Even though some of these tips can be carried over to other types of shoots, they will be very helpful for filming actions sports particularly. These tips are generally for situations where there is no other crew other than one filmmaker trying to get the best out of the athlete’s performance.
1. Get inspired
It always helps to watch a couple of good videos involving the sport you will be shooting. There are tons of them online. Get inspired by the ideas or specific types of shots and write them down. It helps to put together a few concepts beforehand – it does not have to be a complete storyboard, but it will make shooting easier and will result in a much better video.
2. Keep your gear lightweight
Sometimes it will be necessary to climb a mountain with all your gear in order to get to the shoot location. In situations like these, every unnecessary piece of gear will quickly become very uncomfortable.
For this reason, I am grateful for a compactness of the Micro Four-Thirds (MFT or m43) system. In many situations, a good photo backpack can be very helpful and basically a must-have for carrying the necessary gear.
3. Use action cameras
Action cameras are very popular, particularly among sport filmmakers. They can bring unique angles and give a new perspective thanks to their miniature size.
It is always great to include a few Point-of-view (POV) clips in the video. However, don’t just limit shooting with action cams to POV shots only. There are thousands of mounting possibilities with various mounts, so try to look for that special angle that will make the video unique. When filming a mountain bike video for instance, try mounting the action camera on the front fork facing up towards the biker. Or use a “dome” when filming water action. The only limit is your imagination and available mounts.
4. Don’t forget sound
Do not forget that good audio is a big part of the video. As an example of importance of audio, take a look at Redbull’s latest “Raw 100” series. Note that the sound recorded with action cameras is mostly unusable, so if good-quality audio is needed from the action cam shots, it will have to be recorded through an external recorder. Don’t forget there might be very strong wind hitting the microphone when mounted directly on the athlete.
5. Keep your shots steady yet dynamic
The most basic piece of gear to get steady shots is of course a good tripod. Even a static shot can work brilliantly for an action sports video when well composed. You could, for example, try to include a nice landscape in that static shot. To stay as mobile as possible choose a tripod with a good ratio between weight and quality.
Gimbals have been getting smaller and lighter, and there are now even gimbals for action cameras, so it can be a good idea to use them. Having those moving shots be stable can really add towards an overall better watching experience. Sometimes a well-stabilized lens, body stabilization (IBIS) or a combination of both can help achieve steady hand-held moving shots too.
Another trick for getting better stable shots is to use a wider lens. Think of some original angles when shooting wide – try to put the camera down to the ground or up above the human eye level, for example.
6. High frame rate for slow motion
Slow motion clips are nice and effective, especially with filming action sports when so many interesting things happen so fast that it is impossible to capture it with a standard frame rate. Nowadays, many compact-sized consumer and prosumer devices offer high frame-rate modes. Note, however, that when you opt for filming with a high frame rate, you always lose some image quality. Sometimes the resolution is lower, although mostly it is the bitrate per frame that drops, causing each frame to be more compressed and lose some detail. Be aware of this trade off and use that slow-motion mode wisely.
When editing the video, make sure you don’t overuse the slow-motion clips. It is nice to see action clips slowed down, but there should always be a balance. I see too many unnecessarily long slow-motion clips, when usually 1 to 3 seconds of slowed action per clip is more than enough.
7. Keep your gear safe
Filming action sport means your object can move very fast. It is great to capture some close-up clips, but keep in mind that this may put your gear at risk of getting damaged. Think in advance about the clip you want to film and how the motion will look like. If you cannot imagine it, sometimes it helps to just watch it once without the camera and see where you can place your equipment so that it will hopefully stay safe.
This also applies when filming with drones. Not only can drones be dangerous to their surroundings, you should also be aware where you fly so that your subject doesn’t collide with the drone.
Pro-tip: Get a clear protector filter. It can save the front element of your lens.
8. Be ready to give first aid
This is a little bit uncomfortable and does not directly help you get a better video, but I feel like it must be said. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and people get hurt, with the risk of injury being particularly high in extreme sports. There is nothing worse than being in a remote location alone with an injured person and not being able to help. There are often situations when a filmmaker is the first person at the scene of an accident, and he/she should be able to do their part to help. I would recommend to do some kind of basic first aid course.