By Gary Rabenko
Your cell phone may have great video image quality. But try following action from a distance with varying zoom and manual control over the exposure, and you realize it is impossible to shoot sustained coverage of an indoor event.
Specs, like resolution and zoom ratio, are usually considered when purchasing a camera. But ergonomics is not, and that can be critical in allowing or limiting what you can do with the camera. How the camera handles can make all the difference in the world, both to a skilled cameraman forced to accept limitations due to budget constraints and an amateur who might never think of that criterion before making a purchase.
The digital revolution saw drastic changes to photography from 2000 to 2005. Since then, many improvements have occurred. Mainstream video lagged behind photographic technology, with the biggest changes occurring in the last six years. I expect to see video refined similarly in the coming years.
Three different types of video cameras are used professionally today. The newest style video camera is the High Definition Single Lens Reflex (HDSLR). It looks just like the ubiquitous 35mm camera that amateurs, pros, and the press have used since the late 1950s. With a vast assortment of lenses, and image sensors designed for the demanding photographer, the image quality can be amazing. Certain lenses that guys like me have used for decades to make sharp vivid photographs can now produce crystal-clear video. Great optics coupled with high-quality, low-light imaging sensors have made these small, mass-produced, easily available, and inexpensive (under $3K) cameras the latest rage in video production. They are used by reality shows, documentaries, and now at weddings. Their image quality blows away all but the best cameras in any form factor. But other drawbacks can be major limitations.
Prior to the HDSLR, blimp-type cameras had become popular and have been used by some event studios for years. These small handheld cameras are shaped like a blimp or a small challah. Cost is usually under $6K. Much smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the big old shoulder-mounted cameras, many talk of blimps as the camera that they started on, having had no experience with earlier designs. Some call them shoulder-mounted cameras because with a simple bracket, or monopod, they can be at shoulder height, and even partially rest on the shoulder. But they are far different from true shoulder-mounted cameras that were originally designed for filmmakers and cinematographers.
As technology allowed better electronics to be packaged in smaller spaces, large camera design was no longer a necessity for good imagery. Blimp-type cameras had the same basic controls the bigger cameras had, along with a popular added feature—autofocus—that professional cameras did not have. Plus they were compact, needed less power, cost less, and weren’t so obtrusive. Ergonomic? Forget about it!
Their controls were a combination of buttons, switches, menu settings, and dials that were not designed to be controlled while shooting in the moment. This was not so important to most cameramen, who would keep the camera on a tripod, using any and all fingers to vary controls at odd locations, adjusting them before the start of each interview, angle change, or director’s take.
These cameras appealed to first-time camera buyers. They also were fine for filmmakers or documentary makers who would plan out the shots, and set up the cameras for each shot. Long before high-definition video, which has four times the detail of standard definition, these cameras were proving themselves as reliable and a viable solution for videomakers. Ergonomics, shmergonomics! You got an image with these cameras. You got sound. It was good enough. Established pros at first were not keen on these cameras. Blimps were considered amateur. Serious cameramen, proud of their hard-earned skill and talent, continued to operate the bigger, bulkier, professional-looking cameras. Gradually over 15 years, this blimp-shaped camera was accepted by newcomers, budget-constrained pros, businesspeople who were not interested in camera-handling skills, tired old-timers, and many wanting a backup camera in a smaller, cheaper model.
Most people have a budget. This is true if you are making a simcha, a commercial, or buying a camera. Fast-forward to HD. New cameras were needed. Blimp cameras filled the need. They were reliable, small, cheap, and now high-definition. Event videographers who tried to put off going HD from SD (standard definition) eventually had little choice. Televisions were getting bigger and fancier. Computers were used more for video. Widescreen video (16:9 aspect ratio) fit those new screens. Most older standard-definition cameras were not widescreen. Continuing to use a great camera like the Sony DSR 500, which was widescreen, had great image quality, and needed very little light, meant not being able to sell it before it lost all value. The public’s expectation of HD cameras led pros to consider options in new cameras.
The original shoulder-mounted camera was designed for photographers and filmmakers. Ergonomics were of paramount concern. The cameraman wanted to have his fingers on the controls to change settings in real time as he was shooting. That was what being a pro was all about! For that, the camera had to be balanced.
Pros who choose to shoot mostly on tripods, rather than developing the handheld camera-handling skill that is prized, might pick up a camera and start shooting with it straight out. Wrong! When properly adjusted, it can balance on the shoulder both front to back and left to right. Its weight actually keeps it firmly placed where I want it to be. I can remove my hands entirely and move around while the camera sits comfortably and safely right there. Yes, it is much heavier—22 pounds fully accessorized compared to 5 pounds. But that allows both hands to work simultaneously and each finger to operate controls strategically placed for such operation—to be found where they should be!
This is a major benefit to using what used to be called a broadcast camera or an ENG (electronic news-gathering) camera, which was by default back then something that sat on the shoulder. Being able to simultaneously vary controls while shooting means being better able to follow action and motion. There is the content that one wants, and then there is the control over the image that one needs to keep it watchable and looking good. These are two very different but equally essential concerns the cameraman needs to consider and be in control of.
Ergonomics play a huge role in how easily and accurately both content and controls can be varied in real time while shooting. The 35mm HDSLRs have incredible image quality compared to most other cameras. They are also the least expensive, but the many accessories required to minimize the other many shortcomings start adding up a bit. Most blimp-shaped cameras, as well as the smaller palmcorders one might carry in a purse, do not have great image quality in low light, though there are a few exceptions, and a couple have incredible image quality—they just are so awkward and difficult to adjust in real time while shooting that they can have a crippling effect on the footage.
Low-light sensitivity is a major advantage to the HDSLR, which can get great imagery in candlelit situations. That is a reason to love this format, as most expensive and bulky ENG cameras do not come close in-low light performance. There are a few exceptions and some ENG cameras can possibly produce the best of all worlds for events. Unfortunately, there are too few experienced camerapersons who still want to lug around such a big machine, or who care to invest in something that will quickly lose value, or could be compensated enough to bring such skill and effort to what every day is being done rather easily by small and cheap alternatives. But the HDSLR is a still camera that also can record video. Still cameras, as you might guess, are short on video setting controls. The ergonomics are great for photography but awful for shooting video.
Now that we understand the camera types available, next I will explore how ergonomics have played a huge role in promoting the shorter videos popular today. v
(To be continued)
Gary Rabenko may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.