I'd like to rejoin a theme I first took up in my post titled, “A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Citizen Media.” That post dealt with the fact that most major media outlets in the United States are owned by a mere handful of very rich corporations, who have a vested interest in presenting a view of life in this country that does not line up with reality. Rather, what they present is designed to maximize profits for advertisers and to support the policies of those who hold political power. Therefore they tell us that “most Americans don't support single-payer health care,” or that “the economy is turning a corner,” or “the signs show that the recession is ending,” or “green shoots of economic recovery are starting to sprout.”
Yet there is a much harsher, grimmer, contrary reality inhabited by a large and growing population of Americans. Millions of us are on the verge of experiencing this reality, or have already begun to experience it. Although the mainstream media occasionally covers some of its less controversial aspects, there are stories that are almost never probed by any mainstream news outlets. Many of these stories deal with the barriers created by governments and corporate masters to prevent ordinary people from becoming resilient in the face of economic collapse, and the ruin that comes to ordinary people as a result.
These stories must be told. Telling these stories – as loud as possible, to as many people as possible – is one of our best defenses against the system of predatory capitalism in which we live. The widespread telling of such stories makes it harder for the rich to get away with continuing to prey on the poor. In my earlier post on citizen media, I talked a bit about how ordinary people can tell their stories, as well as the digital tools they can use to get their stories out to the public. In today's post, I'll talk a bit more about tools for capturing the real stories we see happening all around us.
The importance of pictures
We've all heard the cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In reporting controversial or contested events, pictures serve as an important element of verifying the truth. For instance, the abuses of Iraqis by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were documented in pictures taken by cell-phone cameras. (Source: http://www.textually.org/picturephoning/archives/cat_the_military_and_iraq_images_and_issues.htm)
If a still picture is “worth a thousand words,” videos are worth much more. Videos capture incidents as they are happening, and they can do so in such a way that there is no room for alibis for perpetrators of evil deeds. This is very important when the perpetrators of evil are agents of the government. Some good examples of video capture of government evil are the video of the Rodney King beating, the videos of the G20 protests (including the one which showed British police attacking Ian Tomlinson), and the videos of the recent Iranian protests. Of course, the most effective videos have reasonably high resolution and high quality. Shooting such videos requires suitable equipment.
Tools for video capture
What qualities should should a citizen journalist look for in a video camera? Such a camera should be rugged (or at least not fragile), unobtrusive, and easy to use without having to read a lot of books. It should provide clear images, moderate to good low-light capture, adequate optical zoom, and smooth video (in other words, not excessively jerky). And it should have a low price. Nowadays there are many video capture devices available, including cell phone (and iPhone) cameras with movie capability, “point and shoot” digital still cameras with video capability, and actual camcorders. How do these devices measure up?
I was thinking hard about this question around three or so weeks ago, when on a sunny Saturday afternoon, my own camera came to mind. It is a Sony Cybershot DSC-W70 with a 7.2 megapixel sensor, and I bought it in 2006 for under $200. I have been entirely satisfied with its still picture capabilities including low-light picture taking. But I had tried capturing video in low light shortly after I bought it, and noticed that it could only produce extremely grainy videos below a certain light level (not good if someone had to shoot an outdoor nighttime scene). I decided to see how it did in broad daylight.
On my front porch, I did a couple of panoramic sweeps, including one in which I captured one of my neighbors pulling out of his driveway and going down the street. Then I captured a kid on a skateboard passing by. The neighbor and the kid were at least thirty feet away from me at the point of closest approach. Then I uploaded the video to my computer.
As I watched the video, I noticed that most objects were broadly recognizable. I could read the license plate on my own vehicle in the driveway, which was about eight feet from me. However, I could not read the license plate number on my neighbor's car as he pulled away, nor could I recognize the face of the skateboarding kid, whose motion was rather jerky in the video. Also, though the camera allowed for changing zoom during still picture capture, the zoom was locked while recording video.
It seemed that my camera's limitations would prevent capturing video of the quality seen from citizen journalists who covered the G20 protests. Would such video require a camcorder? Or were the video capabilities of digital still cameras evolving to the point where they could compete with camcorders? I decided to visit a digital photography store to find out.
My Interview at Pro Photo Supply
Armed with questions about citizen media and digital video, I called on a few stores to arrange an interview. One store unfortunately only sold film cameras, and another store which is part of the Ritz Camera chain was unwilling to take time for an interview. Then I called on Pro Photo Supply, a locally owned, well-stocked digital photography store located in northwest Portland. (By locally owned, I mean that not only is the store in Portland, but so are the owners.) There I met with sales associate Judd Eustice, who was very helpful and knowledgeable.
We talked about modern camera trends, which are leading to the eventual creation of a one device that can do both still picture and video capture, and can do both well. At this time, there are camcorders that can provide single frames, as well as camcorders with a dedicated “still photo” button. Their still image quality is not yet at the level of some of the better point-and-shoot digital still cameras, but it is adequate for most work. As an example, Judd showed me a Canon consumer camcorder (I think it was the FS21) with flash memory that sells for around $450. This camcorder has the “still photo” button and a decent optical zoom. It is also relatively small, though it's too big to be “pocket sized.” And it has the ability to receive audio signals from external microphones.
We compared this to a Canon digital still camera with HD video capability, the SX-200IS. This camera has an optical zoom of up to 12X, and is advertised as being able to take HD quality videos. It sells for around $350. We checked out its long-distance zoom capabilities. Faces viewed from around 30 to 40 feet away were recognizable, but a bit blurry. (Also, another reviewer noted that the zoom is locked and can't be changed while shooting video.) As far as low-light capture, it has an ISO 1600 rating. It also seemed a bit more rugged (and far less obviously noticeable) than the Canon camcorder.
Canon is by no means the only manufacturer worth consideration. We also talked about Ricoh and Panasonic cameras. And Judd also showed me an example of video capture using an iPhone.
So is there a single, relatively inexpensive ($350 and under) digital device that can capture both still pictures and video, at decent distances and in most light conditions, and that can do these things adequately? Answering that question is partly a matter of individual judgment. If you're in the market for a new camera or camcorder, I'd suggest the following tips for checking out a camera or camcorder before leaving the store – try it out, ask if you can upload images to a store computer to see how they look, try going to the store at night and shooting a low-light scene, then make your decision.
And don't count the cell phone out as a video capture device; even though it has its limits, it can still be quite useful, as seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=id3C8GC78dA. (Although the resolution of distant objects is not very good in this video, it is still possible to identify the general features of the police who are abusing an emergency medical technician.) And don't count older digital cameras out, either. My Sony Cybershot camera's video and audio quality is at least as good as the Youtube video of the police assault which I just mentioned.
For more on capturing digital still pictures, there is an excellent essay titled, “Digital Cameras for Cyclists” by Carsten Hoefer at crazyguyonabike (http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/?o=3Tzut&doc_id=5447&v=CQ). (By the way, bike tour journals are a form of citizen journalism. Camera needs for touring cyclists are likely to be the same as for other citizen journalists). And for emerging legal barriers to citizen video, check out these links: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/01/congress-gets-bill-to-make-cell-phone-cameras-go-click.ars, http://carlosmiller.com/2009/01/28/the-war-on-cell-phone-cameras-begin/ and http://thephoenix.com/boston/News/56680-Echoes-of-Rodney-King/.