Sunday, June 25, 2006

another Week Rolls By, and...

... I still can't use the video camera. The software still hasn't been purchased. The laptop isn't optimized. A work station hasn't been modified. Yup, I'm frustrated. So, there isn't anything new to report. My time is being wasted. Every day that I can't dive into the hardware and software will cost double that. Right now? I guess I'll be lucky to be able to begin truly shooting with the camera within the next 4 months. And I feel that I'm being liberal in my guess. Honestly, I think it won't be until around the holidays that I will have the equipment needed to officially begin shooting production video.

It's frustrating, since the plan had been to get the hardware and software in-house by the time the camera was delivered. Well, the exact opposite happens. So, what happens is that the camera begins depreciating, since it was purchased at full retail price. I just noticed that the camera has since dropped around $700 or even more. That could have been used to buy a fluid head tripod and a 250GB external storage drive. Or a 35mm lens adapter.

I had a feeling that this would happen. No matter how many times I tried to convince the ones to order the gear or update the PowerBook, it simply didn't happen. I had been emailing and writing requests since late winter. And now, it's summer. Nothing, but frustration. So what do you do in this situation, punt? My choice is to simply wash my hands of this, put the gear on mothballs, and get back into the habit of shooting still photos until all the equipment is here, or on its way. I did all that I could have done, for months, and they ignored the recommendations. But now, every time they ask where the great "production video" is, I'll tell them that they're on back-order.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Elation Yields to Reality

I carried the new camera into the department, anxious to see what my recorded slow motion video would look like for the first time. I had shot video of dripping water after a storm and leaves blowing in the wind at 60 frames per second, twice the frame rate (hence, slowed down by half) as normal. After downloading a driver to the PowerBook, I opened the 4GB, transferrable P2 card. Inside the card were a number of folders. Inside the VIDEO folder were some files, all locked and in "MXF" format. I never recalled mxf files before.

The painful reality hit.

Forgetting that the HVX200 doesn't record in MPEG format (a widely-known video file that can be easily viewed in any video-capable computer), I learned that users will need Final Cut Pro, or perhaps, Final Cut Studio HD, to view and edit the files. Doh! I totally forgot. But I had told them that I needed the software back in January or so, after I had attended an Apple Final Cut conference in Washington. I had written all the information down. I had done research on what kind of upgrades that my G4 PowerBook needed. I recommended that we upgrade a G5 desktop with video and memory upgrades to make certain that editing and training could start immediately when the camera arrived. I left my PowerBook in May when I left for vacation, with information on software and hardware upgrades and recommendations by Apple. But nothing happened. My PowerBook is still the same and the G5 hasn't been touched. So we have a $6,000 paperweight, until this gets done.

Anyone considering the HVX200 as a purchase, make certain that you have TWICE the amount to purchase other gear! You need editing software and perhaps, hardware upgrades to view the high definition video. You'll need a high def monitor to view the files. And the camera needs extra batteries, a GOOD "fluid head" tripod and maybe a monopod, a wireless microphone system (get one with at least 2 different channels and transmitters, for at least 2 subjects to wear), and you will learn that the lens can only reach so far. Some consider the add-on wide angle and telephoto adapters to screw onto the front of the camera's lens, but if you have a battery of still camera lenses (as we do), consider purchasing a 35mm lens conversion kit. The kit can allow you to place your existing 35mm lenses onto a unit that mounts over the front of the video camera's lens, which will make your video have a more limited depth of field, like film. And you need mass storage for shooting and filing. A 100GB hard disk recorder will set you back well over a grand at current prices, and you must continue to expand storage as you fill disk drives with video, which can run a gig per minute. Other add-ons that I have considered are a stabilizing vest system and a Stickypod (to mount the camera on windows, vehicles and other places).

Don't buy this camera just to look good. If your sound and shooting balance aren't in order, your work will simply suck raw eggs. Sure, you can call it "raw footage," but that gimmick only goes so far. Like, for wars and breaking news. So feel free to take it to Iraq (or the latest country battling with civil war or violence), or just buy an emergency network scanner and chase ambulances every day. But really be true to yourself and add up all the costs to see what purchasing the camera will cost. You're really buying a system, not simply, a camera.

I had this thought out months ago, but now, I have a camera that I can't truly use (and learn from using), until software and hardware are purchased. Don't scrimp on your purchases, either. You may buy a cheap wireless mic system and hate the sound so much that you wind up buying a better one, which would cost you more by the end, than if you had simply done your homework and weed through the reviews to get one that can give you the most for your budget.

I chose the HVX200 because the files would be saved as files and wouldn't be recorded as a video stream. Video streams will take as long as the length of the video to copy to disk. Files are much easier to manage. And this is needed for time-sensitive events, which I shoot all the time. Do your homework and weed through the mass of video camera hardware for which camera SYSTEM truly fits your needs AND your budget. But don't sacrifice your accessories so much that you lose money by repurchasing gear because of shoddy workmanship.

In the meanwhile, I have placed the $6,000 paperweight and "moth balls" into a camera bag and stuffed it on the shelf, hoping that the day comes that we get the equipment needed so that I can make use of the gear we purchased.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The HVX200 Arrived Today!

My day off, and I had to go to work to drop pictures and video clips of a shark fishing tournament and a story about Crisfield. The time that I told my father that I'd be there had already passed, and I scrambled to get everything in for the editors. Jeff soon walked in the office, followed by Lloyd, who carried an oversized cardboard box, with a black drawing of the Panasonic HVX200. There it was! But I had no time to inspect the contents, since I was fighting to get out of the office.

Finally, I had accomplished everything, so I packed my laptop and shuffled for the nearest exit. "Woah, hold on!" yelled Dudley, who emerged from his office, demanding that I open the box. He called out Bob, and they were deaf to my plea to run to east Baltimore to purchase a chicken and get home for dinner with Dad.... they wanted me to just open the darn box! Using the key to my truck (which I plan on replacing with a Civic, which will instantly save me $2,000 per year in gasoline), we opened the box and then an inner box (something to prolong the anticipation!) to get at the equipment beneath the styrofoam packaging and protective pouch.

I was unimpressed. The camera, well .... looked like the pictures. The only difference was that there was no attached microphone with the foam wind buffer; only the built-in mic in front of the handle was available. Each editor took turns holding the camera and commenting on the balance and weight as I watched the minutes tick away. When they were satisfied, I put the gear back in the boxes and returned to my truck to drive to Highlandtown to get a whole chicken at Chicken Rico.

Yes, it's a plug; the chicken's the best I can remember! I love my dark meat, but Chicken Rico (Peruvian style chicken baked in a coal-and-wood-fired rotisserie) is so friggin' yummy!I don't even eat beans, but theirs has a flavor that's great. Anyway, I grabbed a whole chicken meal with beans and plantains and sped home, getting more hungry with each mile I drove. My mind wasn't at all on cameras, since I hadn't eaten all day!

After a fine dinner, I dug through the box for the manual, shaking my head. Earlier, I told Dudley that I may wind up thinking that I made a mistake in getting the gear. After Bob had said that the camera felt too heavy for continuous hand-held shots, I had told them that I may some day wind up in traction with braces for my back, shoulders, neck, and arms! And the buttons, the buttons! You know, I felt for a moment like this was gonna be a monumental task to learn how to use the HVX200.

I stuck the 2- 4GB P2 cards into the slots behind the camera and played with the controls for video formats, moving between the high definition and basic capture resolutions. Most of the files that I shot were in slow motion, since that was a big reason I chose the camera. I only shot 2 gigs of video, just enough to check out the files the next day, on a Macintosh G5 computer at work.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Laying Out Before I Go

Here I was, thinking that I'd be enjoying a nice afternoon at home before returning to work at 4:30pm, since I had to cover the Orioles game against the New York Yankees. So, why didn't it suprise me that I would get a call from my boss at 2pm?

"What are you doing now?" Dudley asked. If he really needs something, I'll try to get it done; he's got the fire that I appreciate in management. So I quickly got ready for a hastily-called 2:30 meeting with Eric and several others, as we reviewed the images I had taken on the "Lost East Baltimore" project.

The area, between North Avenue and Federal, has been caught in stagnation over the decades. Nothing's happening. Except decay and drama. Since last July, I'd been showing face throughout the neighborhood, trying to get the remaining residents to accept me, rather than suspect me. It took a number of months, until the day that I decided to stay in the neighborhood with my cameras until almost midnight. Only the following day, did I realize the effect on my actions.

"You're one of us, now!" yelled one resident, impressed that I would chill out with the folks past dark, with two pro-grade Nikons, walking from block to block, chatting with people. He felt that my actions showed that I meant business. I wanted to show life there, and I wasn't intimidated by the perception of what many would consider a "bad neighborhood." And I only realized what I needed to do after seeing children play outside after the sun set. They aren't afraid of anything. What should I be concerned about?

Literally, everything changed overnight. Residents invited us inside. People on the street were unconcerned if I took photos. A huge weight was lifted off our shoulders. We were, indeed, one of the family.

And it showed in my images. Reporters and editors from different departments stopped my to comment on the telling images they had seen. And it shows when the layout artists have "too much" to work with. The only thing I regret is that I hadn't gotten the video camera to capture some of the voices and actions of the people I met. All it takes is for a photographer to put the camera down and show that (s)he is just as human as the ones being photographed. And hopefully, by next weekend or so, you can check out pick up the newspaper or visit and see some of the work that Eric and I did to present the human side of a poverty-stricken neighborhood that time has all but forgotten.

On a stranger note, my first baseball game in a long time concluded moments ago, here at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I showed up right before game time (because I had to run out to East Baltimore to shoot a scene-setting shot), and had to bump another shooter from the inside third base photo pit, since our company gets first choice of positions. I hate doing that, but she said that there was no problem.

It was just two innings later that things got a little ugly. A TV camera operator to my right only acknowledged my presence after the second inning, asking in a condescending manner that we switch positions. "You're killing me," he claimed, suggesting that I had been blocking his view of the third baseman.

"No," I replied, "if I give you this spot, I may be blocked, myself." So I stayed put, which frustrated the guy. But there were two other reasons I refused to yield my spot. If he would simply have abandoned his chair to stand, he would have had a clear view of the bag. But, since his video camera rested on his right shoulder, he had a clear shot anyway. He also was in his position well before I arrived, so he had to live with his choice. He simply realized that he was being blocked from his view of home plate by the on-deck batter.

Several plays later, a play at the plate happened, and I stood in the corner, checking my images. Suddenly, the guy jumps along the top ridge of the pit, attempting to climb over my camera to shoot into the Yankees dugout. "C'mon, you're blocking me!" he yelled. "We've known each other for years! I've been out here for years - why can't we work together?!" he said.

I took my headset off, which was tuned to the Orioles' play-by-play. "Dude, I'm not moving. You didn't even say 'excuse me,' and yet you suggest that I'm giving you problems? I'm not moving. You can argue all you want, but I'm not listening, anymore."

The following inning, the Orioles' team photographer came by, and I knew what was going to be said. But, he was calm, cool, and reasonable. I switched without hesitation.

Some people think that their position can give them carte blanche to dictate everyone else. But, when people dictate, they become a dictator. And I don't yield to that kind of person. The other photographers knew what was going on, and they said that I did the right thing. To me, it's about being reasonable. Once someone reacts out of disrespect, how do they expect to be respected?

I wasn't on my game tonight. Although I had a decent image, the desk wasn't thrilled because there was another play I had missed. It's hard to be on the game when you haven't shot games in a long time. Photographers get rusty, and I needed the WD-40 this night. But the weekend is upon us, and I have a day to (kind-of) relax before Sunday's journey to Puerto Rico.

Friday, June 2, 2006

More Heat, Outside and Inside

Yup, I can complain about the heat. Baltimore.... it feels more like the western coast of Florida, what with the high humidity, stagnant air and searing sun. So, why am I excited about traveling to San Juan? It's much closer to the equator, fool.

For those who love playing in the snow, remember: you always love the thought about it, until you have your hands in the snow for a short while. Then, you can't wait to get into the controlled climate of a nice room.

It was another evening of staying up all night, making checks and double checks about my plans. So this morning, when I woke up after all of 3 hours of sleep, I felt less-than-enthusiastic about getting up. Fortunately, my jobs were in the nice air-conditioned environments. After swinging by the city police headquarters, I grabbed some Puerto Rican food at a place in east Baltimore. The chicken was much better than the beef. A stop at the photo department, and then it was off to cover the Baltimore Bee, at a middle school on the west side.

Talk about misery. The school had no air conditioning and only one floor fan to circulate the stagnant air inside the auditorium, which had several hundred people in attendance. A 4-piece band pumped out some foot-stomping jazz beats as we waited and waited .... and waited.... for the event to start. You know, when I see most everyone using the pamphlets to fan air on themselves, I'm gonna start the event a little early.

Several Baltimore Ravens players were there as guests or as judges, sitting down at tables at the symphony pit, and the children - all middle schoolers - went to the stage and sat down. After a number of speeches (and me, rolling my eyes, wishing the speeches would simply end because of the miserable conditions), the contest started.

I had a feeling that it wouldn't go smoothly, since the audio that the judges relied on to hear the children's replies was shoddy equipment. Several children continued into the next round by spelling their words correctly, while others exited the stage after misspelling their words. And I was eager to get just one photo, so that I could get back to the office, edit and submit an image, and drive to east Baltimore to cover a community meeting.

The scene was setting up for a big blow-up. A youth came to the podium, held the microphone, and listened to a judge's request that he spell "capital." "Sure," I thought, "give him a word that can be spelled two different ways, like he would really know, at his age. Trick word," I argued to myself. The speaker system, whistling from a poor wireless system, didn't help the contestant one bit as he repeatedly asked the judges to say the word again. A Dell computer, one of several prizes for the winning contestant, hung in the balance, and hundreds of pairs of eyes pierced the dimly-lit auditorium, anxious for him to spell.

And then, he did it. "'Capital': K-A-P. . . ."

One of the judges, telling the child about the error, spelled "capital" on the loudspeaker.

Suddenly, the event became controversial.

"I said it was with a 'C,'" the boy said, looking over his shoulder. A collective moan rose from the audience as the judges paused to confer, with the result being that the boy was, in fact, wrong.

In the confusion, I grabbed one child that I photographed, took down his name, age, and school, and headed for the exit. Outside, the mother of the "capital" youth was outraged. "He studied for weeks, and he knew that name," she argued. "The sound system was screwed up. He knews that 'capital' isn't spelled with a 'K!' They're hurting the children the way they're doing it!"

I thought that she had a point. Perhaps the judges could have asked that all the children who misspelled words could be given a second chance, since they decided to give the children the words while standing next to them, after the "capital" problem. There were less than a handful of children who had misspelled words up to that point, and it seemed like they all had difficulty hearing just what the judges' words were.

But this is also the first year of the contest. The winner had no chance of advancing to the national spelling bee, because the contest was taking place the same day, in Washington. And there were bound to be quirks in the system, errors in execution, or missteps in judgement. The good thing is that the organizers have this year to iron out the bugs and polish the presentation for next year's contest, which will send the winner to the national spelling bee, which has grown since its first contest 80 years ago. They've grown because they've learned from their mistakes, and this is the first year that the contest was broadcast on national television.

The Baltimore Bee, which will be affiliated with the national contest, will also get better. People make mistakes. There would be no contest, if everyone got it right. It would get boring, if we were perfect. But failure happens only when we don't learn from our mistakes.

The Baltimore Bee made its share of flubs in its inaugural event, but it will get better. It will also grow, which will only be good for the future youngsters.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Ever Ridden in a Presidential Motorcade?

I've been in a motorcade one time, but while many others who have experienced it say that it's a hassle, I enjoy the thrill. A call came in, complete with area code 202, and I knew it was a member of the White House advance press to give me details on where I would report.

So, it was official: it was time to try my hand at photographing President Goerge W Bush, who was scheduled to land at BWI/Thurgood Marshall Airport in Linthicum, MD for a fundraising effort for Gov. Robert Ehrlich. It can be fun for a local photographer to be involved in the White House press pool; it's one of those things that seasoned journalists know can be a "dog and pony show," but for the local media, it's a fresh experience to get away from the routine daily assignments.

I was stopped short of where I wanted to go by a Maryland Port Authority cop, one of many who lined the airport loop road, who seemed to have a suspicious eye for anyone who was supposed to be at the scheduled location. Even after I told him my name, "you won't be allowed in," he said, noting that "a few other media" had been turned back. No problem, I replied, as I confidently hit the speed dial for the White House press contact. Ooh, I love getting into a battle of power. Before the phone rang twice, suddenly, he changed his tune and told me where the Signature jet service was.

There are a number of levels of security when local press are involved in covering the President. As I entered the building at Signature, my name was checked and doublechecked, and I went through the body search and then an equipment search by a very kind-looking pooch who stepped on one of my cameras. At the instruction of the Secret Service, I had to power all my gear up and operate each piece of equipment to show that they all work. "The dog won't hurt your equipment," the officer said, as the canine sniffed my PowerBook. "Maybe not, but dogs drool," I said.

It was then a short walk to one of the press vans, this one, driven by a member of the Maryland GOP. A typical-looking republican with the obligatory short-cut straight dark hair, dark suit, white shirt and red tie, he boasted about the sports car he owned while we waited for the helicopter brigade to land. The first one, a twin-bladed helo, slowly lowered above the landing zone, but then, *foomp* it suddenly dropped with a thud on the ground.

I busted a gut, laughing at the hard landing, and even the officials all along the tarmac laughed. One of the reporters came into the van. "That was the hardest landing I've ever had!" she said. The second press helicopter landed, shortly followed by Marine One - two more helicopters, one ridden by Bush and the other one, a decoy. "I can tell which one is G.W's," I boasted..."It's that one," pointing to one of the two. "How do you know?" asked the press liason. "Because it made the softest landing!"

As the blades of both helos stopped, the doors of each one opened, and out came the President, who swiftly entered his limosine. Even the plain black limosines look impressive, with the ultra-thick, green-colored bulletproof glass windows and flags of the U.S. and presidential seal fluttering in the wind.

As we entered the street surrounding Thurgood Marshall Airport, all traffic was stopped as we rode along the other side of the median. "Why do we drive on this side?" I asked. "Because we can." That was good enough for me. As we started off for the hotel, I asked out loud how many people were sweating in traffic, trying to get to the airport, since the whole area was on lockdown. Police held up traffic everywhere. Parking lots, homes, streets, and businesses, plus the light rail and even air traffic yielded for the motorcade.

It was a short ride to the Marriott hotel, where Gov. Ehrlich had a fundraiser, but Michael Steele wasn't there as it was said that he had a prior engagement in Las Vegas. As we waited, members of the White House staff came by, making sure we were all right. Eventually, two of the Secret Service walked by with plates of hors d'oeuvres. I had to do a doubletake. So, why not, I'll show some muscle the only way I could with a guy holding a concealed glock and a license to kill, and make him come back and wait for me to grab a few snacks!

Once President Bush appeared, he and the governor stood almost nose to nose, shaking hands with smiles as the commander-in-chief was introduced. After about half an hour of taking photos and video, I returned to my PowerBook to download images. Suddenly, the prez was finished and we had to scramble for the vans to return. Abandoning my attempt to copy the images over to the desktop, I stuffed everything into my backpack and ran to catch up with the press corps, making it into the van just in time to return.

The driver definitely didn't have his racing foot on, lagging behind the motorcade. I wanted to tell him to step on it, but bit my tongue as we finally caught up to the rest of the vehicles, black limosines and tricked out Chevy Tahoes, which sandwiched the white Ford panel vans. People can try all they can to make their own rides so tight that they turn heads, but only a presidential motorcade can stop air and ground traffic and compel people to simply stand by the open road to catch a glimpse of The Man. And that's whether they like the one in office, or not. He still commands the ultimate attention. Not many people have actually ridden an actual presidential motorcade. This was my second one; the first one was for President Bill Clinton, who had landed at Fort McHenry and ridden to the inner harbor.

Our convoy returned onto the tarmac, but the president was already out of his limo and inside Marine One, which slowly turned its rotors to full speed and rolled out to the takeoff zone. One by one, the helicopters took to the air, banking right in a slow turn over the airport as the sun set, on their way back to the White House.

And minute by minute, the limosines, press vehicles, Secret Service and special ops units and buses exited the area, returning Linthicum to its normal routine.