The change: Video storytelling and the rise of the DSLR

It happened so fast. The change. One day, photojournalists were just doing their thing. Shooting daily photos for their newspapers. Maybe even an odd photo story or two. A lucky day was getting a page or a double truck on Sunday to showcase all their hard work.

Video at newspapers was out there on the fringes. A few staffers braved the online world and embraced a new way to tell a visual story. Except this time, it was on the World Wide Web. No space restrictions here. Most traditional still shooters shrugged their shoulders and continued on with the status quo. Video cameras were for “TV types,” they said.

Then the layoffs hit hard. In 2009 and onwards, photo departments at many newspapers were gutted. Hundreds of staff photographers were tossed onto the streets to fend for themselves. To freelance.

In the midst of all this chaos, a new type of still camera was quietly released by Canon. The 5D Mark II had a little secret– it could shoot kick-ass HD video. A few brave photojournalists used the new technology to produce stunning imagery. Images unlike anything ever seen in the video camera world. Shallow depth-of-field shots and cinematic looks that mimicked film dropped many jaws along the way. The smart ones ran with it. Reinvented themselves and in doing so, reinvented the genre of documentary filmmaking. Overnight the doc film industry changed. Shooting with Film stock was done. Former still photojournalists, once resistant to shooting video, now embraced it.

The commercial still photography market tanked as a “billion of photojournalists” raised their iPhones and posted their snaps on Flickr.

Because the DSLR camera was familiar, still photojournalists could buy in without judgment. The taint of video, hidden in a tiny package of a pro DSLR camera gave courage to those that once scoffed at the idea. It did not matter that the DSLR was much harder to shoot with than a traditional video camera. What did they know? They had never shot with a Sony or Panasonic video camera with built-in stabilization and pro audio inputs.

The aftermarket kicked in with a plethora of accessories to make the 5D Mark II easier to focus and improve the bad audio the camera outputted.

Soon the former photojournalists were now calling themselves filmmakers. The old ideas of us (still) vs. them (TV) dissipated. “Us” became “them,” but in a different way.

Video storytelling changed. The entry point into the documentary film world flattened. An army of new filmmakers, not confined by the limitations and cost of film, were unleashed. Stories, some short, some long (most too long,) gave rise to publishing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. No longer did you need a TV to showcase your vision. Shoot and edit your story yourself, then post it to the Web. Maybe even enter a film festival or two.

Former photojournalists, the ones newspapers turned their backs on, were the most creative with the new DSLR video medium. They brought a keen sense of composition, moment and storytelling to the table. But sometimes that was not enough. They needed to understand that great imagery did not a great story make. Each failure was a learning opportunity.

The unfortunate ones were the Nikon shooters. The Nikon D90 was the first DSLR to have video capabilities. But Nikon took a nap after that release. Canon became the de facto standard for DSLR video. The release of the Nikon D800 and D4 played catch up and now a lost generation of Nikon users are joining the fray of filmmaking.

I sit here now stewing, one of the first still photojournalists that embraced digital video storytelling at a newspaper. I was a change agent; embracing the idea that video was an important path to enhancing our online content. In those early days of 2004, our website was mostly text-based with a few postage stamp-sized photos sprinkled about.  I evangelized, I shared, and I taught video sequencing to anyone who wanted to learn. I produced hundreds of video and multimedia stories. I even survived 11 rounds of layoffs at my newspaper. But now I feel like the old man talking about the good old days. Many of my photojournalists friends who left newspapers unwillingly are doing incredible documentary video stories now.

Video storytelling is hard. It takes commitment to keep learning. To keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the tools available.

In the blink of an eye, things change. It comes down to how you respond to that change. Give up and you stagnate. Embrace and you risk failure. Fear is the great equalizer. I keep telling myself  “no fear, no fear.”

I really love video storytelling. Though now I feel the cool kids have taken the torch and somehow passed me by. I tell myself I still have knowledge and experience on my side.

Inside me is a storytelling machine waiting to be unleashed. My Nikon D4 beckons. The world is full of stories. The only one that keeps me from telling them is fear.  No fear. No fear. No fear.

Hawaiki AutoGrade for Final Cut Pro X

As I was making some final edits to a 10-minute long video project, an ad for the new Hawaiki AutoGrade color correction plug-in for Final Cut Pro X (Through Noise Industries FXFactory for $29.00) popped up in my Facebook feed. Normally, I just ignore these FB ads, but this one received my full attention. I was just about ready to do the final color correction on my project and I was not thrilled with having to use the limited color correction tools in FCPX (yes I’m pretty creeped out that Facebook knew what I was about to do.)

autograde_effectsI love editing video stories in FCPX, but the one thing I gnash my teeth over is the funky way the program color grades video. Yes, it gets the job done for most projects, but it is not intuitive and has many feature limitations compared to other editing programs like Adobe Premiere.

The one feature I miss the most from my days working with the Final Cut Pro 7’s three-way color corrector was the white eyedropper. Look for something in a video clip that was white with a colorcast and click it. Instant cast remover. Many times that is all the color correction I would need to do. It worked best for tight deadlines where I needed to post a news video quickly.

With AutoGrade, the eyedropper returns to FCPX as well as a slew of other features that will make color correcting your video a breeze.

Learning how to use the plug-in took about as much time as watching the excellent provided video tutorial. Once I got rolling, I color corrected all my clips, about 50 in all, in about two hours. My workflow went like this:

In the effects browser, I clicked the global adjustment picker and chose something neutral in my photo, and then I did the same with the white and black pickers. When done, I turned on “ Enabled Auto Balance” to show the correction. What’s really sweet is that each of the pickers has a slider that allows you to dial back an adjustment. This made fine-tuning simple and fast.

With my video scope set to Waveform/Luma I set my contrast of each clip. In “Manual Adjustment” I would start with my black exposure and pull it down so that the waveform kissed the bottom of the scale. I did the same with the “Whites Exposure” but this time I pulled the slider until the waveform touched the top of the scale. If needed, I would also tweak the “Mids” slider.  Finally, a bump in saturation and maybe a fine adjustment with the cool/warm slider and I was done.

I found with this plug-in, I never needed to use Final Cut Pro X’s color corrector. The only draw back I found is there is more clicking with a plug-in.  You also have to drag the filter onto each clip so that it loads into the effects browser. Still, the program is feature rich and really enhances FCPX color correction limitations. Until Apple makes an upgrade to the its color correction tools, Hawaiki AutoGrade is a perfect alternative.

My final choice of video editing program: Final Cut Pro X

The cries were fierce and seething. What did Apple do to my Final Cut Pro? It has been a little over two years since Apple software engineers upended the video-editing universe with the release of an “all new” Final Cut Pro X version of the proverbial video-editing program. Not long after the initial discussions as to whether it is called “X” or “Ten” subsided, did the bitchin’ and moaning among the ranks start.


Me? Well, I just dove in with gusto. Unfortunately, many fine editors made one big mistake. They tried to use the program without investing the time to learn how to use the new features—many of which were either a totally new way to edit (magnetic timeline) or ran counter to the way they worked in FCP 7 (dual viewers, bins etc.)  They complained. Then they complained some more. Change was tough, especially for editors that lived in the old FCP paradigm since version 1.0

Before I even tried to edit my first project, my first stop was IzzyVideo’s excellent free FCPX video tutorials. I watched each several times until I began to grasp all the new concepts–connected clips, skimming, magnetic and secondary timelines, keywording and so on . I  made sure I knew what each button in the interface did.

My first story edit went off without much fanfare. Still, I wasn’t totally convinced FCPX was better than my beloved FCP 7. The magnetic timeline drove me nuts, the single view monitor was strange and all that skimming took some time to get used to. I soldiered on and by the end of my third or fourth project, I started to jell with the program. Having to edit something in FCP7 now felt foreign. I kept wanting to skim clips in the browser.

My foray into FCPX was not without a hiccup that almost gave me a heart attack. Since its release, Apple has moved quickly to restore some of the lost features in the previous version. Multi-cam editing, XML export and dual viewers to name a few. But with all this updating, some versions became show-stopping unstable. Discussion boards were full of “FCPX didn’t save my project and now it is gone” type posts, which drove many editors over to the Adobe Premiere or Avid camps for good.

I was just completing a week-long editing project in version 10.05 when I started to trim a black slug at the tail end of my video. All of a sudden, poof, my entire project timeline turned gray. All the clips just vanished. A trip to the Apple discussion boards turned up many angry folks in the same boat as me. In typical Apple fashion, they shrugged their shoulders with silence and it took a user to figure out a convoluted solution to restore corrupted projects.

It made me realize at the time how much more FCPX needed to germinate before it was ready for real world work. That was a year ago and things seem to have smoothed out. My editing speed has accelerated dramatically the more I use FCPX.  I feel much more comfortable and trusting of the program. I taught a video storytelling and production class at a community college and I found the students learned the basics much faster than they did in Final Cut Express.

So for now, Adobe Premiere sits in my applications folder unused. I have chosen FCPX as my video editing program. I continue to suck up as much information on how to use the program as I can. has really stepped up and provided some of the best FCPX tutorials around. If you invest the time, I believe you will become much more comfortable with FCPX. It truly is video editing reimagined. I look forward to what future upgrades bring.

Know your story

A friend of mine asked me to read the first 200 pages of a novel he is writing and give him some feedback. I’m not a wordsmith (as you can tell) but I gave it a shot.

On critique day, I took a big sigh and gave him the bad news.

“I have no idea what your story is, nor do I care about your main character,” I told him. “You’ve written in so many dead ends into the plot that I’m not emotionally invested in the storytelling. I don’t think you know the story you want to tell,” I said.

Several weeks later we got together for breakfast and he told me my advice of know your story changed everything in how he approached writing his novel. He admitted that he was creating the plot as he was putting pen to paper. This, he realized, produced a lot of dead ends for the characters’ and storyline.

Know your story is fundamental to video storytelling too. Yet, time after time, video stories I review or judge in contests (and some of my own) are filled with meandering plotlines, too many characters, and failed endings.

Know your story

Before you shoot, it is important to have in your head, a solid framework of the story you want to tell.  Identify what the conflict in your story is,  then shoot it. Ask yourself: What is my opener? What do I need to shoot for the guts of my story? What’s my ender or resolution? You might not have all these worked out before shooting, but you better have by the time you finish pushing the record button. Few great stories are found in the edit afterwards.


Know your story. It will make editing a breeze. Focus on telling a story where you set up questions for the viewer, but then make sure you answer them. Intimacy and emotion rules with video, so edit those in not out. Keep focused. Tangents and redundancy are death in a short video.

It’s easy to get lost in all the small edits on the timeline. Make sure you always have a big picture of how your story is unfolding on the timeline.  When you’re done, ask several people to watch your video and tell them to be honest as to whether it holds their interest.  If your story does not work for them, then it probably won’t work for most viewers.

Watch this: Using Compressor in FCPX








If you don’t already use the audio filter Compressor in your video or audio editing application, then you are missing out on the key ways to make your dialogue sound better in your productions. Here is an excellent video tutorial from MacBreak Studio’s Steve Martin and Mark Spencer who show you how to apply a compressor filter to a clip and adjust the parameters in Final Cut Pro X. The key thing to remember when applying the filter is the 4:1 ratio. It will make your dialogue clearer–much like applying a unsharp mask to a photograph .

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.