Working with the Sony A7S for News: My first impressions

My Sony A7S
My Sony A7S

Last week I posted a short blog post detailing the kit that I’m currently using to shoot short features on. I decided to use the Sony A7S as my camera of choice as I was looking for something I could shoot high quality video on while still being discrete and able to move fast. There are many similar cameras on the market but a lot of shooters I respect have the A7S and convinced me to go for it. (arse covering note – This was purely my decision based on the type of work I will mainly be doing and is not an “officially” endorsed choice by my employer)

So far I’ve now shot three films on it and a number of short interviews etc. Below are two of my most recent pieces, they are available in 1080 on Youtube so please change your Youtube settings to get the best quality. . .

I’m no pixel peeper, these thoughts here are purely based on first impressions and my own experiences in the real world. The first thing you may want to know is why did I choose the Sony 18-200 power zoom lens? Well, as you may know it is a lens built for APSC size sensors and therefore is cheaper and lighter. To be honest I was willing to sacrifice the ultra shallow depth of field look in favour of versatility and less rolling shuttter (which I’m told can be more of an issue on the A7S in full frame mode). So far I’ve found the lens really good, its width and image stabilisation allows a lot of hand held movement which suits my style perfectly. The power zoom on it though is incredibly slow so I’ve taken to using it in manual zoom mode. At the long end of the lens I have noticed some rolling shutter while reframing but frankly who cares? I never understand people moaning about rolling shutter in tests while whip panning – how often do you use a whip pan or a reframe in your films?

For focus I’m switching a lot between manual and auto – I like the auto but wouldn’t trust it for interviews as it can drift if the person glances down or similar. I think I will buy a full frame Prime lens for interviews as I’m not totally happy with the look I’ve been able to achieve with this lens ie. It’s a struggle to knock the background out.

Picture profile is the next thing. . . I would love to shoot S-log 2 but there are two main reasons why I don’t (so far). Firstly much of my work is quick turn around and I don’t want the pain of having to grade all of my pics. Secondly I’m now working in the African sunshine and often at 200 ISO – for Log I’m told the lowest ISO you can use is 3200 which kills it as an option to me. I have been playing a little but a good place to start is to follow Philip Blooms settings that he recommends in his seminar below:

I’m currently using Picture Profile 1 with Gamma at Cine 3 and colour mode as Pro. . .To be honest I’ve found it looks great indoors and in low light but I’m not totally happy with my colours and blacks outdoors, especially in the sunshine. In the films above I had to lush and crush a bit in FCPX (ie bring down the blacks and add a bit of saturation). I would love any advice about settings that you think would be best for me working in bright sunshine a lot.

For sound I’m switching between the camera’s internal mic for simple GV’s or discrete/undercover shooting and then adding the sony xlr-k1m adaptor with radio mics for interviews etc. I found this rig fairly decent though I had to play with the settings on my mics a lot before I could get rid of most of the hiss I was getting – I still sometimes have to use a bit of background noise reduction in FCPX. I also have a simple Sony radio mic adaptor that allows me to plug a receiver straight into the camera’s hot shoe – this is actually lovely and for many interviews is all I need.

Well, it’s late and I’m tired so that’s all for now but if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

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Inside my kit bag: A VJ using the Sony A7S

I recently started work as a “Digital video producer” (essentially a VJ with a remit to do innovative work) based in Johannesburg. I had a tiny budget to purchase kit (£4000) and was keen to keep it as light weight as possible while still being practical enough to shoot features and hard news. . .not easy for a guy used to working with a PMW 500 and a tonne of spares and lights etc.

My entire shooting kit now fits in a small photographers rucksack. I’ve posted a photo and a kit list below for those who are interested.

Inside my kit bag
Inside my kit bag

– Sony A7S with Movcam cage and Black Rapid strap
– Sony 18-200mm Power zoom (this is for the APSC size sensor and works great on the A7S which can switch sensor size automatically)
– Sony XLR-K1M XLR Box and Microphone Kit (this is the XLR adaptor that allows me to attach two “pro” mics directly into the A7S)
– Sony A5100 camera with the 16-50mm kit lens (this is a great little “B” camera)
– Sony UWP-D11 Wireless Package (cheap as chips radio mic kit. . .Seems Ok so far but I haven’t had to test it in a challenging environment)
– A Rode Reporter mic
– A leatherman
– A 5m long XLR cable
– Mic stand
– 2x Sony Battery chargers
– 7x batteries (the same batteries work for both of my cameras)
– Notebook

So I also have a laptop bag with three small LED lights and a couple of stands in it. My edit kit lives in a small wheeled bag.

So far I’ve shot two pieces using this kit. . . I loved it though I found it hard to get my focus and exposure spot on in bright sunlight with moving subjects. I’ll write a full review of the kit once I have had a chance to do more and put it through it paces.

Do news camerapeople have a future?

I recently finished editing a series of films for a project looking at the “Future of news.” It was a wonderful opportunity to hear what brains much bigger than mine thought about where our industry is heading. It was exhilarating to realise that I’m not the only person in the world who feels that the format of TV news is out dated and formulaic.

So what do I think? Well firstly TV news seems to be a dead man walking. . .When there is breaking news I, like many others, now turn to Twitter, facebook and live blogs. News channels are no longer first with the news. I think the nightly TV bulletin has a slightly longer shelf life because of its ability to curate the days events into a digestible thirty minute slot, but I think it too will eventually die out. I now create my own bulletins by going through the Youtube pages of my favourite news providers, creating a list of films that take my fancy and then streaming them to my TV via a Google Chromecast dongle. And that’s the thing, video news (as opposed to TV news) is growing in importance. The statistics for the growth of web video are staggering. For those of us who shoot pictures for a living I think the job is changing but with that change comes exciting new opportunities.

So in this new world will there still be a place for the traditional news cameraperson? That’s a tough one. . .My heart gives a resounding “yes” while my head grudgingly admits that it’s unlikely. Love it or hate it the VJ/Sojo/Video Producer model does make sense on a lot of levels. The problem for me is that too many traditional cameraman see this model as a threat to be avoided instead of an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands. Over the last ten years there has emerged a pattern of news crews standing by, complaining as Producers and Reporters pick up cameras and begin to shoot their own reports. Hay, I get that and have been guilty of it myself – until I realised that we can do it too. It is actually a hell of a lot easier for an experienced cameraperson to make a film on his or her own than it is for a Reporter who is still trying to remember how to focus and white balance.

I am a cameraman and picture editor with fourteen years experience. I recently spent six months working as a Video Journalist for an International news channel and I am about to start a year long assignment as a Shooting Producer working across Africa. There is no way I would have got these jobs without my technical skills. Believe me, in a world where video is king, our skills are valued and can lead to exciting new gigs. I’m not a great writer and I’m certainly not confident standing in front of the camera, but as news changes I think that is less important. Most of my films have no voice over at all but allow the subject to tell their own story, I use text and graphics to fill in any gaps and if I do need a Piece to Camera I eschew the classic stand-up in favour of a rough and ready “selfie” style PTC that celebrates the fact I’m not a traditional news reporter rather than hiding it. I’ll never get on a traditional evening news report but it’s a style that seems to work well for the web.

Of course I still think there is a place for multi person teams. For example live broadcasts will always benefit from an extra person to organise the details, watch the kit and hold back crowds. Big stories and in depth films that need deeper context will also benefit from two heads coming together. As multimedia becomes more prevalent it is too much to expect one person to Shoot, Edit, Report, take photos, design graphics and code the data visualisations that will illustrate the stories – this is where team members with different skills and experience will be invaluable.

In conclusion my point is this – TV might be dying but Video will be king for a long time to come. As camerapeople we need to keep embracing the changes, learning new skills and we must make sure that we are at the forefront of the news business as it tries to find its feet in an ever evolving world. . .I just hope that our pay reflects our willingness to adapt and change – but that is another story.

Sony A5100 video test

I’m always looking for a fun second camera to add new angles and new opportunities to my broadcast filming. Dan Chung over at mentioned the Sony A5100 when I met up with him over Christmas and so I thought I’d give it a try.

It’s a tiny little camera but can shoot up to 50mbps in XAVS which is incredible really. It’s touch focus is outstanding, as you’ll see in the film it even does smooth pull focuses.

After having shot this test footage “A day in the life of Ketso” I would even be confident enough to use this as an “A” camera if I had to (though an external audio recorder is needed).

FCPX for news editing

In a bid to help people I’ve recorded a tutorial passing on my still rather limited knowledge of using FCPX for news editing. This isn’t an “official” video by any one broadcaster, just me explaining what has been working for me during my regular news edits.

There so many different ways to do everything in this software but I’ve found this a quick and dirty solution to most problems including colour correction, splitting audio and many other things.

I’d love any feedback and also any comments about your own workflow and what I could improve. It’s a long (35 minute) video that shows me edit an entire piece and explain what I am doing. I hope you find it useful!

The five most common cameraman mistakes

I've tried so many different bags over the years. This was my 'Congo forest' look
We all make mistakes, even this cool looking guy. . .

We all make mistakes, God knows I’ve made so many that I’ve lost count. Therefore I thought it only right and proper to share a few of the classics that still seem to happen day in and day out across the industry. Hopefully reading the five most common cameraman mistakes here will remind you not to make them yourself.

The five below are the best I could come up with but feel free to drop me a line via twitter (@imagejunkies) or post a comment below with some of your own.

The silent movie

You set up a beautifully lit interview and marvel over the shade of your backlight, you run personal mics out for the guest and your Reporter, everything looks and sounds great. . .And then you have to grab some B-roll or rush off to another big story. You shoot more amazing shots and then after about five minutes you suddenly remember that you forgot to switch audio track two back to the camera mic! How often have all of us made this mistake and come back with mute pictures? These days I’m not so worried because I shoot on a Sony PMW 500 and it has four channels, two of which I always leave on my camera top mic, but if I’m not editing the pictures I know whoever is won’t be happy that I’ve made them mess around ingesting tracks three and four. A true classic cameraman’s gaffe.

The double tap

Quick the event is happening. . . You are all keyed up and hit the record button, only in the excitement you hit it twice and fail to notice. You follow the action for the next ten minutes, stopping and starting the record and think you’ve got great pictures. Then you come to edit. . .and realise all you have is feet running, shots of the sky and and the start of questions – You got your record out of sync. I once heard that an unnamed BBC cameraman filmed an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini on his return to Iran and made this mistake. In a ballsy move he realised what he’ done, owned up to it and asked the head of the Iranian revolution to do the interview again, and he did!

Oh, you mean I just filmed the wrong person?

So you are outside court and have no idea what the person you are waiting to film looks like. Eventually a colleague appears and points them out as they arrive. You throw the camera on your shoulder and record a brilliant tracking shot as they walk into court. “Did you get them?” asks your colleague, “Of course,” you reply, “How could I miss him? He was six foot two with a limp and a pony tail.” Your colleagues jaw hits the floor with a clang, “No,you idiot, that wasn’t him, it was the short guy next to him.”

Another apocryphal story I have heard was of a local news shooter in the Midlands who spent the day filming Princess Anne only to get to the edit suite and be told that he’d actually gathered wonderful pictures of her Lady in waiting.

I thought your hair was meant to look like that. . .

Let’s be honest, many of us shooters are men. I don’t know a good hair cut from a bad one and if somebody asks me how their hair looks I generally think it looks fine. So why do Reporters expect us to notice if a bit of hair is in the wrong place? I learnt the hard way, if in doubt always mention the hair, collar or tie of those you are filming as people get very upset if you let them appear on TV looking a mess.

I wish I’d have done the interview over there

We are nearly always in a rush, it’s the nature of the news business. Don’t you hate the way you arrive in a location and are expected to chose the perfect spot to film an interview in the space of just ten seconds, having never seen the location before? No matter how much I try to act unflappable I always allow other people’s stress to make me flustered and choose an interview spot without always considering some of the less obvious alternatives. Then half way through the first answer I realise that the opposite side of the room is much nicer or the sun is dropping and I’m about to get a shadow descend across their face. . .You think about stopping and asking everyone to move and then your reporter asks the crunch question, the guest begins to cry and you realise there is no second chance to do it, you’ll just have to live with a mediocre shot.

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Shooter in the Crosshairs: A cameraman novel

Have you ever wanted to read a novel about a cameraman? I have, and I’ve even tried writing some short stories myself. But there aren’t many of them. I’d been looking for a while when I finally discovered “Shooter in the Crosshairs” by Rick Portier. Rick is a cameraman working in regional news in the US but he is also an incredibly talented wordsmith. Even his blog is well written and entertaining

Before I tell you what I thought of his, here’s the blurb to shooter in the crosshairs, to whet your appetite:

Brock Nicholls screwed up.

When his television career went down in flames on the steps of a Dallas courthouse, it made national news and earned the TV photog a night in lock-up. Now, Brock’s stuck in the place where it all started, Baton Rouge, working for Percy Finch and his “Good News” strategy that has viewers flocking to the competition. If that weren’t bad enough, Finch has Brock locked into shooting pet parades for Katie Couric wannabes like Nancy Patrick.
Against his better judgment, Brock drags Nancy to the scene of a fire where he is plunged into the world that originally ignited his passion for this business – a world before cookie-cutter anchors and Barbie doll reporters. There he finds something that has been sorely missing in his life – the first real person he’s met in years, Ida Mae Christophe.

Brock is sure that, through her eyes, he can tell the story of a neglected corner of the metro wallowing in poverty, crime, and fear. A story so intense, it will catapult him back to the top. In order to do it, he and Nancy will have to find the arsonist hiding in the circle of lighted torches around the burning cross.
When he finally comes face-to-face with the man behind the sheet, Brock discovers he has one more demon to exorcise – one from his youth. In order to do that, he’ll have to decide between telling the story of a lifetime and sending a murderer to jail.

shooter in the crosshairs
shooter in the crosshairs

So what did I think of it? I bloody loved it. It really reflected our lives, our needs and our fears. The dialogue is electric and some of the quotes are worth keeping. Below are some of the the dialogue I highlighted on my kindle as I read it:

“It wasn’t her story. It wasn’t even our story. The story belonged to the people in it. We were just helping them tell it. That’s why I’d worked my ass off shooing it.”

“It was an accident. I violated the first rule of news. I got involved. I’m supposed to record the news, not make it.”

“The access. The action. The voyeuristic trips into other people’s lives.”

“Reporters were more interested in what I could do for them than what we could do for the story.”

“I was trained to be a fly on the wall – a silent witness to history – never get involved. I always struggled with when to stop being a journalist and start acting like a human being. When did the story stop being the story and become a real person with real feelings?”

“News is significant. It’s weighty. The first draft of history.”

“It’s a job. Just like bartender or meter maid. You act like it’s some glorious calling – like an art you have to suffer for. It’s what pays the bills, man.”

“Everybody’s got a story worth telling, Slick. Something they did. Sacrifices made. Lessons learned. It’s up to guys like me to tell them.”

“There it was, page one in the propaganda handbook – control the message”

“Behind Icky’s viewfinder, I told myself it was just another story and forced all emotion from my body. It was the only way I was going to get through this without doing something stupid.”

So what do I think? Get out and buy it now. It’s available on amazon – priced at £2.99 and is well worth it.

Shooter in focus: Jonathan Malat

Jonathan Malat and his trusty camera
Jonathan Malat and his trusty camera

I love looking at the top shooters in US Regional news. Some of those guys make me gasp at their creativity and wander I how can incorporate some of their techniques into my own shooting. In the course of my surfing today I came across the work of KARE’s Jonathan Malat – a multiple NPPA award winner. His shots are beautiful and his use of upsound is superb.

Here’s a lovely piece:

VNP/GNN/340525 I Know He Has A Plan from NPPA on Vimeo.

And another from 1995 which shows that the guy has been on the cutting edge for a while (I love the piece to camera):

Jonathan and his colleague also also offer this great “tip of the week” on his youtube page – put the mic where the sound is

I am hoping though that Jonathan and his assignment editors realised that the story below was straight from Anchorman and treated it with the respect it deserved :-)

Jonathan is on Twitter as @jonathanmalat

And here’s his “official” bio:

Jonathan Malat is the current 2014 Television News Photographer of the Year. Malat has also been awarded this honor by The National Press Photographers Association in 2002 & 1998.

Malat is the Director Of Photojournalism at KARE in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Malat has been a photojournalist for the last 19 years at KARE-TV. He previously worked at WBFF-TV and WJZ-TV both in Baltimore.

Jonathan’s photography has also been featured on 10 National Edward R. Murrow Awards, over 50 N.A.T.A.S. Emmys, and over 80
National N.P.P.A. awards.

In addition to daily news assignments, Jonathan is also the primary photographer for Boyd Huppert’s Land of 10,000 Stories. A weekly feature segment at KARE that Jonathan and Boyd started as a way to work more consistently together on meaningful stories in their community while honing their craft of storytelling.

Huppert & Malat’s passion for storytelling and teamwork has allowed them to share this knowledge of their craft at the National Writers Workshop, Poynter Institute for Media Studies, TV New Zealand, Denmarks Radio, TV2(DK), and NRK in Norway. Jonathan and Boyd are also longtime faculty members at the NPPA Advanced Storytelling Workshop held each spring in San Marcos, Texas.

My interview with the Rory Peck trust

Filming greek forest fires
We’ve all got so many great stories to share

Yesterday I was interviewed via webcam by the Rory Peck trust. We discussed many things that readers of this site should find interesting inc: Getting into the industry, how important are reporter stand ups? the difference between TV and web video and loads of other stuff. I was a bit nervous and fear that I may have waffled but I hope you find it informative. . . As always any feedback welcome in the comments.

If you found this interesting then you may want to purchase my book ” Camera Confidential” – which you can buy via this link. . .

Adventures in Iraq: an Al Jazeera cameraman meets ISIS

I have covered many conflicts over the years, but in all that time I have rarely felt that my life was in direct danger. I’ve been roughed up at check points in the congolese jungle and dodged bullets in the fields of Afghanistan but I always felt confident that I would be OK.

Today I wanted to draw attention to a man who I respect greatly and whose adventures scare the hell out of me. . . my friend, Abdul Wahid Khan. He is a cameraman and editor for Al Jazeera and has had more close shaves than you can shake a stick at. Just listening to his tales terrifies me and with his kind permission I wanted to share a couple of them with you today. After spending many weeks at a time on assignment in Syria he has recently been working in Iraq covering the advance of ISIS. Here’s his story in his own words:

Abdul setting up for a PTC in Iraq
Abdul setting up for a PTC in Iraq

A few days ago I was informed that I would be traveling to Iraq. For some reason this trip made me feel very nervous. I spent late nights and early mornings checking and rechecking my equipment. Finally my visa arrived and I was ready to go.

I left South Africa on the 17 June 2014 and arrived in Irbil the next day. Shortly afterwards I was asked to travel to another town.

19 June 2014

Its 7am and the heat is staggering. It feels like you are standing in front of a powerful heater. We meet with our guide who is to take us to our destination. Along the way we see Iraqi Government tanks and cars blown up. We pass many check points guarded by soldiers. Every town has their own check points, making sure the bad guys don’t get in. Queues of cars are lining up to fill up on petrol – of which there is a shortage. We also fill up only to discover that the petrol was not good quality and our car refuses to start.

Our driver eventually arranges for another vehicle and we continue our journey. Arriving at the last check point, we interview a commander who tells us of the situation. We await further instructions from a guide on the other side before we can pass beyond the last check point. Eventually he informs us that it is safe to cross. We jump in the car and head off. Thirty seconds later I hear a loud bang and the car begins to burn. The fumes are beginning to make it harder to breath. At this stage I was sure it is a bomb, the burning sounds like a fountain of fireworks. I was sure that the car was going to explode any second. I tried to get out but the child locks on both the back doors were on. The driver and reporter exit the car and eventually manage to let me out.

A bullet hole in the roof of Abdul's vehicle
A bullet hole in the roof of Abdul’s vehicle

We rush to the back of the car and kneel on the burning ground to take cover. There’s a sniper. He continues shooting in our direction, twenty more bullets come our way. After about half an hour the firing has stopped. Luckily the car hasn’t exploded and we climb back in and head for safety. I realise to my horror that if I had been sitting on the left side of the car I would have been killed – the bullet had come through the roof of the car, bouncing off the inside and landing on my bag.

A close shave
A close shave

19 June 2014 – later that day

We head back towards Irbil.The Peshmarga (Kurdish army) guard checkpoints trying to make sure that its people are safe. Hundreds of people mass at the Kurdish border desperately trying to escape from the advancing ISIS forces( Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). My biggest fear as we travel at 20km/h is that there could be car bomb amongst the hundreds of vehicles along the road.

Our colleagues in the Irbil office have heard of our ordeal, they greet us and thank God we have arrived safely. I spend the rest of my days in Irbil working in the studio doing live broadcasts.

22 June 2014

I am informed that we will try to go back to the town of Kirkuk. This time we will use a different road, hopefully avoiding the sniper. Once again we pick up our guide, who will only take us to the last check point. We call our producers who will meet us on the other side and ask if the road is safe to travel through. Everything seems to be clear. Burned Iraqi tanks are seen along the way. The black flag of ISIS group is seen. We pass an oil refinery. After a nervous journey We reach Kirkuk which is controlled by ISIS.

An ISIS fighter
An ISIS fighter

We are stopped at a check-point manned by heavily armed masked men. We inform them of who we are and our purpose. We are escorted by one of the ISIS vehicles to the leader (Ameer). The gunmen take us to his office. He too is masked. He speaks a bit of English, saying to me, “nice to meet you”. All the men are masked, they would not remove them. We inform him of our purpose and he agrees to us filming at the checkpoint. We are escorted back there and begin filming our first report. The streets are empty, not many people to be seen. The people we did find we interviewed. How did they feel living amongst ISIS? One man told us, it was fine, he did not have any issues. Another said, “I do not wish to answer that question.” Some people have no other place to go. They live in fear, ISIS are the law in the towns controlled by them. We will spend the next few days trying to film some reports in nearby towns as well.

24 June 2014

We film at a mosque that was bombed and shot at. After the midday prayer we decide to head to another location. As we are about to get into the car, we see a helicopter over us. We know that it is not a good place to be standing around. Seconds later, a bomb falls just meters away from us. The bomb lands on a house. I immediately switch on my camera and film the smoke rising. We rush to the hospital, doctors treat a man covered in blood. The doctors ask not to be filmed – Just the patient. The man has no pulse, doctors try desperately to get his heart to beat again. Family members start to arrive at the hospital, mothers,wives, sons and brothers. The women cry, while the men look towards my camera and shout out to the Iraqi government.

ISIS in control
ISIS in control

25 June 2014

I am awakened by the reporter at 7am. He informs me that ISIS has a demonstration and would like for us to attend. Hundreds of 4×4’s mounted with guns, about a thousand men. All armed and masked. They are all lined up ready for action. I ask the reporter if it’s allowed to get out and film but we are informed by one of the men, that we shouldn’t. He then asks a few men to get into the back of our 4×4 and take us away. We immediately realise that the situation is not good. The reporter calls head office in Doha to inform them of our situation. We are taken to a base surrounded by armed masked men. They ask us to follow them. Some of the men remove my equipment from the 4×4, when asked what were they doing, they replied, that they were just putting it in the room. They took us into a room and asked for our cellphones. We were being detained without any reason.

After a while the reporter asked to talk to the leader, one of the men just said he is busy and could not talk to him. We were detained for six hours, with many thoughts going through my mind. Later another masked man came into the room asking the reporter what we were doing there. He told the others that they should let us go as there were going to be clashes between themselves and the army. He immediately requested us to take our bags and go. We left the base and decided that we cannot trust ISIS, we headed directly back to Kurdistan. When we got back to the office in Irbil we heard that another team has been missing for days. They had been arrested by ISIS and had witnessed over 20 killings including two men just because they were smoking.

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