Classic films like Reservoir Dogs, Top Gun and Wayne's World employ slow-motion for emotional impact. Now that Casio, Samsung, JVC, LG and Ricoh cameras and phones tout slow-mo, amateurs can wield this same mighty power:
First, How Slow Motion Actually Works
Understanding the basic principle of slow motion is helpful for both properly following and bending the format's rules, so bear with me for just a second. The film effect has its origins in overcranking—in the early days of film, camera operators literally cranked the film reel when shooting a scene. By cranking the reel faster, they saw their films projected more slowly.
Why? That's where we get to the basic premise of slow mo. Slow motion captures a bunch of pictures very fast—at least 120 images per second, and often 300 or more. Meanwhile, video typically plays back at an eyeball-friendly 24-30 frames a second.
So when you play back those 300 fast images at the speed your eye is happy with, you have a huge excess of images. Your 300 images may have been filmed in one second of real shooting, but they will last for 10 seconds on screen—slow motion is born.
And while digital video has traditionally struggled in capturing the high frame rates necessary for true slow motion, many new cameras work just like overcranking, shooting hundreds of lower-resolution pictures per second. The tips here concern cameras and camcorders capable of high speed frame rates—not just cameras from Casio, but camcorders from Samsung and JVC, a Japan-only camera from Ricoh and LG's Viewty cameraphone. This is not about slowing down your regular-speed footage in some kind of video editor.
1. Use Lots of Light
When you shoot slow mo, you are taking pictures quickly. And when you take pictures quickly, light has less time to create an image in your camera. Shoot in plenty of light, or you will get dark and gloomy slow-mo.
In real terms, that means that super high-speed shooting might not work indoors. On the Casio EX-F1, for instance, you can shoot 300fps indoors, and maybe 600fps if you're near a window, but you can't pull off its 1200fps setting without adding bright light. For the same reason, night shooting may very well be out of the question, depending on your particular rig and just what you expect from the image in terms of detail—artsy stuff may be fine, but don't expect to film a hummingbird under the soft glow of the moon.
2. Mind Your FPS
As stated above, slow motion really doesn't work very well on camera systems not designed for it in the first place. So if your camera only shoots 24 or 30 frames per second of video, your slow motion will be merely faked by whatever editing software you use. (It'll suck.) This is about capturing life you normally can't see: The flitting of a bug's wings, the popping of a water balloon, the fleeting microexpression of joy or pain on a person's otherwise complacent face.
Choosing the right frame rate for your subject is of vital importance. Here's a chart with exemplary clips to get you started:
120fps: Baseline slow motion, just a quarter the speed of real life; it's the go-to speed for sports replays
300fps: Good for narrative slow motion like walk scenes, love scenes and displays of manliness (see aforementioned Top Gun)
600fps: The beginnings of slow-mo porn, human movement becomes less narrative, more anatomical
1000-1200fps: Human subjects move too slowly for this rate, now you're into explosion mode; 1200fps is the fastest Casio's EX-F1 can shoot
5,000-10,000fps: Bullet-time explosions, shards of glass split and float in the air...and you can see the intricate design of lightning. Storebought cameras can't do this—yet
3. Think Outside Stabilization
You're always better off shooting on a tripod for optimum clarity, but if there's one time you can really stretch your imagination with shooting video, it's slow motion. Because you are shooting so many frames in such a limited space, you can take advantage of time stretching to make video appear more stable.
So not only can you shoot most slow-mo clips without a tripod, but you can even toss your camera in the air to try that crazy shot you wanted. It might not come out, and you might want to insure your camera first, but why not push the limits? We're talking 300-1200 frames per second. That's a lot of room to fudge things.
4. Compensate for Slow-Motion Side Effects
The downside to shooting in slow mo is that you almost always end up with more footage than you need. Remember, six seconds of shooting produces one minute of video at 300fps, two minutes at 600fps. Some cameras let you trim your clip right there on the spot, and you should take advantage of it, as it frees up wasted memory, too.
Another issue is aspect ratio. As the frame rates go up on the Casio EX-F1, they get longer, slimmer and lower in resolution. At 1200fps, you get strips of video 336x96. Our friend Robert Woodhead made up for this in his Mentos and Diet Coke video by stitching four vertically oriented videos together in Final Cut.
The final problem with slow mo is sound, as in, there is none. That's the reason you often hear music playing over clips. It's not necessary to add music, though clearly Tarantino enjoyed that part.
Still, the ultimate reality about slow-motion shooting is that it's surprisingly simple with today's equipment—not necessarily any more difficult than normal video if you are shooting with enough light. Until this meme is done (and in our book, it most certainly is not), go out there and shoot with confidence. It's an interesting artistic medium that's just become democratized to the public, so let the whoring commence.
If you liked these camera tips, check out our guide for getting started with a digital camera.