STRANGE CAMERA IN A STRANGE LAND

Have you heard the old mountain climbing adage that if you are going to climb Everest you are better off with your 30-year-old hiking boots than buying a new pair that haven’t been properly broken in? This can sometimes be applied to filmmaking as well, but instead of hiking boots I am talking about the recent surge of interesting new cameras on the market. In this blog I want to focus on some tips you can use if you are working on a shoot with a camera you have not quite broken-in yet.

Recently PRVideo.TV was hired to travel across the country to Detroit to work on a video project. I had not been to Detroit in many years, but was aware that things were not going well for them economically. I was surprised at how beautiful Detroit was and also how empty it was. Entire neighborhoods, with gorgeous but decrepit homes, had been abandoned. The client had recently sold their Sony EX-1 and had purchased a Panasonic AG-AF100. The client’s decision to make the switch was a creative one; they felt the AF100 could better facilitate their brand and direction plus they loved the cinematic shallow depth of field facilitated by the Panasonic’s large micro 4/3rds imager.

I had not had any hands-on experience with the AF100 but I did my due diligence knowing the hazards that can come up when working with a new camera.   I spent a few days before the shoot learning many of the features that I wasn’t familiar with. The good news is that if you have been handling cameras for close to 30 years, there isn’t a whole lot you haven’t seen. Most of it involved gong through the rather complex setup menu.  As with most things, the best way to learn was just getting “hands-on” experience and recording a handy pet (here, kitty, kitty!) or a plant, reviewing the playback and making adjustments.

Since a large part of video production in the field is trouble shooting I was careful to read the “fix-it” section in the manual several times.  Another huge difference between this camera and any full-sized or shoulder-mount news camera with which I was familiar was the lack of a motorized zoom lens.  In fact, the Panasonic AG-AF100 mounts a series of still camera lenses, and if you want a zoom, you must manually twist the lens just like back in 1975.  I admit this lack of a universally standard feature in both consumer and professional cameras made me take a closer look at the operational style the rig demanded.  At first I would set a focal length and move in closer rather than zoom if I wanted a bigger image.  Later, when shooting an athletic event, I did manage to manually zoom the lens fairly smoothly to follow some action on the sports field, but it was a challenge.

Another important lesson of this experience revolves around how you  communicate with your client.  Don’t say you have used an unfamiliar camera before when you haven’t!  It is a recipe for disaster especially if you cannot get to spend a significant time familiarizing yourself with it before the shoot day.   My client appreciated my honesty and when I came across something in the field that was not familiar I asked for a few minutes to sort it out.  I can’t emphasize enough how critical  honest, open communication is when dealing with clients.

As I mentioned earlier, the client had switched cameras to go in a different creative direction. This made me realize something: creative decisions are now technology decisions!  It is an incredible merging of style and technology that has only come about because of the thousands of new choices for how to film and edit your video piece. It also showcases how important continuing your technical and creative video education is!  I’ve been learning for 30 years, no need to stop now.

The good news is at the end of the shoot, the client was happy and I was happy. It makes your job a little bit harder to be working with a new camera, but unlike hiking boots, with the right approach and preparation you can make working with a new camera nice and comfortable.

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