Back behind the camera again

Yesterday was interesting. I’ve been learning how to operate a video camera. I’m not talking a $399 camcorder from Best Bait-n-Switch here. Those are toys. I’m talking a real, live, camera, like you’d find in a TV studio or a sporting event. A camera that gathers up all available light possible, encodes the picture digitally on ridiculously expensive mini-DV tapes, and gives an absolutely gorgeous picture in most possible conditions, provided there’s a competent operator behind it who can find things compelling enough to shoot and keep them in focus. No autofocus here. It displays what you shoot with it, how you shoot it, whether idiotic or inspired.
I’m also afraid to take the thing anywhere because it costs half as much as my car. (No, I didn’t pay for it. And no, it’s not mine.)

I’ve shot video with it exactly four times now. One of those projects never saw the light of day. Two of the others won’t see the light of day until we get some semi-professional-grade video editing equipment. Yesterday was the first time my camera skills (or lack thereof) were on display, because I wasn’t taping–what my camera saw was projected, live, onto TV monitors throughout the building and two huge projection screens.

I hate TV, so I’m a bit surprised that I enjoy doing this. I guess it’s not video that I dislike after all–it’s how video is misused that I hate. Sticking a microphone in some distraught soul’s face after a tragedy and asking how they feel, then putting it on TV where some game show host-types can comment on it and act sad. Cheap, mindless, crude, lowest-common-denominator art.

The first thing I noticed is that the viewfinder is fine for finding yourself crudely, but under these lighting conditions it always pretty much looks in focus. I haven’t exactly developed an eye yet to tell from the viewfinder how things will look. We’ve got a little 9″ composite monitor hooked up to it to help–what you see there is roughly what you’ll see on TV. It’s a higher quality display than some cheap TVs, so if it looks good there, it’ll look good on any TV. Those projection screens are a challenge. They’re higher resolution than TV, so a slightly out-of-focus picture that still looks perfect on the monitor can look like garbage on the screens. It’s disconcerting to get what looks like a great shot, then cut to it and see it look awful on the screens. All I can do is make a quick adjustment off the screen and go.

I approach camera work from a print journalist’s perspective. When you’re recording events, you develop a gut feeling for what people find interesting, whether your medium is the printed or spoken word or still or moving pictures. That’s learned but can’t really be taught. From my design classes I know that the visual center of everything is slightly up and left of center. When you center something perfectly, it doesn’t look quite right. Also from design classes I know the rule of thirds–divide a picture into thirds, and those intersections of the lines are the points that people generally find interesting, so when you compose your shot, you want to put the important things in those areas. Once you know what you’re doing, you completely forget the rule of thirds and go with your instinct. I’m not there yet.

A lot of the camera work is a no-brainer. You find the person who’s speaking, then keep the speaker in the frame and in focus. But at one point the speaker focussed on an object, so it was pretty obvious–to me at least–what to do. Get off the speaker and focus on that object for a minute. The problem was, that object was directly behind the speaker, and huge! Switching focus smoothly from the upper three feet of the speaker to a 15-foot object a few feet above and behind him… Well, I couldn’t do it too well. I shot violently upward with the camera, and violently back, and I still didn’t have the object filling the frame. I moved a bit more smoothly back, and then somehow got it in focus. I stayed there for a minute, then I trained back on the speaker. In retrospect, I should have cut back even further, brought him into the frame, then slowly zoomed back in on him. I’ll do that next time.

But that was an inspired move, I think. The speaker wanted the audience to focus on that object. If they weren’t focusing on it before, when they saw the movement on the projection screens, I got them to pay attention to it, if only for a moment. People instinctively pay attention to things that move, particularly when they’re focussed on something else. That’s one of the reasons why animated ads on the Web are so annoying. It’s hard for us to focus on anything else when ads are blinking at us.

Maybe I’m being pretentious. I was shooting a church service. Many in my audience see 50 of them a year. A fair number of them see more than 100. But I don’t like being competent at something. I don’t even like being good at something, usually. I want to be one of the best, so I’ll try to do the things that the best do. Given the choice between looking incompetent trying to do something the very best would do and looking competent by not taking any chances, I’ll take my chances each and every time.

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