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Freelance camera operators at a loss for which model to choose

With some TV networks and local stations moving to file-based HD workflows while others remain mired in SD videotape-centric environments, freelance camera operators that have to buy new equipment every three or four years are facing their biggest dilemma ever. While the variety of camera models is wide, careful consideration must be given to how footage will be used and the realities of today’s broadcast production environment.

Such was the case for Don Smith. Operating in and around Dallas, TX, he’s been a network news freelancer for more than 35 years; having shot, edited and produced segments for NBC’s “Nightly News” and “Today” show as well as numerous pieces for ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CBS News. Smiths’ work can be viewed online.

Heretofore, like most freelancers of the day, his cameras of choice have always been made by Ikegami and Sony. Among his vast body of work, Smith shot the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City for NBC News, in 1993 shot the Branch Davidian stand-off in Waco Texas for CBS News; and in May, edited a piece on Arkansas couple Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their 18 children for NBC’s “Today” show on an Avid Media Composer system.

“I owned my own gear for a long time, but then I sold it because I got tired of dealing with the upkeep and maintenance of it,” Smith said. “Then I used the Ikegami HL-79 camera, provided by NBC, for years.”

For regional shooters like Smith, the current trend to use specific, network-provided cameras usually comes from corporate offices located hundreds of miles away and thus is not always the ideal model for the operator who’s using it on the ground. In addition, it is bittersweet for freelancers, in that they could previously rent their gear to the networks for a day of shooting, while also getting paid for their shooting skills.

In general, it was previously believed among the networks that the Ikegami cameras have a “warmer” look while the Sony has a “colder” look. Thus, different pieces called for different looks. If you had that particular camera at that particular moment when a story broke, you got the job. Today, the requirements are less strict.

“Shooting requirements were once extremely ridged, but not anymore,” Smith said. “Especially with the current confusion of the formats and the variety of skill levels, you’ll see things on air today that you would not have seen years ago. Budgets are so tight now that they'll use whomever is cheaper, or producers they've quickly put into the field with a camera.”

In today’s “anything goes” market, the challenge for freelancers like Smith is to pick the right camera that will facilitate the most amount of work. Pick the wrong model, it’s said, and you might find yourself with an expensive paperweight.

“It’s a mess right now, as far as formats are concerned,” Smith said. “There’s no baseline or standard that everyone is adhering to, like we used to even five years ago. In fact, the group of freelancers that I now work with most often are really in a quandary over what camera to buy next.”

That’s because the networks are sending mixed signals. ABC, for example, has put out a memo stating that it has not decided on a “house” camera for HD production, but requires any camera operator it works with to shoot SD footage in the widescreen (16:9) aspect ratio.

NBC has requested in recent years that for its high-profile shows, operators should use HDCAM cameras while HDV are used by producers themselves. (This caused a lot of friction with the camera operators union initially, but now producers shooting footage is commonplace.)

In the past year the NBC owned & operated station in Dallas, KXAS-TV, dropped its Panasonic DVCPro equipment in favor of Panasonic’s P2 cameras. This file-based workflow caught freelancers in the market by surprise and left many who had bought Ikegami and Sony cameras out of favor.

After much consideration of the future of electronic newsgathering, Smith recently bought a JVC GY-HM700 HD camcorder, which records video as .MOV files on solid-state SDHC Class-6 cards, that are immediately recognizable to Final Cut Pro editing workstations.

Despite all of its advanced features, Smith chose the JVC camera because of the cost of the media it records to. He said that if you shoot on P2 or SXS cards — which are much more expensive than the off-the-shelf SDHC cards Smith’s JVC camera uses — then hand it off to a producer for finishing, you might not get it back.

“In the confusion of breaking news, you are going to lose control of your media,” he said. “A producer will need it for their own purposes and you may or may not ever get it back. And that can be several hundred dollars out of pocket for each of these cards.”

The price of the media has certainly become a factor in many purchase decisions. Smith said he owned the Sony EX3 camera for a while, which uses SXS cards. To avoid the higher cost of the cards, freelancers in Dallas were using a special adaptor to allow the camera to use SDHC cards (but you couldn’t store over-cranking or under-cranking effects).

“If networks are going to P2 or SXS cards, I see a lot confusion as to how to keep track of those cards, unless the network is willing to pay for them,” Smith said, adding that both recording formats are reliable and provide adequate storage capacity for news shoots. “You could wind up with nothing to shoot on the following day because producers are holding on to your cards.”

The JVC GY-HM700 camera (street price: $7000, with Canon 14x ENG lens) provides a file-based workflow on SDHC (level 6) cards that Smith said allow him to turn around segments faster than he ever could with tape. “Speed makes all the difference in news,” he said.

The other advantage of the SDHC cards is as a low-cost archiving solution. Video files have to be stored on an affordable media. Some have suggested hard drives as an interim step, but Smith said he unless you “refresh” that drive every so often by inserting it into a computer, “that data could be gone in two or three years, unless the magnetism on the platters is refreshed.”

His SDHC solution affords him the ability to save his original footage on the same card he recorded it on. “These cards are about the same price as a Betacam tape (about $20), so it’s seems to be the only cost-effective way to archive at this point in time.”

At about $18, an 8GB SDHC card in the JVC camera will hold about 30 minutes of 720p HD footage. And it can be bought at any electronics store. Smith orders his cards on, which come with a free USB reader, so no special adapter is required to enable him to immediately begin working in FCP edit software on his laptop. For Avid editing, Smith has to transcode the files before he can begin working. There’s a free plug-in from Sony that performs this function quickly for the latest Mac-based Avid software. (He spent $80 for a different plug-in that allows him to ingest footage into NBC’s older generation Avids.)

And as for the small size of the cards, which some feel is too small and carries the risk of easily misplacing them, JVC recently introduced a ProHD Media Storage Kit for SDHC media cards that are stored in 3in x 5in sleeves made of static-resistant plastic. (It looks like your mother’s old recipe file card box.) Pelican (opens in new tab) also offers an SDHC card case for around $20.

With all of the networks cutting back on the use of freelancers, due to budget constraints, and depending more on their O&O stations and producers with cameras, technical standards have become a secondary factor when deciding which camera to use.

“Because of the environment we now operate in, more and more people are expecting a bargain, so now that I have to own gear again, I don't want to make the $50,000-$60,000 investment that I used to make with the bigger cameras,” Smith said. “And this little JVC camera makes better pictures for $7k than any $50k Betacam I ever used.”

With his network TV freelance work declining, Smith has been shooting more industrial work. Such is the life of a freelancer, you go where the work is.

“Like most freelancers, I had to make some tough choices that kept me in business yet didn’t break the bank,” Smith said. “The images I get with the JVC camera are stunning and the media it records to is very affordable. It’s also a lot lighter in weight than the previous cameras I’ve owned. That’s the kind of solution freelancers are looking for in today’s tough economy and highly competitive environment.”