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Buying a 7D Shooting Package
06.06.11
A few weeks ago, I filmed something for my family on a Flip HD, edited it together, and sent it around. My family was quite enthusiastic about the end product -- but I wasn't as happy. The Flip HD, while an amazing camera for many reasons -- particularly because of its ease of use -- doesn't have the best picture quality. I've noticed that unless you're outside in the daytime, even in a well lit indoor space, it'll still pixellate the picture (to compensate for the lack of light.) The amount of light it needs is just massive.
 
On a separate note, for many months, while working on my documentary -- I've been racking my brain to try and figure out a solution to a problem. The HVX I have is great -- very sturdy, does good work, quite a workhorse. However, I kept thinking -- wouldn't it be great if there was a camera that:
 
a) Took high quality video
b) Recorded high quality sound
c) Had a very small physical footprint
 
The HVX does (a) and (b) but it's big.
 
Lately, the Canon 7D has really taken indy filmmaking by storm -- partially because it's cheap but also because it takes awesome video. Awesome. In head to head comparisons against far more expensive cameras -- I'm almost invariably taken by the quality of the footage that the 7D takes. (The other cameras, though, have other qualities too potentially making up for the higher cost.)
 
These two little data points came to a head as I basically tried to answer a simple question -- I want to upgrade from my Flip HD, what should I upgrade to?
 
Now, my first inclination was to get a prosumer camera -- something like the Sony HDR-CX560V [link]. I could upgrade the sound by putting a Rode Mic on top [link] -- a great recommendation from my friend John Gardiner. However, after talking to a couple of director friends -- all of them were universally opposed to going the prosumer route. Sure, if I just wanted to shoot personal projects on them, no problem. But if I wanted to use them for anything beyond that? No way. That's kind of a bummer -- as I was hoping not to spend a ridiculous amount of money. After all, you can buy a Flip HD for $120 nowadays. Even this Sony camcorder is $1,000+ already.
 
Then I thought -- what if I just upgraded the sound? After all, picture quality is important but bad sound will really kill you. I stumbled across the Zoom Q3HD [link]. Basically, when you're recording audio to an external source, you're often recording to a Zoom h4N recorder. They have a great brand and are known for really high quality sound. The fact that they basically took a Flip HD and added their mics to it meant a massive upgrade. And it was only $299! Unfortunately, I saw some head to head footage comparison of it against the Flip HD and I would say that the video quality of the Q3HD is about 90% as good as the Flip HD -- so this solution doesn't solve my original problem.
 
Then I stumbled across this footage of what someone shot and did in Beijing [link]. First off, take a look at the footage of the video the guy posted -- pretty spectacular huh? Keep in mind, he shot this at *night*. That's how good the 7D is. The other thing that struck me was the fact that he mounted the h4N recorder right on top of the 7D. Ignore all the other features he added to the camera. Imagine the camera as just the DSLR + the h4N on top (and then a cable from the h4N to the DSLR). That's it. You're basically walking around with an SLR camera.
 
Why is this important? The bag my HVX is in (which contains the camera and all associated gear) is a big bag -- it's basically the size of a small suitcase. (2' x 1' x 10") However, even the camera itself -- well, you know what I'm doing when I take that out. But the 7D? I could just be snapping pictures. More importantly, the camera, lens, h4N, etc. -- all of that can fit into a messenger bag (more on that below.) It basically allows me to get up and go at any point -- set up and film quickly. And... this is the best part -- the footage quality is good enough for film.
 
I spent a lot of time sorting through this setup (and got a lot of help from another friend, Robert Scheid, on it) -- so in case any other folks might be interested, I thought I would list out all the specifics of what I just bought and why. (total cost is around $3K)
 
7D - Body - $1700
NC: I prefer buying from amazon.com because of Amazon Prime + easy returns, but B&H had the lowest price of any of the major places. 
 
7D - Lens (18-200mm) - $600
http://www.amazon.com/Canon-18-200mm-3-5-5-6-Standard-Lens/dp/B001ET6QFY
NC: You can buy the 7D with a 28-135mm lens, I think it's about $200 more. It's an ok lens. However, Robert basically said that he bought the 18-200mm lens which he said is "fantastic" and broadly feels like if you're wanting to travel light, you don't need another lens beyond that. Sold.
 
Bag - Timbuk2 - Snoop Messenger - Medium - $111
http://www.amazon.com/Timbuk2-Snoop-Camera-Messenger-Gunmetal/dp/B0047443JY
NC: Here's the bag I mentioned earlier. This hasn't arrived yet, but Robert has this bag and he says that it holds all his DSLR gear, the h4N, AND he can put a laptop in it -- and it doesn't scream, "I have a ton of film equipment in here!"
 
7D - 32 GB CF Card (1.5 hrs of footage) - $158
http://www.amazon.com/SanDisk-SDCFX-032G-A61-Extreme-CompactFlash-Memory/dp/B002O3KVSC
NC: I spent a bunch of time researching which compact flash card to purchase. I'm going to start off with the SanDisk Extreme and see how it goes. If this works, I'll obviously buy a 2nd one as well. There are quite a number of blogs out there that basically extol the various virtues of different CF cards. Of course, there was some assumption that all CF cards are the same / some of this is marketing junk. I'm not sure -- but at the minimum, the reviews on this card are very strong and a nice balance of (hopefully) high quality and price.
 
7D - Extra Battery Pack
 
7D - Shoe Mount - $20
http://www.amazon.com/VariZoom-Adjustable-Shoe-Accessory-Mounting/dp/B0002ABNUO
NC: Obviously you need this to mount the h4N onto your 7D.
 
Zoom H4n + Remote - $310
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003SGEFLI
NC: I'm not sure if I'll need the remote, but it's only $10 more when you buy it in a bundle (and $25 separately.) It also prevents you from fiddling with the device directly, which I like.
 
H4n - 16 GB SD Card (6 hrs of sound) - $25
Compatible cards: http://www.zoom.co.jp/english/products/h4n/SDlist.htmlNC: Again, I did some research on what SD cards to get with the h4N. Amazingly, Zoom actually has a list of known compatible cards -- so I picked one from their list.
 
Wallet - Memory and Battery Pack - $17
http://www.amazon.com/Tamrac-MXS536801-Memory-Battery-Management/dp/B000067O7T
NC: This is something I did with my HVX -- which is buy a little wallet to organize batteries and memory. This may seem overly detailed but when you're in the field and you run out of memory or batteries -- you will do this too...
 
Cable - PinkNoise - $50
NC: Check out the "Another Night in Beijing" blog posting I reference above. Basically what the author did was get this cable so the audio from the h4N feeds directly into the 7D. It's kind of brilliant and hopefully will make the workflow much easier. This is a big deal. I'm very cognizant of things not just being possible, but also being easy. Because if it's not easy for me to offload the footage, I'm that less likely to film frequently. (and, in addition to actual shoots -- I want this on hand to pick up footage here and there.) Without this, I assume the way to offload this footage is to offload the 7D footage, offload the h4N sound, and then use software like PluralEyes to sync it up (which already is brilliant software in saving time and the need to slate.) However, this presumably saves a step (maybe two) which will be great.
 
So we'll see how this all turns out. Spending $3,000 on this setup was not expected whatsoever. However, I should point out that on my doc, we've basically used a 7D essentially 4 times. (One time we rented an AF-100 when the 7D was out.) We need the 7D in low light conditions because it's way better handling that than the HVX. The cost to rent a 7D is usually on the order of $150-200. Two times the 7D came with the camera person we were working with so we didn't have to pay the rental fee. When we rented the AF-100, that cost $350 (which was fine because I got to see how that camera worked -- and I really liked it.) My point here is that we've already spent some money on just renting the 7D -- renting adds up very quickly. Going the prosumer route doesn't save us any money on rental fees because that camera isn't appropriate for those uses. Breakeven is maybe renting it 15x? It's not a lot. 
 
We'll see how this turns out and I'll probably post a followup in terms of how everything works out -- but hopefully this will solve all the problems I mentioned up top:
 
(a) high quality footage
(b) high quality sound
(c) small physical footprint 
 
Unfortunately, the way to solve this was by paying much more money -- but it's still way less than something like this would've cost even a couple of years ago.

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