I’ve had a YouTube channel for 10 years. Until recently, I never had any purpose for it. Never a plan for growth, never a topic, never a strategy, other than to share whatever I could produce on the spurt of the moment.
Two years ago, my wife and I moved from Chile to the United States to take on a job opportunity. As we were leaving the safety net of the familiar in exchange for the biggest cultural shift of our lives, I started thinking about sharing these experiences with our friends and family back home.
A blog seemed adequate, but to document our journey in writing would limit the audience and make it a little too serious. Facebook seemed like an option, but I didn’t like the idea of seeing my occasional posts amongst memes of unpredictable reputation. Twitter and Instagram were just too limited. A private chat group, too closed. An email list, unattractive.
So it is how the idea of regular videos came to be. We would use my YouTube channel to publish our stories and share them with our close ones. As I was already interested in photography for over a decade, I had a camera and a couple of lenses, so we could start recording right away. However, I had little to no idea about videography.
I started watching a variety of YouTube videos about vlogging, camcorders, DSLRs and related gear. I would use search terms such as ‘how to start vlogging’, ‘vlogging gear’, and ‘camera for youtube’.
As I obsessed over ISO settings, noise levels, expensive gimbals and even more expensive lights, time went by and I still hadn’t created a single video. Not a single one. I could recite formulas for converting focal lengths between crop factors, but I couldn’t show you an example of the bokeh I could get with my kit lens, because I just hadn’t tried to do it.
If you didn’t understand anything in the last paragraph because it sounded too technical, that’s exactly what it was. I was trying to perfect an art I hadn’t even started practicing.
The blindness of perfectionism
Eventually, I made a first video. I compiled 10 minutes of footage I got during a few weeks, and I recorded my wife and I as we sat on the couch watching it and commenting. Add some picture-in-picture, sound effects, background music cut to the beat, text, memes, and my incomplete inexperience as an editor, and you have 2 weeks of work. Not full time, of course, but two weeks of daily editing nonetheless.
Each of the second and third videos took 3 weeks to edit. The fourth one came months later, because I was uninspired by the slowness of the process. All in all, we published 6 videos during the first year, which were seen by our friends with positive comments and requests for more.
In retrospect, what held me back was the constant awareness of the tiniest details: some noise in the blacks, overblown highlights, saturated skin tones, unmatched colors between my phone and my DSLR.
I was anxious that the imperfections would be noticed. Yet I need not have worried, as the only comments we were getting were on the lines of “that’s a beautiful place to hike”, “your cat is so cute”, and “I’m glad you guys are OK”. Nobody cared about image sharpness or the rule of thirds, because they were there to watch us and to hear what we had to say.
They were there for our story. Being a perfectionist (or so I called myself) made me blind to my target audience and their expectations, and it became a permanent blocker for the creative process I was desperate to become familiar with.
Gear is everything
The channels I was watching have one thing in common: the focus on equipment. Every other video would be a review where you would learn why some camera was no longer an option in 2017, a dump of a backpack with everything you can fit in it, or an unboxing of the latest gimbal. I was just watching gear porn.
I don’t want to minimize the contributions of these channels, because I have actually learned a lot from many of them. They exist for a niche and they fill the space graciously. However, for the most part they don’t put enough emphasis on the storytelling aspect of creating videos, which was the key missing concept that I should’ve had as a beginner.
These channels are supposed to be about vlogging. I call them the metavloggers now. They will talk about vlogging, but almost never vlog themselves. They will say how important the story is, but almost never tell a story themselves. They will say repeatedly that gear doesn’t matter, while reviewing the largest camera bags because those are the only ones that can safely hold their $10,000 gear sets.
I have to pause here and appreciate the honesty of channels such as Tony and Chelsea Northrup, who, when reviewing the 10-bit 400 Mbps capabilities of the GH5 (bear with me, it’s just technical details), just laughed and said that they weren’t able to tell the difference, or that it was too small to be worth the hassle. Meanwhile, other reviewers complained that this feature didn’t live up to a $10,000 cinema camera, so it wasn’t good enough.
In a similar example, Darious Britt has shown me again and again how he accomplishes a lot with a little. Where others are telling me that a two-year old camera is not good, this guy used a dinosaur of a camera to make a feature film. Where Peter McKinnon recommends a $400 camera bag, Darious Britt recommends a $30 one (which I bought, have used a lot for over a year, and is still impeccable).
These contrasting realities made me question my fixation on equipment, specs and irrelevant technicalities in the editing process, and eventually opened my eyes to this metavlogging bubble I was in.
Epic or nothing
Another feature of the metavloggers is the emphasis on adjectives such as epic, dope, and cinematic, words that seem reluctant to be typed in anything other than uppercase letters.
The inherent message here is that anything less than epic is not worth watching. “Don’t you go vlogging about your trip to the supermarket if you don’t do a time-lapse of a red sunset or a busy street intersection. Oh, and remember to accompany those montages with Scandinavian electronic music.”
Watching the metavloggers is like watching a fashion gala. Somehow you know it’s fake, but you’re still made to believe this is what reality is supposed to look like: skinny models in weird garments; carefully edited footage recorded with expensive equipment, wrapped in Hollywood-like LUTs that you can buy for a few bucks.
Then it’s no wonder that aspiring YouTubers experience dissatisfaction for their videos. They look and sound nothing like the fashion show. This is exactly what happened to me after I did my first rough cut, which is why I subsequently spent so much time “fixing” the “problems” I had with my colors, exposure, audio levels, and a host of other things. This is exactly why I only made 6 videos in a year.
Remedy and treatment
After the awakening, I decided to take action. I created a new channel where my wife and I could focus on our story only, without the clutter of 10 years of random content. We would publish regularly, but most importantly, we would limit it to our story alone. My personal commitment for that channel, and the challenge I would have for any aspiring storyteller, is the following:
No gear or software reviews
No “what’s in my bag” videos
No “the TRUTH about” videos
No video making tutorials
No explicit discussion or mention of videography terms
There’s certainly room for technical channels, but I’ve seen too many small YouTubers falling for the trap of gear-mania. I can see how a technical channel would drive more traffic than a personal one (which, in the future, could translate to more revenue), but please don’t mix them.
This criticism is an acknowledgement of my own failure at realizing early the vortex that was dragging me in. Gadgets are fun, but technology moves too fast for those of us with a soft spot for equipment. I can only hope that somebody else will relate to this and escape as I did.
After making 6 videos in a year, we’ve published 11 videos in the past 11 weeks. Having a schedule has helped us a lot. I’m faster in my editing not only because of the practice I’ve had, but because I’m no longer over-indexing on technical details.
If anything, we’re over-indexing in the stories we want to tell, and that, for me, is making all the difference.