Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Getting kitted up (again) for video journalism

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 28, 2010

For the first time since I wrote this article in 2008, I have been able to invest in some new kit.

Although my £500 all-in film making gear has given me a great start and helped me produce films in difficult environments, including Baghdad and Basra, I felt it was limiting me in some of the bigger projects I have planned for this year.

Meanwhile the fast moving camera market and an increased interest in audio slideshows have made video capable DSLRs a very practical option in the last year – and I’ve been desperate to get my hands on one.

The camera

The moment to take the plunge came as soon as Canon announced the release of the EOS 550D: a digital SLR camera from the same family as the revolutionary 5D MKII and 7D – but at a fraction of the price.

For between £600-800 you can pick up a 550D and it comes with many of the same features as its more upmarket siblings. Photographically, it does everything the majority of professional DSLRs can do, with high quality RAW images, a range of manual settings, a large sensor and a good LCD screen.

With video it gets interesting: it is more limited than the MKII or 7D but still powerful enough to work for professional video journalism. It shoots in 1080i High Definition at 24fps, and can get up to 50fps at 720 definition. You have full control over aperture, exposure and shutter speed.

The main reason to enter the DSLR market, as well as the fact it enables me to shoot images too, is the potential of the lens. At the moment I have the basic 18-55mm EF lens which will do your basic shots, but I hope to invest in a fast lens before the year is out.

The audio rig

The big  let down with DSLRs (even the best ones) is the poor audio quality. The 550D has an on-board microphone, but I wouldn’t use it to make a phone call, let alone record an interview. It comes with an external 3.5mm audio input, to which I have connected a Rode Videomic, a high quality camera microphone, (£80) as well as my cabled lapel microphone for interviews (£20).

Like all DSLRs this camera has only automatic gain control, so it’ll be interesting to see what the quality is like. You also can’t monitor your sound levels on the camera which is an issue.

As a back up, and for the production of audio slideshows, I have also invested in the Tascam DR-07, a portable audio recorder first recommended by David Stone at BroadcastJournalism.co.uk.

Many DSLR shooters are using audio recorders to record their audio in high quality separately and then syncing it in post production. Software like PluralEyes (www.singularsoftware.com/pluraleyes.html)  makes this possible, but it’s also nothing a simple clap when filming can’t solve.

I have yet to give these a good test yet, but it’ll be interesting to see whether audio becomes a deal breaker.

The extras

I’m recording onto a Class6 SD card, and I also needed a new tripod. Manfrotto’s Modo is both affordable (£40) and very light and small – but exceptionally versatile. With fully flexible legs and a good quality ball cam head it’s a big improvement on my previous rig.

I’m also keeping my Kodak Zi8 with me and for the time being I still have the handy Panasonic NVDX100, although probably not for much longer.

The Workflow

The one thing I’ve learned from experimenting with lots of different kit over the years is the importance of researching a workflow. That means the step-by-step process it would take to shoot footage and get it edited.

For example, did you know although the Canon 550D shoots in .mov format, it needs to be transcoded through Pro-Res before it can be used in Final Cut Pro? Experts like Dan Chung and Philip Bloom are good stops to find stuff like this out as well as all the forums out there.

I’m currently shooting my first commission with the new kit ahead of the General Election; as soon  as a finished product is available I’ll post it up.

DSLRs which shoot video remain a controversial topic, with some offering high praise, others critical of the set up. Personally I think they offer huge potential, if you’re prepared to work around some of the early problems. Sure, I never thought I’d have to sync audio from two different devices, but it really doesn’t add much to my time in the edit.

10 Responses

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  1. ilicco said, on April 28, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Adam – i was looking at the 550d, i have the 500d and wanted to make the small update to make use of the mic input… but all of the accessories are different! battery, battery grip etc – so means changing everything which i am not prepared to do – hence will stick with the 500d and use an external non connected mic. – be interested to hear if you have any issues with that set up… (since starting to write this i bought a 5dmk2 – so all sorted)

  2. Stijn Debrouwere said, on April 29, 2010 at 6:40 am

    I wasn’t really convinced by the power of DSLR filming before (it was either too expensive or lacked manual control and things like audio input), but the 550D is a game-changer indeed. The video/stereomic + lapel combo you have is very versatile too.

    Only thing I’d add would perhaps be a reflector, a shine-through umbrella and a few off-the-shelf CFLs for cheap DIY 3-point lighting. If you have the time to prepare for a video interview, and can bear to carry all that gear, $100 worth of lighting can really make the difference.

    How are you liking FCP? I’ve been playing with Final Cut Express a bit, and wasn’t really impressed. My workflow now is just plain ol’ iMovie, perhaps with a last pass through FCE for some minor tweakage.

  3. adamwestbrook said, on April 30, 2010 at 10:27 am

    @ilicco: yeah I’m using an external non-connected mic and so far it’s been OK..the audio quality is much better, and it’s not too hard to sync up. One teething problem I’ve encountered is changing my shutter speed when shooting – if I slow it down even to 25fps it doesn’t match the audio rate! As long as I keep my interviews at the right speed it shouldn’t be a problem.

    @Stijn: agreed, the times I’ve used lighting have really made a difference; not something I really want to lug around on a day-to-day basis though! FCP is handling the HD very well (I have studio 7). I haven’t used Express very much but have generally found other prosumer set ups like Premiere Elements good enough for the job.

    Thanks for your comments guys!

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