New episode of Indie America out today. This one had a lot of “nat” sound in it.
Chase Harvick, the Communications Coordinator at OETA in Oklahoma, has penned a very kind and thorough article about our PBS video production trainings. He breaks down the day-by-day and what they learned, and it feels great to know that some people are taking away new video skills and understanding from our training. Thanks Chase!
Check it out here - http://spiblog.pbs.org/2015/01/oeta-gets-crash-course-in-digital-video.html
Despite all the controversy about consumer quadcopters/drones – and whether or not people will actually be allowed to use them in the future – as of today they’re the #4 holiday gift this Christmas season.
There are a gazillion drones coming into the marketplace, from independent Kickstarter inventions to GoPro-produced versions rumored for 2015. But right now, DJI rules the game.
If you want to start droning right away – or gift someone one this Christmas – and don’t want to mess with a bunch of complicated additional purchases, then you can stop reading and just get the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+.
For $1099, it has everything ready-to-go, including a camera, a remote first-person-viewer system so you can monitor the flight from your smartphone, and it has a 3-axis gimbal to stabilize the camera. And with the Phantom 2‘s easy flight controls, battery life, and tons of other users sharing tips and tricks on Youtube, it’s a no brainer.
(There’s an updated version that has a few upgrades, for a total price tag of $1299. Still a good deal, but the original Vision+ is good enough). And even though there are cheaper older versions of the Phantom, they are not as fool-proof.
If you don’t want to go with this simple (but limited) drone, here is the drone system that I believe is currently your best bet for aerial filmmaking. There are of course more complex, bigger and more expensive models, as well as drones that are coming out eventually but not available yet, but this is a system you can start using right away.
For more dedicated video producers who want a better image out of the camera – and don’t mind getting their hands a little dirty with accessories – it’s a better idea to get a DJI Phantom 2 (not the Vision+ model with a camera included), and add a GoPro to it. The Phantom 2 is under $800 right now, and with a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition ($400), it’s a pretty affordable combination for 2.7k stabilized video. (You can now go for the 4k GoPro 4 for not much more).
I’ve been shooting with this combo since early this year, and it’s been a hugely fun (and educational) experience. We’ve shot in all sorts of conditions, even holding the drone handheld out of a car sunroof or inside an office.
But unlike the Vision+ model, this combination requires a few important accessories and tips to really make it work. And after spending too many nights trying to navigate RC Forums for tips and tricks, I’ve learned a few solid lessons that you can benefit from (without spending the countless hours).
First and foremost, make sure you get the Phantom 2 model that comes with the Zenmuse H3-3D 3-axis gimbal, rather than the H3-2D 2-axis older version. It works wonders, even in bad wind. And it’s really durable – after a couple crashes in trees, my gimbal column was bent and the horizontal axis was off, but it just took a little hand force to bend it back, no problem.
See that little plastic, black strap down the middle? That holds the GoPro to the gimbal. But if you happen to use your GoPro for anything apart from droning, then screwing and unscrewing this plastic strap can get annoying (especially if you lose the little screws while you’re out in the middle of nowhere). So just use a couple rubber bands to hold it in place, it’ll be fine.
A couple other tips for the Zenmuse gimbal: the standard white rubber dampers are fine, don’t worry about trying to fit a standard or skeleton housing on the GoPro (just fly it naked), and in the photo above you’ll see a GoPro lens protector. Don’t get that. You’ll need the following on at all times.
I wish the Polar Pro Neutral Density Filter Frame 2.0 would just come standard with a Phantom 2, because it pretty much lives on the GoPro. If you don’t use it, you’ll have jello-cam – or jelly-cam, whatever you prefer. Even on cloudy days, even with no winds, even with a 3-axis gimbal, without the ND filter, your video will wobble.
And no matter how much stabilization you apply in post-production – with Warp Stabilizer, FCPX, Lock ‘n Load – you won’t be able to really get rid of the jello. So do yourself a favor and get two of the ND filters, in case you lose one or break one.
I could go into the mechanics of how the ND filter slows down the GoPro’s automatic shutter speed so it doesn’t record tiny little motion (thus the micro vibrations), but there’s no need. Just get it.
Because the ND filter will add a little weight to the gimbal, you might want to velcro a couple quarters to the side and back of the Zenmuse. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.
Although I normally prefer soft cases for my filmmaking gear, to better move things around as needed, having a single case for all your drone stuff is a godsend. So unless you plan to hike somewhere with only your drone (and leave the camping, eating, clothing stuff at home?), a drone backpack isn’t really necessary.
The Go Professional Case for the Phantom 2 ($200) is perfect for keeping everything you need in one, ready-to-go kit that you can check at the airport, carry for long walks, or throw in the car. There’s enough room to hold a few extra Phantom 2 batteries - and I thoroughly recommend carrying at least 1 spare, preferably 2 with a second charger, all of which fits in the case). Each battery is good for about 20 minutes of flying – with a safe amount of power leftover to return home.
I also recommend getting a simple $20 power inverter, so you can charge the Phantom batteries in your car in between destinations.
The case also fits some of the bits and pieces that come with the Zenmuse and Phantom – so you don’t leave anything behind when you travel. I keep an extra microSD card, and an extra GoPro battery and charger - though that’s not as important, since the Phantom battery actually provides power to the GoPro when it’s connected (cool huh?).
The final piece necessary to make the Phantom 2/GoPro combo shine is an FPV – a first person view system. Without it, you never really know what the GoPro is shooting. But the complicated nature of this system (you have to solder something? what?) is why many first-timers go for a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ model that has it all built in and works with your smartphone. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple for the GoPro users.
I actually flew without an FPV for about 6 months – partly because I wanted to get good at flying before adding another piece of tech to distract me – but also because it’s simply difficult to know what the heck to get. There are lots of different transmitters, receivers, and booster antennas, which work with all kinds of quadcopters, RC helicopters, sending a signal to all kinds of monitors, goggles or TV screens. And there are lots of kits that supposedly have it all packaged together (for a premium price of course).
Let me save you the headaches and recommend the FPV pieces of an affordable system that works for the Phantom 2/GoPro combination…no soldering necessary.
DJI AVL58 transmitter ($95) – you don’t have to get the full Avl58 transmitter/receiver package because the monitor you’ll use already has the receiver. This transmitter connects between your Phantom 2 and the Zenmuse/GoPro, so it’s powered by the Phantom battery, and sends whatever the GoPro sees to your screen down on the ground.
DJI iOSD Mini ($69) – although this piece is optional, I recommend it. It adds flight information on your monitor screen, such as your flight height and distance from home, how much battery the Phantom has left (so important), whether you’re in GPS mode or not, and horizon level. Just knowing how high you are (remember to fly under 400ft), and how much battery life you have left makes this piece a must have.
DJI Phantom 2 FPV Cables and Hub ($13) – these are the cables and little circuit board that connects everything together – no soldering necessary. You can clean everything up by taping electrical tape over exposed parts, or keep it all exposed, up to you. Just try to avoid flying into water.
FlySight Black Pearl 7″ monitor with built in battery ($229) – this monitor works out of the box as a receiver/monitor for this particular FPV system. It’s nice in that you don’t have to invest in another portable battery system, but if the battery goes dead (like mine did eventually), you have to get a specific replacement battery.
Cloverleaf Antennas ($80) – although the Black Pearl monitor has a built in receiver and antennas, their reception is pretty poor out of the box. You have to get better cloverleaf antennas for both the transmitter – one on the Phantom itself, connected to the AVL58, and one on the receiver/monitor. I chose this FatShark set because each antenna can be used for either transmitter or receiver (so I can’t mess that up). The monitor has two antenna connections actually, so you can also add a second receiver antenna for a better diversity reception, but I just keep the original antenna on one side and it works fine.
Monitor bracket for the DJI Phantom remote - there are lots of options for mounting the Black Pearl monitor to the Phantom remote, and this one is a cheap and popular option. The dumb thing is, you’re supposed to bring a screwdriver and screw in the monitor to the bracket every time you take out or put away your drone – it won’t fit in the case if you leave it connected.
So as a little bit of a DIY solution, I screwed on a cheeseplate to the top of the bracket, and attached some heavy duty velcro to that and the back of the monitor. And now the monitor, sunshade, and remote (with the attached cheeseplate) all fit into the case.
What else? There is a huge community out there with lots more options for gear, tips on flying, post production workflows… too much for this post alone. You can experiment with carbon props or prop guards, various gimbal settings, different remotes, all kinds of GoPro settings (I use 2.7k / 30fps / Wide or Narrow view / ProTune and manual white balance / max 1600 ISO)…
But with the pieces listed above, I think you’ll be set for a long time of flying. At least until it’s outlawed. Good luck and have fun!…
For anyone new to DSLR filmmaking, or maybe you’re just curious about how this whole thing started, I wrote an article today for Tuts+. Check it out!
Wow the last few months have been crazy. But I’m back in working order and planning to ramp up the blogging again. Lots of video stuff to talk about!
But first, the news:
My Indie Alaska partner-in-crime Travis Gilmour and I have finally made the leap into freelance video production.
We’ve only been independent for a couple months now, but already we’ve been booked by a number of organizations and agencies, so that’s pretty awesome. It also means the business website (eventually videodads.com) has been put on the back burner. In the meantime, we’re at facebook.com/videodads
Shameless plug: if you’re interested in video production in Alaska, or the Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, or wherever really), contact me here or email at email@example.com
Apart from the whole working-from-home thing (which is pretty great), the big reason for going independent is that we’ve been contracted by PBS to travel around the country, training stations in documentary video production. And during those visits, we’re shooting 2 episodes for a new series called . . . drum roll please . . .
The series episodes are on youtube.com/IndieAmericaTV – and there’s already a few episodes up.
TUTORIALS AND GEAR REVIEWS
In addition to this blog, I’ve also started to write for a couple other higher profile sites.
Newsshooter.com – I learned so much of what I know about DSLR gear from this site years ago, so it’s a huge honor to join the team and contribute reviews alongside Dan Chung, Matt Allard, Chuck Fadely, Clinton Harn, and others.
Tuts+ Photo/Video Tutorials – Recently I’ve also begun to contribute how-to articles to the Envato Tuts+ network, like How to Get Started as a Weekend Filmmaker, and How to Find A Documentary Subject.
The biggest change in my life – and the reason for undertaking all of the above – is the birth of my son, Max. Here’s his best “Thriller” pose, as a day old.
If you’re looking for the perfect tripod for documentary video, you’re probably already pulling your hair. There are lots of heavy duty video tripods out there, from the popular and cheap Amazon Fancier video tripod to very heavy and expensive Miller tripods. And don’t get me wrong, if you’re just using a tripod for interviews and occasional static shots, then many of these heavy tripods will work just fine.
The advantages of a heavy duty video tripod are: 1) they’re heavy a.k.a. stable, 2) they typically have ball mounts for easy leveling, and 3) they often come with fluid heads already, in addition to the tripod sticks.
The disadvantages are: 1) they’re annoyingly heavy and difficult to transport, 2) the ball mounts mean they don’t have extendable center columns, so their heights are limited, and 3) Just because they have “video” in the description doesn’t mean their load capacities are high.
We have both the cheapo Amazon video tripod, which is short and pretty much only good for sit-down interviews, as well as the Sachtler Ace M shown above. It’s hugely popular with first-time video tripod shoppers, because it seems to be a ready-made system for all the DSLR video shooters out there wanting a decent but not extreme video tripod, and it’s about $590, which seems like a fair price, compared to other video tripods and fluid head packages that are thousands and thousands of dollars.
But in my opinion, the Sachtler Ace M is garbage. It’s heavy (nearly 10 pounds), the fluid head is not intuitive, so in quick run-and-gun situations you never seem to find the pan/tilt lock, drag adjustments, not to mention all the leg adjustments, plus the spreader adjustments. Seriously, it’s really a pain to use in all but the most time-friendly situations. Worst of all, its load capacity is only 8.8 pounds – in the real world it can handle more, but essentially it’s not built to even hold a DSLR rig on top of a slider.
So once you leave the “video tripod” world and venture into photo tripods, your affordable and lightweight choices multiply by the thousands. You can choose from many brands, you can get lightweight carbon or heavier aluminum, you can have one with an extendable center column for a higher reach, one that has a very low angle setting for on-the-ground shooting, varying amounts of sections and different locks that speed up your setup time per shot, single or dual legs, short for travel or long for stability, silver or pink…
The main thing is you still need a leveling base to go between your tripod and your fluid head. A simple ball head would be sufficient to take an unlevel tripod and level out just the camera out for one photo. But in the video world, as soon as you start panning or tilting, you need the whole fluid head to be level.
A popular entry level combo is, for example, a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod sticks, a Manfrotto 438 leveling base, and any kind of fluid head. I’ve been using this setup along with one of the cheap Fancier fluid heads for a few years now, and it’s decent, but too bulky for travel. As a result, I never traveled or used it outside of interviews and talking head studio shoots.
But last year I wanted to uproot my shooting strategy and gear, hoping for crazy portability but more stability than shoulder rigs and monopods can offer. And after a lot of hair falling out, I got the super tiny Gitzo 1542T carbon tripod, an Acratech leveling base, and a Manfrotto MVH500AH fluid head (the 701HDV head is just as good and even smaller, but it’s discontinued and you can only get it used or for steep prices).
This lightweight tripod/leveler/head system has been a total lifestyle change for me. I bring this thing everywhere, and where I used to shoot B-roll on a tripod maybe 5% of the time, I now shoot on it about 80% of the time, and the rest handheld and monopod. It’s heavy duty enough for me to use my C100 on, even with a slider on it, and I usually hang a backpack on its hook to stabilize it during interviews. It’s about $525 for the tripod, $150 for the fluid head, and $150 for the leveling base. Don’t forget your Manfrotto 394 Quick Release system ($45).
Now that the Gitzo 1542T hooked me on tripods (after hating them immensely), recently I began to look at something a little more heavy duty, something that was a step up, not necessarily built for the smallest/lightest portability, and could handle bigger load capacities. Essentially, I got a Kessler Pocket Jib Traveler, which with a C100 and counterweights comes in at about 22 pounds, and the little Gitzo’s load capacity is about 15 lbs. Actually I tried it out for a few minutes, and it definitely didn’t look like it was comfortable.
So I figured I could use my old Manfrotto 055XPROB setup for the occasional jib shot. But despite being much heavier than the Gitzo Traveler, its load capacity was about the same at 15 lbs, and I wanted something that I could still travel and walk around with, even for jib shots.
My search took me basically to the beginning of this blog post – to “video tripods.” That ended very quickly. Manfrotto makes carbon tripods but their size/weight to load capacity didn’t seem quite right, Really Right Stuff carbon photo tripods are supposed to be really awesome, but are pretty expensive.
Then there are Benro tripods which could be considered Gitzo rip offs, but are not that much cheaper considering there’s not as much history and engineering going into them as Gitzo. Gitzos are supposed to last for a long time – there are people on my local craigslist selling 30 year old Gitzo tripods for not much more than they paid originally.
So I came back to Gitzo, of course. There are several lines, the Traveler (which is what my GT1542T is), the medium-duty Mountaineer, the heavy-duty Systematic, and photo Explorer line. Within each line there are several sizes – or series – and there can be older and newer versions of the same tripod. The model numbers can be kind of confusing…
But essentially I settled on a Mountaineer, and within that line, a 2000 series, and either 3 or 4 leg sections. I was expecting to add the Acratech leveling base to it, but then I stumbled upon the LVL extension – one Mountaineer tripod that happened to have a built-in leveler. The clouds parted.
The Gitzo GT2531LVL has everything I wanted: 26 lb load capacity, it weighs only 3.5 lbs, at 3 sections it’s durable and faster to setup than a 4-section tripod, it doesn’t fit in a carry-on as nicely as the Gitzo 1542T does, but it’s still reasonable, and at $750, it’s not totally ludicrously expensive. It still needs a head, of course. But the most important thing is the built in leveling base!
As leveling bases go, sometimes they’re not so quick to adjust – the Manfrotto 438 is the worst at usability, and the Acratech is nice but still can be annoying on occasion – you have to both find the knob and also where the bubble is, and in fast situations, this step can take too long. I’m talking about the scenarios where you’re filming somebody walking toward you and past you, and then you run ahead to film them walking toward you again. You can leave the tripod legs fully extended as you’re walking around grabbing shots, but you have to adjust the level constantly, every time you pick up the tripod and place it anywhere, which makes it the most important part of your tripod system. The GT2531LVL built-in leveler nails it.
If you haven’t used a Gitzo before, at first glance the G-lock twist knobs feel plasticy and cheap, and slower than flip locks. But they are actually very tight, and after a few days getting the hang of it, you start to get really fast at unlocking/locking and setting up/putting away the Gitzo legs. But boy, that leveling base….
This tripod is so good, I’ve been leaving my GT1542T Traveler at home and taking this one instead. I think it really is the perfect tripod.
Gitzo also makes another leveling tripod, the GT2540LLVL (which is the newer version of the GT2540LVL, mind the L’s… sigh). It’s taller if you need that extra height, but it has more leg sections and is more expensive ($860). For my use, the GT2531LVL is tall enough. The benefit of photo tripods is that they can get pretty tall.
The strange thing about the Gitzo GT2531LVL is that it seems to be the perfect solution for so many DSLR shooters, and yet nobody is talking about it. There really is nothing like it, in that price range, for that ratio of size/weight to load capacity, to usability, portability, longevity. That’s partly why I wanted to make this post. For amateur shooters just starting their video tripod search, all roads seem to end at the Sachtler Ace M.
The only other similar tripod with a built-in leveler that I could find is the Manfrotto 755CX3, which is cheaper (at $500), and has similar height and weight (slightly heavier) than the Gitzo, but its load capacity is only 15 lbs. At any rate, it might be a solid option for DSLR shooters who like the flip lock tripods and won’t be needing 25 lb load capacity anytime soon. But other than those two, why are there so little choices for the masses of DSLR shooters who are entering the market?
I wonder if it has something to do with this? Manfrotto, Sachtler, Gitzo – all of these tripods come from the same master brand, Vitec. Maybe there’s no incentive for competition among them. Manfrotto gets all the entry level first time photographers/video shooters, Sachtler gets most of the DSLR market as well as the higher end productions, Vinten gets broadcasters. And Gitzo is supposed to stick with photographers. Nevermind that built-in leveler.…
Here’s a short post that might save you a lot of time. Having shot several promotional videos in clinical settings, the one thing I’ve learned is:
You may shoot a lot of “doctors at work” shots, some more medically specific than others, but honestly the only shots that will most likely end up in your final video are simply smiling people. That’s it. Doctors and patients smiling.
Here’s two :15 spots for Providence Imaging Center
And here’s a longer video I made for my mom’s dentistry clinic in Pasadena, California. Again, lots of slides of smiling people. I probably threw away 75% of the shots I took, simply because they didn’t feature smiling people.
So next time when you shoot one of these commercial medical videos, just go ahead and ask your subjects to fake smile all the time. Trust me, those are the only shots you’ll use.…
Right now I’m editing the 52nd episode of INDIE ALASKA. That marks a full year of weekly documentaries (!), and boy did we learn a lot about video production in Alaska in the last year.
To continue the chronological behind-the-scenes posts of episodes (that I worked on*), here’s the story behind Episode 5: “I Am A Volunteer Ski Bum.”
On the heels of our first episode on the Ski Train, Travis was working on “I Am An Ice Diver,” and I was going to come along to help shoot. It took a lot of time to pack and get everything ready, so when Saturday morning we found out the ice dive had to be postponed (due to weather), we scrambled.
Although we wanted to feature Arctic Valley Ski Resort eventually, we certainly didn’t intend to do another ski-related episode immediately after our first one. But at the time I was still in charge of member fundraising at the station, so my shooting time was limited, and we had already set aside all day Saturday to shoot. So with our bags packed and ready to shoot, and with no preproduction or subjects contacted, we set off anyway.
Well, on this day there was a huge snow storm. Many of the cars in front of us going up to Arctic Valley couldn’t even make it up without turning back around. So as far as shooting scenarios, this was going to be a pretty grim (and wet) day.
Needless to say, our cameras were soaked the whole time, there was water in front of the lens, and we could barely see what we were shooting. Which was not much, since it was mostly flat white snow.
On top of the shooting difficulties, we also didn’t know who we were featuring or what the story would be (or where we could interview). Very quickly, however, we could see that volunteers were basically keeping the place alive. And then our friend Harry Need, also a volunteer, tracked down a couple people we could talk to, as well as a private cabin where we could interview.
And it also happened to be the Merry Marmot Festival that day, with races and festivities. So in the end, we put together a story that was both about the volunteers, as well as the festival. 50 episodes later, I think we’re a lot better at pre production, but with a weekly series sometimes you just gotta go with the flow!
*I didn’t work on episodes 2-4 – “I Am An Ice Diver,” “Singer/Songwriter Emma Hill,” and “I Am A Native Youth Olympian” – so I won’t be writing about these. And episodes 6-7 – “I Am A Paramotorist” and “I Am A Musk Ox Farmer” were also made by Travis and John. So next time I’ll be going straight to Episode 8, “I Am A High School Indie Rock Star.”…
The NAB panel discussion from yesterday’s post is a fun watch, but if you want to know what the reality for video journalism is today, this researched report is really, really good.
There’s videos and short texts, so your attention span will be fine. In Alaska’s news world outside of TV, there’s one full-time video producer at the Alaska Dispatch, a few photographers at ADN who occasionally make videos, and the rest of us who hustle to make videos on top of other job duties. But, that still seems a lot more video-focused than some of these other national papers. …