So you’ve lined up a shoot, everything is set to go, you get there, everyone you called in as a favor has turned up, you’re in that special location that will only be available once, you’ve got 2 hours to shoot and your talent is ready to roll. But you forgot to charge the batteries. In this electronic age something so ludicrously simple can at any moment be your Achilles heel.
It’s important in any shoot situation (especially professionally) to take full responsibility for your gear, and act accordingly. Equipment can break down or malfunction on its own, so there is no need to add human error. The day or night before shooting, make sure you have everything you need.
Run through the shoot in your head, at each point what are you going to need? What, if anything, can you leave behind? Camera, sound, stabilization, check?
Shot of camera and contents on table check list style]
Charge all your batteries. Camera, additional screens, lapel mics, etc. Make sure you’ve got enough, and more, to get you through the days shoot. You don’t want to charge during shooting. If you can that’s a blessing, but if you can’t, you don’t want to be up the proverbial creek. Its one thing to charge your camera battery, but have you forgotten anything else? Sound recording gear, external monitor batteries, camera light batteries? Charge everything.
Remember, batteries gradually lose charge over time, so don’t just trust that your batteries are still holding enough. Check. Depending on how many batteries you have, and how long they take to charge, you may have to get onto this prep sooner than later.
So this next step, Clean your gear. Hopefully you did it after your last shoot, but check nonetheless. Tripods, camera body and all that stuff. Don’t let dust and rust get to your beloved and expensive equipment. But most of all, check and clean your lenses! While it is best to clean your lenses minimally, avoiding over-cleaning and potentially scratching the glass, it’s important take good care of them. I tend to clean all of my lenses in a batch, before production, after I’ve put all my batteries on charge. It’s quite a Zen experience, and depending on my mood, I often look forward to it. Wax on, wax off, grasshopper. After outdoor shoots I also make sure the lenses and cameras are not covered in dust.
Shot of cleaning lens]
Last up, what are you recording with? And have you got enough of it? With tape and film, it means buying more. Hard drives, CF cards, SD cards, it means backing them up and clearing them off. This is so important, and because CF and SD cards are so small, it is so forgettable. Always remember these little fellows, they can be an unsung hero, or the bane of your existence.
Shot of SD cards]
It seems like common sense right? But laziness / forgetfulness is cruel and wicked, and often finds justification.
Note: If you have time and patience, do a run through of the camera settings, make sure they are ready for your shoot. Are you using a specific LUT? Is the resolution format correct? You can avoid many problems with the power of forethought.
What kit do you need for your project? This is often a much more complex question than it may at first seem. A lot of the decisions will be made by your budget, but there are some basic choices that will affect what footage you can acquire, and ultimately what kind of video you produce. Whilst a creative camera operator can achieve a myriad of looks with any camera, it is also true that your choice of camera will greatly affect what comes easy and what you have to work a little harder at.
With the speed of advances in digital video acquisition, this article will not attempt to give you a comprehensive understanding of what brand or type of camera to buy, but more of the generalities about cameras and the qualities and deficiencies you may be looking for, or looking to avoid.
Cinema has come quite a long way in the last 50 years, with digital cinema coming into its own, to the dismay of many film traditionalists, and the excitement of many that see digital as a plethora of possibilities. But what does this mean for you and your creative projects? Well, you now have many different consumer options to make high quality video. Film, whilst still used professionally, is expensive and requires quite specific handling knowledge in order to be used, and barring super8 (a smaller form of film), is probably cost prohibitive. Digital hasn’t surpassed the image quality of film yet, although some would argue it has met it, however there is a strong argument for the aesthetic quality of film grain or noise. So if you’re an independent budget filmmaker, you’re probably going to get yourself a digital camera. Unless you aren’t. In which case, more power to you.
Digital cameras generally fall into two categories. Cameras with a fixed lens, usually ENG (electronic news gathering) style cameras, whose virtues are also their vices.
ENG fixed lens cameras are easy of use, have automatic settings, auto-focus and a fixed lens (usually a long zoom with a sliding aperture).
Digital Single Lens Reflex (dSLR) cameras were originally, and still are, intended as stills cameras, with video thrown in as an afterthought, but because of their full frame sensors, and affordable quality glass (lenses) they found a home with many aspiring filmmakers.
They have interchangeable lenses, demand manual focus, an ability to navigate the key features and functions of the camera (to know what you’re doing), and perform poorly with lots of motion.
Another big difference between the two is the trend towards ‘full-frame’ sensors in dSLR and ¾” in ENG cameras. Obviously there are huge grey areas in between, and as you get higher up the echelon of digital cameras, towards digital cinema, the cameras are not defined as dSLR’s, despite sharing many of the same qualities and deficiencies.
ENG cameras are a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they have ease of use, speed and autofocus on their side, allowing for quick and easy capturing of the ‘moment’, perfect for documentary. On the other hand, they encourage lazy photography. If you never have to manually engage with the controls and mechanics of a camera, you can ignore, and miss, some great creative techniques. Speedy auto focus and ease of use are nothing to be sneered at though, as depending on your project you may kick yourself when you miss the perfect moment because you’re fiddling with the shutter speed, or trying to find your focus, and trust me, it happens, more than you would like. These cameras lend themselves perfectly to fast production pipelines, like news acquisition. They are also good for situations with little to zero control, or time, in which to set up and get the perfect shot like documentary shoots in hostile environments.
On the other hand, you have the artisan hipster handcrafted version of digital cinema, the dSLR camera. These caused quite a stir, as recently they allowed the amateur filmmaker to play with full-frame acquisition, at professional resolutions, with interchangeable lenses.
Auto-focus features are generally non-existent on them (for their video modes at least), and their auto exposure settings can jarringly and wildly oscillate. In short, they force you to engage with the manual settings of your camera, get your hands dirty, and decide exactly what you want your movie to look like. They also force you to understand what lenses are useful for what situation, as you will have to decide what lenses to buy and carry, and to take an interest in some of the finer points of cinematography. Their downfalls, apart from their steep learning curve, is their inability to handle horizontal motion (something called rolling shutter), patterns that cause problems visually (see moire), and their (currently) shortcomings in professional sound acquisition. These cameras lend themselves more toward creative endeavours, short films, but can also be used in a documentary/news gathering situation by a proficient user. They are also very appealing, as a body that can gather professional resolutions, and is compatible with high quality (but much more expensive) lenses, can be as cheap as $600-800AU. The more professionally geared dSLR’s fall in the ballpark of $3,000-5,000AU, and digital cinema camera bodies, anywhere upward of $20,000AU. [Figures sourced mid 2013].
Understanding lenses is fairly critical to understanding how a camera works, and the principles of cinematography. It is mostly covered in other areas however, and this section will cover a basic comprehension, and what is required to decipher the language of lenses. There are two types of lenses. Prime, and zoom.
Prime lens and zoom lens shot]
Zoom lenses have a zoom, surprise surprise. This however usually affects the quality of the optics inside, and prime lenses (lenses fixed at one length) are generally of a better quality, and cheaper. This is because they are usually cheaper and easier to manufacture (less moving parts) but it comes at the cost of being able to adjust your shot size without A; moving, or B; changing your lens.
Lenses are usually named according to their length and minimum aperture, for example, a Canon 50mm 1.4 (a prime lens) or a Canon 70-200mm 2.8 (a zoom lens, the first number indicating its minimum focal length, the last its maximum). These lengths indicate the type of lens, 35mm and below being wide angle, 35-70mm being fairly standard, 70 and above being telephoto.
35mm 35-70mm and 80mm lens side by side to show length]
The length of a lens affects not only the magnification of an image, but the compression, or expansion of space as well. Telephoto lenses compress space, making it look as if lines are straighter, Standard lenses are pretty… standard… meaning that they mimic the human eye in their distortion, and wide angles expand space in varying degrees. In their most extreme form, wide-angle lenses create what is known as the fisheye effect.
shot standard ]
Aperture is the next number. Generally speaking, the lower the minimum aperture the better. This allows the lens and camera to acquire more light in lowlight situations. Zoom lenses can sometimes have sliding apertures, meaning at the wide end of the lens the minimum aperture will be wider than at the long end of the lens. For example, the Canon 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6.
A fixed aperture is generally more desirable, and often denotes a better quality lens. These shifting apertures can make zooming difficult during shooting, as your exposure may change as you zoom.
There are a variety of other designations attached to the end of lenses, such as L-series, VC, USM etc. etc. Unfortunately, there is no universal language for these, and each lens manufacturer has its own proprietary designations, but they generally have a similar meaning.
Vibration control, or Image stabilization, or some such variation on that term, is technology that helps to stabilize the image, both in video and stills mode. This helps fight handshake and camera shake caused by movement.
USM or HSM or whatever else, refers to the hyper/ultra-sonic motor, meaning the lens is quieter when it is autofocussing.
L-series is Canon’s designation of lenses with superior quality optics, most manufacturers have these, and they are usually their best lenses.
Generally to get you started all you really need is a standard zoom lens. Something in the range of 24-70mm. Using one of these, you should be able to capture everything you need, moving closer or further away when the zoom proves insufficient.
A great addition is a telephoto zoom, which allows you to capture things like animals or sports from a distance. They are great for portraiture and interviews too.
Wide angles are great for creative work, and for their deep depth of field, allowing for little to no focal adjustments, great for on the fly documentary work. Finally, a 35mm/50mm prime is something that should be explored by any photographer/videographer. It is the closest length to ‘standard’ for 35mm sensors, they mimic the human eye, and make for great street photography, or a sense of realism.
A warning. Lenses are an expensive addiction. Whilst it is fun to peruse and get lost in possibilities, keep in mind what you really need and what you want. Generally a lot can be achieved with very little, so don’t freak out if you can’t afford the latest telephoto zoom that allows you to see dust particles on the moon. Always check if your local media resource center hires them out.