It took me a year, but I completed my short documentary, “Steve Shirley Shark Tagger, San Francisco Bay.” Writing posts here took a backseat because of my crash-course in digital filmmaking. I didn’t enroll in school to learn the technology. I taught myself, using the internet mostly. Now I’m ready to share:
- I knew I would be shooting outdoors, on a boat, or in misty weather. I wanted a camera that was weatherproof to protect my investment.
- For much of the interview footage, I realized I needed to acquire footage quickly. I didn’t have time to set up a tripod. I had to hand-hold the camera, for what is known as “run and gun footage.” I picked a camera with built-in image stabilization so my footage would look less shaky. It’s excellent for that.
- For interviews, I didn’t have time to change my lens, or space to store extra ones in a bag on the boat. My camera’s lens is a Carl Zeiss 24-200mm f/2.8 Lens (35mm Eq). It’s got the best of both worlds, a bit of telephoto and macro-functioning and a really nice wide-angle. A Carl Zeiss lens has a reputation of being superbly designed. The focus remains constant from the center to the edges. Others are apparently a bit blurry around the edges.
- I wanted the ability to have depth-of-field shots to lend a more ‘cinematic’ look to my documentaries. It’s a bit tricky and problematic to do that with a Sony RX10, but it’s possible. I did it by setting my camera on a tripod, standing about ten feet away from my subject, zooming out to 200mm, and establishing a composition in which enough of my subject was in focus, and the background was out of focus. It wasn’t a creamy-blurred background, but it was enough to focus attention on my subject.
- A super zoom was helpful for getting ‘closer’ to the shot I wanted out on the Bay. I discovered that you can hear the motor while you are zooming; best to zoom in and frame your shot and then begin recording.
- Another way I achieved depth-of-field was by standing really close, like an inch, to my subject, leaving the lens at 24 mm, and filling half the frame with that extreme close-up while the other half was out-of-focus. This works well with objects, like the fishing rod in my film or the bait, but not so well with people. Who wants a camera that close to their face?
- I wanted a powerful viewfinder. The image needed to have the color range of I what was actually seeing. The electronic LCD on the back screen of the camera (as well as the one just for your eye) is very powerful and accurate in my camera.
- I also wanted an adjustable screen viewfinder. In situations where the sun was behind me, I tilted the angle of it to see what I was shooting clearly.
- I wanted a lightweight camera that was small and less cumbersome than a DSLR. I sought one that didn’t overheat for digital video use. My Sony RX10 is small and lightweight. It never got hot and turned off (like many of the DSLRs apparently do, although the shots I record are quick clips and I haven’t used it for long sessions of recording).
- I knew autofocus would be a big plus for recording live action. This feature was problematic on the Sony RX10, not functioning perfectly. A couple of times I had to turn the camera off and back on again to get the focussing mechanism to work. Not cool.
- Having low-light sensitivity was important to me, and because this camera has a one inch sensor, it was better than the sensors in camcorders. There are bigger sensors in some DSLRs, but the cameras are bigger and heavier and their video doesn’t work as well or look as good.
- The variety of formats to shoot video; and the ability to shoot at different frames per second is great: full HD 1080i/p Video at 60 and 24 fps.
- I also wanted a built-in shoe so I could attach other components, like lighting, or a shotgun mic to the camera. There is a shoe on top.
- Sound is recorded during filming using the built-in stereo microphone, or additionally, an external microphone 3mm jack permits me to use It my Sennheiser G3 wireless mic system. Audio: AAC LC, AC3 (DSLRs require sound to be recorded separately–a pain in post production).
- The ability to take excellent stills with the same tool I filmed with was another perk I wanted. It can take up to ten frames per second at 20.2 mega pixels.
- I really like that it records on a memory card.
- It’s got versatile file formats to record in including: Still Images: JPEG, RAW
Movies: MP4, MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, MPEG-4 AVCHD, XAVC S
- The options for the resolution you shoot at are versatile for your final viewing requirements. The variety means that your video footage will look great on phone, computer, t.v. or on a big screen in a theater 1920 x 1080: 60 fps, 30 fps, 24 fps; 1440 x 1080: 30 fps; 1280 x 720: 120 fps; and
640 x 480: 30 fps.
Basically, I discovered it’s not possible to find one camera with everything I wanted. I had to settle. Sure there are better cameras out there, but my Sony RX10 has most of the features I wanted at a descent price. It’s pretty darn close to being perfect for me.
What would make it better? I would like the ability to change lenses. I wish the speed of turning it on and focussing was faster and more consistent. I’d like it if the Wireless connectivity wasn’t something I had to figure out how to set up; best if automatic, like a smartphone. Finally, It would be better if I could rotate the viewfinder on its horizontal axis and not just tilt it vertically.
Anecdotes of Using the Sony RX10 for my Short Doc
I ‘filmed’ Sevengill Sharks in a tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium which was hard to do. I had to find a place by the tank to put the camera that made it seem like they were in the ocean; and finding a place without lights from the exhibit reflected in it was almost impossible. Then, I had to wait for a Sevengill to swim through ‘my frame.’ Challenging but fun!
It fulfilled my wanna-be National Geographic cinematographer fantasy to shoot video at dawn on San Francisco Bay last November. One Sevengill Shark was caught and tagged on basically “the last day of the season for catching one of the big ones,” according to Steve. I also recorded a lot of interview footage out there which was totally unexpected. But when Steve started talking, I documented what he was saying. The results with the Golden Gate Bridge behind him were fantastic. Good thing I was flexible.
I spent weeks scouting the SF Bay for a place to conduct an interview with Steve and finally chose Middle Shore Harbor in Oakland, CA. In the top of a tower there, where there are telescopes for bird watching, it worked well to have Steve standing with the San Francisco Bay below and behind him. He appeared credible and powerful. I really liked how the backdrop of the Port of Oakland nearby, as well as the brand new East Bay Bridge and skyline of San Francisco were in some of the shots. I thought it visually communicated how his conservation efforts in the SF Bay are a challenge amidst such an industrial environment.
Recently I’ve told a few friends, “Even if my film, “Steve Shirley Shark Tagger, San Francisco Bay” doesn’t make it into any of the festivals I’ve entered, it’s the best work I’ve ever done.”
While I can’t share it here, publicly, until next summer, 2015, (it has to stay private to be screened at some of the festivals), I’ll continue to share what I’ve learned from making it.