This post isn’t about law, but rather about my work in documentary video—it’s a post for gear heads, especially users of the Panasonic Lumix GH4.
I’m beginning to prepare to shoot a film that will accompany the rare book exhibition Mike Widener and I are putting together for the Grolier Club in New York. I’ve got a lot of nifty things planned for the film, and it looks possible that it will receive outside financial support, so I’m really excited about it. And because I’ve benefited so much from online discussions about gear—posts of the “what’s in my camera bag” type—this seemed like a symbolically appropriately time to share the conclusions to which I’ve come in assembling my own kit. A bit of paying it forward. I hope some people out there will find it helpful to see what a prosumer-level filmmaker has assembled all in one place and how I work with what I have. Narrative storytelling, analysis, and high theory may have come naturally to me; learning about gear has taken a bit longer.
I should say from the start that I don’t have a lot of money to spend. I’ve been able to assemble these items over the past three years by not going out to eat; grinding our own flour, baking our own bread, and making our own yogurt; keeping the heat in our New England home at 58 degrees; teaching a few pinch-hit, four-day intensive courses in constitutional law; and by selling of bunch of my old books from graduate school. Some of the gear also was a gift from family and friends. Because I don’t have a lot of money to throw around, I’ve thought a very great deal before putting down my cash, justifying each purchase carefully. And looking at it all now, I’m gob smacked at how it’s grown into a very respectable box of tools, despite the fact that I don’t have a proper paying job.
Has the sacrifice been worth it? Without question. For me, the chance to explore the great artistic medium of our time has been beyond price. I learn something new and subtle about the world every day I look through the viewfinder or fire up Adobe Premiere Pro.
A word about how and what I film. I’m self-taught, solo, and DIY. I produce, write, film, and edit entirely on my own. I don’t have a crew, even a minimal one, though occasionally my wife holds a circular reflector disc—which is really helpful! Most of the people I interview are scholars and librarians. This means that I need to keep my kit light, so that I can move around quickly and carry it all myself (I typically have less than a minute to set up a shot), and I need to keep it small, so that when I’m pointing the camera it won’t be intimidating to people who are naturally shy.
A final note. A lot of what I’ve purchased has been inspired by the advice of the great site Suggestion of Motion. Of all the forums and blogs I’ve read, it’s been the most helpful for my purposes. Readers may also recognize recommendations that come from other websites, but I’m afraid I’m no longer able to find the original source of my inspiration.
The Camera and its Settings
Would I like a RED? Sure! But the first DSLR I purchased was the Panasonic Lumix GH2 with a 14-42mm kit lens, and I absolutely loved it. And then few years ago, I upgraded to the GH4, and of course I love it even more. It’s light, comfortable to use, and it takes beautiful video and stills. I also like its on-camera stereo microphone, which has always worked really well for me, especially in the early days when I didn’t have an external shotgun mic and before I began using an external audio recorder. I was prompted to purchase the GH4 when I realized I would be filming regularly in Europe. The ability to switch system frequency between NTSC and PAL, and to record in PAL countries over an extended period of time, was huge (I never trusted myself to install the available hack from that Russian genius, shuddering at the possibility of bricking the camera). Those GH2 Hitler parodies on YouTube, they make me laugh and cry:
I generally shoot 1080p at 24fps (23.98 fps) at a bit rate of 100 Mbps. I’m not a fan of 30fps and 60fps—I want a cinema look. I avoid the 200 Mbps setting because of its ALL-I compression format. I wish I could regularly take advantage of the camera’s ability to shoot 4K, but there’s just not enough processing power on my MacBook to edit the footage without a world of pain. GPU acceleration would be grand, but for the moment, it’s out of reach. I take stills in RAW, without the option to include a JPG.
I shoot in Creative Movie Mode, generally on manual, keeping the shutter at 1/50 (1/twice the frame rate) and the ISO around 800, which is the camera’s native level. Because there’s no extra signal boost needed, setting the GH4 to ISO 800 helps prevent the noise and artifacts that can be evident at levels both above and below 800. The noise and artifacts aren’t too bad, at least below ISO 3200—that is, until I start seriously editing the footage. Truth be told, the noise and artifacts are never prohibitively distracting, though they become more so as my aesthetic standards rise. So 800 is my target.
What I’m going to say now may make some people cringe and throw socks at me, but I also shoot on the shutter priority setting, letting the camera automatically adjust the aperture and then removing the audio noise of the lens in post. I do this to maintain speed and ease while filming, since I’m often filming, walking, and talking to someone at the same time. Using shutter priority means that I risk losing my desired shallow depth of field. When I think that’s a danger, in bright light, I use the touch-screen with my thumb to lower the ISO.
Speaking of auto settings, when I’m interviewing and filming while walking, I often use shutter auto focus, which I find works really well. This means setting AFS with the focus mode lever, but turning off continuous auto focus in the motion picture panel of the menu settings.
I shoot in the “Natural” color profile, with some changes. I bring down the contrast by -3 and the sharpness by -5 and the noise reduction by -2, and I boost the hue by +2. The changes come Suggestion of Motion, and they seems right for me. It creates a nice image. I know there are other profile suggestions out there, and some people would contest the sharpness reduction in particular. I like this look, and as much as I can I want to get the picture right in camera rather than working on it extensively in post. I like Cine V a lot, too, but Cine D looks too flat to my eye, and my color correction skills aren’t yet sufficient to make it work. I don’t mess around with the other amazing menu options, like master pedestal and V-log, because I don’t yet have full control over their consequences. Give me a couple more years.
I use the variable bit rate option to set C1 on the mode dial to shoot at 96fps. That way I can also toggle easily between 24fps in Creative Movie Mode, slo-mo on C1, and full manual settings, all with a flick of my thumb.
I always carry an extra battery. The battery life on the GH4 has been really good, and a huge improvement over the GH2, but it pays to be prepared. When I’m in manual focus and occasionally use peaking (which I access through the Fn 5 button; I’ve set Fn 2 to zebra stripes), I find that the battery drains more quickly. I own a third battery that doesn’t fill up all the way. It was purchased off market—live and learn. I won’t do that again.
I have three lenses, and they are all wonderful, though for different reasons:
Leica DG Summilux 25mm/f 1.4. Gosh, I love this lens: the silkiness of the image, the bokeh, the smooth way in handles. Plus it’s fast, which is really important for me since I often shoot in low light. At 25mm (the equivalent of 50mm on a 35mm camera), the angle of view approximates what the human eye sees, which gives the images an intimate, natural quality. I try to shoot with this lens whenever possible. But. The challenge is that 25 mm is sometimes too narrow to capture a scene without stepping back significantly—which among other things undermines the sound quality of an interview taken with a shotgun mic—and since I mostly shoot hand-held, I sometimes like a wider lens to help stabilize the footage. I supplement this lens with a ND8 filter and a circular polarizer, because I often shoot items under glass. I keep them in pouch in my pocket. I attach a clear filter on all my lenses.
Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8. A zoom is never going to be as sharp as a prime, but this is quite good, and it’s a wonderfully flexible lens for my purposes. 12 mm is just wide enough for what I shoot without causing image distortion (though I do have my eye on a nice fisheye … maybe if we start raising our own chickens). Of course, the lens doesn’t see quite so well in the dark as my Leica, but I’m willing to accept the trade-off to be able to shift from wide to my favorite 25mm to 35mm (for portraits). There’s a comparable Olympus lens with even wider aperture, but I like that this lens has image stabilization—even though, like peaking, using it eats the battery. I often shoot hand-held, and it’s not unusual for me to take a bunch of stills at the end of a shoot. And after holding the camera for a couple of hours, my hands get tired. So it just seemed like a good idea to have the IOS option—I feel safe with it.
Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95. Be still, my beating heart. This has been my biggest splurge. I remember looking through it for the first time at B&H and my jaw dropping. What you see is just so beautiful. And f/0.95? Yowza! That’s just what I need for shooting in a library. When I use this lens, I feel like a star. But it also poses challenges. First, it’s heavy. That isn’t a problem for photo work, but when shooting video I need to be able to hold up the camera at chest level, pointed steadily at the person I’m talking to, while the camera is locked in a cage on top of which are mounted a shotgun mic, a passive attenuator, a wireless lav receiver, and an external audio recorder. I can hold all that pretty steady for only about thirty minutes, and right now I’m in good shape. The second challenge of the lens is its manual focus and aperture—which generally are good things, but not while I’m walking and talking and checking the composition with aging eyes. That’s why I don’t have this lens permanently mounted on the camera, because it is really, really nice.
Sennheiser MKE Compact Video Camera Shotgun Microphone. Everyone seems to use Rode, but I like my dependable Sennheiser, which is even smaller—and, frankly, I’ll buy anything that’s German. If I take my GH4 from its cage, set it on a tripod, and put the Sennheiser on the shoe mount, then my whole set-up has a really minimal footprint. And I think the sound is quite good for what it is, though I’m not a great judge. I recently purchased a dead cat to protect it even better from the wind, and that’s been terrific. I generally hook the mic into my external audio using an XLR connector or into a passive attenuator (which then plugs into the camera), but I can use it stand alone if needed. I’ve set the microphone adjustment in camera to -6dB, and I check that the audio level generally reaches the fourth square on the screen indicator and that it doesn’t go above the fifth square.
Zoom H5 Handy Recorder with Interchangeable Microphone System. This small recorder allows me to capture very high quality sound in 24-bit/96kHz. I’ve purchased some high-quality 3-inch audio cable to plug the device into the passive attenuator, which keeps the wires from getting jostled when I put my eye to the viewfinder. I then plug attenuator into the camera’s audio-in jack—that way I record two or three tracks separately on the Zoom and then have a back-up in camera mix. I plug my headphones into the Zoom’s headphone jack. Sometimes I’ll also plug them initially into the camera’s headphone jack to make sure I’m not getting distortion, though I find I can generally rely on the levels bars on the monitor. To keep the set-up a small as possible, I remove the Zoom’s external microphone and keep it in my pocket. Extra micro SD cards—for sure.
Sennheiser wireless lav system, EW 112-p G3. This is one of my recent purchases, so I haven’t used it a whole lot, but so far, I’m amazed at how well it performs. I set the camera up in one corner of the house and have no trouble recording excellent audio from the other corner, three rooms away and through multiple walls. I can’t wait to use it more—including on my shoot next week. The system comes in one of three frequency ranges: 516-558 MHz, 626-668 MHz, and 566-608 MHz. I checked first to see what the major broadcast frequencies were in my area before I purchased it so that I’d be sure there was no background interference with the signal. I plug the receiver into the Zoom through the supplied XLR cable.
Sony ECM-44B omnidirectional lav. Another of my recent purchases, which I plan to use for face-to-face, sit-down interviews. The sound is just fantastic. I won’t hook it up directly to the camera, of course, but instead plug it into the Zoom H5, to be set on nearby table, using the shotgun as a back-up source.
Beachtek MCC-2 Audio Adapter. This passive attenuator can reduce the output levels of my basically non-adjustable shotgun mic. It’s also a great place to mount all my audio gear on top of the GH4. I put the Zoom H5 on the left mount, the Sennheiser shotgun on the top mount, and the Sennheiser wireless lav receiver on the right mount. In a pinch, I can also plug in an extra wired lav into one of the input jacks.
Zoom H1 Ultra Portable Digital Recorder. I keep this recorder in my inside vest pocket, turned on, and mic myself with a lav. With the audio quality set to mid-range and recording MP3 rather than WAV, I can get a whole day of recording on new batteries. The audio isn’t as great at the Zoom H5, but then I don’t speak a lot in my videos, so it’s no problem to fix those few seconds in post in Adobe Audition. Racing through an 8-hour recording to find a few seconds of audio might seem like finding a needle in a haystack, but it’s not so bad. And then I know I have decent audio of me in case I need to use it and don’t want to dub it in later.
Varavon Armor II Standard Cage. One of the unexpectedly great things about this cage was the graphite rod that I can attach to the left side and adjust to any angle. By holding onto the rod with my left hand and slipping my right hand through the very comfortable leather strap, I can achieve quite stable hand-held footage. I can also adjust the rod when I set the camera down while resting to prevent it from tipping forward from the weight of my lens or other gear. Of course, it’s great to be able to mount things on top of the cage, and I love the removable handle at the top, which allows me to shoot low. The cage is fit for the GH4, so it works well with most of the buttons and dials, with one great exception: I find it awkward to reach the white balance button.
Zacuto Marauder Foldable Camera Rig. This is built like a piece of military hardware, yet it’s incredibly light. I’ve tried a couple of inexpensive rig and shoulder-strap options before, items for $50-75, and in they end they were really disappointing. It’s a recent purchase. I’m excited to be using it, though I think it will take some training to hold it properly so that it doesn’t register the rise in my chest while breathing yet also doesn’t cut off circulation to my arm.
Genaray LED-7100 T 312 LED light. The little light that could. It’s small, powerful enough for my needs, and it produces basically no heat, which is essential for me since I’m often shooting rare books.
Flip Video mini-tripods. I keep two of these in my pocket. I can screw them into the bottom of the cage in a flash and then, using the cage’s graphite rod for further stability, I can set up the camera unobtrusively on a table.
Vanguard Alto Pro 263AB 100 Tripod. It’s a brick house—it’s mighty, mighty. This is a really solid, stable tripod. I especially like the central column, which can be adjusted from 0-180 degrees—which is perfect for photographing books. I use it with an Oben PD-117 3-way pan/tilt head, which I like, though it’s sometimes a little sticky. I always have twine tied to the hook at the bottom of the central column so that I can quickly tie my back pack to it for stabilization. I also keep some rubber bands tied to the end of the twine, which I use now and then for smoother pans. This tripod is heavy, so I also have a light, basic Oben tripod when I’m not going to be photographing books.
Varavon Slidecam V-600 Camera slider. I always wondered how professionals got those great reveal shots. Now I know. Another recent purchase, a bit of an indulgence, but I’m looking forward to using it for artistic purposes.
A very big sheet of green cloth. It’s not easy being green, but it’s awesome when you are.
White balance card. 3×5. Plastic. In my back pocket. Better than a sheet of paper.
Tape. The most important item in my kit? Maybe. Tape marks the spot for the tripod, and it covers the cords of practical lights.
Impact Collapsible Circulator Reflector Disc, 22”. Because it’s all about light. And sound. And motion. But it’s especially about light.
Small multi-tool with screwdriver with flat and Phillips heads. So that I can repair anything that breaks, including the chair I’m sitting on.
Lens cleaning kit. Thanks, Mom! And thanks for the very large camera bag.
Miller & Schneider eyecup. This works great—very comfortable! It’s really helpful for shooting outside. Thanks, mother-in-law!
Pockets. Lots of them.
A Lynda and Peachpit subscription. When I was learning Premiere Pro, I thought the best teacher for my purposes was Maxim Jago. He deserves a international medal. I’m really looking forward to learning Speedgrade.
Books. They sit on my desk. And they’ve been incredibly helpful in training my eye and my brain. The most helpful have been: Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus, The Filmmaker’s Handbook; Joseph v. Mascelli, The Five C’s of Cinematography; Blain Brown, Cinematography: Theory and Practice; Ken Dancyger, The Technique of Film and Video Editing; Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History; and Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye.
I also have some books of film theory on my desk, but for the sake of my gear-head friends and most of the people I know involved in the film industry, I won’t mention them. I hope my friends from graduate school will forgive me for not doing so—we can talk about my theory while practical friends are in the other room.
[Update April 8: I’ve revised some of the discussion of my audio gear to reflect my current practice.]