Setting Up My Camera
It's snowing pretty steadily out as I'm writing this, and I have one tripod stuck doing a timelapse while the other is in the trunk of my car. What does that mean? It means I have stuff to shoot but it's warmer for me to sit and write about how I set my cameras up to shoot at the show. Why? Well, I get asked a fair amount, and honestly I like to hear about how and why other people do it as well - it's never too late to learn a new little trick. Shit, I was running around changing my ISO manually until I watched a 3 minute video on YouTube targeted at beginners about Auto ISO. The result? I now use auto ISO! Seems stupid, but I learned on film a long time ago, and I was wary of how different the images would look with the ISO changing on the fly. Turns out...not so much.
So as usual, I'll kind of just list my regular settings here at the outset and then I'll get into a more detailed description of the whys and wherefores further down in case you just want the nitty gritty.
Sony A9 mirrorless camera
Lens in-studio for desk shots: 70-200 f2.8 GM
Lens in Green Room, Makeup Room, Backstage or Studio for Reverse: Sigma 24mm f1.4
Auto ISO, Auto White Balance
RAW, recording to two cards
Shutter speed in studio: 1/160
Shutter speed for correspondents: 1/60
Shutter speed in Green Room: 1/200
Aperture for singles: f2.8, f1.4 (depending on lens)
Aperture for two shot/three shots: f4, f4.5
Viewfinder Grid on
Level on in Electronic Viewfinder
"Medium" Drive mode (10 frames per second)
Of course, these settings are specific to my wants and habits and the necessities of the environment and circumstances of what and where I'm shooting, your mileage may vary.
I shoot with a mirrorless camera because it allows me to shoot stills silently. I didn't enter into that decision lightly...I had tested the "silent" (read: quiet) mode on the Canon 5D MKIIIs I was using with the Audio dept and they had no objections, but on occasion I noticed the interviewee registering the shutter sound, and the last thing I ever want to be is a distraction. I also knew the biggest downside of mirrorless and it was very applicable to my situation, so I was hesitant. Then one evening before the show a guest remarked on me shooting in the green room, and that night I bought the mirrorless...my goal is to fade into the corner, and if everyone hears me working, it's impossible to do that.
What are mirrorless' downsides? Most of all is banding with LEDs. People can and have gone around and around about this and whether it's real or imagined, but I'm also a studio lighting tech who also occasionally works as a video engineer, so I understand that:
A-it exists, and
B-how to fix it.
The issue is how the camera reads the sensor in conjunction with how LEDs function. LED lights and monitors flicker at a set rate, faster than the human eye can detect but slow enough that cameras can easily "see" it. With top-of-the-line monitors and stage lighting that we use in television, you can generally tweak everything to get it all in the same range, and then set the television cameras so they don't see it, or you can engage settings in the cameras that eliminate it. On still cameras, that option doesn't exist, so I had to find a range of shutter speeds where the camera didn't capture the flicker in the lights or monitor walls.
This leads me to my chosen shutter speeds...in studio I'm limited to 1/160th of a second or slower. Any faster than that and banding starts to creep in to the images, both from the LED key and fill lights we use, but also from the monitor wall behind Trevor. When I'm shooting correspondents, their background is a rear-projection screen, and the refresh rate for that requires an even slower shutter speed, 1/80th or even 1/60th. This is a bummer, as it means I lose a lot of gestures or facial expressions to blur. We switched the makeup rooms over to LED so we could match the color temp in the studio, so I'm limited in there as well, though those bulbs are a little better, I can up it to 1/250th if I need to.
My lens choices are purely out of practicality. The 70-200mm allows me to fill the frame with someone from the 10-15 foot range that I usually shoot from, while also allowing me to get wide enough to shoot two people at the same distance.
Filling the frame with the 70-200mm
I use the 24mm backstage, in the makeup rooms, the kitchen and green room, both tight spaces that require me to use some glass that sees most of the room.
24mm is perfect for tight spaces with groups, or a solo shot to give the subject space
I also use that same 24mm for the on stage "reverse" shot, meaning that as Trevor is wrapping up with the guest, I'm waiting to shoot a fist bump or a handshake with the 70-200mm while I'm holding the 24mm in my hand...then I start to jog back around the desk while changing lenses as soon as we cut to black. I usually shoot that shot fairly wide open - I'm ok with only getting the guest in focus and losing some depth of field on Trevor while I'm eliminating the "star" effect the stage lights take on when the lens is stopped down...I don't want to obscure faces with the rays from the stars on the lights.
Reverse shots, all with the 24mm, all shot at f1.4
Most of the rest is fairly basic...I make use of the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), which is one of my favorite aspects of mirrorless cameras. Because the set is curved and the graphics in the background are on a curved LED wall, it's hard to tell which straight lines are actually straight. I used to pick out verticals and horizontals in the graphics to try to stay level, but now I just turn the level on in the EVF and now I'm sure. This saves endless time in post.
I always recommend that you shoot with the grid overlay turned on as well. When I used to shoot with film cameras, one of my first moves was always to swap out the focusing screen for one with grid lines on it. I use the "rule of thirds" grid, which cuts the view into 9 boxes. I'll generally put my focus point at the upper junction of that grid, to the left or to the right depending on what segment I'm shooting, and that point goes over the eye. If you take something I shot in January 2019 and overlaid it onto something from January 2020, they're pretty identical in terms of framing. Reproducibility is important, as is trying to find unique views for the same thing.
As far as other basic settings: I always shoot RAW, recording to both cards. Not even a question for me. RAW is the only way I'll shoot. I use Auto White Balance, because the lighting in the studio is metered and predictable and everywhere else will be made black and white.
Why black and white backstage? The building in which we are located is fairly large, and I'm constantly all over, shooting out of one room and into another, or shooting someone who is half in and half out of two different rooms, etc. The bulbs in the lights are....inconsistent. And green. So to have one room be correct but there's a green wash all over someone, or the Green Room used to have different color temps in the ceiling recessed lighting and the lamps - it was a nightmare. So I made the decision long ago to make everything black and white and not worry about all that terrible lighting. Now I think about it like The Wizard of Oz; backstage is Kansas, and on stage is color because that's where the magic happens.
So that's it. Any questions, or if you have any favorite tricks or habits let loose in the comments or contact me here!