the government’s eyes, there is no specific exemption from the law for nonprofits, so it’s a good idea to follow these rules just to be safe.
 
Make sure to let your recipients know who you are and how to reach you in every email. Provide a valid street or PO Box address in the body of your email, as well as a usable return email. Emails are informal, so don’t be afraid to get personal. A message from DONOTREPLY@Idealware.org is a lot more likely to be viewed as spam than one from Tyler@Idealware.org.
 
Along with that, be honest in your subject line and email body. Even if you’re just trying to be unique, a misleading subject to entice a reader to open the email can be illegal. If you are trying to sell a product or service in your email, or trying to help someone else sell something, you should include language to reflect that. Simply noting somewhere in the email that it is an offer or an advertisement is specific enough.
 
Finally, make sure that everyone who is on your email list wants to be there. It can be tempting to send emails out to a few people whom you know might be potential givers, but unless they have asked specifically to be on the email list, they shouldn’t be. It should also be clear how a recipient can opt-out of your emails. A direct link to unsubscribe is the most comprehensive method, but including language suggesting that recipients reply by email to unsubscribe can work for smaller list.
 
A subscriber also shouldn’t have to pay anything, or offer any information other than their email address to unsubscribe. Offering a way for subscribers to opt in or out of specific types of emails from your organization can be a good compromise if your constituents’ inboxes are getting bogged down by content. In any case, the change must be made within 10 business days to comply with the law.
 
If you outsource your broadcast email to a marketing firm, you should make sure they are following the rules as well. They may be able to keep your email out of a spam folder, but they might unintentionally be breaking the law. If a case is filed, both your organization and the marketing firm can be fined, so it is in everyone’s best interest to check.
 
Complaints regarding breaches of the CAN-SPAM Act should be directed to the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov. You should also inform your email provider and the sender’s email provider, including a full copy of the email in question.
 
If you have serious concerns about your own emails conflicting with CAN-SPAM’s regulations, contact a lawyer who is familiar with email best practices. Other countries can have even stricter regulations regarding email, so if you conduct any international business, make sure you are complying with their laws as well. While it’s unlikely that a small organization could run into legal trouble, violations of the CAN-SPAM act can mean up to $16,000 in charges. A few simple measures to make certain you are in compliance can save you a lot of money, and keep your email etiquette in top shape.

Three Acts in Three Minutes: Screenwriting for Nonprofits

 When you watch a lot of movies, you start to get the feeling that they’re all the same story, just told in a different way. Take romantic comedies for example:

  • Boy meets girl (the “meet cute”)
  • Boy and girl start dating>
  • Boy and girl have a fight
  • Boy wallows in self-pity
  • Grand Romantic Gesture
  • Boy and girl are back together
  • End Credits

You’re not crazy; there really is a formula to movies. In college, I took a screenwriting course from a professor who went out of her way to drill that formula into my head. (Her favorite movie? Independence Day.)

That formula is called the Three Act Structure. It’s actually a really useful way to learn storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with using it (but sometimes the best movies are the ones that take a few liberties). This is also a useful framework for nonprofits that are just learning how to tell their story through video. For a typical Hollywood movie, your three acts might look like this: 

Act One

  1. Inciting Incident or Catalyst: what starts the story in motion?
  2. The Big Event: what changes your character’s life?

    Act Two
     
  3. The Pinch: Point of no return.
  4. Rising Conflict: build tension, character takes bolder choices.
  5. Crisis: the low point for your character.

    Act Three
     
  6. The Showdown or Climax: exactly what it sounds like. The final showdown.
  7. Realization: the character (or audience) realizes that the character has changed
  8. Denouement: Tie up all the loose ends.

You can also simplify that down, especially for a shorter story. 

In a three minute or shorter video, you could just hit the Big Event, Rising Conflict, Climax, and Denouement; the important thing to have a beginning, middle, and end to your story. 

So, this is great for potential screenwriters, but how would a nonprofit put it all into practice? First, think about what you want to accomplish with your video. Do you want the people at home watching the video to take a specific action? Are you motivating them to donate, sign a petition, plant a tree, or volunteer? Whatever that action is, that’s the end of your story.  Your Inciting Incident is that your organization needs money to continue to operate, the Big Event is your annual campaign, the Rising Conflict is all the services your organization won’t be able to provide without the support of the viewers at home, and the Climax is the audience actually making that donation. There’s an example of a thrilling short video with a cliffhanger ending—will our hero, the scrappy Nonprofit-That-Could, survive to provide services another day?

That story could look entirely different depending on who the main character is. Maybe the protagonist is not the nonprofit, but a potential supporter. Their story begins with an email from a nonprofit, asking for a donation. The Big Event is making a donation, and the Pinch is that the nonprofit still needs other forms of help. In the Rising Conflict, our new donor pitches in in other ways, donating canned goods or blankets, volunteering to help deliver services, and asking friends and family to also donate or help out. In the Climax, the nonprofit meets their fundraising goal. Finally, the supporter has the Realization that they made a difference in the community.

No matter the character you follow in the video, make sure that their story has a beginning, middle, and an end, and that the choices they make or actions they take make sense. This doesn’t have to be an epic, cinematic thriller where the “stakes are high and the danger is even higher” to be compelling—but you can be a little tongue-in-cheek if it feels appropriate (a little goes a long way—don’t make fun of your mission or constituents). This isn’t a two-hour feature film, it’s a YouTube video; there’s only so much characterization or plot development you can do in three minutes.

It wouldn’t be an Idealware blog post if I didn’t include some examples to inspire you. Check out the winners from the DoGooder Video Awards for examples of nonprofits telling short stories. My personal favorite is Meet the Digits from Ronald McDonald House Austin.

New Resources for Data: Launch Day at Idealware

Today we're pleased to announce the publication of our latest report, Data at a Foundation's Fingertips: Creating and Building Dashboards. Unorganized and inaccessible data limits how much an organization can learn about itself and its constituents. Using dashboards can give you a leg up on decisionmaking, budget planning, and many other high-level processes. These versatile tools gather, organize, and present data in visual representations--gaining perspective on data in a single, visually appealing format can help organizations of all sizes, and can be done within the constraints of almost any budget.

Technology Affinity Group (TAG) commissioned Idealware to create this report to help walk an organization through the steps of designing and implementing a dashboard. We talked to 10 foundations about what they were doing and combined that with previous research on data to write the report, and included case studies of eight of the foundations, a rundown of some of the more commonly used dashboard tools, and steps to get you  started making your own data do more for you.

Thanks to the generosity of TAG, the report is available to download at no cost. Put the right foot forward with dashboards--download the report for free at TAG’s website.

And while we're talking about data, the March issue of the NTEN:Change journal is up with a case study written by Idealware about how a large metropolitan nonprofit is using data to drive decisions about programs, operations, and nearly every other aspect of the business, along with lots of other great resources. It's free with registration--and if you're not already subscribed, you should be. Check it out now.

There's an App for That: New Article Up Today

Sometimes it seems like everywhere you go, everyone is talking, texting, or surfing the web on their phones: airports, beaches, zoos, sidewalks, even at restaurants. You're not imagining it--85 percent of Americans own cell phones, and more than half of them use those phones to access the internet. They've truly changed the way we live, from how we find directions to how we communicate to how we use Google to settle bar bets.

As people become more accustomed to mobile phones, and more reliant upon them, nonprofits need to find new ways to use that technology to reach their constituents or risk being left behind. So how can  you tap into this trend? 

Idealware's research intern Tyler Cummins looked into the matter in an article for the NonProfit Times, originally as a special report in the March 1, 2013, print edition. Read it in its original format here, or on our site here.

 

Expert Trainer Wanted

Are you an experienced trainer who loves to talk to nonprofits about technology? Idealware is seeking up to six very part-time Expert Training Contractors to join our training team. Expert Trainers will lead Idealware created curriculum via webinars and in live events across the country. This is an amazing opportunity to make contacts with national foundations, associations, and nonprofits nationwide, talk with some of the smartest and most cutting edge minds in nonprofit technology, and be part of a highly respected, sought-after, and nationally known training team. We estimate the amount of work to be between 4-16 hours per month, including potential overnight travel. If this opportunity sounds interesting, please read our full job description and apply by March 15th.

Put a Pin In It: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Pinterest

In March, Pinterest will be three years old. While it’s still the lovable toddler of the social media world, it’s created quite a stir in its short time online. Pinterest was the fastest site to ever get 10 million monthly viewers, and it’s quickly gaining on Twitter in terms of frequent users. That alone should tell you that you need to get pinning, and fast.
 
So what is Pinterest all about? Pinterest is a way for users to put their passions on display, and to be inspired by the content of others. The way photos, videos, and links are daisy chained through walls of pins can make sharing content more exciting than just posting on Facebook. Additionally, items that are repinned stay fresh in the pinner’s mind, since they’re interacting with the content, not just stumbling across it on a crowded news feed.
 
Chances are, your first baby steps on Pinterest will include repinning someone else’s content. When you do this, it gets seen by those following you, as well as shows up in searches, and under a list of those that have repinned that pin. Users can opt to follow a particular board, or an entire pinner. When you repin something, you should follow the user that created it. This can be a good way to not only get new, relevant content, but they may even follow you in return.
 
You should organize your pins into folders called “pinboards,” which break up content into different categories so you and your followers can quickly find what you need. What pinboards you create will depend on your organization, and what you’re trying to accomplish with Pinterest. Some organizations have chosen to use their Pinterest pages as directories of resources related to their cause. For example, the Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center has sorted their resources into pinboards of different subjects that parents might be interested in learning more about. Check out their page for some great inspiration.
 
You can also choose to “like” a pin, which can be a good choice for miscellaneous content that doesn’t fit in with any of your pinboards. When repining, you should create your own description to keep it relevant, but be sure to give credit to the original source. Pinterest makes this easy by allowing you to tag users in your pins with the @ symbol.
 
Eventually, you will want to upload your own content. The process of looking through Pinterest is highly visual, so pictures and videos seem to work best. It’s important to have the pin link back to your website, and to mind your marketing manners. The names of your pinboards, pin descriptions, and tags should be specific and SEO friendly. Pinterest can be a great way to drive traffic to your website, and increase search engine prominence, but only if you make your pins easy to search for. You can also add a “Pin it” widget to your website, so users can share your content on Pinterest just as easily as they can on Facebook and Twitter.
 
Posting your own links and photos can be great, but remember to keep repining related topics from other sources. This will keep your boards fresh and full of content, and drive new followers to you and your resources. People are more likely to follow boards dedicated to specific interests rather than broad ones. Developing a wide range of highly specified boards will require more work and time, but the investment can be a worthwhile one. With all social media, it’s better to use a few outlets well than to use many poorly.
 
You should add the “Pin It” button to your web browser, and get the Pinterest application for your mobile device. That way, anytime you see an image or link that speaks to you, it just takes one click to share it online. Additionally, you can use an application like Pingraphy, which allows you to store your content and disperse it on a schedule, cutting down on the amount of time needed to keep your followers engaged. You can also easily share your pins across Facebook and Twitter, so it’s a great idea to keep content flowing.

As with any social media investment, it’s important to get a feel for what your constituents are using, and where they want to see your content. Pinterest is currently mostly popular with women, but that is starting to shift as the site grows in popularity. It’s also popular with a slightly older demographic than you might expect, mostly 25-45, so those looking to get more engagement from teens through social media may wish to look elsewhere. All in all, Pinterest is a very unique and exciting tool with a lot of room for experimentation and growth. Given its popularity, it’s safe to say that Pinterest will be around for the foreseeable future. Adding Pinterest to your social media repertoire can be a rewarding and fun venture for organizations that are looking to branch out.

Be sure to check out Idealware's Pinterest. We currently have some links to great nonprofit infographics, and a few of our own resources, but are continuing to expand as the site gains momentum.

Going Beyond GIFS

I’ve got a riddle for you: What’s a photo, a video, and a slideshow all at once? If you don’t know, maybe you haven’t been paying close enough attention to the images around you.

A GIF, in its most common form, is a moving picture embedded on a website. It’s a short, simple clip from a video, or animation, which plays over and over. For an example, here’s a personal favorite:
That’s Nick Offerman, dancing his heart out as Ron Swanson from the television show Parks & Recreation. As you can probably tell, GIFS aren’t really meant for high definition video, but they’re becoming more useful beyond clips of cats and fictional libertarians. Today’s online media is dominated by short content, and as GIFs become easier to make, their prevalence on the web will only increase.
 
GIFs aren’t new, they’ve been around since the late 80’s when they were still known as Graphics Interchange Format, but they’re enjoying a major resurgence. GIF was just named the Oxford American Dictionary 2012 word of the year. There was even a collection of high art GIFS called Moving the Still, which was hosted on Tumblr and at Miami Art Week. Many blogs on Tumblr get a lot of their content through sharing GIFs. GIF Hound, for example, posts the most easily digestible clips from the news each day in GIF form, like this image of the space shuttle Enterprise being transported over New York City.
 
An animated GIF can be made by editing a video in Photoshop or its open source counterpart GIMP. Unfortunately, the relative difficulty of creating a GIF can be a hurdle for an inexperienced filmmaker, especially when you consider that these videos are inherently concise tidbits, not Oscar winning shorts. However, that is all starting to change. Mobile applications like Vine, Cinemagram, and GifBoom are making short, looping clips accessible even to technophobes.
 
Vines, videos made in the Vine application, are the video counterpart to a tweet. Like tweets, vines are short; six seconds instead of 140 characters, they’re timely, only appearing on others’ news feeds as long as a tweet would, and they don’t take much work to create. iPhone users can download the Vine app and start uploading videos immediately. When you hold your thumb down on the screen your camera will start rolling, when you take it off, it stops. You can use your six seconds to make a montage, stop motion animation, or just record a short video message.
 
Other applications have been around for a while, but aren’t getting the same press as Twitter’s video prodigy. Cinemagram, for example, offers a more complex set of features than Vine, but is less integrated with Twitter for obvious reasons. Cinemagram allows users to loop videos in reverse, creating a more seamless effect, and decide what sections of a video move and what sections stay still, creating some pretty remarkable visuals. You can also import video from a more professional camera and turn it into a Cine. Vines have the added benefit of sound over Cines, but people viewing your vine will have to click to hear it. Additionally, the choppy editing of most vines makes the audio all but inconsequential.
 
Unfortunately, both of these applications are currently only available for the iPhone. It’s likely that Android functionality is in their future, but for now, Android devotees will have to wait, or explore other options. One such alternative is GifBoom, which can share short movies and montages across social media very much like Cinemagram, but doesn’t offer its more artistic features. If you don't have a large following on Twitter already, you should look at Cinemagram and GifBoom more closely for their Facebook and blog friendly nature alone. However, posting a few vines can be a good way to draw people to your Twitter by using the hastag #vine.
 

How can nonprofits use gifs, vines, and cines? It’s a little too early to say. I for one believe that experimenting with these formats, especially given their ease of creation, is something every organization should try at least once. If you can get a message across to someone that wouldn’t read a block of text, or wouldn’t click play on an embedded video, you’ve already made progress. Here’s an example of a Vine that was recently tweeted by Welsh cancer charity Tenovus. Do you think your organization could benefit from a similar campaign?

Nonprofit Film School Primer: Or, The Idealware School of Video for Nonprofits That Don’t Video Good (Part 2)

Our own Research Analyst, Kyle Andrei, wrote this post for NTEN, and it originally appeared over on NTEN.org. Want to learn more about video editing? Click to our free article, A Few Good Tools for Video Editing.

 

Part Two: Improving Audio and Content

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.

In the first post, we looked at how to compose and light your videos.  This time we look at how to improve the audio—and, more importantly, the content.

Improving audio quality

It can be easy to forget about audio when thinking about video, but improving the sound quality will also improve the overall quality of your video. (Audio is, after all, the “A” in A/V). There are a few ways to do this.

Microphones

First, and most important, is the microphone you use to record. You’re probably currently using the one built into your camera, which is fine for certain situations. If you’re shooting close to your subject in a quiet, indoor setting, it will work OK. But when you’re shooting in a different location or at a greater distance from your subject, the limitations of a built-in microphone become apparent. For example, built-in mics—especially in smaller and cheaper cameras—only work acceptably if the camera and the person talking are no further apart than about four feet. Think of it in terms of conversation; if you’re close enough to have a conversation at normal volume, you’re probably close enough to record audio. If you have to shout across the room, it’s time for an external microphone.

Most consumer cameras have an 1/8-inch “audio in” jack the same size as most headphone jacks, while more expensive cameras may have an XLR jack that looks like a large circle with room for three prongs. If you’re not sure what type of microphone to buy, ask for help at the store. If your camera doesn’t have an audio in, you’ll need a separate way to record sound. Digital audio recorders are readily available, and very affordable. Or, if you’re shooting inside the office or have a laptop handy, you could record the audio on your computer.

There are many different types of microphones, and each type records sound in different ways. For the most part, you don’t need to concern yourself with this. Decide whether you want a handheld mic or one that clips to your shirt, and find one you can afford. Expect to spend between $50 and $100.

Background Noise

In a perfect setting, you’d be able to eliminate all outside noise—sneezes, coughs, passing traffic, creaky floorboards, and downstairs neighbors. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and nonprofits don’t typically have access to a soundstage. People sneezing and coughing will ruin your shot (unless your video is about cold and flu season or hygiene); there’s not a lot you can do about that, but there are a few ways to control background noise. The simplest method, in theory, is to just avoid the noise. If your office is near a busy street where cars frequently honk their horns, try shooting your video as far away from the street side as possible. At the very least, avoid shooting near the windows. If you can’t find a quiet spot in your office, stay late one night or come in on a Saturday to shoot the video. But all of this is easier said than done.

External microphones can also help reduce background noise, because microphones “hear” best the sounds that are loudest or closest—if you are using the mic in the camera on the other side of the room, it’s more likely to pick up distracting noises than one positioned closer to your subject. It’s also important to consider the setting. Different locations bring different problems. If you’re shooting outside, for example, you’ll have to deal with traffic and ambient noise as well as the wind. There’s a reason that TV news reporters have microphones that look like giant lollipops—they’re covered with foam “wind screens” that prevent the wind from blowing directly into the mic.

It’s worth noting that the right background noise can actually help reinforce the story your video is trying to tell. Just like watching a televised basketball game wouldn’t be the same without the roar of the crowd, a video showing an office at work needs some office sounds in the background, or it feels weird and fake. The trick is to make sure the background noise doesn’t distract from or overpower what you’re trying to say.

Soundtracks

As a side note, consider the music that will play over the intro and outro of your video, or any background soundtracks. Make sure you have permission to use the songs you choose. Copyright-infringement is against the law, and, if your video is going on the internet—for example, on YouTube—it can and will be taken down. Two solutions to this problem are to either create your own music, or to find and use copyright-free songs.

You also want to make sure the music you select is appropriate for the story your video is trying to tell. If you’re telling a serious story, don’t use upbeat or silly music, and vice versa. Music has a very powerful emotional effect on an audience—make sure the emotion you’re getting is the one you want. (See my blog post on choosing music http://www.idealware.org/blog/its-not-just-what-you-say-how-you-say-it.)

Improving content quality

No matter how well-made your video is, it’s worthless if your audience doesn’t want to watch it. Here are a few things you should consider to make sure your story is compelling enough to compete with stupid pet videos.

How long should my video be?

When I took my first video class in college, I asked this same question to my instructor. His answer? "As long as it has to be and not a second more" (emphasis added). Your video isn't a freshman English paper—you're not trying to stretch it out to make it to 1,500 words. Trim out everything that doesn't need to be in there, and you'll have a tight, well-paced video that people will keep watching.

Keep things interesting

It’s easy to fall into the trap of showing a single person talking for five minutes about your organization’s story. While your message may be compelling to viewers, your video isn’t. Try changing things up instead of showing the same scene. If your story is about how your school made use of a grant, cut to a clip of a teacher in the classroom, or of students using the computers you bought with that grant. Don’t tell me; show me. This is a video, not a bookshow the things you accomplished instead of describing them. Organizations like the ASPCA (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu_JqNdp2As) have been using this principle to great effect for years, and now, you can too.

Better editing

Editing can be your salvation when it comes to creating a great video, but it can also be your downfall. Take the time to get to know the editing software you’ll be using. You can find how-to guides and videos online, but you should also get some hands-on experience playing around to see what it is capable of.

Once you’ve done that, though, you need to stop playing around. Yes, that “star wipe” special effect looks really cool when you’re first trying things out, but once it’s in your video, it looks cheesy. The special effects included with your software are never, ever going to look as good as the ones you see in the movies; all they do is draw attention to themselves—and away from your story. Let your content speak for itself. Only edit what has to be edited. Cut out any unnecessary footage, add a title or credits, and leave it at that.

Here’s a list of the features and transitions that you can safely use without fear of making your video look more amateurish instead of less.

  • Fade. Use this sparingly when you have to transition between two scenes.
  • Fade-to-black. Use this once at the very end of your video.
  • Titles. Once at the beginning, once at the end, and once per person to introduce them.

Remember, you don’t want to show off all the neat things your software can do. Instead, you want to use a light, subtle touch, and keep things simple so that your story will shine through and speak for itself.

Conclusion

As with any skill, creating and editing video takes time and experience. The more you practice this skill, the easier it will get—and the better you’ll be. Take the time to learn your equipment and software, if you can. Find opportunities to practice, either for your organization or in your spare time. If you find that you’ve awakened your inner Spielberg or John Ford, you may have found yourself a new hobby. You’re not alone, either. There’s a wealth of resources and communities online that can teach you new tips and tricks or answer your questions.

Further Reading

 

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

Our own Research Analyst, Kyle Andrei, wrote this post for NTEN, and it originally appeared over on NTEN.org. Want to learn more about video editing? Click to our free article, A Few Good Tools for Video Editing.

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

Tripods

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.

Lighting

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.

You 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.

Following 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.

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