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!

Victim or perpetrator?

I follow Carlos Miller’s Photography Is Not a Crime blog for a reason. Ninety-nine percent of the time photographers are harassed due to either ignorance about First Amendment rights by law enforcement and other agencies or at times those agencies or employees deliberately ignoring the rights of media and citizens.

First – the media has no more nor less rights than any citizen of this great country. So if a videojournalist is pushed back and locals are allowed to stay near a homicide scene that is wrong – illegal. Journalists can, however, be allowed closer and are even protected under some state laws so they can have access to disaster and other areas closed off to the general public for safety reasons.

So all of this leads to what appears at first glance to be yet another case of cop v. citizen caught on a cell phone. Take a look at the videos here and then let me explain my take on it.

If you watched all nine videos you’ll note some are extremely short, which I’ll attribute to Ikhinmwin possibly either having difficulty uploading or editing or both (those are the one or two second clips).

I went to her youtube channel fully intending to support her and find fault with the police…and after watching the videos and reading the comments, I find fault with both the police and her.

The police could have ignored her…but they did have a point in the fact her bike was legally on the street/over the curb. You can even see that in her own video. And refusing to move a bike because you don’t want the tires to get dirty? Hmmmm…

This is a case that (at least to me) is up in the air – still out waiting for more information. If Ikhnmwin shot this as one clip, it has been edited. It is possible she shot multiple clips…and I for one would like to know which is the case because what is posted does not bode well for her. Her own video shows her bike was on the street and her reason for not moving it seems rather petty. I do think the officer came after her too harshly…and between the two of them, the situation escalated. And the officer is the one who should have been professional enough to let it go. But – there was absolutely no cooperation or courtesy from Ikhnmwin either.

Final score? The cops came out smelling worse but the so-called victim doesn’t come off much better. And if the court of public comments has anything to say (and be warned some of them are pretty nasty) simple courtesy might have averted an arrest.

Thought for the day…

…picked this up from Dieter Melhorn over on b-roll.

…it’s not the wand, it’s the magician waving it…

that makes the magic. So for you myriad producers, wanna-be’s, and everyone else. No matter which camera you use, the person behind the camera is who makes the difference between crap and creativity. They have the technical chops to know how to use whatever camera they’re given and the aesthetic and practical workflow knowledge to squeeze the most out of said camera.

Once again…a pricy camera in the hands of an idiot produces high quality crap. Hire for experience and brains, not because someone happens to have access to a dream camera.

The International community is coming together…

…on facebook. Inevitable.

Michael Mandela/Kenya

Michael Mandela/Kenya

Like seeks like…and I like a number of pages that allow me to communicate with those with similar interests. They include everything from BEA/Broadcast Education Association to videojournalist (thanks Ruud Elmendorp) to Global VJs and then find a journalist…around the world (which I help administer) and others.

I learn so much about how news is covered in other countries and by other cultures…the similarities in the process and the varying struggles with both gear, law, and ethics.

Suparna Gangal/India

Suparna Gangal/India

But the grand thing is the open discussion among professionals with a passion for storytelling. Interestingly enough gear is the least discussed. Where and how to find work tops the list…followed by a need for comradery and a willingness to help each other. And the need to keep it professional and focused on providing genuine journalism…real stories. Stories that allow those elsewhere to glimpse lifestyles which draw us together as a world community.

Ruud Elmendorp/Nairobi

Ruud Elmendorp/Nairobi

…and to be called friend – as in a real friend – by videojournalists I have never encountered in the flesh…is meaningful.

The domino effect…

SAMSUNG CSC …is how I once got a job. Had applied for a shooter position at KPIX in San Francisco and got a call one day from Harry Fuller (I think but can’t accurately remember if he was the AD at the time), who proceeded to tell me I was his second choice for the job. And I’m thinking, “Second??? Then why the heck are you calling???” Fuller went on to tell me that he’d hired a cameraman from KQED…AND that there would be an opening there within the next few days.

Domino effect.

When one job is filled, more than likely another will open when the new hire moves into his or her new gig.

And, depending on how little experience you have and how desperate you are, you can follow that string of dominoes back quite a way. Good luck and you’re welcome.

BTW – I got the job at KQED.

Paying it forward…and back…

…to the next generation. Truth is I’m nearing the end of my career. Went from shooting production stills to news film and video to teaching broadcasting to retired and working part time with high school students and freelancing as a camera/shooter/videojournalist. Within the next year all of this will slow down…but never really stop. (I view doing nothing as the beginning of death.)

A friend and I did a presentation some months ago for the the local community college video production class. Now this is the place I graduated from decades ago when it had one of the best photography departments in the state. Sometime (I’m guessing in the 80s) it developed an RTV (radio TV) department that never quite got off the ground. Classes were offered and yes students learned but it always seemed to lag somehow. I know it wasn’t for lack of instructors trying…could have been lack of support from the admin or a plethora of other issues. But it seemed more like a holding cell than a jumping off point.

In the last year things started clicking though.

There’s been a move to regain the license for the radio station…adjuncts were brought in with a wide variety of skills and experience. And the student showcase “TV” program went from zero to a kazillion in the past semester.

All of this piqued my interest.

So I went back a second and then a third time to check things out. And may have found a new retirement gig. Mentoring the up and coming video-gen. Specifically those interested in news shooting and editing.

What is making this extra-enticing is that not all of the youngsters fit the suit and tie Ken and Barbie mold of the past. They remind me of the Viet-Nam era gang on campus back in the late sixties. Everything from quiet and middle class to bright and bold to right off the street and gangbusters going forward.

I’m heading out in a week with the latter…a musician with a personality too big to fit in a suit with a flair for what is important in his world and his city and his people and a vision to open people’s eyes up. We shall see where this takes us…whether he can tame his inner beast and funnel it through into a viable version of storytelling that has the potential to explode and open up news to an entirely new style. Or not. I’m hoping for the former.

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.
(Stay tuned to The Basics of Videojournalism, which will cover this information more thoroughly when it comes out.)

The intricate choreography of the scrum…

Ah dancing. The ability to move with your partner through a series of delightfully light-footed and pleasing movements…knowing all the while eyes are on your every move.

Not quite what I had in mind though.

Dances with cameras is more like it.

Running with the pack and packing it in with the scrum is something battle-worn shooters are intimately familiar with. Sure – it looks easy. Just grab a camera and move in and get your shots. But beware…playing with the big boys and girls can be downright dangerous.

At some point in every newbie’s life they encounter a gang-bang. A hoard of newsies all wanting the same thing – the same interview and the same b-roll and the balance of those wanting and those offering (or alternately running away) is way off. In a regular news situation you’ve got your videojournalist or crew of reporter and cameraman and the interview subject. Grab the interview and then shoot the b-roll.

But at a major story you may have a ratio of 10 or 20 or more shooters and reporters from all reaches of news pursuing one or two potential interviews. And pursuit is the name of the game. Mike-holders create the inner circle, vying for good sound. In the outer circle are the camerafolk, circling and angling for the best light and shot. And somewhere in the dust or SOL are those who came late or don’t understand the dance.

I’ve danced this dance many times…and the trick is to work with your competition. Try to take as little room as you can to ensure you get your shot while giving just enough to allow three or four or more of your best buddies to do the same. Moving in time, down the steps of the capitol, across the PD parking lot…moving to the front and fading back as the pack passes and running ahead to rejoin the mobile mass. But generally it is a tightly packed pack moving in synchronized time to the beat of flying Q & As. I’ve been in situations where the body count is so high and dense that I’ve been able to take both hands off the camera – both it and I were wedged in so tightly.

A newbie who enters the fray gives himself away every time by trying to hog the shot – staying in front and blocking others. The end result of such boar-ishness is a downtrodden shooter lying on the ground wondering where the herd of elephants came from. Now it’s not that the stampede was aimed at taking said newbie out – the instinct in seasoned shooters is strongly tuned to combining cooperation with ruthlessness. And the sure knowledge that if anyone steps out of line, it may be the last time they can even enter the scrum. Oh, sure, I may cut your throat in a back alley to beat you to a story…but in public and knowing I’m gonna have to work alongside you again in the future, I’ll play nice. For now.

A shot visit to my roots…

…as a teacher. I never actually left the land of video but have been retired from teaching for some three plus years now.

Last month I returned to Middle College High School where I went through the horror of learning how to teach. That was a truly tumultuous journey…from a single Digital Video Production class to English and AVID (the college prep course, not the editing program) and more. Former co-worker Michael Kennedy honored me by asking me to take over his workload for a few weeks.

Now the English 12 classes went well since he laid the groundwork and made lesson plans. He’s also got AVID 12 in hand…all I had to do was follow his notes – which meant I let the kiddos research colleges and complete applications.

The fun stuff was his other classes. AVID 10. Journalism. The former went from kinda chaotic to totally out of my hands when the AVID tutors arrived. Talk about discipline…they entered the room and took over. My job went from teaching to taking roll.

And…journalism. A small class…minuscule by the standards of a comprehensive high school. Eight – yeah right, count ‘em – 8 students. All mine to toy with and teach. And Michael let me have my way with them so I began with having them read the Five Pillars of Islam, the Ten Commandments, and the Eight Fold Path (of Buddha)…and then both the JEA and NPPA Ethics Codes. Final product – a compare and contrast paper which was supposed to lead them into understanding how the Mind of Man works. Why do all societies…all cultures…have similar principles?

20131014_134954Had them write what they wanted to learn from me on the board – and it was all good. Our Editor-In-Chief wanted to learn how to run the school website effectively. And the rest dovetailed into my plans – shooting and editing and writing visual stories.

Problem was that the computer lab the class was taught in was a terror. Every day everything they worked on disappeared – total erasure. And all they had to work with was Moviemaker. And one student’s personal video camera. So I brought in my arsenal of el cheapo cameras – from two Kodak Playtouches to a low end Samsung camcorder and my NX1000 and put them to work shooting the Seven Basic Shots. Then editing it.

How to deal with the problem of gear? Lucky find – a Flip camera in a second-hand store for $9. I guess the owner got rid of it because it wouldn’t allow any video to be recorded. Here’s the solution – plug into a computer and reformat it. Totally cleared up all of the gunk and it worked just like new. And while it shoots SD, that’s a good thing considering the computer situation. SD is oh so much easier to upload and edit than HD.

Next – how to handle the erasure of all projects. A simple solution, one that cost a few more bucks. I donated a 500gb portable hard drive. All raw media is loaded onto it and students were instructed to start a Moviemaker project then immediately save it on the hard drive and close and reopen it from the hard drive. That way all files they imported were linked to the hard drive copy. Kind of weird but a working workaround.

Final project (we were running out of time here) was a group shoot. They needed to learn how to shoot, log, write, and edit a real story. So off we went to the freshman AVID class where students were getting their Secret Penpal letters for the first time (written to them by the sophomores). Each of my J-kids was told to pick a freshman and shoot them as they got and reacted to their letters. Then we snagged a few and took them outside where each J-student had the opportunity to run my good camera and to hold the mike and get an interview. The next class meeting we logged the interviews and wrote the script as a class. My videots did the edit on my laptop and the E-I-C posted it. So now they had a foundation…and it will be interesting to see where they take it.

(I did check up on them a week or so later and the quiet junior girls had done some MOS interviews (man on the street) which nearly floored me. Perfect composition…good light…good quality audio. Fast learners all.)