Bag of cameras. Meaningless without the right techniques.
I am a veteran of shooting many interviews and other kinds of projects where the subjects don't move very much, lighting is an important component, and audio needs to be clean and recorded at a good level. Beyond that my advertising and filmmaking experience is limited to writing and creative directing projects that other people shot. But I'm learning all the time. Really....I am.
This past Summer I learned a lot in a very short amount of time about moving the camera during a shoot. I went from tripod to all out gimbal shooting in the space of just a couple of weeks. And some of the footage actually looked good.
So when the theater asked me to shoot a one hour concert with three stationary cameras I thought: "Piece of Cake." And now I get to laugh at myself for my (again) misplaced hubris.
There was nothing wrong with the footage from either of the two cameras that were unmanned (B cameras). I set them up before the show to shoot wide angle, head-on views of two stage areas using the exposure, focus and color settings I'd extrapolated from a photography shoot earlier in the week. The cameras just sat there and ran, whether actors were in front of them or not. When we pulled the footage it was all rock solid and each camera even delivered a decent scratch audio track.
No, the real issues came from my inexperience in running a "follow" camera for over an hour. It's something I never trained for, I just assumed that if you knew your way around the technical aspects of file generation in a camera everything else would just fall in place. Ouch. There's so much to learn.
Let's start with the biggest problem I faced:
The follow camera had to be set in a certain spot so it didn't interfere with the sight lines for any paid audience members. It also had to find a spot that would give an unobstructed view of two different stage areas. The performers were able to move from one stage to the other and back and I would need to follow them with the "A" camera the whole time. The location we arrived at was far enough back from the stage that I needed a long lens to get good looking (relatively) close-up shots of two, or even one performer at a time. My longest lens is the 70-200mm f4.0 for the Panasonic S1 system so I used that. But I still needed more reach so I decided to switch to APS-C mode which got me into the ballpark with a 300mm equivalent. And therein lies my first stumble.
While I was set up on a decent tripod and using a very nice tripod head my camera had lots of "gingerbread" or accessories hooked onto it via a "cage." My biggest mistake was attaching a monitor (with a big battery) to a convenient cold shoe on the top of the cage. This made the whole rig top heavy. Any time I touched the focusing ring on the lens, touched the touch screen of the monitor to switch between the waveform meter to the magnified focus setting, or even zoomed the lens, the magnification of the long lens exaggerated every movement and delivered jumpy, unprofessional looking motion artifacts to the visual image. While the client is perfectly happy with the footage I'm a bit embarrassed.
I should have known that the monitor and all the other attached paraphernalia made the whole rig way too top heavy and could not be optimally balanced no matter how much I moved the camera rig backward or forward in the tripod mount. As soon as I tilted forward or backward I was dealing with the added inertia of the monitor's weight. I picked probably the absolute worst position on which to position a lot of extra mass.
Especially with it sticking straight up from the top like a momentum sail.
The crappiest part of the poor monitor mounting was that it sat higher than my camera at eye level so I had to keep craning my neck up to check fine focus. It was a very awkward position.
After conferring with more experienced camera operators I'm planning on first using a huge, heavy and aggressively stable set of tripod legs. I'm also taking any extra weight off the camera. The only thing the camera will "wear" will be the small audio interface unit with one XLR cable running from it. Then I plan to use a Super Clamp and a Magic Arm to attach the monitor to one of the tripod legs just below the top of the leg. With the Magic Arm I'll be able to position the monitor just about anywhere that it's comfortable for me, and if I touch it there should be no chance of introducing vibration into the shots.
To ensure quick, ballpark, "good enough" focusing on the fly I'm marking the manual focus ring with three small, bright dots. One on the focusing scale for the distance to the closest stage, one for the furthest stage and one for the transition area between stages. I hope to be able to switch between the three settings quickly and without a lot of drama. I will also test the AF tonight while I'm over at this evening's shows shooting stills. I'd love to use AF but there's so many issues with the focal length, the low light, etc. that I'm reticent to depend on it.
I may also use a follow focus attachment so I can mark distances on the wheel and operate even more smoothly.
The next thing I messed up on was comfort. I figured I could just stand the whole time and operate the camera. Then my left foot hurt. Then my right foot hurt. Then I just wished I'd brought along a bar stool to sit on. Thank goodness the house manager thought to bring insect repellant because the little critters were rapacious that night.
There's a lot to learn and most of it involves building muscle memory and learning the best ways to set everything up. And that takes practice plus a lot of trial and error.
My one victory from last Saturday's video shoot? The sound out of the "A" camera was perfect.
It's humbling to learn how much I have left to learn. But I do think that constantly challenging oneself keeps your brain and your fun gland young, and keeps you more aware and fit than just sitting back in that easy chair with a "cold one."
Lessons:Smooth moves beat fast moves. Good focus is better than hunting for perfect focus. Keep your hands off the tripod and camera for as much of the show as you can. There's a reason pro event cameras and video cameras for sports have electronic zoom and focus controls located on the tripod arms and not just on the cameras. And, There's always next time.