January 24, 2014

Joyce Tsang of Stillmotion Discusses Choosing the Best Camera to Tell Your Story

When many of us first picked up a camera, it was whatever we had lying around. Maybe it was dad's old Super 8 at home or the Handycam in your high school yearbook class. It was available, affordable, and convenient, so the choice was already made whether you knew it or not. Today, however, there are a lot of cameras out there so naturally beginning filmmakers will ask themselves, "How do I choose a camera?"

This is a guest post by Joyce Tsang of Stillmotion.

If you look at the spectrum of what is out there, we have everything from the iPhone to the Phantom. We've heard sayings like "the best camera is the one you always have with you," or that the one with the largest sensor is good, or that film cameras will always be the way to go. With so many opinions and so many options, what's a filmmaker to do?

For us, we choose the camera that best fits the story we want to tell.
Wait, what the heck does that mean? Sounds a little fluffy, so we’re going to break it down into some key factors to consider:

  • Documentary vs. Commercial: Is this a live event situation where things happen quickly (and can't be re-done), and you're working with everyday real people? Or is this a produced, scripted shoot where you're working with actors and have more control over the situation?
  • Environment: Are you shooting outdoors in an area with a lot of contrast, somewhere with both a lot of sun and a good bit of shade? Are you shooting in unpredictable weather conditions with no cover, where it could be sunny one minute and pouring rain another? Or are you shooting in an indoor set where you can control most of the conditions?
  • Frame rate: Is there a scene where you'd want to emphasize a movement, add suspense, or stay in the moment longer through slow motion? Or would you like the viewer to see it as our eyes naturally do and experience it in real-time?
  • Resources: Are you working solo where you have to manage camera, light, audio and support all on your own? Heck, you're practically Director, DP, Gaffer, Audio and PA all-in-one. Or do you have a team of people so there is a dedicated person on most roles?
  • Personal preference: Now, be careful, don’t read this as, "Ohhh I love that new Blackmagic camera." What we mean is, we all have a natural tendency to be drawn to the features of a camera in a different way. It’s always worth asking what types of features and experience you enjoy the most. A big, built-out RED with many options, or a stripped down handheld DSLR?

These certainly aren't the only factors to consider, but they are often the ones we consider first and put the most weight on. And notice how things like resolution, codec, and budget are not in there. It's not that these aren't important, they certainly need to be brought into the equation, but we'll likely not choose a camera solely because it does 4K, or because it records in RAW, or because it's the only camera we have in our gear cabinet. We are looking for a camera with features that best fit the four criteria above.

How does this all apply? Here are three examples we came across last year:

RED EPIC

We used this for a commercial piece we filmed for the Strangling Brothers Haunted Circus, because it was a fully scripted project with a ton of dramatic lighting and a full crew on set. This meant that we could take our time to get the perfect shot, and it's okay that the RED is a bit slower than 5D MKIII. And while it isn't a large camera, the EPIC is quite heavy when kitted-up with cinema lenses, follow focus, and a matte box, but again that isn't an issue when we don't have to move fast.

Additionally, since we had plenty of lighting and the majority of the piece was in the dark, we needed a camera with great dynamic range so we aren't losing detail in the blacks -- with 18 stops on the EPIC, we had plenty of dynamic range. And we were working with a full crew: a dedicated audio recordist who could handle the challenges on that end, an AC who was familiar with all the features and got the camera all built up and ready to go. We also had a gaffer and director, both of whom needed to see the picture on external monitors -- something very easily done with the EPIC.

Is it the best camera? Perhaps for some projects, but there's also challenges, like having a lot of media to manage, especially if you don't have a DIT or time to handle it in post. It's expensive and relatively slow. However the EPIC was definitely the right fit for this project.

Canon 1DC

Just last month we filmed some football games and we used a DSLR body, primarily because of the environment we were shooting in. We were very excited for one of the games because it was a snow game. While the imagery there was beautiful the shooting conditions were not. It was 22 degrees with snow coming in what felt like every which way, and being that it was a single camera shoot, there simply were no extra resources to have someone hold a cover over the camera.

Within the first quarter the camera was wet and I could barely feel my hands. At some point I remember looking over to another shooter on the sidelines with the EPIC thinking how awesome it would be to be filming the snow coming down at 5K in 120fps, but three minutes after I said that the snow turned into heavy rain and he had to leave. And while I was only shooting at 1080p at 60fps I was able to stay out there and tell the story. We went with the 1DC for this because its weather sealed to protect against the elements, there's a slow motion option which is great to emphasize the movement and emotion that often comes with sports and it had basic audio, and nat sounds were all we needed so working without XLR ports or timecode wasn't a problem at all.

Canon C100

We just wrapped up our first feature documentary film, #standwithme, where we spent 8 months following a handful of characters to tell the story all across the world. This meant that we would need to follow an unpredictable 9-year-old girl at home and at school, travel to Ghana and Nepal to see slavery first hand, and to Namibia to set up the story of the photographer who sparked the journey.

At first, we tried the EPIC and the C300 but we quickly realized that we needed something small and quick, so we weren't intimidating to real people who weren't actors. We also needed a camera that was compact enough for us to move at ninja speed to chase after kids. Part of that is the size and weight of the camera, but it was also the features of the C100 that allowed us to be as fast as we needed to be -- the built-in ND filters meant we weren't fumbling around with drop-ins and things like peaking, and waveform assured us that we were nailing focus and exposure without the need of an AC to pull focus or check exposure. At the same time, we also needed something that would travel well in the harsh conditions of the Kalahari desert with nothing but hot sun and sand.

We needed a camera that would give us the right audio options. During our sit down interviews we'd run a boom, or in many of our scenes we'd mic our characters up with a wireless while in school or in the field, both of which were plugged directly into camera via the XLR ports (so there's no need to sync). But there were situations when it was just a solo shooter, and we had to be quick and discreet, so the Rode Video Mic Pro is all we needed. Of course this camera isn't without its flaws; the viewfinder isn't the best, and it doesn't have a slow motion option, but those weren't a factor for this film. For us, the C100 was the perfect camera for telling the #standwithme story.

The one big takeaway from all of this: no one camera will do it all. But hey, you knew that. You’ve heard it before and you’ll definitely hear it again. When we stop searching for that perfect camera and instead look for the one that fits the stories we want to tell, we can get much closer to perfect.

Filmmaking is all about making decisions that serve the story first, and camera choice is a big one. Don't limit yourself to what you always use or what's in your gear bag. Just because a story calls for you to use a 5D Mark III this week, when you had a fully kitted-up EPIC last week, doesn't mean one story is going to be better than another. Consider what factors are most important to telling your story, and make your camera choice based on that and you’ll find other ways to overcome the challenges that come along throughout your journey.

If you’ve enjoyed the ideas and approach behind this you’ll enjoy a day with us at the Storytelling With Heart Tour where we go through key approaches on how to bring the remarkable stories you want to tell to life.


joyceJoyce Tsang stumbled into the filmmaking world about 5 years ago with no film experience, and is not only one of the lead creatives at Stillmotion, but also DP'd their first feature-length documentary called #standwithme. Stillmotion is a small collection of curious, loud, trouble-making souls who believe that powerful stories can change the world. As a film studio, they work together every day, grow together, love each other, and know each other’s weaknesses. Still motion is a made up of cinematographers, producers, directors, writers, editors, and dreamers.

Your Comment

41 Comments

For the last week, i've ditched my D800 for a gopro. I don't think i'm ever going back.

January 24, 2014 at 9:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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faraz

I ditched my GoPro for my iPhone.

January 28, 2014 at 3:29AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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That's funny - I shoot with both a D800 and a GoPro and they work together just fine - the footage looks a 'bit' different but the two are perfectly complementary - what I cannot do with one, I can do with the other.

January 30, 2014 at 3:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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The lack of money made me pick up what was available, affordable, and convenient, so the choice was already made before I left for Cambodia: Canon Ixus 220HS:

http://carlsenfilm.dk/film/docs/angkoruk.html

January 24, 2014 at 10:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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I'm quite impressed with what you did with an Ixus on that documentary.

January 24, 2014 at 10:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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.

January 24, 2014 at 7:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Thanx! The light in those parts of the world is more than camera friendly and the rest was done in FCPX :)

January 24, 2014 at 7:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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WoW! Congratulation for making this film on that tiny camera. You just prove, if we just try and work with the limitations its workable!

January 25, 2014 at 7:03AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Everything is workable and if the story is interesting enough nearly everything goes :)

January 27, 2014 at 7:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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And thanx :)

January 27, 2014 at 7:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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It looks very, very good considering it's a camera that you buy now for $89.00. And so many people are complaining about expensive cameras for $1000.00's are not looking good enough. That video looks better than almost everything you could see on tv about 15 years ago.

What did you do for audio?

January 25, 2014 at 3:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Gene

Thanx :)

I had to ditch most of the audio in the editing (due to the more than wind and touch sensitive microphone!) and make my own scenery of sounds out of the pieces of audio that was good enough to use. Then I topped the hole thing with voice over and back ground music :)

January 27, 2014 at 7:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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WOW!! I am impressed, I have a Canon ELPH 100 myself, which I got for its small size and ability to run CHDK on it.

Do you use CHDK with yours?

http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK

January 28, 2014 at 3:33AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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I wasn't aware of the existence of CHDK! But now I am. Thanx, I have to try it out. The settings on the camera are factory settings.

January 28, 2014 at 5:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Wow color me impressed as well. It is a great documentary piece. If I had to criticize anything it would be that the highlights in a couple of seconds of the footage near the beginning were a little over exposed but I think in context it may have been a style choice not an error. But considering the camera used you did a fantastic job worthy to be shown. I hope I do at least as good a job when I do my first doc which will be in Honduras where I lived for 3 years. just waiting to have the time and money available at the same time sigh. Good work man.

February 3, 2014 at 11:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Gary

Always use what you already own. You're either a gear head or an artist. Gearheads cant create, and artists dont hoard

January 24, 2014 at 10:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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francis

Hey Francis,

Instead of 'always' just using whatever gear we own we try to go for the right tool needed for the project. And sometimes when a story calls for more than what we have in the gear cabinet - we rent. Its a fairly easy process and can usually be built into the budget.

January 24, 2014 at 12:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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"Gearheads cant create, and artists dont hoard" What an odd statement. Kubrik was a gearhead and an artist.
http://www.kubrickcollection.com/ here is an entire website where you can rent his gear. In fact I can think of a lot of gearhead/artists but what ever.. I think it's more of a liability then an investment to purchase a camera these days. The caliber of camera the average Joe can rent is mind blowing. With a new camera or update coming out every month, it's hard to justify getting locked in to any one package. of course there are exceptions but when we live in a time where you can go to a camera rental website and have a camera delivered directly to your door. truly wondrous times

January 24, 2014 at 12:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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CC

I disagree you can be a gear head and a artist. But I believe the art comes first and I am a gear head but believe that you can make the most of what ever equipment is available and a good story will make it happen.

February 3, 2014 at 11:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Gary

In lousy weather, the Sony 7D works. Stills, good zoom and 60P with no time limit, it works for me, every time.

January 24, 2014 at 10:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Good advice, but just do the best with what you have available, having a selection isn't cheap.

January 24, 2014 at 11:40AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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KiddoRivers

Absolutely agreed with making the most of what you have. When we shot our first doc A Game of Honor a few years back it was largely shot on the Canon 7D and the 1DMKIV - it was what we had and it worked well for the story. But sometimes that's not enough and when buying is out of the budget, we rent. It gives you the flexibility to follow the story yet not have to have the overhead of a massive gear selection.

January 24, 2014 at 12:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Good article, good point - two nitpicks/comments:

18 Stops on the Epic? Isn't that generous even for Dragon? The HDRx mode is not suited for normal dramatic scenes (strange motion). And the C300 is hardly more intimidating to subjects than the C100 (it strips down darn small)... I strain to see that you would ever pick the C100 over its big sister if given the choice (budget not withstanding).

January 24, 2014 at 11:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Davíð

13.5 stops on the epic without using HDRx and about ~16 for dragon on a good day.

January 24, 2014 at 12:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Michael Solomon

I can understand that but part of camera selection is also personal preference. We tried the C300 on several of the shoots and it just didn't work as well for us so we went back to the C100. With the monitor and the controls located where it is and as fast as we were moving it wasn't a good fit for us. Our other team members didn't have this issue but for me in particular I have small hands so the difference between a C100 and C300 wasn't insignificant.

January 24, 2014 at 12:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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And the answer is - it''s a budget issue (and, if you're shooting in the rain, ditch Red for F55 and bring plastic rain cover).

January 24, 2014 at 11:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

Shoot on anything in the rain...with a rain cover.

February 2, 2014 at 9:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Daniel Mimura

If we look at a camera purely from an exhibition perspective in terms of a large screen cinema viewing audience, could some "lowly" small sensor cameras be good enough for picture quality ?

I understand Crank 2: High Voltage was filmed on Canon consumer cams.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyS-apNPxUI

January 24, 2014 at 12:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Saied

In some ways what is acceptable is different for everyone. What is good enough for some isn't nearly good enough for others, it's fairly subjective.

AVCHD is supposedly 'not good enough' for tv yet you rarely see a compelling story shot on C100 and say...oh yeah that was totally shot on a non-broadcast friendly camera. Similar if you look for it there's probably some artifacts when viewing DSLR footage on the big screen but if the story is strong, the audience would theoretically be engrossed in the film and not be paying much attention to picture quality.

January 24, 2014 at 1:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Well, there are TV shows shot on D800 and they look fine for right now. Similarly, a film actually won the Cannes Grand Prize (the famed Palm d'Or/Golden Palm) despite being shot on C300. That said, if you can afford Alexa, you shoot on Alexa. And some Arri primes. And, in between takes, you sip Louis XIII in your air conditioned trailer while your 300 foot yacht is in the dock.

January 24, 2014 at 3:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

Thanks for clearing that up.

January 24, 2014 at 4:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Dougie

Hey Saied,

As I understand, PARTS of that film were shot on Canon Prosumer cameras. The Canon HF10, specifically. I had one with a depth-of-field adapter. Remember those?!

January 27, 2014 at 4:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Nick

I love the C100 and prefer it ergonomically to the C300. And I have large hands :-)
If it did any form of overcrank I'd have bought one a while back.

January 25, 2014 at 1:23AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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marklondon

It's very interesting why people forgot about traditional camcorders. C'mon guys, be real, if you're a documentary shooter do you really need 5Ds GH3 Scarletts and etc? If you're in the field working with DSLR is an absolute nightmare, especially with dslr's horrible ergonomics and separate sound. I bought GH3 and find it horrible for documentary, but like 99% of people became a victim of DSLRs aggressive marketing campaigns. Oh, DSLRs have bokeh, it's cool and filmic.. But ask youself a question do you really need that? I'm dreaming about selling all this gh3 stuff and buying a solid camcorder like canon XF100. So don't be fooled like me with DsLRs, don't forget that's it's just marketing and they are trying to get your money out of you. Ask your own questions and do your research properly.

January 25, 2014 at 6:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DocFM

For me: Image quality will always be the number one priority. Not the user experience. Fact of the matter is, most camcorders have that overly sharpened and "camcorder look" to them and I find it absolutely horrible.

When set up properly with a proper rig, you can make any DSLR work like any camcorder out there minus the super zoom. I only use primes anyway.

January 26, 2014 at 1:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Hubert

It depends on what kind of work you do. If you shoot films than it's DSLR no questions. But if it's a doco.. Well, sorry but in docos my priority is story, picture and sound a secondary. it's just very inconvenient to shoot with a dslr Run-and-gun, which most of the docos are all about. Plus huge waste of time on editing of separate sound and picture. Camcorder's are capable of giving you nice bokeh, but having that extra shallow DoF in docos in my view is excess. Have a look on BBC or Discovery docos, most of them have that "camcorder" look and it works fine. "Film look" is just another marketing thing.

January 26, 2014 at 7:53AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DocFM

Griffin Hammond of IndyMogul* (*now of HeyKillerFilms, IndyMogul is defunct, cancelled by YouTube Next Lab) used a GH3 and a Gopro for his soon coming docu "Sriracha". Though it doesn't look like he did a lot of running and gunning to shot it:

trailer

[ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EUIov_eK2Y ]

January 26, 2014 at 1:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Gene

Looking forward to see the Hot Sauce Film

January 27, 2014 at 9:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Actually a GH3 can be rather nice to use for documentaries, very small and portable, audio monitoring, weather proofing, etc

January 28, 2014 at 3:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Those dreamers at Stillmotion need to fix their website.

January 23, 2015 at 7:46AM

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Alexandru Panait
Director
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All I hear is barking. The point of the article is use what suits and what you like. I tether my small monitor or my 22" TV to my 7Dll and run my lav or mic through my Zoom h4n and then into the camera. The sound is very good.

I turn on the lights, forget the stuff on my rig, step out into the light and begin to tell the story. I know you may not agree, but I don't care....it's my story.

January 24, 2015 at 12:22AM, Edited January 24, 12:22AM

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Rachael Dakoda
Owner of Brian's Brackets
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