Foto PhreakZ Episode 2 show notes

Starting out: The Gear

Article by Rob Nyffenegger

Getting into mobile photography, journalism or combining the two is interesting, exciting but can leave you wondering about what kind of gear you need to get the job done. What is essential and what is a nice to have?

Well, that really depends on a few factors. It will come down to what kind of product you need to shoot (determining the type of gear you will need), how much gear you want to carry around and the big one – how much money you can spend.

Basic kit outline

  • Camera (mobile phone)
  • External microphone (TRRS – TRS adaptor, extension lead and splitter cable for mic and headphones)
  • Light(s) – can use LED panels or other constant light sources
  • Lenses – mobile clip on type (digital zoom Vs optical zoom)
  • Power banks
  • Tripods and monopods / light supports / other stands / flex mounts and mobile phone holder
  • Stabilisers
  • Action Cameras (GoPro etc)
  • Other kit

Cameras –Of course there are many options in this area and the cost can vary greatly. From a few hundred dollars to many thousands. Point and shoot cameras, digital SLRs (DSLRs) and pro video shoulder cameras – both with interchangeable lenses, and of course mobile phones, which I will focus on, pun intended. Most mobiles can record audio, video and stills at various quality – which is handy for the mobile journalist. There are of course pros and cons with different models. Basically, try and aim at a model with a high quality camera, flexible settings (stills, video and audio adjustable settings) and sufficient storage capacity. Latest models from what I have seen all cover off on those areas.

Mobile Phone Camera – each mobile is different with their setup. Try and learn as much as you can about yours and setup the camera to achieve the best results / highest quality that you can. You can always drop down in quality for whatever output, but you can’t go the other way. Learn how your mobile phone camera works, it’s quirks and lighting conditions that it requires (shoot video in bright, dark and mixed conditions), what quality the audio is recorded at and how the internal microphone records audio in different noise scenarios. Most mobile phone cameras don’t seem to do a very good job of low light image capture, but experiment and see what results you are able to get with yours.

External Microphone – I highly recommend investing in an external microphone and splitter cable for monitoring your incoming audio. Buy the best mic you can afford. Research your phone connectivity requirements prior to purchase. For my mobile, I was required to purchase a TRS to TRRS cable or the phone would not recognise the external mic. Therefore, no audio. I prefer a decent shotgun type microphone – those are directional and should minimise out a lot of external, unwanted noise during interviews.

Also, a larger, quality mic will record better audio than an internal phone mic or a small lapel mic, generally. Using a windsock or “dead cat” helps to minimise wind noise blowing over the microphone and should be included in purchasing a mic. Again, many options are available. Talk to store staff to see what is available to you. Lastly and by no means required but will enhance flexibility, a microphone extension cable is very handy. This allows you to setup an interview without having to hold your phone in someone’s face to get good audio or you getting into the frame. You want to avoid awkwardness that can make your talent feel comfortable during the interview. A 6m extension is inexpensive and will also enable you to use a mic as a boom mic when paired with a monopod.

Lights – An external light will be invaluable. Small, highly portable panels are available for a low cost. Some of these will give you hours of light, have variable intensity controls and colour temperature adjustment. Some can also be recharged using a power banks. External lights allow much greater creativity in your image capture.

Remember to try and match the light source to the ambient light when you are filming. If you have two different colour temperatures in your image, it can be difficult to achieve a good white balance. The lower temperatures 3000 Kelvin (K) is the minimum setting on this particular light panel and equates to “warmer” looking light like standard incandescent light globes found at home (older type light bulbs). Higher temperatures of 5500K are daylight or “cooler” looking temperatures.

Clip on lenses – It’s no secret that the lenses on mobile phones are a compromise. They are great for what they were designed for – a small, thin and highly portable platform that can be used for many tasks, but it has limitations. I personally avoid zooming on the phone if at all possible, preferring to move closer or further away from my subject to achieve the framing I require and maintain a better quality image. Digital zooming reduces the quality of the final photo. Optical zoom for the win.

Moving yourself around has limitations too. There are times when you are unable to get the images you want due to physical or safety restrictions, or your gear just cannot do what you want it to. For example, if you are conducting a video interview you don’t want to put the phone in a position where you cannot monitor or control it so you may need a “telephoto” lens to better frame your talent.

If you need an extreme close up and you exceed the minimum focusing distance of your camera, you will need a macro lens. That’s where clip on lenses can be very useful. There are various options out there that will give you extra flexibility over the inbuilt camera lens. It is always good sense to spend a bit more money on good quality glass. Don’t expect DSLR results with these lenses. Always buy the best glass you can afford. 

This clip on lens kit has a macro, 18mm (wide angle), 60mm “portrait” lens and a Fish Eye (gives you that very wide angle but distorted round view). If I had to buy only one of these lenses, the 18mm wide would be my choice, followed by the 60mm for interviewing. The other two are handy, but you’ll get much more use out of the 18mm and 60mm. Make sure that if you go this way, you purchase the right clip on for your phone, or confirm if this type of attachment will work on your model. Test it out in the shop before you purchase if possible.

Power Bank – This item is a must have in mobile journalism. Maintaining a charged phone is vital as well as having ancillary equipment such as lights and a tablet or laptop ready to go. If any other kit needs spare batteries make sure those are charged and ready also. Having the power bank and all equipment charged before heading out of the office is critical, preventing you from missing out on opportunities in the field due to a loss of power. You may end up doing two or three shoots back to back, so having gear properly charged at the start is, as I mentioned, critical.

The power bank in your kit should provide at least 2-3 full charges of your phone. If your lights and tablet can also be charged by the power bank, it makes it that much more useful, but you will need to get a larger capacity power bank if you are going to use it for everything.

Tripods, Monopods and Light stands– Some kind of support to hold your phone and microphone steady during interviews is important. There are many models available. Look for flexible solutions – items that fill multiple rolls. A tripod and a self-supporting monopod will give you the ability to hold the phone steady in position and a microphone or light stand as the second stand (or boom mic if required and you have the monopod). Having the mic still will keep a set distance to the talent (and therefore constant audio level) – it also avoids noise on the audio track if you move your hand on the body of the microphone.

Stabilisers – These devices are very useful in getting moving video shots, since mobiles are not setup to hold and use like professional news cameras. Anyone interested in getting those nice pans, tilts and moving with a subject for use in video, should think about investing in a stabiliser of some sort. Basically, a stabiliser takes the walking shake out of such moving video, giving you a much nicer, steadier looking shot.

For more creative pieces, sure you might like some “being in the moment” video camera movement, but for news type interviews, it’s better to get those stable and smoother looking sequences. Some stabilisers also act as a power bank and will keep your phone charged during a shoot, however, this will drain the stabiliser battery reducing its use time. There are many stabilisers on the market to suit various budgets. Research and make sure that you get something compatible with your phone – in particular, think about size, weight. If you are going to be using those clip on lenses, they can affect stabiliser operation adversely by either increasing the weight too much or actually impeding the stabiliser arm, preventing correct function.

Point of View Cameras (POV) – Don’t forget to consider POV type cameras. I use a GoPro Hero 3+ and it is capable of recording stills and up to 4K PAL video. The new POV cameras can get great video and stills from places you would not normally be able to, so they are worth considering. I also recommend buying a waterproof housing for the camera to offer a higher level of protection and – just in case.

Other Kit – Other things that you should consider in your mobile kit are protective cases and portable storage devices to back up your imagery onto. A multipurpose tool with a knife, pliers, screw drivers etc, is also a very useful addition.

That’s it for the basic gear list outline. As you get out and gather video, shoot stills and record interviews – you will quickly learn which items suit your needs and either adapt or add to the kit you carry with you.

Again – look at things you can use in multiple roles. Determine what you are trying to achieve and match your kit to that requirement. This basic guide will get you on the road to being able to capture an entire package while keeping things light, mobile and capable.

Remember Foto PhreakZ – get out there, get Phreaky and get some great imagery. Know what you need to achieve, research your options and get the basic kit together to get to that outcome. Use your creativity and get familiar with what you can do using your kit and look for new ways to push it further. Keep it light, keep it mobile and know that there will always be that one extra shiny bit that you’ll need in your grab bag.

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