The Linux Netbook Experiment – Part 2

My HP Mini 1503 running Linux “SLED” arrived today, and boy was I disappointed. Here’s why my experiment seems to have gone off the rails.

1) I paid extra for a higher-resolution display and a faster video card. The result of this is that the text and icons are so tiny that I feel like I’m going blind every time I look at the screen. Worse yet, when I try to watch video from YouTube or Hulu, the framerate is significantly slower than it should be, giving video an unpleasant, jerky look. Vimeo, with its higher bit rate, barely works at all, and is comletely unwatchable. If I don’t go YouTube and Hulu play fairly well, but I’m looking at an image approximately the size of an iPhone screen, which rather defeats the purpose of a larger device.

2) SLED Linux seems to be actually worse than Windows. Not only does it require me to enter my password for every operation (including waking the computer from sleep), and not provide me any way to adjust the excessive security settings, it won’t allow me to install any of the software I want to use.

3) After I ordered this computer, I received no order confirmation or email of any kind from HP. I couldn’t track my order on HP.com, or check the status of delivery. It just showed up one day on my doorstep, with no invoice or receipt, just a packing slip (which doesn’t have an order number on it). I called HP sales, and they had no record of my order, so the woman I spoke with told me to call the HP parts office. I called the number she gave me, and it was not in service. I Googled HP Parts, and called the number that came up. That turned out to be some other parts place, but the lady gave me a number for HP. After 20 minutes with them, I was told that my order was a custom configuration, so tech support would be able to get my order number and invoice. The tech support guy talked to his supervisor, and they couldn’t find any record of my order either. At that point, I just gave up.

So, now I’ve got a computer I can’t use without major eyestrain, on which I can’t install the software I need to make it functional, and I have no order number to refer to when I call HP and try to get them to take it back. Of course, because I paid extra for the custom configuration, they’re not going to want to take it back at all.

To add insult to injury, I just discovered that Dell has been selling a range of computers (including a netbook and laptop) running Linux Ubuntu for years. So, for the same money I paid for my useless 10″ SLED paperweight, I could have had a  much more powerful 15″ laptop with exactly the OS and flexibility I wanted.

UPDATE

Well, it appears that my main problem is that I’m a moron. SLED allowed me to change my desktop and font preferences so that I can use it comfortably, and it also allowed to fairly easily install “repositories” which act as indices of additional software.

I was able to install Scribus (page layout) and Blender 3D (modeling/animation) without issue. GIMP (image editing) installed, but won’t run, so I have to figure out what’s wrong there. No video editing packages were included in the repositories I’ve installed, so I’ll need to hunt around a bit for that as well. But overall, things are starting to work the way I had intended.

I’m still annoyed that I could have gotten an Ubuntu laptop from Dell, but this was an experiment, and I would prefer to see it through. More to the point, my initial hissy fit seems to have been largely unjustified. Live and learn!

Wireless Monitor for Under $200?

I enjoy the look of crane/jib camera shots, but wrangling the cable from camera to monitor is always a hassle. Well, thanks to my new wireless monitor from photographer/inventor Robert Benson, that’s not going to be a problem anymore!

On his website http://DSLRwirelessmonitors.com – Benson explains, “This wireless kit came out of a need in real world shooting, and I didn’t see anything else really available … There’s stuff out there, but its horrifically expensive. So I made one for less than $200 bucks.”

The monitor itself is a 7″ TV, with a stated resolution of 480×240 … A long way from HD, but in my preliminary tests, I found it perfectly adequate for checking color, framing and focus. Would I use this monitor as my primary field monitor? No. Is it perfectly fine for a dedicated wireless rig? Absolutely!

One of the more intriguing elements of Robert’s design is that the camera’s transmitter (which runs off a 9v battery) will transmit a signal to any number of receiving monitors. This would be terrific for situations in which clients want to be able to keep an eye on things, but I don’t want them standing next to me.

The fact that Canon DSLRs disable the viewfinder when the video output is working means that his device is particularly well suited to Nikon DSLRs or conventional (or next-gen) video cameras that will accommodate simultaneous on-board and external monitoring.

The more I play with this gadget, the more applications I think of. For example, a couple of months ago, I set up a tripod in the back of my 4Runner, and tried to shoot scenics while I drove. Since I couldn’t monitor the video at all, it didn’t work very well. Now, I could keep the wireless monitor on my lap, and glance at it to see how things are going (Obviously, it would not be safe to do this at any kind of speed, but driving scenics usually need to be shot at around 5-10 MPH, so I think I could get away with it. That doesn’t mean I’m recommending it.)

Congratulations to Robert Benson for having the technical know-how and ingenuity to come up with such an elegant solution. Sometimes, you don’t need a full HD monitor; sometimes, you just need to have a reasonably clear idea of what your camera is looking at. For those times, it’s hard to beat the price and plug-and-play ease of his gadget. I have no affiliation with Robert, and receive no commissions or other compensation for my recommendation. I just think it’s good!

http://DSLRwirelessmonitors.com

Panasonic to Filmmakers: Quit Bitching, Here's Your Camera.

Sony’s interchangeable-lens, NEX-VG10 Handycam may have been the first shot fired in the 35mm Video wars, but Panasonic’s presentation at IBC 2010 of the AG-AF100 signals the beginning of full-out conflict.

Panasonic has clearly been listening to the complaints about DSLR video. Here’s what’s significant about the new Panny.

1) Lens-Compatible. According to Panasonic, adapters will allow the use of virtually any 35mm cinema or photo lens on the AF-101. This means that filmmakers with serious cash invested in Canon, Nikon or PL glass will be able to continue to use their existing arsenal.

2) HDMI & SDI Out. HDMI out means that field monitors and inexpensive flatscreen TVs used for DSLR video will still work. SDI means that high-end pro monitors will also work, and – more importantly – that the camera’s pre-processed signal can be fed to standalone recorders, allowing users to record in higher-quality formats than the camera’s AVCHD codec. This is welcome news for anyone who needs to do heavy post-production, particularly chromakey work.

3) Pro Audio. Variable-gain XLR inputs have been standard on pro camcorders for decades, and including pro audio functionality on the AF-100 means an end to dual-system sound, third-party preamps, firmware hacks, and the other workarounds that DSLR shooters have spent the last two years complaining about.

4) Variable Frame Rates & Resolution. If anything, Panasonic has a penchant of offering too many options. However, by providing a smorgasbord of 1080p, 1080i and 720p frame rates, the AF-100 may come close to providing something for everyone.

5) Useable Form Factor. One of the advantages of DSLRs is that they’re small. One of the drawbacks is that they’re horribly balanced for handheld work. This has spawned a small industry specializing in support rigs designed to make DSLR operation more comfortable. By keeping the AF-100 fairly small, but allowing it enough bulk to look “pro,” and to plausibly allow use off-the-shoulder, Panasonic seems tohave tried to make the AF-100 all things to all people. Once the camera hits the streets, we’ll see how successful the design actually is.

6) Anti-Aliasing. The huge, beautiful sensors of DSLRs have come with an ugly price: aliasing and moiré that can ruin shots containing textures like brick and ribbed fabric. By explicitly stating that the AF-100 includes anti-aliasing technology, Panasonic is addressing one of the most common gripes about DSLR video.

7) No Jello. The same image processing wizardry that eliminates aliasing has allegedly been put to work resolving the rolling shutter, “jello-cam” effect that plagues DSLRs. Fans of whip-pans and shaky hand-held shots everywhere will rejoice, if this turns out to be true.

The AF-100 will cost significantly more than a DSLR, and its Four-Thirds sensor is not quite as close to 35mm as Panasonic makes it sound. However, by delivering so much of what shooters have been requesting, Panasonic has fired a resounding salvo in the 35mm Video wars. Sony and Canon will be sure to bring their own innovations to the fray, and – with any luck – filmmakers will be the ultimate winners.

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POSTSCRIPT. If I may be permitted a moment of shameless self-promotion, I’d like to mention that the rapid emergence of 35mm video cameras will mean that filmmaking knowledge – as opposed to technology – will become more important than ever. To address this need, I have spent the last couple of months creating an eBook called “Make Movies Without Money” that discusses the principles behind 35mm-style microbudget filmmaking in general, as opposed to any particular camera. It is very modestly priced at $9.95, and available from my website, here: http://vid35.com/book.htm

The Linux Netbook Experiment – Part I

Last month, I speculated on the possibility that a large company like HP (which owns the Linux-powered, Palm-developed WebOS operating system) would start releasing consumer products – netbooks in particular – packaged with Linux instead of Windows.

Imagine my delight when I started looking into the configuration options of the new HP 1503 netbook today, and discovered that it can be purchased with either Windows, FreeDOS, or Linux! To sweeten the pot, selecting a non-Windows option subtracts $35 from the price.

I had speculated that Ubuntu Linux would be the distro of choice, but it turns out that HP offers SUSE Linux, which is a more bare-bones flavor of Linux, specifically designed for “enterprise” clients who don’t want a bunk of junk cluttering up their systems. I’m a minimalist by nature (although a pack rat by necessity), so this suits me fine.

I had been toying with the idea of buying an inexpensive netbook and going through the standard process of installing Linux in a partition. However, the fact that I could get a sleek little netbook, with Linux preinstalled, convinced me to pull the trigger and spend a little more.

Now the experiment begins.

My hypothesis is that I – a fairly typical creative professional who normally works on Apple systems – can get a lot of valuable work done on a computer that:

1) Runs exclusively on Linux;

2) Has a modest screen (10.1″) and processor (Intel Atom N455 – 1.66 GHz);

3) Is small enough to be completely portable;

4) Costs half the price of the cheapest MacBook.

I’m a fan of Linux, in theory, and netbooks, in theory. The idea of having an ultralight, open-source workstation that practically fits in a jacket pocket has a visceral appeal to me that’s hard to explain. Now, I want to see what happens when I actually get to take home my crush. How much can I get done with this bad girl? I already use Open Office and Firefox, so word processing and web browsing are non-issues. Cyberduck, my FTP manager of choice is available for Linux. I’ve used Blender 3D on a Mac, but not on a small laptop, and I haven’t gotten around to working with Scribus, the open-source alternative to InDesign, or Cinellera, the open-source alternative to Final Cut Pro, or Gimp, the open-source alternative to Photoshop.

Will it wind up being an expensive memo pad? Or will I be able to easily update my websites, work on my eBooks and video projects from anywhere?

I suspect that the video capabilities will be the most limited; I won’t be able to work with my Final Cut project files, and the computer just doesn’t have the horsepower to grind through HD video. However, I should certainly be able to use it to transfer and evaluate video files on location, and as a convenient visual aid for meetings and pitches. More to the point, I believe that I will be able to do just about anything else that I normally do on a quad-core Mac Pro. Just a little more slowly, and perhaps with a slightly different set of tools.

My order won’t be shipped until around September 25. So, around the end of the month, I’ll be able to post an update to the experiment. Wish me luck!

The Future of Final Cut

I’ve been wondering for some time about Apple’s plans for Final Cut Studio. This weekend, two major Apple insiders – Mac Soda, and Philp Hodgetts – argued about the future of Final Cut Studio. Mac Soda’s blog post had an optimistic laundry list features supposedly on the way for 2011. In response, Philip Hodgetts wrote a fairly critical response. Here are the Cliffs Notes of the debate, along with my perspective:

1) Mac Soda says Final Cut Studio 4 will be released in 2011, and be a major upgrade, including multicore processing, much faster render and preview times. User Interface will stay unchanged. Hodgetts says it’s possible, but would likely take until 2012, and that the UI would probably change somewhat too.

2) Mac Soda says that Motion will receive a major update, including elements of Apple’s discontinued compositing program, Shake. Hodgetts points out that the two programs are completely different. Like Hodgetts, I’m puzzled about this particular claim. As one of the five people who actually bought Shake, it seems to me that the only element of that ridiculously unfriendly program that could plausibly be ported over to Motion would be the far superior chromakey tool.

3) Mac Soda says DVD Studio Pro will “go the way of the Dodo.” Hodgetts thinks that it will eventually, but not quite yet. I would venture to suggest that rumors of the death of DVDs has been greatly exaggerated. My corporate and agency clients would be very surprised if I were unable to provide them with DVDs of finished projects. For Apple to  jettison DVD Studio Pro would be a big mistake.

The bigger question seems to be whether Apple will wind up being a day late and a dollar short. I’ve spent the last 10 years using Final Cut. Does it make sense for me to continue to put up with Apple’s gamma-shifting, price-gouging, the-customer-is-always-wrong attitude, just because I know the program like the back of my hand? Or would I – and the rest of us – be better off jumping ship to products made by Adobe – a company that focuses exclusively on the needs of creative professionals?

UPDATE: This says it all: “Final Cut’s progress has been slowed as Apple has reassigned engineers to work on projects for the company’s iOS devices.” http://macrumo.rs/bmFtYU

Predictions: HP vs. Apple, Linux vs. Windows

I admit it … I’m an Early Adopter. I’m difficult to please, impossible to shop for, and always looking for better tools and more effective techniques. On the technology adoption bell curve, I’m just behind the Innovators – rich kids who indiscriminately play with every new toy. I don’t care how new something is, only how good it is.

When I find something I do like, I’m fiercely loyal to it, and sing its praises everywhere I go. When that thing becomes mainstream, my job is done, and I start looking for something better.

I don’t care what’s “in” and “out” right now. I’ll tell you what’s going to be on the list next year, or in the next five years. Here are a few things I’m looking forward to.

1) HP Takes a Bite Out of Apple

The big “A” is turning sour. I’ve had enough of overpriced, proprietary accessories, and smug, “the problem is your fault” attitude. Sleek design is wonderful, but Steve Jobs isn’t the only guy who can hire a designer. Nor does he own the designers he does have. Jon Rubenstein, who created the iPod while working for Apple, went on to become CEO of Palm, where he overhauled their line of mobile phones, and spearheaded the development of the very cool webOS mobile operating system.

Now that Palm has been absorbed by Hewlett Packard, Rubenstein can draw on the muscle of the world’s largest technology company. I suspect that HP’s current leadership vacuum (their CEO resigned recently over a sexual harassment scandal) will give Rubenstein room to exert his influence over more than mobile technology. HP is typically thought of as a solid but thoroughly unexciting manufacturer of existing technology, but with a badass like Rubenstein near the helm, I’m anticipating seeing some innovative products with an HP logo sooner rather than later.

2) The End of OS Monopolies

For the past 25 years, we’ve had our choice of vanilla Windows or chocolate Mac. Tasty operating systems like BeOS and AmigoOS have been added to – and then removed from – the menu without attracting much attention. But there’s another flavor in town; it’s strawberry Linux and my mouth is watering.

Most moderately tech-savvy people have heard of Linux, but they generally have a vague idea of it being something complex that geeks use to do geek stuff with. That’s going to change very soon. In 2007, a company with the impossible-to-remember name of Zonbu debuted a line of personal computers that were eco-friendly, affordable and pre-loaded with software. The Zonbu systems were “cloud-assisted,” meaning that all user files were continuously backed up to Amazon S3 servers (and accessible remotely), and software updates were automatically and seamlessly installed in the background. Most interesting of all is that the Zonbu OS used Gentoo Linux, and all the bundled software was open source. The tech press was blown away by how perfectly the devices worked. Here’s a demo video from 2007.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FT1CJd7jFo0]

And here’ssample of the accolades heaped on the Zonbu in 2007 and 2008.

2007 Breakthrough Awards – The Top 10 Most Brilliant Gadgets of 2007: It isn’t the technology that makes the Zonbox revolutionary, it’s the idea. – Popular Mechanics

And for you greenies, remember, this baby uses just 10 watts while a standard PC uses 200 watts, and it has EPEAT Gold status for being made entirely out of earth-friendly materials. Put that in Al Gore’s pipe and smoke it. – Gizmodo

It’s a revolution in desktop computing roughly equivalent to the advent of desktop Linux itself. It opens new doors to hardware, software, and storage possibilities that were previously closed by vendor lock-in. – Hardware In Review

...amazingly as simple to use as a Mac… this machine syncs, swaps, and backs up your data automatically, over the wire. I love it. – Gizmodo

I stand by my opinion that a Zonbu (or other Linux computer) would be an ideal system for at least 80% of the computing population – HelpMeRick.com

I’ve held off writing the review for so long, hoping to find a serious nit or two to pick. I have not been able to do it. It’s as perfect a machine as computers get. – LinuxDevices.com

Impressive, no? Unfortunately, Zonbu was a casualty of the Great Recession. Zonbu.com is still live, but the user forums reveal that the company seems to have died a slow and quiet death. Gentoo Linux, the OS that powered the Zonbu computers has also withered away, along with Fedora, Debian and a few other versions of Linux (the Linux “kernel” can be dressed up in a variety of “distros” – distributions – that add features and familiar-looking GUI elements). However, one distro of Linux has risen to the top of the heap. It’s called Ubuntu, and if this is the first time you’re hearing about it, it won’t be the last.

What’s cool about Ubuntu? For starters, it looks and operates in a very familiar manner. Just like OS X or Windows, you have a virtual desktop with folders and application icons. The learning curve for the average user is minimal. Many popular programs – such as Firefox – run in Ubuntu, and there are substitutes (e.g. Open Office instead of MS Office) for many others. Best of all, virtually everything associated with Ubuntu is open source – free to use. Training and enterprise-level installation and maintenance are fee-based services provided by the Canonical corporation, which uses that income to keep Ubuntu free and up-to-date.

Is it perfect? Of course not. But neither is OS X or Windows. Personally, I’d rather deal with bugs that I don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for! Besides, Ubuntu can be dual-booted on a Windows machine, so that if you need to use Windows you can.

While many excellent open-source and Linux-compatible applications are being produced, it will be difficult for Ubuntu to get a foot-hold in the market without a vote of confidence from either a major hardware manufacturer or a software giant.

A hitherto-unheard of company called Axon has released the Axon Haptic tablet, which allows you to install OS X, Windows or any flavor of Linux. This is an excellent first step. An easy next step would be for a mid-size manufacturer that specializes in netbooks, and doesn’t have any particular loyalty to Windows (Acer, maybe?) to be persuaded to start releasing netbooks, laptops and – eventually – desktop computers pre-packaged with Ubuntu and a suite of applications (Open Office, Firefox, etc.) similar to those provided on the Zonbu systems.

Next, perhaps a forward-thinking company like Adobe could be persuaded to release their industry-standard Creative Suite for Linux. If that were to occur, the adoption pattern of Apple computers (creative professionals first, general public next) could easily be duplicated by small, nimble companies willing to stop pushing Microsoft products. There are a lot of “ifs” in this scenario, but it’s only one possibility. The reality is that any company could start selling Ubuntu computers tomorrow, and there are any number of reasons for them to start doing so.

3) I see Linux as being part of an overall trend towards increased adoption of open source software in general. While marketing for applications like Open Office and Blender 3D (an amazingly full-featured 3D modeling and animation package) is nonexistent, these products are building a lot of name recognition. Indeed, the fact that such offerings even exist is remarkable. It’s only a matter of time before open source goes mainstream. When it does, the major software developers are going to have to step up their game to stay competitive.

Consumers are tired of paying good money for buggy software that becomes obsolete within months. If programmers are starting to figure out how to profit (monetarily or otherwise) from open source projects, and are able to continue developing quality products, it’ll be a marriage made in heaven. Since there are actually more open source apps available for Linux than any other OS, it stands to reason that Linux (whether Ubuntu or some future distro) will benefit from the momentum.

The idea of walking into Staples and picking up an exclusively Ubuntu-loaded netbook may seem absurd, but remember Palm’s webOS? Guess what: it’s essentially a distro of Linux, just like Ubuntu. And guess what I just read? (After I wrote this post, naturally.) HP is confirming rumors that the first quarter of next year will see the debut of a webOS tablet. Not only that, but a slew of manufacturers are planning Android tablets, and Android is also built on the Linux kernel.

HP vs. Apple? Check. Linux going mainstream? It won’t be long now. Hey, Bill G. and Steve J., get ready to smile and say “Ubuntu”!

Colorista 2 – Lust at first sight (an amorous review)

Color grading is like sex; it’s easy to confuse quantity with quality. I’ve been a fan of Magic Bullet since day 1, but I tend to find Looks a little promiscuous for my taste. With a vast array of garish presets and a veritable cornucopia of infinitely adjustable filters, it’s definitely the playboy of the family.

Colorista, by contrast, has always been the prim little sister. Until yesterday, she’d give you a 3-way largely indistinguishable from the one that comes with Final Cut Pro, but that’s about it.

But guess what? Colorista met some bad boys at college, and she showed up today as Colorista 2, all ready to party. Unlike Looks, she still works right on the timeline, but she now has a badass keying function that pops up in a separate window.

She doesn’t have any Looks filters, like diffusion or lens flare, but she does have easy-to-access primary and secondary settings, and – also new in this version – very attractive curves.

Most importantly, Colorista 2 lets you selectively grab any color you please, and adjust it however you want. Need your orange tones lighter? Click and drag, and it’s done. Want some greener grass? Click and drag. Essentially, this gives you RAW-like control of compressed footage. Now that’s nasty!

I spent the better part of this afternoon with Colorista 2, and overall I found the experience quite satisfying. Here’s what I liked best:

1) Being able to selectively adjust color is amazing. I shot and edited a video promoting golf at a resort recently, and the color grade was a constant struggle between trying to make the course’s grass look good and the players’ skintones look good. Both, unfortunately, were in the midtone range, so any adjustment to one affected the other. Using the original Colorista, I wasn’t able to do much with the shot you see below. Cooling off the highlights a little gave me a marginally bluer sky, but the yellowish grass left me stuck. With Colorista 2, that’s no longer an issue. Just click on green and pull it one way, and click on orange and pull it the other. Brilliant!

2) The keyer is excellent. I worked with it, in conjuction with a power mask, to try to whiten up the teeth of an interview subject, and was very impressed with the level of granular control it allowed.

3) As always with Red Giant products, what’s under the hood is just as impressive as the paint job. The plugin installed, ran, and rendered flawlessly. Compared to the stock Final Cut color grading tools, Colorista 2 handles transition areas more smoothly, and can push color farther before starting to show compression artifacts and digital noise.

I didn’t experience any significant issues while working with Colorista 2. The power mask interface is still clunky in Final Cut (apparently it’s very elegant in Premiere), but it’s quite usable, and functions perfectly.

Colorista 2 is well worth the price ($99 for the upgrade), and will be my default color grading tool from now on. Or, to put it another way, hell yes, I’d like to go steady!

Better Audio for Concert Videos

Someone recently asked me this question:

I have been getting into a lot of video with my DSLR and recently bought an external mic for it thinking I would get some better sound.

I shoot with the Canon T2i and the mic I bought is the Azden SGM 1-x shotgun mic. I run the mic straight to the camera with an XLR/mini jack adapter. Most of the recording I am doing is concert video. I shoot a lot of shows that my brother’s rock band plays in local venues. This was my original reason for getting an external mic because I felt my internal camera mic wasn’t cutting it.

This brings me to my question. The first time I used my new Azden mic I was extremely disappointed with the audio quality of my videos. I had looked at different ‘field adapters’ in hopes that this would help me to get a better sound.

Overall, I was wondering if my sound quality was bad because I was running the XLR to a mini plug, because I didn’t have a preamp fixed to my camera, or because I am using the wrong mic for the type of shooting I am doing.

This is a great question, and there are a few issues that spring to mind.

1) The best way to get concert audio is to get a feed from the sound board. At most venues, if you tell the sound guy you’re filming for the band, he’ll usually be fine with giving you a direct feed. This is essentially how professional live CDs and concert videos are done.

If your camera position is close to the soundboard, using a cable isn’t a problem (as long as you bring your own), but if you want to move around, or set up somewhere else, it’s safer and easier to use a standalone recorder like the Zoom H4N, or to use a wireless transmitter.

This wireless mic set from Sony comes with an XLR adapter that you can use instead of a microphone capsule, specifically so that you can use the transmitter for this purpose. Be aware though that many sound boards won’t be able to give you an XLR out – they’ll want to give you a 1/4″ out, so you’ll need to get the appropriate adapter for your setup, and adjust the input levels accordingly. The Zoom H4N will take a 1/4″ input, but the Sony requires either an XLR male, or a mini-jack male.

2) Regarding sound quality from your microphone. The mic in the T2i is more or less omnidirectional, meaning that it picks up sound in every direction. Since loud music fills up the room, you probably got a pretty full sound, even though the mic itself is crappy. Any shotgun mic is going to be much more directional, meaning that it’s going to pick up primarily what it’s pointing at. Unless you’re pointing the mic at the speaker stack, you’re probably capturing mostly crowd noise and muffled music bouncing off people’s clothing and the walls. The issue here isn’t the mic, just its placement.

3) Regarding the preamp question. Although the good people who make the JuicedLink preamps might disagree, my opinion is that because the sound level in the room is already very loud, a preamp isn’t going to make that much of a difference in your sound quality, for the simple reason that the music doesn’t need any further amplification to be recorded by the camera.

So, here’s what you should do:

If you’re using a standalone recorder to capture the feed from the board, you can keep the existing setup you have with the Azden on the camera (or, for that matter, using the internal mic, if you find you do prefer it for this purpose). If you want to take a wireless feed from the board, get yourself a double XLR to mini cable. Plug the mini jack into your camera. Run the Azden into one XLR plug, and put the wireless receiver into the other. The mini jack will put one input on Left and the other on Right. Then, you just mix the tracks in post. Bring up the camera audio to get applause at the end of songs, and use the clean feed from the sound board for the actual music.

If you really want to get fancy, you can set up your Azden at the sound board, as high as you can rig it, pointing at the stage, and plug it into the second input on the Zoom, while you record with the in-camera mic on your camera. That way, you’ll have three different tracks to mix in post, as well as a nice backup in case something gets unplugged or turned off.

Sony’s 35mm Handycam. A DSLR Killer?

Sony’s announcement of a new Handycam – a model name normally associated with low-quality home movies – may not sound like big news. But it’s huge. Forget the “Handycam” name; the NEX-VG10 will be a $2,000 camcorder that uses interchangeable 35mm (more or less) lenses, and records on the professional AVCHD format. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Act 1, Scene 1 in “The Death of DSLR Video.”

Here’s why.

1) HD-enabled DSLR cameras are a transitional form. In evolutionary terms, they are the Homo Erectus that precedes Homo Sapiens. Or, to paraphrase Lightnin’ Hopkins, “they got the shape all right, but they can’t carry no heavy load.” The image quality is stunning, but the form factor, audio capability and technical issues are major hassles. It was only a matter of time before the major electronics manufacturers took the giant image sensors that make DSLR video so awesome and combined them with existing decades of research into what makes a video camera easy to use.

2) The AVCHD codec is a “real” codec. The files will import directly into editing software without the need for the transcoding or monkey-wrenching required by the H264 Quicktime files generated by DSLRs. This one factor alone is highly significant in terms of time and hard drive savings. Panasonic has announced that their pro-level AG-AF100 4/3″ camcorder will use the same format. Interestingly, Sony’s “APS HD” sensor is 23.4 X 15.6mm, which makes it significantly larger than Panasonic’s 18×13.5 mm “Four Thirds” sensor.

3) Both the Panasonic and Sony cameras have high-quality on-board audio recording capability, overcoming one of the primary work-arounds associated with DSLR video.

4) Both manufacturers have indicated that their cameras will not be subject to the rolling shutter and image issues (moiré and aliasing) that plague DSLR video.

5) Both cameras should offer HD video outputs, meaning that purists can record the signal on an external device in an uncompressed format, bypassing the AVCHD codec altogether.

Is this the end of the road for the ground-breaking DSLR cameras that brought 35mm video to the masses? Not quite. Or, more precisely, not yet. Neither the Sony nor the Panasonic is perfect. Sony’s handycam was announced at 1/3 the price, and with a larger sensor and earlier ship date (this September, vs. “the end of 2010”) than the Panasonic, while the Panny promises variable frame rates (24p, 25p, 300, 50i, 60i) and the Sony only offers 60i. But the game has only just begun. It’s only a matter of time before we get it all: giant sensor, variable frame rates, pro audio, pro codec, and jello-free footage with limited moiré and aliasing.

It’s been less than two years since Canon fired the first shot in the 35mm video revolution by releasing the 5D Mark II. Prior to November of 2008, a 2/3 inch image sensor was considered robust. Now, even the huge (albeit awkwardly named) 4/3 inch chip seems small by comparison to the full-frame 35mm and APS-C sized sensors we’ve quickly become accustomed to. The explosive rate of growth of the technology, and the skyrocketing quality-to-price ratio, has been unlike anything the industry has ever seen.

My prediction is this: Sony’s handycam will soon be followed by a pro-level 35mm camcorder, and consumer feedback will continue to push the technology forward. With any luck, Panasonic, Canon and Sony will compete ruthlessly with each other to deliver the highest-quality products at the lowest prices. In two more years, DSLR video will be used primarily for projects like student films and photojournalism (Canon’s original intention for the 5D2, which was developed at the request of the Associated Press), while 35mm camcorders will dominate the microbudget filmmaking, corporate/commercial and event video industries.

As I mentioned above, I see this as Act 1, Scene 1. Both of these camcorders have smaller sensors than DSLRs, and the filmmaking community has invested a lot of energy and money into DSLR video, so I don’t see a “game-changer” yet. But I’m looking forward to seeing it once the curtain goes back up.

UPDATE: The AF-100 is looking better and better. Here’s some test footage, and here’s my take on it. And, unfortunately, the NEX-VG10 is looking worse and worse. Here’s some test footage.

Buying Lights: Kit vs. Components

An old college friend of mine, Matt Ward, called me up today, to talk about lights for a microbudget music video he’s producing.

“Everyone talks about how to light,” he said, “but nobody talks about what to light with.” Having worked on giant productions like Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and the Star Wars prequels, Matt is much more familiar with major studio lighting equipment than the pack-in-your-trunk type of gear that I work with.

As our conversation progressed, I learned that Matt is a fan of kits: he wants everything he’ll need in one case. He already knew that my favorite lighting instrument for microbudget productions is the venerable Lowell Tota (Why? Three words: small, cheap, bright.), but remembered all too clearly that when we were in film school together, lighting with Lowell’s Tota & Omni kits tended to suck mightily. (Of course, that was because in film school, nobody ever bothered to teach us about lighting modifiers. I don’t think I saw a softbox, let alone a silk, until after I graduated. When you’re working with the raw light from an instrument like a Tota, you always have to bounce, diffuse, or otherwise modify the light if you want it to be aesthetically appealing at all.)

My curiosity piqued, I spent some time on the web, and I thought I’d share my findings with you. I found a decent two-Tota kit on B&H. It occupies the #1 slot on my wishlist, here. For $560, you get two 750 watt lamps, an umbrella, two stands, a small collection of gels, and a hard case.

Not a bad deal, but not exactly a complete lighting package either. In addition to a couple of lights, you’ll need spare bulbs, a reflector/silk combo kit, and at least one C-stand to hold said reflector/silk. On the wishlist they go. Total tally so far: about $855. That’s not exactly microbudget, but all this stuff will last for years, so if you can amortize the cost over a few shoots, it’s not unreasonable.

But, the more I looked at that kit, the more I thought that Matt could do better. The Lowell stands are flimsy. The Lowell case is heavy, not padded, and difficult to stack because it’s ribbed (for nobody’s comfort). The little umbrella is too small and silver to work well under most conditions.

So, I decided to look at some alternatives.

I’m a cheapskate, so I tend to use inexpensive toolboxes from K-Mart to hold my gear. They’re very light, unobtrusive, and since I don’t fly very often, I don’t need super-heavy-duty padded cases. But, if I were going to buy a case (or recommend one), I would buy a Hardigg Storm Case like the one at the #5 position on my wishlist. Not only is it fully as rugged as the ubiquitous Pelican case, it has delightful clasps that open with the touch of a fingertip, as opposed to the flesh-pinchers that Pelican installs.

Next, I added two Totas with 750 watt lamps, a la carte. Instead of the weak Lowell stands, I put in two air-cushioned Impact stands. In place of the little silver Tota-brella, I selected the 5′ silk that I use on a regular basis myself. Last but not least, I put the Tota’s gel pack on the list, since not everybody wants to buy big sheets of gel and cut them to size like I do. Total price for the components? $600. That’s only $40 more than the Tota kit, for a collection of gear that is – IMHO – vastly superior in quality, utility and durability.

Unlike the Lowell case, the Storm Case will accommodate everything except the C-stand, with plenty of room left over, so if your budget allows, get more than two Totas and stands, and more than one C-stand. You’ll always use them. If you need to cut a corner, skip the gels and wait on the umbrella.

I’ve used a lot of light kits – Arri, Lowell, Mole-Richardson – but I’ve never bought one. Purchasing mix-and-match components may not be for everybody, but I find that I can get better deals, and better quality, by shopping a la carte. Generally speaking, kits are made to be small and light, and – in my experience – that means lightstands that fall apart, and modifiers that are too small to properly affect the light. In addition, kits usually come in cases that are specifically made to fit the bits and pieces it comes with – and nothing else. I like more flexibility than that, and I prefer to determine for myself what I need to carry around. On a more practical level, it’s very often easier to buy pieces of gear as you can afford them than to spring for a matched set all at once.

The final word? Buying a kit gives you convenience and maybe saves a few dollars. Buying components gives you more freedom and allows more room for growth. Whichever approach turns out to be right for you, I hope that this post helps you make an informed decision.

Backup Tips

External drives are great for storage and backups, but they are slow to work on. I recommend getting the biggest internal hard drives you can for your editing system, keeping your current projects on those internal drives, and backing them up daily or weekly to external drives, which you then (ideally) keep in an off-site location.

You need to keep at least one and preferably two backups of everything. The best software for incremental backups to external drives (that I’ve found) is called Carbon Copy Cloner. It’s is a very inexpensive and extremely high quality piece of software that you can download from http://www.bombich.com. You can also subscribe to a service like BackBlaze – http://backblaze.com – which automatically uploads all your new files to a bomb-proof array somewhere. BackBlaze is a great idea, but since video files are huge, it can take months to backup your old files, so start with it as soon as you get your new computer!

For external drives, I’ve had bad luck with Seagate, and good luck with Western Digital (I get the Two-Terabyte “My Book” drives from Costco when they go on sale for less than $200 each). I’ve had a lot of colleagues who have had Lacie drives fail on them, so I don’t recommend that brand either.

Choosing The Right Tool: DLSR vs. Camcorder

Thanks to the rapid adoption of HD-enabled DSLRs, many photographers have discovered that they like working with video. However, they don’t necessarily like working with video on a DSLR. Now that the novelty of cinematic depth of field has faded, it’s a good time to take a quick look at the other options available for capturing “motion pictures.”

The primary question that has to be answered before considering an equipment purchase is always, “Why do I need this?” With that in mind, let’s skip the usual list of specific product pros and cons, and look primarily at which camera attributes are most useful for different types of projects. To compare apples to apples, I’m going to confine the scope of this discussion to cameras that cost less than $10,000, so I’m not going to mention any high-end formats and gear.

1) One-Time Events. Commemorating important moments in other people’s lives is the bread-and-butter of many photographers, and it’s a subject that lends itself naturally to video. You can use a DSLR to make a beautiful video scrapbook or highlight reel of an event, but trying to record something like a wedding ceremony with a DSLR turns into a sweaty, stomach-clenching struggle with razor-thin depth of field and 12-minute record limits. Moreover, the fact that many events generate numerous hours of footage (all of which has to be transcoded for editing, at the very least doubling the amount of hard drive space required) quickly turns into a storage nightmare for a busy professional. Therefore, in my opinion, traditional tape-based video cameras are still the best choice for event videos. HDV cameras are relatively inexpensive, offer you the options of autofocus, autoexposure, and auto-white-balance, and they record an HD signal onto cheap DV tapes, which come in lengths up to 180 minutes. HDV footage takes about 13GB per hour on a hard drive, which is very cost-effective, and looks fantastic when squashed down to a standard-definition DVD. The resolution of HDV (1440×1080, which displays as 1920×1080) allows you to zoom into shots in post if you need to adjust framing or get a closer look at detail, without any evident signal degradation on the final SD DVD. Best of all, once you’re done with the edit, you can delete all your raw footage, keep the tiny project file safely backed up, and simply put the tape on the shelf. In three years, when the FBI decided that a wanted fugitive was at the wedding and requests your raw footage, you can simply pull the tape off your shelf.

2) Sports and News. There’s a reason that news stations have recycled their own video tapes for years. Once it’s over, it’s over. While the ideal is to keep everything you shoot, “just in case,” (I think we’ve all heard the story of the photographer who had, in his files, some unremarkable photos of a President Clinton appearance that suddenly became much more interesting when the Monica Lewinsky story broke), the reality is that 99% of today’s news is never going to be worth more than it is right now, and most news and sports photographers aren’t interested in keeping massive digital archives. For these folks, tapeless video formats, such as Sony’s XDCam or Panasonic’s P2-based cameras, are ideal. The compression is less severe than HDV, so the video is sharper, which is great for broadcast. You can copy the footage off the cards, distribute it to your clients, erase everything you don’t need, and then do it all over again an unlimited number of times. The cameras themselves range in size and features, depending on your needs, and – as with HDV – the small imaging sensors on these camcorders provide a much more forgiving depth of field than DSLRs. Again, the full array of automatic functionality (focus, exposure, white balance) can be turned on or off as you see fit. In addition, most camcorders offer much more high-quality audio capabilities than any DSLR.

3) Corporate and Commercial. This is the area I spend most of my time working in, and is the reason I’ve embraced DSLR video. While events, sports and news have traditionally been shot on video, commercial work has historically been filmed on 16mm or 35mm. With a DSLR, I can craft an image using the exact same toolset I would use with a film camera, resulting in footage that closely approximates the look of what’s captured by equipment that costs 10 to 100 times as much. That “wow” factor makes it worthwhile for me to deal with the many shortcomings of DSLR cameras. When the next generation of 35mm camcorders is released, I may well move on to a piece of equipment that combines the best of both worlds, but until then, nothing can touch the cost-to-quality ratio of DSLR video for commercial and corporate projects. For these jobs, 12-minute record times are rarely an issue, audio is usually tightly controlled, and it’s usually possible to shoot several takes of each shot. Obviously, all the same advantages apply to narrative projects as well, which is why the season finale of the hit TV show “House” was shot with three 5D Mark II cameras.

There’s a natural tendency to look at any newer technology as a hammer, and any older problem as a nail. However, before you rush out and spend thousands of dollars on video accessories for your DSLR, take some time to consider your options, and select the equipment that’s going to work best for your purposes. If long-term storage and ease of use are important, consider an HDV camera. If quick turnaround and broadcast-quality footage are your primary concerns, take a look at tapeless camcorders from Sony or Panasonic. If what you really need is a film-style look, and you can deal with a film-style workflow, then you may well want to build that DSLR kit. Regardless of what camera you choose today, try to invest in support equipment – quality microphones, lights, monitors, grip gear – that will work equally well with the camera you’ll be working with tomorrow.