Battling the modern mindset…

…and its deep rooted trust of technology.

I’m an old geezeress. Got my toehold in news in the waning days of film, shifted to 3/4 tape and took off running and never looked back.

One thing that was embedded in my nerve system was to always use manual controls…never trust the machine. This was especially important in the early days of tape. Even with manual control of audio the gain control on those rinky dink cameras and record decks would flatten out loud sounds. So say you were taping a gun battle or explosion…all you’d get would be a Whoosh! Capped off the high points.

Same thing with auto focus and iris. Trust the machine and your aperture would open and close with each passing white t-shirt and your focus would track whatever hit its sweet spot. Kind of like being on a trip to hallucinationland…your camera on auto was like a happy hippie on hemp.

And white balance…in the early days there was a single setting on the camera. Auto White. Now that was a mite confusing because the Auto White actually required you to push a button to set the white balance. Skip the Auto White and your video would go green or blue.

Years later some smart geek added in what is now called Auto White…where the camera does all the work. Most of the time acceptably.

So what’s the deal? Well today I had a facebook posting interchange with a former student about LED lights (and their lack for full spectrum color) and the need to use warm cards to white balance.

His response…white balance today is good enough you don’t need to manually balance.

Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

This young man is part of today’s video revolution where good enough is good and you trust your camera to give you that. If the camera doesn’t get it right on, save it in post.

I suppose I should take hope in his raw talent…but if he aspires to become more than a wedding videographer he is going to get that hard slap of reality when he attempts to transition to the very real and professional world of cinematography and movie making. I’m not pushing it, but am gently (and not so gently) nudging and giving advice.

Yeah…just call me a geezer and leave me to wander back into my own world of how to do it the right way. I’ve had this conversation before with others and “good enough” ain’t good enough for me.

Choosing a camera 4.0…

It is probably about time to update this.  Not to buy a camera, mind you, but to revisit a topic that must continually be updated, thanks to techno-changes, which NEVER seem to slow down.  A good and a bad thing.  Good cause those little babycams seem to get better and better.  Bad cause…well, who really wants to know the camera they got just last week or last year is already out of date?

A quick review  of prior posts on this topic will give you an idea of what has changed and what hasn’t.

January 2007
July 2009
January 2011

First, the ground rules. Our focus is affordable (now there’s a topic to debate) cameras for Videojournalists. Run and gun style…this means zoom lens, professional manual controls and audio inputs, although I may dip down to prosumer for the latter (will explain that as I go along). This is for camera only…you’ll need to review prior posts (Oh look! There’s one right down there!) for supplemental gear such as mike, lights, tripods.

The camera is the mainstay of a VJ’s bag of tricks. It has to be durable, easy to use (if YOU supply the knowledge, skills, and talent), and not over-the-top expensive. For the sake or fairness, this time I’ll take a look at several levels of cameras: under $1K, under $2K, and under $5K. (FYI: the “K” stands for thousand, not kazillion.)

Now I’m not advocating you buy from any particular store…I try my best to buy local when I can…but some of my needs are more specialized than local can handle so I hop online…and I’ve found that certain sites are not only safe and reliable, but also have really snazzy search functions when you aren’t quite certain what you want. Top of the list here (and, again, you choose your site…don’t follow my lead blindly) is B & H Photography.

I’ll be explaining how to conduct a search using this site (official disclaimer: nothing exchanges hands between us except my cold hard cash with no discounts for whatever it is I want…just like you and everyone else) so you can pick it up to search for whatever it is you want.

So…click on “Video Professional.” That will get you out of the confusing realm of consumer cameras and into cameras with a bit of heft and functions. Next, click on “Camcorders.” On this date there are 103 choices…way too many to inspect closely.

So next we will begin selecting features and at the same time, cutting back on the number of cameras to check out. Um…and since I tend to be VERY budget conscious, I’m gonna change the “Sort By” function from “Best Sellers” to “Price: Low to High.” Although popularity is often an indicator of a good value with all the features, I’m not one to be lead by the herd…and herd thinking isn’t always thinking.

The 103 choices range from a little Sony number for around $1,000 (with no lens mind you) to $80,000 plus for another Sony camera – again, with no lens. Yep…for the price of a home in your average little Mid-Western town you can own a camera body.

So let the sorting begin! I never begin by selecting a brand…frankly the six companies listed are all reputable and make solid equipment. I’m going to skip “Camera Configuration” because I can predict that the broadcast cameras are going to be too pricy…and they are. Although many (many many) TV stations are purchasing babycams and low-end broadcast cameras, this category runs the gamut from $45,000 to that top-end Sony at $80,000.

My first sort will be for resolution, and I’m choosing HD. Our list is down to 90 choices.

The next choice will be for Media Format – a can of worms if ever there was one. This gets personal, but here’s how I choose. I will not choose a tape camera…tape is getting harder to find off the shelf and is a fading technology (my opinion). Also skip Internal Memory…again a personal choice cause I like to trade out memory cards to hand off to others or to download while I continue shooting. The six remaining choices are all variations on memory cards. Being the practical tightwad that I am, I would go with SDHC…because the cards are commonly available if you need them and affordable to boot.

If you’ve got the cash, check out the other cards. SxS, P2, and memory sticks are common choices, although you’d better have a supply on hand. Again, you can’t just run over to Walgreens and pick them up.

There are 42 camcorders that use SDHC cards. Price points from that no-lens low-end Sony at around $1,000 to upper end to a Panasonic (no lens) model at $15,000.

Let’s keep looking.

We’ll look at the upper end choices first – between $3,000 and $5,000. (Go to Price and type in the range of prices you are looking for.) There are 17 in this category.

Here’s where you have to know your stuff to winnow the list down further. So, from the top.
If you’re interested in free shipping, rebates, or want to buy immediately (in stock) click those. Since I’m just looking for features, I won’t click those right now.
We’ll skip brand again, although you’ll notice we are down to the three: JVC, Panasonic, Sony.
NTSC or NTSC/Pal? If you are only shooting in the US of A, doesn’t matter…the format here is NTSC. If you are going overseas to countries that use PAL, you may want to click that box.
Next choice is CCD vs. CMOS. Another can of worms..each chip has it’s merits and issues, so I’m not going to choose either for you. (Will tell you that the single CCD camera is the one I purchased myself a few years back though.)
There’s a slew of features to choose from, but at this price range the only thing I’m really interested in is the audio input – XLRs. That gets us down to 15 cameras.
Digital Interface – this category pretty much deals with cameras used in-house and plugged into studio and live setups. Since we’re out in the field on our own for now we’ll skip that.
For Codec I’m choosing mpeg-4. Again, latest codec/most commonly used.

And we’re down from 103 to 13 cameras. A few final eliminations. I will not choose a 3D camera so cross that off the list. Also, since we’re on a budget, the camera must come with a lens. Oh – and skip the “Field Acquisition Backpack.” Not going there.

So we are down to 9 choices…and all of them are possibilities. Here’s where I place the burden back on YOU. Choose a camera. Any camera. For convenience I’ll walk you thru the first one on the list. The Sony HXR NX70U at $2,800. Choose it.

Go ahead and read the overview…but your real meat is on the Specs sheet. There you’ll see that it has a single half inch CMOS chip, shoots to both memory sticks and SDHC (and more). Personal concern: filter size is only 37mm and that tells me this is a small camera and I might not want it.

Check out “What’s In The Box” to make sure your get a complete package – camera, lens, battery and charger as well as necessary cables.

Now cruise through the Reviews to make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises. And read those with the proverbial grain of salt. Generally the pros reviewers will be more on point than the casual users. If you read all of the reviews you can at least discern a pattern of pros and cons.

Your homework? Check out each camera. I have some personal preferences…generally like three chip cameras for higher quality. I look at the location of the manual controls for focus (on the ring), audio (where I can access them quickly), iris (again…easily accessed and used) and white balance (rarely if ever use auto WB). Built-in neutral density filters help you hop from dark to extremely bright scenes without having to screw on an external filter. A switch to increase gain lets you shoot in lower light situations.

Now, very quickly, I’ll check out the under $2,000 cameras and move on to under $1,000.

The former – just hop down to price and change the numbers to $1,000 to $2,000. Oh – and unclick XLR audio. In this price range you may be looking at prosumer mini-jack audio. There are eight contenders that fit my specs in this price range (after eliminating those w/no lens and other factors). Again, check them out individually and read the reviews.

Now for the final category – under $1,000. For these we’ll have to enter the wide open consumer Camcorders area. Once you’re in, choose Camcorders again and right away enter a price range of 0 to 1,000. The original 195 choices will drop to – 185??? Way too many, so let’s start narrowing again.

Let’s choose a resolution of HD-1080 and get our choices down to 133. Under features choose Mike Input. Down to 30 cameras. Going to eliminate under Factors the Sports type by choosing Palm and Pocket and then for Media SDXC/SDHC/SD cards. Down to 22 choices with prices ranging from one Toshiba on sale for $149 to an upper end Sony at $898.

Again read the reviews and specs to really get a handle on features and performance.

One feature I notice I cruised through above is single vs. three chip cameras. The latter are pretty much standard in the professional field…and the bigger the chips, the better for higher resolution and low light ability. I will say that a single 1/2 chip can put out and amazing picture…but multiply that by three and you are in Nirvana!

Here’s a Happy New Year to all of you out there and wishing you the best in finding the camera of your dreams. On a budget or otherwise. Questions? Fire them off.

Addendum January 19, 2014: Note to those who are upgrading or changing cameras. Please keep in mind your mikes and tripod when you get a new camera. Your mikes will generally have either XLR/professional three pin connectors or mini-jack/3.5mm connectors. If you move to a camera with a different mike input you may have to get adapters for your mikes or purchase new audio gear.
The same applies to other accessories…the first coming to mind being your tripod. Tripods are rated by the amount of weight they can carry. If you buy a significantly heavier camera, your tripod may struggle with the weight. When considering weight don’t just count the camera body…you’ll need to include the weight of battery, lights, and anything else you attach to the camera.
Oh…and if you’ve archived all of your stuff on to mini-dv and you’re moving to another format, you’d better either convert that old stuff to digital on a hard drive or disc or keep the old camera around in case you want to access the archived material.

A polarizing issue….

UPDATE on 11.16.12
The posting below has some misconstrued facts. The fact that the WB went out at the same time I got a new polarizing filter is coincidence. It turns out that there is an internal issue in the camera. Further testing w/o the filter proved that, along with some extensive discussions with Panasonic’s help desk.

A polarizing issue….

Polarizing filter, that is.  I don’t use filters much…don’t like much to come between me and the reality of the world.  I have always had a clear or skylight filter on my lens for protection though.  Less expensive to replace a scratched filter than an entire lens (or camera, since those little prosumer camcorders are permanently affixed to the lens).

But recently I got a polarizing filter…neat little piece of glass that will help cut down on unwanted reflections while increasing saturation of colors.  And it does a great job at both.  

Actually it is a circular polarizing filter.  The circular means there are two elements in the filter…one to polarize light and the other to make corrections so that your camera’s automatic iris reads light properly.  Here’s a link to a pretty good explanation of how they work:  http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Polarizer

But the issue that caught me off guard (which I haven’t been able to find an online explanation for yet) is loss of the ability to manually white balance.  Talk about frustrating.  Set the camera to manual…blue.  Hit the white balance button.  Still blue.  Switched from manual to auto – wow, good color.  Switched back to manual.  Blue.  Turned camera off and on again.  Blue.

Looks like I have my work cut out for me over the weekend.  Or, as I used to tell my students, working with digital video is a lifelong exploration of fixing problems.

 

Choosing the right (video) camera…

…yeah, this topic is one that NEVER dies and seems to need tweaking every few years. So I did the original in 2007, with an update in 2009 and a final look when I was hunting for a camera for myself last year.

A lot changed between the first and last postings…but even more has remained constant. We’ve moved from tape-based to card-based shooting. Quality has skyrocketed from SD to HD. The task of matching camera with nonlinear editing program and computer has become a bit more muddied. But you still have to have knowledge of the exposure triangle: aperture, shutter speed, ISO. You still should have mike inputs. You will forever have to know the limitations of your camera and your own skill and ability to use said camera.

And that said, let’s move on and see what’s out there for today’s VJs.

I’m taking a slightly different approach this time…realizing that not everyone has the big bucks for a higher end camera or the technical know-how for more than a point and shoot. (All this part of the content of The Basics of Videojournalism.)

So let’s divide cameras into a couple of levels of use.

1) Point and shoot Flip type cameras. No real zoom, no mike input, pretty much automatic. (But don’t worry…you can still turn a mean story if you know what you’re doing.)
2) Consumer camcorders. A zoom, probably no mike input, minimal or difficult to use manual controls.
3) Low end prosumer camcorders…these will have a decent zoom a mini-jack mike input and manual controls (most likely menu-driven).
4) Prosumer camcorders – zoom, XLR mike inputs OR mini-jack inputs, easily accessible manual controls
5) Professional camcorders – if you’re using one of these, you’re either working in the media or a production house and by gosh I’m betting you have a pretty good handle on what gear is all about (if not…wait for the book to come out bucko).
6) DSLR. Not a tool I’d put in a VJ kit, but preferred by some for ability to create shallow depth of field. Mini-jack mike input, ability to change out lenses, manual controls. Ergodynamicaly difficult to handle in gun-and-run situations.

You may have noticed a common thread above…zoom, mike input, manual controls. Professionals like to be on control. They know the relationship of shutter speed to iris to everything else. That’s not to say the automatic switch isn’t thrown every now and then…but infrequently.

So…to go over these terms. A good zoom will allow you to frame up a shot in multiple ways. Wide, medium, close-up. Oh – and it can also be used (again, infrequently) as a zoom…a way to get closer to/further away from something.

Mike input – your on-camera microphone is generally omnidirectional – it picks up sound from everywhere, with the closest noise getting priority. Not recommended for interviews…but don’t worry, there ARE ways around that. If your camera has a way to plug in an external mike, you can “stick it to” your interview subject and get clear audio.

Manual controls. These include the big four. Focus, aperture, shutter speed, white balance. The latter is less of a problem with today’s cameras, although there are times manual white balance will make a difference.

To understand the need for manual white balance, you need to know that light comes in many colors…your eyeballs and brain work together to make all light equal, but in reality daylight has a blue cast to it, tungsten/indoor lights stray to the orangish hues, and at times fluorescents can confuse the heck out of you, being balanced for daylight or tungsten. Let’s not even get INTO arc lights. If you use automatic white balance, 95% of the time your color will look good. It’s only when you encounter mixed light scenarios you may want to go manual. Unless you’re a pro – then you want to manually white balance constantly so that your video matches clip t clip.

Focus and aperture face the same problem, in different ways. When you shoot in automatic mode, anything that appears in front of the lens can suddenly cause a focus or aperture shift, resulting in lost of focus on your subject and a sudden lightening or darkening of your image.

Let’s tackle aperture first. Aperture, or iris, is how the camera controls how much light gets through the lens to the recording media. A small aperture lets in a small amount of light…a large aperture opens up wide to let in a lot of light. Delving deeper into the subject, light going through a small aperture is forced into focus, creating deep depth of field. Everything from front to back in focus. The magical shallow focus is created by a wide open aperture. (Of course there’s more to it than that…chip size is a big part of this, but I’m not going there for now.)

Shutter speed can be used on conjunction with iris to control depth of field and also to allow you to shoot in brighter or darker venues and more.

So, let’s hop on over to my favorite online store and do some comparisons. For now let’s pretend we have a budget of $1,000. We need a camera, media, tripod, and mike. The basic tools of a videojournalist.

Let’s toss $150 towards the tripod and oh, the same for a mike. Shipping will probably run around $30 or so, leaving us with around $670 for the camera…somewhere in there we’re gonna hafta take care of taxes too, but I’ll let you worry about that one.

Transparency first. While I shop at B&H (and locally whenever I can), in no way do I get anything out of referrals to their site. Go ahead – just ask them. I’ve just found their site easy to use when trying to narrow my search down.

So click on that cute little “Camcorders” icon, and let’s get going. Your three choices now are “Camcorders”, “Professional Video”, and “PAL camcorders.” Unless you plan to work outside the US, avoid PAL. Unless you have more than $2,000 (or much more) to spend, avoid Professional. Click on “Camcorders.” You now have more than 200 cameras to choose from.

In the left side column, scroll down to price and at the bottom of that category, type in the range of prices you can afford. (I’m putting in $400 to $650.) Wow – down to 22 cams to choose from.

I’m kinda an advocate of tapeless cameras, so I’m clicking SDXC/SDHC/SD…and we’re down to 19 choices. Why this format of media? It is easily available and not too expensive.

If you take a look at the brands available, the big four remain: Canon, JVC, Panasonic, Sony. All reputable companies, although that’s not to say you can’t do well with a Samsung or Kodak or some other brand.

I know I want a mike input for plugging the new mike in I plan to purchase, so I’m clicking that in the “Features” category and am down to 14 cameras. Much easier to make my selection with 14 than 200+.

Being a bargain hunter, I go up to the top and arrange the choices by price, from lowest to priciest, with the low end a Canon at $450 and the high end a Sony at $650.

This is where you actually have to go look at each camera…and do me a favor. Don’t just read the Overview…read the specs AND (if appropriate) the reviews. The specs will give you details about chip size (the bigger the better and three is better than one) and inputs and technical details. The reviews will let you know how folks who’ve used the gear hands-on feel about it.

Don’t assume the most expensive is best or the lowest price will have what you want or need. Unless you are purchasing a computer and nonlinear editing software to go with your camera, make sure what you purchase works with what you already have. Some of video formats will not play well with older computers or software. Some older systems may work better with mini-dv tape than cards.

Um…and almost forgot. We’re gonna hafta cut another $100 off our camera cost, getting it down to less than $550. Why? We need media, something to record onto AND maybe an extra battery to ensure we have lots of power to keep shooting (sorry bout that). We’re at 9 choices, which will make your search easier. (If you’re gong with mini-dv tape, make sure your kit includes a firewire cable to capture to computer.)

Final note – I am NOT recommending any of the cameras remaining – I would guess they may all be useable for a beginning VJ. If your budget is higher or lower, you can use the same process to narrow the search down enough to make an educated choice. This column is not about me telling you what to buy, but more about you learning what features you need to have to do the best job possible in telling visual stories.

Questions are welcome…so shoot away!

PS – if you are stuck on DSLRs, begin your search on the “Photography” icon.
PPS – used is good if you are a careful shopper. eBay works, but beware of scams, stolen items, and gear that may not work as advertised. Ditto craigslist. Ask questions…and return items promptly if not as advertised. I’ve had one bad experience in that area even after asking questions…but an honest seller repented and returned my money when I returned the camera (which did NOT record or play back).