5 Tips for Documenting DIY Projects




About: Making and sharing are my two biggest passions! In total I've published hundreds of tutorials about everything from microcontrollers to knitting. I'm a New York City motorcyclist and unrepentant dog mom. My ...

It feels like just yesterday I was writing my first tutorial here 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 familar with the basics of photography. If you need a refresher, check out Audrey's excellent (and free) Instructables Photography Class.

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Step 1: 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!

Step 2: 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...

Step 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.

Step 4: 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. Learn how to write an excellent Instructable with Jessy's free How To Write An Instructable Class

Step 5: 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, and please sound about your project documentation struggles in the comments, I'll try to help!

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    13 Discussions


    2 years ago

    The only thing I'd add is that if your instructable is in the form of a video, the quality of the audio ranks right up with the emphasis on lighting. Script it, don't wing it. Use a good mic. Pay attention to background noise. And learn how to do some simple editing steps such as noise reduction and normalizing. You can use free audio editors such as Audacity to clean up the audio to an amazing degree.

    2 replies

    Reply 1 year ago

    I can't say enough good about Audacity! It is one of the first programs I put on a new computer! I have a personal library of 9000 selections in my music library, and I have tweaked every one with Audacity. I always normalize, equalize, and use compression and noise reduction to tailor the songs, arias and symphonies to my liking, to draw out the subtleties, like deeper bass, higher treble, and sometimes even changing the key or tempo of the piece. Since I get the music from diverse sources, much of it is degraded, and Audacity works wonders to remove clicks, pops, clapping, hum, etc. I have found that even music from professionally recorded cds can be vastly improved with Audacity.


    2 years ago

    Step 5 edit multiple times. What video editing software are you using there and on what platform? Thanks.

    3 replies

    Reply 2 years ago

    Thanks CabbitCastle for the detailed overview! I use mostly Final Cut Pro X on Mac, and I think it's serviceable but not necessarily what I'd recommend for everybody. I also like Premiere, but think iMovie is just fine for most folks, plus the other free options CabbitCastle mentioned.


    Reply 2 years ago

    Looks like Final Cut Pro X on a Mac. You can use pretty much any video editing software though.

    For instance, there's Adobe Premiere Pro (paid, professional), Sony Vegas Pro (paid, professional), Avid Media Composer (paid, professional) and a bunch of others on the professional level which cost anywhere from fairly affordable to pretty darn expensive (though justified for what you get), but they're likely all overkill for beginners. I am starting out with video editing myself, and as I don't know if I'll stick to any one software I sure won't pay if I don't know I'll end up using it.

    My suggestion would be to get a freeware or free version (non-pro / limited) of a professional software and just start out. Most should offer free time trials, too, which would be a good option.

    Now for some free or free-ish alternatives:

    Lightworks is available for Mac, Windows and Linux, has a ton of
    features, has been used for Hollywood movies and is free with limited
    options, the biggest limitation being video export in one single format
    at up to 720p in the free version. Monthly subscription for the Pro
    version is fairly affordable though.

    Windows Live Movie Maker is free, Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve is free (professional and extremely powerful, too!, paid Studio / Pro version exists as well ... honestly, looking at it I think this is the way to go and what I'll be using in the future), so is VSDC Free Video Editor, NCH VideoPad Video Editor, and so on.

    When in doubt just google "best free video editing software [mac / windows / linux]" and you'll probably find something.

    Recommendations would be Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve and Lightworks as they are powerful and work on Windows, Linux and Mac. Plus, you don't have to pay for the "basic" feature set, which will probably contain more features than you need anyway. If you're a fan of the Adobe products, Premiere Pro would be a good option as it seamlessly integrates with other Adobe software such as After Effects, Audition, ..., but that one is paid.

    I hope that helps!


    Reply 2 years ago

    Small addendum to my previous post:

    Lightworks 14.0 is not as demanding in terms of necessary hardware, with the recommended specs being an i7 or comparable CPU, 3GB+ RAM, 1GB+ graphics card and approx. 200MB free space (see: https://www.lwks.com/index.php?option=com_content... ). It runs on Windows Vista or higher, Ubuntu 14.04 or higher and Mac OS X 10.9 - 10.12.

    DaVinci Resolve 12.5 on the other hand needs Windows 8.1 or higher (64 bit; couldn't find the minimum OS version for Mac / Linux), at least 8GB RAM (16+GB recommended), i7 or comparable CPU (4 cores or more), at least a 1GB graphics card (2-4GB recommended for smooth operation with 1080p content, 4-8GB+ for 4k content). Refer to the current configuration guide ( http://documents.blackmagicdesign.com/DaVinciResolve/DaVinci_Resolve_12_Configuration_Guide_2015-07-27.pdf )

    In both cases SSDs are recommended.


    2 years ago

    Great post. I want to cross-reference this post with my Instructable on writing a better instructable:



    2 years ago

    Perfect timing! I just glanced at my laptop and saw that my Instructables Daily was in, while juggling a FinePix, an Halogen desktop lamp, a soldering iron and a high voltage adjustable power supply project. Grabbing a slurp of (instant, there is only so much I can juggle...) coffee, I glanced through the articles and, well, I had to click on yours.

    Short and to the point. I agree about the photon sources, being more important than the camera. As for the tripod, one trick I learned while doing multi-days assembly, is to put small tab of tapes on the floor where the tripod legs are, so as to be able to have a continuity in the video/pictures from day to day. I'll make sure to look up your other Instructables, thanks!

    (yes, the soldering iron was disconnected while commenting on this Instructable. Safety First.)


    2 years ago

    Great article! I especially like all the links you put in. This is definitely an article I'm saving. And sending to my friends. Thank you for posting.

    1 reply