What I learned shooting my first two DSLR video stories

A PETA protest video story shot with a Nikon D3s

In the past 24 hours I have produced two news videos that I shot for the first time with my Nikon D3s. The transition for me shooting DSLR video has been slow. I have been quite comfortable with my Sony XDCAM EX1. But as more photographers embrace shooting video with a DSLR, I figured it was time to jump in. Here are some issues I encountered while shooting my stories.

Workflow
When I first started shooting with a traditional video camera, I was challenged by the workflow. Having to monitor audio, think in sequences and deal with a dozen other simultaneous details was overwhelming at times. I feel like that now shooting video with my DSLR camera. The workflow is a house of cards. Mess up one thing and your story is hosed. Forget to turn on the mic? Without being able to monitor your audio like a video camera, you’ll end up with a bunch of clips with no audio. I live in fear of this.

Mics
I’m shooting with a Sennheiser MKE 400 mic mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. I’m used to shooting with a full-sized Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun. This mini mic is definitely not in the same class as its big ME66 brother. It is important to get the mic close to the subject, and watch out for wind noise. Get a dead cat windscreen for this mic. The little one that came with mine fell off into the abyss within 15 minutes of ownership.

Stability
Using a DSLR makes me fully understand how much the optical stabilization on a video camera really works. Without some type of support, DSLRs are damn hard to hold steady. I’ve downsized to a smaller and lighter tripod that works pretty well. I can shorten it up and use it as a brace in a pinch. Monopods, I’ve found, stop the up and down camera movements, but not the side-to-side.

Focus
Focus really sucks with the DSLR. I am manually focusing every shot. I have remapped the back of my D3s to zoom the monitor 50% using the rear toggle button. To record, I use the front function button next to the grip on the front of the camera. This allows me to quickly zoom in on my subject, focus and zoom out. Without the feature my clips would be a blurry mess. I have a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro on order, which should really help my aging eyes.

A candlelight vigil video story shot at 4000 ISO on a Nikon D3s

Lenses
I’m used to having a wide to telephoto lens with my video camera. On my DSLR, I constantly have to change lenses. The only cool thing about this is the ability to use specialty glass like my 60 mm macro lens and my 85mm f/1.4. Shallow DOF rocks with a DSLR, but it makes focus all the more critical.

ND filter
I need a neutral density filter. Last night, shooting a candlelight vigil was not a problem, but today during a PETA protest in bright sunlight, I had a hard time keeping my f-stops low enough. With DSLRs you want keep your shutter speed between a 30th to no more that 125th of a second. Go higher than that, and your video will start to look funky. An ND filter blocks the light, but not the image quality. They are pricey. I have one on order for a hundred bucks and that’s a cheap one.

Editing
I have been a Final Cut Pro fan boy for seven years, but when Apple reinvented the wheel with Final Cut X, I decided to explore other options. I purchased a copy of Adobe Production Premium for my home computer. This suite of programs is topnotch and includes Premiere Pro CS5.5. My two videos were both edited in Premiere. This modern program edits my DSLR video without transcoding. It didn’t take much effort to jump right in and start editing. It’s not as intuitive as Final Cut. Some things like track heights and how the timeline functions are driving me crazy, but all in all, I settled in just fine.

I feel I’m over the hump. Shooting and editing two quick stories showed me I could do this without losing the quality of my storytelling.

Photogene and iPad 2: Great tools for photojournalists

Sitting in a lawn chair outside the Spokane Apple Store last week, I pondered the absurdity of my week-long quest to buy an iPad 2. Arriving at 5 a.m. netted me the sixth spot in line and an eventual 16-gig wifi slate of glass and aluminum.

Did I really need another digital device to supplement all the other Apple products that grace my home and workspace? No, of course not. But using the iPad 2 this past week has made me giddy with excitement as I discover one new feature or application after another. It’s interesting, when I demonstrate to people who have never seen or touched one, how utterly amazed they are. Suffice to say this multimedia device is smokin’ hot. There are enough glowing reviews on the Web that I don’t need to pontificate much more.

A great tool for photojournalists

The one thing I really wanted to do with my iPad 2 was edit and send photos from the field back to the newspaper. I couldn’t find much info from other photojournalists about what applications would help me replace Photo Mechanic and Photoshop on my laptop. Nor could I find anyone who was using the iPad to send their photos via FTP (file transfer protocol) back to their newspapers. I can happily announce that during my first photo assignment today I did just that.

My first stop last week was to the Apple iPad App Store where I found this amazing little program called Photogene. It allows me to crop, tone, caption and send my photos all from a three dollar application. The best part is that it has a built in FTP, so I can send my photos directly into our Merlin archive system.

Here was my workflow today:

  • Shot a photo of a woman in a job-training program working in the kitchen of a restaurant.
  • Ordered lunch, sat down at a table and plugged in the Apple camera connection cable between the iPad and the USB port on my Nikon D3s. It immediately displayed all the. jpg’s in the iPad’s photo browser. By touching a photo, it marks it so you don’t have to bring in every image on your card. I hit “Import Selected” and the files were quickly downloaded from the camera.
  • I open Photogene and select the photo I want to edit. The workflow now is super simple. I crop my photo, and then toned the image. Toning is done using sliders for exposure, color temperature, saturation etc. There are a ton of other adjustments from noise reduction to selective color channels. It even has a digital histogram and curves adjustment tools.
  • On to the metadata tab, I clicked “IPTC” and added caption info and filled out the other metadata fields that are needed to archive the photo for later.
  • Finally, I hit the export button and chose “FTP” from the menu (You can also send directly to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or email.) I already have all the info such as IP address and password stored, so I just add the file name (make sure there are no spaces) and upload the photo using my ATT MiFi . A minute later it was ready for an editor to move to the desk.

Some observations

Will the iPad 2 replace a laptop? Probably not. I think the iPad is perfect if you need to move a couple of photos from your car during a breaking news event. It’s not be ideal for slogging 300 photos from a high school basketball game.

You need to buy the Camera Connection Kit from Apple ($30.00), which includes an SD card reader and an Apple connector to mini USB cord. I wish there was a CF card reader, but the cable works as advertised.

Typing a caption is easy, but it is all on one line that gets obscured as you type past the field boundary. A bigger caption field for photojournalists is a must have.

Get the PhotoSync application ($1.99). It lets you transfer photos to and from your iPhone, computer and iPad wirelessly. It also lets you bypass the iTunes software, which is not really intended for photos.

I also bought the pro upgrade for eight dollars. It adds a few more things that professionals need such as applying star ratings, adding personal watermarks to exported images, saving your FTP settings, adjusting RGB curves individually, and controlling JPEG export settings.

If any other photojournalists are using an iPad to edit photos please share your experiences in comments below!

Mastering Multimedia useful tips roundup

Many of may old posts that deal with tips about how to do video storytelling and audio slideshows get linked on a lot of blogs used by college professors who teach digital media classes. Most of these posts are buried amongst my pontifications about the changes facing the newspaper industry. So for anyone interested,  here is a roundup of my best multimedia suggestions and useful tip posts in one place…

How to make your audio slideshows better

Great audio starts in the field

How best to approach a video story

Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

How to make your video editing easier

Get creative with your video camera

Opening your video: How not to lose viewers

Random Final Cut tip: Lower thirds titles

What we can learn from TV new shooters

JVC GY-HM100U and Final Cut Pro–A match made in heaven

JVC GY-HM100

JVC GY-HM100

While most still photojournalists are fawning over the wonderful DSLR/video hybrid Canon 5D Mk. II, JVC quietly unveiled a new tapeless ProHD camcorder that shakes things up a bit in the news-video world. The soon to be released (April 2009) JVC GY-HM100U has some killer features that I have been waiting years for.

First and foremost, JVC built this camera to record in native Final Cut Pro’s QuickTime file format. Its files need no ingesting/transcoding like an AVCHD files do. Nor does it re-wrap the file to an editable format like my Sony XDCAM EX-1. What this means is you can start editing video from the camera  immediately. The GY-HM100U is built to work seamlessly with Final Cut Pro 6. I’m not sure if Final Cut Express 4 is supported with this camera yet.

Second, it records to cheap SDHC media cards. Instead of having to buy Sony $800 dollar 16 gig SxS cards or Panasonic’s P2 media, 40 bucks will get you a 16 gig SDHC card for the GY-HM100. It has two card slots for a combined total 64 gigs of storage space.

Third, the GY-HM100U  has a small form factor. It weighs just three pounds. My wrist sometimes hurts when I shoot with my much heavier Sony XDCAM EX-1, so this full-featured, but light weight camera would be a welcome relief.

The GY-HM100U seems to have all the bells and whistles I’d expect from a pro camera:  A decent HD lens, dual channel balanced audio inputs, full manual controls, for focus, white balance, shutter, iris etc.

Finally cost. JVC says it will be priced below $4000.00. That is right in the price point of the popular tape-based Canon XH A1.

High fives to the JVC engineering team for listening to their customers. This is a shot fired over the bow of Canon who has yet to produce a tapeless pro camcorder. Codec’s like AVCHD are fine for consumers who have the time wait for the files to be converted, but not so in deadline environments newspapers work in. Lets hope this is the beginning of a new generation of video cameras that will make transcoding and file rewrapping a thing of the past.

Here a couple of links for more  info on the JVC GY-HM100U:

GY-HM100U product video

JVC GY-HM100U Info page

Final Cut Pro’s Voice Over Tool is a Time Saver

recordIt took me forever, but I finally tried out Final Cut Pro’s voice over tool yesterday for a daily video I did about a 100 people who lined up at a hardware store to buy snow shovels. The record 60-inches of snow that has fallen in the last month in Spokane, has made snow shovels scarcer then George Bush is on the national scene. 

The voice over recording feature in Final Cut Pro is one I had almost forgotten about. Now that I have started to do more narration in my videos, I realized my present workflow was really inefficient. I had been using an Edirol -R9 digital recorder connected to condenser mic–a Rode NT3.  After recording a script with four or five takes, I would import the audio files into Final Cut via USB from the recorder. It was all very time consuming.

I’m still trying to get the hang of writing a video script.  I usually edit my video in a linear fashion, stopping to add narration when needed. I know this goes against the TV news model of recording the entire script and then quickly laying the b-roll and cutaways on top of the audio. I found the voice over tool is perfect for my editing style.

Here’s how it works. My newspaper bought a cheap USB audio mixer (it cost about $120 bucks) a while ago when we were kind of playing with podcasts. Since we gave that fad up, the mixer was just gathering dust. I rescued it and hooked it up to my Mac. I plugged in my Rode NT3 mic in via XLR cable, turned the power on and was good to go.

In my shovel video story, I would drop some edited b-roll clips on the timeline, then place my play head where I wanted to start my voice over. I went to: Tools>Voice Over to open the voice over tool. It was pretty simple from then on. I clicked the red record button and got a visual and audio countdown before the recording started. It automatically backs the play head up five seconds for the countdown.  I read my short script and when done, hit the space bar to stop recording. The audio clip then appeared in my timeline right where I had placed the play head.  I clicked into the timeline and listened to the clip.  If I hated it, I’d just hit delete it and do another take. 

Some things to remember: You’ll want to make sure you have video clips on the timeline because the voice over tool won’t record on a blank timeline. Also, it won’t record past to end of the last clip or a blank spot between two clips on the timeline.

Update: Peter Saliva adds this even better tip for recording without video on the timeline:

“Another trick you can try when using the voice over tool: set an in and out point in your time line where no media exists, for say 2 minutes. Then you have established a duration in which your voice over can be recorded and you don’t need to have media present. You can record multiple takes without the hassle of muting or disabling additional audio tracks with other media.”

Final Cut Pro’ s voice over tool is going to make doing narration much easier for me.  Now, if I could just learn to write better scripts…

Frame grab workflow from the Sony XDCAM EX-1

leaf
From my last post, Matt Dial and Peter Houppi asked to see some frame grabs from my new Sony XDCAM EX-1.
brenna
On Sunday I shot some video of fall color and my daughter, freckles and all, Brenna. The day was cloudy and the light was low contrast.

Here was my workflow:

Transferred the clips into Final Cut Pro 6’s browser via “Log and Transfer.” It took only about 20 seconds to convert two minutes of video.

Loaded a clip into the viewer. Set an in and out point, then dropped the clip onto my timeline.

Navigated to the frame I wanted, then made a “freeze frame” by going to>Modify>Make Freeze Frame.

The freeze frame automatically loads into the viewer. I placed it on the timeline and set an in and out point. I double clicked the still frame clip to load back into the viewer. Then went to: Sequence>Render all.  Make sure “Full” is checked
Render out the clip (Command R)

Now export the freeze frame

Go to File>Export>Using Quicktime Conversion
Under format use “Still”
Under “Options” use “Photoshop”

Click “Options” and use “Best Depth” (I’m guessing here. There is a “millions of color” option, but I went with the default Best Depth.)

Name the file and export to your desktop.

Open in Photoshop and work the file like any digital still photo. The photo open as 5.93 meg file.

Some things I’ve noticed:

In Quicktime Conversion, don’t set the export to jpg. It adds compression jaggies to the frame grab.

Adding a light unsharp mask to the frame grab really brings out the detail.

I tried using David Leeson’s Voodoo Tool with ok results, but found my method looked as good without the upsizing to a 67 meg file.

If anybody else has suggestions for getting the best out of a fame grab do share…

The Sony XDCAM EX-1 is bitchin’

ex-1

About two weeks before the massive layoffs at The Spokesman-Review, a box from B+H Camera and Video arrived in my office. My excitement was like that of a five-year-old opening a Christmas gift. I gingerly lifted my new video camera—a Sony PMW XDCAM EX-1—from the box. I had been pining for this camera since it was released last year. Thankfully the capital purchase gods favored me this year–or maybe as the dark layoff clouds gathered– they were  just foretelling my moving out of management and  back into the photo department.

I digress. This is one bitchin’ video camera. And it’s a camera that I think could be a game changer for larger newspapers producing advanced video storytelling. The EX-1 is about the size of my Sony Z1U. It is a bit heavier and has enough extra buttons on it to keep me reading the manual on a constant basis. This camera is more pro than consumer. It has a feature list that that you’ll find more on the boat anchor cameras that our TV news shooting brothers and sisters use. The EX-1 features:

  • An easy to use manual iris ring
  • Separate manual focus and zoom rings
  • Uncompressed audio capture
  • A high quality 14X lens
  • Three 1/2-inch CMOS sensors

But what is the game changer you say? Well, It’s in the cards. This camera is tapeless. It captures to SxS Pro   (S by S) memory cards. It’s a new Sony developed format that fits in the narrow V.34 slot in the MacBook Pros and in newer PC laptops. These cards are wicked fast. Pop a 16-gig card full of an hour’s worth of hi-def video into your laptop and use Final Cut Pro’s Log and Transfer feature to convert the video into and editable format (.mp4.) In about nine minutes you can have all your clips in your browser and start rocking your edit quickly. The best part about using Log and Transfer is that you can convert and start editing your a-roll interview file first. While you’re laying your a-roll on the timeline the other clips are converting in the background. That was something you couldn’t do with tape capture. What this means is that you can start editing a breaking news story in seconds.

Time has always been the stickler with video production. By minimizing the capture time your productivity goes way up. Editing EX-1 video is just like editing HDV. You should have an Intel Core Duo based laptop or multi-core desktop with at least 4 gigs of ram. But that is really becoming the standard on any new computer purchase now. Also, Adobe Premire and Avid video editing programs now support the XDCAM format.

The other benefits of the EX-1 are that it shoots in progressive mode. This is not the highly compressed interlaced video that is HDV. It is true HD 1920 X 1080 video. Its quality is stunning on a HD monitor. For the frame grab crowd, this camera captures great stills when you need it to. OK, granted video frames are not up the color depth standards of a Canon 1D Mark III, but for newspaper reproduction, I’d be amazed if you could really tell the difference.

The cost of this camera right now is steep. It will set you back about $6500 and comes with an 8-gig card. A 16-gig card will cost you $800 bucks more. (The camera has two SxS slots.) Add wireless and shotgun mics, an extra battery and your looking at $8700.00 to get you started. I am hoping Sony will let the XDCAM format trickle down into the prosumer cameras. The current AVCHD tapeless format is slow and cumbersome to work with at times.

The day after my EX-1 arrived, Canon announced the 5D Mark II. I will admit it gave me pause. After shooting video last week with a new Nikon D90, I am confident that a full-featured video camera is still needed—a least for advanced video storytellers.

Now that I am back in a producer roll, I am looking forward to time behind the EX-1. It is forcing me to shoot more like a Lenslinger would. From now on, autofocus is for the point and shoot set. And yes—the tripod is going to be my best friend.