Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

A multimedia journalism gear guide (on the cheap)

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2010

The excellent US multimedia producers MediaStorm published a very useful multimedia gear guide this week, outlining some of the kit you’ll need to get started as a video journalist or online film maker.

It includes the popular Canon 5D MKII, Sennheiser mics, and Marantz audio recorder.

Now I’d love to use the Canon 5D MkII, and some top of the range Sennheiser mics, but they have always been a bit out of my budget range. The 5D, for example, will set you back around £2,200 ($4000), a difficult investment for a recently graduated journalist or someone bootstrapping a business. There are however a few alternatives for the multimedia journalist on a lower budget – I thought I’d share them here as a complement to the MediaStorm list.

All prices & currency conversions are approximate and based on a brief scout online. Definitely search around for good deals.

HDSLRs

Depending on where you read, Canon have upset some photographers who were waiting for a firmware upgrade to their 5D or had just shelled out for a 7D – by releasing the 550D for a fraction of both prices. It shoots in 1080i HD and in 720 at higher frame rates and apparently its LCD display is better than the more expensive options. I have been using this camera for about four months and have very few complaints so far. It is very small & light, but has a less sturdy body. You’re unable to adjust or monitor sound levels and are limited to 12 minute video recording sessions.  All problems you can work around however.

Below that the 7D is more expensive and has a slightly nicer sensor from what I can tell, although I have not used it myself. The Kodak Zi8, perfectly capable of good footage if used correctly has now slipped below the £100 mark – a really realistic option for the journalist on the very low budget, or even as a backup camera.

Canon 550D (+ 18-55mm lens) ~£600/$900

Canon 7D ~£1100/$1700

Kodak Zi8 ~£100/$150

Lenses

I use a bog-standard 18-55mm lens for most of my shooting at the moment. However there are an array of affordable lenses out there too, even those with a wider aperture. For the lower price you’ll have to accept a plastic body, and probably lower quality glass – but it’ll still be good enough for most shoots. Note I have not used any of the following lenses myself.

If you’re doing any extreme close-up filming, another cheap option is an extension tube macro ring. I found one for just a few pounds -it is essentially a plastic tube you attach in between your camera body and lens, and it creates a macro zoom effect. The cheaper ones don’t have contact rings though, and the camera won’t be able to automatically adjust exposure or white balance. For filming this is usually OK.

Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II (known among photographers as the thrifty fifty!) ~£60/$99

Canon EF 50mm f3.4 USM ~£290/$440

Canon EF 100mm f2 USM ~£350/$530

Extension Tube Macro Ring ~£15/$25

For a fuller list of cheap Canon & Nikon lenses check out this post on PhotoTuts.

Audio Recording

To get around my camera’s poor audio settings I, like many DSLR shooters, use a dual audio system – I record the audio completely separately to the video and sync it up in post production. I recently invested in the budget Tascam DR-07, certainly the cheapest option. You loose any XLR inputs and just rely on a 35mm jack, but you have full control over the audio levels and settings. For the low price you also get a crappy plastic case, which does rattle if held incorrectly, but otherwise the quality is just fine.

I attach a Rode VideoMic to the top of my camera to collect ambient sound and to sync the audio later. It is a very good mic on its own however, and I find it works fine as an onboard camera when a tie-microphone won’t do. For the tie-mic itself, I went proper budget and spent just £20 on a tie mic about a year ago. 12 months on and it still works great alongside the Tascam. It is not a wireless mic though, so your interviewee cannot be at a distance!

Tascam DR-07 ~£130/$200

Zoom H4 ~£220/$330

RodeVideoMic ~£80/$120

EM102 Condenser Tie Mic ~£20/$30

Accessories

Manfrotto’s Modo tripod is designed for both stills and video cameras. It’s tiny and extremely light, and it has sticks which can be moved into a practically horizontal position, meaning you can have a steady shot at floor level. I recently bought a couple of cheap filters from Amazon, which work fine. Play.com got me a 32GB SD card for around £30 – make sure you get a Class6 card if you’re shooting in HD!

Manfrotto Modo Tripod ~£39/$60

35mm Filters ~£15

16GB Class 6 SD Card

Post Production

For post, Final Cut Studio is now around £250 but it’s quite a bargain when you consider you get Apple Motion, Color and Soundtrack, plus a library of sound effects, licence free music and graphics with that too. If it really is out of  your budget, I still swear by Adobe’s Premiere Elements for Windows which I have used until very recently. Rumour has it the latest version of iMovie 9 now allows you to separate your audio and video tracks giving you almost professional editing flexibility for free.

Audacity is a good enough audio editor considering its free (open source) and Pluraleyes has made the job of syncing your video and audio tracks a lot easier. That’s just under £100 to download, or there’s a free trial.

Final Cut Studio (Final Cut Pro, Apple Motion, Color, ProRes) ~£250/$380 (as an upgrade, or with a new Mac; approx £400-600 elsewhere)

iMovie free

Adobe Premiere Elements

Audacity Free

Pluraleyes ~£97/$149 (free month trial)

All images licenced under Creative Commons. Image credits (from top to bottom):Dave Dugdale, visual.dichotomy, Stephend9 & D’Arcy Norman

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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?

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.