Lessons Learnt: The Video Edition

Lessons Learnt: The Video Edition

I’ve been shooting a fair amount of video of late and I’ll be the first to admit I am having to scale quite a learning curve.  Aside from the obvious, there are a lot of differences between shooting still and moving images.

Some of this might seem a bit obvious, but if your experiences with video are anything like mine they aren’t obvious until you come up against them. Hopefully by sharing a few of my epiphanies, I can save you some time or money. Here we go:


Shoot lots of footage

Shoot more than you think you could possibly need. Then shoot some more. It’s called coverage and you need a way to bridge the gap between pieces of similar footage. Let’s take my recent efforts filming at Gymkhana Grid as an example. I might have two great bits of footage of the same car on two different parts of the course. When it comes to the edit, I can’t just stick those sections back to back, it’d be jarring and just doesn’t fit with what the viewer is used to. Cutting to someone in the crowd intently watching or cheering between the two clips would work nicely.

Frame it right in camera

I shoot my photos a little on the wide side. I know this will give me flexibility in post, especially if I am delivering them to a client who might want to overlay text. When you are producing 20+ megapixel images, cropping in 10% after the fact isn’t going to be a problem.  With video though if you are shooting at 1080 you plan to show it at 1080 so there’s no room to crop. You need to get it right at the time of capture – something I am still trying to retrain my brain to do. If only the 5D shot 4K

Leveling is a pain

I knew I had to get myself a fluid head to be able to do smooth pans and tilts so I got myself a mid range Manfrotto one and mounted it on my existing tripod. It works a charm if you’re on level ground but as soon as you need to adjust it, you are into the hell that is tweaking three legs one by one. Not a speedy process!


Mic check one two

Good audio is essential so I got myself a Rode Video Mic Pro. It’s a great bit of kit that hooks straight into you DSLR’s mic jack and sits in your hot shoe. It’s got three modes, standard, -10db for loud situations and a +20db mode designed for DLSRs. The theory is you drop the gain in-camera to a very low level and let the higher quality circuitry in the mic boost the levels. This works great, but bear in mind for loud sources, perhaps a drift car 5m away, to flick it back to the -10db mode! And of course… Remember to turn it on!


Get an LCD viewfinder

These are fantastic gadgets that allow you to hold your DSLR in live view mode up to your eye like you would a more traditional video camera. At about £20 from eBay it’s no brainer and a good place to start before you hook up and external monitor and build a whole rig. I’ve never used one of the more expensive models like the Zacuto Z-Finder but I don’t know how much more they could offer to be worth more than 10 times the price. Except maybe a lanyard… that’d be handy as I repeatedly lose mine buy putting it down and walking off. Lucky it keeps finding it’s way back to me.

So that’s it for now, no Earth shattering revelations, but a few things that I’ve encountered on my adventure in video. I hope they save you a little time and aggro.

It’s all about the gear, until it isn’t

It’s all about the gear, until it isn’t

Have you ever noticed that when you don’t get the shot you were trying for it’s always because your gear let you down, but when you do nail it, it’s all about your talent and gear had nothing to do with it?

It’s ridiculous when you see it in set out in black and white isn’t it, but I bet it sounds familiar. Why do we do it?

I think it’s a self defense mechanism. It’s much easier to blame our gear for our shortcomings than to actually admit we screwed up or, even worse, to admit that we reached the limit of our knowledge or ability.

Sure, there are times when gear will get in the way but is it really the gears fault? The camera missed focus, your flash didn’t recycle fast enough or the stupid ISO jumped to 128000 all on its own. All those are gear related but still your fault. Modern cameras are clever and can do many things, but they don’t know what you are trying to achieve. You are driving the bus – it’s your responsibility. Taking the examples/excuses above; The camera won’t change your focus point for you if you are locking on to a distant tree instead of your model. You should know how hard you are asking your flash to work and time your shots accordingly, or crank your ISO so it needs to pump out less light each time. And if you think settings are changing by themselves, you need to sit down with your camera and the manual for an hour or two.

Then there’s the other reason: GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. In the back of your mind you know it was you that stuffed up the shot, but there’s an insidious part of you brain that keeps whispering “It’s not your fault, you’re awesome! You’d have totally nailed that if you had 2.8 glass and a D4/1DX!” I’ve definitely suffered from this on a few occasions but I like to think I have learned to tune out that little voice inside my brain now. Now it just tells me to try harder!

Of course you should be confident in your abilities but you also need to admit to yourself that you don’t know everything. None of us do, or ever will. Photography is all about constantly educating yourself and pushing yourself creatively. If you think you know it all, put you camera on eBay tonight, photography is not for you.

So stop blaming your gear, own your mistake and learn how not to make it again.

How to save money when upgrading

How to save money when upgrading

There is a boat load of of great photography gear coming out all the time. Some of it is genuine technical advancement, some is cynical marketing and some is just cool stuff you have to have.

But when should you upgrade and what should you buy?

I can’t give you the answer, certainly not one that fits everybody that has asked me. What I can do is share my philosophy on upgrading gear.

Let’s get the inconvenient truth out in the open before we go on. That new camera (or lens, flash, tripod or other gadget) will not make your photography any better. If you think it will, you are trying to justify spending thousands or convince yourself the the reason you aren’t happy with your images is simply because you don’t have the same gear that your favourite celebrity photographer has.

Don’t get me wrong, gear is great! We all love it and we all need it. What we don’t need is to be constantly chasing the next thing. We need to be pushing the limits of our current kit before we get the credit card out.

I am not suggesting my way is the only way, but this is how I have approached upgrading.

I began with an Olympus C900 Zoom point and shoot, quickly realised I quite liked this photography thing and bought myself a Fuji S5000. It was a prosumer bridge camera but it had manual controls and looked like one of the expensive DSLRs I really wanted but couldn’t afford.

My First Cameras

I shot with the Fuji for 18 months taking what can best be describe as terrible photos. Not due to the camera, but due to my lack of skills. By the end I was getting better, I knew I wanted to keep doing this and decided to take the plunge and buy a DSLR.

I spent too long on sites like DPReview and Fred Miranda looking at 100% crops of images at ISO800 and deciding whether to replace the kit lens with something better. Don’t pay too much heed to this kind of review or you’ll get bogged down by analysis paralysis and never actually buy anything. Eventually I went for a Canon 30D kit. Then, not long after, a 40D. Yes, I fell into the trap. It had a bigger number in its name, two more megapixels and 14 bit RAW. I was sold! That was the last time I bought anything photography related without knowing exactly what it was going to do for me.

Two years later the shutter assembly in it died just before I was due to shoot the Bristol Balloon Fiesta and I sent it off to be fixed. I knew it wouldn’t be back from repair in time and I didn’t have a spare so I made the jump to a full frame 5D MkII (with a 24-105mm f4 L kit lens) a little sooner than I had planned.

Canon 5D Mark II
That body got some use! It was put to work in warm dry studios, next to freezing cold lakes, and trackside. It wasn’t the best sports camera, with it’s hopeless focusing and slow frame rate but I loved it and it taught me the importance of knowing what your kit can’t do. During the time I had it, I sold the 24-105mm and bought a used 24-70mm but I managed to avoid the temptation of the 1D and 7D.  They didn’t offer anything I needed.

But when it finally came, the 5DMkIII did. Better focusing and a higher frame rate – the limits I’d been struggling with for 2 years. And then Canon announced the 1D X. What a camera! I had a play with it at Focus on Imaging and I immediately wanted it. I had the cash and I had to have it! It was a 1 series body, it had that beefy built in grip, loads of customisable buttons and it would instantly make me a better photographer!

Then I had a word with myself.

The 1D X did nothing beyond what the 5D Mark III did that I actually needed and somehow I managed to resist. It’s so easy to get carried away and I still want one, but until I need one I’ll stick with the 5D MkIII.

And my 7D.

5D and 7D

If you are making any income from photography there are more factors to consider. Things like resale value and reliability play a part. Two things came together that caused me to sell the MarkII and buy a 7D. Firstly, I wanted a bit more reach from my 70-200mm lens for my motorsport photography and wasn’t convinced by expensive teleconverters. Secondly, my old 5D was knocking on a bit, still had all the same flaws, and was losing value all the time.

So I sold the MarkII and made enough to buy a new 7D killing both birds. I’d taken an ailing camera out of my bag and replaced it with a brand new, warrantied crop body which would give me 1.6 times more reach on my lenses. That’s a business decision I am still very happy with.

To wrap up then, if you are doing this for the love, don’t feel like you have to have the latest, best kit. Work with what you have until you are held back by it’s limits, then upgrade. You’ll learn so much more that way and be able to really use what you buy next. If you are making money from photography, only buy what you really need, not what you want and keep an eye on resale values of your old kit and the cost of what you plan to replace it with.

It’s Definitely Not About The Gear!

It’s Definitely Not About The Gear!


Ever heard someone else, or even yourself, using any of these excuses?

“It’s easy to take a photo when you have the latest camera and speedlights”

“If I had all the gear he had, I could take photos as good as him”

“Once I get that new *insert gadget here* I’ll start taking better shots”

Well slap that person round the back of the head, even if it was you, because quite frankly, that’s crap.

A good photographer can take a better photo with bad gear than a bad photographer can take with the best gear available.

If you are waiting until you can buy the latest and greatest camera body, or that new lens before you start pushing yourself, that day will never come. There will always be that next thing you tell yourself you need before you can become better. It’s a crutch and you don’t need it. Waiting for something to happen or making excuses won’t make you a better photographer – taking photographs will.

I think we are all guilty of hiding to some degree, myself included, so don’t let yourself hide anymore and stop making those excuses.

Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

And to underline my point, here’s the Strobist, making stand out images with a Buzz Lightyear novelty camera and a cheap knock off flash!