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.

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.

Video Journalism: small cameras used well

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 9, 2010

Last year I put together a short video recommending Kodak’s Zi8 camera as a cheap, but high quality alternative for video journalists and film makers on a small budget.

It’s external mic input and HD capability give it the edge over its rival the FlipCam, and I really think if it’s used properly it can create professional looking footage. Well I’m glad to say someone has gone out and proved that point.

Markham Nolan shot this piece for the Irish Sailing Association. In particular look out for the interview clips which appear about 01’07” in. Well framed, well lit, with an external microphone used, you wouldn’t think this had been shot on a camera the size of a Blackberry. As Markham says:

On the whole, this was low-budget, low-tech. Rory was sitting on a kitchen chair in my garden shed office. I hung a black sheet behind him and sat him with a window on his left (camera right) so we had nice soft, natural light.  On advice from Adam Westbrook, I had splashed out on a Kodak Zi8 HD Pocket Video Camera to record the interviews with Rory (a whopping €130). The Zi8 has a microphone line in, so I nabbed a cheap lapel mic, and the sound quality is great as a result.

And here’s my original review of the Zi8 from back in December.

Now it’s easier to get professional shots with a Minicam!

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on January 10, 2010

After testing out Kodak’s HD minicam, the Zi8, on this very blog, I have been able to use it for professional work myself, mess around with it, and recommend it so several friends and colleagues.

With its external microphone input and double lens function it is (at the moment) better than the MinoHD Flip cam. But, as ever, there’s lots moving in the world of camera technology, and I’ve got three big improvements to share with you.

01. Get the Firmware upgrade for the Zi8

If you have a Kodak Zi8, they have a firmware upgrade which vastly improves the camera’s zooming capabilities, and audio recording quality, among other things. To find out if you need it, switch on your Zi8 and go to the settings menu; moving to the “i” sign will tell you the current version it is running. If it is anything less than version 1.06 then click here to upgrade it! You loose a little bit of recording space, but the optics are much improved.

02.  A steadicam for minicams?

Yes it’s true, if you prefer the iPhone 3GS to a Flipcam,  you’ll soon be able to buy your own rig to achieve the smooth shots Hollywood studios pay thousands for. Smaller steadicam rigs, including the Merlin, have been around for camcorders for some time, but aren’t able to carry something as small as an iPhone or Flipcam.

The Steadicam Smoothie is weighted to provide counterbalance for really small cameras. Check it out, if just for fun. No word yet on how much they’ll retail for.

(Thanks to @EdMoore for the tip)

03. Awesome vintage shots

Need a retro vintage feel to your footage? Well, it’s possible to do it in post production with most software, but someone’s gone and made a camera which does it for you. It’s called the Harinezumi Digital 2.0, (or Zumi for short) and it appears to have been designed to be less-good on purpose. It has no viewfinder, so you can’t really see what you’re filming, and it’s sensor is designed to produce faded pictures with a vignette edge. It also has a macro lens setting (like the Zi8) to create elegant depth-of-field.

I’d be dismissing it right away if the pictures didn’t look so fantastic, and if vintage/retro wasn’t a-la-mode in design circles. The latest version (Zumi 2.0) can now record sound.

Kodak Zi8: the tool to change video journalism?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 20, 2009


Broadcast quality video cameras are only doing one thing: getting smaller.

But the smallest one, the Mini-HD camera, has so far been largely shunned by professional video journalists, chiefly because of their shaky footage and poor on-board audio.

Now though, there’s a new camera on the scene which threatens to change all that- and it weighs just 110 grams. It’s Kodak’s latest MiniHD cam, the Zi8, and now has an external microphone input for high quality sound recording.

I’ve put together a quick run through explaining its features…

Now I think if used creatively, it’s possible to produce a high quality film with the Zi8. If so, the potential for citizen journalism, hyper-locals and other smaller news enterprises could be profound. Michael Rosenblum has already written about the potential of giving cameras like these to large numbers of people.

And you just have to watch this film by PNW Local (previously featured on this blog) to see the potential. It was shot entirely on the Zi8’s predecessor the Zi6. Elsewhere Cisco are now promising wi-fi with their next FlipCam model, but unless its’ got better audio I think it won’t rival the Zi8 for professional use.

I’m going to keep filming and experimenting – all the results will appear right here!