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. …
The Governor of Alaska, Anchorage mayor, and US Senate people were there, and Olympian Kikkan Randall presented the award to us. Here’s a selfie Travis took up on stage.
In the end, the attention feels weird, and I’m much more comfortable turning the camera back on the people we document in our videos. So on that note, back to work!
It’s been like 3 weeks since the last post, so that’s no good! Apart from a vacation in Hawaii, it’s been lots of shooting and editing.
But looking ahead, there’s some exciting things coming up that I hope to blog about. First, I’m going to NAB and will be reporting for newsshooter.com
So that’ll be really cool, and I’ll get to do all sorts of gear reviews that will inform the things I’ll blog on here. And second, I’m going to be traveling around to some PBS stations to train producers on filmmaking, Indie Alaska style.
Feels good to blog again! Now back to work……