When you teach you always learn or re-learn new stuff. Yesterday I taught a workshop about using DSLR cameras to do production video. The class was a basics class so I had to make sure I got everyone up to speed on things like FPS, different file sizes, how ISO, f-stop and shutter speed work in concert and some straightforward stuff like that. After we were all conversant on the day to day knowledge we moved into why you might want to use manual focus lenses on your shooting camera.
I showed them how camera operators sometimes use white tape on their lens barrels and mark various focus settings with china markers in order to do quick changes of focus between subjects at known distances. But when we started this demo I wanted to show how the Canon AF lenses with USM have no hard stop at infinity and it makes them harder to do this method even though you can use them in manual focus mode. We went back and forth between a Canon 24-105L zoom at f4 and a Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE manual focus lens. The camera (a D60) was tethered to a 50 inch HD TV screen with an HDMI cable. While the class was interested to see the differences in operation between the two lenses I was just amazed at how much cleaner, sharper and more transparent the Zeiss lens was than the Canon. It was night and day. I understand that one is a zoom and one is a fixed focal length but once you've seen the difference I doubt you would ever want to go backwards.
We did a lot of work that involved moving the camera. Looking at a handheld image on a big TV is a great way to show just how much shake even the steadiest person in the room has while trying to handhold. And, or course, this translates to your still photo technique as well. If you think not using a tripod isn't hurting your images you might want to put a middle focal length lens (50mm or 85mm) on your camera, line up a subject and trying handholding for even ten seconds. When you review the footage you will become a tripod adherent almost immediately. Even adjusting for my two cups of coffee that morning and the anxiety of getting ready for nine hours of teaching I was still the worst in the class.
In the segment about camera moving we dived into fluid head tripods and took turns trying to do a simple, jitter-free pan. Even with a good quality head like a Manfrotto 501 or 504 HDV it takes practice to master even the basic moves. And that was the point of the demo: Gear won't help you become the master of good technique. Every move takes practice. We get spoiled shooting stills because nothing is supposed to move at the decisive moment, except maybe the subject.
We used the Cinevate 48 inch slider to do some parallel-to-subject camera moves and then mixed it up by putting the slider perpendicular to the subject. Lots of interesting effects could be had by doing a "push" in toward the subject while simultaneously zooming in or zooming out. We also used an Ikan shoulder mount and played with a Zacuto rig with focus follow rings and shiny counterweights.
After lunch we dived into sound. If you think good clean photography is tough sound is exponentially harder to pull off. We recorded with five different microphones so students could hear for themselves the different personalities of microphones and then we spent much good time experimenting with placement, and booming mics on poles. After we mastered miking techniques we talked about treating rooms to compensate for areas that are too live or too "bright." The bottom line? Bring lots of blankets to absorb bright reflections off hardwood floors, saltillo tile floors and hard furniture. Be ready to change the room to make the sound work. Surprise of the day? How well the little Olympus lav microphone for the Pen cameras does when compared to mics that are 6 times pricier.
The winners of the microphone contests? The Rode Stereo VideoMic for all around sound and cost to price performance. The ultimate in sound quality? The Sennheiser wireless ommi-directional lavalier mic. We had discusssions about auto level controls versus manual level control for one and two person crews, how to monitor your mikes with today's cameras and how to use external digital audio recorders to do double sound.
Near the end of the day we went over basic lighting techniques. On one hand we showed how to use the existing light and use small fixtures to improve and shape it. On the other hand we turned out the room lights and lit from scratch to show how we go, step by step, in creating a lighting design that makes cameras look their best. And subjects too.
I checked in with each student and they all were very happy and heading home to process what we'd spent the day teaching and learning.
What did I personally learn?
I like smaller classes where people can huddle around a big, very high def screen and watch and produce demos in real time.
I hate using video projectors for anything other than presenting to large crowds in big, dark rooms.
There will always be someone in the room who is compelled to bring up in discussion the biggest, priciest and most complicated piece of gear. It's like: How to drive a formula one car for someone who's still going with his learning permit. We always have to acknowledge the commenter and then bring the discussion back around to our agenda.
That fixed focal length Zeiss lenses blow Canon zooms right out of the water, no matter what DXO might tell you......
That the D60 is a great video camera with a clean ISO 6400, an easy to use menu, a straightforward manual audio level control and a menu full of customization options. Easily better that the 7D by dint of having manual audio level controls. Don't get me started on the Canon 5Dmk2. The video menu in that camera is a nightmare.
The D60 is my current recommended camera for either film makers or still shooters. It's pretty darn good. And, even though we used the camera as our demo machine (meaning it was on almost all day long) when I checked the battery this morning it still had a 30% charge left. Amazing to anyone who remembers the early days of digital cameras with their notoriously weak batteries......
I learned that I love a class with a mix of students. I had one ad executive, aged 61, that was out to master video to offer clients better work on YouTube and Vimeo. He knew he needed to change and was being smart and proactive. Our youngest attendee was a woman who's taking a year off from college to work with a bunch of friends on a documentary. She took lots of notes and was happy to find some fixes for both audio and focusing problems that arise in the field. Others were sales people from the camera store who wanted to better understand the products they sell and how they would be used in the field. One was a photo assistant who has come to know that more and more of her clients also require an assistant who is conversant with video as well as still. And one attendee is a dedicated photographer who is starting to get more and more requests for video as an adjunct to his traditional business.
I learned that I like doing workshops were someone else arranges for the space, brings most of the gear and does the "behind the scenes" production work. Thank you Precision Camera.
Video is an interesting field and one in which most photographers have barely stuck a toe into. We know have the tools of production. We could make our own movies if we had the time and enough friends who want to help. Now we just need to get the fundamentals down pat and find stories we really want to tell. That's where the magic happens......
Having a plan and a script keeps you out of the #1 tank.