Getting Started with Video, Part 2: Steady Shooting

This is the second part of a post about the challenges of video. It began as a response to Tim Bray’s post Video? I Doubt It. The first part focused on the technical challenges that will face anyone starting to get into video production. This part focuses on the challenges of actually recording steady video (without a tripod).

The caveat here is that I’m no professional. My primary goal is not the production of professional videos, it is to capture interviews and ad-hoc interactions (mostly at conferences and other events). I want to talk to some geek and create sharp content with passable audio, and I don’t want to travel with a huge amount of supporting equipment. Think of this as advice for someone interested in flying to a conference with a laptop bag and a small backpack to capture a few hours of footage. (no tripod, no lights.)

The first time someone told me to tape a conference presentation was OSCON 2008 (yes, I’m new to this). I took a Sony HD FX-1 camera into the conference room, sat down in a chair and propped the camera on my shoulder. Easy, right? Stay steady, maybe zoom in and out, etc… It didn’t work out like that. Ten minutes later, I’m holding on to a camera with an arm that feels like it is going to fall off, and the camera is shaking as I silently suffer. Why is this? Try holding a ten pound object on your shoulder, then stablize it so that it doesn’t move when you breathe. After about ten minutes you’ll have this searing pain in your arms and stiffness in your neck. When you hold a camera up to your head and remain still for long periods of time, your muscles are constantly in some sort of odd, unnatural tension.

This is the first surprise of video, you have to think about staying very still in a way a photographer doesn’t. Photographers can jump up snap a picture and be done with it, but when you have a camera in your hand, you really can’t even cough without moving the camera.

Start lifting weights (for endurance) – As to why your muscles start to hurt… I’m no biologist, but I think this has something to do with lactic acid build up in your muscles. Anyway, you quickly realize two things: 1) You have to switch shoulders or arms, and 2) Doing so is going to screw up your shot. So, you are sitting there in excruciating pain and you try some tai chi tricks to get the camera stabilized in a different static position of limbs, neck, and shoulder. See the guy in the picture that accompanies this blog post? See the look on his face, it is one of studied self-denial as the weight of his $20,000 camera digs into his neck. That first, hour-long filming session is a painful lesson that video is just not as easy as photography. Once that conference is over, you’ll fly home and do some research and…

…then you’ll go get a Monopod – While upper (and lower) body endurance will help you remain stable for longer periods of time, there is a limit to how long you can hold a ten or twenty pound weight in a stable position. Our bodies evolved to be in almost constant motion. Monopods are far from perfect, but I’ve found that a steady hand produces a video that is acceptably stable. An example would be the DHH interview I did last month. I shot this with the FX-1 (a pro-sized camera) on a Monopod with a good shotgun mic. The challenge of shooting with a Monopod (and conducting an interview at the same time) is that you have to keep an eye on the camera’s LCD, the stability of the setup, and the subject all at the same time. While you are calculating how stable monopod is, you also have to listen to the subject talk and start thinking about what to ask next. Shooting an event with a Monopod and interacting with a subject is mentally exhausting, but it is something you’ll get used to.

After you’ve conducted an interview with a big professional size camera screwed on to the top of a monopod, you’ll start wishing you had a smaller camera…

…get a Small Camera (a camcorder) – Unless you really are a pro, you’ll want to get your hands on a smaller camera. For a few months, I was using this massive professional Sony FX-1. It was great, walking around with it lends the holder an air of respect. Security guards at conferences don’t check your badge, and interview subjects tend to take you more seriously. You have a serious machine in your hand, and people pay attention. But, there are downsides…. It is impossible to “blend in”, you’ll get hassled by “the authorities” more (trust me, I had to run from the police last month because I didn’t have a commercial permit to shoot in a Chicago Park).

I have a Sony HDR-SR11 it is 1/3 of the price of a “prosumer” HDcam and about 1/4 of the weight and size. It does just about everything I need it to do as I have little need for all the dials and controls on something like an FX-1. Surprisingly enough, the newer CMOS in the camcorder seems to get better performance than the 3-CCD in a professional Sony camera. The decision to get a small camera is going to be either driven by economics or by previous experience. If money is no object, you are going to be tempted to get one of the big ~$3000 Sony or Canon camera. If you really are a professional and you need XLR inputs, you’ll pay more than that. But, you can also replicate (almost) anything you can do with a much more expensive camera with a smaller camera.

But wait, I wanted a big camera…

I thought I did, but until I experienced the hassle of traveling with a big, expensive camera and then having to lug it across the country constantly worried about breaking it… I’m a convert to the small form-factor camera.

The “importance” factor of a large camera is something to consider as well. I brought the large FX-1 camera to Scifoo. A small, intimate gathering of Scientists where much of what is said is privileged. To encourage more direct honesty, the idea is that sessions and discussions at Scifoo are not public unless someone asks for explicit permission…. Ugh… so, you can imagine that me walking around with a rather massive video camera didn’t make for the best experience. I rarely used the thing at Scifoo because I felt like I was intruding. OTOH, having a large video camera at a large conference like OSCON helps grab the subject’s attention in the midst of busy confusion. If I had to choose, I’d choose the smaller camera…. large cameras tend to define you as a cameraman, and that’s not what I’m going for.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Red Carlisle titled “cameraman at al sharpton HQ” covered under a CC 2.0 Attribution license.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by hyku titled Bogen Manfrotto Monopod covered under CC 2.0 BY-SA