Phone-ography…

A paradigm (para-dime) is typical pattern or model of something.

One of the paradigms of visual storytelling has been a certain type of camera. For years these cameras were the domain of professionals…large, extremely expensive, totally amazing pieces of technology. It took big bucks to get one and you made big bucks if you had not only the technical knowledge but the aesthetic sense and storytelling ability to use one.

Then…the paradigm shifted in the early 2000s. The big boys still made big bucks with big gear…but suddenly there was a new class of camera…halfway between the little consumer cams and the big professional guns. The pro-sumer camcorder. It had many of the nifty features of the pro cams, such as good glass and three chips and professional audio inputs. Manual controls. Good stuff all around, although noticeably not really up to pro standards.

And these little baby-cams began to gain in popularity as more and more people began to use them for an audience who demanded more and more video. The digital explosion send shock waves across the planet with the better quality cameras and affordable non-linear editing programs brought a new technology into the hands of the citizenry.

Another paradigm shift is going on right now and we see it every day and don’t even think about it. Cell phones began sprouting up in the 1990s…then morphed into phones that could take pretty lousy still shots…then not-so-bad stills. Then by leaps and bounds these little wonders turned into do-it-all mobile devices. Talk. Text. Surf the ‘Net. Shoot stills – and video. Not just plain ole video and stills, but high def stuff.

And they are taking over. Some years back when I began this blog I did a posting on Dinosaurs Fighting or Survival. Times had changed and if the pros who shot news (both still and video) didn’t change with them, they were out a job.

But back then the pros were either flocking over to the new technology or resisting mightily. It was a threat to their way of life – what they knew and could do.

Then technology ramped up its game and the gear got so good that the definition of “professional” took on a whole new meaning as more and more folks acquired the new smaller cameras. It quickly became apparent that the size of the lens and the heft of the camera had little to do with the ability to communicate. What mattered (and still very much matters) is a sense of aesthetics and storytelling. AND knowing how to make the gear you are working with work with you to tell the most powerful story possible.

But even the pro-sumer cameras (and many consumer cams too) had the familiar look to them. Lens in front, kinda boxy and rectangular. LCD on the side. It still looked like a real camcorder.

Enter the new mobile devices…thin, flat and less than the size of the palm of your hand. No optical zoom and minimal digital zoom. A new style of shooting and storytelling came with these new devices.

No longer able to pull in a far-away shot, you now had to zoom with your feet (or arms) to get in closer. The camera is no longer part of your body (hold it close to keep it steady…tripod it, cradle it). The camera is now an extension of your arm…your hand. In order to get a variety of shots you really need to get intimate with your subject. As in, arms-length close. Or closer.

And the storytelling end has had to change too. Rather than full-blown packages (including interviews, variety of shots, lotsa b-roll) stories are simpler. One long shot of an event such as a parade or riot. An interview covered with b-roll of an event or meeting. Impressions rather than full explanation. These “impressions” are often paired on the Internet with text and more information, which together tell a full story. The audience can choose to view the video and get the background from the other resources available or just read the information or just view the video to get a sense of what happened.

I doubt very much that mobile devices are going to take over the visual storytelling world any more than consumer or prosumer camcorders took over from professional gear. What they do is open up an entirely new way and new possibilities in visual storytelling to even more storytellers.

Yeah – it’s nice to belong to an exclusive club. Been there. Done that. But the new wave of stories coming at us will open our eyes and the world even more. And can that be a bad thing?

Transparency: Co-author Larry Nance and I have been discussing how to include all levels of gear in our pending textbook,The Basics of Videojournalism. He is a big proponent of technology and not only keeping up with the latest, but staying on the cresting wave as it thunders across the ocean. So expect full inclusion of not only prosumer and consumer and DSLR…but also mobile devices in the book.

Update – forgot that an earlier posting has a number of examples of mobile storytelling (using a Kodak Playtouch). Check it out.

Professional vs. pond scum…

There’ve been a few discussions (this is one) and (here’s another one) going on over at b-roll, as well as some stuff happening in my own life that gave rise to this topic.

What IS a professional (videographer)? And what is pond scum? Well, pond scum floats…I really mean bottomfeeders. And can one morph into the other?

Too often those at the top of the food chain look down with distain at those trying to climb out of the bottom. And those at the bottom often desperately love what they do and would (and can) do it for free.

Free – there’s the first difference.

A professional knows their worth – that their time is measured in dollars – based on experience, talent, technical knowledge, and gear, taking into account their market and a few other variables. And they charge accordingly.

Those who are not pros work for free…for the experience…for something for their demo reel…or just for the heck of it.

Pause for a bit of explanation – pros work for free from time to time for worthy causes or marketing purposes (win a free wedding video!).

Now I’m going to split the non-pros off from the pros and get into the nitty-gritty.

You can probably categorize the non-professional videographers into several strands.
1. Hobbyist
2. Student/Beginner
3. Clueless/Wanna-Be
4. True bottomfeeder

The Hobbyist is someone who does video for the love of it…and can and does achieve professional standards often. They’re not in it for the money, but for the love of the craft. (Again, pros are in it for the money…but in most cases there is also love of the craft. They want both though…to work and get paid for something they enjoy doing.)

Student/Wanna-Be are future pros if they play it right. They have learned the basics and are working to gain experience and listen and learn. They have a goal…to become a professional.

Um…Clueless/Wanna-Be. They may look like Students but don’t have the common sense or brain matter to rise above point and shoot. They’re either so into technical standards they don’t bother with aesthetics and the craft of video or they just like to walk around with a camera to impress, but never ever ever seem to move forward. They don’t have a plan or a goal beyond today.

And now for the Bottomfeeders. They’re the ones you have to look out for. They may look like pros or something between a beginner and pro, but they are not into learning or quality or ethics – they are in it for the money (and possibly the flash). They undercut pros in their market, do a shoddy job, and give the entire industry a bad name.

Why all this ranting?

First let me admit to an addition. I love to cruise craigslist. Primarily for the antiques and farm and garden section, but I also from time to time check out the gigs. Not the jobs (TV) section – after looking in there once or twice I had to sterilize my computer. It was NASTY.

And that’s where I (and many of the folks over on b-roll) find our laughs. So many many ads for video-related jobs, all offering no pay and an “opportunity” to work for “experience.”

But I found my first example that concerned me in the photography (for sale) section. A young woman placed an ad for her services as a photographer. She admitted to being a student, but wanted to charge $100 to take a portrait. She wanted to charge clients so she could learn and get experience. No online portfolio…nothing to indicate her abilities.

After an email correspondence I got her name. Yep – a real raw naive teen (ish) girl. She put herself out online and made several huge mistakes.

First – with one email I got her name and could easily, if I wished, have tracked her down or set up an appointment. Jail bait.

Second – she wanted to charge too much for her experience and without any proof of her work or mention of equipment other than having taken an ROP photo class and knowing PhotoShop.

Third – as mentioned above, what can she do for the price she is charging? Does she have a rate sheet…what does she provide for that price? How far will she travel? Where are some examples of her work?

I’m hoping she takes the advice given and sets up a webpage with examples, looks into contracts, rate sheets and more. She is a Student/Beginner…willing to learn.

The next one is similar, involving a teenager with aspirations and no clue about professional conduct. He offered to shoot senior portraits of a friend for free…and they went out over several days to a number of locations and different times (daylight, twilight, night). He shot quite a few photos – and then told his friend she had to pay $350 for the photos because he was a professional.

Ummmm – PROFESSIONAL?

I got involved because his “friend” was also one of my photo students who listened in class, earned an A and had her own concerns about his professionalism. Plus, she was extremely upset at the bait and switch.

A moment to pause for vainglorious shameless self-promotion.

MY student, while working with the above-mentioned “pro” kept questioning him about depth of field, light, aperture – and was able to asses his total lack of knowledge in those areas. Love it when a student actually LEARNS!

In the end she was able to beat him back, give him a token payment and NOT use any of his photos (98% of them were technically poor).

This guy may or may not learn from this. The friendship was broken, but may mend. But he seems to be meandering along his own self-centered path…not willing to move forward and take the necessary steps to become a professional. A current and future Bottomfeeder.

But his problems were similar to example number one, the craigslist babe.

No proof of prior work (no examples, just his word). No professional standards, rates, or contract. Bait and switch of the worst kind.

Now I do have a couple of students involved in video in their communities who are students. One is Cambodian, the other Hispanic. They took my high school broadcasting class and eventually set up their own production companies, shooting events/weddings within their tight-knit neighborhoods. (I’ve now seen Asian and Hispanic weddings from the inside! And pretty darn good productions at that.)

These two very different young men are moving thru the early stages of professionalism. They did some work for free for family/friends…then moved on to either working with a local pro or working on small events for token pay…then bigger projects on their own…to hiring assistants. They drove themselves to learn as much as they could, and still call or email with questions. Their raw talent and drive amaze me.

So – so do as I do – enjoy a good laugh from time to time online reading those trolling for free labor. But don’t get mad. This is a free market and those who don’t check out credentials before shelling over money have only themselves to blame. And don’t judge those who take the gigs too much. They may be clueless, they may be hobbyists, or bottomfeeders. Or they may be you – years ago in the same situation, but different time. Someone with a love, a passion for all things visual who just wants to (eventually) get paid to do what they love.

Line & mike levels and more audio tales from the darkside…

I’ve always said that audio is just as important as video when producing visual stories. If an audience has to struggle to hear sound, they will tune out and turn off (or skip to another site).

How you get sound into a camera (or story) can vary.

The most obvious (and worst) mike is the built-in mike on the camera. Generally this is an omni-directional mike. It picks up sound from every direction…with the closest noises recorded at the highest level (don’t cough – oh no!). That means the person holding the camera trumps the person being interviewed. (NOTE: if you MUST do an interview w/an on-camera mike, get in as close as you can. That means FILL THE FRAME with their face (no – DON”T zoom). Put them in an environment where there is NO distracting background audio. Even an air conditioner or dog barking in the background can ruin your interview audio. I told my students to reach out and touch the person they were going to interview…and back up no further than that.)

Lesson #1
Don’t purchase a camera that only has an on-board mike.

Not to worry – there is a workaround. If you’re into simple editing and have patience.
Just pick up one of those little digital audio recorders (I got mine for about $65). You can either place it near your subject (or noise source) or plug in a clip-on mike and tack that onto your willing subject. Much cleaner audio. Problem is, you have to match up or synch(chronize) the audio in a non-linear editing program.

Which gets us into what a clapboard really is. It’s not just something to bang around in front of the camera or make note of which scene and take you are up to. The matched visual of the clapper hitting the board along with the ensuing sound are what enable you to synch up audio and video later. (First workaround – just clap your hands right in front of the lens/camera. The cheapest “clapper” I know of/have used.)

Failing that…hope that your subject at some point used a “P” or a “B” or even a “W.” Those consonants have very distinctive audio cues…
The “B” sound can ONLY be made by putting your lips together and pulling them apart. (Yeah – just TRY to say baby without putting your lips together).
The “P” sound is similar. Lips begin pressed together.
“B” sucks in…”P” pushes out.
And if your interview subject says “welcome” or “why” or “whatever…”, the lips once again begin pressed together, but then open up and down.
Find those B, P, and W words and then try to match the lip action with the sound. Piece of cake. (And you can try it with other letters of the alphabet too – these have just been easiest for me.)

Lesson #2
Moving along…let’s say you were smart (or lucky) and have a camera with audio inputs. Today’s camera basically use two types of audio connectors. XLR (professional) and 3.5mm (mini-jack, consumer & prosumer).

(First let’s get the dirty little language lesson out of the way. There are male and female connectors. The boys have prongs. The girls have holes. End of lesson.)

Prosumer/Consumer
The mini-jacks come in either stereo/two channel (left & right) or mono/one channel. This is a tiny connector you plug into your camera. Beware: it can come loose easily.

Professional
XLRs are grounded and balanced and locked. This means they are hot swappable (no noise when plugging in/unplugging). A balanced cable allows you to run longer cable runs without noise. And locked? The mini-jack can be pulled free but an XLR locks into place…no fear of losing audio if the cable pulls loose.

XLRs don’t come in stereo or mono. Most cameras with XLR inputs have two. Channel one and channel two. You can choose to record on both channels with your on-board mike, or plus in another mike and record from the camera on one channel and the plug-in on another…or even plug in two mikes and record separate sound on each channel. Wow. (That’s professional for ya.)

Now thanks to the wonderful world of adapters (and Radio Shack and its kin), you can actually interchange mini-jack and XLR mikes. There are screw-on interfaces which allow you to run a mini-jack out of your camera and plug XLR cables into it. And you can go the other way – although why, I can’t imagine.

OK – so now you know what kind of input you have on your camera. Hopefully you know if it is stereo or mono. Final step: what mike are ya gonna use?

Lesson #3
Microphones. I’m going to overgeneralize, just to keep this simple.

First – there are wired and wireless mikes. Well, not mikes, but systems.

A wired mike uses a cable to plug into the camera. You are limited in range to the length of your mike cable.

A wireless mike is actually a transmitter with a mike plugged into it and a receiver, which is plugged into the camera. This increases the range of the mike from the length of a cable to the distance the signal can be received.

So what exactly ARE you gonna plug into your camera (or wireless transmitter)?

Shotgun mike.
Stick mike.
Clip-on mike.

One. Two. Three.

A stick mike is the tool of choice for many TV cameramen/reporters. It is omni-directional – it picks up sound from nearly every direction. It allows the user to choose who/where they will point it. It allows the user to control the interview by pulling the mike back as needed. And most stick mikes (the professional grade again) are solidly built. My Electovoice 635 could be used as a hammer.

Clip-on mike, aka lavalier microphone. The word “lavalier” is French in origin and refers to a pendant worn around the neck on a chain. The original lav mikes were placed around the neck of the interview subject with a cord. Today’s lav mikes are tiny and can be clipped on unobtrusively on an interview subject (or reporter). Most lavs are omnidirectional.

Shotgun mike. Now this has always confused me. A shotgun actually sprays out it’s projectiles in a widening pattern. However, a shotgun mike is a unidirectional mike. It has a narrow range it can pick up audio from. Perfect for aiming across a room at someone speaking or getting interviews with several subjects in a fairly noisy venue.

Which do you use in which situation?

1. They can all be used for interviews.
2. The stick and shotgun mikes allow you to interview several people at the same time, just by pointing the mike at the person you want to hear speaking.
3. The lav mike can only be pinned on to one person at a time.
4. The stick and shotgun allow you to control the interview by pulling the mike away from the interview subject and asking new questions. A lav mike gives the power to the subject, who can just ramble on.
5. Stick mikes are generally solidly built and can outlast cameras.
6. Lav mikes are generally be delicate.
7. Shotguns can be used on booms (long poles) and operated by a sound person, who points it at the desired sound source.
8. Generally speaking, stick mikes are least expensive, followed by lavs, followed by shotguns.

As usual, there are exceptions to all generalizations.

Um…in a later posting I’ll get into why cost and quality go hand in hand. Also why prosumer/professional cameras are a better choice simply because they allow you to control/mix audio coming into the camera.

Oh – and mike and line?

Those are refences to what level (how high/low) the audio levels are that come into the camera. Mike level is lower. Line level is high – at times overwhelmingly high. If you feed a line level into a mike input, you’re gonna get blown away. Distortion. Most consumer cameras don’t even need to worry about this…unless you for some reason want to link into an audio mixer to take a feed. A very unlikely scenario for the average consumer. Even potting (aka turning) the sound all of the way down with using a mixer won’t help. But professional and prosumer cameras often come with a switch that allows you to choose which level you want the audio feeding in at (mike/line). Plus controls to pot it up or down.

More later…I feel a roadtrip coming on…