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!

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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.

Press Grip…

New toys are always fun…even more so when someone you know invented them AND you get to be one of the first to play with them.

So what is this new toy?

It is the Press Grip – the brainchild of KGO cameraman Dean Smith. He’s a regular guy…and in and out of the many press conferences that are part of every news photographers stock in trade. One of the problems encountered at PCs are overcrowded podiums, tables, mike stands…so Dean came up with a handy do-it-all clamp-on solution.

I got my cash in fast when he announced they were for up for grabs…and got one of the first off his (very personal) assembly line. So let’s take a look, break it down, and see what it can do.

Essentially the Press Grip is a vise grip with ball and socket to allow rotation of the microphone or camera to level it and/or aim it in the right direction.

The beauty of it is in the construction and quality of materials. It has the vise to grip the table/podium/fence post/window…and then two ball socket connectors that allow you to position your camera or mike in almost any position. You can go up…down…sideways…even upside down if you’re so inclined.

I immediately put my Panasonic HMC150 on it and ran around scaring the livestock (see photo top of posting as Shim barely manages to conceal his excitement). The 150 weights in at just over five pounds…I added on weight and am confident (don’t quote me on this though) that it will probably hold up to six pounds and still have some give and take room.

What works? The ability to fix your gear where you want and aim it where you want. While it is not a quick snap-on solution (does take a minute to screw in place), it is most definitely a solid solution. Once you’ve got it in place, it stays.

I’ve been in situations where mikes were piled high and deep and duct-taped into unbelievable masses of chaos, so entangled that it was nigh impossible to extricate your mike from the mob. Assuming no one attempts to mount/duct-tape their mike to yours, this will allow you to stand free of the crowd, ready to rip and run.

While I think up unusual and creative ways to use the Press Grip, you can be sure it works in a media frenzy environment…since Dean has field tested this at work in San Francisco before putting it up for grabs.

Details: The Press Grip, created by Dean Smith can be found at this site for $55.00 plus shipping.

(Transparency: yes, I know Dean Smith, the creator of the PressGrip and yes, I have given him permission to use my photos and endorsement in promoting his invention. And no – I did NOT receive a free PressGrip. Had to pay for it along with everyone else…although Dean does keep sending me improvements as he finds ways to make his product even better.)

Addendum May 8, 2011
Last night I shot a fashion show for a former student, now attending San Joaquin Delta College. I set up two lock-down cameras and roamed the floor with my Panasonic. One camera went lock-down on a tripod to shoot the main staging area…but I needed a high and wide view also. That’s where the Press Grip came in handy…I attached it to a ceiling fixture upside down, put my HV20 onboard, adjusted so it was upright and covering probably 2/3 of the room and let ‘er roll. With the wide angle adapter, I got it all. Added benefit – high and secure enough that it was out of the way of walk-bys and possible folks with sticky fingers (hardy in this crowd though).

Videojournalist Etiquette: Microphones Part One

Put yourself in the position of one of your subjects. There’s a cameraman coming at you – both hands out – holding a microphone. He’s aiming at your chest. Time to panic, especially if you’re female. What IS this guy up to?

Face it – we’re in a strange business. We ask personal questions, get answers from people that they might never confide to family members, and we constantly invade personal space. And there are times we may forget how strange our actions really are. We walk around with thirty pounds of technology on our shoulders, sometimes forgetting how it looks because it is so much a part of us. And we try to draw others into our fantasy world.

Nowhere does it get stranger than when we mike an interview. We need good sound, but the fantasy side of the business requires that we hide the mike so the viewer can watch our stories without seeing cables. So in my time I’ve reached up the backs and fronts of both male and female subjects, dropped cables down the backs of their pants/skirts and retrieved cables from said locations.

Obviously I prefer shotgun and stick mikes, but they really don’t allow freedom of movement like a well-concealed lav (clip on) mike. So how do you tell someone you are about to really invade their personal space?

My first preference is to avoid personal contact – this works if the subject has a jacket or suit. Just clip the lav to the inner lapel and run the transmitter and cable down and clip on the waist. But sometimes circumstances require you to place your gear under the subject’s shirt or other clothing – where you have to get personal.

First have the right attitude – be objective. As I walk up to the subject, I say, “Excuse me, but I have to attach this mike to you. We need to conceal the cables, so may I drop it down the back of your shirt?” Generally I am ready to perform the act at this point and most of the time I get the nod of consent. As I begin my maneuvers, I explain what I am doing at each step, so that there are no suprises. And here it is:

I’m pulling the back of your shirt away and dropping the wireless transmitter (or cable for the mike). It may feel a bit cold.
Now I have to reach under the bottom or your shirt to retrieve the transmitter/cable. Next I’m going to have to clip the transmitter to your pants (or put in a pocket or whatever action I need to do).
All right, now I have to adjust the mike. Let me clip it on your collar and hide the cable. I may need to use a bit of tape to make certain it doesn’t slip.
Great – that’s it. Could you talk for a minute so I can get a sound check?

Get the idea? Talking the subject through the process educates them and tells them exactly what you are doing as you do it and there are no surprises. Keeping your voice objective removes any tension they might have that you have other motives. Kind of like a doctor as she does an intimate exam. You have a job to do and you’re a pro.

Sometimes the subject may not be comfortable with you placing the mike – so you have to let them do it. Just explain why you need to hide the mike and cable and tell them what to do. You’ll probably have to position the mike before doing the sound check.

Retrieving the mike is pretty easy – tell your subject you are going to pull the transmitter cable out and then either unclip the mike and gently pull it down the back of the shirt or pull the transmitter up the back of the shirt.

Why not have the subject do it every time? First – they are amateurs and I don’t want them damaging my wireless gear. It’s expensive. If they place the mike, most of them won’t place it properly and I have to put it where it needs to be once they’ve placed the transmitter. I can do it in half the time or less than they can. This is especially important in news – time is critical.

News photogs all have at least one fun story about wireless mikes. I’ve found that people who are “professional interviews” – politicians and others who are interviewed frequently, often begin unbuttoning their shirts when they see the mike coming.

Shotgun mikes and stick mikes require a different approach. More on that later.

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