Category Archives: Getting the Right Gear

The Art and Science of Getting Good WordPress Support

This a nice write-up that illustrates the troubleshooting steps one can take and how to document those steps when submitting an issue to the WordPress help forum.  Much of the advise can be transferred over to other troubleshooting situations.

The one I like the best is the screen shot.  This is particularly helpful if you are getting any internal error messages on a site or software. It captures the situation accurately and is sharable with anyone you approach for assistance.

Thanks for the writeup Kathryn.

The Art and Science of Getting Good WordPress Support.

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A Macro Minute – Battle of the Cams

I believe that multi-functional technology is generally over rated when in comes to image creation.  If you want good stills, use a still camera.  If you want good video, use a video camera.  They are built to do their respective functions very well.  Video cameras, on the consumer level, are not meant to take great photos.  The fact that they come with that feature has limited functionality.  I usually advise not to depend on it for superior print quality images.

I put that to the test this week.  I used the still feature on my Sony handheld camcorder to take some macros and see how they fared against the stills from my dedicated Sony still cam.  With macro setting on and in full sunlight, the results were pretty impressive.  See below.

DSC00807 DSC00791 DSC00792 DSC00818 DSC00820

I had taken similar photos closer to dusk with both my video cam and still.  The still camera handled the low light better than the video camera, giving me more usable images to work with.

Even my iPhone under the right conditions garnered some good results.

IMG_0305

I still believe in dedicated technology for quality productions.  However, if you set aside the time to really learn the settings on the gear you have and the best conditions they operate under you can develop technique that will allow you to do more than you think you can.

Copyright 2013 Digital Design Digest

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Master the Mobile App for Productivity

Just Google “app” and infinite options come up to make the hardware of our lives more productive and entertaining.  There are some very good apps out there to be sure. I love my DuoLingo app for learning Spanish and the flashlight in the Over 40 app has lit a path for me more than once.  But sometimes the app can add more complexity where the device has everything you need, as is, to lead a productive and fulfilling life until the next upgrade. Here are a few useful things I use my iPhone for with the apps that came pre-installed.

Alarm

Yeah, I use it for the standard morning wake-up call because it is more reliable than my alarm clock but, the alarm has also come in useful for making sure I meet deadlines the rest of the day.  I started setting my phone to go off 30 minutes before a deadline, appointment or even closing time.  This lets me just loose myself in a project without obsessively checking the clock every 10 minutes.  When the alarm sounds I know I have 30 minutes to reassess and wrap things up or make arrangements to work longer.

Timer

Along the same lines as the alarm, I set timer to help me manage file transfers and DVD copies.  If the computer tells me something will be done in 47 minutes, I set the timer to go off just before then so I can check on it and, if it is ready, move it along to the next phase or start the process again with a different item.  In a busy studio there are a lot of these background processes that take very little time to setup but can easily get thrown on the back burner in favor of more labor intensive tasks.  Timer is a great way to make sure these tasks stay in the forefront of your mind and move along efficiently.

Camera

I use it to take pictures of things before I go shopping.  I am redecorating a room in my house right now and photographed the room with my smartphone so I had the visuals with me when I went shopping. There is a lamp I want to get a duplicate of and some random little nooks I may want to fill with décor.  I don’t have to go on memory with the lamp and I can easily transpose the image of an item into the space in a photo and decide if I like it there.

I’ve done this with clothes shopping too where I need to match colors.  It is so much easier than bringing the article of clothing with me.  The key here is to shoot in bright enough light so you do get accurate coloring.  You can then zoom in on the photo to match it with what you have your hands on in the store.

Notes

I use this for time sheets.  Working freelance, I am coming and going all the time.  If I am in the field I just note the job, the start and end time and any other relevant information to the event.  Then I get home and update my master Excel sheet.  When I sync my phone a backup is made on my mac and time machine backups let me retain that backup a bit longer.  I used to be the post-it note queen before I went digital.  Notes allows infinite pages, multiple backups and I do not have to decipher my own handwriting at the end of a long day!

What are some of your favorite uses for mobile Apps?

Copyright Digital Design Digest 2013

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The Field Shoot Backup Plan

Part of planning for any production is identifying your vulnerabilities and having a backup plan should something go wrong.  The last thing you want is to waste a client’s time and money because something did not come together the day of the shoot.  You cannot reasonably afford the overhead of purchasing doubles of all your equipment.  There are, however, some key pieces that are worth the investment of owning multiples and traveling with them during every shoot.

Audio Cords

An item that connects your microphone to your camera or audio mixer.  You would not get sound without it, and it is likely one of the least expensive items you will own in a field setup.  This cord is made of wire and pins that will age over time or is subject to damage from being bent or stepped on.  When it fails you will get static, intermittent sound until you get nothing at all.

On a field shoot bring one cord for each microphone you will use and at least one extra in case there is a failure.  If you can afford it, bring additional cords.  Audio cords can be daisy chained together to provide extra length.

Microphones

If well cared for microphones will last a long time.  You will replace audio cords more frequently.  If your budget allows for it, an extra microphone or two will not only assure you are covered if there is a failure but it will also add a great deal of flexibility to what you can shoot.  There are different microphones for different purposes.  As you add the number of people for whom you need to capture audio you eventually need to add microphones to assure the highest quality sound.  A few extra microphones in the field kit will have you prepared if people are added to a shoot last minute.

Power Supplies

Identify all the gear that requires batteries.  Make sure you travel with extra batteries for each item and that they are fully charged. Don’t use battery power unless you have to.

Always travel with the power cords to your gear and use that as your first option.  Battery power should be reserved for the times when power cords are not an option such as:

  • Tight, crowded spaces where cording is too hazardous.
  • Outdoor footage.
  • Other locations where there is no easy access to an outlet.

Go into each event fully loaded with all of your power options.  Shoots sometime go longer than expected, accidents happen and things get dropped and sometimes atmosphere can drain a battery down more quickly than at other times.  You may have been told outlets were going to be available to you, but then the location changes last minute or it turns out the plug does not work.  Stay flexible by building options into your gear.

Blank Media

Tapes, DVDs, and SD cards. They will fill up quick if a shoot goes longer than planned or there is just more great footage to capture than anticipated.  Sometimes you end up with a lemon that won’t record anything.  You can’t make lemonade out of that.  If you don’t have a backup you don’t have a show.

Tripod Shoes

It is the thing that attaches the camera to the tripod. They are just so small that it is easy to misplace one.  Your backup plan without a tripod would be to film handheld, which would produce shaky video or try to construct a make-shift support last minute which would limit your ability to pan and tilt for shot adjustment.  Better to purchase a second shoe as backup.

In general, it is a good idea to test your gear out once a month and again before every shoot.  You can still address issues the day before a shoot, even if it is to reschedule it because there was a major failure, like your camera.  This is not something you want to discover as you set up for the shoot, if you can avoid it.

Copyright 2013 Digital Design Digest

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Backup for My Backup

I am a pack rat by nature.  Luckily I learned some very good organizational skills in school as a child, so I am an organized pack rat.  Like any skill, my organization style evolved over time.  I learned a few hard lessons about the importance of backing up work either as a hard copy, on disc or multiples of both. I got religion when my computer crashed the night before a term paper was due and I thought I lost everything.  It all worked out, but I never again took for granted the reliability of any one device for storing information.

Traveling Through the Digital Time Machine

I graduated college in 2002 and looking back, it is amazing how much changed in technology since then. My music was still on CD, Instant Messaging was cool, I was taking photographs with a film camera and digital video was in its infancy. I always kept a paper hard copy of things as my backup to what was on my computer.  I also backed things up to floppy disk (oh yeah!) and eventually CD in case the computer crashed.

Now, ten years later, I practically live off my computer.  Photos, music, videos are all there. All my communications are digital.  Written content is sent via the internet or transferred between computers via a thumb drive.  I have not completely kicked the habit of the paper backup for some things, though the need for it and practicality of it has dwindled.  Now, it is all about the almighty hard drive and I have plenty of them.

How Many Hard Drives Does it Take to Backup a Computer?

I keep very little on my computer’s internal hard drive.  I like knowing the data has not left the building when sending the computer out for repair.  So I have an external drive that I use as my working drive for things like office files and graphic design projects.  Video still gets its own external drives.  I also have digital media assets such as photos, stock footage, music and graphics that I keep on yet another drive.  Then there is my backup drive.

Why 5 hard drives you ask?  Just remember digital media is my living.  I generate a lot of files in working versions and backups and rarely delete anything.  The average person will not need the kind of storage I’m packing.  But the answer to the question is simple.  Hard drives fail.  Failure occurs from poor manufacturing, age and just plain old bad luck.  That is nothing new.  It’s that simple fact of life that caused me to keep paper hard copies of my college papers at all critical stages….just in case.  Now that a paperless future is on the horizon how do we protect ourselves from loss of precious data?

Not all of my hard drives are accessed on a daily basis.  Some of my drives are dedicated for very specific uses and only turned on when I am working on projects that require the data they store.  So they are not getting the daily wear that the other drive does.  My main operational drive, the one I live off of, is on daily and therefore takes the most wear and tear.  That is the drive I back up to another hard drive.

The average user will have 2 drives.  The first drive would be the main operational drive for daily use.  The second would be of at least equal capacity to the first and serve as the backup.  Depending on how much data you generate and how long you choose to keep it you may want a 3rd drive for archives.  This would be a bit different than your backup to your main drive.  This would be for items you rarely access but need to maintain (older photos, financial and medical records, old work files, etc).  So your main drive stores active files.  Your backup serves to backup your main drive and your archive drive stores inactive items…just in case.

Accessing Your Backup Data

The monkey wrench in this intricate system of backing up the backups is the ability to access the data off an external drive if a computer fails.  A Mac will read what is on a Windows formatted hard drive but a Windows computer will not read what is on a Mac formatted hard drive.  If your computer fails you need a temporary solution that will read your hard drives.

In the case of power outages (tropical storm Irene, 2011; Hurricane Sandy, 2012) you’ll want to keep critical files on a thumb drive.  The drive draws power from the computer, it is portable and if you keep it formatted as Fat32, it can be read by Windows or Mac.1

Yes, I am a packrat by nature, a digital media producer by trade and mistrusting of the technology by experience.  The average person really only needs 2 external drives at any time and maybe a thumbdrive or two for day-to-day use.  Whatever technology you put in place to store your data the most important thing is to have a routine for regularly backing up your data.

1. Keep your files to under 4GB.  A Mac will read a FAT32 drive formatted for Windows but will not allow files sizes to exceed 4GB.

Copyright © 2012 Digital Design Digest

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Technical Tales of Woe – Standards? What Standards?

About two years ago I needed to retire my old G5 Mac and after months of research and consideration I finally bought a new 27” iMac computer. 1  It has tons of memory, a big beautiful screen for editing video and overall faster performance than my former G5.  At that time I was still using my MiniDV, tape based camera for shooting.  My research included assuring that this older camera would connect with this new computer and software.  It did, eventually, but not without an absurd amount of effort on my part to troubleshoot an issue that all boiled down to what brand wire I used to make the connection.  Apparently not all FireWire cables are created equal.

I knew something was wrong when I plugged in the FireWire 800 cable to the camera and saw the “DV-In” notice blinking furiously on the screen.  I only had the computer for less than a week and was already wondering if I got a lemon.  I checked all my connections to make sure they were fully engaged.  I researched the issue online, made sure all my drivers were up to date and even tried engaging the camera through different editing software programs.2  The results were the same.  The computer and camera were not making a steady connection.  I sent the computer in to the shop for assessment and it came back with a clean report.  I called Sony, the manufacturer of my camera, to see if they had any advice.  No luck there.

This went on for two weeks because I assumed the issue was with two of my main components to the technological equation.  After concluding the issue did not rest with the computer and that nothing could be adjusted on the camera I began to resign myself to the fact that I would need to upgrade to a newer camera.  It was an investment I knew was coming, but had hoped to put off for awhile.  But before I made that leap I decided I would buy another FireWire cable, just in case it turned out this issue was with a bad cable.

The original cable was a generic brand FireWire cable.  I really didn’t think anything of it when I bought it.  Firewire is FireWire.  A standard data transfer cable.  I spent months researching computers, software, hard drives and even cameras.  Of all the pieces to the technology puzzle I figured the FireWire cable was a no-brainer. Before buying the second cable I decided to read some of the user reviews.  I could only laugh and shake my head at what I learned.  The brand cable purchased did not play nicely with Apple computers!  Had I bought a second cable I would have had the same problem.

I began looking at other brand cables and reading the user reviews closely.  I found one that had positive reviews from Apple owners. The camera worked great with the new cable…for a few months.  I ended up needing to replace my 5 year old camera anyway do to aging mechanics.  Regardless, I learned something about standards….it varies from brand to brand and now I research even the smallest, least expensive components before buying.

  1. It may shock some of you that I am not a devout Apple owner.  I did have to think about getting another one. Two years later there are no regrets in doing so.  My computing needs, however, have changed since then and so has Apple. To keep my options open my laptop ended up being a Toshiba.
  2. Another Technical Tale of Woe in standards – Final Cut will not import AVCHD directly.  iMovie is needed to recognize the camera and capture the footage.  Final Cut, circa Pro X, was the semi-pro and pro option for editing the footage once it was captured.  Adobe CS4 would import AVCHD but crashed on a regular basis during editing.  Adobe CS6 is an improvement.

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How to Buy a Video Camera

This is a question I get frequently from new and seasoned camera owners.  Technology changes so quickly it is easy to assume the rules for buying a camera change too.  When buying any technology it is always a good idea to do a little research on the latest trends to see what is out there and their price ranges.  But before you invest too much time pouring over technical specifications of a potential purchase, spend a little time listing your specifications.  In other words, what do you want this new camera to do for you?

Your list should include everything and the kitchen sink.  It does not cost you anything to simply put it all on paper.  As you list your needs and price range you will begin to prioritize your specifications.  A good camera will last you at least 5 years or more so invest wisely and look at the features you may want tomorrow, not just what you know you need today.

Media Storage

The days of capturing video to tape is obsolete.  You will be hard pressed to find a tape based camera on the market and the only reason to buy one on the cheap is for the ability to backup archived footage to a hard drive. SD cards are the current future of video cameras.  So as you surf the offerings out there look at each camera’s storage type and capacity.

How much footage do you plan to capture before transferring it to an external drive?  The Sony Bloggie is a nice pocket size camera that takes good quality video and photos.  But with only 8GB of space you will need to offload it to a hard drive frequently in order to make room for your next production. If you are going on an extended trip or do not plan to transfer footage to external drives frequently, consider upgrading to a camera with a larger storage capacity.  For less than $300 you can get a small palm sized camera that can support a whopping 60GB or more of storage. With that kind of storage you can shoot everything in sight and edit the best later!

Battery Life

This actually goes hand in hand with video storage.  Some of the smaller blogging cameras have small batteries that need frequent recharging. If you are the occasional videographer or shoot more close to home where you can recharge regularly this may not be a major concern.  If you travel a lot or your occasional shoots last several hours then you want to look at a camera that is supplied with batteries that last more than 2 hours or invest in a few spare batteries.

SD, HD or Both?

Standard definition (4:3 aspect ratio) is still alive and kicking and a more efficient standard in terms of hard drive space and processing power when editing.  HiDef video(16:9 aspect ratio) produces stunning video and has the file size to match.  It also requires an extremely powerful computer to edit this footage efficiently. As technology evolves HD video will become as efficient to work with as SD and, eventually, replace SD video.

All that being said it would be worth your while to look at cameras that allow you switch between SD and HD recording if you are purchasing for your business or for a serious hobby. A camera that can straddle both standards will give you the most options to start.

Video and Audio Quality

Video has come a long way in a short period of time.  For very little money you can acquire a camera that takes phenomenal video footage for work or personal use.  There are some great cameras out there for under $300 that will take crisp, vibrant video images which, if you follow some of the basic principles for shooting video, you can edit later into a quality production.  While the inexpensive cameras offer some stunning video quality under most circumstances, you may find yourself wanting more control over different lighting situations, shot composition and sound.

Let There be Light, or Less of It

Exposure is how much light is allowed to enter the lens of the camera and it affects the brightness and darkness of a shot.  Too much light washes out a shot and makes the subjects too “hot”.  While you can darken a shot in editing you can never get back the detail lost from an over exposed shot.  On the flip side, too little light can darken a shot and make the video quality appear grainy.  You may be able to lighten such a video in editing, but with mixed results depending on how dark it started out.

All cameras come with automatic features that adjust for different lighting situations to some degree.  As you work your way up the price chain you will find cameras that offer more manual controls for adjusting exposure.  In additional to manual controls present on the camera there are lens filters at reasonable prices as well as external lamps that can attach directly to your camera.  These are great in situations when you are in close proximity to your subject and require just a bit more lighting than your surroundings provide.

I Can’t Hear You!

Most of the low end cameras on the market take phenomenal video footage in their own right but severely lack in their ability to capture adequate audio.  Almost all cameras come with their own built-in microphone.  These mics are fine for capturing ambient noise or for spontaneous narration by the camera operator but they will not produce the kind of rich, robust sound quality you will want for a professional video piece.  If you are going to be filming a lot of interviews and narration then you will want a camera that can accept external microphone attachments.  There are several varieties of external microphones built to handle different types of audio situations. (Another story for another blog). Owning a camera with a mic input gives you the option of attaching any one of these microphones to your camera.

Look for a camera that offers at least an eighth inch mic input.(Price range $900 +)  Even an inexpensive, external handheld mic will yield better audio results in an interview than the built in microphone.  For about $200 you can get and XLR audio adapter that will plug into the eighth inch mic input and give you 2 grounded XLR audio inputs.  This gives you the option of attaching 2 professional level microphones to your camera or a mixing board for even more microphone inputs. There are other camera models out there that allow external mic hookups without the need for adapters, but their price range typically starts at $2500.   Depending on your needs you may decide to allocate that $2500 to putting together a full compliment of field gear rather than just the camera piece of it.

Zoom. Zoom.  Zoom.

There are 2 different types of zoom advertised for cameras; optical and digital.  In the age of digital technology consumers mistakenly focus in on the digital zoom feature, which can often boast a 100 -200x zoom in of the subject.  Digital zoom simply magnifies the pixels that create the image of a subject.  The further in you zoom the more distorted the subject becomes.  Like in graphic design and video editing, digital magnification has its place when use sparingly (and as a last resort) but it should not carry any weight in the decision process of buying a camera.

Optical zoom is the number you want to pay attention to.  The technology of optical zoom allows you to zoom in closer to the subject while maintaining the crispness and overall fidelity of the image.  Some brand cameras have always offered impressive optical zoom technology.  A higher optical zoom helps you get high fidelity close up shots from further away without needing to purchase additional telephoto lenses.  It’s a nice feature to have. However, if you know you will mostly be filming subjects within close proximity it is not a necessity.  Other considerations to be weighed, maybe more heavily, are the chip size (bigger chips and more of them lead to richer images), the camera’s performance in low light situations and its manual options for controlling exposure and shutter speed.

If you are the casual videographer and have a few hundred dollars to support the hobby you really can’t go wrong with some of the great sub-$300 out there.  If you are a serious hobbyist or needing a camera for business purposes and plan to invest equally serious money in the equipment do your homework first, starting with understanding what you expect from your investment today and in the future. Your camera will be the main hub of your production gear so plan with expansion in mind.

 

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