Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Has the DSLR come of age?

Posted in Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on November 3, 2010

*Apologies to email subscribers who may have received an unfinished draft version of this article when I published it by mistake!

DSLR cameras with HD video capabilities have been on the market for a couple of years and have been making a significant impression for pretty much as long.

I spent part of last week nerding out big time at the annual Canon Expo in London (my write up of last years event is right here).

It’s mostly targeting stills photographers, with the majority of demos, products and talks aimed at the traditional DSLR user. But this year, there was a significantly higher number of videographers attending, and more and more products designed for their needs.

For example, the Steadicam Merlin (a lightweight stabiliser that gives you steadicam smoothness on moving shots) was one of the most popular items. There was more paraphernalia including handheld rigs, LCD monitors, matte boxes and ring lights – all designed for the filmmaker. You can now even rig up DSLR cameras to shoot in 3D!

So, has the DSLR come of age?

That’s what Dan Chung, one of the real pioneers in the cinematic aesthetic of video journalism, told attendees on Tuesday.

He says DSLR cameras offer a flexibility and portability that a camcorder alternative just can’t. For him, the most important thing is being able to fit all of his gear into a backpack, and the size of DSLRs means he can bring as many as four cameras with him, plus lenses, filters and the like, on any assignment.

That’s a huge amount more video power than one, more expensive camcorder.

Why you should think about the Canon 550D

Currently the cheapest popular version of the video DSLR is the Canon 550D. I have been shooting with it since the spring, and have made films for editorial and commercial clients.

At £600 it is a sliver of the cost of its daddy, the 5D Mark II, and because of that, you would imagine – less good.

But here’s what I really took away from the Canon Expo: the 550D was getting applause from many quarters – as a better alternative to the more expensive 5D Mark II.

For example, James Tonkin, head of the multimedia production company Hangman said he would choose the 550D over a 5D, and Dan said if he could buy 1 5D Mark II, or 3 550D cameras, he would choose the 550D. Their affordability means he’s prepared to take risks with them to get more unique and dramatic shots.

The only other cameras in this price range are realistically, the Canon Legria camcorder, which has no aperture or focus control, the Lumix FZ100 or a much older camera. Either side you could pay £100 for a flip cam, or £2,000 for a broadcast camera.

I’m sure we’ll start to see more remarkable stuff being shot on the 550D entering the mainstream soon.

Why the DSLR is changing video journalism

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 15, 2010

Photo: Dan Chung

This isn’t the first time I’ve harped on about the need for video journalism to break away from the rules and conventions of TV news. Other, smarter, people have done it too.

Thing is, where are we seeing this happen? Video journalists working with traditional (albeit smaller) cameras are generally producing “TV” news, solo.

Flipcams, like the Kodak Zi8, are proving they can compete with the big boys in some instances…although still mimicking the old guard.

One camera is threatening to give the rules the rewriting they deserve.

A new range of digital SLR cameras are now capable of shooting HD video, through the most awesome quality photographic lenses. And it’s getting photographers and videographers very excited.

At the top of the pile is Canon’s 5D MkII which comes in at a hefty £2,5000. Cheaper, but still very high quality is the Canon 7D, roughly just over £1,000. And now Canon have brought out their cheapest one yet – the 550D. It shoots HD video at either 25 frames per second or up to 60 frames per second at a lower quality. It’s got an external microphone input, so you’ll get good quality sound, and you can attach any Canon lens onto it to get a wide range of gorgeous images…it’ll set you back £700.

In the right hands these cameras are bringing a cinematic feel to video journalism. There are no hands better than Beijing based photojournalist and VJ Dan Chung. Check out this film he shot for the Guardian. He trialled the 550D, and put it on some cheap movable rigs to add motion to the shots. Used subtly it doesn’t distract from the story, but adds a wonderful texture to it.

I am hoping to invest in the 550D in the very near future. I hope DSLRs, in whatever form or price inspire a real visual revolution. It’s about time.

Three remarkable films shot on a Digital SLR

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 3, 2010

If you occasionally peer out of your journalism cocoon and hang out with camera operators, directors and film makers, you might have overheard some buzz about the potential of digital SLR’s for shooting video.

In particular I’m talking about the Canon 5D Mk II and the Canon 7D: both capable of shooting High Definition video as well as taking photographs.

So what?

Well these cameras beat even some of the best video-only cameras in several places:

  • they’ve got bigger and better lenses, allowing for beautiful images
  • they’ve got detachable and therefore interchangable lenses, meaning you can shoot wide angle and telephoto with the same camera
  • they’ve got bigger apertures allowing for extraordinary depth of field
  • they’re smaller, lighter and allow a photojournalist to shoot video without changing cameras

…essentially what I’m talking about is in 1 second of video you have 25 individually beautiful images which could be photographs in their own right. It’s seeing the the dawn of an exciting new aesthetic – wouldn’t it be great if documentaries and TV news looked more like these?

Three remarkable films shot on DLSR

Sri Lanka Tamils by Mark Allard

At the Races in Singapore by Dan Chung

Battle for Hearts and Minds by Danfung Dennis

For more great examples of the potential of the DLSR check out DSLR News Shooter. And I got to see some of these great cameras in action at the Canon Expo in London last autumn – the details are right here.

Multimedia Journalism on the frontline

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on October 29, 2009

Image: Adam Westbrook

I spent an afternoon at the Canon expo in London yesterday, a showcase for the latest photography kit, including some very sexy looking XL H1s and of course the 5D Mark II.

Hidden among the photo-geekery was photojournalist turned multimedia war reporter John D McHugh.

He was there to speak about his experiences reporting from Afghanistan between 2006-8, during which time he moved from producing just photographs, to audio slideshows and even full films.

He also experienced several fire fights, which he described as “fucking insane” and was even shot by insurgents for his trouble.

John D McHugh

“The power of the still image is still unsurpassed” he says, although he admits he loves the fact he now has lots of different ways to tell a story.

His aim is not to copy television though, rather to “emulate the newspaper tradition”, using multimedia to show more and give more understanding to a story.

But it is not without its challenges. He admitted it is difficult to juggle his SLR with a video camera and dictaphone – something I can totally relate to from my short time filming in Iraq earlier this year. For me the fear was always missing a good shot because I’m busy with something else, something John has just got used to.

“I’ve missed photos, sure” he says, “but then I’ve always missed photographs in my whole career. If I was going to write a book, I always said it was going to be called ‘Photos I Didn’t Take.””

He says each missed photograph is seared in his memory.

“This is never going to be ideal, but it’s the world we’re in.”

A talented, brave and determined photojournalist, John is very much on the frontline, both militarily, and inside the industry.