Tips and tricks for DSLR video November 5, 2010

Digital SLRs are making it much easier for visual journalists to share cinematic stories. As part of ONA’s 2010 convention, a panel of elite visual journalists addressed the challenges of shooting video with digital SLRs and provided workflow suggestions to make for a better product. The panel, moderated by NAU’s Kurt Lancaster, featured independent filmmaker Danfung Dennis, video journalist Travis Fox and photographer / videographer Rii Schroer. Full video from the panel is available here:

Danfung Dennis previewed his latest project, “Battle for Hearts and Minds,” which he shot with a Canon 5D while embedded with a combat unit in Afghanistan. Dennis, a still photographer who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006, said he couldn’t “get across the seriousness and the complexity of [military] stories with stills.” As a result, he moved into video journalism.

Dennis said DSLR video has allowed him to transfer the intimacy and astetics of still photography into videography to produce documentary films in a very cinematic way. In Afghanistan, he used a Canon 5D Mark II, 24-70 f/2.8, Sennheiser ME-66, G2 wireless system, Singh-Ray variable ND filter and Beachtek 2XAs (discontinued – now using a JuicedLink adapter) mounted on a Glidecam 2000 HD. His focus was to have a light camera with very little gear separating him from his subjects.

“I’m trying to utilize new technology to shake people from their indifference. To be able to tell stories in a completely new way – in a way that makes people look at it and ask – is it real? And, when they realize it’s real, it hits them even harder.” – Danfung Dennis

Travis Fox is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur in New York City. He previously worked as a videojournalist at the Washington Post before starting Travis Fox Films, which produces video journalism and documentaries for outlets such as PBS Frontline.

During his latest project, Fox teamed up with NPR business reporter Adam Davidson to produce a documentary for PBS Frontline on the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. It was impressive to see the collaboration between a former newspaper videographer and radio reporter to produce a television documentary.

Before Fox started using DSLRs for video, he primarily shot with video cameras, specifically the Sony Z1U. He switched once a few essential DSLR accessories became available. Fox said he still feels like he is using a video camera with his current Canon 7D rig. He uses a separate audio recorder (MAudio Microtek) to gather audio in the field. The recorder has a “line out” and a “head phone out” so he can record audio with the recorder and the camera at the same time. This allowed him to meet Frontline’s audio specifications because the JuicedLink adapter wouldn’t cut it. In addition, the separate audio helped bypass the 12-minute recording limit on the Canon 5D and 7D cameras and allowed for a continuous interview.

For his Haiti project, Fox shot about 100 hours of footage and synced the audio each night using Plural Eyes, which automatically synchronizes the audio and video clips. Then, he would re-export the interviews using the higher-quality audio files. Fox said the Plural Eyes software is about 95-100% accurate as long as you’re using the same audio source. If it doesn’t work, it is usually with ambient sounds that are tough to match up.

Rii Schroer works as a photographer and videographer for the Daily/Sunday Telegraph and The Times, UK. Schroer shoots daily still and video assignments. To do so, she emphasized the importance of planning ahead and thinking about story structure before you start an assignment. That makes it easier to gather all the pieces for a story and helps decided when to shoot stills versus video.

“If you go to a job, obviously you want to keep the story open. Don’t have too much of a preconceived idea in your head or you’ll miss the really lovely things… Expect the unexpected and try to go along with the story.”

As an example, Schroer showed the hilarious awesome snail racing video that she produced for The Times, U.K.

Schroer used to shoot stills and video with two separate cameras, but now she sets up both cameras for video just in case. She records her audio using a separate Mrantz audio recorder and a Rode video mic on the camera as a backup. She also recommended Joby’s GorillaPod for a steady, light-weight tripod to carry in the field.

“In video, you work toward the pictures,” Schroer said. “It’s a completely different way of thinking.” At the same time, there are a lot of still-photography skills that can transfer directly to video storytelling, such as composing images, using natural lighting, building rapport with sources, anticipating moments and sharing a passion for visual storytelling.

Similar to Dennis and Fox, Schroer expressed the importance of packing light. “My rule of thumb is to be as light as you can plus one,” she said, with the plus one being any lens or accessory that could help experiment with news ways to visually tell the story.

It was very helpful to see how the three panelists are using different products and workflows to produce video stories with DSLRs. If you’re interested in learning more about DSLR video, you can check out NAU professor and panel moderator Kurt Lancaster’s book here: DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video. In addition, if you have a DLSR workflow that has worked for you, please comment below and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. Thanks!

McKenna Ewen

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