If you’d told me six months ago I was going to buy a new camera, and then a bunch of accessories for it, I’d have laughed and said “I’m good”.
And yet, that’s exactly what I did. Here’s why.
I’ve fallen down one of those crazy and wonderful rabbit holes. A while back I commented on the lack of photography podcasts I found interesting in a piece I title I’m Thinking of Starting a Photography Podcast (Please Stop Me).
Fortunately, or unfortunately (choose one) nobody did stop me, and I kept poking at the idea and trying to figure out what might work and what I wanted to do. One of the early decisions I made was around the realization that some aspects of what I wanted to do just didn’t work in an audio-only production, and that meant that at least some of the content I was thinking about needed to be done as video.
Which meant Youtube. I’ve been a casual user for years, but mostly of the style of “get a link, look, move on” type. Realizing I was starting to consider creating content for Youtube I decided I needed to dig in and see what was there and how I might fit in.
It turns out there’s a large and vibrant photography community living on Youtube, because I’m not the only person who seems to have figured out that a primarily visual art form like photography doesn’t translate well into an audio-only format like podcasts. In retrospect, I realize this is a “no duh” moment. I wrote about figuring this out about a month ago in I Fell Into a Rabbit Hole Called Youtube and it Changed my Thinking on Blogs and Podcasts.
If you’re curious about the kind of things being created on Youtube by and for photographers, here’s a sample of the channels I’ve come to follow and enjoy:
Somewhere along the way, I realized I’d decided the project was viable. Uh,oh.
I seem to be hired to design and build stuff. It’s one reason I love photography because it mixes together my nerdy nature with this compulsion to be creating things and my goal to do something that has an artistic aspect as well. I always seem to have something that’s caught my eye that I’m exploring as to whether I want to dive in and get serious about it. Most of the time, I quickly realize the answer is “no” and I can let it drop and move on.
This project refuses to let me say “nah, it’s not worth it” and move on. A few weeks ago, in fact, I sat down and had a discussion with myself about it and decided I was going to go for it.
This project involves Youtube. Youtube implies video. I’ve always defined myself as a still photographer and all this video stuff is basically new to me.
Which means I just gave my nerdy side permission to go nerd out and dive into learning about and understanding a new technical discipline. That’s where my head’s been the last month or so.
Oh, my. It’s been fun, and scary, and also a bit expensive.
I Need a New Camera
One of the things I quickly realized is I needed another camera. No, really, let me explain.
I typically carry two cameras. Three, actually, including the iPhone 7. My main camera is the Fuji X-T2 and I carry my older Fuji X-T1 as a second body as a backup. A common shooting setup in the field for me was to put my big birding lens on the X-T2 and shoot the wide angle on the X-T1.
Except over time I found myself not doing that, because there’s a huge quality difference between the sensors of the two cameras. The X-T2 sensor, all 24 megapixels of it, just blows away the X-T1, which isn’t a slouch except in comparison. So for still work, I’ve increasingly found myself using the X-T1 only as a “the X-T2 died” backup, not a second body.
And in video? The X-T1 video is at best okay, and it doesn’t do 4K. 4K video is the hot topic these days, and as I dug into all of this, it became clear the shift to 4K is as big a deal as the shift from standard definition to high definition was, which implies that there’s a good chance that any video shot at less than 4K is going to have a limited lifetime before the lower quality makes it hard to continue using. In my research I ran across a number of experts saying that someone starting a project needs to seriously consider starting it in 4K.
I decided they were right, so I chose to set up my systems to film in 4K video to the greatest degree possible.
And I can’t use the X-T2 for that, because it’s going to be busy taking photos. So I had to add a camera to take the video. But which one? Off went my nerdy side of me into a deep dive into the world of video creating toys.
This is my camera
Ultimately I decided to kill a couple of birds with one stone, and I bought the fuji X-T20. This is the little brother to the Fuji X-T2: same sensor, same image quality, same basic functionality, but at half the cost. It’s also smaller and lighter than the X-T2. The reduced cost is because Fuji has left out some features — single SD card support instead of dual, the button on the back of the camera I use to shift around the focus area is gone. On the plus side it uses the same lenses and batteries, and so buying it means I could leverage what I had in a lot of ways, including not needing to buy another set of spare batteries, chargers, etc.
It’s close enough to the X-T2 that I don’t have to worry about image quality comparing images taken by both side by side. It’s just different enough that I have to rethink how I configure and use the camera, which is also making my rethink how I have the X-T2 configured. I’m still sorting all of that out.
But I primarily bought it to take video, and that it can supplement my X-T2 as a still camera is a bonus, but a not-inconsequential one.
Fuji X-T20: Not Perfect
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There are a few things about the X-T20 I’m not thrilled at. The SD card slot is down with the battery, which is inconvenient at best and a challenge for those of us with larger fingers. There are times I’ve almost had to pull out needle nose pliers to get the damned card out.
A bigger problem is that the tripod hole is not centered on the camera, something that seems common with these smaller sized bodies. This creates a real problem because any quick release tripod plate you attach covers the battery door, which means you’re either constantly removing and replacing the plate (basically destroying the concept of a quick release plate system on your tripods) or you have to add a grip to the camera. Fuji makes one they’ll sell you for about $125 (ouch). It adds some weight and bulk to the camera, but shifts the tripod hole so you can permanently attach the plate to the camera.
The off-center tripod hole also screws you up if you want to do anything involving panning or stitched panoramas. So basically, Fuji built this camera with a tripod hole knowing full well if you ever wanted to use the camera on a tripod, you’d need to add the plate. And their plate adds almost 15% to the price of the camera. Nice upsell, Fuji.
Anwenk Vertical Shoot Hand Grip
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So you can buy Fuji’s plate to fix this problem. Or you can do what I did, which was buy the equivalent plate from Anwenk. Actually, not equivalent; it’s only $28, and it acts as an L bracket so you don’t need to add an Arca-Swiss plate to it at all. It’s actually rather well built, only adds about 4 ounces to the weight and not a lot of size to the camera, and I’m rather happy with it. I considered removing the finger grip along the right side but left it on, and I think I’ll leave it.
Another thing about the X-T20 I’m not thrilled at, but seems common on cameras of this size: the microphone port is a 2.5mm instead of the 3.5mm plug size. Which means needing to get adaptors. Which is one more thing to carry (and lose). I’m not sure if I’m going to be too unhappy with Fuji here because the space is seriously cramped and I’m not sure the 3.5mm would have fit; I’ve found, in fact that with the HDMI cable also in place some cables and adaptors don’t fit, so you need to look for ones with the smallest plug housings. I found these work fine.
This is my camera on video
Here’s the thing about video: if you thought still photography was complicated and nerdy? It’s nothing compared what happens when you dive into video. You have audio to deal with, and bad audio will kill you where mediocre video you can often get away with. Audio is it’s own little hellscape and specialty, but fortunately, you can get started and get good results relatively simply.
And here is where I bumped up against a few more limitations of the X-T20.
For audio, I went for the Rode VideoMicro, which is a small and inexpensive microphone that doesn’t require batteries. My testing shows the quality to be fine. Somewhere down the road it’d be nice to get a nice highly directional shotgun mic I can point out into the field to bring in more distant sounds, but that’s a future idea. For now, my testing indicates it does a nice job both for recording ambient sound and for when I get in front of it and talk. The big problem? The cats think the dead bunny that covers it is a great toy and I am working to dissuade them of that idea.
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Vlogging. Video Blogging. It’s a thing, and it’s where you point the camera at yourself and talk to it to make the vlog. If the camera is aimed at you, you can’t see the screen to check framing and focus. Some of the more popular cameras among vloggers have an articulated screen that you can rotate to be forward facing, but the X-T20 doesn’t. So if you want to point the camera at yourself, and see what’s going on while you film, or if you want to have the video running at a distance and be able to monitor what’s being recorded, you need an external monitor.
After doing a lot of research, I ended up going with the Bestview monitor. At $200 it’s inexpensive but it gives me a few advantages. Not only does it have a nice screen with color rendition, it solves a couple of audio problems for me. The X-T20 doesn’t have a way to connect headphones, so there’s no way to monitor audio. The Bestview does, so I can hook my headphones onto them and listen to the audio being recorded. It also displays recording levels, so I can see that the audio is set correctly and that I’m recording it okay. The monitor needs batteries, of course and the batteries need a charger. And since I need multiple things mounted on the camera at the same time, I need a mount that handles them and has them spread far enough apart for the monitor to fit.
Bestview 7″ Monitor
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The downside is that it’s a 7” monitor which makes it a bit bigger and heavier. There are 5” monitors as well, but after consideration I decided I’d go with the larger one as best for my needs.
By the way, in digging through the research on all of this, I decided that the DLSR Video Shooter channel seemed to have the information I was searching for in a well produced and researched way, and so I think if you’re finding yourself heading down this path as well, this is a good place to start. It turns out there’s an awful lot of really bad product review videos out on Youtube (who would have thought?) but these I found were consistently well done.
Here’s where you see how the complications can creep in. If I were planning on doing more of a classic vlog channel, such as someone like Peter McKinnon where there’s a lot of run and gun style talking at the camera while moving around, the added weight of the larger monitor might be an issue. Small and light are the core needs of these kind of vloggers.
In my case, I decided to build the video more around the idea of a documentary video rig setup, and I expect the camera to spend most of its time on a tripod, not at the end of my arm. For that kind of use, the larger monitor makes sense, especially so I can monitor the recording at a distance where the video is running while I’m shooting the scene nearby.
While trying to decide how to build out this rig I both researched what others were doing (because everyone has a “what’s in my bag” video and tried to understand what kind of shooting needs I was going to have to support. The different video configurations I realized I needed to handle got kind of crazy quickly:
- On a tripod shooting a scene
- On a tripod with someone talking and a scene behind them.
- On a tripod doing the vlog selfie thing
- Handheld doing the vlog selfie thing while in movement
The rig I’ve built covers the first three fine; the fourth I feel like the monitor is bigger and heavier than I’d like but is otherwise okay. Since I don’t expect to do much of this, I am planning on doing those shots with the iPhone for now, and experiment with ways to figure out the framing and focus while moving around without the monitor (either through practice so I know and trust the camera is doing what I need, or at some point perhaps buying a second smaller monitor — since all I really need for that is enough quality to see that my face is in frame and in focus, I can go cheap for that)
This is all both fascinating and scary complicated. I’ve been doing test footage and experimenting and I’m starting to get comfortable with the setup. I even took it out on a day trip to the refuges, where I immediately found out that the full setup with monitor won’t fit in the car window but that for that shooting I don’t need the monitor so it worked out fine. I also found out that I need to shut off the car motor because while on idle it is picked up by the microphone.
But I did get video and sound I liked, and it proved to me the lens will work for what I want — I was worried it might be too wide for the field work, but it’s fine.
So I think I finally have the video needs covered, and I’ve more or less figured out how to operate the gear so I can get decent results. So now all I need to do is start creating content, and get this project ready to launch.
Those are the easy parts, right? Right?