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.

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.

Three camera test…

…between my mainstay Panasonic AG-HMC150, Swann HD Freestyle (think Go Pro), and Kodak Playtouch (your basic Flip style camera). Initially the latter two look pretty good, especially with the water splash. However, if you take the time to check, the details in dark areas and highlights on the fruit are noticeably better on the Panasonic.

Shot in bright sunlight…all cameras on automatic.