Tips to Improve Your Web Video Productions with Ryan Spanger

In this episode we chat with Ryan Spanger about techniques to improve your web video production. We chat about branding, lighting, framing & storytelling, plus much more. Take a listen and start implementing these tips in your own videos today.

Ryan Spanger is the Managing Director of Dream Engine with more than 10 years of professional experience in the video production industry and a director of documentary projects and producer of innovative communication solutions.


  • Dream Engine & Ryan’s background – A brief outline of Ryan’s career.
  • Choosing the style and production type – Being consistent leads to better engagement with your customers & increases retention.
  • Branding – Get higher engagement when you spend the time to make your content high quality
  • Effective Lighting strategies – Working with your environment to get the best results
  • Highest Quality Sound – Focus on this or risk your listeners turning off
  • Video Composition – Compel your audience with well thought out storytelling and framing of your shoots.


Jake: Welcome Ryan. Thanks very much for coming on this call.

Ryan: Thanks Jake. Good to be here.

Jake: Fantastic. Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about your background and what you do.

Ryan: I come from a filmmaking background. My interest originally was mainly in documentary making. I went to film school about thirteen years ago and then started making documentaries after that and worked as an editor mainly in surf videos. Within a few years I got a lot of freelance work and after that set up my own video production company. As time went on I started to make more corporate videos and promotional videos. As the web rose and became more dominant, more and more of that video was for the internet.

Jake: Right. Okay. Now you’re essentially producing videos mainly for the net. Who is your typical customer?

Ryan: I mainly work with medium to large businesses. Medium to large corporates, government departments, and the nonprofit sector. It tends to be larger organizations although I do occasionally work with small businesses as well.

Jake: Sure. The style of videos, are you generally producing for them typically like a sales or a product video or is it more sort of the new style of consistent video type of thing?

Ryan: We do a whole range of videos from promotional corporate type videos to education and training videos. It may be internal training for staff. It might be sort of external training educational package. More and more often, short two to three minute web video clips for their website as well as YouTube and Facebook. A lot of our videos are in a documentary style. What I mean by that is interview style, working with real people rather than actors.

Jake: Yes. I certainly see, from the stuff that we do, is it’s that engagement with your type of audience is becoming more important and I guess being able to show your personality through video, it helps to engage and increases retention with your target customers.

Ryan: I think so. I think people really want to know who they’re working with and get a sense of the people behind the organization. The other positive is that, from a cost point of view, you’re working with people within the organization rather than hiring actors. Unless you’re working with very good actors who are very expensive it’s much more cost effective to work with real people who, there isn’t that additional cost there.

Jake: Yes. Absolutely. All right, so there’s a bit of a trend at the moment where people are tending to just say go and grab your iPhone or go on and grab your Flip HD camera and just start recording. It’s fantastic for those that don’t have a lot of technical experience and the quality that they produce is quite good. What I’d like to get from you today is your opinion on this style of recording and maybe you give us some pointers on how we can actually improve that for producing better web video.

Ryan: Okay, sure. We’re still in the really early stages of this incredible revolution where the means of production are available to everyone. Cost is no impediment. Even when I started working in video production fifteen years ago there was this barrier to entry where, if you wanted to shoot video, you had to make a pretty decent sized investment and now that’s no longer a barrier. Anyone can do it and so it’s really incredibly exciting and liberating.

You’ve got these distribution channels like YouTube that everyone can use for free to get your message out there. At the moment there’s this popular idea that it’s great just to get out there, use whatever’s available, capture your story, put it out there, don’t worry too much about the technical side. It’s all about the content.

While that is true, it’s also really important to look at the technical side as well. For instance, if you applied that logic to websites, it would be don’t worry too much about what your site looks like, just get some content out there. Or that same theory to graphic design would be, don’t worry about bringing in a graphic designer, just we’ll come up with … will throw together a logo and put that out there and the risk is damaging your branding and your image by not spending enough time looking at that technical side.

I think the future of video production, starting off from this early stage, is people starting to master some more of the technical side of things. There’s a good reason for that. When, the more polished and professional your product looks, the more people are going to enjoy it and the more engaged they’re going to be with the content.

Jake: Absolutely. I certainly know, just from my perspective, producing the amount of video we do, branding is very important. While there are so many experts out there saying don’t worry about your brand, just get content out to your audience, I tend to disagree a little bit because we are trying to project a certain image and that sort of at a certain level so we need our videos to look like that. I tend to agree with you there that any steps we can take to improve the quality, without adding too many levels of complexity are only going to be of benefit.

Ryan: Yes, and a lot of the things that you can do actually are pretty simple and those are some things we can talk about today.

Jake: Fantastic. That’s great. Why don’t we kick off with a little bit about lighting. I guess I understand that’s probably the most important aspect. What tips or what can you suggest listeners do to improve the lighting in their videos?

Ryan: Lighting is really important and I should also mention that actually in my opinion sound is even more important than lighting because if you have good sound at least people can follow on with what you’re saying. Where as if your sound is bad people are just going to switch off. Lighting is absolutely vital but sometimes people will spend too much attention and money on getting a great camera and maybe some lighting but they’ll neglect sound.

We’ll get to sound but starting off with lighting, it’s the first step when you’re making a video is to actually tune in to the environment around you and start to notice where the light is coming from, what is the quality of that light, and how you can best work with it. The way that our eyes work is that they actually sort of adjust for the imperfections of lighting.

We want, when you’re looking at someone, and you’re sitting in an office, there’s down lights shining down on them, you probably won’t notice that much that they’ve got shadows under their eyes or there are shadows in the room that are making things look dark. Our eyes will almost correct those imperfections. What we need to do is start to see the way that the camera sees so start to see where the shadows are, where reflections are, what sort of color of light you’re getting and tune into that.

In terms of lighting a person, it’s important to think about this idea of hard versus soft lights or direct versus indirect lights. The types of lighting that people will generally tend to use are something called a Softbox, which is a soft box around the lighting which softens the light or something like LED lights or fluoro lights and they’re the most flattering lights to work with because they’ll create the soft, even light. As opposed to direct lights which will shine directly onto the people.

I’ve heard people talk about using things like cheap work lights from Bunning’s and things like that, which are going to create quite harsh shadows and they’re going to be too bright. If you are regularly filming interviews or face-to-camera videos something like a Softbox fluoro light or LED lights are a perfect place to start.

Jake: Right. Fantastic. Just on that, what’s the purpose? Are we trying to recreate nature in terms of what our eyes naturally see?

Ryan: That’s right. It’s important to make people look flattering basically when they’re on video. You want them to look attractive and you don’t want to distract from what they’re saying by poor quality video. Part of what, when you say recreate nature, that’s true. What we’re doing is working with a two-dimensional image and trying to make it look three dimensional. Part of that is separating the person that’s being filmed from their background and adding depth to the picture.

Jake: Fantastic. Okay. Excellent. Are there any aspects of lighting that you think are important?

Ryan: It’s important to first decide if you are just going to work with natural light or you’re going to bring in additional lighting. For people who are filming outside, on a sunny day you’re probably going to get a better result if you move into the shade like under a tree or something like that. If you have direct light going straight on to people’s face you’re going to have some quite harsh shadows so that’s something you definitely want to avoid. That’s lighting for outside.

Another thing that’s worth looking at is something that we call backlight. When people first start filming they might think that they need to have the sun directly in front of them in order to light their face but if the sun is actually behind them what it’ll do is create a backlight or sort of halo effect. Do you know what I mean?

Jake: Yes, absolutely.

Ryan: That will actually separate the person from the background. Go ahead.

Jake: Yes. One thing I’ve found with lighting outside, particularly in shade, is when the background is relatively light and bright, it tends to really I guess almost wash out the screen. How can you stop that?

Ryan: There’s a couple of ways and you’re absolutely right because you’re either exposing for your subject or you’re exposing for the background. Ideally, you want to get your subjects lit with the correct exposure but with a background that doesn’t vary so much from the exposure of your subject. If you find that your background is getting blown out, you might want to look at using a different background. Turning somewhere where, rather than seeing lots of sky which is going to be really bright, you may have trees or buildings or something like that, which are similar exposure level.

Jake: Sure. That makes a lot of sense. What about filming indoors?

Ryan: Filming indoors, it’s important to think of, if you’re filming during the day are you using light from outside, natural light, or are you controlling the light yourself? You can, if you do have say some nice big windows and you’re getting some soft, natural light coming in that can end up looking really great. The one down side is that you’re not in control of the light. If it’s a day where there’s lots of clouds passing over the sun and so you’re getting some really sunny patches and then it gets cloudy you’re lighting’s going to look really variable. What I like to do as much as possible is control the environment and control the lighting. Normally what I would do, when I’m filming inside, is actually close the blinds and set up lights because that way I’m not going to be effected as much by the change of lighting outside.

Jake: Absolutely.

Ryan: If it’s a day where it looks like the lighting is going to be pretty stable, than you can work with the outside light and, ideally, say if you’re in Australia in the southern hemisphere, getting light from a window in the south is probably going to be the most soft and unaffected by change because the sun is rising in the east going across the north and then setting in the west. Obviously, if you’re facing west and as the afternoon comes in, that light’s going to be shining in to the window.

It’s important to get orientated and think where is the sun. Where is it going to be in an hour? What effect is it going to have on my lighting. You may have to make that decision between using either natural outdoor light or setting up your own lights. In terms of setting up your own lights, the most classic form of lighting is what they call three-point lighting where, as your facing the camera there will be one light at forty-five degrees to your left, one light at forty-five degrees to your right, and one light behind you and just slightly off to the side so it’s out of the shot. That is just going to give you your most classic form of lighting.

With the two lights in front of you, one is called the key light, which is your main light, and one is called the fill light. Generally, you’re key light will just be slightly brighter than your fill light. You would either turn that light up brighter or you would move that light slightly closer and the effect that that’s going to have is it’s going to make one side of your face slightly lighter and the other side slightly darker. What that’s going to do is add depth to the image. If you’re lit equally as well on both sides, you’re going to get a fairly flat sort of effect. By making one side slightly brighter, it’s more of a sort of shaping contouring effect that’s going to look a little bit more flattering and add a little bit more depth.

The third light, which is the backlight, is going to separate you from the background. It’s just going to add a little bit of brightness on your shoulders and behind your head, give that slight halo effect, and make it so you are not blending into the background but you’re actually, it’s going to make you stand out a little bit more. That’s sort of the most classic lighting set up.

Jake: Sure. Okay, and in terms of positioning of these lights, are you usually going to position them low, facing up towards you or coming down on you or at eye level. What’s the best method?

Ryan: It’s normally better to have them slightly above you. That’s going to create a slight shadow underneath your chin and generally that’s going to be a little more flattering. For most people it’s going to make them look a little bit better and kind of disguise that double chin affect. Normally, just slightly above eye level is going to work best. With a backlight you can have that one slightly higher so the light is actually falling on your shoulders and it’s also going to light up the top of your head a little.

Jake: Okay. Fantastic. Let’s move on now. I’d like to cover sound and then maybe just to get some ideas from you in terms of shooting video and take and best frame people. Let’s focus on sound. What do you say is the best methods to get quality sound without spending a huge amount of money?

Ryan: In terms of cameras these days, just about any new camera can give you great results. The most important thing that you need to do with your sound is to make sure that you’re not recording through the on-camera microphone. The rule is, get the microphone as close to the source of sound as possible and this is going to be the number one thing that’s going to distinguish an amateur video from a more professional looking video, is people using the on-camera microphone rather than an external microphone.

When I say external microphone, for a face-to-camera video, typically that’s going to be a lapel microphone, which is like this sort of little microphone that you’ll see news readers or reporters use on TV, a little clip that will attach to your shirt or to your jacket. What this is going to do, by getting the microphone in really close to the source of sound it means that that’s the sound that it’s concentrating on and all of your background sound is going to be diminished.

In the same way as our eyes sort of compensate for bad images and shadows and that sort of thing, our ears are actually doing the same thing. Unconsciously, we’re filtering out all of the noise around us that’s competing for our attention. If a listener just pauses for a moment and tunes into the room around them, they might start to notice all sorts of noises that they weren’t aware of before. Maybe the buzzing of a computer or a light, traffic noise outside, the wind blowing, leaves rustling, a dog barking. All of these sort of sounds that we naturally filter out will come through when you record. By getting that microphone in as much as possible your diminishing the effect of all those competing sounds.

Jake: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. We’ve got a very noisy air conditioning unit in our offices here and there the worst thing to record with. I generally switch the unit off. We share our unit with some other tenants in our building and whenever I switch the unit off it actually resets their thermostat and so

probably once a week I get them coming in saying it’s too cold or it’s too hot. I’ve used every excuse under the sun trying to move the blame off the fact that I’m switching the unit off when I record.

Ryan: Yes. It’s like hey, we’re making a film here. It’s those little things, can be an added hassle to have to deal with but all those little one percent things are going to make a difference between making a video a lot more professional. The first thing you can do is use an external microphone like a lapel microphone and just as important is choosing an area where there’s good sound to begin with.

If you’re filming in an office and you’ve got one room which faces onto the street and the other room is at the back of the building, you may well find that your already eliminating a lot of competing sound by just filming away from the street. Little things like that. Or, let’s say you’re filming at an event. You want to record an interview with someone. Move out of the main room where lots of people are and go and find a quieter spot. Your sound is going to be a lot better. It’s going to be so much easier for people to tune into what you’re saying and more enjoyable for them. They’re more likely to stay with you on the journey and get a lot more out of it.

Jake: Yes. Absolutely. I’ve found that while there are certain things you can do post shot to improve the sound, we’re trying to remove these background noises can make the entire file sound really tinny. I’ve found that just getting the best quality audio initially improves the output at the end of the day.

Ryan: Yes. You’re right. In filmmaking there’s this term that’s a bit of a joke where people say we’ll fix it in post, which means we’ll fix it in editing. Once you’ve created an imperfection in your filming you can never really fix it. These programs that reduce noise, they’re basically just isolating one frequency of sound and removing that. The thing is that you’re removing all these other parts as well. If you are a sound expert you can do some pretty cool things but it’s also time. Time or money. If you can avoid those things in the first place, you’re just going to save yourself a lot of hassle, time, and money by getting it right the first time.

Jake: Yes. Absolutely. I’ve seen, just recapping that if, I guess, you can isolate a lot of noise or as much noise as possible and reduce the amount of hum in the background then the end result is going to be that for the vast majority of your viewers, if they’re viewing it on the web through external speakers then they’re probably not going to hear that hum because they’re not going to have it up loud enough. I guess the problem becomes when you put a set of headphones in and you just get that constant hum in the background.

Ryan: Yes. You notice it a lot more. That’s right. Basically, just to summarize with sound, it’s about choosing a space that’s not too noisy, filming with something like a lapel microphone that’s going to be getting in nice and close, and really just those two steps are going to make a huge difference to the quality of your audio.

Jake: Lapel mikes, how much are you speaking of in terms of costs to get a lapel mike which is going to improve the sound?

Ryan: It can really vary but I think that you can get a pretty reasonable entry-level lapel microphone for $100-$150 or something like that. I think a semi-professional sort of microphone might be a few hundred dollars and then a few hundred dollars more for a fully professional video microphone. Even just starting off with one of those $100 lapel microphones will transform your sound if before you were using the on-camera microphone.

Jake: Yes. Absolutely and that’s fantastic. All right Ryan, what about shooting your, let’s say I guess the majority of the listeners are going to be doing a little bit of on-camera work, face-to-camera work. I would like to get some tips on actually improving the shots for shooting people on camera.

Ryan: Absolutely. A common mistake that I see is people making mistakes with framing and, when I say framing just what they choose to put in their shot and leaving too much headroom. Headroom is the space between the top of your head and the top of the frame. They’ll frame it up so the person’s face is in the middle of the shot. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Jake: Yes. Absolutely.

Ryan: It just doesn’t look right. The person actually looks, it actually looks sort of psychologically diminishes their authority in the frame with having them kind of right down there and then the top of the frame a lot of this empty, dead sort of space. It’s interesting if you look at art or look at photography. You’ll notice that typically people, when their either painting or photographing people they’ll tend to have a classic sort of way of doing it where, a good rule of thumb is to frame it up so that the person who you’re filming they’re eyes are about the top third level of the frame.

If you break the frame up into parallel lines and break up into thirds, if you can see that line at the top third, if their eyes are round about that spot, that’s going to be the right framing. For whatever reason, whether we’re kind of hard-wired like this, it’s just a more visually and psychologically pleasing way of framing someone up. You want to leave a little bit of head room between the head and the top of the frame but not so much … not so little that they kind of look squashes against the frame because then kind of psychologically it looks like they’re almost being squashed down or something like that. That’s probably the first place to start is to think about where the eyes are sitting in the frame and what you’re framing looks like.

The next thing is to think about how close the camera comes in. With these face-to-camera videos it’s best to look at the way that people are filmed in news and current affair shows and pretty much replicate that. There’s a psychological effect whether you’re coming in really close or filming from far away.

Generally, if you’re more interested in capturing people’s emotions, you’ll come in really close and you’ll be able to discern more emotion on their face with, through their eyes or their expression. If you have the camera set up further away, the shot is far less about emotion and it’s about the person in the context of their environment. Part of your framing is actually your storytelling and rather than just plunk the camera down on the tripod and go over it, think about what’s in your background and how is it helping to tell your stories. I’ve noticed with one of your videos, Jake, you’ve got a large map in the background.

Jake: Yes.

Ryan: That’s part of telling your story because, as a travel agent, that directly relates to what you’re talking about. It’s congruent. If you’re filming and there’s some object in the background that might have some personal sentimental connection with you but viewers won’t know what it’s all about, it’s going to be distracting and it’s going to create this incongruence between what you’re talking about and what people are seeing in the background.

Think consciously about what’s in your frame and choose something that’s going to help propel the story and propel what you’re actually talking about. Let’s say you are a real-estate agent and you’re making a piece-to-camera video. Hey, you may be talking about a house and then if you actually put yourself in front of that house in a wider sort of frame there’s going to be a lot more context there where as if the camera’s zoomed right in on your face it’s really all about you and your emotions which might be inappropriate and create that incongruence.

Jake: Yes. Absolutely. For those of us who obviously want to shoot a bit of video but may not necessarily be fantastic storytellers, we can actually improve the quality just by being very aware of our surroundings and, as you say, with a face or close up of me it puts a lot more emphasis on what I’m actually saying. I generally tend to mumble along and there’s a lot of ums and uhs. Stepping back a little bit, I can actually take the focus off me and a little bit about the story that we’re projecting.

Ryan: Yes. Particularly if part of what you want to do is give people an insight into you and your other staff there and where you work, then with a slightly wider shot, they’re seeing the office and they’re getting a sense of even how you work, the culture of the place, the design, how clean it is, all that sort of stuff which is actually giving them useful information in terms of their decision-making process.

Jake: Yes. You see it a lot, lately, we see it a lot in betting ads and also in finance cuts during a news bulletin. They’re always sitting in front of their office and you see everybody’s busy in the background. I guess that’s creating a story.

Ryan: Yes. That’s right. Or maybe, say for a finance one, you’ve got all these screens in the background. Psychologically, the view is going ah, they’re tuned into the markets and it’s sort of, on one level it’s all for show, but it’s congruent and it helps to propel the story.

One other thing that’s worth mentioning here is the classic mistake people make is they’ll have something in the background that they won’t be aware of but when they cut their video together they’ll think it looks like something’s sticking out of my head so it might be a picture frame, which is a square but it looks like, once the video’s sort of flattens the image, it looks like there’s actually something protruding from their head. It might be a tree or something like that. Keep a lookout for that one. It’s an easy mistake to make.

Jake: Absolutely. All right, did you have any other tips?

Ryan: That basically covers lighting, sound, and composition. In conclusion, I think it’s important, if you’re making videos, to focus on what video does best, which is, as the name implies, it’s a visual medium. Try to maximize the fact that it’s visual.

There’s a derisive term that people talk about in filmmaking which is radio with pictures, which basically means it’s all focused on the voice and someone’s slaughtered some pictures in there but really you didn’t really need them anyway. If you’re not using the fact that it’s a visual medium, why make video. Use audio instead. If you are making a video, make the most of the fact that you’re working with images. Think about your background. Think about images that you can cut in that can give more information about the subject that you’re talking about and really focus on making those visuals look as great as possible.

Jake: Sure. Absolutely. I guess, I just want to touch on one other point and it’s a point which I’ve found has created a lot of engagement in the videos that I do and it’s focusing a bit about what you’ve been talking about and it’s that authenticity. Initially, I started in a new style and being very, trying I guess replicate a news bulletin and I found it incredibly hard to do because I’m not trained. As I added more personality I got more engagement. Would you recommend this is something that our listeners should focus on as well?

Ryan: It’s really important to just be yourself in front of the camera. Often, when I first start working with clients in front of the camera they don’t realize how hard it is to present. They don’t realize that presenters have just spent years honing their craft and doing, presenting courses and acting classes, presenting in front of the camera. It’s such a difficult skill to master. If you’re going to try and copy what they do you’re just going to end up looking second best.

If you can be yourself, and you are talking about a subject that you’re quite passionate about, it’s going to help so much. Just the fact that you’re energetic, you’re excited about what you’re talking about, and you’re using it as an opportunity to show people a little bit about who you are to reveal your personality, to show who … these are opportunities to not only share news with people but also to increase your connection with them and they’ll just get a much better sense of the person that they’re working with.

Be yourself. That’s what people are used to now with YouTube. People aren’t, in the main, looking for contrived performances and something that has to look slick and professional like a TV news presenter. They’d much rather you just be yourself. It’s going to be a lot more engaging and enjoyable for them.

Jake: Yes. Absolutely. Where essentially all we’re trying to do is engage with their customers and the ideal way to do that is a one-on-one situation but video, I’ve found, is a one-to-many but it gives you the biggest opportunity to make it as much about just the one person that, on the other side of the camera as possible.

Ryan: That’s the real challenge. Is that what you try to do with your videos where you’re looking at the camera but you’re imagining you’re speaking to one person?

Jake: Absolutely. Changing the terminology from thank you all for tuning into, thank you very much for tuning in and you may … this might be a great travel tip to you … here’s a great airfare for you. I‘ve found it’s very important just focusing on that one person.

Ryan: Yes. It looks like your videos are quite conversational so that rather than scripting everything and trying to learn it or read it off an auto queue, it’s probably going to work better if you work from key points and you can inject a little bit of conversation. It’s going to come across as a lot more natural.

Jake: Yes, totally. Absolutely. As a general rule, I’m not a very scripted person. That’s just part of me, who I am. Anything else that I try to achieve by not doing that would just be … would inject a little bit of impersonality into it.

Ryan: Yes, definitely. It’s an ongoing process so I imagine it would be the same with you where you would film something, you put it out there, look at it, and do a bit of an evaluation for yourself and go what am I happy with, what do I think I can improve next time. Each time, just try to refine one element that you’ve noticed that you can improve. The chances are, for people who’ve never done a video before, the first one they’ll do they’ll look at it and go oh, I hate that. I look awkward or I feel uncomfortable. It does involve some persistence and it’s just involves an ongoing process of evaluating what you’ve come up with and improving a little bit each time and enjoying it.

Jake: Absolutely. I think that’s probably a key point as well. You are a very harsh critic of yourself and generally others won’t be as harsh on you as yourself. The very act of publishing, even if you’re not happy with it, allows you to start creating or allows you to continue building that relationship with your customers or with your target audience. Yeah, just a slow incremental refinement will improve it over time but people will grow with you as you do.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Jake: That’s fantastic Ryan. Thank you very much for coming on. I really appreciate it. I’ve learned a lot personally and I hope you in the audience will also pick up something from this as well. Where can people find you?

Ryan: If you want to check out the work that I do go over to which is my video production website. If you’re interested in checking out my podcast go over to iTunes and check out the web video marketing show.

Jake: Yes. Fantastic. I’ve listened to the first few episodes and it’s incredible information and so I recommend everybody listening to go and check that out. I’ll pop a link in the show notes below, directly to both the podcast and to Ryan’s website. But apart from that, thank you very much Ryan and I really appreciate it.

Ryan: Thanks a lot Jake. I enjoyed it.