Hapless painter wants to take a stab at video art. Cheaply.
February 15, 2007 7:53 PM   Subscribe

Video camera rental advice: I'm looking to make an exceedingly simple, short video (an art project, if you will) and I'm looking to rent a fairly high quality camera to do it with. The condition is that I need a camera that can function reasonably (I'm not expecting miracles, here, but I don't want horribly washed-out, grainy business) in a very low-light situation. I'm applying for a small grant to do this, and I can't afford more than maybe $200 for a day's rental, $250 tops.

Specifically, what I'm doing is this: I've built a room-sized camera obscura of the type that were all the rage on the internet some time ago (mine is actually somewhat different in that it projects onto a screen, rather than a wall--picture here), and I would like to film it in action.

What I'm looking to achieve is not more than five minutes of video: static shots, one wide shot of the whole bedroom setup, one closeup to focus on the movement of trees and whatnot outside. I want to pair that with an audio track of ambient sounds recorded just outside. The problem: even on a bright day, the room is quite, quite dim, and I can't add any artificial light without weakening the camera obscura image.

My understanding is that I need a camera with a multi-chip sensor (is that even the right term? I'm a complete video novice), but I don't know if such things are routinely rented out to nonprofessionals, and I'd really rather not have to deal with hiring someone to shoot the footage for me (in large part because I don't think I could afford it, but also I'd like to maintain control, even if I don't know what I'm doing, and I don't much like the thought of bringing strangers into my house). most of the "rental sites" i've found online are just glorified link farms, and in the rare instance they list actual cameras for rent, they're little handheld disappointments.

Any insight onto the rental process in general would be great: where do i go? (am i looking for best buy or some broadcast equipment dealer?) what will it cost? what constitute standard rental procedures? and if anyone happens to know a place in the Tampa Bay area for me to ask at, that would be fantastic (I can of course call around to phone book listings, but I need at least to have a clearer idea of what to ask for).

Requirements for the camera are: good low-light performance; usb, usb2, or firewire output to my computer; decent sound recording (i'd rather not have to deal with renting a miniDAT and microphones and whatnot, though I at least have some experience doing that), and a daily rental cost capping out at no more than $250. If I buy the right persons enough beer, I might be able to score access to the campus video lab, but it would be best if I could get this done on my home setup.

Is this even possible? I know I'm a bit out of my depth, but that's sort of what makes it fun.
posted by wreckingball to Technology (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Do you really need a video camera? Most consumer digicams will shoot around stills at around 1 FPS or less, if you set them in continuous mode. Many even support remote triggering via software.

If I was doing your project, I would use my old Canon S30 (3 MP, I'd probably take photos at around 1 MP or less). I would take a large number of stills, and then several long sequences of long exposure shots. I would then dump everything into Premier or iMovie and turn the stacks of stills into video.

I wouldn't even bother with my d70s and its very fast 30mm 1.4 lens. Just the P&S canon, a mini-tripod and maybe a full size tripod.


If I needed video, I would try to find someone at my local Final Cut Pro User's Group who wants to help out. A good number of FPCUG members have amazingly awesome cameras and at least a few would be interested in working on a project like this. I don't know how much it would cost, but I suspect beer would be a more important currency than dollars.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:13 PM on February 15, 2007


that's a thought. I think my Canon rebel is a 6mp, but I'm not sure if it can take continuous video. I have a point and shoot olympus that does do video clips, but I wasn't wild about the results I good filming the camera obscura. The big thing is trying to capture faithfully the subtle motion of tree branches and whatnot. I'll certainly play around with those camera settings tomorrow, if the sun's bright enough.
posted by wreckingball at 8:25 PM on February 15, 2007


Nope, you don't use the video function. Instead, set it to continuous shooting mode. Your rebel supports this, but I'm not sure what they call it. Your rebel also probably comes with some software that lets you remote control it over USB from your laptop.

The goal here is to take a lot of still frames, then assemble them together in some video editing software. You can get better than HDTV resolution video, but low frame rate. Since you are working in a low-light environment, low framerate isn't a problem and you may like the resulting effect.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:30 PM on February 15, 2007


hmm. will have to break out the mouldering manual, but this sounds promising, thanks!
posted by wreckingball at 8:32 PM on February 15, 2007


The big thing is trying to capture faithfully the subtle motion of tree branches and whatnot.

When you are stacking up the slow motion frames, try setting an alpha fade transition, so that the current frame melts away, and the next frame appears below it. Motion will be visible and emphasized.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:32 PM on February 15, 2007


hmm. will have to break out the mouldering manual, but this sounds promising, thanks!

on both my Nikon dSLR and my Canon P&S, there is a button or a dial setting that pictures what looks like several sheets of paper stacked on top of each other.

Apparently Canon calls is drive mode: continuous. Scroll down to the grid-chart near the bottom.

Note that you will get about 3-6 frames quickly, then the frame rate will slow down significantly. The speed of your memory card matters somewhat, but even the fastest cards will slow down.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:44 PM on February 15, 2007


I realize that this is outside your budget, but you could buy this camera or one like it for around $500. The "multi-chip sensor" is the 3 CCD feature, which produces much higher quality video than the standard single CCD. It costs more than you were planning, but then you would own a nice camera for future projects. You might also be able to rent a camera of this quality for much less than $200, or you could buy and then return it when you are done.
posted by cubby at 9:13 PM on February 15, 2007


Beware the DVX-100 series. In many ways, these MiniDV cameras are incredible, but low-light performance is not a strongpoint. I've never shot anything like this so I do not know what camera to recommend, but I can tell you that you most likely won't be happy renting a DVX-100. By all means if someone in a FCPUG will shoot it for you on theirs, I wouldn't turn him/her down, but...

If you're willing to deal with not-30-fps, shooting a long series of continuous shots on your Rebel is probably a viable option. I have a D80 that can shoot something like 100 continuous frames at 2.5fps, if you're willing to settle for JPEG rather than NEF/RAW. I think it might go higher than that for lower resolutions (which would be perfectly alright, since the destination is SD video anyway).. which model Rebel do you have?
posted by Alterscape at 9:44 PM on February 15, 2007


The problem with using a digicam is that the time between frames might vary in a non-uniform way, which may or may not be the feel you are going for.

One good thing about the digcam is that you can probably push maximum ISO without worrying about the resulting noise too much because the noise reduction will be less noticable with video, especially if you are doing SD.
posted by Good Brain at 10:29 PM on February 15, 2007


The setup is most definately possible and feasible, with a little planning. The only real tricky point is the lack of light, so choose your camera carefully. I think you'd probably be better off with a proper camera (rather than a stills camera) to get the best fps and motion detail, to get the effect you're after. There really isn't a good reason to use a stills camera (especially as you have some money to rent a good videocamera), unless you can't find a DV camera with good suitable low light handling. Look out for cameras that let you set slow shutter speeds to experiment with, and you could probably get away with extra gain. If possible, you could take some light readings in your room, and compare them with camera specs on the web. I hear sonys are good for low light, check out the VX/Z1 though I don't know what they rent for).

For recording ambient sounds, I would strongly encourage you to rent a half-decent mic. They are cheap to rent, and will be vastly better than using any on-board mic. Especially if the video is going to be fairly minimal, a cheap ambience could be a large detriment to the outcome, similarly the you may be surprised at the quality and overall improvement of getting even a cheap real mic. You could probably live without the DAT, though.
posted by MetaMonkey at 11:13 PM on February 15, 2007


You give no clue to where in the world you are, Carmen Sandiego. I am assuming the US at least? Helix rents video cameras and the daily rate is cheap but you need to leave a hefty deposit with your credit card. They rent high end equipment so any of the stuff they have is going to be more than enough quality for your needs.
posted by JJ86 at 6:13 AM on February 16, 2007


I agree with MetaMonkey. Spring for the DV camera. $200-$300 a day is actually just about right for renting one from a video shop too. The VX2000, PD-150 or PD-170, all from Sony, would be good cameras to look for. I've recorded a few shows in dark and dingy rock clubs using the PD-150 with fairly good results. Those are older cameras so a rental shop might not have them, but they're very popular cameras. I wouldn't think they'd be too hard to find.

Browse through the articles and the forums at dv.com. There is a ton of very good information there.

Good luck. Sounds like a cool project.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 6:59 AM on February 16, 2007


A professional camera with a variable frame rate and shutter speed would probably be the best fit. Cranking down the frame rate to under 10 FPS can capture footage in very low-light conditions.

My suggestion? Instead of renting a camera and attempting this yourself, spend your money hiring someone who has the pro gear, and even more importantly, knows how to use it.

A pro DP who has some free time would very likely come and shoot at your place with his gear for an hour or two for several hundred bucks. You're going to get someone with knowledge and gear that would be far cheaper than trying to rent a substandard camera from a rental house.

Post it on craigslist - you'll be surprised at how many responses you get.
posted by jazzkat11 at 9:25 AM on February 16, 2007


thanks everyone.

i did try using the still camera in continuous mode, but i couldn't get a good exposure under two seconds, which just isn't quick enough.

rental options seem to be pretty sparse, in tampa (as are options in anything other than fast food and topless bars, it seems sometimes), too, which isn't helpful, but i now have a much clearer sense of what i'm actually looking for. i think i'm going to try going through the local university (which i hadn't considered before and where my father is, conveniently, an administrator--there are strings that can be pulled), for starters, since that would be free, which is better even than $200/day, and certainly better than the $2000/day i saw quoted in a couple places.
posted by wreckingball at 3:19 PM on February 16, 2007


That you can't get an exposure under 2 seconds on a regular (digital slr?) camera is a little worrying, though it does depend on the camera. Another idea for a way to tackle it is if there are any film/video production schools near you, you may be able to get a knowledgeable student to help out cheaply, especially if you get them interested in the camera obscura. If you get lucky, you'll find someone with their own semi-pro camera to test out.

Let us know how it goes! I dabble in such things myself, so I'd be interested in your approach, and the outcome, if you wouldn't mind telling. Also feel free to post follow up questions, I'd be happy to help if I can (though I'm not a pro DP).
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:14 PM on February 16, 2007


so, to wrap up, i ended up throwing caution to the wind and buying the camera that cubby suggested. at $500 (at best buy--where it was the only 3CCD camera to be had), it seemed more reasonable than renting a better camera for $250/day every time i want to shoot something. and you know what? it performed remarkably well. the environments i was shooting was probably as dark as the camera could handle, reasonably, but i would enthusiastically suggest the camera for anyone who wanted to do indoor shooting at relatively low light. the only thing that could have made it better would be a way to manually set the frame rate, and if it had come with a DV cable. oh. well. i'm pleased.

i was able to bump the brightness and contrast up a bit, in editing, but it wasn't really necessary. you can see a low-res version of the rough cut of the video here. it's possible that it will look very dark on some monitors, but it looks fine played back on a TV (and, i hope, just as well on an LCD projector), which is all that counts, in the end.
posted by wreckingball at 6:32 PM on February 21, 2007


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