Advice on my existing cheap equipment

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    • #42169

      I’ve been putting together a video-making kit for documentary use. I wanted to get some opinions, perhaps from people who have tried to do this very thing:

      Instead of putting an XL2 on layaway and paying on it for 2 years (or something similar) I’ve bought a bunch of cheaper parts and am trying to put them together to make something capable of capturing nearly broadcast-quality video. I will be shooting documentary video only.

      I don’t worry too much about sit-down interviews, where I have 20 minutes or more to set up equipment and lighting.

      I do worry about my ability to do mobile video, where I would need the freedom of a “tourist with a camcorder”. My method requires I carry a backpack or laptop bag full of small bits of equipment, cables, and a power source.

      Here’s my equipment:

      Sony Handycam DCR-TRV260 (Digital8, but very cheap. $350 new several months ago. Passable picture, horrible audio. No audio-in.)
      Bogen tripod and fluid head, $320
      Audio-Technica AT835b short shotgun electret condenser mic. $260 (I overpaid a bit)
      Rolls mic preamp, $70-ish
      Sony Minidisc recorder (takes line level only, but the recorder was cheap. $60 used)
      Sony “studio monitor” headphones, $99 some years ago.
      18 amp-hour sealed lead acid battery and cheap Wal Mart inverter, for portable AC power (for the small plugpack needed to run the preamp)

      I plan on just throwing away the camcorder audio track and using my external minidisc recording instead. I’ll just clap my hands in front of the camera before and after for sync. (Those of you with experience: would I be laughed at half as much as I think I’d be laughed at, if I used a slate with a clapper instead?)

      If there’s time to set up equipment, I also have:
      Sima ColorCorrector Pro, $forgot
      Some $160 entertainment-center type standalone DVD recorder (on highest quality mode can fill up a DVD-RW disc in one hour, and seems to have excellent quality)
      Cheap $60 12-inch color TV, for monitoring color and light levels (since I hear I can’t really trust my camera viewfinder for this)

      If I need lighting, I also have:
      Two cheap-ish hardware store stand-up Quartz-Halogen lights, with their own cheap-looking stands (one with 4 x 300 watt bulbs and one with 2 x 500 watt bulbs)
      One sits-on-the-floor 500 watt halogen, for pointing backwards at some foam core boards
      three foam core boards, as large as I was sure could fit in my car, from some large hobby store
      extra bulbs, 4 each of: 100 watt, 150 watt, 250 watt, 300 watt, 500 watt

      (Even after one hour sitting close to that 500 watt halogen, my foam core boards never get hotter than about 120 degrees F, according to an IR thermometer)

      So instead of a normal camera operator, who only needs to worry about his camera, headphones, and a microphone, I also need to carry around a bag or backpack full of extra equipment. Has anyone else tried to do the same kind of thing? Has it worked?

      I’m having crazy thoughts about putting the ColorCorrector Pro and DVD Recorder in the bag with everything else. I might be the first to try this, so I’ll let people know how those DVD recorders fare when bouncing around in a backpack. πŸ™‚

      Is this approach completely doomed? Would I be wiser to try to return/sell/pawn as much of this as possible and wait until I can afford an XL2? πŸ™‚ If not doomed, what do you think I could add to this kit? Take away from it?

      I imagine only extremely bored people would tolerate these inexperienced questions well enough to still be reading this far. Any comments, even from non-experts, are welcome. Thanks again for reading.

      –Michael Spencer

    • #177510

      It sounds like you’re going to be so busy worring about your stuff during the trip. My main concern would be to have a good solid video/audio source, and Hi8 isn’t the best/afordable video soport now, you can find out there very cheap 3CCD MiniDV cameras that will allow you to add mic.hearphones and external light to doesn’t have to be the expensive XL1 or 2. You won’t forgive your self if you don’t record good quality footage after being shooting the whole summer, also minidisc doesn’t have good audio quality either(MiniDV is better) and having to synch audio with picture on the road on a laptop won’t be the easiest/funest way to spend the night after a long day of carying all the equipment. And also if you get a camera with in/out firewire you could use it as a back-up device, there are software that convert your camera into an external Hard Drive (I think that a 60 minutes tape holds seven something GB of data) I definitly wouldl install the color correcting thing on my laptop, I think there is some software that allows you to control and colour correct the video while shooting conecting the camera to the laptop trought firewire, that’ll be cool to have. And if you want to have near broadcast quality (DVD isn’t it MiniDV either but yu could send a MiniDV to be onlined)you’ll need to do what is calll online editing to correct colours at a highest level than you will do with your laptop.
      As you could probably could tell I’m a foreigner guy that is studying in US and I’m planing to go back to my country to do something similar as you.
      Good luck and keep me posted..

    • #177511

      (I didn’t actually get to go to Japan this year, but I plan on trying again.)

      I just finished my first practice shoot with the equipment (more or less) described above.

      $130 hiking backpack, containing:

      $160 entertainment-center-type DVD player
      $70 6-channel audio mixing panel
      $60 35 amp hour 12 volt SLA battery
      $40 750-watt power inverter
      $20 boom mic stand, with the end on one side stuffed in a pocket, and held in place with straps. (Imagine one of those big hiking backpacks, with a frame and all. The top of the boom mic stand sticks up about a foot above the top of the backpack, and the boom end of the stand is about 3 feet long and sticks forward and upward at about a 30 degree angle.)
      $260 shotgun condenser microphone, with stock windscreen.
      $130 cheapest-I-could-find Audio-Technica wireless lav system. I think they also sell this model at Radio Shack, so I know I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel.

      I also had a $350 Sony cheapest-digital8-WalMart-had camcorder with S-video out, and a $325 Manfrotto tripod with fluid head.

      (Missing: one GhostBusters logo to affix to the back, so if anyone saw my kit and felt compelled to laugh at it, they would know I’m not taking myself seriously either. πŸ™‚ )

      In theory, I’ve got this outdoor video shoot licked. Everything I need is here in one form or another.

      The idea was, run my friend out to where she has her horses stabled, and shoot some video of the horses, with my friend narrating. I’d just have to keep the shotgun mic high enough in the air that nobody tries to nibble on it. I’d also use the mixer to put the shotgun mic in the left channel and the lav mic in the right channel, and combine or discard audio as needed later.

      Lessons learned:

      1) despite the multiple straps and buckles and weight-distributing gizmos built into that backpack, carrying that much weight around for an hour-long video shoot is tiring. My shoulders hurt.
      2) When shooting in the sun, wear sunscreen. Ow.
      3) The cooling fan on the power inverter spooks horses. My friend thought I could just stay far away and gradually get closer as the horses got used to me, but they never really did.
      4) Because my rig spooks horses, and I had to shoot from so far away, my only useful audio came from the lav my friend was wearing. The shotgun only really got wind noise (lots), dogs barking, and foot/hoof steps.
      5) Both mics were picking up tons of wind noise. I need to invest in some Rycote products.
      6) I failed to set the lav up properly. It never dawned on me she would need to whistle or clap while interacting with the horses, or that people sometimes sneeze or cough. So any time she did any of those things, or talked louder than normal (like when telling a horse ‘no’) she clipped out, and it sounded pretty bad.
      7) I failed to set up the wireless receiver for the lav up properly. The manual recommends keeping the antennas at a 90-degree angle. If you just plug the receiver in, extend and orient the antennas, and then stuff the whole mess in a back pocket of the backpack, the antennas don’t stay put. My subject frequently sounded like an out-of-tune FM radio station. Now I know why I’ve seen pros mount their wireless receivers on top of their cameras — less *stuff* between the receiver and the subject.
      I eventually got good audio by turning sideways so one antenna pointed at my subject, but that wasn’t comfortable.
      8) The DVD recorder had a few problems, and I’m not yet sure what the problem was. I know the unit is designed to sit in an entertainment center in a temperature-controlled room, and I wasn’t using it that way. Nearly all of the video/audio I gave the recorder was written to disk perfectly, but late in the shoot there were some corrupted blocks, which on playback caused it to skip ahead to the next even 5-second interval.
      For one thing, jumping and bumping around in a backpack, sideways, might have adversely affected a device which was designed to sit flat like a VCR. Second, the DVD recorder itself was hot to the touch when I pulled it out. It didn’t burn me, but it was about as hot as a NiMH battery pack gets just after getting a rapid charge. So I probably need to think about ventilation.
      The first video skip happened near minute 35, and I was completely stationary at the time. So I’m probably lucky I didn’t burn the thing out.

      Anyway, I thought I’d share my experiences, and invite any comments or suggestions from those more experienced. Thanks for reading!

      –Michael Spencer

    • #177512

      It looks like you’re just trying to prove a point here. Am I wrong? The previous writer is right. Go out, buy yourself a cheap Sony 3ccd cam for under $1000 and you’ve cut your equipment in half. Then you can use you backpack, or whatever, to store batteries, tapes, and some reflectors. If you’re shooting outdoors the lighting thing isn’t as huge as you might have been led to believe. I was able to get quite good documentary footage down in Mexico with a Sony dx1000, reflector set, some c-47s, and a seinhieser (sp) shotgun. If you want to carry around a bunch of weight for a good reason, then build a full rig from some of the plans on the net. At least then you can then say, “Yeah, I was carrying a forty pound pack, but, gee, aint the vids smooth?”

    • #177513

      My post didn’t come across as aggressive or pushy to anybody else, did it? It wasn’t intended that way.

      I’ll start saving, but it may be a while before I can afford a sub-$1000 camera with the features I need. In the meantime, yeah, that is an interesting idea: build some kind of camera support onto the pack using plans off of the Internet.

    • #177514

      I think most of my weight problem is my battery. Manufacturer specs say the battery weighs 24.34 lbs. I think I was powering 40 to 60 watts (I really should measure) and after one hour my battery charger told me the battery level was around 80%.

      Actually, now that people have seen what ridiculous extremes I will go to, maybe I can ask for advice.

      First, what do you think of this overall approach, using a separate video camera, audio mixer, and recorder to keep costs down? The camera could be scaled up, and the recorder scaled down (Video Walkman?) — my rig is an extreme example. (It sure was fun to use though, until my shoulders started complaining. πŸ™‚ ) Do they make good non-recording cameras, maybe with S-video or (if necessary) composite out?

      Second, if I’m willing to sacrifice size and weight, in order to get good quality video at lower equipment cost, what other cameras are recommended? The camera doesn’t need to be feature-packed or easy to use — like everyone else on this site, I’d prefer as much manual control as possible. (Within reason — I downloaded the manual for an $85k camera once. I don’t want that much control. πŸ™‚ )

      A used Hi-8 camera sounds pretty attractive, actually. Perhaps I could keep my Digital8 camera and just use it for 1394 out to a computer, but just record with an old Hi-8. Do you have any recommendations?

    • #177515

      Earlier, I didn’t mean you were pushy. Just odd.

      O.k. if you’re looking at high-8 then that gives me some clue as to what you expect out of the color and detail of your recording. If you’re willing to do it (as it appears you would be), you might want to consider the Optura 60 by Canon. It’s a consumer level camera (1/3 ccd) which records native 16:9, has an optical image stabilizer, and manual: iris, focus, exposure, and audio controls. It’s packed with features like a built in 2.2 megapixel camera with flash, nice (for a 1 ccd) low light capabilities, etc.
      I feel like an advertisement.
      Go to Canon’s website and check the specs on it. My continuity girl uses it and it’s quite durable. Besides it weighs, like, nothing. It has the Canon accesory shoe and fun lense accesories (WA, TP, filter sets, etc.), all sorts of inputs and outputs for video and computer, and all for under $700.

      Maybe that will help.

      You might, also, want to consider airport security when making your list of equipment. If your pack looks to Ghostbusterish it might be construed as a safety hazard or, worse yet, a bomb. Packing a 23lb battery might help in that persuasion. Also in lue of damaged materials, see if you can get a shielded bag for your camera equipment. Those nice airport security guys with submachine guns have a tendancy to deny your requests for hand searching and pass the sensitive digi-film through the scanner anyhow.

      Yes, submachine guns. In China airports anyhow.

      Oh, and while you’re in Japan, look around at the markets. You might be able to get your hands on some cheap equipment over there.

    • #177516

      I’ve never seen comparisons between different formats, so feel free to lead me in other directions if Hi8 isn’t the best choice. Most likely, the first few serious projects I shoot will be compressed down and distributed for free on the Internet. (No, not those kinds of videos. πŸ™‚ )

      Actually, I’ve noticed most of the cameras people are pointing me at are small handheld models. I think I’ve been operating under some misconception, that your video will never be good enough for use on TV unless it’s shot with a camera with a huge lens and lens hood, and with a body large enough to rest on your shoulder. That’s inaccurate, isn’t it?

    • #177517

      Sorry it took me so long to reply.

      The “big” cameras have their place. I was just trying to think of all the logistics of a one-man crew in a foreign country (known for its technological advancements) trying to shoot documentary style footage.

      If you take a look at the “prosumer” level as it stands today, you’ll notice that even some of the biggest cameras are 80% lense and 10% attachments. In truth the CCD and tape compartment doesn’t take up that much space if you go DV or HD (which uses miniDV tapes too).

      The vast difference between pro and amature video footage isn’t caused as much by the equipment as it is by the style in which the footage was shot. I suppose whatever equipment you decide to finally take to Japan will depend on your own budget and needs. Whatever you do end up taking, make sure you’re super comfortable with its use and limitations, so you can optimize your shooting style to maintain that pro level. Every camera, no matter how old, has its own “sweet spot” setting (optimal adjustment) for color and light reactivity. If you look around you can find books or articles with guides on how to measure the color recording levels of your specific camera to adjust for the best focus, lighting, white balance, etc. per shoot.

      Good luck.

    • #177518

      OK, based on the above, here’s what I understand of the video-making world. It’s probably flawed, so feedback is always appreciated.

      I’m a computer geek who just finished a Bachelors in Computer Science, so my learning style is already kinda weird. I forsee three needs for video production know-how and equipment:

      1) if I get accepted into JET, or for some other reason I end up located somewhere where nearly everything is foreign and I’ll want to document everything, I want to be able to capture and preserve video for use later. This isn’t much more evolved than an immature desire to package the entire country up in a box of recordable media and take it all home with me.

      2) While I’m here in the US, I’d like to plan and shoot some kind of documentary, as practice, and distribute it for free on the Internet. I’m a Prius (hybrid car) enthusiast (but I don’t own one of these cars yet), but there are a lot of misconceptions about that car (and hybrids in general) which I would like to debunk. I’ve already attempted one shoot with a professor of chemistry at my local college, talking about battery chemistry, and I fell flat on my face in nearly every conceivable way. So I’m interested in getting the equipment and skill needed to make this project work.

      3) Computer-related technologies of personal empowerment interest me. If sometime in the hypothetical future true investigative journalism dies in this country, I think it falls to the general public (bloggers and all) to pick up the slack and keep people informed and honest. So I’d like to see how far I can push things equipment-wise: how cheap can I go, how well do these weird ideas work, etc. That’s why I went with the hiking backpack and DVD recorder — it was (and is) an experiment.

      Starting from that perspective, with that set of needs, here’s what I believe so far about equipment:

      * good audio is important, so it’s worthwhile to invest in good pro audio gear.
      * when buying cameras, you have to pass a certain price point before you get line-in or mic-in ports on your camera. Mine is so cheap, it doesn’t even have that.
      * big cameras with big glass and lens hoods on the front look impressive, and can sometimes make people willing to do interviews if they think you’re well-funded — but size isn’t required to capture good images. (like the Canon Optura 60 recommended above)
      * The method and manner video is shot (tripod vs handheld, no unnecessary zooms, good shot composition, some attention to lighting design) is more important to an audience than the fidelity (quality) of the audio or video captured. So good, well-composed video can be shot with any camera and fluid-head tripod, but this requires experience I don’t have yet.
      * Audio quality is second most important — nobody likes straining to hear a speaker over background noise, and camera motor hum is annoying to listen to. So where equipment allows, use a shotgun, handheld, or lav mic.
      * Image fidelity (quality) is third most important. Part of that is technique, but part of that is equipment. This is something I would need to throw money at to improve — ditch the Sony Handycam DCR-TRV260 and get a Canon GL2.
      * Different recording media have different inherent quality properties. I may never be able to afford a betacam or dvcam camera, but those storage media have superior video quality. MiniDV and Digital8 are next lowest, and are about the same quality-wise (right?), and Hi8 is next lowest in quality. My DVD recorder (when it isn’t overheating and skipping) is compressing video in real-time so it’ll fit on a disk, so the quality is…where? Lower than Hi8? But it makes these nice flat files, ready for processing, so that’s really convenient.
      * If I want to learn to control the image I’m capturing, I need a more professional camera. Also, the tape mechanism and heads in my low-end consumer camcorder will probably die soon anyway, so I need to start saving up for a big purchase. A Canon Optura 60 is a good choice if I only have $1000 or so to spend on a kit. It has software settings for most of the manual adjustments I’d need, but with such a small camera my Audio-Technica AT835b shotgun with Rycote softie would look silly bolted to the top of it. If I have $2000 or so I should pop for a Canon GL2, and save up for a wide-angle adapter, MA-300 XLR breakout box, and rain cover. Bigger, more impressive / professional looking camera, actual physical controls for some of the manual adjustments, and available XLR inputs! (with phantom power, right?)

      So if the above is correct, it seems my plan should be: I have all the pieces I need to shoot marginally-acceptable video, but I need to learn how to plan and execute a video shoot. (Very few of my subjects will be as patient and understanding as Dr. Tisko was.) Maybe after a year, once I’ve saved up for a camera in the $2500 range, I’ll have enough practice that this kind of camera won’t be put to waste.

      Sorry this was so long, and thanks again for reading. The above aren’t firm assertions, but rather show my view of the world. Please, please correct me. πŸ™‚ The Optura 60 suggestion was excellent. More equipment recommendations are welcome, because I don’t know if I should be concerned that both of my wish-list cameras are Canon. Maybe they just make superior cameras, or maybe I haven’t been reading the right review sites.

      –Michael Spencer

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