Video Hardware That Works For Me

I recently blogged about the software that I use when making my narrative videos. Here, I will be talking about the hardware, the cameras, lenses, microphones, recorders, tripods, etc., that I use. My technology choices (whether hardware or software) are very specific to my process, my workflow and my budget. The gear I use solves my unique set of problems and nothing more. Every person making videos should ask themselves, does the gear I have (or the gear I am considering) solve my problems?

Writing about software (and now hardware) prompted me to publicly articulate what has largely been an internal series of decisions. I am doing this NOW because I will be teaching a workshop this summer on narrative video story telling. In the upcoming workshop, every student will document a story to help grow their portfolio of storytelling videos. To learn more about the workshop, go to Momenta and sign up for this workshop. You will learn 10 times as much from this workshop in person, as compared to reading these blog posts. Keep in mind that I only teach this video class once a year!

This is blog NOT a suggested list of what to buy to make narrative videos (or what to bring if you decide to join the class.) It is a list of what I use, with an explanation why I use what I do. That latter explanation should prompt you to ask yourself, will my gear solve that problem?

The overarching theme shaping my gear choice is that I am trying very hard to work as a one-man (person) band. If I was doing video with a “crew” I could use any of a hundred different technologies. But trying to work on my own dictates a series of choices (and compromises.) Not every video-maker will want to work on their own and thus the gear choices they make will be different.

I have blogged extensively about why I use the Olympus Micro Four Thirds mirror-less compact cameras (and it is NOT because I am sponsored by Olympus.) They are small, light, easy to carry and unobtrusive. Since they have no mirror, they work well in low light, since their is no mirror flopping up and down to shake the camera.

While the sensor on the mirror-less cameras is smaller than that of a full frame camera, (duh,) the resulting video is still 1920 x 1080 HD, which is the size I need. At one point the smaller sensors were “challenged” in low light but every generation of the mirror-less cameras gets better and better at the higher ISO speeds. The cameras I use work quite well in low light at high ISO settings.

All of the unique characteristics of the Olympus Micro Four Thirds mirror-less compact cameras are doubly important when it comes to video. The folding (or articulated screen) enables me to put the camera body into weird places and different positions, while still being able to see what I will be recording. Some of the newer cameras, like my Olympus also allow me to see what the camera is seeing, via an App on my smart phone. The folding screen enables me to save money because I do not have to buy an external monitor to see what the camera is recording.

The folding screen is also very helpful when I am doing hand held work. Then, I typically press hard to push the camera away from my body, creating tension in the camera strap that is around my neck. That tension reduces camera shake. The internal stabilization built into the camera bodies (and not the lenses) also helps me make smoother, hand held video shots. Because the folding screen frees me from the requirement of having the camera up to my eye, it helps when the camera is on a tripod or a monopod. Those are two other technologies I use to reduce camera movement when I am making videos.

The camera I use allows me to plug an external microphone into the camera so I can record high quality sound that is fully synchronized with the video. Sure, I could record the sound separately and I often do, because I know I can align the sound and video after-the-fact, in “post.” But why go through the hassle if the camera enables me to get the sound right with the video?

I also have many lenses in the Olympus line, so when I need to, I have the fixed focal length lens I need. These lenses have very large maximum apertures and thus give me great control over depth of field (and the resulting blurry backgrounds.) I also have a number of their zoom lenses which enable me to change focal lengths without moving. A couple of those zooms are able to zoom electronically via a built in motor, creating the kind of smooth zooming only a machine can create.

I am not advocating buying every lens in a give manufacturers line-up. But you should ask, which focal length lenses MUST I have and which focal length lenses would I like to have? At least one fixed focal length lens, with a large maximum aperture for working in low light, is all but a must. A normal lens, such as a 50mm f/1.8 (or approximately that after the digital conversion factor) would be a basic suggestion. Zooms with electronic zooming capabilities add to your tool kit but they can be costly, have smaller maximum apertures or other technical compromises.

I have a shotgun microphone which I use more than any other audio recording tool. Most of the times it sits a top the camera in the hot shoe. Sometimes it is on a bracket to the side of the camera with a ball head in between bracket and mic, which gives me more control of how I aim the microphone. A shotgun microphone behaves a bit like a telephoto lens, so I have to aim it at the sound source. That may not be right in the middle of the scene I am recording. If the sound source is to the left or right of dead center, the ball head enables me to aim the mic at that sound source.

I also use a hand-held Olympus LS-14 Linear PCM Audio Recorder for those times when I can get very close to the subject, typically with interviews and/or working in close quarters. In the best of all worlds, the sound going into that is being recorded by the LS-14 AND going into the camera, so it is synchronized with the video, though that does not always happen.

I also occasionally use a monopod, which is something many video makers do. More often, I use a table to tripod to keep the camera steady and/or to hold it steady in unusual positions. I prefer the Really Right Stuff Pocket ‘Pod because it is incredibly strong and holds a great deal more weight than I would ever put on it. That means I can press it into any unusual position with a great deal of force and not have to worry.

I have blogged and pod-casted many times about how a table top tripod is useful far beyond use just on a table top. On location, I will often find a vertical pole, the back of a chair or a building wall and press the table top tripod against that to get the stability I need. The camera needs to be horizontal, of course, but the tripod is often vertical. I own and occasionally use a full size tripod, but that is pretty rare. I am able to use the table top tripod (and the extender described blow) because my cameras are so light and small to begin with (thus another argument for the compact mirror-less cameras that I use.)

I also use a tripod extender, called a “Removable Two Section Center Column from Benro” which makes the short table top tripod 6 to 12 inches taller. You can see it at work in the photos below. It comes as part of the Benro Travel Flat Tripod, though I think they should sell it separately. That Benro Travel Flat Tripod is my regular tripod. I selected it because it compacts down pretty small and lays flat in my traveling luggage.

Sometimes I bring along a similar tripod height extender for the Pocket Pod, which also doubles as a multi-tool. It is from Really Right Stuff and is called the MTX Multi-Tool. It has hex wrenches, screwdrivers, etc. built in, which I like to have just in case I need to fix things on location.

Photo: Venkatesh Albal / Principal Architect / Keystone Projects / Bijapur, Karnataka

I keep a lot of this gear in my belt bag so I can get at it at any time. That belt bag serves another purpose. That is where I often rest the table-top tripod, with the extender, so the camera is chest high and held steady by the mass of my torso. I think of it as a poor man’s steadicam. I have also recently purchased a simple camera stabilizer that is supposed to work like a steadicam, but I am still getting used to using it so it is not yet part of my regular working gear.

After a huge amount of research I ended up selecting the Ballhead X as my “pseudo” panning head for times when I want to pan the camera horizontally while shooting. Ironically, it is made by JOBY, makers of the Gorilla pod. I have blogged about how I don’t find much use for the Gorilla pods but the Ballhead X has the smoothest panning motion among all the ball heads I tested. Sure, I could have bought a larger, more expensive conventional panning head like the ones that all the video crews use but such a head would take up half my bag (and budget) so the JOBY Ballhead X is the best compromise for me.

For many years I never used quick release plates. I was a “one camera-one tripod still shooter” so I never appreciated quick release plates. Now, I use quick release plates on everything. All my camera bodies are on quick release plates. The hand-held Olympus LS-14 Linear PCM Audio Recorder is on a quick release plate in case I want to put it on a tripod or a monopod to use during an interview. My tripod extending column is often on a quick release plate. My system literally could not function without them. I usually bring extra ball heads, quick release plates, tape and clamps in case I have to position a camera, recorder, light or a reflector in some unusual position.

There are other bits of gear I bring along depending on the project. I like to have one of the so-called Olympus “Tough” cameras, which are shock-proof, waterproof, dust-proof, etc. I can put them in odd situations, such as under water, to get a bit of the video I might need. I usually bring along at least one fixed lens, point-and-shoot which I can prop in a corner on an intervalometer so it is shooting something like a frame-a-minute, to create a time-lapse animation of a given event.

The intervalometer is another key piece of gear I usually have with me on every shoot. I have one intervalometer (an attachment that operates the shutter regularly at set intervals over a period of time) that is freestanding and one that is an App an my iPhone.

In all shooting situations, I bring many, many batteries, probably more than I need but I never want to get near my limit so…. I also bring at least two battery chargers just in case one fails.

I bring headphones for listening to the audio I that am capturing. Noise canceling headphones, while great for traveling, are exactly what you should not use for working with video. Those headphones, in terms of what you hear, cancel out the noise that you are trying to avoid, but that same noise will still be recorded by the camera/recorder.

I bring an electronic flash for still image work but my flash also has a small, but usable, LED (Light Emitting Diodes) panel up front so I use that to put a little fill light into the dark areas of a given scene. I have looked at purchasing, but not yet found a need for, one of the many freestanding (and ever cheaper) simple LED panels.

If you read online about many of the challenges that I am tackling and the tools I am using you will encounter dozens of different reactions. Most will focus on how, if I had a bigger crew, a higher budget and more resources, I would not have to use tools that are a series of compromises. On one level that thinking is right, but I work alone, with a minimal budget and I can still get the results I need. If you can get the results you need with the gear you have (or the gear you are considering) then you have solved YOUR particular set of problems. Once you do that, the rest of what others say is just useless chatter.

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