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.

Whither to aim…

…high?  Low?  In between?

Like I used to tell my students, you gotta know your target audience before you even think about creating a visual story.  Well, the same thing applies to writing a book.  In this case, The Basics of Videojournalism.

Our original demographic was high schools…then we realized there was a wider potential audience, so we have adapted to that.  And we’ve also finally settled on some of the finer points about our audience, including what level of gear they need.

Roughly we’ve broken gear into four basic groups.

 

1. Point and shoot cameras. Flip type cameras with no zoom or a very short distance zoom (or worse yet, optical digital zoom) and no microphone input.

2. Consumer level camcorders with one smallish chip, a decent zoom and no microphone input.

3. Prosumer/low end professional level camcorders with three chips and either XLR or mini-jack mike inputs.

4. DSLRs.

So we are taking aim at a target audience who fits in levels 2 & 3 – but we don’t plan to forgot those above and below. While the bulk of the learning will cover all levels of gear, most of the technical advice will help out those in the middle. However, we plan to have specific advice targeting the P&S and DSLR crowds.

For instance if you’re doing an interview with your handy dandy three-chipper and a wireless mike, no worries. Good clean audio, on a tripod, great composition. But what if all you have is a burning desire to learn and a P&S? We got ya covered with shooting tips which will work for both you and your gear. DSLR? Different issues completely, but once again, we’ve got ya covered with workarounds to get good audio and more.

This is more than a generic how-to book – I’ve got decades of broadcast news in my past, plus a short gig shooting videos for a newspaper AND I know my way around a lesson plan pretty well. And co-author Larry Nance has the practical technical background balanced with an artist’s heart and soul (and tempered by a very hard business head). So stick with us – teachers, because we WILL have lessons to help your students learn. And students too – cause what could be MORE fun than having fun learning?

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…

Pondering predictions…


…in this case, one I made more than a decade ago. The Internet was young and fanciful thoughts about what might happen to news were being bandied about when I came up with my wild concept.

Imagine a news organization that only employed a few anchors and reporters, but a ton of writers and producers. Imagine a breaking story…a plane crash. Rather than sending a team out, a producer does an Internet search (not even sure if Google was around at this point) and manages to locate a home across the street from the crash. Makes a phone call and tells the person who answers to hook up their video camera to their computer, point it out the window, and describe what they see. Almost unimaginable.

So what do we have today? Skype. Live streaming sites. Uh…it has happened, just not yet completely the way I guessed it might.

All this brought about by a discussion on b-roll.

What began as a discussion of the National Press Photographers Association contest and magazine has evolved into a discussion of the place of broadcast (read TV) members in the organization, how they are being served by NPPA (or not), and how the quality of broadcast has gone downhill – in terms of production values and equipment.

Sigh. There are a lot of anguished folks out there…who remember the “good ole days,” when a camera(wo)man could feel good about what they produced at the end of the day.

But financial hard times are a reality and we don’t always get what we want.

One of the lessons to be learned is from a very old, very tiny camera – the 35mm camera. For more details, check out the information on photo.net.

1914: Oscar Barnack, employed by German microscope manufacturer Leitz, develops camera using the modern 24x36mm frame and sprocketed 35mm movie film.

THAT was just the beginning. The camera became commercially available in 1924 (Leica) and took off in the years just before WWII. By the 1960s it had pushed the standard high quality cameras into the background and for forty plus years became the standard in print news photography – and there it reigned until the advent of digital.

We seem to be poised on the cusp of another change in standards…whether broadcast shooters like it or not. While there will always be room for big bucks, high end, expensive cameras, I am convinced that the news broadcast standard is the 1/3 inch three chip pro-sumer camera…with of course, the requisite bells and whistles. XLR, manual controls, shoulder mount, good glass.

The audience may love high-end high-quality in their movies. But I suspect they will settle for excellent quality video in news and general programs. I just hope they also demand the highest production standards to go with it.