It’s all in the mind of the shooter…

I keep hearing it. “I could shoot better video if only I had (name the) camera. My life would be so much better if… People would hire me if only…

Hate to break it to ya bro, but that ain’t it. It’s not your gear, unless you’re still trying to keep between the lines with your Crayolas. Then maybe it IS the gear.

What may be lacking is your vision, your talent, your technical chops…

I mean – if you’re bad. You’re BAD. No one wants bad.

Why this rant? Kids who come up to me and think if they had my cam or a better one they could be better than me instantly.

Hah.

Worst story ever. Mom at the school I used to work with came up to ask me about the exorbitant cost of gear. He son was applying for one of those fancy schmancy art school that guarantee you’ll be the next Ford Coppola…or at the very least be rolling in bucks once you graduate (and that’s a rant I’ll reserve for later). I told her that until he got into school a plain ole three or four hundred dollar camera would do to teach him the basics and let him get hands on. So a few weeks later I hear the kid got the (then) camera of his dreams, most likely draining the family savings to boot. All this so he could make an application video to get into the school. We’ll kinda sashay past the fact this was a family that didn’t do college and this was their first kid heading down that path…they had no idea what was expected.

My take when I talked to mom again was astonishment. Explained to her that the school was looking for his ideas…how his mind flowed…his RAW talent. The fine tuning and technical skills were why he wanted to go there.

A tool in the wrong hands does not produce craftsman quality work. It just produces high quality crap.

Now I’m no Emmy winner…always been a meat and potatoes kind of shooter. I know the basics and know how to use whatever tool I have on hand to get the story done. So here’s my third stab at proving a point. (The first stab being Wyoming Cattle Drive and the second Absailing. The former shot with an $80 ebay acquisition/Canon ZR60 and the latter a cheapie still camera with video ability/Exilim Z75.)

It ain’t the cost of the gear…it is the mind behind the grind…the wisdom whispering to the beast…that makes for good shooting AND editing.

Case in point: Refurbished Kodak Playtouch purchased on ebay for $59. Edited on one of my local library’s computers using Final Cut Pro X (and I could have done just as well with iMovie or Moviemaker). There was no zoom, so I zoomed with my legs. Used macro and wide shot settings. Kept fingers crossed and got decent white balance most of the time. Got up close and personal with my interview subject to get more or less clean audio.

So quitcha bitchin and come to terms with your bank account. If you can’t get good with a basic camera, basically you are not gonna get good at all.

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Choosing a camera 4.0…

It is probably about time to update this.  Not to buy a camera, mind you, but to revisit a topic that must continually be updated, thanks to techno-changes, which NEVER seem to slow down.  A good and a bad thing.  Good cause those little babycams seem to get better and better.  Bad cause…well, who really wants to know the camera they got just last week or last year is already out of date?

A quick review  of prior posts on this topic will give you an idea of what has changed and what hasn’t.

January 2007
July 2009
January 2011

First, the ground rules. Our focus is affordable (now there’s a topic to debate) cameras for Videojournalists. Run and gun style…this means zoom lens, professional manual controls and audio inputs, although I may dip down to prosumer for the latter (will explain that as I go along). This is for camera only…you’ll need to review prior posts (Oh look! There’s one right down there!) for supplemental gear such as mike, lights, tripods.

The camera is the mainstay of a VJ’s bag of tricks. It has to be durable, easy to use (if YOU supply the knowledge, skills, and talent), and not over-the-top expensive. For the sake or fairness, this time I’ll take a look at several levels of cameras: under $1K, under $2K, and under $5K. (FYI: the “K” stands for thousand, not kazillion.)

Now I’m not advocating you buy from any particular store…I try my best to buy local when I can…but some of my needs are more specialized than local can handle so I hop online…and I’ve found that certain sites are not only safe and reliable, but also have really snazzy search functions when you aren’t quite certain what you want. Top of the list here (and, again, you choose your site…don’t follow my lead blindly) is B & H Photography.

I’ll be explaining how to conduct a search using this site (official disclaimer: nothing exchanges hands between us except my cold hard cash with no discounts for whatever it is I want…just like you and everyone else) so you can pick it up to search for whatever it is you want.

So…click on “Video Professional.” That will get you out of the confusing realm of consumer cameras and into cameras with a bit of heft and functions. Next, click on “Camcorders.” On this date there are 103 choices…way too many to inspect closely.

So next we will begin selecting features and at the same time, cutting back on the number of cameras to check out. Um…and since I tend to be VERY budget conscious, I’m gonna change the “Sort By” function from “Best Sellers” to “Price: Low to High.” Although popularity is often an indicator of a good value with all the features, I’m not one to be lead by the herd…and herd thinking isn’t always thinking.

The 103 choices range from a little Sony number for around $1,000 (with no lens mind you) to $80,000 plus for another Sony camera – again, with no lens. Yep…for the price of a home in your average little Mid-Western town you can own a camera body.

So let the sorting begin! I never begin by selecting a brand…frankly the six companies listed are all reputable and make solid equipment. I’m going to skip “Camera Configuration” because I can predict that the broadcast cameras are going to be too pricy…and they are. Although many (many many) TV stations are purchasing babycams and low-end broadcast cameras, this category runs the gamut from $45,000 to that top-end Sony at $80,000.

My first sort will be for resolution, and I’m choosing HD. Our list is down to 90 choices.

The next choice will be for Media Format – a can of worms if ever there was one. This gets personal, but here’s how I choose. I will not choose a tape camera…tape is getting harder to find off the shelf and is a fading technology (my opinion). Also skip Internal Memory…again a personal choice cause I like to trade out memory cards to hand off to others or to download while I continue shooting. The six remaining choices are all variations on memory cards. Being the practical tightwad that I am, I would go with SDHC…because the cards are commonly available if you need them and affordable to boot.

If you’ve got the cash, check out the other cards. SxS, P2, and memory sticks are common choices, although you’d better have a supply on hand. Again, you can’t just run over to Walgreens and pick them up.

There are 42 camcorders that use SDHC cards. Price points from that no-lens low-end Sony at around $1,000 to upper end to a Panasonic (no lens) model at $15,000.

Let’s keep looking.

We’ll look at the upper end choices first – between $3,000 and $5,000. (Go to Price and type in the range of prices you are looking for.) There are 17 in this category.

Here’s where you have to know your stuff to winnow the list down further. So, from the top.
If you’re interested in free shipping, rebates, or want to buy immediately (in stock) click those. Since I’m just looking for features, I won’t click those right now.
We’ll skip brand again, although you’ll notice we are down to the three: JVC, Panasonic, Sony.
NTSC or NTSC/Pal? If you are only shooting in the US of A, doesn’t matter…the format here is NTSC. If you are going overseas to countries that use PAL, you may want to click that box.
Next choice is CCD vs. CMOS. Another can of worms..each chip has it’s merits and issues, so I’m not going to choose either for you. (Will tell you that the single CCD camera is the one I purchased myself a few years back though.)
There’s a slew of features to choose from, but at this price range the only thing I’m really interested in is the audio input – XLRs. That gets us down to 15 cameras.
Digital Interface – this category pretty much deals with cameras used in-house and plugged into studio and live setups. Since we’re out in the field on our own for now we’ll skip that.
For Codec I’m choosing mpeg-4. Again, latest codec/most commonly used.

And we’re down from 103 to 13 cameras. A few final eliminations. I will not choose a 3D camera so cross that off the list. Also, since we’re on a budget, the camera must come with a lens. Oh – and skip the “Field Acquisition Backpack.” Not going there.

So we are down to 9 choices…and all of them are possibilities. Here’s where I place the burden back on YOU. Choose a camera. Any camera. For convenience I’ll walk you thru the first one on the list. The Sony HXR NX70U at $2,800. Choose it.

Go ahead and read the overview…but your real meat is on the Specs sheet. There you’ll see that it has a single half inch CMOS chip, shoots to both memory sticks and SDHC (and more). Personal concern: filter size is only 37mm and that tells me this is a small camera and I might not want it.

Check out “What’s In The Box” to make sure your get a complete package – camera, lens, battery and charger as well as necessary cables.

Now cruise through the Reviews to make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises. And read those with the proverbial grain of salt. Generally the pros reviewers will be more on point than the casual users. If you read all of the reviews you can at least discern a pattern of pros and cons.

Your homework? Check out each camera. I have some personal preferences…generally like three chip cameras for higher quality. I look at the location of the manual controls for focus (on the ring), audio (where I can access them quickly), iris (again…easily accessed and used) and white balance (rarely if ever use auto WB). Built-in neutral density filters help you hop from dark to extremely bright scenes without having to screw on an external filter. A switch to increase gain lets you shoot in lower light situations.

Now, very quickly, I’ll check out the under $2,000 cameras and move on to under $1,000.

The former – just hop down to price and change the numbers to $1,000 to $2,000. Oh – and unclick XLR audio. In this price range you may be looking at prosumer mini-jack audio. There are eight contenders that fit my specs in this price range (after eliminating those w/no lens and other factors). Again, check them out individually and read the reviews.

Now for the final category – under $1,000. For these we’ll have to enter the wide open consumer Camcorders area. Once you’re in, choose Camcorders again and right away enter a price range of 0 to 1,000. The original 195 choices will drop to – 185??? Way too many, so let’s start narrowing again.

Let’s choose a resolution of HD-1080 and get our choices down to 133. Under features choose Mike Input. Down to 30 cameras. Going to eliminate under Factors the Sports type by choosing Palm and Pocket and then for Media SDXC/SDHC/SD cards. Down to 22 choices with prices ranging from one Toshiba on sale for $149 to an upper end Sony at $898.

Again read the reviews and specs to really get a handle on features and performance.

One feature I notice I cruised through above is single vs. three chip cameras. The latter are pretty much standard in the professional field…and the bigger the chips, the better for higher resolution and low light ability. I will say that a single 1/2 chip can put out and amazing picture…but multiply that by three and you are in Nirvana!

Here’s a Happy New Year to all of you out there and wishing you the best in finding the camera of your dreams. On a budget or otherwise. Questions? Fire them off.

Addendum January 19, 2014: Note to those who are upgrading or changing cameras. Please keep in mind your mikes and tripod when you get a new camera. Your mikes will generally have either XLR/professional three pin connectors or mini-jack/3.5mm connectors. If you move to a camera with a different mike input you may have to get adapters for your mikes or purchase new audio gear.
The same applies to other accessories…the first coming to mind being your tripod. Tripods are rated by the amount of weight they can carry. If you buy a significantly heavier camera, your tripod may struggle with the weight. When considering weight don’t just count the camera body…you’ll need to include the weight of battery, lights, and anything else you attach to the camera.
Oh…and if you’ve archived all of your stuff on to mini-dv and you’re moving to another format, you’d better either convert that old stuff to digital on a hard drive or disc or keep the old camera around in case you want to access the archived material.

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.

A “little” knowledge is a dangerous thing.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”
~ Alexander Pope
~ Essay on Criticism/1709

The process of choosing cameras is simple if you don’t know anything. Just grab something bright and shiny in your price range. Oooooo…I’ll take that red camera!

Problems arise when you have a little knowledge. That’s when it can get confusing.

As part of the process of choosing a new camera, I’m checking the technology down to the last component. Right now taking a look at the technical aspects of CMOS v. CCD. And – unfortunately – reading some very raw arguments about which creates a superior image.

First let’s define what I’m talking about. Bot CMOS and CCDs are the light sensitive chips inside today’s video cameras. They are to the camera what your retina is to your eyeball. They translate the patterns of light and dark into digits.

CCDs were initially the more common of the two – invented in the 1969. CCD stands for “charge-coupled device.” Basically it is a chip that reacts to, or is charged by, light.

CMOS is a complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor – preceding the CCD by six years.

For a more information on the two, check out this VideoMaker article. There’s also a more technical article at the Dalsa website. Plus, check out this, written more from a camera user’s view.

My interest is primarily image quality and low light ability in a camera costing in the $2,700-$3,000 range. A non-tape camera shooting to SD cards, must have good manual controls and XLR mike inputs.
Why SD cards? I want a camera whose media is readily available…that can be handed off to the client or ingested into a computer by plugging in a card reader.
I want to control my images…not deal with a camera that flickers with changing lights and scenery or grabs sound when I want quiet. So manual iris, audio, and focus please.
And since I already have the pro XLR mikes, why change and step back to mini-jack?

So, here’s what I’ve learned:
Energy use – CMOS uses less power/CCD uses more power (something to consider is battery life when out on a job)
Low light – seems like a toss-up. Initially CCD was better, but CMOS is catching up.
Image quality – this is the one I’m stuck on. What we really need is a Consumer Reports website that does direct comparisons scientifically on cameras and other gear. Right now it is a jungle out there, with everyone having an opinion, generally supporting THEIR camera. Why? Because it’s the one they paid the big bucks for.

As co-author Larry Nance pointed out, though – all of the Professional (big P) cameras use CCDs because they are better. Well, they’re also, in the case of pro cameras, bigger too.

Thank goodness I can’t afford a camera for a few more months…plenty of time to conclude the research.

The right camera…

…is a very personal choice. A few weeks back I had a posting where I discussed possibilities for my next camera.

And now I’m torn between three. Fortunately there is no reason to rush, so I’ll continue to study and may even change from the two front runners.

The HMC40 leads the pack right now for pricing and features. Only thing I don’t like are the mini-jack audio inputs. It does have three quarter-inch sensors.

Next up the HMC150 with three 1/3″ chips AND XLR audio ins. Sweet but more than $1300 more than the 40.

And my last choice is the granddaughter of my old JVC GY-DV300u – the GY-HM100u. It is priced halfway between the above two with a shorter 10x lens, XLR inputs, and three 1/4 inch sensors.

The problem is I’m familiar with the bodies of each of these cameras and love them equally. Since I’m on a budget I suspect the 40 may be my choice. It’s all about compromise. What I can afford – what I need – what I’m really comfortable with. Oh – and what I want. And I do want to move on to the next new thing – and get out of tape.

Alert to all of you out there on tighter budgets: sometime in the next three or four months I will be putting my old gear up on eBay. Not the mikes, but probably cameras, the Bogen tripod, and lots of other random stuff.

It’s time to live light and clean.

The new decade approaches…

…and it’s time to look at cameras. Again. Sometimes looking for the right equipment is like trying to ride an avalanche. There is so much to look at and technology is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to stay on top.

Due to my ever shrinking budget, I bought two Aiptek (ISDV 2.4) cameras to fill in the holes created by old cameras going down. The students aren’t breaking them. They are wearing out. Three years of constant use can take down any consumer camcorder. Two worst offenders are the tape carriage and the tripod holes…the latter is a quick fix by cementing in new bushings and the former means I have still cameras.

Stand by for a quick overview of what’s out there today, December 29, 2009. As usual, my idea classroom camcorder would have:

Microphone input
Headset out
Manual iris, focus, white balance
Decent zoom (10x or more)
Metal tripod hole (Yeah – learned that one the hard way)
Removable media

As mentioned in other postings, my preferred method of research is on the B & H Photo site. Quick tip – go there and then click on Camcorders, then Camcorders a second time. Now you can choose your options.

I’m not brand loyal when searching, although I prefer to stick with Canon (since that is what I have now) if the accessories carry over to new models. Price and features are what drive me.

I do have six year old eMacs, so need to stick with standard def if possible…not too sure if the new high def will play smoothly on old slow computers.

For media – as mentioned above I prefer removable media so each student can keep their work separate from others – I’ll check both mini-dv and flash memory.

Leaving the Camcorder Type alone…I want to see what pops up. Optical zoom 10x or more. LCD display – not a biggie, so will leave that up to the search engine.

Price…hmmmmmm. As much as I would like the cheapest, I also need to check the possible range…so will choose $50 to $1000. Final click is to arrange choices from lowest price to highest…now let’s see what’s out there.

First shock – only five items to look at. Three Samsungs (2 models, one with two color options) and two Panasonics (same model, different colors). I may need to change the zoom option to widen the search….later on.

Here’s where you have to do the homework. Click on the Specs tab – this is where you look under the hood to see what you are actually getting for your money.

Samsung SMX C-10 prices in at $199.99/to be real – $200. 10x optical zoom (NEVER include digital zoom in your specs) and shoots to H.264/AVC (720 x 480/60i) format. Has the usual built-in mike and speaker, no inputs and no manual controls. Outputs through USB cord. A basic dumb camera for the masses…my students need more.

Next up the food chain is another Samsung – the SMX C-14 for $280. Main difference between this camera and the C-10 seems to be 16GB internal memory.

Now on to the Panasonic(s). The SDR SW-21 comes in at $306 and is waterproof to about six feet. Records to standard def with built-in speaker and mike. No manual controls/no mike jack. So back to searching.

By unclicking the zoom selection, I’ve widened my choices to sixty-three items. Will report back once I’ve checked them out.

(About 30 minutes later…)
I’ve condensed this down to a list – 12.29.09 Camcorder List – with a total of 36 different models. Since I don’t need specialized cameras, I’ll eliminate the GoPro series, the Vievu (wearable cameras), hidden micro cameras and any underwater cameras.

Now the list is a more realistic 23 – with only one tape camera, the remainder being memory card cameras. I’ll check out the Canon ZR960 first – at $250 it is in the middle of the pack price-wise. 37x optical zoom. Manual focus, exposure, white balance, shutter speed. Mike input and firewire out. It says no headset out, but from experience with past ZR models I’m willing to bet the menu can be set so the AV in/out can operate as a headset out. No still capability.

Before we go any further, I’ll be eliminating cameras along the way that do not have the options I want/need…so from here on you’ll only see those that meet my specs. This includes eliminating the two Aipteks I purchased – they were an emergency fill-in because they do NOT have mike inputs or manual controls…they can be used on a number of my beginning assignments though.

Much later…
Disappointing. Only the tape camera – the Canon ZR960 – met all my specs. The next closest are three Canon (FS200, FS21, FS22) flash card cameras with mike/headset jacks but no manual controls. Only three cameras – all Sonys (DCR SX40, DCR SX41, DCR SX60) – had any type of manual control and that was just focus. The price ranges on the Canon (tape and tapeless) runs from $250 to $500 and for the Sonys from $227 to $329.

To get all of the features I want, I’d need to spend over $1500 per camera. For that I can get six low end cameras.

A quick check of the hi-def camcorders turned up the Canon Vixia JF200 with mike and headset jacks but no manual controls.

At a more reasonable price, but with only a 5x zoom but still with a mike input is the Aiptek Action HD GVS 1080p for $170.

Some Sonys have an accessory shoe that takes mikes by the way…check out the Sony KDRXR200V for $650. You may find this holds true for some of the low-end Sonys.

Here’s an old favorite…the flash card version of my Canon HV20 – the Vixia HF20 for $655. Includes mike input but I’m not seeing any manual controls.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this tour and also learned how to do your own research. Remember that before beginning you need to know your budget and your requirements. And before making that final decision, check out compatibility between the camera and your computer and software so you can avoid surprises.

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