6 things I Learned Shooting My First Short Documentary Film

I’ve been working on a short documentary about my son’s last speech and debate tournament, specifically focused on the Team Policy debates in which he competed. It was a guerrilla style shoot. I had permission to shoot his teammate, but no one else. I could not disrupt the competition any more than any parent with a camera might. No extra lights. No extra people. Just capturing the event in real time with my Sony a6000, 3 prime lenses, and a Rode Smartlav+ microphone recorded into my phone. It was a true Run & Gun situation. Here are a few things I learned…

Story. Doing an actual documentary is different than most of the work I’ve done. I know how to shoot and edit a testimony video, but that’s not a documentary. Before the tournament, I spent time mapping out the structure of the short film. While I didn’t know what would happen, I did know the sequence of events, so I laid out the possible plan and tried to capture the actual events as they happened. As the tournament progressed, I could see how things would fit into my traditional story structure.

Pack Light. Because I was a one man crew, everything I needed was with me, all the time. I had gone through my gear, and left much of it at home. But I was still carrying around a medium sized camera backpack. And I still had gear I didn’t need. In order to grab my camera for a quick shot, I had to take off the backpack lay it down somewhere, open it up and pull out the camera. To downsize a bit more, and make access to gear a bit faster, I just ordered a camera sling bag. It’s large enough to carry a camera and a couple of lenses, etc… But smaller than a back pack and you can sling the bag around to the front, and access the gear on the run.

Invest in a zoom. Lens swapping is a pain. And real life doesn’t wait.

When shooting on a set, there is always time to swap out a lens. In between takes, you can switch over to a different focal length of the super fast prime you have. But in a documentary shoot, people aren’t waiting. Life is happening, the event is going on. Not only do you have a chance to miss the shot, but you might also disrupt the very event you’re trying to capture. During one debate round I was using my 19mm lens, and wanted a tighter shot. I was so nervous that opening my camera bag would be noticed by the competitors. I hope that didn’t happen, I tried to be so quiet. With a zoom, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Which zoom? On the Sony E Mount system, the reach and quality of the 18-105 F4 G series (SELP18105G) would seem to be a good fit. The longest lens I had with me was a 50mm, and I was wishing for longer options. It’s a constant aperture. I wish it was a bit faster, but it would only be a problem in the most dim rooms. I found that most of the time I was shooting f3.5 to 5.6. Of course the ISO was almost always at 1600 in the classrooms. Assuming I can continue to push the ISO that high, losing a couple of stops of light might be a decent trade off for the extra length. But at $500+, it’s out of reach for now.

Another option would be to adapt an older zoom of similar reach. You can often find vintage 35-105mm zooms for cheap. Just read the reviews on each one and make sure you have the proper adapter. Of course, you give up all automatic functions with these. I just ordered a Vivitar (Made by Koburi) 35-105mm f3.2-4 Macro lens for $26, shipped. I already own the right camera mount adapter. It won’t be as sharp or easy to use as the Sony 18-105mm. And I wish it was a constant aperture, but I’m hopeful it can fill the gap until I can swing the money. I’m sure I will still carry the 19mm and 35mm primes I have, but the 35-105mm could be my go to glass for future shoots.

A shotgun mic would help. Prior to the event I though I had worked out how to use a small shotgun (Rode VideoMicro) and record it into my phone. My goal was small footprint. I did not want to call attention to myself. I didn’t want to set up a full size shotgun with an external recorder. I tested the small shotgun, and would have sworn that I had the cabling worked out. But the day before the event I was charging batteries, and set up the mic to test it once more, and discovered that it was not passing signal. I needed a special cable to convert the TRS connection to a TRRS for the phone input. (Rode sells one: the SC7). I didn’t have time to get the proper adapter, so I punted. I ended up using the omni directional Smartlav+ to record audio. And, while it’s not as good as… pretty much any directional microphone at a distance, it was a lot better than the on camera mic. With some post work, some of the audio will be usable. But a shotgun mic would have been a huge help.

A camera with an audio input would help. My a6000 is a solid mirrorless camera. But it isn’t perfect, and one of the flaws is that it lacks an external audio input jack. While I would probably still use the Smartlav+ with my phone, having an on camera shotgun, recording directly into the camera would be good. Even if the small shotgun had worked, mounting the mic to my camera and then extending the cable to my phone would have been awkward at best. A much simpler solution would be to shoot on a camera that actually has the ability to record external audio. Of course the simple solution costs hundreds of dollars.

Get permission. I mentioned that this was a guerrilla style shoot. I got verbal permission from the judges in the room, and competitors. But the competitors are minors. So in order to actually use the footage I shot I cannot show any faces of minors since I don’t have permission from parents. They cannot be recognizable. I won’t identify the location, or even the organization. I knew that going in, so I shot accordingly. It would have been infinitely better to have the written permission from the event organizers, the location, and every parent of every student in each round. That wasn’t feasible for this project. In the future, I want to do more to get permissions, so I won’t be as constrained on the shoot.

As I’m closing in on the final edits of the project, I’m fairly well satisfied with it. Assuming I do similar projects later what I’ve learned with help make them even better.

[Image courtesy of Greenleaf Designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

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Fishy Tale of a Sale: Part 2

fishyA few days ago I ordered a 19mm Sigma lens for my new camera. It’s a hard to find one, for some reason. But I did find a place on eBay that said they had several in stock. I wrote the other day about how fishy this sale has become. So after my phone call to inquire as to why my lens aid shipped but had not moved yet, they promised to 2-day air my new lens to me.

I had little hope that I would actually see the lens I wanted. I had ordered the Black version, Sony E Mount. A few hours after my call, in which the customer service rep promised that they suddenly had the lens in stock and would be shipping it out he same day, I had a new shipment tracking number.

Lo and behold, it was for 2 day shipping from Fed Ex. OK, I waited to see if the package was actually picked up. That evening the package was picked up and on its way to me. What was in it?

Was it a box of rocks? A 19mm for the MFT Mount? A silver version of the lens I ordered? At this point I would have taken the silver one. Would it be a new lens or a return?

This afternoon I got the package, and there was my brand new 19mm Sigma Art f2.8 for Sony E Mount, in black. I still think marking an item as shipped to protect your eBay rating is slimy. Since the offer “free shipping” if they mark it as shipped within a day buyers cannot adjust the shipping rating down. In this case, if I hadn’t called to complain my shipping would have taken over a week longer than expected.

However, I am very pleased with the lens so far. Loving the video AF capability. I can’t wait to use it.

I will probably stay away from this seller on eBay in the future. They did get the right product to me within a reasonable timeframe, but I had to call them and complain to get it done.

eBay: A Bunch of Jerks that Are a Photo/Video Guy’s Best Friend

dollar singI recently sold off all of my Canon camera gear to fund the purchase of a Sony Alpha a6000. When selling electronics there are a couple of ways to go about it.

You can always visit your local pawn shop. They will give cash to purchase most photo equipment. They give about 25% -33% of what it’s worth, so they can make enough money off of it to pay employees and overhead. If you are in a huge hurry for some reason, this may be a decent route to go. Similarly, there may be a used camera gear store nearby. Same sort of expectations on what you’ll get, but they may offer store credit and have something you want to trade for.

Then there’s Craigslist. I’ve never sold anything on Craigslist. I have bought a few things. If you live in a decent size area, you may find a buyer who will give you what your gear is worth. I’ve never wanted the hassle of dealing with calls/texts and meeting people. A few camera web forums also allow you to sell gear, most for a small fee. When I sold my Pentax gear I used a Pentax enthusiasts forum to sell most of it. But be careful. Not every group is the same, and not everyone is trustworthy.

By in large, the easiest and safest way to sell and buy used camera gear is on eBay.

I’ve been a member of eBay since 1999. I have 138 100%-positive feedback ratings. I’ve bought and sold all sorts of stuff online. I remember selling something and waiting for a money order to arrive in the mail before you shipped the item. Now eBay owns Paypal, and the money changes hands almost instantly.

eBay is your best friend because they bring a worldwide audience to your listing. They provide all the research you need in order to list and sell your item for the most money possible. The more you sell for, the more commission they make. They also provide protection from scams. If you work within their system, communicate in their message board and ship through their Paypal shipping ecosystem, you have very little chance of being scammed. People will still try, but it’s harder to get away with it.

For this service eBay charges you 10% of your sale price. Sell that lens for $200? eBay snaked $20. Oh, and by the way they ripped another 2.9% plus a transaction fee off that sale when you used PayPal to get your money. Let’s call it 13%. You sold that lens for $174, not $200. Ouch.

And eBay is so very helpful when you are trying to figure out shipping prices. They suggest the weight for you, what size box you can use based on the item. Then they suggest shipping by Priority Mail, and tell you how much it will cost. Sure, there are cheaper methods available but you get a discount on this shipping, and there is tracking and it’s just a good deal. And then these jerks turn around and take 10% of the shipping fee they helped you calculate. They push you toward a higher shipping cost and then make more money off of it.

But where else can you get this large of an audience for your camera lens?

And if you’re the buyer? I love some cheap, used gear from eBay. Or even new gear. I just ordered a brand new lens from a brick and mortar store in New York through eBay. They are one of the only places in the USA that still had this lens in stock. And I got it tax free, free shipping, suppose to be delivered next week instead of months from now. And if you ever do get stiffed by a seller, you can not only leave negative feedback to warn others, but eBay will work with you to resolve the issue, even refund you the money. Want something not released in the USA? Try eBay. Want an older lens and an adapter for your camera body? eBay has them.

Yes, eBay is the best bunch of jerks ever when it comes to buying and selling camera gear online.

Buying a New Camera Brand is Buying a New Lens System

UnknownIt all started when Canon released the EOS M3 in Europe and Asia. I saw a few reviews and suddenly I had the urge to get a new camera.

I made the choice to slim down my personal camera to a small DSLR style/mirrorless body a while back. The plan is to rent when I need something bigger.  I chose not to pursue bigger and better DSLRs, or to buy real cinema, large sensor interchangeable lens cameras. Even though I like them, 99% of the day to day footage I need can be shot with something less. And larger projects can afford to rent gear, and I’m off the merry-go-round of trying to stay current with multiple thousands of dollars in camera gear.

But I had settled into the status quo with my EOS M. It was a great little camera, who HD with a very nice picture. And I liked adapting old manual lenses to it. The M3 release got me looking around a bit, and I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the advancements in small mirrorless bodies. A few manufacturers have really stepped up. For not much money you have access to a slew of helpful/useful video capabilities.

Canon hasn’t really done that though. They have a few improvements, but they seem to be driving people who want high end video toward their Cinema EOS Line. The new C300 mark II looks amazing. But their DSLRs seem to be lagging. A little research into the EOS M3 (available online from overseas sellers) showed that while they added quite a few features that videographers wanted (usable autofocus, focus peaking, tilt LCD, EVF) to the EOS M, the actual video quality had gone down. That’s frustrating.

But changing brand of camera is really changing lens systems. A camera body is the initial investment, but it’s what you can shoot with it that ends up costing more. Technically, the EOS M only has 4 possible lenses you can mount on it, but because Canon has the very nice EF-EOSM adapter, the rest of the canon EF/EFS lenses become an option. And they have some great glass.

Luckily, I didn’t have huge money tied up in Canon lenses. I can still use my old manual glass with any mirrorless body. I took the leap and sold all 3 of my Canon lenses and my EOS M.

That sale brought in enough to cover the purchase of a Sony Alpha a6000 body and one of the Sigma ART series lenses for Sony E Mount. Probably the 19mm f2.8 model. That lens will be the first of many to come for this new system. I don’t think the Sony E Mount universe has a better lens selection than Canon. But they have enough, and because the a6000 is mirrorless, I can use so many other lenses that it won’t matter. In the meantime my manual glass will cover the rest of the range from 35mm-210mm. That’s the thing you have to consider, can you do your work within this system of lenses mounted to this camera body? The camera body with these features at this price (currently on sale for $450) made me interested in Sony, but the availability of lenses that I could use and afford tipped me the rest of the way.

Now I’m just waiting for the camera to arrive…

Contemplating the BMPCC: Is the Price Drop Worth it?

bmpccBlackMagic has dropped the price of the Pocket Cinema Camera to $500.

That is an amazing price. It is an amazing camera. There are some things to think about before upgrading, but at $500 it’s a lot more tempting.

I wrote a while back about my recent change in camera approach. And I’m still committed to renting better gear than I can buy. But it is very tempting to upgrade my EOS M to the BMPCC.

Of course the $500 isn’t really the true price. You would need a lens adapter or two. And the camera requires very fast cards, and lots of batteries. Apparently normal ND filters don’t work. So you are looking at more like $700.

But the big cost comes when you look at the crop factor of the BMPCC sensor. It’s 2.88x. That means that your “wide” angle 28mm that you use with your full frame or APS-C sensor body now is the equivalent of an 81mm lens. A nifty 50mm is like a 144mm lens. Plus, inexpensive adapters don’t allow for electronic changes in aperture. So your modern EF lenses (for example) are wide open.

In order to use the BMPCC in most settings you will need to buy new lenses. These would either be MFT mount wide angles or vintage manual wide angle lenses you adapt to the body, but these will almost all be longer than you want or insanely expensive. The Panasonic 20mm f1.7 is well thought of, and delivers an equivalent 58mm for about $150 used. The slightly wider, but slower and softer, 14mm (40mm equivalent) f2.5 will set you back $180.

With just one basic lens you are back up to almost $900 for the BMPCC. It does make pretty video, though.

My New DSLR, the Canon 60D

I know the 60D isn’t really new. I have recently been searching for a new video capable DSLR. I had planned to bide my time, but frankly I found a good deal and couldn’t pass it up. I had sold my Pentax DSLR and lenses, and a few other odds and ends. I had the cash on hand, and saw a deal. I had planned at the very least to wait until a new body came out, which should in turn drive prices down on older bodies.

I settled on a Canon 60D. Not because it’s the best video DSLR ever made, but it fits my needs. It has full function video capture, and takes great pictures. And it’s available for under $1000. Since this is my personal camera, video is important, but it is also the one I’m going to be capturing family memories on.

I had been considering the Panasonic GH2, which is an incredible video camera. There are tons of advantages to it. But it finally came down to comfort with the Canon bodies (we use them at work) and access to great lenses to borrow (most of my friends shoot Canon), and comfort with still image quality from Canon. There is no store locally that carries the GH2, so I could not look at it in person. The ability to adapt all sorts of lenses to the body is great, but you do lose the auto functions. Bottom line, it would be a risk to buy it. I was able to find a 60D with some great accessories for less.

I bought a used 60D with a Canon Grip, an EF-S focusing screen and an extra battery for less than the GH2 body costs. I’m pretty excited about it.

Of course, now I’m facing the reality of Canon lens costs. I will definitely be collecting some primes. I don’t see myself dropping a grand on a zoom lens any time soon. But a “nifty fifty” is a definite. Probably an EF 28mm f2.8 as well. After that we will see. I can tell I’m going to miss throwing a $20 at an old manual lens like you can with Pentax.

Changing Loyalty: Leaving Pentax for… Canon? Panasonic?

I put my entire Pentax DSLR system up for sale tonight.

I know to most people that’s not that big of a deal. And, on many levels for me, it isn’t that big either. I didn’t choose Pentax for any good reason, but I did really like the system. No other system allows you to shoot stills on a budget like Pentax. If you like manual focus, you can get amazing lenses for cheap. Using lenses from 20+ years ago was a real perk of the Pentax world. I spent the last few years assembling a collection of modern and antique lenses to cover everything from 16mm to 300mm.

So, why jump ship?

Because Pentax is never going to take video seriously. Because of my plans and dreams with the show, I eventually need a DSLR that can do full manual, full HD video. I had hoped that Pentax would come along with a great body that could use all my old lenses and give me great stills and video. But every time I turned around a new body had limited video capability. But I kept hoping.

Last week at CES, Pentax, who was recently bought by Ricoh, did not announce or release anything, even though they had a booth. And John Carlson,Senior Manager of Sales and Marketing at Pentax USA, gave an interview where he covered some of the companies views on video in DSLR:

DE: What can you say about features on video in your–either SLR or system camera lines–you were really the first to offer manual aperture control during video capture, but our sense is that since then, you’ve lagged a little bit on features. Things that are becoming common elsewhere, such as full-time auto-focus or manual audio level control. What would you like to see come to product line in terms of video?

JC: I think there’s a couple of things I’ve seen with our competitors that are very compelling, like auto-focus during video, and more manual controls of exposure during the video. However, I think what’s important is to realize that while that stuff is… would be nice to have, it’s not absolutely necessary. We’ve worked with some producers that have done some great videos that we have on our YouTube channel, that definitely show even in pretty complicated lighting situations, you can effectively use a camera like the K-5 to get good quality video. Using things that you may not think of, like the exposure lock button that will essentially let you set the exposure, things like that. Just watching some of these professional cinematographers using the different lenses to their capabilities, and realizing these guys don’t use auto-focus anyway. The true advanced cinematographers out there are doing it all manual, and planning your shot, and really thinking it out. I think you consider those things, and our cameras are definitely very capable.

DE: What’s your sense for how customers are using the video capabilities of the system cameras? This is one thing I have a question about, is how many of them are still photographers that are becoming video enthusiasts, or how many are like, you know, I’m a still photographer and I’d like to take an occasional video snapshot?

JC: You definitely see a lot of the traditional photographers almost questioning why you need video, but then you have the people that have kind of expanded their repertoire of what they can do with a camera, by realizing that you add a little movement to an image and it can add a lot. Definitely in the nature photography, you know… A still image of a snowstorm is okay, but you get a moving image of a snowstorm, a video, and it adds something totally different to it.

I had hoped that with patience Pentax would see the benefit of the large market of video professionals who use DSLRs. It seems apparent that no matter what new body Pentax releases, full manual video control is just not going to be a part of it. Video is seen as a nice way to capture video snapshots. Professionals who want to use Pentax have to trick the body, and Pentax USA is OK with that just being the way it is. That means if I wish to own a more capable DSLR for video I have to look elsewhere. And that is disappointing.

So, I’m going to leave Pentax. I have not decided if I will end up with Canon (likely) or maybe a Panasonic GH2. I don’t know for sure yet. The GH2 can use an adapter to handle all sorts of lenses, from Pentax to Canon. I have a lot of friends who shoot Canon.

I’m leaving a close-knit, if somewhat snarky, community. Because Pentax isn’t as popular as other DSLR systems, there are not that many “Pentaxians.” I’m also leaving the cheap lenses that made Pentax so appealing to a budget DSLR user. Modern, good glass is not cheap.

I am going to gain ability and stability. Which ever body I end up with will have full HD video control. And be from a company that supports the future of that in DSLRs.

Now to figure out which is the best for me.