by Ewa Mitulska-Wójcik
What I’ve learned from 18 weeks of vlogging my coding journey
I’m learning to code and I’m vlogging about it.
In 2016, I shot 18 weekly code vlogs (video blogs). I’m slowly publishing all the episodes on Free Code Camp’s YouTube channel. Watch a few minutes of my first episode, and you’ll get a good idea of what my vlog is like:
In this article I’ll teach you the lessons I’ve learned so you can vlog your coding journey, too.
You’re the one who gets the most out of vlogging.
I started vlogging in August 2016 as an experiment. It turned out to be a great source of motivation for me.
There are so many reasons to start sharing your learning to code journey. Here are just a few of mine:
- it forces you to code regularly
- you get to review what you’ve learned
- by explaining what you’re doing to your viewers, you understand it better yourself
- you get a lot of helpful feedback from your audience, which you can act upon to further improve as a developer
- it gives you a chance to practice your spoken English — especially helpful if English is your second language, like it is for me
- you get to meet other inspiring vloggers
- the vlog itself becomes part of your portfolio
- it’s a code diary to help you memorialize your journey
- and most importantly, you get to teach other developers and help them stay motivated
Here are some practical tips that will make vlogging easier. I wish I knew these when I was staring out.
Music sets the tone for your vlog.
While watching other YouTubers and while listening to my favorite podcasts, I check the descriptions to learn what music they use. This is also a great way to discover new musicians.
It’s hard to find proper music tracks that you can use for your vlog. My first vlog was blocked by YouTube because a musician didn’t have the rights to a sample they mixed into a track. This cost me hours of extra work because I had to re-edit the episode with new music.
Regardless of whether you pay for a track or use one that’s free, be mindful of copyrights.
One more tip: it’s much easier to choose your music first before you start editing your video than to add the music at the end.
I started with what I had at home.
I love taking photos, so I invested in a Canon EOS 700D long before I decided to start vlogging.
This DSLR has one great feature when it comes to shooting movies — the Vari-Angle Clear View LCD II Touch Screen. It allows you to see yourself in a LCD viewer while recording. You can also change the settings using the touch screen while standing in front of the camera. It’s among the most convenient of large DSLR cameras.
I also have one kit lens (18–135mm).
So far, I’ve managed to save all the raw camera footage for a single episode onto two 32GB cards.
When you shoot with a heavy DSLR, a good tripod is indispensable. I chose the Velbon DV-6000. I sometimes also use my old JVC camera, but more often than this, I grab for my phone — a Samsung Galaxy S5.
The good news is you don’t need any of these things to get started. You can shoot great quality vlogs even with your smartphone.
If you can afford a good external mic, get one! I don’t have one yet, so I have to tweak the sound in postproduction. It’s time-consuming, and even after 18 episodes, I’m still learning how to do it well.
While recording yourself, try to shoot without any extra music or loud background noise. If you live in a busy city, you may need to retake shots due to sudden car honks, children screaming at a school nearby, loud motorbikes, or drilling sounds from your neighbors.
Practice not saying useless words like so, um, yyyyhh. This will save you hours of postproduction. Short sentences are better than long ones.
Speak clearly and with strong intonation. Without clear articulation and variation in the pitch of your voice, your monologues may start to sound boring, regardless of how exciting your topic may be.
Throughout recording my 18 episodes so far, hundreds of minutes of the material ended up on the cutting room floor. Why? Because I didn’t speak clearly, there were too many language mistakes, heavy winds interrupted me (that I didn’t notice while shooting), or there was some other annoying noise in the background.
Vlogging is all about thinking out loud in front of the camera. In the beginning it’s weird — especially if you vlog outside. It’s like a private conversation with an audience of potentially thousands of people.
I’ve found that by imagining that I’m talking to a friend who is also learning to code, I’m able to speak much more naturally.
The best light is natural light. But depending on where you are and what season it is, the available natural light could be too harsh or too weak.
Sometimes I can’t get enough natural light, and I have to play more with my camera settings, or hunt for good light in a different room. I also try to reposition my camera and adjust the angle from which I’m shooting to accommodate the light source.
The simplest source of light inside your home is a window. Some people buy a lightning kit like this, but you definitely don’t need this to get started. I shot all 18 episodes using only natural light.
Sometimes, even if it’s dark and there would be grain in the image, I decide to go ahead with the dark shots. These are the moments where I really feel I need to tell something to the camera now, because tomorrow it just wouldn’t be the same. Because it’s a vlog — and not a big-budget production — I optimize for catching the best moments above all else.
When I shoot a weekly code vlog, I don’t create a script. It’s created by my life. I just try to have a camera close by at all times so I can capture the moment.
I make an effort to record extra shots showing me coding at the various venues I visit. These types of shots help me fill in the gaps between ideas, and make all my thoughts more digestible. They glue all the takes together and add to the flow of an episode.
I plan my work week around a single project. This results in one main topic per episode. Sometimes when I reach the end of a week, it turns out that the main topic of the episode should be different. Since it’s a weekly code vlog, I decide on the movie flow once I’ve shot all the material for the week.
So far, there has only been one week where I ran out of time and decided to give up and not publish an episode. That’s life. Sometimes you’re too busy with other stuff, of just not happy enough with the final result to show it to your vlog audience.
When someone hangs out with you, they rarely look at you in the same way — from the same point and same angle — the entire time you’re together. So when I record monologues, I often shoot myself from different angles, distances, and levels of zoom. This makes these monologues vivid, and lends the impression that they’re more real.
I try not to move much in a frame during a shot in case I need to do cuts later.
I try to shoot in front of a non-distracting background. I also try to choose angles that direct my audience’s focus to important elements in the frame.
If you’re just getting started, you can just find a corner of your flat with a plain wall — no extra expense needed.
I always shoot more material than I’ll ultimately use. Sometimes I shoot the same take several times — especially if I’m explaining something. It’s always better to have a extra footage to choose from when you start editing an episode.
I start naming and cataloging the material I shoot before I start the editing process. This way, I can immediately get rid of weak takes.
I name each file and categorize it as a talk, a screencast, or a filling shot.
If you just record and don’t do any preselection, editing your vlog may end up taking several hours longer than it needs to.
In order to record my screen, I invested in Screencast-o-matic. It’s quite intuitive, but it wasn’t the wisest choice. If you want to record fullscreen on Mac, you get the final video in 1440×900 dimensions, which is a bit small for HD.
There are many other solutions on the market, and I’ll eventually choose a new one. If you know of a better, relatively inexpensive tool, leave a comment 😉
The work doesn’t end when you upload your video to YouTube. There’s a lot more you can do to attract viewers and make each episode as useful as possible for them.
I always set a thumbnail for each video, then add the title. If you use Photoshop, it’s just like adding an extra layer for each new episodes, then changing the caption. You can also use free tools like Pixlr for this.
I add a detailed video description and tags for each episode. In the description, I provide extra links to useful tools, sites, podcast episodes, articles, and tutorials that I used during a given week. I also add the credits for the music and a short bio of myself.
If you plan to upload non-vlog videos to your YouTube channel, or to publish your content to a larger community (like I’m now doing with Free Code Camp), it’s useful to divide your videos into playlists.
After the 13th episode, I started using an end screen that’s clickable both on desktop and mobile. This is a moment for a call to action, such as watch another video or subscribe. If you want to add other information during a movie, you can use cards that will appear in the top corner of your video with a small i-letter icon.
Sometimes I speak Spanish in my vlogs, then I add subtitles. You can easily do this after uploading your video by going to subtitles section.
YouTube provides far more options than I end up using, such as translations and a video editor. Take time to explore some of its functionality when you upload your first video.
Backing things up
When you run a vlog, you’ll deal with thousands of shots. Backing all these videos up in their original quality requires a lot of free terabytes. Due to these space considerations, if you don’t plan to come back and reuse your old takes (like Casey does), I wouldn’t recommend trying to store everything.
I always keep a copy of my final edited episodes. I store the music tracks I used. I also keep all the raw data for my most recent episode for about a week or two, just in case I need to re-edit the episode. Fortunately, this has only happened only once so far.
This is where the magic happens. You get to make decisions about consistency, cuts, flow, length, and many other considerations. This is where you start creating the story.
In order to edit my vlogs, I use Premiere Pro. Here’s what my workflow looks like for the 3 to 6 hours I spend editing each episode.
This is a powerful tool that requires a lot of practice to master. I’m still just scratching the surface.
As a beginner, you can use any video editor you want. If your computer uses Windows, you should already have Movie Maker installed by default. Mac users get iMovie. Some people even edit movies on their smartphones.
Remember: tools are important, but not nearly as important as the content they support.
Sharing your story
It’s OK to just keep your blog to yourself. But if you put this much effort into shooting and editing your vlog, why not sharing it with others so that they can benefit from watching it, too.
I recommend posting your video on social media, forums, and blogs. Reach your audience where they already are.
Yes, this takes a lot of time and effort. But I do it because it’s a way of giving back to the coding community from which I’ve gotten so much.
Vlogging isn’t easy, but it is rewarding! I encourage you to document your coding journey this way. You can always treat it as an experiment, then decide later whether you want to publish it.
If you do make a vlog, send me a link. I’m excited to see it.
Keep on doing. And see you in my next Code Vlog!
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