Multimedia Journalism

CanonSX50Just noticed this review of Canon’s new point-and-shoot with an incredible 50X zoom lens, and that got me to thinking about the continuing search for the perfect inexpensive multimedia camera.

In a previous job (at AOL’s Patch) I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out the best cheap camera to get for our reporter/editors. We were looking for something in the $300 range that was not too bulky that folks who had little experience with a camera could use to shoot good stills and video.

There are a lot of camera reviews on the Web of models such as Canon’s 5D (or the equivalent Nikon model) in the $3,000 range, and then you generally drop down to something like Canon’s mid-range EOS models (I have the T4i, the current model) that cost about $900 with a couple of lenses. (And yes, Nikon and lots of other folks have comparable models).

But when you drop down to the $250-$450 range, most of the reviews don’t find much to differentiate the different models except the arrangements of the controls.

That’s unfortunate, because for shooting news and sports, there are at least three features that are really important and often overlooked: optical zoom, how many frames the camera shoots per second in burst mode, and whether it has a jack to plug in an external microphone.

I’ll leave the technical reviews of the Canon 50X to the experts. There’s a nice one here, on The Wirecutter, that has good comparisons to competitors; and one by TechRadar is here. They both like the camera overall, but it’s that incredible 50X zoom that wows them.

So how good is a 50X zoom? You probably have about a 5X or 10X optical zoom if you have a point-and-shoot camera. If you have a DSLR, your lenses most likely range from something around 24mm to maybe 300mm.

The Canon 50X goes from 24mm all the way to 1200mm and that is simply the best zoom anywhere on a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot. How inexpensive? I found it as low as $379 in a quick Web search.

But why does the zoom matter? After all, one of the first rules I tell students in my multimedia class is to get as close to their subject as possible, to “zoom with your feet.” That’s always great advice, but in reality, particularly when you’re shooting news and sports, it doesn’t always get you the photo you want.

I first had my eyes opened to the power of a good zoom a few years ago, when we bought a Casio EXILIM for our sports editor with a 20X zoom (sorry, can’t remember the model number; it’s been five years). Before giving it to him, I took it out myself to shoot a tennis match and a lacrosse match, just to see what it would do, and the results were pretty amazing. I’d previously used my Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot with a 5X zoom to cover a baseball game, so I had a pretty good idea of the limitations of a traditional point-and-shoot camera. The best location to shoot baseball is generally behind first base, but there were bleachers and a fence there so I ended up behind third base. That gave me a decent shot of right-handed pitchers, and any base-runners heading around second base toward third and home, but whatever happened at first base or in the outfield was just too far away.

The tennis match presented similar challenges in terms of distance — Three singles matches were going on at once, and the court was surrounded by a chain link fence, so I was stuck standing at the fence, poking the lens through the openings.

But the Casio camera’s 20X zoom let me get close enough to get good facial expressions, even from 100 feet away.

A few days later, at a lacrosse match, the Casio’s zoom was critical to capture any action at all. Lacrosse is played on a very wide field, and it was simply impossible to get any closeups without the zoom.

I can’t imagine what something with a 50X zoom —  over twice as powerful — would let you capture, though I’m hoping to get a chance to find out.

But I also learned that while a camera’s zoom range is important, you should also focus on the burst mode. Tennis is fast and if you try to capture the action by taking one shot at a time, you’re often too slow on the shutter. But the Casio had an incredible burst mode of 60 frames per second, with each frame a full 6 megapixels. Hit the shutter and then scroll through 60 images to find just the right one when the ball is ricocheting off of the racket, or when a lacrosse player snapped her wrist to slap the ball toward the net. Once I used that feature, I’d never consider getting another camera without it.

But a fast burst mode is not just good for sports. I was discussing the camera with our sports editor sitting in a cafe and noticed a young boy eating ice cream sitting at a table outside. Although we were 50 feet away, the zoom let me get close, and the burst mode captured a great series of closeups of boy and ice cream (tongue out, eyes closed, etc.). The zoom let me get so close that I almost felt like a stalker, with its ability to invade someone’s private space without their ever knowing you were that close.

Both the Casio and the Canon also shoot slow-motion video, another great asset when shooting sports. The new Canon shoots 120 frames per second (30 fps is standard) at 640 by 480 resolution. Casio now touts its EX-FH25, with a 20X zoom, that shoots 40 frames per second, each one at 9 megapixels.

The Casio also has another feature that makes it particularly appropriate for sports and news — if you hold the shutter down halfway, the camera starts storing frames into a buffer and then when you press the shutter down fully, you can set it to save the frames already in the buffer. So you can capture something that occurred BEFORE you pressed the shutter, excellent for sports where by the time you realize a player is getting ready to do something significant and press the shutter, the action is already over.

There are several competitors in the $300-$400 price range (e.g., Pansonic ‘s Lumix DMC FZ200), so I’m certainly not recommending either the Canon or Casio. What I AM recommending is that if you are considering purchasing an inexpensive camera for your newsroom or j-school, that you take a hard look at both zoom range and burst mode when making your decision. If you do a little digging, you’ll discover that there are now several affordable point-and-shoot models available that can capture shots that previously would have been unattainable without much more expensive gear. And yeah, they’re also lots of fun.

Unfortunately, while these two cameras have great zooms and burst modes, they both have a flaw that makes them less-than-perfect for Web news and sports — neither appears to have a jack for an external microphone. I say apparently because I can’t find a review that says anything about an external jack, so I’m assuming it’s not there. That also says something about how most camera reviewers are traditional DSLR types who don’t understand the needs of multimedia producers, so it’s a feature they don’t mention. I gather the camera manufacturers believe that few camera users are really shooting video that requires decent audio, so they skip the inexpensive jack. But if you’re shooting news or sports, you need to interview folks, often on a noisy city street or sports arena, and the in-camera mic just doesn’t cut it. Yes, you can record the audio with a separate audio recorder (or even your smartphone — most of them include an app that does a decent job of capturing audio). Unfortunately, this is a flaw in every inexpensive point-and-shoot I’m aware of. Anybody know of one with an external audio jack, let me know.

Photo: New Jersey Gov. Chris ChristieWe’re testing out Google Hangout tonight for a video discussion here in New Jersey after Gov. Chris Christie’s speech to the GOP convention in Tampa.

If you’re not up on how that works, we’ll have 6 or 7 journalists from around the state all joining the live video chat, and we’ll stream it via YouTube. Then we’ll post a link to the video afterward.

Guests include:

-Yours truly.

– Debbie Galant, co-founder of BaristaNet and now director of the NJ News Commons, an initiative to strengthen journalism in New Jersey. Based at Montclair State, and funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Commons seeks to foster cooperation and sharing between news organizations around the state.

– Ryan Dicovitsky, an adjunct professor of public speaking at Seton Hall University, and the head coach of Seton Hall’s Brownson Speech and Debate Team.

– Fred Tuccillo, the Patch senior regional editor for Central Jersey and the Shore, and a former national editor for Newsday, where he directed coverage of several conventions.

– John Celock, the state politics reporter and Patch liaison for The Huffington Post. He is based in Washington, and is the author of “The Next Generation: Young Elected Officials and Their Impact on American Politics.”

– Krystal Knapp, founder and editor of Planet Princeton, a hyperlocal site, and a former reporter for the Times of Trenton.

– Julie Winokur, documentary producer and the founder of Bring it to the Table, a Kickstarter-funded initiative to foster civility in political dialogue.

-John Mooney, a founding editor of NJ Spotlight and a veteran of both the Star Ledger and the Bergen Record.

Google Hangouts are still a bit primitive in terms of typical TV production standards, but with their ease of use, their cost (free!) and the ability to bring together people from around the globe who are interested in any particular topic, and stream their conversation so anyone else can listen in, they’re a huge new way to do “niche-casting.” And just maybe, Google will soon add some real producer tools.

I did not attend the International Symposium on Online Journalism back in April in Austin, Texas, (nice place to be in April) but now the sponsors have posted videos from most of the presenters at the conference, and Nieman Journalism Lab has picked some of their favorites.

Ben Welsh of the L.A. Times tries to convince us all that it is not that hard to set up automated computer searches to parse data and he has some great examples of using that technique to automatically sort through real estate transactions or police blotters, at least for large cities such as Los Angeles. (It doesn’t work as well in those towns where the cops hand the reporter the handwritten log book to peruse in the chief’s office).

Brian Boyer of NPR makes the good point that too often flashy design trumps usability in interactive graphics (what’s wrong with on old-fashioned spreadsheet, he asks).

And University of Memphis j-school prof Carrie Brown-Smith shows how a local Twitter hashtag during a recent severe storm was useful to journalists.

Meograph cover page

A screenshot of the Meograph demo, using the Trayvon Martin case.

Spent some time today with Meograph, a Web-based new software program that combines a multimedia timeline with a Google map. For now, it’s only available for users of the Chrome browser, but the developers promise it will be upgraded to work with other browsers.

What I like is its ease of use. Before you even sign up for the program, it invites you to create what it calls a “meograph”. But if you skip that step and go to their web site, there are several demos, including an excellent one done by a San Diego TV station on the Trayvon Martin case.

You start a Meograph by adding a Moment to a map. That might entail a date and location, e.g., the time when George Zimmerman first called police to report spotting Trayvon Martin walking through his neighborhood. The location is marked on a Google map, but then the program asks you to upload media, either photos or audio or video. The images are automatically sized and placed on the screen so they don’t obscure the map location. As you add more “moments”, more locations appear on the map. In the Trayvon Martin piece, e.g., there are the events of the night when Martin was killed, followed by statements from public officials, rallies protesting the death and court appearances for George Zimmerman. Yes, a video piece would have conveyed the material with more emotion, but it would have taken a lot longer to produce and the ease of making updates is a Meograph strength.

One very nice feature is that if you don’t have audio or video to upload, or if you upload a still image, you can click a button and record your own narration, using your computer’s built-in microphone or an external mic.

When you’re finished click Done and the “meograph” is ready for playback. It plays the presentation sequentially, highlighting each item on the map. If you later want to edit the content or to add additional media, no problem, just click on the Edit button.

There’s an Embed button, so it’s easy to add the content to an existing Web site, and links to send the Meograph to social media.

Meograph is also Web-based, so it is available on whatever computer you happen to have with you.

I want to play around more with the program, but it seems great for beginners, to get them to visualize a story in its separate components, with words and accompanying images. I think it would be useful as a sort of storyboard to block out a proposed piece, that might end up as a separate video.

But it’s also very good as a standalone timeline, particularly for stories that are going to be updated regularly. It would be very easy to use to plot crimes or accidents on the map and then use it to animate the data chronologically.

It is not as good at replacing video for some stories, as one of the Meograph demos on the Arab Spring and another on Whitney Houston’s life reveal. While the timeline is an excellent organizational tool for both, the requirement that the images pull back for each distinct Moment to reveal the map beneath is awkward where the map is not an integral part of the story. One important feature would allow producers to hide the map and just edit from one image or video to the next.

And, as always, if you don’t write to your media, the result is pretty boring. In the Arab Spring demo, e.g., the author makes little reference to geography, so the existence of the map as a background doesn’t add much at all to the story. A better writer would have used it to show the geographic scope of the turmoil taking place.

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