It's pouring down rain. I'm waiting for the internet service person to come and upgrade my internet service. All hope is swirling down the storm drains.

I don't know why I didn't do something about my slow internet service before this week. I guess my use of big chunks of internet bandwidth to send things to clients was sporadic and unhurried enough that it was less arduous to just maintain the status quo and keep moving along with what I was used to. But the game plan changed when two clients, Dell and Ottobock Healthcare, booked me for photographic and video projects next week. Both events are tied to short deadlines and, after each event, there will be a small window of time in which to edit images, and b-roll video, and upload them (successfully) to a far off public relations company for near immediate distribution to various news media channels. I have no worries about editing down the images or creating the approximately 290 megabyte H.264 video component to send but I did start to worry about how long it would take to actually upload. I uploaded about 800 large files (approx. 20 megabytes apiece) about 16 Gb, on Saturday afternoon and it took the better part of eight hours to complete. I know that I'll be uploading a fraction of that amount next week but we have to make allowances for various technical setbacks and re-starts. And I'm always a bit leery where client deadlines are concerned. We haven't yet installed our back up broadband.......

(I do have a back up plan but it consists of sitting and having too much coffee at the local Starbucks while I steal their meek wi-fi....).

When I got my bill for my very meager, copper strand, broadband service yesterday I decided to act. Every recent arrival to our neighborhood had gotten hooked up to a fiber optic connection with at least 100 Megabits per second upload speed and most are paying about 33% less than I. It was time to join the crowd. ( I resisted previously mostly because my supplier, and the only other supplier to our neighborhood, used to take advantage of their near monopoly by insisting that we bundle any new internet service with television services and I am morally and constitutionally opposed to paying for something that comes through the air for free. Besides, who in their right mind wastes time watching television programming? Only compulsive sports addicts and news junkies... as far as I can tell....). 

I called the service center and used all my sense of long term customer privilege, and channeled my full sense of (unearned) entitlement, and negotiated for the new service, at the new, lower price, and resisted the push to have paid TV foisted upon me. I was successful in getting the order set up the way I want it. Now we need to get all the wiring and hookup done. 

As my two hour appointment window started to close, around one o'clock, I got a call from the technician. He was running late but would arrive within the half hour. He arrived along with the first wave of a downpour, complete with thunder and lightning. Yes. He must climb the phone pole to effect the installation. The rest of the work can be done in the house.... But there is still the pole. And there's rain. And thunder. And lightning. He's busy wiring everything he can in the interior space and we're waiting out the rain. 

I am an eternal pessimist where new services are concerned and always expect the worst. But the optimist in me hopes to be very pleasantly surprised. I'll let you know when we have rejoined the modern world and have internet service that's at least as fast as the neighbors. Maybe, if we all wish together, we can have terabyte level service like most S. Koreans enjoy. Our dream of being a first world nation....hmm.
view from the studio.

Better video camera handling. Those guys with the big shoulder mounted cameras had it right.

For decades I worked as a still photographer at events right next to my friends from a staging and production company. Many times I'd watch their video guys shooting "happy face" videos at big conventions and corporate road shows, or I'd watch them videotape a CEO on stage, switching live from their high-mag, tripod mounted cameras to various handheld cameras presenting closer views of the stage action. A director in the tech booth would switch on the fly between the various feeds and integrate the content, along with charts and graphs, onto giant screens on their side of the main stage. In this way the audience members (in a crowd of 1200 to 1500) would have a great view of the stage action. In fact, the view, because of the 12 by 30 foot screens, was good anywhere in the house.

As technology advanced I wondered why this company, which was quick to buy into the latest projection and sound equipment, still favored the larger, shoulder mounted ENG video cameras over the latest, small and hand holdable video cameras that weighed just a few pounds. I'd read the specs and pondered the footage from both styles of cameras and found them to be almost identical. And the company could have purchased four or five of the new Sony or Panasonic hand held video cameras for the price of each bigger, more traditional, shoulder mount cameras.

Well, to make a long story shorter, it's one thing to stick a camera on a tripod and just point it at a subject but it's an entirely different undertaking to hold a video camera steady enough over a three or four minute interview when it's just sitting in your shaky hands. Even with the best of image stabilization at your command. Just because your new Sony, Canon, Nikon or Panasonic has "state-of-the-art" image stabilization doesn't mean you become a solid pillar of stability while holding a camera in your two hands. But there are times when a little sway or movement is fine; actually desirable. But there is a difference between subtle and pleasing motion and the kind of footage you get from hand holding a camera in front of your face with no physical support.

What the video pros at the production company knew, even years and years ago, was that a good shoulder mounted camera makes optimal use of your body construction to provide a much more stable base for a video camera and allows for longer clip lengths with much less erratic motion than a strictly handheld camera.

I learn mostly through shattered hubris. I try to figure stuff out on my own and change when a good idea turns into disaster on the ground. Then I do some research and try again. I've successfully handheld short video clips (and by short I mean 10-20 seconds, max) with highly stabilized cameras like the Olympus EM-5ii and the Sony RX10iii but have been far less successful hand holding longer lenses on modestly stabilized "video" cameras such as the Sony A7Rii or a Nikon D810 with stabilized lenses. There's something about the two hand (death) grip and the desire to look through the EVF that, when combined, conspires against long term, overall stability.

Several years ago, in a spasm of experimentation, I bought a cheap shoulder mount and found it to be surprisingly good. It was branded as an Ikan and basically held the camera via a big clamp that cinched on one's upper back and on the front of one's rib cage. Once I learned to breath without moving the camera I was able to get much better footage than I ever had by just holding the camera in my hands (in any pose or configuration).

I used the cheap shoulder mount a lot with the GH5 and, along with that camera's image stabilization, have been very happy with the controlled content I was able to film. It was somewhat less stable (but not jittery) than a tripod or a good monopod set up but so much better than any naked grip I tried.

My friend, the full time, professional videographer/director, kidded me about how cheap I am when it comes to buying good tools for the trade. He looked at my plastic rig and laughed. I countered that I paid only $39 for the device and had used it on many jobs. He laughed and suggested that it would fall apart some day, and at the least appropriate moment. I scoffed but he was right...

Last week I used the Ikan shoulder mount to handhold a GH5S + Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens while I followed a CEO around the headquarters of his company. I was doing a completely documentary approach and nothing at all was scripted or set up. He would walk down the hallway, run into an engineer or person from finance and they'd have conversation. I moved in and around the conversation getting good angles along with jitter free close ups and moving shots. It all worked so well.  I could pan left and right smoothly by moving from the waist. I could pan up and down easily as well. When I edited the footage together for a minute and thirty second program I was quite happy with how everything cut together. There is a big difference between slow and mostly controlled "camera drift" and the bouncy, sometimes erratic motion I got by hand holding.

At the end of the week I'd scheduled some shooting time for a personal documentary I am working on for Austin's theatrical troupe/theater: Esther's Follies. I went to the Friday evening performances of their shows. The cast works on a small stage and does wide-ranging political satire, some magic acts that are Vegas quality and some song and dance. It's irreverent, funny and topical. And the small, dark spaces backstage can really test your video handling skills...

The old, Ikan shoulder mount. It finally bit the dust. 

I was doing well with a Panasonic GH5S blazing away at ISO 3200, sitting on the aforementioned Ikan shoulder rig but at one point I stopped to adjust the camera position and overtightened the bolt that held the camera to the rig. The plastic construction snapped and the camera began a slow motion plunge to the floor (along with my Olympus 12-100mm lens). Only my cat-like ninja skills prevented total disaster. I lunged with both hands outstretched and managed to grab the camera+lens before it hit the floor, tossing my 62 year old body onto the floor in the process. But, as I am resilient, no damage was done and I brushed myself off, tried to shed my embarrassment and go on with the job. Handheld.

Yes, plastic stuff might not be optimal for continuous and long days of actual work. Lesson learned. The hard way. The gods plucked the strings of my hubris and then kicked the chair of fate out from under my feet. What a wretched metaphorical morass.....

Later, nursing my bent ego with a glass of cheap red wine, I sat in front of my computer and looked at the footage I'd shot over the course of four hours on a Friday night and I could see, defined, the before and after marker detailing the demise of my steadying tool. Not a horrible difference but enough of a difference so that I noticed it and was chagrined.

Now, none of this sent me in search of an ENG camera. I'm not buying into putting 20 pounds on my shoulders every time I'm heading out to shoot video. I value my ability to swim a nice butterfly too much to take the risk. But I knew I wanted to be able to get the GH5S and a good lens onto a shoulder rig that was both reliable and highly adjustable. So I set out to build one from the parts I found online.

Here's what I ended up with:

This is my custom rig made of parts from SmallRig, NiceyRig, and a few nuts and bolts. The shoulder pad is adjustable and has metal cheeseplates, front and rear, on which to hang batteries or something to act as a balancing counterweight; if I find it necessary. The camera is also able to be adjusted closer or further from my face. Even the handgrip assembly allows for backward or forward adjustments. 

For me, the important ingredient was the actual padded shoulder mount. I love that it works with the 15mm rails. The whole rig is rock solid when everything is tightened up. I can add a platform to the camera mount, just above the top of the camera, to hold a microphone and, in theory, a monitor, but I think that works against the whole idea of being able to effectively hand hold the rig. Too much weight in the front would require more weight in the back to balance and at some point it all becomes unwieldy. 

With another documentary-style corporate shoot coming up on Weds. we'll be sure to put this to the test. I'll also be practicing with it today and tomorrow. If you have a rig that I've missed, is fantastic and is under $300 be sure to let me know about it. I'm in the trial and error phase of shoulder mounts right now and leaving now rocks unturned. Who knows what lurks beneath?

(For SEO...): Will work with CANON, NIKON, OLYMPUS, PANASONIC, SONY and other cameras. Ha. Ha.