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Producing Conference Video Pt. 1: Setting Up

Whether you're shooting a conference, a convention, or an AGM, the setup of the shoot is one of the most important parts of the production process. It's the step where you select the equipment, establish your camera positions, lay your cables, and check and recheck your audio and lighting.

Cameras, Lenses, and Tripods

For me, everything starts with the initial equipment choice—starting with selecting a video camera and tripod combo. Most of the conferences I get hired for are larger ones, typically held in larger conference centers and hotel conference rooms. Because of this, I find that I’m often situated a lot farther back in the room than my camera’s telephoto lens can reach to get a proper close-up.

So for me it’s important to get involved in the discussion about the room’s setup early on so that I can be sure that I am positioned as close to the podium or stage as possible. Every room is different, but a great place for me to get in close while not obstructing the view of the attendees is in front of a support post or a column, if one happens to be in the right location. Being physically closer means I can get tighter on my subject; I prefer not to have to zoom to the fullest telephoto setting on my video camera, as the image can get soft, and sharp focus is more difficult due to a greater depth of field at full telephoto.

Positioning your camera closer to the subject also makes it much easier to pan, tilt, and, in general, keep the image smooth as you widen your zoom. It is the same principle behind why a wedding videographer will put a wide-angle lens on his or her camera when shooting handheld.

Getting a position close to the stage is not always possible. So instead of having a wide lens ready to go, as a wedding videographer might, conference video producers will often include a good telephoto lens in their camera bags, although many cameras have a very good digital zoom function that, when working in SD, produce surprisingly sharp results.

When selecting a video camera, it’s important to consider the telephoto range on the camera expressed in mm. Although the “x” in optical zoom is a factor based on how much more telephoto the lens range has than when at its widest, generally, these numbers result in similar telephoto ranges. So most 12x lenses will have similar ranges and a 20x lens will have 67% more telephoto range than a 12x.

The trade-off with most fixed lenses is that the more telephoto the lens, the more light it loses when the lens “stops down.” Some cameras, such as the Sony HVR-Z7U that I use, allow for the use of interchangeable lenses that are faster (don’t stop down) than the stock lens. But the downside is that a LANC controller does not work with these lenses, and equivalent lens control devices and the lens itself costs almost as much as the original camera.

Using Remote Camera Control

This is one reason why most videographers in this market stick with fixed-lens camcorders. Especially on longer shoots, the camera operator’s comfort is important, and reducing fatigue is paramount to maintaining responsive and smooth camera operation. I prefer using a remote zoom controller, or LANC controller, to move the zoom control off of the camera body to the tripod panhandle (Figure 1, below). Most models allow for both an adjustable fixed rated of zoom in and out and a variable rocker control. Unfortunately, I’ve never liked the fixed rate in a live environment, as the start and stop is sudden and doesn’t ramp. But having to use it over time, I actually prefer the pressure-sensitive variable zoom control on the LANC to even most camera zoom rockers.

Sony controller
Sony’s RM1000BP LANC controller

Adding a telephoto lens to your camera or using the digital zoom is great for getting a tighter frame on a distant subject, but the trade-off is that it is much more difficult to pull off a smooth pan or tilt; it’s even hard not to jiggle your riser—if you do, the movement will appear on the video, as every little bobble gets magnified the more you zoom in. To counteract this, a higher-quality tripod and head are required. I selected my first tripod, a Manfrotto with a 501 head, because it was the tripod I saw everyone else using.

Overall, it’s a great entry-level value, but it suffered from a bit of “sticktion”; it wasn’t a true fluid head but a Teflon friction-style head. I quickly upgraded to a fluid-head Manfrotto 503 and found it performed better. It is the minimum I would consider for conference type of work. I still travel with it when I need to fly to a shoot.

Otherwise, I’ve upgraded to a Vinten Vision 3 system, which is much smoother and can handle the heavier weight of my cameras better, especially when equipped with a front-heavy telephoto lens. When selecting a tripod, it’s important to pick one that uses a fluid head, has rigid legs that don’t twist when panning, and can handle the weight of your camera, especially when it’s loaded with accessories such as microphones and lights.

Although I prefer the versatility of a mid-level spreader over a bottom one, for this application it doesn’t matter, as the ground is generally flat. I do prefer a telescopic panhandle though, especially on longer shoots, as it allows my arm to be at a lower and more neutral position.

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