How a Pro Filmmaker Stays Creative While Sheltering in Place
Since being under a Shelter in Place order here in California, it’s been tough to stay creative. If you look at my Instagram, the majority of my photos and videos are inspired by travel/adventure – you know, things you can do OUTSIDE. This pandemic has taken its toll on how I create, as I’m sure it has for you. But, on a personal level, I went through something similar already, back in 2010…
I was laid off from my engineering job and was out of sorts. The economy was still really bad from the economic recession and I had no money – but I did have one interest: shooting photos and video. I couldn’t afford to buy any expensive camera equipment but I was able to rent it. I found this place called BorrowLenses (you may have heard of them) who rented camera gear locally and had really affordable rates. I was able to drop in, ask questions, and rent the gear I wanted right on the spot. At the time, my go-to camera/lens combo was the Canon T2i and a Canon 28mm f/1.8 EF prime lens. Without any real direction in my life at the time, I leaned on the thing that I loved to do. So, I rented and then I started to actually go broke from renting so much! I ended up getting a job at BorrowLenses packing up rentals for other shooters. To my great advantage, I was able to rent equipment at a discount and kept shooting. I started to pick up jobs here and there, and – fast forward 10 years – I was able to build a successful production company with clients like the Golden State Warriors, NFL, ESPN, and a bunch of tech giants like Facebook, Nvidia, and Google.
Hitting Rock Bottom Again and Fighting Stagnation as a Creative During a Pandemic
The reason I’m telling you this is that many of us have worked really hard only to find ourselves at or near rock bottom again lately. I’ve basically been laid off from my own company. All of Creative West’s jobs have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. I’m experiencing the same feelings I had back in 2010. I’m out of sorts, with little-to-no direction, and I’m mostly just anxious because I don’t know what this pandemic will do to the industry I built my entire business on. So I’m leaning on what I did in 2010: just keep shooting, keep creating. It’s a mantra I’ve lived and a formula I know works. I learned new skills, experimented, made a ton of mistakes, but kept getting better at what I love doing. All the things I learned while working at BL from 2010-2012 helped prepare me for the next 7 years of being a full time freelance creative. So that’s what I’m going to do now: keep shooting, keep creating however I can. I’m going to lean on what I know and what I love, because I know at the end of the day, shooting and creating makes me happy.
But the situation is different this time around. I have a family now and I can’t go out looking for subjects to capture – at least not easily. So I decided to document my family’s Shelter in Place experience in weekly videos.
You Don’t Need High-End Camera Gear to Shoot a Great Video
Though I own some high-end cinema equipment, including an ARRI Alexa Mini, a Sony FS7, Leica R Cine primes, and Canon Cine zooms, I chose to keep my setup simple and light for this project. This is a good time to get back to basics. Here is the gear I chose for my project.
Sony a7 III: The Ideal All-Subject (and Small Subject) Camera
I chose the Sony a7 III because it’s small enough to carry around daily and Sony’s Face AF works wonders when documenting a toddler. IBIS is a nice feature and allows me to go without a gimbal. It’s not the best stabilization, but it does the job. I set up the a7 III in a way that can capture 4K/24p video and 24MP stills without having to switch modes or dials. Sony’s color science leaves much to be desired since it only records in 8-bit 4:2:0, so I created a custom picture profile to mimic the REC.709 colors of my other cinema cameras. This way, I don’t have to do any coloring in post. The best part of this configuration? It does a great job at auto exposure with minimal noise. AUTO EXPOSURE?! Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking, I’ll explain more about the settings later on.
Sony 28mm f/2: Silent Focusing and Won’t Kill Your Budget
This lens is cost effective with native AF, is wide enough for most purposes, is lightweight, and is fast. It’s only $35 to rent for a week. You can rent it for 2 months and it’ll still only be about $162 – probably even cheaper since BL is running a lot of promos during this pandemic. I like this particular lens because it keeps my setup lightweight and the field of view on a 28mm on a full frame sensor is just wide enough for my taste. The f/2 aperture is fast and bokeh is still smooth without sacrificing weight. You can opt for the Sony 24mm f/1.4 G Master, which is a WAY better lens, but it costs 3 times as much, is WAY heavier, and – trust me – you don’t want that anxious feeling when your toddler is blowing bubbles toward this expensive lens you’ve rented. It’s not worth it – especially when you’re just keeping your shooting prowess up and not actually working for a client. Another option is the Sigma 24mm f/1.4. It’s cheaper but the sheer weight of it compromises what I want out of a tool for this type of shooting scenario.
Rode VideoMicro: No-Fuss Frontal Sound
This little thing makes a huge difference when compared to shooting with the onboard mic. I’ve learned that your video is only as good as your sound. If you haven’t explored external mics before, now is the time to learn. You don’t want to rely on the camera’s mic. I also like to keep the dead cat on it for those times when we go out for walks. Clean sound without the wind noise makes for less distractions for your viewers. Not to mention you can capture your toddler crying her heart out in crystal clear sound. This little mic can also be used with smartphones. It’s inexpensive but doesn’t feel cheap. It’s a great first external mic.
Simple and Achievable Accessories
I use a mini tripod for stability and as an extra point of contact when I go handheld. I have a small Manfrotto table-top tripod but something like a Joby Gorilla Pod will work just as well. Even though the camera has IBIS, you can’t change the pure physics of stability when having more points of contact. If you’re comparing cameras, one feature that is a must for me is dual card slots. I shoot photos on one card and videos on the other. I’ve found that writing to two different cards makes it easier for me when I go to sort all the footage/photos in post. And if one card happens to corrupt, you won’t lose everything. As for other accessories, it’s good to keep a simple ND filter on hand for shooting outside while maintaining a shallow DOF. With the a7 III , 1 battery should suffice for the day but since we’re at home, I always plug it in via a USB charger to top it off in-between main shots just in case.
Setting I Used for My Shelter in Place Videos
Here is how I set up the a7 III for home movies. If you’re a novice who wants to break away from auto-pilot while still taking advantage of the amazing auto features the camera is capable of, these are a great starting point. Since I am shooting stills and video together, these are settings that largely accommodate both.
Shutter Priority Mode Set at 1/100th of a Second
This shutter speed is almost always fast enough to keep up with my little one. I also enable “Movie Button – Always” so that it’s ready to record video on the fly. No more having to turn the dial to “video mode”. Typically in video, you want to shoot at a shutter speed that is double your frame rate, but I sacrifice a little bit of motion blur for the ability to be able to take photos on the fly without having to turn that dial. You have to be quick when you’re documenting kids! You don’t have time to fiddle with settings. 1/100 is barely noticeable in video anyway – well, to me at least.
Focus Mode: Continuous AF (Eye AF Enabled)
This feature alone is probably the main reason I chose the a7 III. Actually, the main reason was convenience. I already own Sony glass so it made my decision pretty easy. I know the Canon EOS-R/RP and the Nikon Z6 have phase detection AF, but those cameras come with other trade offs. The Canon can’t shoot 4K full frame and I don’t already own Nikon glass, making it moot for me to try the Nikon Z6. Since a lot of us are on a budget right now, it makes sense to only try out gear you’re already invested in, mount-wise.
Metering Mode: Multi (+1.7)
My custom picture profile takes advantage of the HLG setting that the a7 III offers, so I set the metering to take an average of the overall scene and set it to be just a little over a stop and a half. Because it’s a Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG), this gets rid of unwanted noise in the shadows while still maintaining highlights. I rarely have to tweak exposure when I edit. This makes it that much easier in post. This custom picture profile is available here (the first 50 people to use the code blblogpromo will get $5 off).
White Balance: AWB (Yes, I Defend This)
I know I know, don’t pros shoot in a set white balance? We do. But I am consciously deciding to shoot in AWB because of the different color temps that my home has. Sometimes we’re next to a window, sometimes we’re in the living room that has soft warm light, the kitchen is a little more blue, and then changing conditions when we’re out on walks. If you shoot on Sony, then you know how much of a pain the menu system is. I don’t want to have to go deep into menu settings to change color temperature so I let the camera make those decisions. I could create shortcuts to change them, but even then I’d still have to make an adjustment. I want to focus on getting those moments of my daughter, and not on white balance. In addition, the custom picture profile that I designed does a pretty good job of handling colors. This helps so much in post because I don’t have to go and tweak colors anymore. I just focus on cutting the piece. Speed and efficiency is important in this workflow.
ISO: Auto (Well, Kinda)
Here we go again with the Auto settings. “Matt, I thought you were a pro?” Look, I trust my skill and my tools enough to make these decisions. But it’s not really auto Auto, this is ‘Semi-Auto’. The Sony a7 III has the ability to set a range in ISO. I set the low value at 125 and the high value at 6400. I’ve done my own tests and produced clean photos and video even at ISO 12,800 but I like to play it safe. Plus the f/2 does a great job of allowing plenty of light in, so I rarely hit ISO 6400 when I’m shooting anyway.
Drive Mode: HI+
Documenting a toddler is unpredictable. They don’t ever sit still and they NEVER repeat the cute thing they just did. That means you have to be ready on the fly to get the cute moment. Once they know you’re asking for something THEY WILL NOT DO IT. I don’t know, maybe this is just my kid? I somehow doubt it. In any case, HI+ enables me to catch cute photos of Izzy without having to ask her to do it again.
APS-C/Super35 Mode Set as a Shortcut
I set this shortcut to C3. When I’m on the job, I use all of the shortcut buttons, but I only really need C3 for home movies. I use this shortcut to punch in if and when I want an more intimate shot. It crops in on the sensor but still gives me a 4K image.
Disclaimer: these settings are not gospel, it’s just what works for me.
Fun Settings to Explore
• S&Q Motion Mode: I leave this in 120 FPS for those times when I want to play with slow-mo. I don’t do this often, but when I do, I make baking look epic…
• Interval Shooting: I was really excited when Sony came out with this update. If you know me or my work, I LOVE TO TIME-LAPSE. But now I find different ways to time-lapse at home with my daughter.
Now that I’ve set up my camera to be “set it and forget it”, I can now focus on what’s important: high res 4K videos of my daughter! Pandemic aside, I want to document my daughter’s early years. I know she probably won’t remember any of the things that I’m shooting, but one day she’ll look back on the photos and videos and she’ll understand how she fits into the story of Us. And it’s important to me to have something like this to focus on during this very unique situation we’re all in.
Times are tough right now and shooting might not be what you want to do. We want things to go back to normal, right? But right now, at this very moment, it’s not about what we want. Right now is about what we need. And if you’re a creative, please don’t starve your creativity. It just might be the one thing that you have some control over. So keep shooting, keep creating. I hope I’ve inspired even just 1 person out there to keep honing their craft.
Here are two of my Shelter in Place videos. The first has been licensed already by Uber, so I can’t share it right now – which goes to show how even personal projects can open doors!