the perfect daily video kit doesn't exi—


Tended to:

thoughts on camera form and what the cameras in my pocket enable
thoughts on camera form and what the cameras in my pocket enable

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the best camera is the one you have on you

It’s been said that “the best camera is the one you have on you” and luckily for me, I like to keep that mf thang on me. I like to stay strapped, you see.

“The best camera you have on you” is a phrase originally popularized by photographer Chase Jarvis to promote, among a litany of educational material for sale, the idea that photographers should treat the iPhone in their pocket as a serious tool for serious photography, and to embrace the limitations of it as creative constraints. While I’ve been fairly satisfied with the photos I’ve taken on my iPhone for a few years, I never felt I could fully rely on something in my pocket for the needs of video.

So, for more than a decade now, I’ve almost always had a bag full of camera gear with me wherever I went.

It started with carrying around the early cameras I owned, like the Flip Video Camera (which we’ll get back to later), and then as I moved up to some entry-level consumer DSLRs, I christened their use with a bunch of janky hacked-together camera accessories, which I also had to start carrying around. Eventually I saved up to buy myself a Caon T2i and, like all “aspiring videographers” of that time, kitted it out with a Nifty-50 lens, a Rode shotgun microphone, and a Zoom H4n recorder. All this Super Serious shooting also meant starting to carry around a computer and hard drives for file management around this time. And of course, I couldn’t look like an AMATEUR with MICROJITTERS in my camera movement, so I had to start carrying around camera support like a glidecam (let’s be honest, the glidecam probably did more harm than good).

In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised I grew up to have atrocious posture.

humans extended by cameras

Something you realize when you start to use any tool with great frequency is the way You and It start to mold together with time.

A good tool is a relationship between object & craftsperson that gets deeper with each creation, each moment of deliberate practice.

In the case of my cameras, I would come to know the weight and distribution of my bag when I picked it up. I could whip the camera out from a maze of zippers and compartments in seconds. I knew when I flicked the “on” switch just how much boot-up time I had which I could use to mount it on a tripod plate just in time to hit record.

It’s an impressive muscle memory to find in yourself, honestly. But reflecting on it also reveals just how many steps it takes to capture a moment. There are cases of video-making which have time to take those steps (like narrative projects). But for my main use case, capturing and documenting the fleeting moments of life, the camera quite often was such a hassle that it broke whatever moment I was reaching out for.

cameras, camera-persons, camera-presence

Beyond the way our relationships with tools change with repeated use, the camera is a special tool that has great effects on the people, places, and things in its vicinity. This makes for one of the great challenges of documenting life if you hope to have any objectivity with it —— the camera has a commanding and impactful presence.

But the right camera when paired with the right operator can wield this influence in service of a vision. And together, they are no longer camera or operator, but camera-person.

The powers of this union, I believe, are best described by lifelong renowned camera-person, Kirsten Johnson:

an incomplete list of what the camera enables:

for the cameraperson:

  • access and a reason to stay in worlds not of one’s own
  • permission to behave, ask, do, in ways that are transgressive / outside social norms
  • complete distraction from ones own life
  • the creation of evidence of experience
  • the chance to be closer or further (through the lens) than is physically possible
  • emotional connection
  • trauma (vicarious, secondary, and direct)
  • enhanced influence and power
  • sense of invincibility
  • magical thinking
  • suspension of time

for the people filmed:

  • a chance to speak of things they have never spoken of and hence say things they never expected to say
  • an invitation to think of a future when they will no longer be alive but what they say and do will be preserved in another form
  • the chance to see him or herself as a subject (worthy of time and attention)
  • the chance to imagine different outcomes
  • a change of status in the community (family, village, profession)
  • increased risk to one’s own safety and/or reputation
  • the creation of an image of self, the distribution of which one cannot control on a global scale in perpetuity
  • the opportunity to see oneself from a different perspective
  • a shift in perspective about which transgressions are possible
  • emotional connection with the film crew
  • hope that being filmed can change one’s fate or might impact a situation in the future

the impact of the camera

Wielding these magical Cameraperson Powers is not invisible, though. It creates camera-presence when deployed among spectators & subjects.

what the cameras in my pocket enable

In 2023, I finally ditched my backpack full of camera gear. I don’t need it. And I really don’t miss it (unless we count missing the excuse to stand in a corner fiddling with gear as a cover for avoiding interaction)

While I’d been using the iPhone and versions of pocket cameras like the Osmo for years, it finally felt like they were not just on-par enough with what I was looking for from other cameras, but that I was missing out on getting great shots by not just doubling down on only using the cameras in my pocket.

And so I suppose now it would probably be worthwhile to talk about some actual concrete details about these cameras.

camera form

The form of both the Osmo Pocket camera line and iPhone camera has always been killer. From the beginning the iPhone camera’s full-bleed viewfinder display felt like carrying a Kino-Eye portal in your pocket. And from the beginning of the Osmo pocket, the capabilities of this small gimbal for things like motion control and motion timelapses in your pocket was frankly unbelievable.

But the quality was never quite there (addressed in the next section), and the ability to extend the cameras as I needed was too limited. Now, I’ve got the incredible tiny, nearly invisible of these cameras for shooting minimally, but they can be kitted out to really do some killer work.

With the Osmo pocket the most impactful extension is audio — a part of daily camera kits easy to overlook until everything else is set. The Osmo’s creator kit comes with an updated version of the DJI wireless mic which pairs automatically and is capable of 32-bit float recording. But if you own a DJI wireless microphone system, you can use the usb-c dongle to plug the receiver into the Osmo Pocket, and then you’ve got a wireless 2-channel audio recording system with the ability to intelligently track and reframe the shot to follow subjects. This is fucking insane to have in your pocket.

computational photography

The camera purist in me spent a long time holding back against computational photography: the idea of “machine-learning-in-the-middle” mucking about with images in the space between sensor data and the file written on-disk. As with all opinions on AI & ML these days though, just give it a breath and before you know it it’s blowing your mind.

Computational photography is here and it’s the whole reason these cameras can hold their own against a $70,000 cinema camera in many circumstances.

For most of the history of cameras, the capture power was always at an inverse relationship with camera form. But when you unbundle the two of those, when the camera becomes equal parts hardware and software solutions, you can do some remarkable things.

In 2019 I tweeted about how the iPhone 11’s stacked captures from multiple lenses and a span of time allowed you to save when looked like an unusable shot, and somehow I continue to be amazed at computational photography progress.

The iPhone records depth mattes from the rear-facing LIDAR sensor that can allow for depth-based blurring enhanced by contextual subject awareness. The Osmo Pocket lets computer vision “steer” the gimbal so you can actively track a subject in frame as a hands-free camera operator.

It’s not just computational photography, it’s also computational production, the use of AI & machine learning throughout production, that allows more confidence in my ability to capture and manipulate media like never before. For instance, to save on storage while shooting, I actually limit both of these cameras of 1080p HD (but still 10-bit log production codecs) and maintain 1080p for most of my editorial pipeline, only upscaling to 4K using Topaz Video Enhance AI during finishing.

built for the creators

It’s easy to slap a “pro” label on something that looks nice and call it a day, but the reality is that “pro video” implies very specific technical needs which these cameras are finally able to provide.

  • USB-C file transfer speeds & external storage support
  • high-quality HD & 4K maintained across normal, slow-mo, and timelapse shooting
  • production-ready intermediate codecs. praise the lord almighty for ProRes video files 😍
  • 10-bit 4:2:2 Log Color
  • 32-bit float audio recording

These are features & capabilities which you could do market research on and come to the reasonable conclusion that there’s no need for them to be in a phone or a “vlogger” camera, but the reality is that a lot of people simply don’t use them due to lack of access or lack of knowledge, and that these unlock wildly new capabilities for people who learn how to use them.

Just because the market is visibly small, doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful. Build for the creators, and they will come. They want more power for expression.

fiddle factor

Why did cameras all have to get so serious and sterile? I’m all for a retro-feeling piece of hardware as much as the next camera nerd, but should the act of daily filming always feel so serious?

“Fiddle factor” refers to the quality of a design that makes it playful in a meaningless way — fiddleable. Designs with fiddle factor are enjoyable to keep around you throughout the day and fiddle about with aimlessly.

One of my favorite cameras of all time, the flip video camera, was aptly named for the way it had a USB connector you could use for file transfer that could flip out of the side. When I had this camera on me, I always found myself fiddling about with the switch, using it as a kind of proto-Fidget Toy. I think there was something meaningful to the fact that the thing i was fidgeting with was also the tool of my craft, my means of expression & creation.

I find myself fiddling with these new cameras in my pocket endlessly as well.

The comparison that made me think of this was the flip screen on the Osmo Pocket. It’s so satisfying. It scratches that weird hardware itch where you didn’t expect that you wanted something to feel like that until you perform the action. And yet it still has a function too. Beyond that I find myself fiddling with the Osmo Pocket endlessly troughout the day: displaying it on my desk like a cool spider, flipping its satisfying weight around, clicking the magnets, and eventually holstering it in a slot in my bag that feels too much like a coincidence it fits so well.

My fiddling with the iPhone (from a camera POV, rather than a phone one, that is) is a bit different. I use it almost like a director’s viewfinder: whipping it open at times even when I’m not actively shooting to try to see the world in a new way, sliding the zoom up and down, playing with different camera modes and framings. Then before I know it that fiddling often stumbles upon something unexpected and meaningful to capture.

willingness to engage with the tools

Really what’s most important with a tool is that it actually gets used. For something. Anything. When a tool is cumbersome, or insufficient, or unwieldy, the creative act becomes more about an ergonomic struggle than an act of expression. You lose the flow state.

For as much love as I have for those beefier DSLRs and “pro” cameras I carried around for years, they were a huge pain in the ass for just living life moment to moment and day to day. They were heavy, drew attention from subjects (and thieves, on some occasions 😢), and took deliberate focus to whip out and set up for a single shot. I found myself having debates about when to take my gear somewhere or when to not, when it was acceptable to take it out or not.

The cameras in my pocket don’t come with any of this deliberation. They’re painless to pick up before I go anywhere. They’re nearly invisible when in use. They have, with very little effort, become an extension of myself.

the best camera is the one that sees as you want it to see

So yes, in theory, the best camera is the one you have on you. But it’s just as important that camera functions in a way suitable to what you’re trying to capture, and that it enables you to be highly capable at documenting what’s in front of it in ways other cameras do not.

I’ve always had a gripe with the “tools aren’t important, skill and vision are” narrative because anyone who has spent time trying to master a craft knows the situation isn’t so cut & dry.

I’m now comfortable, excited even, at what the cameras in my pocket enable. I have a renewed excitement at seeing the world framed through new methods of capture & documentation.

And GOOD LORD does it feel fantastic not lugging a stuffed camera bag everywhere I go. *

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