You've heard about walking meditation? What some of us do is walking/photographing meditation. (I can no longer use ellipses; my son says they have become passé).
This holiday will be one of the weirdest ones on record. It's our first Christmas shopping season where interest in video seems to be outstripping traditional photography.
I'm still a photographer at heart but I can't help noticing that 7 of my last 10 commercial jobs were about video production and not photography. And, if I look on social media sharing channels (TikTok, Instagram, etc.) I'm finding more and more video snippets interspersed among the photos of cute dogs and stereotypical beauty models. I think this will be the first holiday season in which my shopping list for myself (that's my favorite one) is larded with video-oriented toys instead of cutting edge still camera gear.
I recently produced three different video programs for my actor/singer/performer friend, Kenny. On each project I figured out something new that would make my productions either easier or better --- or both.
Here are my three generic recommendations to make video more productive and fun:
Monopods with video heads. I get so much use out of the big Benro monopod with the S4 "fluid" head I bought a couple of years ago. I use it a lot for fast moving productions because it's so much faster to set up than a big tripod. Mine has the little feet at the bottom which provide a relatively stable base; but it's a set up I have to keep my eye on if my intention is to walk away from the combination of camera and monopod for even a second...
I mostly use the monopod for those in between shots where I want the option of quickly repositioning but I'm staying relatively still and stable when shooting. Much different from the gimbal shots where movement is the entire reason to use a gimbal.
The biggest revelation, vis-a-vis monopods, that I've had this year came while watching videos about video production by Brandon Li, over on YouTube. I love the look of crane shots in movies and I've worked with big cranes and movie cameras before. The cranes were heavy and mostly required lots of set up and rehearsals. They are not what I would consider "portable." So, with that preconception in mind, I was sitting in the office watching a video by Li about gimbals when he put his gimbal on the end of a monopod (taking off the fluid head first) and effectively uses the combination of gimbal and monopod as a highly portable crane. He showed his techniques and results as he started with a very high shot and swooped the camera down into a food market into a level shot of a shop keeper. I played that part back five or six times.
You'll need to develop some arm strength to do those moves on a regular basis but he did it without all the drama and complexity of setting up a huge stand and a ten foot crane. And he did it without a crew.
No matter how complex you want to get with video, or with many different subjects in photography, a monopod is an ultimately useful starting point for camera stabilization. For the most part, except for locked down video interviews, or technically demanding photography, I prefer a stout, footed monopod to just about any tripod. I'm brand agnostic. I mentioned the biggest Benro monopod but there are dozens of good choices in the market from which to choose.
External Monitor/Recorders. I'm currently on my third generation of Atomos external monitor/recorders. I call them monitor/recorders because these are the two different functions the products I use offer. You can get inexpensive five and seven inch monitors that do not record digital video, and they work great when it comes to offering you a magnified view along with some better focusing options, but I really like the ones that record as well as monitor. My last "upgrade" was from an Atomos Ninja Flame to an Atomos Ninja V.
If I was looking for strictly a monitor the "Flame to V" wasn't much of an upgrade. In fact, in a couple of ways it was a downgrade. I moved from a clear and bright seven inch screen to a five inch screen. I moved from a unit that could take two "hot swappable" batteries to a unit that takes only one battery. But since I was also looking for a state of the art recorder the V is the better option.
It's smaller and lighter so you can more easily balance it on a cage or on your camera. The screen is capable of higher brightness and the touch controls are more detailed and mature. I like using it because it allows so much more choice when it comes to the kinds of video files you can create. While files straight out of most cameras are a very compressed file type called Long GOP, which saves space on memory cards but is tougher for computers to edit, the Atomos units can take the uncompressed content over HDMI and make ProRes or DNx files that are in an All-I format. It's a format that takes up more space on a memory card (or an SSD) but which requires much less furious calculation and demystification in the editing process. And, since every frame is self contained it's less prone to showing motion artifacts and compression artifacts when edited.
But I really like the Ninja V because it opens up nerdy, fun file types from certain cameras. With the Sigma fp you can import ProRes Raw files in 4K. If you use a Panasonic S1H you can import files into the same ProRes Raw format but you can do it in 5.9K file sizes. You can do the same with the S5 and, promised in early 2021, an upgrade to the S1 will allow it to do the same.
A good monitor is a lifesaver for stuff like long lens follow camera work in theater or sports. You can punch in a focus while you are rolling which is something most cameras don't allow on their own. You can also set exposures quickly and accurately via waveforms on the monitor and, if you have a human subject you can use your vector scope feature to get near perfect flesh tones which will save you a lot of time and energy in post production.
I love the fact that my "V" takes fast, relatively cheap (compared to big, fast SD cards) SSDs. I just bought a terabyte SSD for additional storage and it's faster than any of my SD cards (which are mostly V90s) and cost me about $100. I can shoot video to the SSD and then, using a simple SATA to USB-C cable, hook the drive directly to my computer and edit to and from the drive. Of course, I would generally back up the original material somewhere else first.
Gimbals for everything. Kind of kidding here. If I were getting my feet wet in video I'd start out the way I did and buy a decent $100-$150 gimbal for my iPhone. The Smooth 2 from Zhiyun is the one I bought but I'm sure it's been superseded by something better at the same price by this time. What this "entry" gimbal does is teach you how gimbals really work and let you practice without wearing yourself down trying to grapple with the weight of a bigger gimbal+camera+lens. Gimbals add the ability to move with and around subjects with a lot of freedom. And most phones are good enough video cameras now to make the exercise fun.
If you aren't shooting video professionally or if your style of video only calls for using a gimbal on relatively few shots you can look in the used market and find some real bargains. Gimbal makers are in that classic super fast improvement stage where more and more features are being added and more controls put at operator's fingertips. The integration with phones and iPad is also accelerating. What this means is that gimbal power users, and twitchy consumers, are dumping recent models of gimbals at a record pace.
The Ronin-S used to be the "go to" gimbal but that was two years ago. It hit the market at somewhere around $700-800, depending on the accessory package. I bought a complete, clean, used one a couple months ago for a little over $100. A couple of weeks ago a local videographer upgraded from last year's ultra darling gimbal, the Weebill S to the newest DJI RS2. He went from a $500 gimbal to a $900 gimbal and sold me his clean and perfectly function Weebill S for around $250. And that's with a transmitter package included.
At those kinds of prices I think most of us can afford a good gimbal. And the funny thing is that the two used gimbals I bought this way were both models that operators were raving about and salivating over in the last couple of years. Tons of great work has been made by users of both models.
Here's a couple of important things to be aware of when using a gimbal: You have to take the maker seriously when it comes to weight limits. The overall weight of the camera package affects the motors of the gimbal and can cause muttering and vibration if you go over the limits. Second, getting the camera balanced correctly makes the gimbal easier to operate and provides the smoothest results. Small cameras work better than bigger, heavier cameras. I'll happily trade off a bit of full frame S1H performance for a more nimble and manageable camera like the G9 or GH5. Finally, don't think you'll be using big, long zooms with your gimbal. While there are models out there that will handle heavy loads those are not the models that most of us want to toss money out for one man projects or advanced amateur learning adventures. Long tracking shots with f2.8 Zooms are probably still better handled by using dollies or other methods.
These three categories of accessories have provided the most fun and the best looking video for me in 2020 and I think they up the production quality of projects in a cost effective and meaningful way.
Beyond that the biggest lure for me is still lenses. I'm constantly surprised at what a different the right lens makes. But you can research that just about anywhere.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I'm feeling gratitude for just making it through such a chaotic year. I hope we all make it intact into 2021.
We're sticking to home base this year. No celebrations with relatives other than a call on Zoom with Belinda's family. We'll all bring pie and coffee to the call. Ben, Belinda and I are all fortunate to be able to work almost exclusively from home. I'm probably the person in the family who deals with people outside our "bubble" the most but in my work encounters up until ten days ago I've been extremely careful to always wear a mask and require mask wearing by ANYONE at my location. We're finishing up for the year. All the rest of my work is post production alone in my studio and delivery via FTP.
I'm hoping all three of the major vaccine makers are up and running with safe vaccines in very early 2021. I'll be first in line to get my two doses, right after they take care of all the essential medical personnel and the first responders. Oh, and the workers who have to deal with the vagaries of face-to-face service with the nut jobs in our culture.
It's bittersweet to see the stock market set new records while pandemic induced poverty is still rampant and may be growing. We're the lucky ones. We have a great roof over our heads, food on the table and gimbals in our bags. Time to think about 2020 contributions to charities.
If you itemize on your tax returns your advisor should let you know that there was a rule change just for 2020 that will allow you to maximize your deductions to charities. I've got the local food bank on my list.
If you can it's a good time to make a difference. Everything helps.
Off to see what I can do to help with dinner. Have a great holiday and I hope you drop by tomorrow to see what my fevered brain has concocted for your reading pleasure. - Kirk