When undertaking any multimedia project it is important to have the right equipment for the job. One of the most important pieces of equipment in any journalists or storytellers kit is their camera. Visual elements are a significant part of any online project and so getting the right equipment can make or break your project; but with so many different options how do you decide which camera to use?
There are now three types of cameras which you might choose from to shoot your project.
- Video/Film Cameras
- Digital SLR/Still Cameras
- Video DSLR Camera
Each of these options have both big advantages and disadvantages for each project, but each can also offer a different style of project outcome. I will try to briefly outline some of the advantages and disadvantages of each to help make your choice a lot easier.
The Video/Film Camera
There are several reasons to use a video camera for your project, but one of the main reasons is that you make the audience feel like your project is happening in that moment. You can draw people into your story and take them somewhere special. Audience’s become lost in films, and that is why we have such a fascination with motion pictures. It’s why Toy Story was such a successful movie even though it was animated. Motion involves the viewer and brings your project into the now.
Another advantage is that you can include visual interviews. You get to show your audience that you spoke to a real person, and the audience can see the power and emotion in their expressions and responses. That’s something which is unique to video. You can’t get that same power of human response through photography. Your subject’s happiness becomes your audience’s happiness, their sadness becomes your audience’s sadness. Video makes the emotion real.
Here is an example of a great video project by Keith Rivers, which shows the power of a video project. It documents a trip he made to Africa, and focuses on the happiness which we often don’t see on the charity commercials.
I know that might all sound great, but there are disadvantages to using video cameras. For instance, many people freak out when video cameras are facing them. There is something about pointing a video camera at people that make people run scared (unless you work for a major television network). If I had a dollar for every person I pointed a video camera at that didn’t want to be on video, but were happy to have their photo taken instead, I would be a rich man.
One of the other problems is that video cameras can be big and heavy, especially when you get to a professional level. Often your will also need some kind of stabilising system, a quality tripod with a fluid head for panning. While there are many newer, and smaller, cameras around, they are hard to stabilise due to the natural movement of your arms so a tripod will help give you great shots.
Another downside is that high-end, and prosumer, video cameras can cost a lot of money, and the accessories can be just as expensive. You also get poor low light performance on video, and some of the newer recording formats are incompatible with older editing software.
The Digital SLR/Film Camera
You have often heard it said that a picture can tell 1000 words, and believe it or not it’s true. However when you decide to use a still camera for your project you are probably thinking about how you can use dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of images to tell your story. The great thing about using a still cameras is that the pictures have the ability to freeze and transcend time. When people look at photos they immediately start thinking of the past, drawing on their emotions, and filling in the story around the images in their mind. Photos help engage your audience’s imagination.
The other great thing with a still camera is that you as the photographer can disappear into the background, allowing you to capture people in their natural state. When people forget that your around you get to capture natural and free emotion. People often say to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you take that’, which helps give you much better images.
Using a still camera you can make some amazing stories, especially when you also combine these with audio. Having a still camera does not mean you should forget about talking to people and telling their stories, in fact combining audio with the photos will allow you to come up with an excellent production. If you want to check out a great example of a photographic essay, Marcus Bleasdale has a great one one called Congo the Forgotten War.
There are also some very cool things you can do with a still camera, such as time-lapse photography, or stop motion. Both of these types of photography can really add to the dynamic of a story, and can be important for showing long periods of time very quickly.
Check out this great stop motion piece which tells a story with around 4000 photos.
There are of course disadvantages with a still camera, such as being restricted to your frames. What I mean by this, is that you only end up capturing whatever is in the frame when you click the button, and often that can mean missing a moment which would have been fantastic for your film. Using a video camera you can hit record and wait until you get all the footage you want. Generally you have to get it right to capture the moment on a still camera.
With photography you can also lose some of the ‘close up’ effect of an interview. Sure you can take photos of your subjects and record their voice, but sometimes it really helps to be able to be zoomed in on someone’s face. Being able to watch as they become excited or sad helps connect with your audience.
Another disadvantage is when you get back home to edit your photos you may have to work with thousands of images, so you must be very organised, a much harder task than piecing together video footage.
The Video DSLR Camera
One of the newest options for journalism or storytelling is the Video DSLR camera. Made popular by Canon’s 5D Mark II, these cameras are effectively normal digital SLR cameras but they can record video footage in High Definition. The footage can be very spectacular as we have already seen in ‘5 Great Videos Shot With The Canon 7D‘.
Straight off the bat these cameras have one huge advantage over a normal video camera, the ability to be inconspicuous. As I mentioned with the DSLR cameras, it is very easy to fade into the background and take natural photos of people. With a V-DSLR, you can do the exact same thing but be able to record video footage. That means you can capture moments on video which would have been much harder to capture before.
Another great advantage of these cameras is the ability to shoot in low light conditions. Because the cameras are based off still cameras, they have high ISO sensitivity, meaning you can shoot in bad lighting and still get amazing footage. Ordinary video cameras generally are poor when it comes to low light, so to be able to shoot in such conditions is a massive benefit.
Here is a great video, shot by Phillip Bloom at the Skywalker Ranch using only the 5D Mark II and 7D cameras, both of which are DSLR cameras that shoot stills and video.
As with the other two types of cameras, there are a few disadvantages. One major problem is trying to balance a V-DSLR camera is very hard without some sort of supporting rig. This problem becomes even more pronounced as you zoom in on your shot. You can also make this much worse when you start to use some of the bigger and more heavier lenses. If you do go with this option it is important to purchase a sturdy tripod or a monopod.
One of the other issues is that video footage from these cameras is limited to 12 minutes. For many projects this will not be an issue, however if you were wanting to record an interview it can be annoying to stop and restart the video every 12 minutes. It is also hard to record audio into these cameras and so to get any serious quality you need an external device and a method to sync these together in the edit suite.
These cameras also have an issue with panning due to the rolling shutter problem which causes the image to move around like jelly.
So What Would I Choose?
For my projects in the future I will probably be using a Video DSLR most of the time. I like to be able to carry as few items around with me as possible so it would be a great advantage to have one device instead of two.
I will probably want to keep my old video camera around at home though, for the times I conduct longer interviews, because I think it is really important to interview people with as few interuptions as possible.
Your choice will mostly likely be different depending on what gear you have available and what you want to achieve. But if you are stuck with a certain type of camera, don’t worry, all of these different cameras are very capable of achieving professional results.