Putting The Future on Hold?


hello… hello…. do you hear me now?

When we did the Bootcamp last week in Miami, we offered three kinds of cameras for the students to use: Sony Z1, Panasonic DVX100 and Canon HV-20A. The first two are fairly large (at least by our standards). The HV20A is tiny – fits in the palm of your hand. The Zi and HV both shoot in HD. The DVX is DVcam.

The students switched cameras all through the course, and each night we screened the final pieces.

We wanted to give everyone a shot a using all kinds of gear, but it was also a chance to run our own small focus group. The student’s backgrounds varied from complete novice to a local news Emmy Award winner. There were some former cameramen and some people with online experience. It was a good mix.

The first thing that I think everyone in the room found astonishing, myself in included, was the visual acuity and quality of the small Canon camera. Side by side with the Z1 you could not tell the difference. It was truly incredible. Of course, I am sure that on a bench test you could… but not on the screen – and we were screening for the group on a giant plasma screen.

The second thing that was interesting was that a great majority of the group preferred working with the small cameras over the large ones. (And the Z1 is not all that big compared to a professional camera). My series producer for 5Takes, at the same time, was just testing Sony’s newest palm sized HDV camera – it records to a disc. Francisco has shot commercials, feature films and stuff for us, so he has a pretty broad grasp of the industry. He called me in Miami and told me he had been completely blown away by the small Sony camera, and suggested that in the future we contemplate shooting all our broadcast stuff on it.

At the same time, I found myself engulfed in another of those endless Big Camera vs. Small Camera debates at b-roll.net. These things go on forever and no one ever changes their opinion. Fine.

But what struck me was the disconnect between cameras and every other piece of technology we use.

In the world of cameras, traditional cameramen stand by their ‘big gear’. Indeed, they will almost defend it to the death.

Yet in the world of computers, no one ever stoody by a mainframe claming it was a vastly superior form of computing. No one ever said they would never trade in their Comodore 64 for an iBook.

In the world of cell phones, we rush out to get the smallest, thinnest one we can. No one walks around with a rotary dial phone and says, ‘blackberry? A toy! You wanna see a real phone.. check this out… ‘

What is it with the cameras? Is it the male ‘look at the size of mine’ thing?, or the feeling of power from dragging around a ton of iron on your shoulder all day long? You might argue it is the ‘quality’, but I would bet that the ‘quality’ from the Canon HVA is vastly superior to the ‘broadcast quality’ from an old uMatic set up.

There is that old expression, ‘faster, cheaper, better – pick any two’. Its a nice phrase, but technology blows it out of the water. After all, with the explosive rise of computer processing, a laptop today (for example) is equally faster, cheaper and better than one from 10 years ago. My microwave oven has more computing potential than the Apollo spacecraft did. Doesn’t it stand to reason that cameras follow the same path?


21 responses to “Putting The Future on Hold?

  1. The glass is the reason many pro’s like the big camera. It would go against what you preach, but you can’t always get close to a subject, and a big camera with a nice zoom lens allow the photojour…I mean VJ to get in nice and tight. Forget about using a small camera in a spot news situation. If you are being held back by cops, then the big camera is the way to go.

    Shooting with a little camera is difficult and does take some effort to use. It is hard to balance, where a big camera can sit on a shoulder and be balanced with not to much stress on the body(the weight is absorbed by the back and shoulders). The big camera is heavy, but the stress is not on the wrist and forearm. I had the hardest time shooting with a baby cam and not getting fatigued. I always try and use a monopod. I do like using a baby cam in a group situation where it is helpful to hold the camera above my head…no problems with the baby cam, but forget it with a big camera.

  2. Mike – I have to disagree with you on the “Glass”. Even Sony’s freshman consumer HDV camera, the HC1, had a Zeiss Lens and that is by no means a slouch company. JVC’s new hard drive based HDV camera, the JVC GZ-HD7, utilizes a fixed broadcast lens by Fujinon, is a 3 chip camera – and comes in at less than $1500 from B&H.

    Needless to say, the WAY news/UGC will be acquired is the resistance by the GOB network of traditional videographers. The idea of their professional credentials and expensive equipment being diminished is not surprising – it is a reality of the situation – the phrase – “Adapt or perish” is quite appropriate.

    True, the big guns have larger 3 chips, and other technological advantages, but the bottom line is – content is king. Just because one shoots with a $1500 camera doesn’t make someone any less qualified to shoot and earn a living from it. It’s the typical resistance to change that is causing this stir within profession. I say, “Bring It On!!!”

    I rather shoot with 2 cameras in my photo backpack (hence having a backup/b-roll camera) than a $25,000 XDCAM with all my eggs in one basket. There is something to be said about less is more. Not everyone can just rack up a huge debt- in many ways, it places more burden on amortizing the cost of expensive equipment as compared to less expensive, yet very good quality footage shot from a consumer camera.

    If one can become more mobile, less threatening, and produce content that is 95% technically as good of the big guns, the answer is obvious.

    If it wasn’t, Michael wouldn’t be successful at what he is doing.

  3. In addition, accessories such as Should mounts, Matte boxes and other accessories are being made to support the new wave of smaller camera. With the advent of HD programming, we now have to assess the new format from a Pixel Aspect Ratio. Most big guns shoot 4:3, yet HD programming is 16:9 – so now you have a whole new can of worms – those big guns are in a sense, out dated. The newer, smaller cameras already meet those needs now and in the future of UGC online and in broadcasting.

    Even my old school TRV 950’s allow me to shoot in either PAR, and the reality is, unless one has a specific need to shoot HDV, a good quality 3 chip SD camera with the option to shoot 24p, 16:9, etc is perfect for online content distribution.

  4. the smaller cameras have buttons hidden away in sub-menus – no good for run and gun. Smaller CCDs – no good for lowlight. Also very light so difficult to get steady shots.

    If I need to shoot without a tripod, in dimly lit interiors, and change settings on the fly I would prefer a full-size camera

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  6. When I am talking about glass I am talking about the ability to zoom in tight. I am speaking from a news based operation and there is no way, except for the JVC camera that you mentioned, to zoom in like the News Broadcast Cameras. It is frustrating to be a 1oo yards away from a crime scene and not be able to get nice tight shots like the other stations. The JVC camera has not caught on like the Panasonic HVX200, P2 format has. The station I worked at bought the HVX200 for the people that worked dayside and the nightsiders got the Broadcast Version of the camera, because they shoot well in low light situations. The gadgets you mention for little cameras might work, in fact I saw a reality TV show with a tricked out HVX200, but there is no way that my corporation would pay for the extra gadgets.

    I am speaking from a traditional newsroom. I have shot plenty of stories by myself and I do love the smaller cameras, but the big cameras are easier to use on the fly.

  7. Michael, were any of your assignments shot at night or in low-light conditions? That’s my biggest question with cameras the size of the HV20.

    In low light, big sensors mean a better picture. At some point you run up against the laws of physics — smaller sensors mean each photosite is just a few microns in size. Bigger photosites = more sensitivity to light.

    As far as I know, no one’s come up with a technical solution to what is essentially a physics problem — visible wavelengths require sensors of a certain size to detect them. The size of the sensor (and then by extension, the size of the lens focusing the image on that sensor) simply can’t shrink beyond a certain size.

  8. I’m always trying to lighten my load and if I could do this without cameras at all I would! I’m using the Canon HV-20 as a second camera for two camera angle interviews on my corporate documentaries and using Final Cut Pro Multiclip to cut between shots. It’s been working out well and the camera fits into my current bag easily.

    As stated, it is however a pain to change settings quickly as almost all the controls are hidden in some menu and not on the camera.

    I think there’s room for both depending on the situation. What’s been an intertesting change is the big ENG crews who used to look down on us puny DV shooters and now coming over to ask serious questions about it. Maybe they’re just getting older like me and the cameras are getting heavier or maybe they see the change taking place.

    Interesting technology story: When the last big earthquake hit The Big Island in Hawaii a few month ago I was in NY. The local TV stations in Honolulu had no idea how to get the tape transmitted as all power was out too and they’re all Beta equipped. I had some a photographer and a non-photographer friend go out and film with point and shoot cameras that produce a 640 or 320 wide QuickTime file.

    They transmitted to me FTP and I passed that on to ABC Network in NY which aired it that night on World News and again the next mornign on GMA. They had the only moving images of the quake and it’s aftermath a full 24-36 hours before anyone else and played it many times.

    We also got some nice pay for our efforts.

    So how good where those big cameras Beta cams then? One day the network are going to discover iChat for remote broadcast and those large and costly trucks with their manly antennas are going to go away.


  9. I shoot with a Canon XLH1. With an me66, onboard light, firestore, and engrig its a chunky monkey, but it’s a lot smaller than a remote truck.

    No-one ever got paid for their skill with a cell-phone. Maybe comparing cameras to guitars would yield more insight…

    If you want to play a Gibson Flying V you better get used to practicing standing up. If you want to shoot with an HV20 you better be able to get in close and control the shooting environment…or be willing to work very cheap.

  10. Aaron,
    The Pansonic HVX200 was horrible in low light. I think it might have something to do with the fact that it can shoot in HD, of course I don’t know all the specs about the chips, etc. We did have about 6 of the ENG Pansonic P2 camera and they were excellent for low light and where you can’t control the light source.

    One other thing I don’t like about the small cameras is the fact that it is hard to control the depth of field. I was constantly working out ways to get an interview in focus and the background out of focus. It was a challenge on each shoot and sometimes I would give up. The Big cameras are easier to manipulate for this.

  11. PF,
    I am curious on how your friends were able to transmit the files to you if power was out. Wouldn’t internet connections be down? I could see them plugging up an inverter in their car to get power to a laptop, but wouldn’t the internet be down. The modem would not have power, but maybe an air card would work.

    Also, most TV Stations have generators for just such a power outage. We had one and used it during storms. Does not one Hawaii Station have a generator or a Sat Truck that can transmit without having to have power from the grid?

  12. Aaron – Although you raise a valid point, I still see this as the old guard wanting to hang on for dear life and not adapt to the coming change that has been thrust upon them.

    When I saw some of Donna Ferrato’s work back in the 90’s, she was shooting in some of the wost conditions possible (It was of a junkie who was turning tricks to support her habit). Needless to say, the work technically was sub standards (excess grain, no detail, etc). But the content of the images – the decisive moments that were captured – that was more important to me as a photographer and picture editor than the technical merits of a well exposed, grainless b/w image.

    I believe viewership is changing it’s impressions of what is aesthetically pleasing. They are more concerned with the content itself – not whether it is technically perfect. I may come from the old school of “just shut up and shoot” – let the CONTENT stand on it’s own merit.

    As PF pointed out – if a consumer point and shoot camera acquiring implied technically inferior footage can accomplish what the supposed big guns could not, then we are in for interesting times indeed and I look forward to going head to head with the old guard.

    Each tool has its purpose. I believe that having to shoot with higher end gear will become less of an issue and will be replaced with the raised bar of higher quality subject matter and content shot on so called technically inferior equipment.

    And Peter – I don’t believe just because one shoots with less expensive equipment equates to working for less money. That statement implies elitism based upon what one shoots with – not what they come away with. As I stated on my own website – I have seen substandard footage shot on technically superior equipment, and I have seen outstanding footage shot on consumer grade cameras. Any photo editor worth his salt will tell you it’s not the gear that creates the images – its the operator.

  13. i thoroughly enjoyed mr. bentley’s comment about the big island quake.

    true, the power was out. but ask around, one of the local tv station’s web channel served over 100,000 users (some published reports had it as 1,000,000!). whatever the total, one can say with certainty that without power on the islands themselves that traffic had to come from somewhere.

    local news organizations could take from this that they now “broadcast” to the world. whether or not they actually leverage that capability remains an open question.

  14. Thom – You still in High school??? From the amount of adolescent name calling, one would think so.

  15. RE: Big Island Quake

    They were able to transmit via wireless web connections that worked. I have no idea why the local affiliate stations in Honolulu could not service the networks if they had back-up generators.

  16. I just read over the thread at b-roll.net. All I hear in the postings is there are a lot of scared old school ENG shooters.

    I think one of the big issues is that the VJ model rocks the boat of convention. The ENG types feel as though they are a part of some exclusive club and that without such and such credentials, cameras, etc, then one cannot be a part of said club.

    What a load of $h!t. That kind of elitism only makes me dig my heels in and say, “I’ll show you otherwise” just on principle.

    Why don’t these GOB’s put their money where their mouths are. If they want to pi$$ and moan about the so called lowering of standards in the profession, then take the same gear out we are shooting with and raise the bar. But instead, they want to sit around, reminiscing about the days of beta cams, Avid Newscutter, and whatever else.

    I understand their position and why they are lashing out – I lived it when I made the tough choice to leave photography in the latter 90’s when the first major wave of Pro Digital cameras came to market and I couldn’t afford the make the jump as a freelancer. But now the tables are turned. And I think the ENG elitist club is none too happy about it. (How dare these VJ’s try and make news – they aren’t trained, they don’t have professional equipment, they don’t know what they are doing… blah, blah, blah…)

    Mistakes will be made along the way, but hey, one is only human – not perfect. If the pissing and moaning GOB’s in the ENG field don’t like the way something is being done – present a better alternative. But I don’t think they can – hence the envy over what you are doing and the snide remarks.

    Michael – keep moving forward – it serves a roll that no one else was willing to take on. Your site is one of several I visit for daily inspiration to keep moving forward in the new VJ model.

  17. Also – Whether you like it or not Thom, those so called Penny Pinchers have a responsibility ONLY to the owners of said station to turn a profit – are they greedy as well? They don’t owe you or any other EMPLOYEE a damn thing. If they see a potential opportunity to reduce their outgoing cash flow by utilizing another resource, that is their right. If Michael provides a service to accomplish that – they have a choice to use it or not use it.

    If they choose to use it (operative word: CHOOSE), and it doesn’t work, it’s not Michael’s fault. THey signed off on the cotract, and the final billable invoice. Management missed the boat someplace. It’s THEIR RESPONSIBILITY to make sure things go accordingly.

    I’m currently reviewing some of Michael’s material and as far as I can see, you SHOULD be scared. He’s pulled the curtain away and exposed the true workings of what it takes to do what you do – without all the B$ you represent. That is the true democratization of news – for the people, by the people.

    Just say NO to corporate news.

    Now go sit in the corner and take a timeout.

  18. everybody at katu should march into the bosses office tomorrow and ask for a raise whether they deserve one or not. there has to be extra money laying around there because they sure aren’t spending any on their website.

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