I had the idea that I might want to go down to the big SXSW Festival this year and do something a bit different. I've walked around and photographed many times before but at some point the single, untethered image just starts to seem superficial.
This year seems to be the year to go down and make a long video snapshot of the event, as it occurs in the streets, over the course of a few days. I'm a loner by nature and wanted to put together a video shooting rig that I could handle by myself. No army of assistants or producers in tow. No one to hold a big boom microphone or stand around with a notebook, getting names and jotting down timecode.
The camera has to be small and mobile. The microphone should be something that works well in a crowd or on a noisy street. And I should be able to operate it all with very little intervention. Given my current inventory of cameras it seems as though the Sony RX10ii fits the bill nicely, where the camera is concerned.
After a fair amount of research, and some discussion with people who
interview everyday for a living, I decided that a shotgun microphone wasn't the way to go, nor was the idea of putting lavaliere microphones on everyone's lapel (very time consuming, too personal, and probably too delicate for shooting on the street). What I distilled all the information down to was the idea of an omni, hand-held, dynamic microphone. If you hand it to an interviewee they all seem to know how to use them. With the microphone about 12 inches from a person's mouth the inverse square law does a good job of making their voice dominant and causes sounds further from the microphone to fall off quickly. In other words, they are good at isolating a voice in a crowd. The other advantage of a handheld microphone is that you can place it in between interviewer and interviewee and get dual use out of it (if you work in quieter places).
I read a lot of reviews and decided to take a chance on the Rode Reporter microphone. They had one in stock at Precision Camera so I bought on and also a couple of five foot long XLR cables. The microphone is a dynamic model which mean it doesn't require a battery and it's pretty tough. But it is a somewhat professional microphone so it has an XLR connection instead of a stereo mini-plug. You need some intermediary to get the signal into the camera.
I pulled a Beachtek D2A out of my audio case. It matches balanced signals to unbalance signals and it converts from lower impedance to higher impedance to match the inputs on most consumer cameras. The little box has two volume pots that allow me to turn down the feed into the camera to prevent overload, and, it has a switch that allows me to send the same mono signal to both stereo channels of the camera.
But even with all this shopping prep I wasn't sure how the camera would work for me if I didn't use it on a tripod where I would have the time and dexterity to use totally manual exposure settings. I also wanted to use AF instead of MF since my subjects probably wouldn't stay rooted in one place. As a first run through I took the bare camera downtown yesterday afternoon. I used a variable neutral density filter in front of the lens, set picture profile #2, set the camera to "wide area" continuous AF (Single AF is not available on the RX10ii in video...), set the shutter speed and aperture manually and set up the camera's auto ISO.
I wasn't thinking about sound I was interested in getting really comfortable (and getting to know where to intercede) with the basic, on the run operation of camera. I should also mention that I was shooting 1080p because, with the full sensor readout and the XAVCs codec, I've found it to be a super quality set up and, frankly, I didn't want to spend a lot of extra time mastering 4K in editing for this project.
Set up in this way the camera is pretty amazing. I dialed in the variable neutral density filter so that nothing would be overexposed in full sun light and that was the last I thought of it. I did have the zebras enabled at 100% so I could catch myself if something really bright came into my frame.
This was a great way to work. The camera was fairly quick to focus and never seemed to hunt. I was able to move in and out of shadows and the camera made the proper adjustments for exposure changes but did so in a relatively graceful way. The video, on the monitor, beats my (fairly high) expectations. There are a few things I could improve on but it's well within the window I was looking for to do this project.
Today I'll head out with the microphone too. My idea is to ask people if I can "ask them a few questions for a video about SXSW." If they say "yes" I'll hand them the microphone, ask them to keep it about 12 inches away and then I'll hit record and start asking my questions.
The RX10ii allows you to set levels and I'll make an initial setting in the camera's audio menu with the idea of riding the controls on the D2A, if necessary. The RX10ii has a limiter constantly engaged but doesn't use an ACG for overall levels so it is important to make sure one sets one's level into a workable zone.
It's a one man band mentality but that's just the way I like it. You can turn on a dime and not worry about running smack into your assistants. You also never need to build consensus or worry about the health and safety of your team. Artists have better things to do than become de facto H.R. administrators....
So, if you see me wondering around with a camera festooned with "stuff" you'll know I'm out there making the definitive SXSW street video. Whatever that means. Not sure what I'll end up with but I know from experience that personal practice like this shows me the weak points of a plan and allows me to fine tune before I try to do the same on the client's dime. Play, it does a photographer good.