Audio Recorder/Preamp Shootout

Robert Rozak, President of JuicedLink, compares and demonstrates the different preamps and digital recording devices for their low noise capabilities . The key information he stresses is that a preamps connected to a DSLR camera are just as good if not better that recording audio separately with say an Zoom H4n. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

Part 2: DSLR camera accessories-image stabilization

In this part two examination of DSLR accessories, I look ways to outfit your camera to ensure stability of your video (see part one on the Juicedlink audio interface.)

I shoot primarily news video for my newspaper’s website using a Nikon D3s as a video camera. It captures only 720p HD video, not 1080p of the newer models, but it’s resolution perfect for most online delivery.

One of the issues I’ve had as I transitioned from shooting with a Sony EX1 video camera to now using a DSLR, was the stability of my video. When handholding a DSLR during a shoot, I founds it almost impossible to capture stable video. Because I couldn’t put the camera up to my eye when shooting in live view, the shaky-cam effect from holding the camera unsupported out in front of me was really pronounced. It made me realize  how much the optical stabilization on most traditional video cameras work to minimize camera vibration.

In putting my DSLR video camera kit together, I looked for the best lens I could find that would not only give me the zoom focal lengths I needed, but would also have built-in image stabilization. My final choice was the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR lens.

VR (vibration reduction) is Nikon’s version of the Canon’s IS (Image Stabilization.) Vibration Reduction (VR) systems in DSLR camera lenses compensate for image blur caused by small, involuntary movements from unsupported cameras.

I can attest that VR works. I’ve seen and shot a lot of handheld DSLR video that was so shaky it was unwatchable. Switching VR on will not make your footage look like it was shot on a tripod, but it will smooth it out considerably. In my video below, I used the Nikon 24-120mm with VR for the first time. I was pleased with the results. VR  allowed to  move with my subjects without encountering the jarring shake of typical handheld footage. I was most impressed with the clip of me running with the subject. No way would this look this smooth without VR.

The next accessory I use for stabilizing my DSLR video is the wonderful  Zacuto Z-Finder optical viewfinder that I attach to my camera’s rear viewing monitor. This allows me to press the eyepiece against the bridge of my shootin’ eye, which helps stabilize the camera–especially the up and down movement you get when holding the camera out in front of you. This, paired with the lens VR, really makes for some excellent looking handheld footage.

Finally, I can’t stress enough about having a solid tripod handy on EVERY shoot. I always try to use a tripod for long interviews. This allows me to spend time looking my subject in the eye, rather than hiding behind the camera monitor.

The best video tripods are ones that have a fluid head, which allows you to do smooth pan and tilt movements. I have three that I have access to, from small (light) to large (heavy.) The one thing that I have come to love about shooting with a tripod is that I can frame a shot and then shoot a three-shot sequence of wide, medium and tight ten second clips. When I edit, I have three different views to choose from—and best of all, they are all rock steady.

I could go on about camera rigs and such, but in my type of work, they are a bit much for what I do. As a one-man band, I find keeping it simple is the best hedge against missing shots and moments. One of the things that I don’t want to do is create the three-headed monster camera rig that would draw too much attention to myself.

In part three, I will look at the Zacuto Finder up close and a round-up of the other necessary accessories to outfit your DSLR to make it a bad ass video camera.

Part 1: DSLR camera accessories-JuicedLink DT454 preamplifier

As I transition to shooting video stories with my DSLR camera, I have tried to mitigate the shortcomings of doing so. Truth is, a traditional video camera is so much easier to use. When I compare video shot with my Sony XDCAM EX1 with that of my Nikon D3s, the look is stunningly dissimilar. The EX1 is no slouch in image quality, it’s just that saturated, cinematic look you get from the massive full-frame Nikon sensor is so visually appealing.

In a previous post, I talked about the challenges of shooting a video story with a DSLR camera. My first few attempts went better than I expected, but the audio and focusing challenges were a huge issue for me to overcome. At the end of last year, instead of requesting a new camera from our remaining capital budget, I outfitted my D3s with a bunch filmmaking accessories.

First up was getting an audio interface to deal with the audio limitations of the DSLR. Video with a DSLR has always played second fiddle to the primary function of shooting stills. Many shooting with DSLRs use a dual-system audio, which means they record the audio with a separate digital audio recorder. The new high-quality waveform is then linked to the video in post. I found this method to be cumbersome and fraught with many chances to screw up or miss key audio storytelling moments. Many of the interviews I do are spontaneous, where I walk up and get quick remarks or sound bites from a subject. I have seen amazing DSLR camera rigs where filmmakers mount Zoom H4n recorders to the camera. It all seems a bit much to me.

My solution is to use an audio interface called a JuicedLink DT454 4-Channel DSLR Camera Microphone Preamplifier. It allows me to connect, via XLR inputs, my pro mics—a Sennheiser Me66 and Sennheiser G2 wireless. I have full control of adjusting my mic levels for each channel. I can also monitor the recording levels through the headphone jack, which is head-scratchingly missing on most DSLRs. It is thankfully changing now with on-camera headphone jacks in both the new Nikon D800 and D4 as well as the just announced Canon 5D Mark III.

The JuicedLink is pretty light and doesn’t get much in the way of shooting stills when needed. There is no problem mounting a tripod or a Zacuto Gorilla plate to the unit.

The things I don’t like are that you need an Allen wrench to bolt it to the bottom of the camera. It’s not easy to remove the unit in a hurry when you just want to shoot stills.  Another, is the on/off switch is about a flimsy as the come. Build quality construction runs from excellent to cheap. In fact the whole unit kind of looks like it was made in an inventors garage. There are other units out there, including this just announced Beachtek DXA-SLR Pro. The JuicedLink works especially well with Canon cameras as the unit can be calibrated to each model. With the Nikon cameras, I have only three in-camera mic sensitivities to choose from. Low, Medium and High. Low (1) I found it works best to prevent audio distortion. The unit comes with +48v phantom power, but I keep it switched off and just use battery power in my mics.  The JuicedLink uses a 9-volt battery and will drain much faster if it is in phantom power mode.

The bottom line, if you want to simplify gathering audio with a DSLR and be able to use your pro XLR mics then a JuiceLink or similar unit will give you that.

Part 2 coming soon: Getting stable DSLR video without a tripod.