My First AFP Video – Initial Lessons

Readers of this blog will know that I’m trying to learn how to do more photos and videos to become more of a “multimedia” journalist (whatever that is). I did some training at AFP in Hong Kong to learn how to do “webclips”, and put together a little video about an Iraqi Ramadan game. So when my videojournalist colleague Nafia Abdul Jabbar’s camera broke down a couple days ago, shortly before he and I were to conduct an important interview, I immediately said I wanted to give it a try. My reasoning was, in the worst case scenario, I’d screw it up and we wouldn’t have any video, which would have been the case whether or not I tried. Best case scenario? I learn a couple things and begin to add a new skill.

So it was with that goal in mind that I set off with my trusty Canon 550D to the Adnan Palace in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Forgive me if this post is long, but I want to get down all my difficulties and lessons (and there were plenty), so that I remember them, and hopefully they’ll be of some use to you too.

First off, these are the results of the interview. I can unfortunately only find a French version of the video, so it’s hard to get a sense of the audio. Apparently, al-Arabiya TV broadcast it, as well, which is personally exciting, but I don’t have a copy of that:

Kurds halt oil exports in payments row (text)
Iraq working on Strait of Hormuz tension – deputy PM (text)
Iraq hopes to plug electricity gap in 2013 – deputy PM (text)
Hussein al-Shahristani (photos)

On Thursday, in the midst of a major Arab summit in Baghdad, Nafia’s camera died on him. He tried to do everything he could to resucitate it, but to no avail. It was due for some servicing, and so after a few days of immensely hard work, he took some time off and handed his camera in for repairs. On Saturday, we were informed by Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussein al-Shahristani‘s office that an interview we had been requesting for weeks had finally come through, and we had to be at his office at 1PM the following day. With major interviews like this, AFP tries to ensure that we have coverage in text, photo and video, for our breadth of clients. So I had about 18 hours to learn how to be at least moderately competent at shooting a still video, and gather all the equipment I needed. To make matters worse, Nafia was not able to attend, so I was basically on my own.

What Nafia uses: A Sony Z1. He also carries a wealth of accessories and equipment for all manner of occasions.
What I had: A Canon 550D, two basic lenses (a 50mm f/1.8, and a 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6), and three relatively slow SD cards (each a Sandisk Ultra 4GB Class 4 SDHC card that writes at 15MB/s).
What I needed: A stable tripod, a fast and high-capacity SD card, and a sound adapter (whereas professional-grade video cameras use what is called an XLR jack for audio, digital SLRs typically only have a 3.5mm input). We had all of these items to spare in the office — a Manfrotto 525MVB tripod, a Integral Ultima 16GB Class 10 SDHC card that writes at 23MBps, and an XLR-3.5mm audio adapter.

In the realm of videojournalism, this assignment was thankfully a pretty simple one — a sit-down interview in a fairly well-lit room. Having never actually taken a video for the wire before, I called on the expertise of three colleagues (AFP’s global news operation came in handy: somewhere in the world, there is always an AFP journalist I can call to ask for help/advice) — Julia Slater in London, Mehdi Lebouachera in Paris, and Nafia. They were all tremendously supportive and helpful, and I came away with a few key points which, to the video novice, were useful:

  • AFP shoots video at 1080p/30fps — thankfully, my DSLR supported this.
  • Shoot video at a shutter speed of 1/60s, but (this is important) do not set the aperture too high if you are (a) not comfortable with shifting focus quickly and correctly and/or (b) behind the camera at all times. This is important because, with a 50mm f/1.8, if I had kept the aperture the highest I could, and Shahristani had moved, the focus may not have compensated and he would blur out pretty quick.
  • DSLRs are terrible at capturing sound, so take a digital voice recorder for a backup audio feed.
  • Keep the interview subject on one side, and have him/her looking across the screen (i.e. if the subject’s eyes are at the top right, have them looking to their left, and vice versa).
  • Observe the ‘five-shot rule’: get video of the interview subject ‘at work’, but from a variety of different angles, aiming for five if possible.
  • Keep the ISO as low as possible — while DSLRs can take tremendous pictures at higher ISOs, they are not quite as good at doing so while filming video.

What I did right

  1. Take all the required equipment, including two backup audio recorders
  2. Show up on time
  3. Press record

What I did wrong/What I learned

  1. Composition: From the video above, Shahristani is in the right place, but his body isn’t facing the camera, only his face is. I should have slightly tilted the chair so it was facing the camera. Also, the video should have been more tightly cropped on his body; there is too much space above his head, and below his upper-chest.
  2. Sound: A microphone hooked from an XLR-mono converter into the DSLR still made the audio sound very distant and faint. Whether this was down to the microphone or the camera itself, the audio needed to be replaced. I recorded the interview on my iPhone and my Olympus DM-550, and in the end, my awesome colleagues at AFP Video synced the iPhone recording with the video.
  3. White Balance: The video has a yellow/orange tinge, annoyingly. I defaulted to auto white balance because this being my first time, I was thinking about a million things, and didn’t trust myself to choose the correct white balance the way I would with a photograph.
  4. Focus: While the focus for the duration of the interview was thankfully not a problem, I really struggled with getting the focus right on the cutaways that showed Shahristani at work — this is just something I have to practice, because it required a lot of cycling through on-screen menus, and when under time pressure, I did not know them well enough instinctively to quickly make changes.
  5. Recording stoppages: The camera would suddenly stop recording video, but once I pressed the record button, would resume — I understood that this was a file size limit, but it stopped at the 12 minute mark, then the 17 minute mark, and then went on fine until the end of the 31-minute interview (meaning three separate files were recorded of 12 minutes, 5 minutes and 14 minutes). I have no idea why this happened — any explanation would be welcome.
  6. It is really hard to conduct an interview while also keeping an eye on the video camera.

What I need to work on

  1. Learn the control map: It sounds simple, but I had no familiarity with my camera’s video controls — I wasn’t able to quickly change shutter speed, aperture or ISO the way I’m comfortable doing now with its photo functions. This was made clear in many primers/instruction videos that I read in preparation: DSLRs just don’t have the multitude of buttons that professional-grade video cameras have, so you need to learn the menu system. I also have a terrible feel for manually adjusting focus, or even correcting/moving the autofocus.
  2. Invest: In a better audio capture system (while always carrying at least one backup audio recorder), and a faster SD card.
  3. Practice: I wasn’t going to find any of this out without trying. This will definitely not be my last time experimenting with video (assuming AFP keeps letting me take my camera to news events).

Anyway, these are my early take-aways from the experience, which was lots of fun. As with all new things, it’s intimidating at first, but really interesting and enjoyable the more you get into it.

Let me know if you see anything in the video I should be working on improving at, and learning from. As always, any and all links/advice/tips are tremendously appreciated, drop me a line in the comments or by e-mail!

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