Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reader Asks: SD or HD?

This is a HOT topic for a lot of people in, or entering, the video business. I shared my understanding, experience and opinions based on that criteria in responding to this reader's questions. Your mileage, and opinions, may vary. There are a thousand ways of looking at it, and even more ways to make money - either way, standard definition, or high definition video production. Portions of the reader's letter follows:

Hi Earl,

You obviously really know your stuff. And you seem to enjoy helping people, so I was hoping I could possibly come to you for a bit of advice.

First of all, I'm not a complete novice. I worked in news, from working in the studio as production, into print reporting, then back into news as a photographer. All that took about six years. When I moved to NYC I found myself an office job and have slowly been going insane.

I want to make the dive into freelance production: Weddings, birthdays, corporate stuff, depositions, whatever, anything to get out of the office! I really enjoyed your articles regarding money-making strategies. And am currently in search of equipment.

Although there are some great 3ccd cameras now available for CHEAP, It seems that to invest in anything other than (high definition) would be to deny the future and some lucrative money making opportunities.

I was strongly considering the HVX-200a, and started pricing them. At around $6K it seems to fit into my price range. I was planning on taking out out a small business loan for about $15,000.

Then I saw them listed for under $3K on (some) websites, maybe even cheaper. That got me thinking maybe I could actually afford a shoulder mounted HD camera, which led me to JVC. The new GY-HM700 looks sweet and GY-HD110U seems to fit the bill nicely as a backup camera - which seems a necessity if I'm going to be doing weddings and such.

Thing is, I want to bring in the most amount of money for the least investment. If I don't have to spend $7K on a camera then I'd rather not, but at the same time I want to be taken seriously. Do you think buying a couple of 110s will do me fine? They seem to have everything I want at a very reasonable price tag. And I love that they look like news cams, which I'm used to working with. Am I missing something?

Any advice you can give would be GREATLY appreciated!

(Used with permission from L.) My reply follows:

Glad to hear you're headed into the independent ozone layer. It can certainly beat working at a desk, though you'll likely spend a lot of time in front of an editing system. Been there (desk jobs), done that, for years as a newspaper journalist, editor, and owner. The news, however, can get you out of the office a lot. You mention places in Texas where I have lived and worked - very few of them non-journalistic or news positions. I have worked for newspapers in Houston, Abilene, Sweetwater and several other Texas cities. Small world, huh?

There are certainly a number of ways, IMHO, to approach your new direction, equipment and perception (the client's) being not the least of your concerns. In spite of my absolute knowledge that it should not be, appearance or the impression that your equipment is top drawer and professional does play a major role in how you are perceived/received by those using you. But...

...you can also market yourself, and your demo reel without most clients ever asking about your equipment, so long as you deliver a quality/compatibility they require. Using quality equipment that does not necessarily meet the visual standards some clients have (often based on what they hear, read or see, rather than what they know), can make you plenty of money and get you plenty of business. And, without having to impress upon your potential market the "professional" level of your acquisition equipment.

There are a wide range of smaller units that can and do beat the socks off many of the lesser-priced shoulder-mount units. And, the habit of using sticks or a monopod for increased stability (not always the norm) of your shooting will do you well. That being said...

...having read some, or all, of my blog articles and posts on various forums - www.videomaker.com www.dvprofessionals.com www.wedvidpro.com www.videouniversity.com to name a few...you certainly must see how pretty much any day, with pretty much any decent quality system can make you money.

So, you wonder, how much do I HAVE to spend to be a professional in the full range of potential business - ENG to wedding, to school event, private events, etc.? I have been making money doing practically all the above, and more, using my standard definition Canon XL1 and GL2 cameras, Mac G4 and Final Cut Pro, even a LOT of editing performed on my old trusty Casablanca Classic. In fact, I am STILL using this system setup and bringing in a decent annual income. No, I still have not become rich. :-)

I do realize that high def is the direction things are taking, and that a number of my clients are equipped for and will soon be asking (if not demanding) that I provide them with wide screen HD. A mass delivery system using Bluray hasn't yet manifested itself, but sooner or later an affordable, less protection/rights hassle, formula for delivery of HD on disk will prevail. Until then there are numerous workarounds and acceptable levels of HD delivery out there - though requiring a degree of research and investment of time and money to determine what delivery system might work best for any individual in his/her respective market.

Keep in mind, too, that with the plentiful and affordable supply of up-rez capable playback systems, many people are either unaware of the difference while watching SD, or totally satisfied to do so. That is, perhaps, why a lot of our otherwise HD oriented, wide-screen using clients are not bugging us about how we deliver their product.

Even knowing what I know now, if I had it all to do over again, I'd like to start off with the best I could for the most money I could afford right off the bat - money/budget being no object. That isn't and wasn't the case with me, (money being no object) and it apparently isn't with you. We have to find an acceptable mid-point between investment, ROI (return on investment), and the ability to jump in NOW with marketing, production and making money (profit?)

That doesn't always mandate having the latest, best or even current level, to the degree rapid advances in technology will let us, of leading edge, front-running equipment. It is impossible, IMHO, to a great degree to "futurize" our investment in equipment much beyond a year-at-a-time. Things move, like I said, too fast, and it would cost you/me a fortune just trying to keep up.

I am in the process of "upgrading" if that is a true term of what I am going to do, to high def production using the current iteration of Mac Pro 8 core with the current iteration of FCP, along with two new HD model cameras, either the Panasonic AG-HMC150, or JVP GY-HM100, both shooting on SDHC cards instead of tape or portable hard disk drives. My total re-investment will be in the area of $12K.

Can I afford it? Not really. Do I HAVE to? Not really. But it is time, market-wise, for me to do some catching up, especially in light of the type of clients I have and want to retain in the foreseeable future. But I also have NO DOUBT that I will continue producing a boatload of SD project, editing and delivering on non-HD DVDs, or electronically. The irony here, also, is that I don't perceive being able to charge more for what I do, or making any serious upswings in my level clientele, or their production budgets - not in the areas of video I prefer to work.

Research and determine for yourself what area you will concentrate the most in pursuing independent video production. Base your equipment needs on THAT level of need, then when you CAN and WANT TO, move to a higher level of equipment in pursuit of a more demanding client base.

Do you HAVE to go in debt for $15,000 to get started? I really don't think so. I know you want to have the look, perception and potential of professional, visually, and with a bunch of the accompanying add-ons you think will convey that - expensive offices/studios, multi-line business phones, Mercedes or Jaguar transportation or, if you want to flaunt it in the faces of the eco-friendlies, a Hummer - gotta have a way to move that equipment, right?, high-end laptop, or portable studio system, etc. All that is well and good. He/She with the most toys...
...well, sad to say, doesn't ALWAYS win.

The first big mistake of my career in newspaper publishing was thinking I needed the office, the phones, and a bunch of other stuff that conveyed the image, but put a serious cost load on my business. I spent most of my time fighting to stay afloat and maintaining the image, instead of doing the stuff I think I am good at, like marketing, pressing the flesh, and producing news that set me apart from my competitor and former boss. Oops.

Subsequent independent business efforts became better, more productive, dare I say "profitable" as I learned that appearances can be expensive to maintain, and up until today when I realize that the most effective "appearance" I can work for is developing a quality product for a reasonable price that appeals to a broad spectrum of potential clients. For me, for now, and for several years to come, if I decided to do so, that would be exactly what I am producing on NOW - standard def with my Canons and Mac G4-FCP/Casablanca systems.

Ironically, that particular setup would put a person in a very lucrative position to start making money instantly using the various and many marketing concepts I have blogged about, selling "Video for All Celebrations of Life!" (© Earl Chessher, 1990-2009), and saving money for the full-blown, decadent high dollar equipment and setup when you want to, or because your client base demands it.

HD will open some market areas for you that SD will not, but not many. Not really, not when a lot of HD producing people are bumping their final delivery back down to SD because of various HD delivery issues. However, if broadcast, entertainment, major commercial/corporate and similar markets, (read, heavy competition here) are not your immediate focus, and can wait for establishment of yourself and your work as viable and desirable (or affordable), a future upgrade easily made because you are profitable and have been setting aside money for it, then there's a LOT to be made by using SD production.

You're right about some "great" equipment being available "for cheap" - for example, I am probably going to let my G4/FCP, ScreenPlay editing box backup, a Glidecam V8 full support system, Canon XL1 and Canon GL2 go for somewhere in the neighborhood of $6K, give or take. That equipment has done well by me, and will offer somebody looking for entry level ability a lot of bang for the buck - cheap! This is about half of what my upgrade costs will be, and less than half of your small business loan target.

I highly recommend too, that you work in a small office, home office SOHO environment, use your cell phone for communications and forget, for now, the "looks" and go for the bucks. No, I am not actually trying to sell you my equipment, though I would if you wanted. I believe advice I'm giving either way.

Yes, you actually can afford a shoulder-mounted HD cam. THE JVC IS sweet, but I agree with you that you could certainly get where you want by using two "matched" (a loosely applied term for two of the same model) JVC HD110U models. Two HD110s will do you fine, and if you are missing something, so am I. There will ALWAYS be trade-offs between models and makes, and somebody somewhere might pipe in and say we are both all wet in our understanding of this model as opposed to other options. Opinions are like dreams, everybody has one - and the other, more familiar asset that everybody also has.

I have written a lot here. Some of it might be what you want to hear, some of it not, but all of it is my best attempt to give you information, ideas and opinions that I hope might be useful in your decisions. Keep me posted.

Word to the wise. Be wary of places offering equipment for pricing that is well below what you have noted as the norm. I'd suggest B&H Photo Video, not exclusively, but certainly, if you can get past that initial N.Y. "attitudeness" a great company in which to place your trust. There are others, but start there. They have pricing that is often a bit better than usual, but usually more than the jerks trying to rip you off. I'd be cautious about really low price postings, also with on-line bidding purchases. Trust is a hard thing to share, or confirm though there are a LOT of good, honest people with high levels of integrity "out there."

Final food for thought: wedding video production is probably the MOST hours of work for the LEAST return of any other potential market for the independent professional video service provider.

Good luck, and my regards.

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