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.

Audio for ‘dem DLSR shooters…

Ah history. It has a way of repeating itself. Back in 2003 or so I coordinated some video workshops for a local pro shooter’s group and the first year a couple of still shooters turned up. The next year the workshop was stuffed full of them.

Fast forward a decade and it’s happening again – but this time I’m getting queries from DSLR shooters who need to know more about audio for video. They know those not-quite-video-cameras come with an internal mike. And most of them know they need to add on an external (shotgun) mike for better audio. But they also notice that somehow their audio is not as pristine as that of, well…real video shooters. Folks with dedicated video cams.

Now I can’t fault them…there is a kind of look to DSLRs and they can be a whole lot less expensive. But as with any camera, there is a learning curve…and to make a DSLR (or Micro-4/3) camera work as well as a dedicated video cam you need to do some add-ons. And you really really should test your gear to see what is and each separate component are capable of.

So to save time and trouble (for me) I’m just gonna cut and paste a recent facebook conversation. Follow along and learn.

Me:
I’d be glad to advise you regarding video cameras and accessories. Specifically what will you use them for – in-studio shooting, video production, news? What kind of budget are you working with? Will you shoot interviews or just b-roll (cover shots)?
Here’s a link to a blog posting I did (and there are additional links to older related postings within the article): http://cyndygreen.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/choosing-a-camera-4-0/
Cyndy Green
Choosing a camera 4.0…
cyndygreen.wordpress.com

From the DSLR owner:
I run a budget news website that doesn’t generated revenue yet and I got a Canon Rebel T3i camera to use for interviews and other footage. What I is accessories to enhance the picture and sound quality.

Me:
Ouch (I’m more of a straight video format camera person myself). There are a couple of options.First – just get a small size shotgun or directional microphone. This will enhance your audio and allow you to more cleanly pick up sound that is happening where-ever you point the camera.Unfortunately unless it is detachable with a longer cable it may not work well for interviews.Here’s an example: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/744768-REG/Rode_VIDEOMIC_PRO_VideoMic_Pro_Compact_Shotgun.html

Rode VideoMic Pro Compact Shotgun Microphone VIDEOMIC PRO B&H
http://www.bhphotovideo.com

Him:
This is useful. Thanks

Me:
Next option would be a wireless system like this: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/553684-REG/Sony_UWP_V1_4244_UWP_V1_Wireless_Lavalier_Microphone.htmlI do not specifically recommend either of these mikes – they are just examples.For much less you can also just add on a single lavelier/clip-on mike: http://www.amazon.com/Audio-Technica-ATR-3350-Omnidirectional-Condenser-Microphone/dp/B002HJ9PTO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389276891&sr=8-1&keywords=audio+technica+lavalier+micThe most important thing is to know what kind of mike jack is built in to your camera (with the T3i it is a 3.5mm or mini-jack) so when you purchase audio gear it will work with the camera.You can also (I know, way way too many choices) go with an add-on adapter that allows you to plug in more than one microphone: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/962864-REG/beachtek_mcc_2_2_channel_audio_adapter.html

Beachtek MCC-2 2-Channel Audio Adapter and Bracket MCC-2 B&H
http://www.bhphotovideo.com
With the latter you can plug in two of the lavelier mikes.Disclaimer – I’m only using the B&H website because it is convenient. I don’t work for them and you may find better deals elsewhere.Hope this helps. There are other accessories you should also consider. Tripod is at the top of the list. A simple reflector (you can use a sheet of white cardboard for soft light and glue crumbled aluminum foil to the back for a more intense reflection.

One final note: proximity. The closer the mike to the desired sound source, the cleaner the audio. Two feet or less is preferable.

Addendum: One good way to get to know your gear is to test it. Each time you add something to your kit, test it thoroughly. For example – with mikes. Begin with your on-board mike and start the ole camera rolling. First setup should be in a quiet room or area. Stand three feet away and talk…then (still rolling) back up another three feet and talk in the same tone. Keep that up til you’re twelve feet away. Do this with each mike – those that fix to the camera (shotguns) and those that plug in you can carry or pin on to someone. Do this both in a quiet venue as well as an extremely noisy one. And then listen to the results. And learn.

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.

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.

There be Dragons!

Love this crawling quote on my husband’s computer: “It’s not that we say dragons are real…but we say they can be beaten…”

Dragons being, of course, totally (ahem) imaginary creatures that lurk in fairy tales and in the backs of our minds.

Well in the back of my mind lately there’s been a desire to cut out the seemingly endless hours I spend transcribing interviews. I’d looked into voice recognition software in the past and had an inkling there were some possibilities out there. What did me in was a marathon week of listening to and transcribing a panel discussion of high school debaters and interviews with five coaches. Oh – and presentations by the students too.

Word. For. Word.

Regular folks like to talk. Speech and debate folks take it seriously and my fingers and brain were seriously addled by the time I was through. Limpid fingers…mush for brains.

So I finally began my search in earnest and dragons kept resurfacing as a solution.

Dragons Naturally Speaking. Managed to finagle some coupons and points and got it for nearly half off and began my adventure last night. And was frankly pretty impressed. The program is set up for one voice and you have to go through a learning curve with the software. So I spent about ten minutes setting up my profile, which included reading sentences and learning how to insert capital letters and punctuation, how to start a new line and more and then I transcribed two short interviews in slightly more time than it took to view them. Wow.

The method to get this done could be considered multi-tasking to the extreme. Dragon was open to transcribe into MS Word. I had a screen with an interview playing back. I just had to make sure that Word was the active screen and I would repeat word for word whatever the interview subject was saying. Even transcribed some nats.

The only thing better of course would be to plug-in all audio directly for transcription…but this sure beats the old way of listen and type quickly and then back up and start listening and typing again. For my purposes I don’t need impeccable accuracy…so rough drafts are workable for scripting purposes.

And now I’m ready for that next big project – a series of interviews and nats for DSES…and trust me, it is gonna go together oh so much faster than anticipated.