The right tool for the job



Something film makers and videographers alike are obsessed with is tech. There are whole websites basically dedicated to gear porn, and unlike things like T3 or Engadget where we’re looking at a lot of consumer gear, here we’re talking about a lot of people’s livelihoods and professions.

The main problem with many of these hobbyists, freelancers and one-man bands is that they are driven by a peculiar inferiority complex. The nature of the work is often hard. You are hamstrung by equipment often – even when you’re well equipped, it’s invariably falling short in some area. It’s not like broadcast where you head down to the truck and grab another lens or battery or card or converter or any host of technical element that is stored in triplicate for redundancy – you’ve got what you’ve got and you make it work (and I could go into my experiences working at a major sporting stadium and having these experiences, but I’ll save that for another time).

Where videographers keep selling themselves short is in choosing the right gear for the job. Way back many years ago, starting out as a fledgling videographer with a can-do attitude, my starting budget was limited and I needed a camera system that would be versatile enough to work across the many fields I was covering at that time. It was the age of HDV, and high definition cameras and comparisons were rife across the wide internet.

Looking at Canon’s update to the venerable XL series I was fairly underwhelmed. Canon’s proprietary lens mount was looking more like a liability, and the ergonomics of the XL2 were awful in any case. I knew I wanted an interchangeable lens though, using cameras where you were trapped with the stock lens for all time frightened me. Working in the in-house control room at a local sports stadium, something the touring production company used was the JVC HD-111. Set up with V-lock, a microwave link and a 2/3″ lens, it was basically a mini broadcast camera. It sat neatly on the shoulder, but was lighter and ran longer than its bigger ENG cousins.

The appeals of the JVC were fairly broad. JVCs HD-111 utilised standard connectors and controls. It functioned like a mini-ENG camera. An on-board hard drive was fairly inexpensive and allowed long recordings that dropped straight into Final Cut (because lets not even talk about trying to actually import XDCAM EX in those early days). An adapter on the low end model allowed V-lock batteries. The 1/3″ bayonet easily adapted to 1/2″ and 2/3″. The stock lens – optically ordinary as it was – had silky smooth dampened rings and fully manual control – truly actually proper manual.

In my early twenties, a buy into V-lock was fairly expensive but the benefits have been tangible. I stuck to a procedure of buying new V-lock batteries every two years, minimum spend of $1000AUD. I now have a fleet of batteries of varying sizes and capacities, and across my many jobs these have powered monitors, converters, audio recorders, video recorders, multiple cameras and more. There is little you can’t power off a V-lock these days, especially since many of the batteries now have D-Tap, a barrel socket and a USB port on board.

Similarly, when everyone went across to Sony’s technically lovely but ergonomically nightmarish EX1 and EX3, I stuck with JVC. The HM-700’s implementation of XDCAM EX as .mov files that dropped straight into Final Cut Pro made it significantly less cumbersome to work with, its use of SD cards rather than SxS, and again those familiar ergonomics. The accessories I purchased were rented by various other production companies as the zoom and focus demands, batteries, lenses and other gear were all broadcast standard equipment.

The story I’m trying to weave here is that I went against the grain and bought the less popular, technically inferior system. The slightly more noisy, smaller sensor wasn’t sexy. But this is precisely the problem. Videographers obsess over tech specs because image quality is king. But my reasoning was if I can work more easily and efficiently, I’ll shoot better. The DSLR film making revolution really epitomises this. Seeing videographers persevere with their clunky Canon cameras, swearing and kludging their way through shoots is simply depressing. Especially when cameras like the Panasonic GH4 exist. The GH4 with its less desirable micro 4/3 sensor and mediocre sensitivity make it unsexy compared with the latest a7S. But the Sony cameras are still as user hostile as ever – amazing sensors coupled with unnecessarily company bodies, extremely poor battery life, 8-bit output and poor ergonomics and controls. The GH4 has stellar battery life (3 hours off a single battery), touch screen manual audio controls, 10-bit out and a fairly robust selection of manual controls.

Image is king, because that’s what the end user sees. On many of the shoots I’ve been on, it has been the very things I’ve described – ergonomics and good camera control, that have saved shots that would have otherwise been missed. The problem is that owning those technically incredible cameras won’t make your images amazing. The camera, much like anything else is a tool. The skills are what is important. Just think about your type of work and what suits you. If you have a team operating a camera, just about anything can be made to work. But if you’re gunning it solo, those frequent battery changes, that clumsy dual-system audio, that servo focus that just keeps spinning – these are the very things that will ruin that perfect shot that you should have been able to capture.

Use the right tool for the right job.


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