by Mel Stone, reporter/photog KVLY-TV
I first discovered the true value of a miniDV camera, back in March 2001, when President Bush came to town.
Several days before, I'd heard about a woman who was an absolute Bush fanatic. She worked in a local grocery store's deli and had requested the day off to go see Bush.
Figure 1: The day before Bush came to town, Kris Pfaff working in the deli.
I wanted to hang with her as she went to the rally. There was one major problem: each TV station was allowed only one camera in the arena and that camera had to stay put on the media platform.
On the day of Bush's arrival, we met at her house. In my backpack I had a sandwich (the wait to get in the arena was going to be a long one) and my boss's cheap miniDV.
After about a 3 hour wait in the freezing cold, we passed thru security and into the hall. The camera was no problemI was one of hundreds with ‘consumer' cameras.
I was ready to sit down and mellow-out.
No way! My lady wanted to be close. She found the runway where Bush would walk in and there we stood waiting for another 2-3 hours.
It was worth the wait. When Bush came by she went nuts, screaming "he touched my hand, he touched my hand."
Figure 2: Up close, with Bush shaking hands in the background.
I captured it all on the miniDV. The story even received notice on b-roll.
MAKING THE MINIDV COMMITMENT
Soon after that, I bought my own miniDV, a Sony TRV11.
I'd seen this camera at Best Buy; I liked its easily accessed, manual controls.
Too often with these consumer cameras, in order to adjust things like exposure, focus, white balance and so on, you have to go into the menu.
The TRV11 reinforced the notion of how valuable a miniDV can be. I started to use it a lot for TV news stories.
And that led me to a much better camera, the Sony TRV900. You might even call this a ‘prosumer' camera.
Its manual controls are much like the TRV11, but the TRV900 has 3 chips, better color, more lines of resolution and more versatile white balance capabilities.
ADAPTING THE TRV900
Almost from day one, I began to modify the 900.
One of the first things I did was to mount a level on the top.
Many years ago, I'd had trouble keeping things level while shooting stills. I mounted a level in the hot shoe.
I carried this over to my Betacam, DVCpro and TRV900.
Figure 3: This level is a surplus unit from a survey equipment repair firm. It has a slight bow or curve, which helps it fit perfectly on top of the TRV900. The duct tape helps secure it and provides ‘middle markers.'
A level is invaluable:
• shoot from a strange position or angle and a quick glance keeps your horizon correct;
• put the camera on a tripod and, again, a quick glance keeps things plumb.
The next item I actually carried over from the TRV11: a modified miniplug to XLR cable.
Figure 4: A wireless transmitter, receiver and XLR to miniplug cord.
The mic input on many miniDV cameras has some voltage--try to use this with a lav, e.g., and the voltage wreaks havoc. One of our engineers, Lyle Nelson, put some capacitors across a couple of the terminals on the XLR end to soak-up that voltage.
Figure 5: This shows a 1 microfarad capacitor used to "soak-up" this voltage. One is connected between pin 2 of the XLR connector and the tip (one audio channel) of the miniplug. The other capacitor is connected between pin 2 of the XLR connector and the ring (the other audio channel) of the miniplug.
With this miniplug to XLR cable I began to use my TRV900 and wireless more extensively… maybe 80-90 percent of my stories were shot on the 900.
I also carry a spare cable. These cables, or more correctly the internal wires, are vulnerable to breakage, especially at the miniplug end. I've probably gone thru half a dozen over the years.
By the way, you can buy this already made from Markertek for $50.00.
I bought one to carry as a spare, but it didn't work and I had to send it back. I didn't dare have an engineer open up the XLR end to see what the problem was--this would cancel the warranty.
SPARING THE MINIPLUG JACKS
There was a problem, however. Once you plug a mic in, the on-board mics are cut out. As I'd shoot, in order to capture wild sound, I was constantly plugging and unplugging the mic cord.
After about a year or so of this, the miniplug jack on the TRV900 wore out. It cost nearly $400 to fix.
There are options: the Beachtec minijack to XLR device, for example. But for some reason this did not appeal to me.
Figure 7: One of several Beachtek units as seen on the B&H Photovideo web site. There are also similar devices made by other manufacturers.
Again, Lyle, the engineer, came to my rescue. He took a cable with a 90 degree (male) miniplug on one end and re-wired it so I have two (female) miniplug connectors on it. One goes to the left channel, the other to the right channel.
Figure 8: A surplus stereo headphone jack and cable modified for my TRV900.
I run that stereo mic cable toward the back end of my camera and with the addition of an on-board shotgun mic, there's no reason to wear out the camera's miniplug mic jack.
These cables are not very robust. Over the last 2-3 years, I've gone thru 2 of them.
I've talked with Markertek about building a more robust custom unit, but haven't figured out how to do it yet. The 90 degree miniplug is too long to fit in the TRV900's mic jack and not get in the way.
Figure 9: On-board shotgun mic. The rubber band keeps the windscreen from falling off.
The shotgun mic is not without its problems, too. I haven't totally figured out how to reduce its pick-up of the camera's mechanical sounds.
With decent signal-to-noise ratios, it works well. If I need to pick-up quieter sounds, I remove the shotgun from its cradle or use the other mic.
Figure 10: Two female mic plugs. A shotgun mic is permanently plugged in one, the wireless goes in the other one. The tape and Velcro keep it securely fastened and the Velcro is a great way to attach the lens cap.
Most recently, I've ordered a custom made cable from Markertek for my headphones. By using a cable, I'm less likely to wear out the earphone miniplug jack on the camera.
Figure 11: A new place to plug in my headphones. Right now, it's attached with electrical tape; I may try Velcro, some day.
I also run this cable to the rear of the camera. It makes more sense to plug in earphones back here.
Over the years, I've made additional purchases:
Figure 12: TRV900 accessories added over the years.
- 1) a wide angle adaptor… with this, I can get even wider than with my expensive DVCpro;
- 2) new headphones… I read about these headphones on b-roll. The ‘strap' goes around the back of your neck rather than on top of your head. THEY ACTUALLY STAY ON!
- 3) a lens brush… this was actually given to me by my sister. At first, I thought the brush was useless junk. Now, I use it every day. A spot of lint on these lenses really stands out. Recently, I read on b-roll about a ‘blush brush' being used as a lens brushI may have to check this out;
- 4) a 2X extender…. my most recent acquisition.
I really needed a longer lens: I was about to shoot a prairie chicken story and knew from past experience I had no guarantee the birds would come in close.
A panic visit to bhphotovideo.com and 2 day delivery, were just the ticket.
Figure 13: A 2X extender picks up a male prairie chicken strutting his stuff to impress the hens.
With all these wires and cables strung along my camera, they can get in the way. One day, one wire got in the tape door, as I inserted a new tape. This shut down my camera and gave me a big scare (removing, then replacing, the battery got the camera running again.)
Figure 14: A plastic wire-guide keeps the shotgun's cable clear of the tape door.
Although I've saved this for last, it was a fairly early decision; what tripod to buy. I'd tried to use a Slik, which had been the sticks for my still work.
It didn't work.
I bought a Manfrotto.
Figure 15: A composite of the features I like about my tripod.
Here are the key features:
- The legs have a release mechanism much like the Gitzo. Gitzos are heavy, indestructible pigs, but they have a great mechanism on the legs that lets you get low. The Manfrotto has a similar feature;
- This tripod has quick release devices that allow you to quickly lengthen or shorten the legs. And if the mechanism becomes loose, you can tighten it;
- I added to this tripod a ball joint with a quick release plate;
- Finally, I added a Velcro patch to one of the legs for my wireless receivergreat for those static interviews.
Just make certain you 'click' the safety lock mechanism on the quick release plate.
I didn't and my camera barely survived a hard fall.
The TRV900 has been a remarkable camera. I'm now using it for 99% of my shooting. I just hope it hangs in there.
And I hope my next camcorder has XLR inputs, manual controls (iris, zoom and focus) just like on my betacam or dvcPro camera and a recording medium that is easily and quickly read by a computer and nonlinear editing system.
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