Thailand Trip: What I learnt

At the end of November I went off on my first trip to East Asia with OMF to take part in my first documentary shoot.

I went as part of a two man team to shoot the story of a Dutch family who work for OMF in North Thailand. The other half of the team was Nigel, full time videographer for OMF, in the past months he had been looking into the DSLR video trend and whilst he loved the aesthetic he was unsure about the pitfalls of video on a DSLR. After so many years using Prosumer camcorders such as the V1, NX5 and most recently the XF300 he wasn’t sure he had the time to learn the skills, tips, tricks and work arounds to be proficient with a DSLR in the field, also with the next generation of DSLRs being rumoured for 2012 it was hard to justify the cost of buying another camera on top of the XF300. I’ve had a 550D since March 2011 and had been sharing what I had filmed with Nigel over the time so he approached me to come as his assistant and second camera man bring all the DSLR tricks to the table.

So on 16 November we flew to Thailand.

What did I learn over the 10 Days.

Let’s start with the challenges or cons of DSLR

Pulling focus, especially at f1.4, which I shot at most of the time, is harder in situations where you have one chance to the shot, most of the time I managed and  where I didn’t I was fortunate that the shot was available again the next day but they were a few times when reviewing footage that I realised I had blown it and focussed just in front or just behind the subject.

Overheating, during one of our interviews I twice hit the overheating warning on my 550D, it was fairly cool for Thailand, about 25oC but I was pleased as I expected to see this a lot more during the trip.

Batteries, again during the interviews these got used up quickly, I had three with me which I always had plenty of time to get charged each night but I think I would have rather 4 or 5 and more if we had less ready access to charging. Also a second charge would make things easier.

Changing lenses in documentary work when your in uncontrollable situations is a pain, I only used my 30mm f1.4 and my 18-200mm f3.5-6.3. Whilst it’s true that a faster and better zoom lens would have saved me a couple of times there sadly is no one size fits all lens for the DSLR, if someone one day makes a 11-200mm f1.4 I.S lens  that would certainly help! I missed a few shots because I had the wrong lens on at the wrong time, a second body with the alternate lens would be the best solution but the extra weight would be a killer.

50cm sliders are pretty short! I have a DIY roller bearing slider which I put together very soon after getting my camera. It’s given me great shots over the year but it was slightly over engineered so it quite bulky, all though almost entirely made from aluminium so it’s very light, and at 1m in length it was never going to fit in a suitcase. So I quickly came up with a quick and cheap way to create a bag sized 50cm track which used the same carriage. In certain instances this provided some interesting shots but it also was apparent that it was just too short to really add the dynamic we were hoping for. Fortunately the family we were staying with employ a maintenance man and between us we managed knock up a brilliant 4ft track!

50cm slider Creating 4ft slider

Anyway enough grumbling what about the pros

Shallow depth of field looks great, it’s the main reason so many people are shooting video on DSLRs and it was a joy to be along on the trip where the aim of much of my shooting was to bring this cinematic aesthetic to the project. I never had to worry about over doing it as it was all going to mixed in with Nigel’s XF300 footage which has a much deeper depth of field.

Shallow DOF screen shot 1

Shallow DOF screen shot 2

Slider shots again bring a dynamic reminiscent of cinema. The smooth movement through a scene or the reveal of one object behind an object add moment and a feeling of walking through the scene which a locked off shot just doesn’t. There is not really any reason this can’t be achieved on a bigger camera like the XF, however the kit needed to do so is normally bigger and heavier, not great when having to travel on budget airlines, also I had my DIY slider designed for my 550D and I have been learning to utilise this tool over the past year whilst Nigel hadn’t.

4ft Slider

Smaller and still more often than not perceived as a stills camera, this occasional made it easier for me to film closer and more intimately, it’s a lot less intimidating to have someone follow you about with a camera similar to one you own than a prosumer beast like the XF. Also when we were spending day after day filming and in Hong Kong carrying everything needed for the day on my back I was glad my camera weighed 0.5Kgs rather than 2.5Kgs.

Time-lapses, we shot a number of time-lapses during the trip and whilst the XF300 has a decent amount of control in its interval record mode it has nothing on a DSLR. I could choose to shoot RAW giving me amazing resolution for any post production crops, zooms and moves, plus i could choose virtually any interval, shutter speed and aperture.

Timelapse screen shot

All in all it was great to see what could be achieved with a camera which even with the lenses I took cost me £1000. For me the pros far out weigh the cons especially once you are paired with a camera which over comes some of your cons. My Lightcraft Fader ND again proved to be an invaluable tool allowing me to shoot at f1.4 in bright tropical sunshine! My Lowepro 250AW video DSLR backpack was a beast, it was comfy and has so many little storage compartments that I always new where everything was and could always get to it quickly. My cheap Magic Rig support made handheld shooting more comfortable and the results are certainly steadier.

Magic Rig