The Basics of Videojournalism

Haven’t updated this in a while, but the book co-author Larry Nance and I have been sweating over is getting closer to publication. The Basics of Videojournalism is two chapters closer to completion. Law and ethics are done and we are moving into our final chapters…mostly dealing with post (organizing, writing, editing, exporting).

Business…

Photo courtesy Kathleen Newell (http://www.kathleennewell.com)

Heads up – this is a “shameless self-promotion” posting. My visual storytelling business is up and running.

While small (with intentions to stay that way), I have plans to make it big – in quality. Although I’ve dabbled a bit with video production and its many challenges, I find my love of news and storytelling is leading me back into news – both feature and general.

So…if you want to keep up, check me out at the following sites:
My visual storytelling business site.
thinknews facebook site
twitter account
Vimeo

Just FYI: work is progressing on The Basics of Videojournalism, although life is getting in the way some days.

And I will continue to post from time to time here on this blog – my first and favorite. Thanks for dropping by.

Getting my sea legs…

USS Makin Island (courtesy US Navy)

…took about the time it took to walk up the ramp and board the USS Makin Island at her berth in Pearl Harbor.

Now here is where I should insert swashbuckling tales of past experiences on the ocean and all of my adventures.  Um…no.  Embarrassing as it is to admit, all of my time in the past asea, with few exceptions, was spent occupying a three foot section of rail and feeding the fish my breakfast or lunch.  Whichever I ate last.

But this was a new day and a very new adventure.

Middle daughter Pearl’s ship was returning from deployment in the Middle East when she sent word that I could join something called a “Tiger Cruise” once the ship hit a safe harbor.  That would be Pearl.  Harbor.

Tiger Cruises are the Navy’s way of saying thanks for loaning us your (son, daughter, father, husband, etc) and letting us send them in harm’s way.  Here – you can hop on board and ride the final (safe) leg of the trip to home port with them.

So here’s my story, written as I rode the high seas.  Enjoy.

6.14.12

Thursday, June 14 began early when I rolled out of bed at five am.  Literally.  My bunk, at 8 feet long and about 2-1/2 feet wide was generous in every way except height.  If I’d tried sitting up, it would have been an awakening jolt, since I had less than a foot of headroom.  And since I was “ground floor” or bottom bunk, I rolled right onto the deck, about a foot below my mattress.

Welcome to life on board the U.S.S. Makin Island – the newest hybrid ship in the United States Navy.  For the nine days I will be answering reveille’s call each morning, reporting to duty stations, eating meals with sailors and Marines, and bedding down every night in my metal coffin as the ship makes its way across the Pacific, returning from a seven month tour of duty in the Middle East.

I’m on a Tiger Cruise, sponsored by my daughter, Pearl Green.  There are 264 other Tigers on board for this cruise.  Tiger Cruises began decades ago by the Navy as a way to welcome families on board ships and allow them to experience first-hand the life of military personnel at sea.

DC2(SW) Green is a Petty Officer 2nd Class (Surface Warfare) and has been with the Makin Island since before its commissioning in October 2010.  She has already sailed around the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America on the Makin Island’s maiden voyage from Mississippi to home port in San Diego in the summer of 2009.

And I’m her 62-year-old mother, on board to observe both my daughter and my Navy at work.

The Makin Island is a monster of a ship, one size smaller than an aircraft carrier.  At 847 feet long and 118 feet at her widest, she measures almost the length of three football fields. Standing, the ship is taller  fifteen stories high.

The Makin Island is a bustling city afloat, with everything from a TV station to barber shop, to airstrip/flight deck, restaurant/mess deck and more.  The 1100 sailors who run and maintain the ship are joined by a contingent of around 1700 Marines.  Its mission is peacekeeping…to tour foreign ports and oceans, maintaining a presence…a position of strength, both for show and as a detriment to possible hostile action.  And ready to act, if need be.  (Unlike a cruise ship, this little lady comes loaded with weapons.)

First impressions were that functionality rules over aesthetics.  The driving force behind the design of the ship seems to be a melding of efficiency and tradition.  Electrical wires, gas lines, pipes run along walls and ceilings.  There are few square doors…they are mostly oblong.  And thankfully, as a concession to the many Tigers on board, the portholes leading between decks have been opened up so we can traverse the stairs with less effort.  Without the Tiger mix, ranging in age from eight years old to seventy-four, personnel would disappear through holes in the floor to access the stairs.

These “stairs” are more akin to ladders on land, tilted at close to 75 degrees.  “Ladders” are straight up or down, at 90 degrees.  Probably 95% of the human traffic I see each day sprints up and down the stairs…at times backing up three or more deep to wait their turn. 

There are several large ramps to accommodate moving large loads on carts and forklifts and elevators to move large loads from the main deck to the flight deck. 


Extremely heavy loads include jets and helicopters, which ride on two enormous external elevators.

Lines form, predictably, three times a day leading into the mess deck.  Breakfast was manageable – we were in early and sitting within five minutes.  Lunch was a long line snaking back at least fifty people, but moved quickly and had us seated in 30 minutes.  The CS/Culinary Specialist crew feeds the entire crew three times a day in a buffet line offering simple choices of main dish, sides, and drinks.

Life on board a Navy ship is built on routine…with bells and whistles announcing wake-up, meals, the hour, and musters.   Drills and true emergencies can shatter this routine. 

A “man overboard” announcement had all hands and Tigers scrambling to report to their respective shops for a head count.  


Even though this was a drill, it was taken very seriously.  Two members of the Engineering crew who were stationed elsewhere were tracked down and accounted for before a final all hands accounted for report could be filed.

I was introduced to the location and use of the EEBD/Emergency Escape Breathing Device built in to my bunk right after I stowed my personal belongings in a locker. 
In the event of a gas leak or smoke I’m to don it and make my way topside.  The EEBD gives me 10 minutes of oxygen to make good my escape. 

It’s things like this that remind me that I’m not really on a cruise…but cruising on a military vessel.  There are few comforts…other than seeing a daughter whose voice and emails have been our only contact for the past seven months.  And we’re heading home.  The countdown on board has begun and you can feel the excitement and see it in the smiles of crew, anticipating leave with loved ones. 

6.15.12

By day three on the U.S.S. Makin Island everyone had slipped back into their regular routine.  Today the reveille bell didn’t ring as softly, the wake-up music blared, and fewer sailors rose and dressed as urgently.  It appears that reveille at this stage of deployment is more a suggestion to get moving…and some sailors use the surplus time for sleep rather than eating breakfast.

That made life for us Tigers easier with fewer crowds in the showers and bathroom, not to mention the breakfast chow line.  After waiting in the long snaking lines for lunch yesterday, my daughter and I gave up on eating dinner in the mess hall, opting for some of her squirreled away stash of microwavable soup.

Once again we mustered in the Engineering Department where the First Officer gave the orders of the day.  While I waited my seatmates, Pam and George Carter from Colorado, told me a bit about their experiences on board and their son.  John Carter, I discovered, was the young blond sailor who was checking names off during the man overboard drill yesterday.

Pearl and I joined other Tigers and sponsors on the main deck, which had been set up as a giant show-and-tell display by many of the ship’s departments. 


We wandered from the Engineering display of paraphernalia used as part of their firefighting duties over to one of the open bays where Tigers were learning how to patch a broken water pipe, but more fun, getting a chance to go hands-on with a water hose.  


As luck would have it, the Carters wandered by and I got to watch Pearl walk Pamela through how to hold a fully charged fire hose while George snapped photos. 

We were out on one of the massive elevators, used to lift aircraft to the flight deck…suspended perhaps a hundred feet over the Pacific Ocean under a bright blue sky.  It was surreal.  The ocean this far out to sea is a totally amazing shade of blue, which I’d never seen before.  A pure blue, almost translucent, stretching to meet a paler blue sky with clouds far on the horizon. 

After the fire hose demonstration we continued to watch Tigers, both young and old, learning how to handle firearms under the watchful eyes of Marines.

Further back on the main deck mats were laid out and a dozen sailors were practicing martial arts.  I learned from Master of Arms First Class Lorenzo Garcia of Stockton that their duties include law enforcement and defense of the ship using small arms and hands-on combat.

Still full from breakfast, we grabbed fruit from the lunch line.  Pearl explained that often the fruit was whatever could be obtained locally…so today we had Asian pears, mangos, grapefruit, and blueberries.  At other times they had more exotic fruit such as dragonfruit, guavas, and starfruit.

While she sat handing out assignments to her crew, I worked on some videos and then headed up to Vulture’s Row to watch Flight Ops rev up the engines on some of the helicopters on the flight deck.  One chopper took off and passed by the ship several times before relighting on the deck.  

Every vantage point was crowded with Tigers and sponsors, enjoying another clear windy day upside.  Marines in brown camouflage and sailors in blue camouflage explaining the scene below or just relaxing in the sun together…an interesting juxtaposition of peaceful family life on a warship.

Pearl finally finished her duties and caught up with me and once again we headed into the bowels of the Makin Island. 

I was finding that there was a real mix of hard work and relaxation as the ship headed across the Pacific towards its homeport.  While the morning muster was formal, interchanges between supervisors and the work force were friendlier, to the point of banter.  Work was assigned, reports handed in, and occasionally a serious undertone would score the importance of certain assignments.  The mission at this point was to make certain all duties were completed before touching home base…otherwise leave might be endangered.

6.16.12

Navy time is sometimes confusing. 


The Tiger handout I received on boarding showed a 5K walk/run this morning at 8am…however times change daily and we didn’t check the announcements the night before, so we nearly missed the 7am gathering time to sign in along with dozens of other sponsors and Tigers.

Already on deck were a handful of Marines and sailors doing their PT (physical training).  The Navy has strict weight and body fat requirements and will crack down on individuals who do not stay within required parameters.

By 8am everyone had signed in and the event began with half of the runners heading towards the bow and the other half towards the fantail.  A brisk wind I’d estimate at 20-25 miles an hour slowed progress forwards but made walking to the back of the ship easy.

Events such as this one really highlight the purpose of the Tiger Cruise.  Fathers with daughters, mothers with sons, generations sprinting together or ambling side by side just enjoying some time together after a long separation.  

You could see the pride of Marine dads as they allowed their daughters to keep up with them…and Navy sons slowing down to let fathers keep up.  Or the young boy who used the heavy wind to fly past his Marine mother.

Once back at Pearl’s station one of Pearl’s officers told her to check the news because he’d heard of a fire between Stockton and Lodi. 

The Navy takes care of its own – and part of this is a system to enroll family members into their system so that the military umbrella reaches out to ensure family is safe.  This means checking in on family if there are floods, fires, or over events and if necessary, making sure they are evacuated.

After a tense fifteen minutes to enroll my husband into the system (he is still back home in the Lodi area) we learned that the fire was actually 35 miles east in the foothills.  A false alarm, but it was gratifying to know there was a system in place to give service members some peace of mind about their families.

The bond between the sailors in Pearl’s department is a big part of the support system that makes life bearable during extended deployments.  The Makin Island left back in November, just before Thanksgiving.  During the past six months former strangers have become friends and family.  Everywhere I go on this ship young people step aside or offer a hand.  They wait patiently when I have at times struggled with the steep descents and ascents.  Chairs are pulled out in offices.  My title is either Ma’am to people who don’t know me or “Mom” to the young people in Pearl’s office.

I came on board three days ago…and already I feel as if I’m home.

6.18.12

Sunday we began rocking and rolling as the Makin Island hit weather on the way home.  Most of the time the only movement has been a gentle tilting, barely noticeable.  Today it became very evident, with the tilt becoming at times a lurch. 

Sunday is the only day of the week when reveille is not sounded and sailors take advantage to sleep in late (or all day).  A “steel beach picnic” had been planned for the Flight Deck, but due to inclement weather it was held on the main deck.  Four long lines between two buffet tables with hot dogs, hamburgers, barbequed chicken, and spare ribs and all the sides.  A game of basketball went on to there rear of the deck.  Music blared.

Pearl and I chose to sit in the mess, which was only slightly quieter and then decided on an early bedtime. 

Reveille sounded loud and clear Monday morning and Pearl rushed through breakfast while I met a new Tiger – a retired Sacramento police lieutenant, now living in Arizona.  It seems every new Tiger I meet is from another state, so it was nice to talk with someone who actually knew where Lodi was.  So far I’ve met Tigers from Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Arizona, Texas, Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.

When I caught up with Pearl at her muster, she was telling her DCPOs (Damage Control Petty Officers) that there’d be extra clean up tonight unless someone confessed to trashing their working area the night before.  (She and another team member had swept and cleaned up before leaving and someone had messed up overnight.)

I then got a personal grand tour of the ship; from Medical (where I got some naproxen for my hip and knee pain) and then down six decks to the Central Control System where all ship systems are monitored.  This is how the Damage Control crew keeps an eye out for potential problems and monitor emergencies as they occur.  They can see and control everything from the septic system to water pressure in fire mains to hot spots on board.

Then it was up five decks to the access ladders to get four decks down to the main engine room, where I got to see both the gas and diesel systems and the main drive shafts for the propellers.  These are the only areas on board I’ve been that were not chilly…but comfortably warm. 

Back on the main deck Pearl perked up when she learned the ship’s mess was putting out free cases of water and Diet Coke for the taking.  Sailors from different departments were grabbing cases and heading down to their shops, so she grabbed two cases of water and handed me two cases of soda – the reaction down below was upbeat when the free supplies arrived.

So here we sit…with a happy crew around us awaiting their assignments for the day.  We are more than halfway home at this point and I’m ready to see land myself.  The thought of working on this ship for as long as these young people have – more than seven months – and for some, days without seeing the sky, is more than I can imagine.   What I can imagine is the explosion of bodies once the ship hits port and the crew is heading down the ramps to family and home.

6.20.12

Along about Day 8 the adventure began to become old.  The constant movement of the ship…the engine and ventilation noise…the bone-piercing cold and metal walls penetrated and made real what our sailors and Marines live with for months on end.  This is not a fun cruise, but day to day existence in a metal hull…with each individual performing their duties as part of a whole.

It is only now that I realize the yearning for solid land and home that our service men and women have and why with each wave we pass over and every minute that passes their smiles are broader and their steps lighter.

Along with the endless duties to keep the ship in perfect working condition and shipshape, aka clean, much is done to keep spirits up.  From Monday’s lobster tail dinner to Sumo wrestling to last night’s Bingo game…from the library and college classes available…there always seems to be an event or opportunity to forget for a few minutes where you are.

But only for a few minutes.

One thing I do know.  I will NOT be standing between any sailors on board when the gangplank is lowered and leave begins.  And not just because they deserve an unfettered leave, but also for my own safety.  I foresee a stampede to dry land in the near future.

6.22.12

I missed reveille for the first time this morning…or so I thought.  In reality Pearl and most of the other females I was bunking with had been up for an hour or more, ironing their dress whites, applying make-up and helping each other with their hair. 

Today is homecoming.

All of the sailors mustered on the hanger deck in their dress whites and then marched up the ramp to the flight deck.  It was time to “man the rails.”  Sailors marched around the edge of the flight deck until they were spread out within arms reach of each other, totally encircling the deck.  More sailors were stationed below on the catwalk and above in Vulture’s Row. 

It was cold and blustery and many of the young “tars” were shivering.  But everyone was breaking into smiles as we made our way through the channel and past the Naval Air Station.

We passed the U.S.S. Midway, now on display in downtown San Diego – with its Welcome Home sign.  Under the Coronado Bridge and towards Naval Base San Diego, and finally we were pushed up against Pier 13 by massive tugboats.

Below hundreds of family and friends waited and cheered.  Everyone broke for below deck once the formalities were over, quickly packing and grabbing bags and heading back to the hanger deck to get into one last line. 


The line out the door to freedom.

Being inside we missed another Navy tradition:  first hug, first kiss, and new dad. 

120622-N-FH966-180 SAN DIEGO, Calif. (June 22, 2012) Damage Controlman 2nd Class Jordan Bailey, who serves aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8), greets his son after returning from the ship’s seven month maiden deployment. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David McKee)

Drawings were held for the first two, with two random sailors allowed off the ship before anyone else to greet their loved ones.  All new dads were next…getting first glimpses of children born while they were at sea.

Then it was time for the rest of us.

Out the hanger doors, down three flights of stairs and onto solid ground for the first time in ten days.  We passed through a guard gate and all around us sailors were greeting loved ones…and beyond the crowd was Pearl’s little sister Alexis, who grabbed and hugged her tight.

All that is left is the trip home for a relaxing night together.

Tomorrow is another day.  Pearl has a 24 hour duty starting early in the morning, so her true freedom does not begin until Sunday.  An interesting thought – that our soldiers and sailors live apart from family and friends, treasuring moments off ship and off base so that the rest of us are protected and can lead our lives free – often totally unaware of their service and sacrifice.

Yep.  It WAS an experience.  And what I experienced was just a moment in time compared to what our troops experience daily.

And now for the link to Videojournalism.  The story of what I did and why.   Some of the resulting videos are linked above…what you may not have realized is about 95 percent of what I shot on this trip was done on a Kodak Playtouch z10.  Yep – a point and shoot.

The book I’m co-authoring with Larry Nance will cover all bases/all gear from P&S through consumer and prosumer with a dash of DSLR thrown in.  While I’ve used the last three, I only had a passing nod to the P&S gear.

Until now.

And I will tell you that with all of the climbing up and down ladders ( I refuse to believe anything that steep is a staircase…sorry) having a camera I could shove into my pocket was a real savior.

In fact – here’s my gear kit for most of the shooting I did.   One small camera bag.  One Playtouch.  One mini-jack lav mike.   An extra battery.  And two teensy tiny super-cute lens adapters (wide angle and tele).  I took along a tripod but only used it once – and because the wind very nearly swept it away on the flight deck along with the camera, I returned to hand-holding the camera for security.

Shooting was a real lesson.  Cameras at this level are pretty basic – fixed lens with digital zoom.  So I had to zoom with my arms and legs.  No manual control.  Goodbye aperture control, while balance, focus.  Oh wait – there was a switch topside so I could take (mountain icon) kind of infinite focus shots or (flower) close-ups.  Not enough heft to help me balance it properly…I had to learn the correct way to hold it, all the while avoiding touching the touchscreen (which was very sensitive).

And my shooting style changed and along with it, my editing style.  While you can tell a full story with a variety of angles and shots and you can (thanks to the mike input) do interviews with good sound, you have to think it through and plan accordingly.  

My plan was to shoot a series of short nats videos to post quickly and have enough back-up video to eventually produce two more longer videos.  One on the trip itself and the other on how I used the camera on the trip.  And that’s where I pulled in my Canon HV30…to shoot some standups with me explaining the Playtouch and to get some shots the Playtouch couldn’t – good telephoto shots of aircraft flying by and LPACs coming and going.

By way of closing, I’d like to recognize PAO (public affairs officer) MCCS Donnie Ryan for tolerating my pleas for help and helping post videos and send postings while underway.  He struggled mightily with the ship’s balky Internet until he saw success.  Thank you for your efforts.

Dog and pony shows…(oops) I mean generic boring stories…

I’ve been to two of these in the past week with another one coming up on Thursday. For you newbies, a dog and pony show used to be a small traveling circus – but in the biz it is a show put on for the entertainment of the media or the masses (see Addendum at end). In the case of my projects, it was more for the masses than the media, but still each had its challenges.

Generally D&Ps are not real visual stories. Oh, the folks pushing them may think they’re the most wonderful thing in the world, but trust me. Visual they ain’t. So it’s up to the VJ covering the event to discover and reveal the true meaning or purpose of the event.

There are a couple of ways to present stories like these. Example: the first event was an awards ceremony at a local college. At this event I was taping my high school MESA (Math, Science, Engineering Achievement) team receiving awards and I didn’t want to work the crowd or the stage so I set up beside the sound board in the back of the room and plugged in to get good audio. Venue: a large dark auditorium. I just rolled on the speeches and presentations. That was it. When I edited, all I was aiming for was snippets of the event. Four videos focusing on four different speeches or presentations. Rote shoot and playback.

The second event was an hour and a half speech by a New York Times best selling author. There was something of interest – his service dog. Venue: a large flatly lit general purpose room. So I got some b-roll of the dog before the speech and then the book-signing afterwards. And rolled (and rolled) on the speech. The library wanted to document the event and pretty much is letting me decide what to do with it. This time I’ll pick out the four or five best sound bites from the speech and string them together, but will also do a mini-package TV style for them to post on their website using the b-roll.

Final event will be a presentation to a local legislator at a lunch for disabled veterans. Venue: a military armory set up with lunch tables for the vets. For this one I’ll skip the shoot and playback and just do a simple package, most likely focusing on either the re-election race the congressman is in or use the presentation as a way to segue to issues of veterans in today’s society. Don’t know yet and don’t want to predict what might strike my fancy.

You’ll notice that I kind of had a plan for each story – and I had that plan BEFORE I headed out to shoot. Having a plan is important so you have a sense of direction of where to take the story. Equally important is being able to change as the story changes…being flexible. So while the MESA event was pretty much set in stone, the library event had some wiggle room because I had a client and more time. And the veterans event has yet to happen, so I need to keep my options open.

Each of these venues, by the way, had the same feel even though they are very different. A focal point up front with an audience watching. Not a lot happening, so you, as the storyteller, have to make it happen with images you see and capture and words you write to explain.

How to shoot these? Unless you have a prepared copy of the speeches (and trust me, with politicians you often do) be prepared to roll at any point. Generally once a speaker gets their pacing, it is after the opening remarks and obligatory thank yous (to everyone on the planet it it seems). Second best roll time is towards the end as they summarize. But don’t be caught off guard…those great sound moments can pop up anywhere and you need to be prepared. Just as important – you need to NOT roll. A lot of speeches are mundane, too technical, not focused, or even just plain bad. What you are aiming for are highlights that will help your audience understand the gist of the event.

While you are shooting you need to determine how you will present the information and video. Sometimes you’ll just go with a SOT (sound on tape or sound bites), other times you may want to explain more and add narration and b-roll. So cover your bases and get those cover shots (of the dog, of people listening). Don’t forget your wide, medium, and close-ups. Assess the audience and get shots of folks leaning forward or sleeping. Shoot the signs and literature. Find those shots that will help you, in the end, tell the story.

Addendum: more on dog and pony shows. Literally speaking, they are somewhat meaningless entertainment – not opera or true art, but a mild distraction put out there for those out of the mainstream. Today the meaning is tilted more towards a show put on just to put on a show…to attract attention with no real purpose other than that. I’m gonna hafta give that my first two projects probably don’t fit that category…the awards ceremony had meaning and the author talk was educational (even thought there WAS a dog involved). Gonna have to wait and see on the political presentation though.

Do. It. Yourself.

We all have those little tricks up our sleeves…the tricks we use to fix it, shortcut it, or make it easy for ourselves.

Some years back I posted a quick little emergency “fixit” for those days when your last miniscule lav windscreen disappears. At the time I was experimenting with using my computer with a camcorder plugged in to see if I could record “live” into iMovie.

It worked. The way I shot the video I mean. And the trick works pretty well too. All you’re doing is creating a dead zone above the mike head that keeps wind from hitting the head.

Fast forward six years to today…or rather earlier this year. I needed a way to fix my Lectrosonics wireless receiver to my Panasonic HMC150. The body is so compact and nearly every surface has dials or gizmos that I couldn’t figure out where to attach the reciever. Out of desperation I would stick it in the hand grip…or pocket it tethered to a long enough XLR cable. Awkward.

Looked around on the Internet, but most of the fixes either didn’t look like they’d work with my camera or were way too expensive. So I did what any sane person with too much time on their hands would do…I diddled and daddled and did some thinking to boot and came up with my own gizmo.

The solution was both effective and affordable. One two by four inch piece of plastic, about 3/8 inch thick. One cold shoe attachment. Industrial strength Velcro.

I’ll make a video later on…but here’s the drill. Countersink a threaded hole into the plastic. Fill said hole with super glue and screw in the cold shoe. Wait for it to dry. Attach Velcro to fit. Put mated piece of Velcro onto your receiver (or whatever else you want to attach to the camera).

Cost: assuming I could have bought just enough for this one holder, probably less than $10. As it was, I bought enough plastic for four holders (around $14), five of the cold shoes at around three and a half bucks each, and the Velcro roll ran nearly $15. The super glue I had lying around the workshop.

What would I do differently? I got the cold shoes cheap on Amazon.com. If I do it again, I’d probably go for more heavy duty shoes…I can tell the ones I got are not sturdy enough for long term use.

Oh – and once I went to all of this trouble, I found exactly what I needed (same basic design, but metal) over at B&H.

So – two of my tricks are out of the bag…and my partner in crime, Larry Nance, is working on more fixits, make-its, and shortcuts for our book, The Basics Of Videojournalism. The OMB, VJ – the current day Jack (and Jill) of all trades.

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).

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?