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Old May 29th, 2010, 04:14 PM   #1
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What videocamera should I buy? It doesn't matter!

Today I got a very nice email from a fan of my documentary work who wanted to try his hand at a little amateur documentary of his own. He asked me the following question...

“What video camera should I buy? I want to be sure that my video is high quality.”

That’s one of the most asked questions on video forums all over the internet. I see it very often and my answer to it is this...

It doesn’t matter.

The best video camera for you is the one you can afford.

Here's why I say that...

The elements of a quality documentary are not necessarily to be found in the equipment. The best equipment in the hands of someone without the knowledge of how to use it won’t produce anything worth watching, whereas someone like Martin Scorcese could use a cell phone and make a movie that would make you laugh and cry.

What gives a documentary quality is summarized by what I call The Three S’s.

Story. Stability. Style.

1. Story

Something worth watching has to happen and you have to be able to present that in a way that keeps the viewers attention.

My first DVD, Raising the Bar was shot on an inexpensive $500 Canon videocamera. The images are not the greatest but the story was so strong that people around the world have been able to enjoy it.

I recommend buying the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It is a handbook for screenwriters, but the methods of storytelling it outlines translate well to documentary.

2. Stability.

Shaky camerawork is the mark of the amateur video. Learn to stabilize yourself if you are shooting handheld. Practice panning smoothly. Use a tripod whenever possible. Don’t try to walk and shoot.

2. Style.

Learn about lighting and composition. Why are certain things positioned where they are in the frame in great movies? What makes a good composition? Google “the rule of thirds”. Learn what it is and then learn how to break the rule. From which direction is the light coming? Where should I position the camera? When should I shoot the entire scene and when should I move in for a close up?

All of these things are incredibly important in making something look professional and keeping it interesting.

Visit a museum and notice the compositions of paintings by the great masters. Get photography books and magazines and begin to dissect the way elements are placed for maximum dramatic impact. Where is the subject placed in the frame and why?

Learn about editing. The best shot video, if edited poorly, will fail to hold attention and everything will go to waste. Pacing is very important. How do we know what to include and what to leave out? Under what circumstances should we we condense time and when do we stretch time?

I recommend reading In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch (Editor of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now). It’s a great introduction to some of the basic philosophies of film editing.



This is not my answer for professionals but for young people or amateurs of any age who mistakenly think that an expensive camera will automatically make them great filmmakers.

Opinions??
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Old May 29th, 2010, 10:07 PM   #2
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Thats great advice, but may I suggest making your 'Three S's' into four by adding sound.

Bad sound, like shaky images, is the mark of amatuer film-making. People may be willing to watch bad footage as long as the sound is good, but bad sound will have them running from the room with their hands over their ears no matter how pretty a pitcure you show them.

When considering sound you need to think about dialogue, ambient sound, wild lines, music, sound effects, and whether you need these recorded on location or added later on in post.
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Old May 29th, 2010, 10:48 PM   #3
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Of course! How could I forget that?? Very good points!
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Old June 4th, 2010, 01:05 AM   #4
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Hi Michael............

Very good points indeed, BUT.............

and you'll have to forgive an "old hand" for saying this, BUT, we try, we really do, to hammer that very (er, those very) point(s) home to every newbie who sticks their head over the parapet here, without a great deal of success.

I have simply got sick and tired of yet another newbie signing on here, having spent mega$ on their super duper new, whiz bang camera, only to ask what camera support system they can get for $20 (or less).

Ditto sound. Ditto .....well, you name it.

I'm almost tempted to ask CH to introduce a "wannabees initiation test" before they're allowed to post here, just so the idiots HAVE to at least read what they need to know BEFORE they start asking the usual dumb questions (and yes, unfortunately, despite the search facility being "state of the art" and the info being stored here in aircraft hangers worth, going back years, they still ask the same stupid questions).

There would appear to be a social dissociation between being able to afford the latest gizmo, whether a camera or a car, and the ability to actually use it to it's best advantage (the "I've got a Ferrari, I must be a better driver than you" syndrome).

Too few appreciate that the glue that holds a moving image together is TALENT and KNOWLEDGE, not the size or cost of the damn camera.

Even fewer appreciate or even know that some of the most riveting (at the time) movies were made with the most basic equipment possible, didn't use SFX and were in good 'ol mono if there was sound at all.

The only reason I haven't upended my tripod and fallen on it (yet) is that there are many people on these boards who show amazing talent, ingenuity and dedication to the craft and I take my hat off to them for some of the superb work they are turning out.

This place can be infinately frustrating and at the same time, one of the most enlightening sites on the planet.

Go figure.

PS: Maybe Chris will make your thread a sticky, tho for all the good it will do.................


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Old June 4th, 2010, 01:19 AM   #5
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I wonder how many wonderful stories are being lost in the bokeh these days...

My first experience with a DSLR over the weekend taught me how true the saying f/8 and be there really is.
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Old June 4th, 2010, 05:56 AM   #6
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Good post Chris! And very funny!

I would agree with you, except for one thing. I was one of those newbies not that long ago. I'm still no expert, making mistakes every day, but if it wasn't for the kind folks here I wouldn't have gotten as far as I have. So while I can feel your pain, (The search function DOES work well, newbies, Use it!) I'm still too close to being a newbie myself to forget how earth-shattering the advice of the the elders can be. There were some extraordinary people with extraordinary patience along the way and I am forever grateful.
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Old June 4th, 2010, 06:50 AM   #7
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Don't forget DSLRs

Along with the buying an expensive video camera and not realizing one must also buy sound equipment and good stabilizing equipment, the recent ability to shoot video on DSLR cameras has caused a surge of 'what's the cheapest lens' questions. As a still photographer, it seems weird to watch this DSLR newbie realization that you get what you pay for in lenses as well going on over on this board.

But like still photography has exploded in the last few years, the new cameras have enabled many more people to try their hand at shooting high quality video even on fairly cheap DSLRs. New talent is coming out of the woodwork that would have gone untapped without these new advances and I find it exciting.

Yes, the same old questions will need to be answered again and again, but there's a freshness in a lot of the work that sparks my interest at least.
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Old June 5th, 2010, 03:41 AM   #8
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For me, a video camera does matter. I NEED a camera that has:
1. manual focus
2. manual iris
3. has the ability to manual white balance.
4. manual gain
5. has 2 XLR audio inputs, preferably with phantom power

If any of the above is lacking, I would really have a hard time using it professionally. Just my opinion.....
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Old June 5th, 2010, 07:07 AM   #9
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But being a pro and having the skills that you do, don't you think you could make something interesting that also looks and sounds good with a Flip camera if you had to?
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Old June 5th, 2010, 09:03 PM   #10
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Yes, I probably could if I had to. A doctor could also possibly perform open heart surgery with a butter knife that he sharpened himself, and Tiger Woods could sink a 15 foot putt with a driver if he had to.

My point is that a video camera is a specialized tool. If my shoot was a dim candle-lit party, I would choose a camera that has good low light performance. If my shoot required me to follow a closeup of a golf ball as it leaves the tee all the way to the green, it requires a different camera with a different viewfinder. If my client wanted me to shoot him snowboarding down a blue run as I'm skiing, that's yet another camera. Each scenario requires a different tool, and some cameras are better at certain things than others. There is no such thing as a camera that can do everything. Sometimes a big camera is needed for stability, other times a small camera is needed for speed. It all depends on the job I'm doing.
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Old June 5th, 2010, 09:16 PM   #11
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Nailed it Warren -

A good craftsman knows his tools as well as what skills he brings to the table! But the newb who thinks you just grab something and shoot is like a novice with a nailgun - there could be unforseen consequences!

I think that my take is that it doesn't matter what camera you use per se, but the better the camera, the more confident you are with how to operate a camera (ANY camera), and the more "camera time" you've got under your belt, the more confident you will be in achieving the desired end results.

Nowadays the "tools" are just getting better and cheaper, but it's the tool(s) you own and use that is the "best" one(s) for the job, and if you find one isn't quite cutting it, and you've eliminated the loose nut behind the viewfinder as the "problem", then hopefully you'll do the research to find the "right" tool!
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Old June 7th, 2010, 03:05 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by Warren Kawamoto View Post
Yes, I probably could if I had to. A doctor could also possibly perform open heart surgery with a butter knife that he sharpened himself, and Tiger Woods could sink a 15 foot putt with a driver if he had to.

My point is that a video camera is a specialized tool. If my shoot was a dim candle-lit party, I would choose a camera that has good low light performance. If my shoot required me to follow a closeup of a golf ball as it leaves the tee all the way to the green, it requires a different camera with a different viewfinder. If my client wanted me to shoot him snowboarding down a blue run as I'm skiing, that's yet another camera. Each scenario requires a different tool, and some cameras are better at certain things than others. There is no such thing as a camera that can do everything. Sometimes a big camera is needed for stability, other times a small camera is needed for speed. It all depends on the job I'm doing.
I really like this analogy! I see both sides here...while it may be a pain to answer some of these questions over and over (which I think was the main point), I still think that it is a valid question to ask for advice on the best camera for the money. And since technology is changing at such a rapid pace, the answers are changing just as fast.

As an artist, it's gratifying to be able to work with whatever tools you have at your disposal to create something meaningful. But in this business, it would be pretty hard to market your services to would-be clients with a video phone. (I know you were just making a point...same here ) I think it totally does matter what tools you have to work with, and it's all project dependent so what is right for some might not be right for others. If you want to learn how to compete as a NASCAR driver, sooner or later you are going to have to get behind the wheel of a car that can compete...practicing behind the wheel of your Honday Civic will only get you so far. (Had to try for an analogy of my own...)

So I would say that if the questions put you off, don't answer them and let someone else help them...don't let it ruin your day. Working for years in the film business, I saw plenty of clueless PA's come up the ranks to become producers rather quickly! So keep in mind that the newbies of today could be our employers of the future! How many clients do you have who are fairly clueless about specifics/wizardry of what you do? Probably quite a few. I know I do... I also think that to judge a newbie on the basis of a simple question is a bit presumptuous. I'm sure there is more to everyone here than what you post on this forum. I've been working in the film/video business for 25 years but I just found this forum a few months ago...

Not trying to flame anyone here...I just think we could be missing the big picture, which is coming together to help each other out.
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Old June 7th, 2010, 03:10 PM   #13
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Nailed it Warren -

Nowadays the "tools" are just getting better and cheaper, but it's the tool(s) you own and use that is the "best" one(s) for the job, and if you find one isn't quite cutting it, and you've eliminated the loose nut behind the viewfinder as the "problem", then hopefully you'll do the research to find the "right" tool!
Love the "loose nut behind the viewfinder" comment, I can't wait to use that one!
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Old June 7th, 2010, 09:14 PM   #14
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Right tool for the right job...

I agree with Warren in terms of his basic requirements for a camera. I get this question a lot, and my response is largely a general description along the lines of what Warren has suggested because a lot of the time, anyone who is asking that question really doesn't have a firm grip on exactly what they're going to use their system *for*. The best bet is to suggest something that is versatile and doesn't lock them in too much. That said, having something that's versatile and gives you some basic control over your image creation covers a lot of ground these days, and there are a ton of really usable cameras in the sub $5000 range.

I only wish there were more with interchangeable lenses. I just got finished consulting on a project where they were shooting on the 7D adapted for PL mount and zeiss primes, which I was really excited to see in action. The result was underwhelming. h.264 is a great delivery format but not so awesome for capture, and the post workflow could really be difficult for a beginner. While I think the DSLR revolution is going to continue to make the world a more interesting place, by the time the crew I was just working with finished outfitting that rig with all of the gear needed to make it a real cine rig, they could have used a Varicam and gotten a much nicer image. I would avoid steering people in that direction unless they know what they're doing. Also, the in-camera audio is terrible, and folks who are asking for advice on buying a camera are not likely to be running a two system setup.

On a related note, a colleague of mine just won an award for a sponsored documentary from the Rotterdam film festival. She was competing with a number of other documentarians doing pieces shot in Africa. She shot in SD on a DVX100. A lot of the other folks shot in hi-def on DSLRs, and she won the entire competition. As Michael noted in the OP, it's a poor craftsman who blames his tools. All the bells and whistles and production values in the world will never beat a well told story.
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Old June 8th, 2010, 12:34 AM   #15
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I think that my take is that it doesn't matter what camera you use per se, but the better the camera, the more confident you are with how to operate a camera (ANY camera), and the more "camera time" you've got under your belt, the more confident you will be in achieving the desired end results.

Nowadays the "tools" are just getting better and cheaper, but it's the tool(s) you own and use that is the "best" one(s) for the job
Couldn't agree more. It is the LAYERING of solid storytelling, compelling subjects, good audio, good visuals, ENHANCED by the best tools for the job (hopefully creating a more beautiful image and better sound) that is then presented to the best editor who understands content AND pacing and knows just when to add a little FLAIR (effects, sound cues etc.) that makes for EXEMPLARY video.

I've seen some GREAT docs and said "wow... that was awesome! If ONLY they had brought in a real shooter so the interviews weren't out of focus, taking me out of the moment"...

And I've also sat through some summer blockbusters that were visually STUNNING but had holes big enough to drive a barge through in the story.

But when it ALL comes together... MAGIC!
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