Your phone rings and it’s your favorite travel magazine; they are in a total bind and need you to leave next week, jet to the South Pacific, and produce a short video on bonefishing at Kiribati Atoll complete with an interview, water shots, and stabilized video footage.
Their budget is limited which means you have to shoot everything on your DSLR and your Sony RX100 Mark V and, beyond that, you have about $500 to rent other video gear. Finally, the producer tells you that due to airline weight restrictions, you are limited to one suitcase in total for a week and the plane only comes in once every 7 days!
Your heart races and you wonder, can I do this? Taking a quick look around your office, you take stock. “What do I have and what do I need to rent?” After some thought, you tell the editor, “Yes, sure, absolutely, I’d be delighted to do that! Send me an outline and I’ll take it from there.” You swivel to your computer, open up BorrowLenses.com and begin to scheme and plan. Excitement swells – you can totally pull this off!
Okay, Okay…full disclosure: your phone never rang and neither did mine. The magazine never called (yet). I actually just went on a combination vacation/stock photo self-assignment trip to the fly fishing destination of Kiribati Atoll and imagined the assignment to illustrate the gear that I’d use on a super tight budget in this scenario if it were true. As a freelancer, you never know who is going to call and, when they do, I’ll be ready – and I want you to be, too!
Before we dive into the gear needed for this “assignment”, let’s start with some fundamentals: what is required to take hum-drum “out of the box” DSLR video to the next level, to climb from the realm of ordinary, shaky, poorly-lit shots to stylish, slick, smooth and more pro-level content.
In my opinion, the three main concerns you need to address during any travel shoot in order to create a professional video are:
1) good audio
2) good lighting
3) camera stabilization
Note that I said “good” – not artificial. There are plenty of examples of excellent travel videos made with ambient or sound-tracked audio, shot under natural lighting conditions, and made with hand-held camera footage. But there is something about a polished, higher-production-value video that will elevate your work above others’ and land that next big job.
The Tight-Budget/Minimalist Gear Checklist
What gear do you need to make a short DSLR travel video with a small travel footprint? Let’s start with what I brought with me to Kiribati:
● DSLR: Canon 5D Mark IV
● Second camera (in my imaginary assignment scenario I’d want a second cam for water use but have it also be useful for shooting a second angle during an interview for variety in editing)
● Water housing for the Sony RX100
● Steadicam Merlin (useful for both my Canon 5D Mark IV and the Sony RX100)
● Wireless lavalier microphone
● Shotgun microphone
● LED light
● Tripod & head
And of course, there’s important ancillary gear:
● Extra batteries and charger(s) for cameras and other gear
● Foreign wall outlet adapter (and a power strip)
● Extra cards (of appropriate speed for 4K video recording in your camera)
● Card reader (if needed)
● Backup hard drive to safely store a backup of your precious footage
● Bongo ties or Velcro cable ties
● Plastic bags in case of rain showers
● Second, perhaps smaller, tripod
Now that we have our gear picked out, let’s focus on setting it all up and getting ready to shoot.
Prep Your Steadicam Merlin for DSLR Video
Stabilizing your camera can yield exceptional results. In today’s world, the Merlin is old technology and is definitely bested by active gyroscope rigs like the Ronin or MōVI. But those bits of kit can run in the thousands of dollars and take hours of expert-level knowledge to set up and operate. What’s more, they are large and cumbersome. For low-budget, low-footprint shoots, a correctly set up Merlin can give your footage nearly the same great stabilized look from a system that weighs only a few pounds and is small enough to fit into a dry bag on a boat.
It is absolutely essential when using the Merlin to balance your rig carefully and correctly (instructions here) and that you practice how to operate it before you begin your project. It is NOT plug-and-play. Not taking the time to set up correctly and practice before you shoot can result in less-than-perfectly stabilized footage, which will undoubtedly require hours of post-production with an “After Effects Warp Stabilizer” to smooth things out to an acceptable level.
If you are unsure that you are 100% correctly balanced on the Merlin, you can hedge against this by shooting in 4k if your camera allows it, and then down-res to 1080p and stabilizing in After Effects. Take care to make sure your camera’s card can handle 4K video or you will be rolling unusable, short clips.
Don’t forget that if you are using a zoom lens like the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 or the 24-70mm f/2.8, the act of zooming will change the center of gravity on the Merlin so you will have to use the rollers under the stage to offset and compensate.
Prep Your Shotgun Mic and Lavaliers for Interviews
The Sennheiser AVX MKE2 Lavalier Pro Wireless Set is excellent at capturing professional audio for an interview or while walking with a subject who is talking. Before you leave home, ensure that the batteries in both the transmitter unit and the receiver unit are fully charged. The battery in the transmitter unit will remain on when inserted into its housing, so remove it for travel after charging.
The two units will talk to each other wirelessly and once the connection is established there isn’t much else to do besides set up the mic correctly and dig into either your camera’s menus (DSLRs) or the knobs on the side of the camera (pro video cameras) to sound-check the signal.
The Rode VideoMic Pro is a solid, easy-to-set-up mic. Use the toggle switch to bring down a loud signal if needed and make sure to monitor your signal as you go. Use this to record better audio than that what would be recorded by the tinny, internal mic inside your DSLR.
A good set of headphones can be crucial for making sure the signal is at the right level. Take extreme care not to overdo the input level – you can always boost it later but bringing down a clipped digital audio signal is difficult, if not impossible, and collecting a “hot” signal will yield unusable results.
If you are shooting your interview in a room or in a spot with high levels of ambient noise, collect 30 seconds of room tone (record audio with nothing moving, no one talking) and use it later to remove this from your interview recording. Adobe offers a great tutorial on this here.
Prepare to Add Your Own Lighting for Video Interviews
A portable LED light panel, such as the Litepanels MicroPro LED Hotshoe Light, is an excellent addition to any low-footprint travel video shoot. It runs on AA batteries (or wall power, but then you’re less flexible) and only has one variable-output knob with one function: to add light to your scene in whichever way you see fit (0-100% illumination). The panel is small and doesn’t output a ton of light but it is perfectly sized to throw just enough light into the face and torso of an interview subject for a ¾ video portrait or interview.
Before you sit down with your subject, make sure to test the included diffusers and dial in the right amount of light since the diffusers drastically change the light’s shape and output which, for this particular panel, is measured at a max of approximately 1100 lx at 2′.
Proper gaffing is an art form and a science all by itself and this short post cannot go into the details of how to fully light for a video interview. For now, I will say just this: start by setting up the background at the level you want, use the spot meter, check your histogram, and then walk or pan your subject into the scene (which will be too dark) and then add light to the subject. You should do everything you can to diffuse and soften the light from the panel and also place it off-axis from your camera when possible.
The Litepanel comes with a hotshoe mount and a small Manfrotto ball head mount, which allows you to easily attach it to an extra tripod. This is a great solution if you have two tripods but in one suitcase that probably won’t be the case. In a pinch you can always have someone else just hold the light (although this brings the risk of unsteadiness) or bring along threaded adapters and attach it with a clamp, like the Manfrotto 175F Justin Clamp, to something on your set.
Things to Consider When Shooting DLSR Video
For those like me who first made the jump from still to video with a DSLR, shooting video with a DSLR is not like shooting stills in RAW with a DSLR. DSLR video doesn’t offer nearly the post-production latitude that RAW still photographers get and there are several things to consider before you start shooting.
First, always try to get the white balance 99% right in-camera, meaning you should not use “Auto” and you must set it correctly for each scene. This is a little different from what you might be used to shooting stills in RAW where this is easily adjusted after-the-fact. A white or grey card can help immensely in variable lighting conditions and (with two or more types of light source) color temperature. Use the camera’s ability to balance from the card and then roll a few seconds of video on the card – this footage can be used later in post-production for color correction.
With a DSLR shooting video, you can make use of “Profiles” to bake certain levels of photographic properties (e.g. contrast, saturation, etc.) into the video files themselves. These can even include black and white. Spend a few minutes and do some research into how your particular camera handles video. You’ll find excellent resources out there with custom profiles and suggestions to achieve the cinematic looks you seek. There’s loads of information on this but a great place to start would be Phillip Bloom’s Blog.
Color grading as a last editing step can be achieved to some extent “in the box” in Adobe Premiere with the excellent set of Lumetri tools. Professionals often use Davinci Resolve or other third-party color programs. Compressed DSLR videos in MOV or MP4 containers won’t respond in the same way as video shot by higher-end cameras like the C100, Sony FS5/FS7 or RED.
Second, you should try to adhere to the 180° shutter rule and set your shutter speed to the right speed for the frame rate of the video you are shooting. Take care to adhere to this rule, unless you want to break it for creative results.
What Would a Full-Time Pro Do?
One last thought on video travel gear offered by professional cinematographer Jessey Dearing, a Seattle-based photojournalism and documentary shooter with many years of experience in real-life scenarios like the one we are considering.
Jessey rarely shoots with DSLRs as a primary camera anymore and instead prefers higher-end professional video cameras like the Sony FS5/FS7 and the Canon C100/300. But he had some great thoughts on how to get set up for good travel video, beginning with audio:
“To get good audio, you need at least a shotgun mic and a wireless lavalier mic for interviews. I mix these together and control the levels in-camera. Back when I used to use a DSLR, I would bring an external recorder to record more than one source.”
I asked about lighting and Jessey said, “For lighting, I sometimes rent lights to add to what I have. I love the KinoFlow Diva, but they are a little bigger and you generally need sandbags and a C-stand, so they may not work for run-and-gun, low footprint-style travel work or spontaneous interviews. If I have to go small, in the past I’ve used the 1×1 Litepanels LED lights. I always use some kind of diffusion on LED lights because I think the light can be harsh and bring out facial oils and make people too shiny. I usually use two stands, one for the light, one with draped diffusion, or a photo reflector to shoot through or bounce the light off of, or even bounce it off the ceiling.”
On camera stabilization, Jessey offered, “With DSLR-sized cameras, the Ronin-M and the Letus Helix Jr have worked well for me in the past. I’ve found that a larger camera like the C100/300 or FS5/FS7 really push the weight limits on the smaller stabilizers and sometimes will not fit. If you run a camera on a stabilized rig, it’s nice to have your setup include a dedicated camera for this, along with a second camera to throw on a tripod or run handheld, because of the time it takes to balance the camera in the stabilizer. For smaller footprint or lower budget shoots, I usually pack a DJI Osmo to occasionally throw in some stabilized movements. ND filters are a must and generally I won’t use the Osmo in low light settings, although the Osmo Pro with interchangeable lenses handles low light much better.
I asked Jessey what his top three must-have non-gear items would be if he had to take on a small-footprint assignment and before he answered, he laughed, and said “A small footprint assignment sounds really nice!” When I pressed him for an answer, he offered this: “1) a headlamp, 2) good footwear, and 3) snacks.” Sage advice from one of today’s most talented freelance shooters!
Check out Jessey’s work on his website, especially some of his amazing, inspiring work as Director of Photography for National Geographic Channel’s 2016 Season of Explorer. Jessey also has upcoming projects in the works on the VICE network.
Shooting travel video on a tight budget, with a small footprint, and a DSLR is definitely possible. To put this theory to the test (and if I had really gotten that call from my favorite magazine) I created a quick edit using some of the footage I collected on Kiribati. Absent a true script and storyboard, I produced a short travelogue-style piece that made use of the many different bits of gear that I’ve written about above. I shot it in 4K and edited in 1080p.
Enjoy, and please, cut me some slack – I’m not that good at playing the ukulele!
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