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Affordable StoryMaker Mobile Production Kit: A Review

Getting started with mobile production? Let’s look at the gear you’ll need.

Smartphones have become default cameras for a lot of people, especially because “the camera you use is the camera you have.” A new twist is that a data connection and the ability to upload from the field makes a camera live– crucial for documenting news as it happens. Running an operating system like Android gives phones, and therefore phone cameras, the capacities of a computer.  Finally, you can’t beat the HUGE cost savings over traditional pro gear.

To make the most of the current state of tech, we’re experimenting with various devices and combinations of peripherals to put together a “StoryMaker Kit” for mobile multimedia story production.

After a recent project in southern Libya– 10 days in the field overseeing the production of 20 stories– we can provide some interesting insights about the kit we used. We wanted the best kit for leveraging StoryMaker specifically, and mobile video generally, but many of these accessories will work just as well with a mobile phone, and are not operating system specific.

Sebha Equipment

Everything seen here will run about $1500 for the kit, but is likely overkill for most users.

 

The components of the kit were teased in an early post about the upcoming project with Germa. Now here’s a full list:

  • Samsung Galaxy Camera
  • Samsung s4 Zoom
  • Rode Videomic Pro
  • New Trent backup battery
  • Zeikos medium bag
  • Sony MDR-NC7 headphones
  • Audio Technica Pro88W Wireless mic kit
  • Audio Technica ATR3350 Wired lavalier mic
  • Cowboy Studio L-Bracket
  • Startech TRSS Mic+headphones splitter
  • Manfrotto 559B-1 Monopod

First we’ll start with the cameras: yes, two of them. You probably require only one camera, but for producing multimedia journalism, it makes sense to consider two devices. Your first device is one that will always be with you, so it should double as your phone. Until now, that has meant journalists depended on their iPhone. Android phones just haven’t had the same capabilities. In the last year or so that’s changed, after the release of several Android mobiles with quality cameras.

The Samsung s4 Zoom, released this June, provides a great combination of the benefits of mobile form factor and connectivity with point and shoot optics. In other words, it’s a real phone and a real camera. It’s certainly heavier than your typical mobile device, but not by much. It fits easily in your pocket. It has a great phone-feel when you need to take calls from an editor or a source. When news breaks at odd hours-as it will-you can quickly take great pictures that will leave your iPhone-only colleague jealous.

Mobility and convenience isn’t everything, however. Great optics still have value, as many noted when the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff earlier this year. The field is changing rapidly, and while Samsung has released two affordable cameras with good optics, more are on the way, with Samsung releasing an android-based DSLR, and Sony’s new attachable-lens camera just the latest indicators.

While the s4 Zoom provides decent optics, its big brother, the Galaxy Camera, packs a lot more punch, and its manual controls provide a lot of flexibility, though the touch interface takes getting used to. If you want a more traditional device, the Galaxy Camera is the first good option that has emerged for an Android-based prosumer device.

The Galaxy Camera is compact, though not pocket-sized. Attaching external mics or lights feels more reasonable than on the Zoom. In order to attach an external mic to either device you’ll need a mic with a TRSS adapter, which has 3 black lines on the adapter to account for headphones and mic, unlike a standard 2 line stereo adapter. Your other option is to use a TRSS splitter such as this one from Startech, or this one from Rockit. With the splitter, you can connect any microphone with a stereo mini adapter.

As we discussed in previous posts, we tested 3 types of microphone, to provide a journalist with microphones for most use cases. So far, our findings are somewhat mixed. We provided a mic that needs no adapter, for use with the Zoom.  In addition we used a shotgun microphone, as well as a wireless and wired version of the same lapel microphone.

We intended the microphone that plugs directly into your device, the iRig Mic Cast, to serve primarily for audio reporting. When we began testing, we found this microphone also provided a sizable improvement to the audio recorded when shooting video. SWN hasn’t done much prior testing with these mics that are intended to be plugged directly into mobiles, but the results suggest even a low cost external mic with a TRSS adapter plugged into a mobile will greatly improve the quality of sound recorded in your video as well as audio reporting.

A note of caution on the latest versions of Android. Devices running 4.1+ do not universally accept an external mic for video recording, even with this adapter. The Samsung cameras each use a custom camera app, which does recognize external devices. Android 4.0 and earlier does not seem to exhibit this issue. We have not tested iPhones, but assume they will work with any mic using the TRSS adapter.

We’ve been using two shotgun microphones on our projects over the last few years. These microphones, the Rode Videomic Pro and the Azden ECZ 990, span the range from moderately priced at $229 to the affordable but still functional end for the Azden at approximately $80. The Azden has now been replaced by a newer model, the SMX-10, which we have not yet tested. SWN recommends spending the extra money for the Rode. A video story produced with bad audio is no story at all. However those on a budget, or needing even more compact production than the Rode Videomic pro, may wish to try the ECZ 990 or the SMX-10.

The primary issue with choosing a microphone for use with mobile is ensuring it has its own power, and ideally is amplified. This became especially apparent when testing our choice for an affordable lapel microphone. In some cases the Audio Technica PRO88W-R35 wireless system combined with an ATR3350 lapel, or lavalier, microphone worked fine. However, in the case of interviewing speakers with low voices, the signal was not strong enough to be heard adequately on the video recording. We’re waiting to find a good pre-amplified lavalier microphone that doesn’t require XLR-type connectors, so let us know if you have tips!

The Rode VideoMic Pro is made for use with cameras lacking pre-amplification that boosts the audio before it hits the recording device, such as DSLRs, mobile phones, and point-and-shoot cameras. Because of this, it has a decibel control, and is an ideal option for the journalist who can only afford to purchase one microphone. However, the microphone is not ideal for recording interviews, particularly in noisy environments, or when there may be noise behind the subject.

Microphones and devices aren’t all you need for a great kit, however. Much also comes down to the peripherals. As long as you are using a device such as the Galaxy Camera or the Zoom, you can mount your device directly on a tripod or L-bracket. If you’re using a standard mobile phone, you’ll need a Joby GripTight Mount, to hold your device, and provide a tripod mount. L-brackets are necessary to attach microphones or lights, because these devices lack the necessary “shoe mount” standard on video cameras. We have found the L-bracket from Cowboy Studio to be the most durable and reliable bracket. You really want a good bracket, as you’ll depend on it every time you go out to shoot, to assist with stability and mounting your microphone.

You’ll also want a good pair of affordable headphones, a tripod or monopod, and possibly a mini tripod. SWN uses Sony MDR-NC7 headphones and they work great. They also provide some noise canceling which can assist with isolating your sound from background noise. The Velbon Videomate 538F is a great tripod for the money, and more than enough to manage the weight of mobile production devices. The Manfrotto 559B-1 monopod has been especially well-received. In many cases for mobile production, SWN advises that this is a better choice than a tripod. Tripods are best suited for controlled environments such as sit-down interviews and press conferences. Monopods provide greater mobility and flexibility in the field. In addition to a monopod, you might consider a GorillaPod SLR Zoom plus BH1 Ballhead mount. This is small, sturdy, and flexible mount for steady low-angle shots, and it’s large enough for tabletop interview recording.

To carry your gear you’ll need a bag, or possibly two if you have a full audio kit. Small World News found that very affordable options worked great and so far are standing up to pressure. We purchased the Zeikos Medium Camera and Video bag for the video gear, and the AmazonBasics bag for Camcorders. If you want everything in one bag, neither of these will work, and really camera bags are a very personal choice, so look around, and see what you like. The most important issue is be sure you’ll have enough space for all your gear.

In conclusion, your kit really is an individual consideration, and depends on your specific needs and budget. What we can say for certain is that it is now possible to assemble a good all-purpose kit with the mobile phone you already have, for under $300, simply by attaching an L-bracket, mount, and shotgun microphone. If you’re prepared to purchase a specific production device for mobile reporting, you can build a good all-purpose kit for approximately $600. To have a kit that is flexible for many situations and uses will run approximately $1000, and even for all the devices mentioned here, you are in for less than $1500. And that should allow you to produce broadcast quality, high definition video. That would have cost more than $10,000 only a short time ago.


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