Trying to come up with two words to sum up my first real shoot with an HDSLR from a “traditional video guy” perspective. Here’s a few:
After years of having a full time employer and always having great cameras at my disposal – or the budget to rent when needed – I was admittedly a little spoiled when I went out on my own and had to buy my own gear with my own money. The cameras that I wanted and were used to using (primarily Sony XDCam HD & EX line) were out of responsible financial reach, so alternative searching I went.
I was set to go with a Panasonic HMC-150, but compromised and went with an HMC-40 so I could leave more money for some other necessities like decent audio and basic lighting. The color was great and the camera performed ok as long as I had a billion watts of light or the sun to help me out, but I was finding too many limitations in what I could do with it. Had to gain up in almost every situation, and while it was fairly clean to a point I was just not getting the shots to look the way I wanted.
So I decided to go with what would give me the biggest bang for the buck: a DSLR.
I’d talked to plenty of traditional video guy friends about their thoughts. Most saw the potential, but with the hassles of audio and form factor, they felt the time wasn’t right. I myself was interested in the new Panasonic and Sony large-format sensors, but wasn’t ready to make the leap there quite yet and wanted to wait for the second generation. I decided to give DSLR video a go.
So I set out on my first shoot – a freebie covering a community action event for another website I’m creating – fairly confident that everything was going to be as smooth as a normal video shoot.
Boy, was I wrong.
GEAR I was all set to buy a Canon 5dmkII, but rumbling that the mkIII was soon on it’s way and looking ahead to possibly jumping to the Sony or Panasonic led me to the Canon 60D. Plus, budget came into the picture again and the L-series lenses that I wanted wouldn’t have been the right fit on the 60D’s smaller image sensor, so I decided to take it slow. Overall, I’ve been ecstatic with this camera both on the still and video end.
The rest of the rig:
Sigma 17-50 F2.8
Jag35 Digi-Runner with Jag Follow Focus
Zoom H4N audio recorder
THE FIRST SHOTS
Walk onto location, where the volunteers for the charity gig (it was helping senior citizens with free repairs on their homes) were already assembled and a speaker was briefing them on the day. Great. Instant establisher shots. Forgot to start the Zoom audio recorder. I knew it was there, I knew I had to hit it, but I have a 20 year habit of rarely using a secondary audio recorder. Oh well, no harm done since it was just some general room sound and it was a nice early wake-up call and I didn’t repeat the mistake the rest of the day.
Was happy with both the 60D and the Sigma. The nice, shallow, perfect depth of field that I wanted. My first few shots were perfect.
Then the stupid viewfinder came off.
I won’t usually bitch about a vendor, but the customer service at Jag35 really pissed me off here. I went for the inexpensive $49.99 viewfinder (yes, I know, you get what you pay for) and followed the installation instructions to a T. And within two minutes of starting to shoot it came undone. The D-Finder or whatever it’s called weighs about as much as a gnats ass, and I hadn’t put a lot of pressure with my eye on it – it just came off. So thus began the frustration of trying to get this piece of crap to stay on the camera. Again, I know you get what you pay for — but you also have to expect the basics to work.
The viewfinder itself wasn’t that bad for the 120 seconds that it actually worked, but no matter what I did that day I could not get it to adhere to the camera. Two days later on another shoot, I corrected the problem with double sided duct tape — but it was ugly and messy and there’s high potential for residue building up on the 60D, which I just don’t want. As I said, I hate to call out a vendor – but when I emailed Jag35′s customer service, instead of sending me another mounting frame like I would expect, I was directed to a link to buy one for $9.99. When I responded that I thought that wasn’t a great way to do business, I got no reply. Then I posted in the comment section on the forum saying “hey, this thing works ok when it sticks, but be aware that following the directions exactly as instructed, it failed.” Of course they never approved the comment. Live and learn.
The perfect day to have no viewfinder — not a cloud in the sky, hot, and sunny. Thus begins my one hour at this location where I got about 1 minute of usable B-roll + an interview that turned out ok. It was either hassling with trying to get the viewfinder to stick or making adjustments to the rig.
I was pretty surprised at how many adjustments there were to make. It’s both good and bad as there’s a lot of customization to get the shoulder rig to feel exactly the way I wanted, but I also found myself doing way too much tweaking. I went out with “test shoot” mentality so I didn’t have super high expectations, but have to admit frustration really started to kick in.
I pulled away, had a smoke, and was determined to have a better experience at the next location.
Sadly, not much better. I gave the viewfinder one last chance to stick, but it fell off as soon as I picked the camera up. Left the POS in the car.
The 60D is my first Canon — I had been a Nikon guy prior to this — and as I said I’ve been very pleased with it. There are a few things to get used to though. For one, I spun the shutter countless times when I was going to make aperture adjustments. I’d be rolling along, take a look at the LCD display on the camera (remember, I could barely see the LCD panel) and see that I had the shutter at 800…or 25…or 1200. By the end of the day I had it taken care of, but I still had about 30 minutes of footage with variable shutter rates.
Not all bad though. I was really getting a feel for the rig at this point, and the camera produced some beautiful shots. The Jag35 rig is light and small – the reason I picked it – but the entire rig is still a heck of a lot lighter that a Sony 700 or 355. Hand held shots that I’d normally be rock solid on I was a bit shaky. I had to wonder how much of it I could attribute to the weight of the rig, and how much to the constant straining to see what I was shooting. Two days later on my second shoot I got the answer — it was the lack of a viewfinder. Overall the Jag35 rig performed well. The thumbscrews are a little too tight and it’s difficult to get a feel on how secure they are — I had a few instances where my handgrips started to move on me because I wasn’t tightened enough, but overall it’s not a bad rig for the money. But I’ll probably be selling it since I’m still pretty put off on the whole D-Finder customer service issue.
So at the end of the day what would I tell someone who is used to shooting with a video camera and going to an HDSLR rig?
1. You cant shoot what you can’t see. Don’t cheap out on a viewfinder, and give it a good test before you hit the field.
2. No matter how much experience you have, it’s going to be a learning experience on the form factor. My learning curve was sharp because of the equipment failure, but regardless of that it’s nothing like shooting traditional shoulder mount.
3. Enjoy being a photographer again. What I was able to see and shoot without juggling came out awesome. The large sensor is great and you’re going to be excited to see your footage when you hit the edit suite. Those racks and moves that were tricky to do with the super-fast DV cameras come out beautiful with a DSLR.
4. Think audio. The Zoom did ok — actually it sounded great for being camera mounted — but it’s something else to think about. Figure out how you want to rig it, and think of how you are going to sync it up in post. I ended up on the second shoot buying a bigger memory card and just let it roll, and it wasn’t all that hard to look at the timeline and see where the spikes were to sync stuff. I’m probably going to add a shotgun to the rig and plug directly into the camera body so my backup audio has a little more headroom.
On a scale from 1-10, I give my performance on that shoot a solid 2. Thank goodness it wasn’t a paid shoot, or I’d have been in trouble. But it wasn’t, it was practice, and I have to keep that in mind. As prepared as I thought I was, I really wasn’t. Testing in the driveway and backyard is not a real-world scenario, and won’t really help a lick.
I did another practice shoot two days later and it was a complete 180. I taped the crap out of the viewfinder, my audio was good, I wasn’t juggling the rig as much, and the footage came out easily 10x better.
When you’ve shoot thousands of hours of footage over 15 years, you can get a false sense that you can handle anything thrown at you. In a way, I did – I still got a 3 minute or so news-style piece that to the normal person would look ok. Any experienced cam op/editor would see it for what it was though — a salvaged train wreck.