How do I choose a camera?

Panasonic AG-HMC150 and Samsung NX-1000

Panasonic AG-HMC150 and Samsung NX-1000

Dangerous ground…especially if you don’t know enough to know what you should be looking for.

This blog posting is for those who want to stretch their knowledge and move beyond simple P&S (point and shoot) folks who just use their cameras to take family photos or video or LAMIGABEC! (Look at me – I’ve got a big expensive camera!) types who are all about impressing folks.

This blog posting is for those of you who just know somehow you’re missing out on the real secrets of shooting and editing video…what makes the magic. As mentioned in a previous posting, it’s not the wand…it is the magician waving the wand that makes the magic. But you do, after all, need a wand…and right now it seems you’re ready to move up to a more powerful one…

Before anything…you must consider what you will be using the camera for. Are you into news video? Documentaries? Movie-making? Event videography? Although this may not affect your decision a lot, you should have some idea of where you want to take your journey.

Next – budget. Don’t even think about buying gear until you have a rough idea of your budget. The low end is not the problem – it’s the high end you need to set. And set it firmly. Once you start shopping you may find yourself wanting to stretch that budget “just a little bit more” for a slightly better camera…and then want to stretch it again…and again. I went through the same throes about three years when I set a camera budget of $3000 and found myself looking at $10,000 cameras. A quick reality check and I had to back off. Finally got a Panasonic AG-HMC150 for around $2700 and had enough left for spare batteries and cards.

Part of the reality check includes a few things you will need to budget for in addition to media and accessories. Media tops the list after the camera. Hopefully you’ve already picked up a (somewhat workable) tripod somewhere. You can get by with one battery initially. But you will need a microphone other than what’s built-in to the camera. And you WILL need to pay taxes and shipping (which can run you over budget if you’re not thinking).

Now…on to choosing the camera. Fist, think about form. The choices are pretty simple: DSLR, Micro 4/3 – basically still cameras and camcorder/video cameras. If you’re serious you want a camera/camcorder with a microphone input, headset out (to monitor audio) and some way to manually control aperture, shutter speed, ISO.

Video cameras are meant to shoot video. Prices for a camera with the features mentioned above generally start at a higher price point than the still camera choices. On the low end they have attached lens and controls accessible by menu. On the higher end the controls are located where you can see and access them on the camera body. The camera itself is meant to be hand-held (or tripod-mounted). You can monitor your visuals through either the LCD or a viewfinder (for shooting in bright sunlight). The camera has a built-in microphone/usually a shotgun or directional mike. But you can also plug in an external mike through either 3.5mm/mini-jack inputs or XLR/professional connectors. On the lower end of the price range the lenses are part of the camera…as you hit mid-range pricing (say around $3,000 to $4,000) you can get cameras with detachable lenses, giving you more options for shooting extreme wide angle or tele shots.

Still cameras are meant to shoot still photographs, but many today also shoot video. Again, you want the same features if you’re serious. Mike input, headset out, manual controls. One of the primary advantages of this category of camera is that even with the lower end cameras you can get detachable lenses or buy adapters and use old film lenses and get shallow depth of field – meaning you can selectively choose what is in focus and what is not. Although the same effect can be achieved with camcorders, it takes more knowledge and is not always as effective (until – once again – you get into being able to detach and choose lenses). The form factor of still cameras does not always lend itself to handheld…these cameras are designed to be held while following and shooting stills. It is more difficult to hold them steady for video clips. So you may need a rig – a contraption that helps you hold the camera steady while hand-holding. The built-in microphones on still cameras are not as effective as those on video cameras. You need to search and make sure you purchase a camera with both an LCD and viewfinder…preferable an orientable LCD so you can slap that camera on the ground or hold over your head and still be able to monitor your images. Still cameras with mike inputs all use 3.5/mini-jack inputs. Or (if your budget is low) there may not be an input for an external mike at all. So…more choices. If no mike input, purchase a digital audio recorder…something you can place or hold out to get clear audio. Of course you’re going to have to synch the audio and video up in editing, which adds to your production time. Next – purchase microphones with mini-jack terminals. Third, get an XLR adapter so you can use professional mikes. Regarding manual controls…still cameras tend to be menu driven, although at the higher end there are more options for external control.

Now I’ve shot with both video cameras (a lot) and a micro 4/3 (a bit) and the images are stunning on both. The micro 4/3 I have does not have any mike inputs so I’ve had to resort to holding a little DAR/digital audio recorder out the same way I would hold a stick mike to do interviews. It works fine…and for around $280 for the still camera vs. $2700 for the video camera…I can do that.

If you’re on a learning curve…look at all of the alternative affordable options and work your way up the food chain of cameras.
Happy trails!

Skillset for success…

cropped-200-seamore-bear-intvw-2.jpgBeen doing some gigs with a local producer and on the road we often discuss the woes of the world with slant on video production. She tries to hire local and has worked with seasoned pros and local university students and has seen large gaps in what said students don’t know. So here’s a quick primer on the skillset you need to get started in video…be it production or news.

Attitude. This is one of the top concerns…the know-it-all newbie who has just acquired thousands of dollars worth of book learning but is lacking sadly in essential areas. Coming in to a job with attitude is a killer for the employer. Courteous and humble works oh so much better and will get you a return gig more than likely.

Speaking of schooling…all too often colleges are heavy on theory and light on reality. Skills such as shooting and editing can be taught but they must be fully assimilated in order for them to do any good. What that means is daily use of said skills…not a story or two in a semester. One skims the surface while the other drives knowledge into the very physical core of the student.

And shooting – please don’t go all artsy fartsey and say that you actually wanted the shots to be wavering and shaky because you “don’t do” tripods. Use. A. Tripod. For Every Shot. Until you learn how to glide like an eagle or use a steadicam, stick to the sticks.

Please understand how light works and how to work with light. Know the basic rules of composition…and when to break them. What else? Well – sharp focus and proper exposure.

Audio – just because you THINK you can hear it doesn’t mean it’s good. Use a real plug-in microphone. Not the on-cam mike. Use a headset to make sure you hear good audio. Then play it back as a final assurance you got it clean.

Sequencing. The crown jewel of video. How to tell a story in a series of connected shots…shots that segue and flow into each other when edited.

I can’t believe I’m writing this…everything thus far is so far down the food chain in what a shooter needs to know…but all of these were discussed while heading to a gig earlier today as the producer lamented the lack of skills she is seeing.

Oh – and final word of advice. When you put up your demo reel, keep it short and focused. Three or four minutes at most. (My current demo reel is 3:05.) If you’re bad that will be obvious seconds into the reel – and no producer is gonna sit thru bad for longer than that. If you’re good it takes just the same few seconds…so why ruin it and take the chance the producer may back away. Make sure you show the basics mentioned above: exposure, steady shooting, composition, lighting…

And about your attitude. You are being offered an opportunity when you get a job. Don’t make the person who hires you regret it by treating them poorly.

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.

 

Two views (or more) of VJs…

Newsreel Man (Charles Peden in front with sound equipment)

In the beginning there was the Newsreel Cameraman. Hauling around more gear than a pack mule, he (no shes back then) covered the news and view of the nine-teens and twenties, joined by an Audio Man in 1927.

That was the original VJ. Rough and tumble, but always got the story.

These NR guys held on tenaciously through the birth of television, only getting phased out in the 1960s when the majority of the public chose the boob-tube over the big screen for their daily dose of what’s happening.

In the meantime a new term sprang up on the broadcast side of news: OMB. One man band. A reinvention of the NRC, they (once again) hauled around a camera, audio gear and enough love of news and what’s happening to gather the news in their markets for a hungry audience. I’m guesstimating maybe late 1950s with film and optical audio through…hmmm, today’s digital workflow.

And now we have divergence.

Sometime in the 1990s print photographers discovered an entirely new unheard of medium. They called it multimedia. It was all new – if you could actually believe editing sound with your still photos and then playing it back. Wow.

Then these brave pioneers moved on to an even greater discovery. Something they called video. Imagine, if you can, moving images with audio embedded! Why the world had never seen the likes of it before. But what were they going to call themselves if they no longer shot stills?

Well there were a number of options. Out of the nation’s capitol came the term Backpack Journalist. Made sense because (theoretically) you could fit camera, computer…your entire office into a backpack. Visual Storyteller was another one. Multimedia Journalist or Storyteller was another choice. But most of them went for Video Journalist. And so they laid claim to this new territory as original and new and totally theirs.

Um…but what about those broadcast folks? Weren’t they shooting video too?

Not the way we are, chimed the (print) VJs. Our style of storytelling is unique. We’re not TV.

Looking at it from afar (and for a while from the middle of it) I’d say the two are pretty much doing the same thing.
Similarities?

1) Both use cameras
2) Both gather sound
3) Both work alone to gather and disseminate visuals stories to their audiences

Differences?

1) Broadcast VJs tend to use cameras meant for “run and gun” shooting with easy to access exterior controls, professional audio connectors, and good zoom lenses.
Print VJs opt for hybrid DSLRs that shoot both stills and video. While they have more control over depth of field with a wide variety of interchangeable lenses, they must also add-on audio accessories and other gadgets.
2) BVJs generally run on a tighter schedule with more packed into a day and more expected of them. Anything from a single package to a few VOs and VOSOTS to a combination of all of the above.
PVJs may have to shoot multiple stories daily also, but often seem to use video for more long form stories or VO/VOSOTS.
3) A good BJV can turn an exquisite daily story using a variety of options from a NATS pkg to pkg complete with narration and stand-up. Day after day, week after week.
A good PVJ can turn an exquisite story in a few days (from what I hear and see on the professional boards) generally a NATS pkg using the voice of the interview subject rather than narration.

You may have guessed two things by now. I tend to favor the BVJ…but there are some equally damned good PVJs out there. The good ones have more in common than not. They live and breathe visual storytelling. They see the kernels of truth, the compelling images, and understand the flow of time and words well enough to go beyond the basics. And more importantly, they learn from everything…from each other, from their subjects…each story is an opportunity to get better.

Why this posting? Just had to get it out of my system. Don’t want history written up improperly with the lineage of VJs lost to the most vocal shooters. Those quiet guys behind behemoth hand-cranked cameras deserve their place in the books too. (And don’t forget…many of them were former still photogs.)

Game changer…

Every now and then something comes along and the reaction is, “COOL!  Why didn’t I think of that?”  (or…”I thought of that years ago and it’s FINALLY come out.)

Back in the early 2000s JVC had something called the GY-DV300u aka the Streamcorder. That little gem was way ahead of its time. I grabbed one because after some pretty heavy duty research I found it had all the gizmos I wanted and needed to have a life after a multi-decade career as a broadcast news cameraman. But it had that little extra “umph” in the background that intrigued me – the ability to stream live to the web. And for some reason it never really took off. And the camera and it’s revolutionary potential kind of faded away…

Until NAB this year when the 300u’s great granddaughter returned. And with a vengeance.

Meet the JVC ProHD Mobile News Camera! To me it’s an old friend gussied up and modernized. But it is a game changer and this time the time is ripe for it to reach the heights it missed last time around.

What’s new? Okay, so I admit I’m addicted to glass. A 23x zoom. Something that can reach out and pull you (and your audience) in close to situations you don’t even WANT to get close to. Most prosumer cameras in this price range only have a 10x or 14x zoom, leaving you miles short of the shot you really want.

Dual slot recording…the less expensive version of this camera, the JVC GY-HM600 ProHD Camera has two slots for continuous recording too, but lacks the ability to record in HD in one slot and SD in the other. That ability allows you to shoot HD for the main event but SD to stream back quickly to the station for on-air. Wow.

I don’t even need to get into real manual controls, XLR inputs, three chips (1/3 CMOS)…the usual suspects in a pro’s array of necessary tools.

What happened in the past ten years that makes this new again?

Well, this time news is READY for a camera like this. In 2002 (when I got my JVC 300u) going live on the web was something entertaining…fun. But nobody in real news considered it seriously. After all, it wasn’t really professional – was it? Tiny little camera, poor quality…and there were live trucks and microwave trucks to handle important stories.

Times change…and now cell phones and Skype can put out decent enough (okay, so even I debate that one) images for news. Plus, reality has set in – financial reality. With the competition out there, lean and fast may make the difference between survival and death to cost conscious news organizations.

And while I absolutely love those good ole days, I’m a realist. What I see is a camera that may mean survival.

Thank you Videomaker…

…for this excellent advice on how to choose a (not quite broadcast) professional video camera. Begins with good glass (and why), chips, manual controls and more. And the best part? The information holds value through (most) changes in technology that I’ve seen over the past (OMG) forty years.

VIDEOMAKER

Addendum: VM is on a roll today. Or maybe they’re just publishing stuff I find useful. Here’s article #2 on copyrighting and Creative Commons. Good stuff to understand.

Going in circles, biting my…

…well, not fingers.  Work on The Basics of Videojournalism progresses.  The focus this week is to get the chapter on shooting done, complete with illustrations.  Those we take care of tomorrow with former McNair broadcasting student (and someday film cinematographer) Louis Martinez, who will be acting as our model for illustrations for the book.  Author Larry Nance’s son Amani will be helping out too, being interviewed on camera.  

All the while Larry is snapping the stills I will be shooting video.  Yeah, this is gonna be one interactive book.  We’ll not only show you with words and pictures how to do it, there will be a DVD (or two) with demonstration video and raw videos to show what you should be shooting (steady, well exposed, good light, etc).

Problem is…the more we write, the more we realize we need to write more.  

Shooting was supposed to be a pretty basic chapter that has now expanded, is growing, and is taking on its own life.  It seems to me that too many “how-to” books pretend to tell you “how-to”, but don’t really.  So when Larry and I say, “This is how to…” we plan to show the basics and then some. Read, look at the photos, view the video showing HOW to, work with raw video files to see how it should look. Interact and learn. One thing I learned in years of teaching is that there are different learning styles…and I suspect a lot of folks who want to learn video are visual and kinetic learners – they learn by seeing and doing.

Of course all of the above is creating more and more work and research. But taking into account Larry’s personal knowledge base (which is expansive) and all of my musings and blogs, we’re off to a pretty solid start.

Voices that inspire me…

…to get back to blogging.

Did a (fairly basic) lighting workshop yesterday for Voices of the Earth, a Bay area non-profit. They’re a bit out of the ordinary…a small group of passionate folks who have taught themselves an awful lot about video production and who want to move on to what they call “the next level.” For them, this meant learning how to use light properly, plus a bit about audio and sundry other items.

I say they are out of the ordinary because they learned and gave themselves feedback properly…before we even met up they knew to use a tripod, frame properly, and (wow!!!) get good solid audio with shotgun and clip-on mikes. Made my job awfully easy.

The end result is that their inspiration has now re-inspired me to write the occasional blog posting. So this will become an on-again/off-again thought-of-the-moment series of postings with tips. Until I’m enticed away to the next bright and shiny vision.

Today’s tip is tripods.

I noticed that both of VotE’s shooters had tripods – a good thing. What they need to do now is move up to video tripods that can handle the weight of their gear and allow them to do smooth camera movements. “V” was using a Canon Vixia and his tripod was okay for the weight of the camera…but for shooting video it was too light and shaky. “J’s” tripod was definitely way too light to hold her Panasonic three-chipper. Great little camera, but we had one near-disaster when it tipped forward due to weight.

Lesson #1 – there are two main parts to all tripods. The legs/sticks and the head. The latter would be the part you attach your camera to. Most low end tripods come with the two attached as one unit. As you move up the food chain you can purchase the legs and head separately, allowing you to choose specific qualities you want. (see this old posting for more details)

Lesson #2 – make sure your camera is rated for what you plan to load on it. And that would be more than just the camera. If you ever plan to add an on-camera light, shotgun mike or other accessories, the tripod has to bear that weight too.

Lesson #3 – there IS a difference between still and video tripods. A still tripod is mean to hold the camera steady while you take ONE shot or a series of shots. It is a platform to hold your gear and let you keep your hands free.
A video camera should have a fluid head…meaning you should be able to pan side to side and up and down evenly without any jerkiness. It should be heavy/solid enough so it doesn’t shake when someone walks by or if you’re out in the weather. AND if you can spring for the money, a ball head would be nice…allows you to level your camera without having to fiddle with the legs.

Thanks again VotE.

Storytelling and storytellers…

Although there are many resources on the web to watch great videos, there’s one outstanding one if you are primarily interested in visual storytelling news style.

TV News Storytellers on facebook has daily posts from cameramen all around the country soliciting input on how to become better or posts from experts in the field demonstrating best practices.

So hop on over and take a look…and enjoy.

Choosing the right nonlinear editing program…

…is a headache. Kinda like driving the same old rattrap car forever…when it dies there are way too many bright shiny new choices you’ve heard about but honestly really don’t know anything about.

So I’ve dumped Apple computers for a PC – a Dell. And I’ve been slowly trying to wean myself away from the white keyboard over to the dark and mysterious black keyboard. I’ve done some research and have narrowed the programs realistically down to AVID studio, Adobe Production CS5.5, and Edius. I also looked at Sony Vegas Pro and toyed with the idea of Pinnacle, but that was too many to review. The last two are good from what I’ve seen and heard, but as a friend (yeah, you Larry) told me – Cyndy, you seem to be stuck on the “pro” label. All too true…and not just for the label, but also the fact they are proven industry standards.

What exactly AM I looking for in an editing program? Here goes:

1. Ability to take in a wide variety of video formats into one project (AVCHD, SD, jpegs, TIFFs, etc).
2. Your basic drag and drop editing. Plus.
3. The “plus” should include filters to do color correction, audio sweetening, FX, transitions.
4. Able to take on plug-ins to add to the ability of the program to individualize projects.
5. Either have or be able to work with third-party DVD authoring and burning programs.
6. Ability to create all major video files (Quicktime, mpg, avi, wmv, flv, etc). Who knows what the client will want – I just want to be able to give it to them.
Oh – and some decent tutorials please. While I CAN and have edited my way out of some pretty deep holes, I need some technical assistance so I can find my way around the new desktop.

Stay tuned…I’ll try to keep you in the loop as I wander through the trial downloads of my prospective choices.

Done my homework and played with the programs. Almost…with a deadline fast approaching and unable to download and install Edius, I had to make a decision fast…and have gone with Adobe Production CS5.5. Avid was a breeze, but CS5.5 has all the goodies in one eacy package. And the learning curve is close to non-existent. Just need to make some fairly minor adjustments to my workflow and I should be back up to speed.

FYI – Sony Vegas did not make my cut. Too many difficulties in figuring out how to actually do an edit.

Now if I get that trial disk from Grass Valley and like the look of it, may just go for Edius as a secondary system.