Portability, Flexibility Priorities for Solo Videographers

It's possible to do great work with no help.
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David Evans usually shoots with a Canon 5D Mark II dSLR, and often improvises reflectors and other lighting accessories. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

They are the lone wolves of the field production―solo videographers or “one-man-bands” that capture videos in difficult, remote and often dangerous places without the aid of a crew, ENG truck or even an assistant to hold a light stand.

The equipment needs of a solo producer vary greatly from a production team. Both value reliability, but a solo shooter often must pack everything he (or she!) needs into a bag, throw an extra monopod into a pocket and jet off for a shoot. They have to get all the equipment right before they step out the door, because there is no production van on site for a replacement battery or Frezzi light.

Knowing what to take is a necessity, said David Evans, a Washington D.C. award-winning director/producer, who has worked with the National Geographic Society.

“I have three bags, always packed and ready, and a tripod case,” Evans said. “I instinctively know how to edit my gear for an assignment. Almost always bring more than I need, just in case.”

The Canon C300, the Sony FS-700 and infrared and super low-light night cameras are favorites of some solo producers, but Evans favors the more budget-friendly Canon 5D Mark II dSLR. The Mark II EOS (Electro-Optical System) digital single-lens reflex camera provides full 1080p HD video in Live View Mode and shoots broadcast-quality video from the Canon’s big CMOS sensor.

Even with the right camera, solo producers still have to improvise, making the best out of unexpected opportunities, Evans said. Much like fictional TV hero MacGyver, solo videographers must have an ability to make the shoot work with whatever they have on hand.

“I can make reflectors from white paper, soft box equivalents from plastic sheets,” Evans said. “No tripod? I string fishing wire from the tripod plate that’s always on my camera and tie it to a stick. Stand on the stick and pull up for tension and it does the trick.”

LEMONS BECOME LEMONADE

Clever videographers can serendipitously twist a missing piece of equipment to their advantage. Bob Kovacs, editor of Government Video magazine and freelance videographer, turned such a trick when he discovered he didn’t have a favorite shotgun microphone.

“My technique then is to work as close to the talent as possible and use the camera’s built-in mic,” Kovacs said. “In fact, the luxury of backing off that the shotgun mic gives me often results in less interesting video. Sometimes, working close is a lot more interesting.”

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Producer Keith O'Derek uses a Panasonic AG-HVX200 mounted on a Vinten Vision blue5 tripod.

But, for those who need a good shotgun mic, Sennheiser has released two new dSLR shotgun versions, the MKE 600 and MKE 400. Both focus on sounds in front of the camera, while attenuating unwanted sounds coming from the sides and rear. Both the MKE 400 and MKE 600 feature a universal shoe mount and have low-cut filters that help minimize wind noise.

“We paid particular attention to achieving a high level of directivity and a balanced sound,” said Kai Lange, product manager for wired microphones at Sennheiser. The mics are “for video journalists who want to produce a report or a film but do not wish to resort to highly professional shotgun microphones or a separate wireless link.”

For his work, solo producer Keith O’Derek uses a Panasonic AG-HVX200 mounted on a Vinten

Vision blue5 tripod. For a lone videographer, a stable platform is a must, O’Derek said.

“Vinten suits my needs, since I need to carry the least amount of equipment possible,” he said. “Now, when I shoot in a location like a nightclub or in a dark setting, I don’t need to have someone hold a flashlight or resort to putting a flashlight in my mouth when I balance the tripod with Visionblue (because) the illuminating balance bubble solves that issue.”

Although O’Derek, a filmmaker for 30 years, favors the AG-HVX200 camcorder, Panasonic also offers the AG-AC8PJ, a full-HD 1080p shoulder-mount camera with a wide angle 28mm/f1.8 lens and a 21x optical/50x super-high resolution zoom. Another option is the company’s AG-HPX250, an HD handheld camcorder with master-quality 10-bit, 4:2:2 independent-frame, 1920 x 1080 resolution and AVC-Intra100 recording.

For wildlife photography, some videographers like the Sachtler Ace L, a compact, fluid-head tripod. Sachtler’s ACE L uses the new SA-drag system, which provides the smoothness and fluidity commonly found on the company’s higher-end tripods. Like the Vinten, it includes an illuminated bubble leveler.

HOUSEHOLD NAME

Sachtler, part of Vitec Videocom group that also includes Vinten, is a household name when it comes to making tripods. Chances are that you will spot a Sachtler product in most professional videographers’ kit bags.

Flexibility is high on the list of traits desired by one-man-band shooters. If a single lightweight product can do two desirable things, that makes it an asset.

“I was a hard sell on the use of a monopod, but now I love it and never travel without it,” Kovacs said. “It’s easy to set up, much more stable than shooting handheld, and I can use it to hold the camera above a crowd or over a wall. People see me use it and say, ‘Wow! I never thought of that!’”

Kovacs uses a Manfrotto monopod, and the company has a range of monopods―some of which have feet that make them nearly self-supporting.

“For one shot, I had to capture a congressman making a speech on a stage about four feet above my level,” Kovacs said. “I simply hoisted the monopod so that the camera was at eye level for the congressman, and it looked like I was on stage with him―a much more personal connection for the shot.”

Transporting and setting up lights is also a challenge for field producers. Kovacs carries two small battery-powered lights tucked inside the pockets of his cargo pants.

For adverse conditions, many field producers use Frezzi batteries and lights, which were used to cover Hurricane Sandy, said Jim Crawford, president of Frezzi Energy Systems in Hawthorne, N.J.

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Filmmaker David Wright used Anton/Bauer batteries when shooting "Blind Pass" in Ireland.

The Frezzi SkyLight is a high-output portable LED light delivering an impressive amount of daylight-balanced light. It is a highly portable LED fixture powered by standard broadcast brick batteries or AC adapter. It delivers the equivalent light of a 650-Watt tungsten or a 125-Watt HMI source while drawing only 75 Watts of power, Crawford said. And, portability makes the devices a good fit for the solo producer, he said.

“We got glowing reports about our equipment from TV personnel,” he said. “And right now they are flying out the door.”

SOLVING LIGHTING PROBLEMS

Terry Griffin, bureau chief photojournalist for CBS’ Seattle KIRO-TV, had special lighting problems on a recent assignment in Panama. Griffin works with a correspondent, but he is exclusively responsible for all the equipment.

“One of my major concerns was the lack of electrical power at the canal construction zone,” Griffin said. “I was faced with having to take two separate lighting kits (HMI and tungsten) and possibly rent a generator on site.”

The solution was the lightweight and collapsible Zylight F8 Fresnel light, Griffin said.

“The F8 was the perfect fill light to the noonday sun key light at the equator,” he said. “I literally put the F8 into my suitcase with my socks and T-shirts.”

Power was another issue for the shoot.

“There was zero AC power available to us,” Griffin said. “Using my 90-Watt Anton/Bauer camera battery to power the F8 at 100 percent gave me an hour and six minutes of beautiful 5600K light. Having to only take one battery type charger for both light and camera was a huge bonus.”

The Anton/Bauer Dionic HD battery features special-application Li-ion cell technology. Weighing 40 percent less than a NiCad or NiMH battery, the Dionic HD has 25 percent more capacity and will run a 30-Watt camera, monitors and multiple accessories for more than six hours. 

An enhanced RealTime display indicates both fuel gauge and remaining run-time data simultaneously. The display incorporates readouts of hours, minutes and remaining capacity, making battery-change decisions quick and easy for field production. And, they are also waterproof, lightweight and can withstand rough handling.

“We created the Dionic HD to help our customers meet the growing power demands of the latest digital cameras,” said Chris O’Neill, vice president of product management and marketing for Anton/Bauer.

MAINTAIN POWER

Filmmaker David Wright faced unpredictable weather and a rigorous daily production schedule when shooting “Blind Pass,” a new independent feature filmed in Ireland. To maintain power throughout each shoot, he chose a variety of portable power solutions from Anton/Bauer, including several Anton/Bauer Dionic batteries, a TWQ charger and a back-up Tandem 150 charger.

Based in the UK, PAG provides a range of camera power systems. PAG batteries are impervious to water and can withstand severe fluctuations in temperature, and many features of the PAGlink system of batteries and chargers make them ideal for one-person production and light travel.

For example, PAGlink batteries are as compact, dimensionally smaller and lighter in weight than other Li-ion batteries of a similar capacity. That means a higher energy density, officials said.

The PAGlink system also offers the smallest battery charger in the industry, the PL Micro Charger. Producers can easily tuck it away in a camera bag pocket, which means there is no need to take a large, cumbersome two- or four-channel charger. Recharging takes about seven hours, officials said.

Working a shoot on your own often makes you hyper aware of all aspects of the shoot. Getting caught flat-footed is not an option, so think through all possibilities before you leave home.

MORE INFO:

Anton/Bauer: www.antonbauer.com

Canon: www.usa.canon.com

Frezzi Energy Systems: www.frezzi.com

Manfrotto: www.manfrotto.us

PAG: www.paguk.com

Panasonic: www.panasonic.com/business/provideo

Sachtler: store.sachtler.us

Sennheiser: en-us.sennheiser.com

Vinten:www.vinten.com

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