Entries in videography (4)


Shooting news video with DSLRs

I've been interested for quite a while in how news shooters view the new generation of DSLR cameras with regards to their ability to capture video.

My interest was piqued again when I edited a recent feature for the PBS NewsHour which was predominantly shot with a new Canon DSLR camera. I have several observations based on that experience:

1) Ingestion time: The files from the camera took a long time to ingest into Final Cut Pro from a Firewire 800 drive using the Log and Transfer plug-in. I tried both unwrapping the raw MXF files, and getting the plug-in to convert to a more editing-friendly Apple ProRes format. Both methods took hours, and there was probably only two hours of footage.

2) Shallow DOF: The enormous size of DSLR sensors - along with the ability to use lenses of varying focal length - can create very narrow depth, and a cinematic look that many movie producers who shoot on video are fond of. But in a news environment where speed is often of the essence, and do-overs are usually not an option, movement often seems to result in objects coming in and out of focus. I find this distracting.

3) Picture texture: While I love the rich texture of the DSLR image, I'm not entirely sold on its appropriateness for news. This is especially the case when a story - such as the one I edited - involves footage from both a DSLR and a traditional pro camcorder - a Sony XDCAM EX3. Trying to match the images is impossible. And the difference when cutting from one format to the other just seemed too jarring to me.

4) White balance: I haven't shot video in a serious way on a DSLR myself, but in viewing the rushes it seemed to me that the colors often didn't appear accurate. They often seemed too red or too green. I'm not sure if this was user error, auto white balance, or just an inherent issue with DSLR cameras.

5) Audio: The sound on all the interviews using an external lavaliere microphone were over-modulated. I have heard from various shooters that audio remains a problem on DSLR cameras. Obviously, audio is of critical importance in television.

Having said all that, I am very interested in future developments in DSLR video cameras, particularly when manufacturers start to incorporate more functions of use in news gathering. There are a couple of really good blogs that are worth checking out if you are interested in the subject and want to keep up with DSLR video technology:

DSLR Video Shooter and Learning DSLR Video are great resources. While not tailored to news shooting, they are very authoritative on the issues and developments in DSLR video. For example, in the video below from Learning DSLR, author Dave Dugdale comprehensively compares two brands of DSLR.

As ever, I'm interested in what my readers think. Have you had success shooting news video with a DSLR. If so, let me know. And I'm keen to hear about the drawbacks too.


What shooters should do to avoid the chop

Here is a link to an article I just finished reading in GOOD Magazine.

It's another piece on the inevitable decline of the photo/videojournalist. The author is talking about photographers who just take photographs, or videographers who only shoot videos.

To make the point that photojournalists are going the way of the dinosaurs, the piece quotes a memo from Jack Womack, CNN's senior vice president of domestic news operations in which he outlines some more layoffs among the ranks of the network's shooters:

"We looked at production demands, down time, and international deployments. We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company."

The article goes on to explain that CNN is laying off shooters because it is "receiving so many photo submissions via its user-generated iReport platform." This is clearly the case. In a breaking news medium, getting pictures from the field fast is paramount. The iPhone 4 can shoot HD pictures, but when pulling in stills or video from the public, quality isn't even that important. You have to get the visuals on the air immediately.

The problem is, then what? When the breaking news has happened and the public turns to CNN or another network to get some coverage, context or analysis, the broadcasters will, at some stage, require photo or videojournalists (professionals) to pick up where the public left off. Viewers of TV news will eventually need more than shaky, grainy video, or poorly framed stills. Plus, not all news is "breaking." Don't expect someone with an iPhone to go out and shoot a feature for you.

While news organizations will, undoubtedly, require fewer video/photojournalists, they will require some. The article quotes Darrow Montgomery from Washington's City Paper: "If the metric is to get the best, most telling, evocative picture of a given situation, and to be able to do that repeatedly, then the professional will win almost every time."

But video or photojournalists are their own worst enemies sometimes. They are, at least in part, responsible for their own demise. The article above quotes a former news shooter, now a wedding photographer: "Photographers need to figure out what exactly separates them from pedestrians with nice cameras." This could not be more true, especially when it comes to video.

There is a pervasive sense of misery among videojournalists who just shoot video. They feel they're doomed and that there is nothing they can do about it. But in fact there is something they can do about it. They have to learn some new skills to compete, it's just that simple. It's true that you're not going to be able to compete with a member of the public with an iPhone that is in the right place at the right time. But a photographer or videojournalist will stand a much better chance of keeping their job if they're able to do more than just shoot. The way of the future in television or online video is the shooter who is a reporter, writer, editor and producer as well.

I hear a lot about quality declining with the rise of the one-man-band reporter. But that rise is just the way it is and people should get used to it. I also hear people say things like "I'm too old to learn all this new stuff." I believe that anyone who thinks that way deserves to lose their job. One-skill specialists who look down on the one-man-band reporter may feel a sense of superiority, but that's not going to get them far when they get a pink-slip.

The answer to the challenge of figuring out how video/photojournalists should "separate themselves from pedestrians with nice cameras" is to learn how do be a reporter, editor or producer too. Learn some new tricks. Make yourself as valuable as three people. If you can't or wont do that then you are "going the way of the pterodactyl."


Writing a key skill for solo video journalists

For video journalists, the art of shooting great looking video is often the number one priority. Sometimes the traditional elements of journalism can be sidelined. 

For me, when producing a story for a TV client, writing a good script should be one of the most important aspects of doing a standout job. It's often going to be the first tangible thing the client sees of your story. Assuming there is some sort of script editing process, they'll see your words before they see your pictures.

The most critical part of news writing is the lead - the top line! In the document below, Judith Smelser of NPR affiliate WMFE gives a great overview of lead writing.

For veteran reporters who have come from a background of focusing on writing and producing, learning the skills associated with shooting and editing is key. But for younger reporters who have cut their teeth with video cameras, the subtleties of journalism - whether it be writing, law or ethics - can easily be overlooked.

Learn how to write a strong script and you'll be a better all-round reporter.


Making the MOS-t of shooting vox-pops

Shooting M.O.S. (Man On the Street) is something you'll often have to do as a video journalist. M.O.S., sometimes called vox-pops from the Latin 'vox populi', is also one of the more difficult tasks when working solo. You'll often be working in a crowd and will need to be ready to get people's comments very quickly - negligible set-up time.

Here is a list of ten points I put together that I think are important to remember when shooting M.O.S. in the field:

1 - Use a tripod. M.O.S. shoots look really dreadful when you're trying to hold a camera in one hand and a mic in the other while looking the interviewee in the eye. 

2 - Because you are using a tripod, try to pick a location where you do not have to move around too much. Pick an area to shoot with plenty of foot traffic. It is best if you can get people to come to you, rather than having to carry your camera and tripod to a different spot each time.

3 - Select a significantly different backdrop for each M.O.S. It will look strange if the background is the same each time, but the person on camera is different. Remember, you will probably be editing these together into a sequence. You can often achieve a different backdrop just by swinging the camera around.

4 - Be mindful of the sun in the sky. Cloudy days tend to be easier… the light remains constant so the temperature of the shot doesn't fluctuate between interviewees in your M.O.S. sequence. Otherwise, try to pick an area of shade where the background isn't too bright either.

5 - Use a wireless lav microphone that you can pin on someone quickly. If you are trying to hold a microphone in front of the interviewee, it'll be very tough to ensure they remain in frame because you will need to be in front of the camera too. If you use a wireless lav, you can clip it on them and stand where you can see the viewfinder. You can also have the subject stand further away from the camera, allowing you to make more use of the full range of the lens, achieving more depth to the shot. In addition, make sure you hide the cable connecting the mic to the transmitter unit by either framing it out of the shot, or tucking it under clothing.

6 - Try to frame each person approximately the same. It doesn't matter if some are framed slightly tighter than others. But if you have a mix of super-wide and super-tight shots, it will look very disjointed when you edit them back-to-back. If you are shooting in a high enough definition format, it's possible to adjust the framing in post-production by cropping and zooming.

7 - Mix the direction that you have the interviewees looking - some camera-left, some camera-right. When you edit your footage together, you should alternate between left-looking and right-looking shots. This will help guard against jump cuts. You can also make use of functions such as Final Cut Pro's 'flop' tool to reverse shots if necessary. However, be very careful to take note of anything framed in the shot that would be inaccurate when flipped, such as writing. 

To help illustrate this point, here is an example of M.O.S. I gathered at the recent NBA Finals in Miami for AFP Television. The vox-pops are part of a sequence of shots sent out to AFP client broadcasters. This is my own upload with my own lower-thirds. If you wish to see additional footage from the shoot, you can do so here.

8 - Make sure you color balance your camera before you start shooting. If you shoot in auto-mode you may end up with soundbites with wildly varying color balances. This, of course, varies according to which camera you are using. Save yourself time in post-production by setting your camera values ahead of time. Setting picture profiles for cloudy or bright days can save time.

9 - Get the name of your subjects on tape. Use that to set audio levels. People have dramatically different tones of voice and speaking volumes. You don't want to boost your levels for a quiet speaker, then end up with distorted sound for the rest of your shoot.

10 - Never take your eyes off your camera. You're in a busy place. Never trust anyone you don't know around your gear - not even for a second.