How do I choose a camera?

Panasonic AG-HMC150 and Samsung NX-1000

Panasonic AG-HMC150 and Samsung NX-1000

Dangerous ground…especially if you don’t know enough to know what you should be looking for.

This blog posting is for those who want to stretch their knowledge and move beyond simple P&S (point and shoot) folks who just use their cameras to take family photos or video or LAMIGABEC! (Look at me – I’ve got a big expensive camera!) types who are all about impressing folks.

This blog posting is for those of you who just know somehow you’re missing out on the real secrets of shooting and editing video…what makes the magic. As mentioned in a previous posting, it’s not the wand…it is the magician waving the wand that makes the magic. But you do, after all, need a wand…and right now it seems you’re ready to move up to a more powerful one…

Before anything…you must consider what you will be using the camera for. Are you into news video? Documentaries? Movie-making? Event videography? Although this may not affect your decision a lot, you should have some idea of where you want to take your journey.

Next – budget. Don’t even think about buying gear until you have a rough idea of your budget. The low end is not the problem – it’s the high end you need to set. And set it firmly. Once you start shopping you may find yourself wanting to stretch that budget “just a little bit more” for a slightly better camera…and then want to stretch it again…and again. I went through the same throes about three years when I set a camera budget of $3000 and found myself looking at $10,000 cameras. A quick reality check and I had to back off. Finally got a Panasonic AG-HMC150 for around $2700 and had enough left for spare batteries and cards.

Part of the reality check includes a few things you will need to budget for in addition to media and accessories. Media tops the list after the camera. Hopefully you’ve already picked up a (somewhat workable) tripod somewhere. You can get by with one battery initially. But you will need a microphone other than what’s built-in to the camera. And you WILL need to pay taxes and shipping (which can run you over budget if you’re not thinking).

Now…on to choosing the camera. Fist, think about form. The choices are pretty simple: DSLR, Micro 4/3 – basically still cameras and camcorder/video cameras. If you’re serious you want a camera/camcorder with a microphone input, headset out (to monitor audio) and some way to manually control aperture, shutter speed, ISO.

Video cameras are meant to shoot video. Prices for a camera with the features mentioned above generally start at a higher price point than the still camera choices. On the low end they have attached lens and controls accessible by menu. On the higher end the controls are located where you can see and access them on the camera body. The camera itself is meant to be hand-held (or tripod-mounted). You can monitor your visuals through either the LCD or a viewfinder (for shooting in bright sunlight). The camera has a built-in microphone/usually a shotgun or directional mike. But you can also plug in an external mike through either 3.5mm/mini-jack inputs or XLR/professional connectors. On the lower end of the price range the lenses are part of the camera…as you hit mid-range pricing (say around $3,000 to $4,000) you can get cameras with detachable lenses, giving you more options for shooting extreme wide angle or tele shots.

Still cameras are meant to shoot still photographs, but many today also shoot video. Again, you want the same features if you’re serious. Mike input, headset out, manual controls. One of the primary advantages of this category of camera is that even with the lower end cameras you can get detachable lenses or buy adapters and use old film lenses and get shallow depth of field – meaning you can selectively choose what is in focus and what is not. Although the same effect can be achieved with camcorders, it takes more knowledge and is not always as effective (until – once again – you get into being able to detach and choose lenses). The form factor of still cameras does not always lend itself to handheld…these cameras are designed to be held while following and shooting stills. It is more difficult to hold them steady for video clips. So you may need a rig – a contraption that helps you hold the camera steady while hand-holding. The built-in microphones on still cameras are not as effective as those on video cameras. You need to search and make sure you purchase a camera with both an LCD and viewfinder…preferable an orientable LCD so you can slap that camera on the ground or hold over your head and still be able to monitor your images. Still cameras with mike inputs all use 3.5/mini-jack inputs. Or (if your budget is low) there may not be an input for an external mike at all. So…more choices. If no mike input, purchase a digital audio recorder…something you can place or hold out to get clear audio. Of course you’re going to have to synch the audio and video up in editing, which adds to your production time. Next – purchase microphones with mini-jack terminals. Third, get an XLR adapter so you can use professional mikes. Regarding manual controls…still cameras tend to be menu driven, although at the higher end there are more options for external control.

Now I’ve shot with both video cameras (a lot) and a micro 4/3 (a bit) and the images are stunning on both. The micro 4/3 I have does not have any mike inputs so I’ve had to resort to holding a little DAR/digital audio recorder out the same way I would hold a stick mike to do interviews. It works fine…and for around $280 for the still camera vs. $2700 for the video camera…I can do that.

If you’re on a learning curve…look at all of the alternative affordable options and work your way up the food chain of cameras.
Happy trails!

Three way light face-off…

I’ve been wondering what the difference in color temperature is between a good tungsten light head, a good LED head, and a cheap LED head. The video is below.

Judge for yourself, but from what I see the tungsten is spot-on for good vibrant color. I used my little Lowell Prolight/cost around $120 but the lamps are fairly short-lived. Second up is the Flolight with 128 LEDs at a cost of around $260/runs cool with extremely long life. The Neewer, which comes in last, has 160 LEDs and cost only $30.

In the first test the Neewer is obviously green. This test was shot with my Panasonic AG-HMC150 on auto white. The Flolight looks pretty good, but is cool in comparison with the Prolight. Take a look at the upper right color square, which is an intense pink to see the difference.

In test #2 the Flolight comes even closer to the Prolight. In this test I white balanced each light on a white card. You’ll have to excuse the exposure here on the Prolight…it’s a bit dark. But you can see the obvious difference in the pink again in the Neewer.

In test #3 I white balance the Prolight on the white card. Then balanced the two LEDs on a warm card, which is intended to shift the color balance away from blue and towards a warmer hue. In both LEDs the reds are off and you can see the warmth in the grey scale at the top, compared to the tungsten card.

In the fourth and final test I used the Prolight white balance on white card and then shot using each of the LEDs with that same set white balance. This is where you see blatant differences between the full spectrum tungsten light and the LEDs, which shift to blue and totally lack warmth. And if you look closely you can see the greenish tint is more apparent with the Neewer head.

What does this mean to you? Well, this test was shot in a dark room with no other light invading…so you need to keep in mind if you decide to shoot with your LEDs in the dark there will be issues with accurate color. However the good news is if you shoot and use the LEDs for fill only AND if you white balance, the full spectrum lights will overcome the deficiencies of the LEDs. And I will say that being able to operate off batteries for extended periods with LED lights has given me a freedom I never had with the hotter tungsten lights, which are battery vampires.

Update from b-roll buddy Bobby Alcaraz. If you’re gonna use LEDs, make sure they’re all by the same manufacturer so they match. If you start mixing different (especially bad and off color) lights you are asking for trouble. At least with them all being the same you stand a better chance of getting somewhat usable color.

Rant. (period)

OK folks…I get that you like to read these posting and even learn from them. But do me a favor.

DO NOT BUY THE GEAR I HAVE.

No. Really.

Cameras, mikes, tripods. All are very personal choices. I research and buy what I know will work for ME. When I make the purchase I may have spent months checking out the offerings…and then winnowing it down based on my personal choices, experiences and my budget.

You are you.

I am me.

So get out there and first: figure out your budget. Know what you are comfortable with and how far you can push the budget without flinching.

And then know yourself. What do you already know and what are you willing to learn. A master tool in the hands of a master crafts(wo)man can create magic. That same tool in the hands of an aspiring storyteller can create visual chaos.

Begin simple. Don’t try to impress others (or even yourself) with the latest flash gear. Do what I did…after nearly thirty years working with multi-big-buck cameras I went out and bought a bottom-of-the-line Canon ZR10. And taught myself digital on it. And yes, it did hurt…both my self esteem and image. But I got over it because it ain’t what others think of you – it is what you think of yourself.

Once you’ve mastered the simple things then consider a move up.

But even then – don’t buy my gear. Buy your own. (Besides my gear is already wayyyy outa date.)

Oh my aching head!

There are few things that make my head ache. Computer woes top that list though.

Among the many (many, many) bits of far flung knowledge a VJ needs is a basic understanding of how their computer works. What are the parts and how does each piece of the internal puzzle that makes a computer hummmmm happily tie in with other pieces.

In case you haven’t guessed already…it seems to be time for my annual battle to keep my laptop in top working status.

Last year it was a mishap with some spilled liquid that took down the motherboard, leading to some very confusing communications with Dell (manufacturer of choice) that eventually lead to a renewed and working computer.

Crucial-CT51264BC1339-DDR3-RAM-SO-DIMM-PC1333-4GB-20032012This year it appears that a RAM card has gone south (Yank lingo for “died”).

It all began a month or so ago when I began to notice the occasional hick-up when editing. Developed slowly…then faster…to a point where last week the old gal just began randomly shutting down. For. No. Known. Reason.

So it was time to go online to the Dell diagnostics center and begin the task of winnowing down the possibilities. A complete system check lead to a litany of failures, none of which made sense until I ran a Google search on the terms “walking right test”, “walking left test”, and some other nifty file names. All pointed in one direction: to memory.

So time for the hardware/memory test – which shone the spotlight on the RAM (random access memory cards).

Then it was time to shut the computer down, pull all but one card, and reboot and test each card individually. Third card in was the culprit. Of course I tested all four (my gal holds four 4gb cards) to be sure there weren’t two miscreants.

Crucial, the company I got the cards from several years ago, has a whiz-bang replacement program. I just had to register to get an ID number and then send it in. Expecting the replacement sometime this week.

So…above is a good reason to know your way around your computer. Sure, I could have paid someone to do all that and just gone out and bought another card. And I might have if there’s been a big-bucks client breathing down my neck. But in real life not all of us have that kind of money. So knowing (see below) the parts of my computer and what each does plus having good support (thank you Dell) to help diagnose the problem made my life a bit simpler.

Here, in brief, is the Videot’s Guide to Computers.
Monitor – The big screen you see things on
Keyboard – Where you type and input data.
Mouse – A sleek plastic maneuverable control device which you use to move your cursor around the screen to pick and choose your tasks
Processor – The brain of your computer…the processor literally processes all of the activity you direct the computer to do. How new/old/slow/fast your processor is determines how efficiently you can get work done. A solo processor is slower than a dual is slower than a quad and so on.
RAM – Kind of the task manager…RAM or random access memory is what allows you to multi-task, to have multiple and complex programs running simultaneously. So when my RAM went south, my computer’s ability to allow me to run my editing program, be online, run Dragon and Word together to transcribe…all of that shrank down to a slow drag. Hint: whenever you can, max out the RAM in your computer.
Graphics card – Just what it sounds like/handles graphics or images. An editing computer needs a good graphics card to handle the video files. If the Processor is the frontal lobe of your computer (brain), then the graphics card is the occipital lobe (responsible for visual processing).
Hard drive – Your storage space…for programs and files. More is better. Video files can be enormous. And if you’re like me and many others, editing in the field on the fly, then removable portable drives are the way to go…where to put your media from your projects.

In. A. Nutshell.

Parallel Light…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANews is a 24/7 kinda business and there will be times you’ll need something to light up the night or fill in faces of interviews during the day. The former requires something easy to use and portable – an on-camera light with enough punch to reach out into the dark. The latter can be kinder and gentler when you’re inside and want to banish unsightly shadows on interview subjects’ faces. There are a couple of ways to fill in those same shadows when out in full sunlight, some affordable and some not.

Our goals, as Videojournalists, are portability, ease of use, and affordability.

In the past tungsten lights were the portable light of choice. But they took power – lots of it. A 30w light could drain a battery belt or Anton Bauer camera battery in minutes. Those minutes varied from ten to maybe twenty if you were lucky.

Enter LED lights. Little consumer lights that run off of AAA batteries, advancing in size to larger lights that run off of AA batteries. And then even larger lights that use camera batteries or tap into the camera as a power source.

But there is a catch. While tungsten lights emit a full range on the color spectrum, LEDs don’t. This is not an issue if you’re using them for fill in daylight or (with a warming filter) as fill indoors. But light that puppy up in the deep dark of night as your sole light source and you’ll have chills at the results.

Your video will look as if it were shot in the Ice Age. Cool and blue.


You can see it slightly in this video. Using a Flolight 256 and Prolight (250w) with the camera set on automatic, shot indoors with a bit of fill from a lamp in the background, you can see the cooler appearance of the Flolight.


It is very apparent in this video. The primary light source was a set of cheap LED stage lights. Camera on automatic. Very blue.

The way to get around this issue is to carry warming cards. These are cards you white balance on which are tinted blue. So when you white balance, the spectrum shifts to the warm side.

BTW for those of you who don’t “do” manual white balance – here’s how dramatic that shift can be.

Other advantages of LEDs are that they don’t burn hot like tungstens. You can run them for hours and they only get a little bit warm and cool down quickly. That helps with break down time.

Of course they are noticeably higher in price than their tungsten counterparts. So there are trade-offs.

Keep on top of light this week by visiting our facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/thebasicsofvideojournalism.

Adendum 10/3/13
kollThere is a new pretender to the glowing throne of portable light. The Koll Solari line. Coming in three flavors, these LED lights have a fresnel insert that allows you to go from soft and broad to tight and spot light. Definitely gonna hafta get me one to check it out.

One more thing (12/10/13) – Just picked up a cheapie LED light on Amazon and will be testing it to see how the color holds up against my Flolights. How cheap? About $30…extra for battery and charger. Much lighter too – plastic rather than metal. But if it puts out a good light and doesn’t stray too far from the full spectrum that’s good enough for me. (Think of it as a throwaway light.)

Sans tripod…

This posting sprang out of a conversation begun over on the globalvjs facebook group. Someone asked which was the best camcorder for under $500 and I entered the discussion by showing off a video shot with my Kodak Playtouch. A simple P&S camera which I carry everywhere. No zoom, not much in the way of manual controls but it does have a mike input and decent quality.IMG_1191

The response to the video was not about the camera but about how smooth the video looked…

moving around with a camera – I have a cannon eos 603, without a bulky-tripod, brough this quality? the Kodak Seems smoother in movement.

So another “duh” moment on my part where I forget that I know what I know. My first thought was the built-in stabilization in the little play camera. But no – that wasn’t it.

My second thought was more right-on. It was me. Well, not me really. Decades of experience in being a human Steadicam. When you’re paid to beat the streets, shaky is not an option. News video MUST be rock steady or as near to that as possible. First option is always a tripod.

But there’s more, even with a tripod. Too many newbies place camera on tripod and then hug or hold tripod closely. Mistake #1. You live and breathe, therefore YOU are not a stable platform. And by giving your tripod the death hug, you transfer your jitters to the pod and the camera. So – once you hit that record button, un-hand the tripod and let it do its job.

Gotta pan or tilt? Please don’t, but if you have to, use a light touch. For pans just loosen the pan lock on the tripod head and literally push it along with one finger. But wait! There’s more! In addition to pushing with said finger, hold your upper arm against your body and using your hips as a swivel point, slowly move the tripod head in a pan. Even your arm can be shaky if held away from the body. (And yes, I will shoot some videos and get them up tomorrow to illustrate.)

Tilt is pretty much the same. Lock down the pan function. Hold the tripod grip/handle. Push gently for up, pull gently for down.

That’s it for Tripods 101.

Now for Human Tripod 200. As I told my students, you are alive and breathing. The only way you can hold a tripod rock solid steady is if you are not breathing – if you are dead. Not a good option.

But here are some good options. The best tripod ever: the planet Earth. Place your camera on a tree stump, a rock, a table, a wall. Get down and dirty and put it on the ground. You can pile up dirt or pebbles to achieve the framing you want.

Kathy Newell

Kathy Newell

Lean against a wall…use the weight of your body and wedge yourself in good and tight, holding the camera up against your head or chest. By extending your arms you are increasing the odds your shots will be shaky, so keep it up close and personal.

The Human Tripod pan and tilt head is your hips. Again, keep that camcorder close and personal by folding your arms to your side and creating a human tripod. Your two arms become two of the legs and by placing the camera up against your face (hopefully you have a viewfinder) there you have it. Human Tripod. Now swivel your hips slowly and you have the pan function. To tilt, bend gently up or down at the hips.

And finally: Human Steadicam 500 for advanced students. Way back in the dim dark reaches of my adventure in shooting news I stumbled upon a Tai Chi class held at daybreak in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The agonizingly slow movements of the participants intrigued me and pretty soon I was out getting my feet wet in the misty morning fog. I learned to stretch and slow down and lose my mind in the blank beauty of mindless movement. Oh – and I learned how to focus on centering my mind and body on my hips and hip movement.

Fact – the lower your center of gravity, the more stable you are. Center too high/walk with your head or shoulders and you bounce. Center too low/your feet and you drag. But center in that smooth jointed hip area and you glide. I learned over the months to walk without bouncing up and down…how to walk in a controlled smooth pace. It became a habit, so much that I still find myself slowing down and centering myself whenever I pick up a camera.

Those Tai Chi stretching movements lent themselves to jib-quality pans and tilts. Coupled with the lessons in Tripod 101 and Human Tripod 200, Human Steadicam completed my mastery of getting a stable shot.

Final hint. You don’t get good without practice. Somewhere up there I mentioned months to learn the basics of Tai Chi. Decades of shooting. You need to handle that camera daily…and for more than minutes – for hours. You need to train your body to control itself and the camera, until the camera becomes an extension of your body – freeing you to see the story while operating the camera goes on in the back of your mind.

Pondering light…

Ever since I first hefted a camera onto my shoulder I’ve been using tungsten lights to fill in the dark areas and light up the night (as well as interviews). Tungsten seemed to be a fixture for both news and production…been around nearly forever.

But in the past twenty years there have been some pretenders and challengers…and one of them is serious enough that I’m considering bailing from my old standby and sliding over to the cool side of lighting.

Now my first thoughts of betrayal came with the introduction of fluorescent lights. Soft, portable. But I just couldn’t see the real advantages over tungsten. No real ability to control the light spread…really only good for flooding a scene.

Then LEDs came onto the scene…and I was cautious. I mean, they seemed kind of cute but not really a workhorse type of gear that I could use.

So I took the leap with a Flolight 256 and ran it through some tests. The light is bright and holds up against my Lowel Prolight with a 250w lamp pretty well. It’s daylight balanced, very light and runs for an hour or more on a Sony NP battery.

On the down side: not full color spectrum. Even with manual white balance the cast of human skin comes out bluish, so I did what any one with a bit of knowledge of the color wheel would do. I knew I wanted to warm up the image, so I experimented with some white cards with a bluish tint. Opposites do make for an attractive result – by white balancing with the LED light on the blue cards I was able to trick the camera into thinking it was pretty cool out there and the balance shifted to the warm side.

Voila!

I’ve upped my game and have three Flolights now – two 256s and a 128, all powered by battery. They’ve changed my workflow for sure. I no longer have to worry about cables snaking across the floor and can re-position lights in a snap. Using Blackwrap (heat-resistant heavy-duty photographic aluminum foil) I can even create snoots and other handy ways to control the light. And packing it all in at the end of the day…well, no wait time for the light heads to cool down. These little heads barely get warm after hours of use.

So LED lights: I thank you. But the talent and interview subjects I work with in these hot summer days thank you even more for making them the coolest things around.

It’s all in the mind of the shooter…

I keep hearing it. “I could shoot better video if only I had (name the) camera. My life would be so much better if… People would hire me if only…

Hate to break it to ya bro, but that ain’t it. It’s not your gear, unless you’re still trying to keep between the lines with your Crayolas. Then maybe it IS the gear.

What may be lacking is your vision, your talent, your technical chops…

I mean – if you’re bad. You’re BAD. No one wants bad.

Why this rant? Kids who come up to me and think if they had my cam or a better one they could be better than me instantly.

Hah.

Worst story ever. Mom at the school I used to work with came up to ask me about the exorbitant cost of gear. He son was applying for one of those fancy schmancy art school that guarantee you’ll be the next Ford Coppola…or at the very least be rolling in bucks once you graduate (and that’s a rant I’ll reserve for later). I told her that until he got into school a plain ole three or four hundred dollar camera would do to teach him the basics and let him get hands on. So a few weeks later I hear the kid got the (then) camera of his dreams, most likely draining the family savings to boot. All this so he could make an application video to get into the school. We’ll kinda sashay past the fact this was a family that didn’t do college and this was their first kid heading down that path…they had no idea what was expected.

My take when I talked to mom again was astonishment. Explained to her that the school was looking for his ideas…how his mind flowed…his RAW talent. The fine tuning and technical skills were why he wanted to go there.

A tool in the wrong hands does not produce craftsman quality work. It just produces high quality crap.

Now I’m no Emmy winner…always been a meat and potatoes kind of shooter. I know the basics and know how to use whatever tool I have on hand to get the story done. So here’s my third stab at proving a point. (The first stab being Wyoming Cattle Drive and the second Absailing. The former shot with an $80 ebay acquisition/Canon ZR60 and the latter a cheapie still camera with video ability/Exilim Z75.)

It ain’t the cost of the gear…it is the mind behind the grind…the wisdom whispering to the beast…that makes for good shooting AND editing.

Case in point: Refurbished Kodak Playtouch purchased on ebay for $59. Edited on one of my local library’s computers using Final Cut Pro X (and I could have done just as well with iMovie or Moviemaker). There was no zoom, so I zoomed with my legs. Used macro and wide shot settings. Kept fingers crossed and got decent white balance most of the time. Got up close and personal with my interview subject to get more or less clean audio.

So quitcha bitchin and come to terms with your bank account. If you can’t get good with a basic camera, basically you are not gonna get good at all.

b-roll hack

b-roll-logo1000 Cameragod down under came up with a novel concept to booster the rep of one of my favorite sites – b-roll. (b-roll is the go-to site for broadcast news cameramen to discuss gear, gossip and more.)

Here is his tip – and a great one it is. I would never have thought of this.

And here is my tip – and oldie but goodie. Especially if you’re fairly new to the biz.

I look forward to more of these and hope to learn from an amazing group of peers.

Marrying old and new…

…technologies that is.

So in my gear bags I have stuff that is more than a decade old that can be married with my new toys. We’re talking June-December weddings here folks. Analog and digital. Fresh out of the box and faded with time.

My mainstay tripod/now too heavy for everyday use (purchased in 2002) is firmly fixed to the short jib I got a year ago. Old heavy tripod is a perfect base for a jib. Can hold the twenty pound weights and give a stable platform for shooting.

Ditto the XLR cables and Electrovoice mike. Old technology…heck dating back to the seventies (not mine but the concept). It can be married to any out-of-the-box camera.

I guess what I’m getting at is that while new is nice and in some cases better, some old stuff just won’t die.

I have a Canon ZR10…picked it up on ebay a few years ago. I have fond memories of my first digital camera…same camera…that I got right after bailing from news in 2002. Just couldn’t live without a camera in hand and it was affordable at the time (on a rookie teacher’s stipend).

That little baby still works and I pull it out occasionally just for old times sake. It has an amazing zoom, audio inputs…and while the quality is most definitely NOT high def, it puts out an acceptable image.

My gear bags are a combination of new and old, fresh-faced and creaky-old. I keep what works and find ways to marry it with what is current to make images that matter.

So if you’re out there in dreamtime wanting the best and newest, realize that it’s only gear. What really counts is your vision…what comes out of using the gear. Videojournalism is NOT about having all of the toys. It is about telling the story.