5 Tips for Documenting DIY Projects

It feels like just yesterday I was writing my first tutorial on Instructables, but it was actually over a decade ago. Since then, I’ve been making and publishing tutorials almost every month, and more recently, every week. During that time, I’ve accumulated some tips for you. Some of these tips can be found in my 2014 MAKE article about making better build videos, but these tips will be good for any type of documentation you’re making.

This guide assumes you are familiar with the basics of photography. If you need a refresher, check out Audrey’s excellent (and free) Instructables Photography Class.

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Find Your Light

Find the optimal lighting conditions for your project. Indirect natural light is a great place to start, just shoot next to a window or outside when it’s overcast. When it comes to artificial light, you can get great results with scrappy gear, but you have to be smart about it. I used clip lights covered with tracing paper for years! Find some great recommendations for inexpensive lighting solutions in Audrey’s photo class Artificial Lighting lesson.

The quality of your light is much more important than the quality of your camera.

LEDs and other light-emitting projects can be particularly challenging to capture on camera. The lighting conditions needed are rarely intuitive, so give yourself time to experiment!

Use a Tripod (or Magic Arm)

Stabilize your camera with a tripod. Nobody likes blurry photos or shaky handheld video, so whether it’s a $15 tripod or the Manfrotto Magic Arm I use most of the time, just stabilize your shots– Audrey has some great suggestions in her Tripods lesson. Which ties into tip #3…

Go Hands-Free

Optimize your camera workflow for hands-free operation. That might mean you have a camera with a flip-out screen so you can see it while you’re filming. It might mean you build a foot switch trigger for capturing photos with both of your hands doing something at the same time. And it might mean you wear a GoPro on your head. I find that when both of your hands can be in the shot, you can capture the natural action and better communicate that action, vs. just stopping to take photo and video in between the steps.

Write With Reference

Use that photo and video you just captured as reference while writing out the text version of your project instructions. That might mean you’re writing a blog post or a full blown tutorial, but those videos and photos are going to help you remember all of the details as well remember the pitfalls for beginners or the things you tried that you might do differently in the future. This text can also double as your voiceover or direct camera address script if you’re making a video like that.

Edit Multiple Times

Whether you’re just doing a text writeup, text and photos, and/or video, you really want to go back over your work more than one time to make sure it’s as concise and complete as possible. Play to different media’s strengths. If there’s a complicated spatial relationship aspect to your project, that might be best shown as a video or a gif made from a video clip vs. eight photos and a long text description. You might put a bunch of technical information in text form, then reference it in your video without having to go through each bit.

I’ll always maintain that your lighting is way more important than what camera you use, but I’ve gone through a bunch of different cameras over the years, and I wrote a blog post about my current favorite gear if you’re curious. Thanks so much for reading!

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