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Basic Video Camera Setups

By Kyle Doris

Creating a high-quality production isn't easy; the demands of an increasingly savvy audience require us to raise our game more so than ever. There are many aspects of the moving image that people simply take for granted, including consistent lighting, sound, and continuity (and that's just scratching the surface). It can be tough, as a professional, to keep track of all the details. It's especially difficult if you're working with a small, fixed budget and limited crew. Luckily, there are many simple functions right on your camera whose use will ensure exceptional quality from the start.

Consistent white balance is a key way to keep your footage looking tip-top. It sounds simple, but without proper WB techniques, post-production can get rather tricky. Whether it's a documentary, concert, wedding, or narrative, post will come grinding to a near stop as you or your editor color-correct each shot to try to match up colors. Granted, there are some situations where white-balancing your camera manually just doesn't make sense. Most cameras these days have an AWB (Auto White Balance) feature for those hostile shooting environments. There are also white-balance presets that can help, such as 3200K and 5600K. The 3200K preset is good for halogen lights, while the 5600K is ideal for outdoor use. It's usually better, however, to grab your own white-balance setting.

Vortex Media's Warm Cards for White Balancing
Vortex Media's Warm Cards for White Balancing

It's also good to keep a decent set of white balance cards in your kit. I like the Warm Cards reference system from Vortex Media. It can help you compensate for a variety of lighting situations, by displaying a different hue of blue on the rear of each card. This essentially balances out settings in which lighting might be too cold or harsh. There's also a card designed for shooting under fluorescent lights.

Exposure is another important factor on which to always keep your eye. Since the LCD on your camera isn't always accurate, be sure to use the exposure monitoring function. Sometimes they are called "zebras," or zebra patterns. When activated, zebra patterns will appear over parts of the image that are blown out. Blown-out areas are usually not something you want, because they don't register any detail information; they will just appear to be solid white spots. It's usually best to preserve as much image detail as possible in highlights and shadows.

Shutter speeds can help with both light transmission and image detail. Increasing the shutter speed in bright sunlight can lead to "sharper" footage. Keep in mind that the look of the footage can change dramatically. Increasing the shutter speed extensively will lead to an effect that's often seen in today's action movies, such as "300," or the battle scenes in "Gladiator."

Marshall V-R70P-HDA 7" LCD Monitor
The Marshall V-R70P-HDA 7" LCD Monitor is good for HD or SD Field Production, and is available in several kit configurations.

If you plan on shooting high definition (whether it's HDV or DVCPRO HD) I recommend getting some type of field monitor or external LCD. Most cameras suffer from having relatively low-resolution LCD's and it can be very difficult to monitor the camera's focus. With a high-resolution monitor it's much easier to see whether or not the camera is in focus. If this type of setup isn't possible, such as in a "run-and-gun" situation, have no fear! Nearly every high-definition camera has some sort of focus-assist function on board.

Make sure to maintain proper audio levels as well. Many cameras have a limiter to monitor audio clipping. Clipped audio has no post-production "fix," so make sure to keep this from happening, at all costs. It's usually better to err on the side of lower levels than pushing them up so high that there's potential for clipping (please refer to "Getting the Most From Your Wireless System"). If they are too low however, increasing amplification in post can introduce noise or hiss in the background. It's good to practice and monitor audio levels at all times.

Panasonic AG-HVX200
The Panasonic AG-HVX200 can save scene files with color temperature, chroma, and brightness settings.

On my AG-HVX200, one really cool feature is its ability to save scene files. Scene files control a variety of options such as color temperature, chroma, and brightness. There are more than 30 settings in all, and they can be tweaked to accomplish a desired look. For example, you might want to create a setting that reduces noise, or another that has the highest level of dynamic range. All of these can be maintained and retrieved for later use. How can this be done? The camera can capture and save every setting the user has defined, and store it either on the camera itself or on a memory card; in the case of the HVX, it's an SD card.

Let's say you have two cameras on a shoot and want to make sure they are using the same settings. You can use the scene file option and load them on both cameras; all of this it can be done in seconds. I find this function comes in handy if you have to shoot in the same location multiple times over the course of weeks or months. Keeping your settings stashed away for recurring gigs is very cool and extremely useful. Nothing is more tedious than having to match up another camera by changing each manually. Sometimes there isn't even enough time to get a shot into focus, let alone get all the settings perfect. Save and forget.

Tiffen UV Filters
Tiffen has a wide variety of kits available that include UV filters.

Filters can be useful in a variety of situations. The most obvious use is to keep a standard UV filter on the camera at all times. I keep one attached merely to protect the camera's glass from dust, moisture, and scratches. There are a variety of other filters that can be very important, such as polarizing filters. Polarizing filters are ideal for bright sunlight, and are really great for minimizing reflections from glass surfaces.

This is merely scratching the surface of the range of variables you can encounter during a production. The best thing to do is practice, practice, practice. Also, it's good to keep a checklist. Sometimes, in the moment you can forget one simple thing just due to the pressure of the project; that's happened to me on several occasions. Good luck!

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