Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

My first video journalism shoot with the Canon550D

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 7, 2010

I was recently commissioned to produce a five minute video package ahead of this week’s General Election in the UK, on the controversial ban on prisoners being able to vote.

It was a commission for the VJ Movement, and has since been featured on Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

It was also the first test for my new Canon 550D DSLR camera and related paraphernalia which I introduced here.

Click here to watch it.

The story

We spent a fair amount of time thrashing out the story arc for the piece, something VJ Movement take very seriously.

Together we’re trying to produce video journalism which doesn’t conform to the old rules of a TV news piece. This first commission doesn’t quite go the whole way with that, but the opening sequences and the atmospheric introduction of the main character attempt to try a few different things.

We used John as the main character to drive the narrative forward, rather than flipping between talking heads, which works well, and he lent himself well to colourful soundbites and nice sequences.

The story is limited though by its complex and legal nature; there’s a lot of elements to it not just John’s personal story which all need to be included – a challenge to both shoot and write to.

The gear

For the most part the 550D performed well, and produced some excellent images. I have the most basic 18-55mm lens but it’s a good all-rounded for most shots. Importantly it performs very well in low light, which helped in the darker locations I was filming in for this piece.

It also produces a nice colour for the images. Some limitations with recording time though: you can only record for a maximum of 12 minutes at a time, regardless of the size of your SD card (I have absolutely no idea why). You might also spot a couple of out of focus shots too, a result of not being able to focus properly on the LCD screen.

The rough edit contained a few handheld shots but we removed them as they were too shaky. Being an SLR it’s not an easy camera to keep steady…more support, if anything, for always using a tripod where you can.

The biggest challenge, as with all the DSLRs is audio. As well as a Rode VideoMic attached to the camera, I recorded all the interviews separately onto a Tascam DR-07 and synched it in Final Cut Pro.

I am very happy with the quality of the audio – but ran into trouble with frame rates. If, for example, I changed the shutter speed down to 25fps to brighten the image, the audio recording was not recorded at the same speed.

All minor problems to iron out with more practice, and I personally don’t find it too much of a hassle to sync the audio in post – if it means the sound is good quality.

No grading was done to this film – more out of a lack of time rather than anything else. I’m hoping to get more aquainted with Apple’s Color in later edits.

The DSLR debate

I’ve enjoyed working the 550D: very happy with what I got for the price and also glad to have the flexibility to take photographs and produce audio slideshows with a single camera.

Meanwhile the debate over whether video journalists should use DSLR cameras continues; the detractors – for example Cliff Etzel in this post – label it a “fad” and accuse users of a “lazy” obsession with shallow depth-of-field:

There are many who have become enamoured with the so called uber cool extreme shallow depth of field flavor of the moment, equating it to creative license and thus making it their top priority, and in the process, losing sight of the first rule of solo video journalism:  It’s the story, not the gear.

And of course Cliff is right, it’s the story not how the pictures look…but personally, I think it’s possible to care about both.

What do you think?

3 Responses

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  1. Havard Ferstad said, on May 7, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Hi, Adam!

    Thanks for a great insight into British voting laws.

    About the 12 minute limit: The file system on the memory cards is FAT-32. This means no single file written to the card can be over 4 GB in size. At full resolution, this works out to around 12 minutes of video. It is a pain in the lower backside, but it is entirely possible to work around most of the time.

  2. […] My first shoot using the Canon 550D digital SLR […]

  3. Karl said, on October 13, 2010 at 3:01 am

    I’m looking to get a 550d sometime soon; it’s great to see so much info on the net about dslr video nowadays. From the test footage I’ve seen on vimeo/youtube the results look great.
    It seems funny that Cliff would call dslr video dof a fad/flavour of the moment. For some of us it’s the difference between something looking “pro” and home video. Being able to focus the viewers attention to a detail of your choosing has always been an effective way to tell a story. Dof-for-the-masses adds to the tools available to the common man, i.e. “me.”
    Having owned a pdx10 and a dvx100b, I can attest to how much of a difference true dof can make to your work. I’ll finally be able to ditch the dof adapter we’ve been using…and all the lighting/vignetting/etc problems it’s given us. Plus the cost savings will be huge.


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