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Profile of a backpacker: Inside Mara Schiavocampo’s toolkit

[Our Ted Delaney interviewed NBC News digital journalist Mara Schiavocampo recently about her leap into working in multiple media. You may remember Mara from our earlier post about her. Today, a look at her gear; part two, on her workflow, comes tomorrow. —Ed.]

When Mara Schiavocampo started out as a digital journalist, she was largely making it up as she went along. Beyond Kevin Sites, Yahoo.com’s “Hot Zone” reporter, there weren’t many models for her position with NBC News, which had her shooting video, recording audio, producing multimedia, and writing stories. On any given day, her work is just as likely to appear on an NBC web site as on the Nightly News.

But through trial and error, Schiavocampo’s come to her own conclusions about what workflows and equipment work best for her — the result of the evolution of both the gear available on the market and her own approach to digital storytelling. She’s come to very particular preferences about the things she carries — especially since each additional ounce of gear is one she lugs through airports, carries in the field, and maneuvers through the crowds at Rockefeller Center on her way to the office.

To carry it all, she uses a customized photo backpack, with wheels and a pull handle. Here’s what’s inside:

— A Sony HVR-V1U HDV camcorder (about $4,000). This camcorder is standard-issue at NBC; she describes it as “halfway between DV and HD” and capable of producing visuals suitable for broadcast as well as the web. The camcorder has two add-ons: A Rode AA-battery-powered shotgun microphone ($250), and a Sony wide-angle conversion lens (about $500) that threads on the front of the camcorder.

— A lightweight Libec video tripod (7 pounds), as well as a monopod ($300 total).

— A Litepanels MiniPlus camera-mountable LED light, daylight balanced ($800).

— An Apple MacBook Pro laptop with Final Cut Pro, and an extra charged MacBook battery ($3,000).

— An external hard drive for the laptop ($200).

— Apple earbuds.

— A Fujipoint-and-shoot camera (“I almost never use it anymore”) as a backup ($300).

— XLR cables, and XLR adapters that can input into a small audio jack on her laptop for voice-over (“I always have spares”).

— Two wireless lavalier microphone sets (about $500).

— An array of white-balance cards in blues and green, to either heighten the warmth of skin tones or adjust for fluorescent light.

— Bags of spare connectors and cables.

— Lots of spare tapes, in HD Mini-DV format.

— Plug converters (“You need them if you’re in another country on assignment”).

— And, though every ounce matters, the manual for every piece of equipment she has in the bag (“Never leave them at home”).

The total weight of her kit runs about 30 pounds, and it’s tight enough to carry on flights when she travels — she relegates her clothing and other necessities to the vicissitudes of the luggage crew. And the total cost is about $10,000 — a fraction of the cost of one of NBC’s high-end broadcast HD cameras.

“I’m willing to sacrifice some quality for convenience,” she says, but the camcorder is the mainstay. With the adapter included, it’s a five-pound, three-chip camera (one chip each for red, green, and blue) — and that provides a big leap in image quality over sub-$1,000, one-pound one-chips, like the popular Canon HV30 or the tapeless HF10. (With 1/4-inch sensors, though, it will still lag a bit behind higher-end cameras that use 1/3-inch or even 1/2-inch sensors, such as Sony’s PMW-EX1.)

It also shoots true progressive, which allows her to pull out stills from her video and publish them as images. The Apple earbuds don’t completely isolate microphone input the way over-the-ear or noise canceling headphones would — but they save space, cost and weight. She says audio quality is not a place to scrimp, and that backup is important.

She said she has experimented a bit with the new solid-state camcorders hitting the market, but she’s thus far resisted switching. First, the 8-gig memory cards for a camera like the Sony PMW-EX1 can run $500 each, and each provides only 25 minutes of recording time. Compare that to 63 minutes on a $13 HD Mini-DV tape — particularly when it’s easy to carry half a dozen of them at once. Second, she worries about losing data. Once she digitizes her tapes to a hard drive, the tapes serve as backup in case sometime goes wrong with the disk.

She says she’s learned how to do the job “by making mistakes,” and the workflow she has devised has been born of that that learning and a relentless paring away of the unnecessary. More on that tomorrow.

                                   
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