Welcome to Part 2 of our special series on how to be a DIY Journalist! Last week we got a little cerebral, but today we get hands on.
Can You See Me Now?
Last week I mentioned you should have a smartphone. Let’s get a little more into that. You can no longer get by with just a piece of plastic that makes phone calls only. You need text messaging, you need access to your social network, you need pictures, video, and email.
Does that sound overwhelming? It can be, but a smartphone keeps all that sorted nice and neat for you. The DIY journalist will be working in the field most of the time and at a desk only a small percentage of time.
You need access to social networks so you can share your information. Remember, social networks are the way you get your reporting out to the world. You do not rely on radio, you do not rely on TV, and you definitely do not rely on newspaper to do the job for you. You don’t work for them, most likely. Plus, your information can spread quickly, especially over twitter. When I am reporting on some breaking news, I make use of twitter where my live news tweets get retweeted many times over.
People LOVE video and pictures of what is happening around you and with these nifty social media apps already installed on your smartphone, you will have little problem pleasing your viewers. They make it so easy to attach a picture or short video.
The easiest way to live stream anything is with a smartphone. You can buy something called The Cube but it will cost you over $1,000. Your fancy schmancy smartphone will it do it for far less.
Now you are probably wondering which smartphone to get. You really have two choices in this market and that is either an Android based smartphone or the iPhone. I use the iPhone 4S but you do not need to use that particular phone. I have seen many people out live streaming using Android phones and are likely to be less expensive.
Alright, so maybe you want to do what I do, put out fancy video reports.
You can actually buy a special adapter that will allow you to attach external microphones to your iPhone, which would work pretty well if you are just going out to get some interviews. However, I imagine this would really drain the battery quick on your smartphone and not be too ideal. So you are likely going to want to get some better equipment. But if you can’t afford any of the below, I would look into this option, as the adapter is only about $50.
It is very true if you have the latest in HD camera equipment your videos are going to look very professional, but the truth is that good video quality is second to good sound quality. So if you are going to try to save some money, I would say do it here.
I started off using the Canon VIXIA HV40. It films to miniDV in HD (High Definition resolution, like your brand new flat screen TV). This was what I had at the time and it cost about $640 when I purchased it back in November 2010. It did pretty good quality and I generally filmed in 24fps (24 frames per second is the standard look for movies) because I learned how to use a camera by making movies. Don’t worry, we’ll get more into why this matters later.
The point here is that the HV40 uses miniDV tapes. Tapes degrade over a short period of time. I did not have a lot of money and those high quality HD tapes are expensive, so I used to tape over old material all the time. After a month or so of using these 6 or so tapes, day in and day out, I was starting to lose important footage, like bits of interviews here and there.
So I recommend strongly against getting a camera that runs on tape. Eventually, I upgraded to the Canon T3i which records to SD cards. A MUCH better option. The cards do not degrade over time like the miniDV tapes. Another bonus is that when you pull in your footage from a tape, you need to do it in realtime. So imagine sitting at your computer with 3 hours of taped footage. It will take you 3 hours to get it on your computer. With the SD cards, transfer rates are much faster. I can do the same amount of footage in maybe a half hour. The camera kit, which comes with a lens, is about $1k.
The T3i is overall a good camera. You can take really nice pictures aside from recording video. The camera is really designed to be used for photography but it has been adapted into an indie filmmakers gem because it has a good price tag and you can add onto it. That being said it has its drawbacks.
The biggest drawback is it times out at 11 minutes of non-stop recording. If you want to capture an entire press conference you are going to be out of luck unless you hack the firmware.
I think the most ideal camera for in the field work is probably something similar to the Panasonic P2. I have played with this camera a bit before. It has XLR inputs built into the camera which means you can directly plug in your microphone. However these cameras run into the $4k range and the memory cards are each around $325. So not very ideal if you are on a tight budget.
Alright, so we went through a very cheap option to a very expensive option for video equipment. As I said, you can cheat a little here, because audio is really what matters. I think the bottom line is don’t choose a camera that records to tape. Go with something that records digitally because it will last longer. The cards will be initially more expensive than a box video tapes, but it will quickly pay off and you can sometimes find very good deals on high quality cards (SD cards are all over the place).
Invest in sound, your viewers will thank you. As I mentioned before, I learned how to put videos together through my background in filmmaking. In filmmaking they tell you the most important thing is sound. You could have beautiful film quality but if your sound is terrible, people will think it’s really mediocre. I think the same applies in video reporting, especially when you are trying to get interviews.
Sometimes I get stuck in big marches with lots of drum noise around me and lots of people screaming. If I did not have the microphone I have, it is likely that most of those interviews would be nearly impossible to hear.
Again, my hardware was inherited from my work in film so I use a shotgun microphone. Shotgun microphones are also known as boom mics. They are long and thin and are very good at cutting out the background noise. You also do not need to put them practically up to the mouth of the person you are interviewing (like the standard mics you see reporters using), but that also means they are quite sensitive to sound.
As I said, you don’t need to put them up to someone’s mouth to get what they are saying but you don’t want that kind of microphone at a press conference. I can never put my boom mic up on the mic rack at a press conference because it would just be too loud. There is a fairly good standard reporting microphone that a lot of reporters use that I would suggest instead and that is the Sennheiser MD 46.
I am poor and do not own this particular microphone so I have not been able to test it out but I know that RTTV uses it and Sennheiser markets it as a “high-quality reporter’s microphone with cardiod pick-up pattern.” It is well priced too, you can get it for $200 or a little less. I will probably upgrade to this microphone when I have a bit more money (my shotgun microphone kit actually cost more than this microphone). I have heard sound tests of it online, and it is really very nice.
So what am I saying? Well if you are poor and you inherit a decent microphone that turns out to be a shotgun microphone, go with it. It will be very good quality, they are just so sensitive (sometimes I have to point them away from the origin of sound to adjust). But if you can afford to purchase a microphone, I would suggest going with the Sennheiser. It is designed for being roughed around but you definitely want a windshield for it for those windy days.
There is one other issue and that is the sound mixer. I use a sound mixer because my microphone requires phantom power. Here is another reason why you should get the Sennheiser microphone: it does not require phantom power or battery power. If I had this microphone lying around, I would no longer have a need to strap this annoying sound mixer to my body. But if you, like me, are stuck with a boom microphone that runs on phantom power, you are going to need a sound mixer.
Luckily, you are reading this guide, so you will make the investment and save yourself $150 for a sound mixer. Again, I inherited all of this sound equipment from my filmmaking work so that’s what I got stuck with. When I started doing video reports, I did not have extra money to spend, and furthermore, I did not know what I needed in terms of sound equipment for video reporting. However, you now know what I did not know. So hopefully this is saving you a few dollars.
So let’s say you are like me and you got a microphone that requires phantom power. You need a sound mixer to power that microphone. I use a mini-mixer that allows me to plug in three microphones at once (this is the only bonus to having this mixer). I then use an old belt to strap the mixer to my body. I can control the volume of the sound on the mixer as well as through the camera, for a little bit of added control. The mixer then plugs into my camera.
My mixer has come in very handy at press conferences or events where a sound engineer is available. I have often been able to plug straight into the sound board to get the sound coming from the speaker’s microphone. This allows me to plug my microphone into the other microphone input so I can get both my questions and response recorded in good quality sound. So a sound mixer is good to have handy, but you really don’t want to drag it around while you are in the field. I have never found a reason to use more than one microphone in the field.
Extra Equipment Needs
We covered the most important parts but there is something else left. You need extra batteries to power your equipment. I have four batteries for my Canon T3i and a special battery pack that attaches to the camera to allow me to use two batteries at a time. I also carry extra batteries for my sound mixer.
You need extra memory cards. Do not rely on just one. I use 32gig SD cards and I have four of them. They each hold about 2 hours worth of video. I do not usually use more than two at a time, but if it is a long day of reporting, it is good to have those extra cards.
I have extra battery chargers and rechargeable batteries.
You will also need an onboard light for your camera. The news does not always break in broad daylight. Sometimes it happens at night. A good LED light box will do the trick. They range from $70-100+. That certainly is a big dent in your wallet for a light but trust me, you need it.
Invest in an on the go charger for your smartphone, too. Using apps or video on your smartphone drains the battery. My backup battery works like a phone case and will add at least another hour of battery life.
I hoped to touch on press credentials this week but talking about equipment takes a lot of space. If you want more detail on equipment you can email me and I am happy to dig deeper. Overall, you should have learned what are the essentials of DIY journalist equipment. You should start with a smartphone and build up from there.
Bottom line, if you cannot afford anything else, get a smartphone, a smartphone microphone adapter, and the Sennheiser microphone.
Next week we will talk about dealing with authority and press credentials. We are not done talking shop, so don’t fret. We will return to the production side again.
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Until next time!