Low end gear can do the job

Have I worked with pro gear? Yes – cameras costing upwards of $50,000, $8,000 tripods and $2,000 mikes. Does the gear make a difference? Yes and no. If it’s going on air, yes you want the good stuff. If you’re posting to the Internet or working on a project for school or just having fun, not really. I’ve shown video from $300 cameras next to $3,000 cameras next to $20,000 cameras and most consumers can’t tell the difference. Photogs and engineers can – they look for detail in the dark areas.

If you take a look at the videos posted on this blog, you should see the two versions of Wyoming Cattle Drive – both edited with the same video & information. It’s a very simple feature story. I intentionally shot this with a low end camera (Canon ZR60 purchased on eBay for about $80), a nine dollar mike, and a thirty dollar tripod. The point is, you don’t need a ton of money to tell a story. Todays consumer cameras have remarkable quality and if you look carefully, you’ll find the features you need to get by.

Decent zoom (1:20 is nice)
Mike input (usually indicated by a small red input)
Headset out (usually indicated by a small yellow input, which also doubles as the A/V out)
Manual focus, iris, white balance (if you’re not picky, you can get by without the latter)

The ZR60 fits the bill for me – you may already have the camera you need. Once at a workshop a particpant asked why pros like manual controls. Stopped me for a moment – I had never thought about it. Just seemed obvious. Manual aperature/iris, focus, white balance all allow you to contol situations that are out of control. Try shooting an interview in checkerboard weather (sun behind the clouds, sun out, sun gone). Try following a subject from outside to inside and then into a room with strong backlighting. Don’t even try racking focus with an auto focus camera. Being in control of your camera and video means you can determine what the final images will look like. My only complaint is that the lens is not wide enough when zoomed out fully (note: my Christmas gift to myself was a $35 wide angle adapter!). I added a BP522 battery – good for up to four hours before charging.

The manual iris allows me to control shots like the one with “Whitey” the white cow – on auto iris my exposure might have “woweed” and the shot would have suddenly gotten darker or lighter. I was also able to get the wide shots with sky without worrying about losing my ground detail and exposure.

The auto white wasn’t used, but I can think of several ways to use it to improve or control video. Main one is shooting sunsets/rises. If you use manual white balance and shoot a cool white (the shady side of a white car), your sunset/rise will come out much warmer. You can use this same trick to make warmer skin tones in interviews.

Mike input is a no-brainer. Anytime the subject you are interviewing is more than twelve inches away from the camera mike, quality will deteriorate. Yep. You have to get the mike up near the sound source to get good sound. Try this. Have a friend stand about two or three feet away from the camera and talk in a normal voice while you listen on your headset. Not bad. Now have them move ten feet away. Bad. Good audio is just as essential as good video in storytelling. In the story I only miked the main interview. The interviews with the little girl and young cowboy were grabbed on the run. I was about fourteen inches away from the girl (she had a very soft voice) and four feet away from the boy. All of you who live in Wyoming say, “Yippeee!” Your state in most places is one giant sound booth – there is little overwhelming ambiant sound, so I was able to get a bit futher back than usual and still use the camera mike.

For the interview with Winn Brown I used an old tape recorder microphone I found in a box while cleaning up the workshop. I’ve since replaced it with a Sony F-V100 stick mike…it has a nine foot cable and a mini-jack terminater and allows me more freedom to move away from the camera.

Headset? Any cheap set that covers your ears so ambiant noise doesn’t bother you will work. Mine are an old set belonging to one of my daughters. (Am I cheap? Maybe. Maybe not.)

I got the tripod (a Velbon Videomate 601) on eBay for $14.95. Might cost you $20-30 in a store. I tripoded nearly everything. This one is light enough so I can easily carry it and the camera with one hand, slap it down, adjust and be shooting in seconds.

Manual focus? The ZR has it…and I do use it, but it ain’t easy. I have to move the shooting mode from auto to manual and then push the focus button on the side of the camera and then focus using the little tiny dial on the side of the camera (and I need my reading glasses to boot cause the screen is so small). There’s one shot in the cattle drive story of some blades of grass in focus with cattle moving behind out of focus – that was done with the manual focus.

Stay posted – I’ll shoot another story over winter break and we’ll see how it goes. Again, the point is it is not the gear that makes the story – it’s all in the mind of the videojournalist. Once you know the process and have the basic gear, you can do nearly anything.

3 thoughts on “Low end gear can do the job

  1. Pingback: howardowens.com: media blog » Blog Archive » Lo-fi video does not mean lo-fi results

  2. Cyndy,

    I have purchased a Canon Optura 50 off of eBay for about $350.00. I also purchased a Sony ECM-MS908C shotgun mike and Sony WCS-999 wireless mike system. In all I spent just under $550 for this system and it all fits into a small pouch on my hip bag.

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