I think there are times that all I write about are gear and apps. A look back at the infrequent blog posts here would seem to confirm that.
So today, we’ll talk a little about philosophy behind the gear I’m using.
I’ve noted that my mobile kit has gotten smaller over the last few years. Some of that is due to technology advances (the dual lenses on the iPhone 7Plus, for example, mean I don’t carry external lenses any more). Some of that is due to a change in my own philosophy about gear and what we’re producing with it.
Let’s start with technology.
My kit in June 2015 had 11 separate pieces of hardware in it, not counting a power brick. My most advanced kit now has 11 pieces — but they’re different. And the basic kit I carry with me all the time has four pieces, plus a power brick. Technology has transformed the kit.
I used to always carry an iRig or iRig Pro to run an XLR-corded mic with me. Most days now, I use a lav or shotgun mic designed to go straight into the phone. Sometimes I’ll use a Lightning connector-specific condenser mic. The quality of gear has gotten better — to the point where maybe the XLR-corded stuff isn’t so neccesary (note: I still have an iRig, iRig Pro, iRig Pro Dual Channel and a Shure MVi for when the occasion calls for it).
I always used to carry external lenses with me, either a set of 37mm screw-on lenses or a clip-on or slip-on like Olloclip or Moment lenses. Changing to the iPhone 7Plus with the dual lenses meant I didn’t have to anymore. The regular lens on the 7Plus has a focal length of about 21mm, which is plenty wide. The zoom lens on it is a 52mm lens. I don’t need much else. Getting rid of external lenses means I don’t have to carry a frame for the phone that will accomodate them.
I always preach that adding quality to mojo products is a tradeoff: The more equipment we add to raise quality, the less mobile we become. But now we’re improving the chassis in significant ways. And those technology improvements mean that we can be more mobile and still have a high production quality.
Now let’s talk about philosophy.
It’s changed. When I started doing mobile work, I was about Big Mobile — end-to-end mobile production. Shoot it on the phone, edit it on the phone, move it to the publishing outlet. That outlet, in my mind, was invariably a legacy media outlet. Let’s build a 2 1/2 minute piece for the 6 p.m. show.
Spending time in newsrooms has had me reconsider that the legacy product doesn’t want mobile-produced stuff. The news directors and producers want stuff built in AVID and ingested into the CMS. They’re largely agnostic about the source of the footage, but they want it built at the mothership, or something that approximates the mothership (a laptop in a van with a LiveU or Dejero unit in it).
That said, newsrooms want mobile video and mobile produced pieces. But they want them for social. They want 10 :20 pieces, not a 1:30 piece. As a result, they’ve invested in simple production technology like Videolicious, rather than a more complicated and sophisticated product like LumaFusion.
How does that play into what’s in the kit? I used to pack everything every time. Stick mic? Check. Wireless set. Check. Huge LED light? Check. And so on. Now I don’t feel like I have to. I feel like I can carry, most of the time, stuff that accomplishes 100 percent of what I need from a quality perspective 85 percent of the time.
Let’s be honest: If we’re producing for social, we’re probably producing for Twitter. And if we’re producing for Twitter we need good-enough quality, not great quality. If we’re producing for Facebook, we’re likely creating videos that are designed to be digested without the sound on. I still keep my Rode Reporter mic, my Sennheiser wireless kit, my various preamps, my lights, etc., in a second bag in the car. But most of the time, I’m using a mobile kit that can be described as “phone/holder/shotgun-and-lav-mics/cheap clip-on light.”
I still think that end-to-end mobile production is coming, especially as the price of bonded cellular comes down. But I’m not sure when. The economic arguments are still there. The technology advances arguments are still there. But I think the tide of production for social has carried away a lot of the end-to-end momentum.
It’s that other popular question: “What apps do you use?”
It’s a hard question and an easy one. I use a lot of apps, or I have used a lot of apps, since I’ve tested more than 500. But I use the same eight or 10 most of the time. There’s another half-dozen that I use for special purposes, such as stabilizing video.
But one thing I’ve noticed is that there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in apps that perform the core journalism functions of photographing, recording and editing. There’s been some interesting apps around the perimeter, but these are mostly post-production apps that may add value to what we’re doing, but don’t address the core. So if you follow these posts, you’ll see that a lot hasn’t really changed since the last update.
So here’s the lastest:
This is an incredibly nerdy post. I’m going to write — a lot — about bits of steel and plastic and how they have become meaningful in my life. We’re talking about the mobile kit. I get asked two questions: “What apps do you use?” and “What do I need to do mobile journalism?”
I’ll deal with the former in this post. The latter is a tougher question because it really depends on two factors: What do you need it for and how much do you want to spend?
If you’re the night cops reporter for a newspaper, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re not going to need high-quality audio. Your prime directive is to get some video back to the web wombats fast. You probably don’t need a wireless receiver and transmitter. It’s a different story if you work for a TV station. It’s another story altogether if you’re using a mobile journalism kit to shoot a film or a commercial.
There are eight interactive images below showing a variety of different kit configurations. Mouse over a button on an image to see its description, click on the button to go to a page where you can buy whatever you’re looking at.
But here’s some basic guidance:
- Figure out what you’re going to use it for. Don’t go and drop $2,000 on mobile accessories because you can. Spend the money on what you’re going to need and what complements the platform you’re shooting on. Shoot a lot from behind police lines? Spend the money on a telephoto lens, not sound equipment. Do a lot of quick-hit interviews during the legislative session? Buy a good shotgun mic or a quality wired lav mic.
- Try and avoid having to re-buy. Look for frames that are adjustable and lenses that don’t require specialized cases. You will likely change your phone every two to three years. You don’t want to change the chassis that often. It just gets angry.
- You get what you pay for — but sometimes it’s ok to have stuff that’s cheap. My wireless mic set is $800. My clip-on light is $16. I get incredible sound and I get enough light for my purposes. The wireless mic set should last for years. I’ll probably be replacing the light in a year or 18 months. And I’m ok with that.The first two kits below are what I carry on a daily basis. The top kit is my “out-the-door” kit. It doesn’t have any specialized equipment and it handles probably 85 percent of what I do. The second kit is what I call “the kitchen sink.” It has a lot more audio equipment in it to account for different situations.And here’s the kitchen sink…
Things change. I’ve swapped out almost my entire kit since May. Why? I changed my phone from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 7 Plus, so I felt like I didn’t need external lenses. I went back to using the Rode VideoMicPro instead of a different Rode product because I liked the directional sound better for how I was using it. I switched out the articulating wrap-it-around-anything tripod for one that hand carried better. I swapped a clip-on light for a light that fit in the cold shoe.
Now we get into the many combinations based on platform and use.
Run n’ Gun No. 1: Lights, sound and the ability to carry or mount. AJ+ uses a rig very similar to this one.
Run n’ Gun No. 2: The Single-Handed Shooter (with a remote receiver)
Stable Shooter: Two-handed grip (with a shotgun mic attached)
Slightly More Protective (with sound and light)
The iPad Shooter (with sound, light and an external lens)
Two years ago I tested 350 apps in a single year. Last year I tested 202. I’ve tested iOS apps. I’ve tested Android apps. I’ve attempted to test Windows Phone apps but really haven’t seen any. And here’s what I’ve found: Setting aside apps that are purpose-built for media production, most of the best products I’ve seen for journalists weren’t designed with journalism in mind.
I was at a conference a few weeks ago and ran into ThingLink’s founder. The app puts an interactive layer on top of photos. It has a robust desktop presence and a mobile app. She had no idea so many journalists were using ThingLink, she said. I think a lot of app developers out there would say the same thing.
Since then I’ve been looking at my apps and what makes them good and what makes them bad. Why do I like some apps more than others, other than the obvious reason that some apps are just crashy and stupid? I’ve semi-developed this Unified Theory of Translational Apps:
The apps that I use for journalism either fill a need I have or point out to me a need I didn’t know I had. Most of the apps I use the most are in the second category.
I’d put ThingLink in this category. I had no idea that I’d need to create interactive graphics with embeddable media from the field. And yet it’s one of my most used apps. PicPlayPost is another one. It’s a collage app that allows for video collages. Never thought I’d do video collages. But it’s become one of the most interesting and unique content forms that I do. The people I train love it. Going through the list of apps I use the most, it’s pretty clear that very few of them were designed for journalism. And yet they’re breaking new ground for journalism (no, this isn’t an app column; you can see my lists here, here and here).
These apps are translational apps – designed for one purpose, able to be used for another. So what makes them like that? I found common attributes:
- They all display information that I’m already gathering in a unique way. That is, I don’t have to go out of my way to get info that fits into the app. If I’m doing video interviews, I can use those interviews as embeddable video in ThingLink or for collages in PicPlayPost. If I’m taking photos, I can bring them into TypeA and create extended captions.
- They all are three taps or less. There’s very little learning curve in the apps that I’m using. At most, it takes me three taps to generate the most basic level of content. All of my translational apps took me less than 10 minutes to learn the depths of.
- They keep the entire creation session within the app. I don’t have to double-tap my home button and go searching for things. They seamlessly import files from the camera roll/Photos/gallery/whatever-we’re-calling-it and let me get on with creating my content.
- They work all the time. I have some great apps that crash. A lot. These don’t. They work and they work consistently in the same way. I don’t have blow ups or crashes.
- They have stable design. This might a sign of benevolent neglect in some cases, but I don’t have to search for functions. Also, in every case, the design is clean, straightforward and doesn’t hide crucial functions in menu upon me.
- Other than ThingLink, Bubbli and Steller, which are hosted on those company’s servers for logistical reasons, the translational apps all save to the the camera roll/Photos/gallery/whatever-we’re-calling-it. It’s the intersectional hub of my phone. I want my stuff there, not solely exportable to social media from a proprietary library.
- They all are designed to create products that are consumed socially.
This is as far as I’ve gotten. But I’m intrigued with this. Maybe you will be, too? Where are you on this?
“What’s in your mobile kit?” is probably the perpetual question of the day for the mojo crowd. It’s prevalent enough that one of the sponsors of MojoCon, the international mobile journalism conference, is holding a “Show us what’s in your kit” contest. Which is pretty cool. And, if we’re being really honest, speaks to the nerdy nature in-the-weeds mobile journalist.
A question I get from news outlets is “How should we build our kit?” The first answer I usually give is “That depends on what you need it for.” Most of the time I hear “Out on the streets,” “fast,” “breaking news-kind of situations.” I’ve spent the last few months developing variations on those themes using equipment I had on hand. I’ve come up with four for phones plus one for the iPad (interactive photos with links to buy things below; as always, I do not do affiliate sales and see no money out of this).
This was designed for news gathering in dynamic environments where getting news out fast (and generally to social) was the first priority. The anti-requirements (what it wasn’t) was for long documentary or commercial stuff where you have a lot of time to set up.
Here’s the requirements:
— Easy to jump out of a car and use
— Not use a pre-amp (I love the iRig family of devices, but they can get unwieldy)
— Balance between quality and convenience
— Be able to be mounted to a tripod if needed
— Be able to handle multiple phone sizes
I should also point out that there is some mix-and-match here. I’m not terribly dogmatic about which grip I use. It’s entirely situational for me. If you’re making buy decisions based on these, look at this as guidance. And if you, see, for instance, a wireless transmitter slipped into a cold shoe, know that cold shoe can also hold a light or a shotgun mic. At the end of the day, the best kit is the one that works for you most of the time.
Kit variation No. 1: The Run n’ Gun No. 1
This variation gets a lot of happy responses when I show it to news outlets. It looks newsy and doesn’t require a lot of special gear purchases to be complete. It’s built on an inexpensive L-bracket with a silicone handhold for better grip. It holds the phone securely in a ShoulderPod S1, which expands to accommodate the phone and then screws down to hold it. It provides two places to mount light and sound equipment on the top of the L-bracket. And the Rode mic provides good enough directional sound you can use it for interviews if you’re close enough to frame the head shot correctly. The downside is that it doesn’t allow inexpensive 37mm lenses to be mounted, so you’d have to go with a case-mounted lens system like an iPro if you wanted to improve the native lens.
Kit variation No. 2: The Run n’ Gun No. 2
This is a similar style and fulfills a similar function — out of the car and into the wild with quick setup. It’s easy to wield and includes a spot for (in this case) a wireless receiver. This variant swaps out the L-bracket for a plastic pistol grip BlackWing HC-2 from FotoSafari. Switching out the L-bracket means losing two shoes, so I put a strobe bracket into the 1/4″-20 hole in the HG-2’s bottom. I like the idea of being able to run wirelessly with this. It means I can use the wireless transmitter for my stick mic if I’m working as a two-person team or I can do a walk-and-talk using the wireless lav (and not worry about it ripping off the lapel if I get too far away). Downside: Using that 1/4″-20 hole at the bottom of the grip means I can’t mount out it easily on a tripod. Also, I used the snap-on mount that came with the HG-2. It works fine, but since anything worth doing is worth overdoing, I might use the ShoulderPod S1 if I know I was going to be in a crowded place.
Kit variation No. 3: Protective with sound and light
This one goes in a little bit different direction. I was looking for a way to protect the iPhone a little bit and be able to use the 37mm lenses I have. I came up with using the BeastGrip Pro to hold the phone and attach the lenses, but then ran into a problem: the BeastGrip is studded with 1/4″-20 holes, but only has one built-in shoe. Attaching something easily requires an extension bracket, in this case a Y-mount (or a triple-shoe bracket, if you prefer). It includes a 30-LED light and a shotgun mic. I think you could use this in a crowd situation, but I think it makes a nice stable shooting platform sitting on a tripod, too. If I were in a large crowd and wanted to use my 2x telephoto, this is the set up I’d use.
Kit variation No. 4: The Double-handed shooter with light and sound
This is a unique one. FotoSafari built a very stable double-handled grip by putting a thick piece of metal between two pistol-grip Blackwing HG-2s. It’s a great idea. Two hands means smoother pans and less overall shake in your video. The phone is held in place by a “chip clip,” that opens wide to fit any phone. It holds the phone securely enough, but I’d still prefer the ShoulderPod S1. The metal has slots in it for screws and other mounts. In this configuration, I have a shotgun mic going forward, but FotoSafari has mounted Zoom recorders there and I’ve also used the mount for a wireless receiver. The downside is that 37mm lenses can’t be used; you’d have to use a case-mounted system. Or, you could mount the BeastGrip Pro on top and have a really stable, really protective piece of gear.
Kit variation No. 5, sort of
But what about if you shoot iPads? I sometimes do. And I like the iOgrapher for it. In fact, for iPads and iPad Minis, iOgrapher is the only piece of gear that I’d recommend (Why don’t I recommend it for phones? It’s not that I don’t, it’s just that I don’t like single-size chassises). It has the 37mm mount for lenses, a 1/4″-20 hole on the bottom to put it on a tripod and three cold shoes that are widely spaced enough that you put a light, a shotgun mic and a wireless receiver on there (if you were using a dual-channel pre-amp).