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Introduction to Visual Literacy: Digital Video and Storytelling

This guide introduces visual literacy and why it is important. It discusses how to think about, use, and create images and visual media, and provides links to important resources.

Created by Health Science Librarians

Digital Video and Storytelling

Digital Video and Storytelling

Images are powerful mental forces that can evoke new ideas, often in the form of a story.  One notable example of this is the classic novel The Sound and the Fury, which derived from an image in the mind of author William Faulkner. (Apkon, 2013, p. 28). 

Media literacy expert Stephen Apkon goes so far as to say that “images must be accompanied by a narrative if they are to have any value.”  Stories provide context to information, which engages attention and makes information easier to learn and remember. 

The combination of storytelling and visual imagery is an especially effective way to engage learners (Cozolinas, 2010, pp.163-164).  A particularly effective way to create stories with pictures is through moving images, or video. 

Video stories powerfully affect the brain, through what are called mirror neurons. According to brain researcher Marco Iacoboni, mirror neurons are a part of the brain that respond to the actions of another human being such that when you observe the pleasant or unpleasant experiences of another person, your mind imitates these actions. This is what allows us to feel empathy.  (Apkon, p. 82)  According to  Apkon, “our mirror neurons fire just as easily when we watch an action on the screen as when we see it in real life.”  (Apkon, p.84)  And Princeton University psychology professor Uri Hasson states that “now we have scientific proof that some filmmakers actually take over a viewer’s brain” (Apkon, p. 88).

Stories are effective in nonfiction as well as fiction.  For example, a video describing a professional project is likely to be much more effective when it is told as a narrative that describes a process of discovery.  Narrative is key to holding the interest of the viewer. 

Types of Videos

Types of videos

Fictional films and videos

Fiction can be valuable in helping us understand and empathize with others. Fictional works (some of them) can provide insights about cultural situations and issues. And watching and analyzing techniques used in fictional movies can make us better movie-makers ourselves. 


Documentary videos can show what has happened historically, or can document something as it unfolds. According to Sheila Curran Bernard, documentary basics include exposition (who, what, where, and why); the narrative train (what drives a story forward); theme (underlying subject); arc (how events transform the characters in the story); stories that are either character-driven (action of the film emerges from the characters) or plot-driven (characters are secondary to events); and dramatic storytelling (including how the main character confronts adversity and how the audience is affected by the story).  (Bernard, 2007, pp. 15-31)

In her excellent book Documentary Storytelling, Bernard distinguishes the job of documentary filmmaker from that of making a feature film by saying that "our stories depend not on creative invention but on creative arrangement (p. 2).  

Bernard writes that "one of the biggest misconceptions about documentary filmmaking is that it happens spontaneously"(p.35).  Her book describes documentary filmmaking in detail and includes several case studies. This book is highly recommended for anyone contemplating a documentary video project. For more information, see

Personal digital stories are typically short video documentaries that are autobiographical and concerned with connecting to others through sharing of personal issues and personal growth. The Center For Digital Storytelling ( teaches educators and students how to produce personal digital stories. 

Demonstrations and Screencasts

Demonstrations are used to train others in procedures, and are effective for showing how to do things visually that cannot be explained easily using text. 

Screencasts are video demonstrations that show computer users how to do procedures on a computer. Professional vendors such as provide screencasts on how to use software. These popular series are provided for a fee, with a few available at no cost. If you are interested in creating screencasts, looking at screencasts from professional vendors would be helpful, both for finding out what is already available (no need to reinvent the wheel) and also for ideas about how to do screencasts effectively.  Software design specifically for creating screencasts is available (see below). It is a good idea to invest in a good headset/microphone and to find a quiet space for creating your screencasts.

Creating and Editing Videos

Creating and Editing Videos

The technical aspects of creating and editing video are complex, and could easily be a guide of its own.  This guide does not cover these topics in any detail. For more information, refer to the Resources section of this guide. 

Creating Videos

Most of the information in the section on photography and imaging applies to video, as well.  Most current digital cameras record video as well as still photographs.  To learn more about how to create video, learn to use you camera's video capabilities, review concepts in the digital photography section of this guide, and refer to the resources section of this guide. 

Plan with the end in mind

Think about what you want to accomplish with your video, and plan appropriately.  If you are creating a fictional film, you should probably create a storyboard that sketches out scenes and camera angles. If you are doing a documentary project, consider carefully what you want to film in order to have everything you need when the time comes to edit. Think about other materials (photographs, graphics, etc.) you will need.

Preparing for a shoot

Before you begin your video project, you need to be sure that your equipment is working properly and that you know how to use it. If you have not used the equipment before, create some practice and test videos to become more familiar with it.  This is especially important if you will be recording an event that happens only once, when there will be no second chance if you get it wrong.

Learn about the location where you will shoot:  the lighting, noise level, room configuration, etc. 

  • Camera(s) and lenses
  • Power: Be sure that you either have a fully-charged camera battery, and a backup battery or batteries if you will be recording for a long period. Alternatively, if you plan to plug the camera into an outlet, be sure that you have a power supply and cord (and that an outlet will be available in a convenient place!).   
  • Memory:  Memory cards and/or digital video tape
  • Supplemental audio recording equipment (microphone(s), headphones, cabling, etc) 
  • Tripod: Be sure you have your tripod/monopod or whatever supports you may need. 
  • Lighting equipment

Operating the camera and recording the video: 

In shooting video, camera shake is an important issue.  It is usually best to shoot with the camera on a tripod, or if hand-held, it is good to use some kind of image stabilization equipment.

In most cases  you will record much more video than you will use in the final product. You can alway edit things out. It is always better to record too much than not enough. 

Be sure to record high-quality sound. No matter how nice the video looks, if the sound quality is poor the video will not seem professional and will not be nearly as appealing. 

Editing Video 

There are several software  programs available that do a good job of editing video.  Some are more powerful than others; however the more powerful tools tend to be more expensive and more difficult to learn.  However, the following is a very brief overview to help get you started. 

  • The first step is set up a project in your video editing program.  The project file is the project you use to assemble, edit, and then export your video.
  • After setting up a project file, you need to import  files into your video editing project. This include video as well audios, photographs, and graphics.  \
  • Next, edit the video from the source materials you have imported.  Edit the clips, and put the clips you want to use on the video editor timeline.
  • When you are finished editing, export the video to whatever format you need. 

Basic concepts of video editing are the same regardless of the video editing program you are using. Most of the time when you are working in a video editor, you interact with panels.  

The following example shows the Adobe Premiere video editing user interface. (Other video editing applications look a little different but the work similarly.)

Adobe Premiere Interface

Premiere includes many panels, but usually only some are visible. The following example shows some of the most important panels that appear on screen much of the time. They include the Project, Source, Program, Media Browser, Timeline, Audio Meters, and Tools panels.  These panels are described below the graphic.


  • Project panel: used to organize imported clips and other media. Allows you to create folders (called bins) to organize files. 

When you import videos and other files into your video editing program, the source files are not embedded into the project file. The project file is actually pointing to these source files. This is a good thing, because it is non-destructive, meaning that the original source files are not changed when you make edits to your video – the source files are not degraded in any way. (The downside is that you have to be careful about moving files around – if you move a source file you need to be sure the project file knows where it is.)

  • Source panel: used to edit individual clips
  • Program panel: Displays the video you are editing. The display on the program panel reflects the point at which the playhead appears on the timeline
  • Media browser:  Allows you to browse for and import files. 
  • Timeline:  used to arrange clips and other media into sequences. It can include multiple tracks on which to arrange media clips. The playhead (also called current-time indicator, or CTI) is a vertical red line and shows where you are in the video sequence. The playhead position is reflected in the display in the program panel. The timeline is where you do the bulk of the work of editing your video.
  • Audio meters: Allow you to monitor the volume of the video or individual tracks. You can adjust volume levels of tracks in the timeline. 
  • Tools: The tools in the Tools panel enable you to edit clips and tracks in various ways. 

Video Editing Tools

Video Editing Tools

Basic tools: (basic)

Microsoft Movie Maker (Windows)

Movie Maker is a basic, easy-to-use video editing program that may well be all you need.  It is not as sophisticated as high-end video editing tools, but for many purposes it should serve quite well.  Best of all, it is a free download. For more information about Movie Maker, see:

iMovie (Macintosh)

A good but basic video editor that comes free with every new Macintosh. (Roughly equivalent to Movie Maker on the Windows platform.)

Advanced Video editing tools

Final Cut Pro (Macintosh)

Apple's high-end video editing program underwent a major redesign in 2011 when version X was released.  Final Cut Pro X initially received poor reviews from many video editing professionals, but Apple responded to complaints with free upgrades that address many of the issues.

Adobe Premiere(Windows/Macintosh)

Adobe Premiere is an excellent, cross-platform video editing program that is well integrated with Photoshop and other Adobe products. Premiere Pro does have a bit of a learning curve and is best for demanding or professional video projects.

Screencasting tools

Camtasia Studio 8 (Windows)

Camtasia Studio is an excellent, affordable video editor.  It is one of the best tools for screencasting (recording and producing tutorials of screen activity) but it also is a very good video editor and includes many (though not all) of the capabilities of high end video editing programs such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere.

Note: There is also a Camtasia for Macintosh program available from Techsmith. However the Macintosh Camtasia is a different program with different features than the Windows version. 

Screenflow (Macintosh)

Screenflow is primarily a screencasting program, not an all-purpose video editor.  It is probably the best screencasting tool available for the Macintosh – very well designed, many features, and high-quality output.