Building my new video home studio to maximise space for multiple cameras

May 1, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Building my new video home studio to maximise space for multiple cameras

May 1, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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I shoot video quite often these days. For reviews here on DIYP, vlogs, tutorials, live streams and various other content. Recently, I moved to Scotland, and I was determined to have an area permanently set aside for filming at my new place.

I’ve had a few people ask me about the new setup since I started getting it all together. I posted out a few images to Instagram Stories, a couple of clips to Facebook, and done a short live stream. So, I decided to write a little about it here on DIYP. Hopefully it’ll help somebody out there looking to setup to record video in a small space.

Planning

The planning for this started before I even moved in. I’d seen the room I wanted to setup and use as a shooting space, so I knew what I had to work with.

My requirements for a new filming area were a little challenging, and I’ve listed them below. It’s still not quite as perfect as I’d like, but given that I wanted to do this without buying any more equipment, I think I’ve done quite well.

I wanted a U shaped desk in the new space. I felt this would give me the most versatility for both working and shooting in. So, I scribbled down a rough (totally not to scale) layout in Photoshop. I also added where I thought the cameras might work best.

Some limitations had to be made for this setup, in order to make my life a little easier in the long term.

  1. I didn’t want to have to buy any new equipment (except, perhaps, a few cables).
  2. I want to have the same lighting setup work for multiple camera angles (up to 4) without adjustments between each one.
  3. The microphone(s) needs to be set up so that no matter which camera I’m using, I can still get fairly decent sound.
  4. The setup had to be permanent, but without getting in the way. I don’t want to have to set things up and break them back down again every time I want to shoot video.
  5. The setup can’t take up the entire room. I still need space for other stuff in here.

So, with those in mind, let’s have a look at the gear I have and chose to use.

Cameras

There are 4 cameras in the setup, but only two of them are pulling full-time duty. The other two are part of my regular location shooting setup so they’re just used here as necessary.

  • Camera 1 – Nikon D800Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8
    This is my “main camera”. This is the camera that will see the most action. it’s the one I’ll use when doing spoken pieces to camera. So, for DIYP reviews, vlogs, practical how-tos and tutorials, rants, etc.
  • Camera 2 – Nikon D7000Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5DX
    This camera sits between my two computer monitors, goes into my PC through an HDMI capture card and is used during Skype meetings (yes, it’s overkill), for recording computer-based tutorials, to live stream, etc.
  • Camera 3 – Nikon D7000 – Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5DX
    This camera does not exist yet. Well, no, it exists, I just haven’t found a practical way to set it up in my environment. This is to be an overhead cam pointing down at the surface shown in Camera 1’s view.
  • Camera 4 – Nikon D5300Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II
    This is my b-roll camera. This is for getting close-ups of products, 3D prints, and other detail shots. I use the D5300 for this as it allows me to shoot 1080p60. So, I can get a 1/2.5x slow motion when I play it back at 23.976fps.

The TV essentially becomes a giant monitor for Camera 1. This way, I can easily check if there’s something off about the composition or if I’m even in focus.

Camera 2 has had a slight firmware modification from the Nikon default. It’s well out of warranty, so I figured it wouldn’t matter if I put the Nikon Hacker firmware on it. They’re also so old now that if I do kill it, picking up a replacement isn’t a ridiculous expense.

There were 2 main reasons I needed to hack the firmware on this camera.

  1. I need to turn off all of the UI display information and have it send out a “clean” signal to the HDMI capture device, without exposure and other information laid on top.
  2. I also need to stop it from turning off live view if I haven’t hit the record button in the last 10 minutes.

My other D7000 body (Camera 3) will likely have this firmware installed, too, once I figure out an overhead rig that works without getting in the view of Camera 1.

As the Nikon D7000 only puts out a 720p signal through HDMI, I just went with an inexpensive generic HDMI capture card. The D800 and D5300 will both put out clean HDMI, but they both have the time limit, which doesn’t seem to be removable through a firmware hack.

For power, Cameras 1-3 run through Nikon EH-5 AC adapters with dummy batteries. This means I don’t have to worry about switching out batteries in the middle of recording. Camera 4 uses an internal battery as that’s typically a moving camera, either on a gimbal or slider.

As these cameras are typically shooting at an aperture of around f/5.6 to f/8 to give me enough depth of field, the fact that they’re slow and lower end lenses isn’t really a problem.

The only real issue with this setup is that the camera picture styles are slightly different between each one. However, this can be resolved fairly easily with the help of the Nikon Picture Control Editor. I just need to find a good profile that I like and implement it.

Eventually, I plan to replace these cameras with four identical (or at least better colour matching) models that shoot 4K and output clean HDMI at 1080p for extended times without firmware hacks.

At the moment, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K is in the lead for future consideration. The smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor will allow me to get more depth of field for a given field of view at wider apertures. So, I won’t need to run my lights so bright or raise the ISO all that high.

Another option I’ve been considering is a mix of Sony A6500/A7III cameras. But I need to check that the UK versions of these cameras will let me stream out the live view over HDMI without turning itself off.

Lights

Video wasn’t high on my priorities until about 18 months ago, so continuous lighting wasn’t something I’d ever really researched before that. But just as I was starting to look more into video, I had the opportunity to play with some prototypes of a weird new LED light called Spekular at Photokina 2016.

Immediately, I was sold on these lights. They were lightweight, powerful, and easy to reconfigure depending on the look I want. And there were various accessories and extensions which would let me create a whole three light setup from a single set of Spekular lights.

I had to wait a year for those to finally be released after playing with the prototypes. But, I knew they were what I wanted. In the meantime, though, I needed something a little less expensive to tide me over – mostly for Skype and such.

So, I picked up a couple of Neewer-branded Godox LED308C small LED panels. Their colour accuracy isn’t great, their plastic build quality is awful, and they’re not very powerful. But, they do the job for something like Skype if you’re careful with them.

Now, though, I have Spekular, too. So, I just use one of the Godox LED panels as a rim light where colour accuracy and power aren’t as important. As long as it’s cooler than the key, that’s really all that matters. I still have the second, but it’s not in use.

The way I have these configured is a little… unconventional, to say the least. But this is one of the things I love about the whole concept of Spekular. That it lets me do stuff like this.

You can see another monitor just creeping into the left side of this shot. See that ASUS Tinker Board? Those will become a teleprompter at some point in the future.

The three lights on the left are the key light for Camera 1. The other four become a wraparound light on the lit side of my face. They also light up the desk a little behind me.

The 8th Spekular segment connects via the Expansion Kit and becomes a fill light for both my face and whatever happens to be sitting on the desk in front of me. One of the Godox LED308C panels, gelled blue, becomes my rim light.

When I’m using camera two, the three lights on the right become my key, while the others wrap around. Again, the same Godox LED308C blue-gelled LED panel is my rim light.

Adding the lights to my original room sketch looks a little something like this.

Looking at it now, those monitors are definitely a little on the small side. Definitely not to scale.

The lights here are, obviously on the opposite side of my face for each camera. With Camera 1, the key light comes from camera left when I face directly towards the camera. If I’m talking to the camera, along with the fill, it gives a pleasing light that isn’t too dramatic.

For Camera 2, I did want it to be a little more dramatic and a bit low key. The key light here comes from camera right. As I’m also looking off toward camera right, this short lights my face.

Most of the time, if I’m using this camera, it’s when I’m talking while showing something on my computer desktop. So, I don’t want the camera to be the primary focus that draws the subject’s eye. I want them to watch what’s happening on my screen.

The Audio Gear

The only camera that has a microphone on top is the Nikon D800 sitting at the Camera 1 position. This is the camera I talk directly to, although I’m not using the in-camera audio. This camera has the Rode VideoMicro sitting on top purely to help pick up a clean signal for easy syncing in post. The actual sound recording used in the videos is done with XLR shotgun microphones going into a mixer, and them my computer.

The microphone for Camera 1 is a Sennheiser ME66/K6 shotgun mic. I’ve had this microphone for about 10 years now. I do have a windshield on it, but for no other reason than I’d lose it if I didn’t keep it with the microphone.

On Camera 2, I’m using a Rode NTG1. This microphone I picked up about 8 years or so, and it’s been hooked up to my computer for most of that.

The two microphones plug into an Alesis Multimix mixer which sits on a shelf underneath the desk. It supplies 48v phantom power to each microphone. The Sennheiser is on channel 1, and the Rode on channel 2. These are then recorded on the PC using Adobe Audition.

This model isn’t made anymore. The new ones offer USB connectivity, so you can avoid sound cards with potentially bad preamps, ground faults, and other issues.

I just knock the level up or down for each microphone depending on which camera I’m talking to. If I’m bouncing between both, I can record one microphone on the left channel, the other microphone on the right channel, and then mix in post as I change camera views.

The final result

The view from Camera 1 looks something like this. The only downside of this setup is that I have to make sure my desk is always clean, tidy, and free from mess. Which is difficult, as a messy desk has kind of been my signature since high school.

This may be a screenshot from an upcoming review video

As I mentioned, the view from camera 2 is a little more dramatic. It’s fed straight into an HDMI capture card in my PC. It’s used when I’m capturing the desktop itself. By itself, the view looks like this.

But when shown in the context of a desktop capture, it’s more like this. It’s just enough to remind people I’m still there, and lets me turn to talk to the camera when I need to, but without being distracting and overpowering what’s on the desktop.

Desktop & camera capture is done using OBS. The audio, too, comes through here. The Alesis mixer I mentioned above feeds into my sound card’s line input.

I have a noise suppression filter on that mixer signal which suppresses anything quieter than -12dB. This means that the hum of my PC fans is not picked up during a live stream, or while recording the desktop. In the case of the latter, though, I record to Adobe Audition simultaneously, so I can tweak the noise manually if I need to.

As for Camera 3’s overhead rig… I still haven’t figured out exactly how I’m going to do that, but my temporary solution is a tripod over another part of the desk. It works quite well, but it’s not practical for regular use. And I can’t really use it while shooting simultaneously with Camera 1.

https://www.facebook.com/johnaldredphoto/videos/1903225556424888/

When I do finally figure it out (I do have a giant Benbo Trekker tripod that could work well, but it’s not here in the new place with me yet), the view will look more like this.

The overhead shot is lit entirely by the Spekular LED lights

Do you prefer the darker or lighter base to sit stuff on for an overhead cam? I’m not so sure which I prefer now I see the two next to each other.

What would I do differently?

Not much, really. The setup is pretty much exactly how I need it to be for now. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve got more countertop to cover the two sides of the U shaped desktop surface.

It would be nice if the room were a little longer, so that I could shoot from further back with a slightly longer lens so the view of the background wasn’t quite so wide. But I can live with it.

I probably would’ve gone with a named brand capture card instead of the generic one. I know the D7000 only puts out 720p video anyway, and it also scales down on-screen. So, I felt that a decent 1080p or 4K capture card would be overkill.

The one I have will actually record 1080p, but only up to 24 frames per second. But it will handle 720p all the way up to 60 frames per second – or so it claims. I’ve noticed that even at 720p, it lags and stutters quite a bit with any kind of reasonable movement.

So, if I had to do it again, I’d probably pick up an Elgato HD60 Pro or Blackmagic DeckLink Mini.

Changes for the future?

Well, the first thing would probably be upgrading the capture device to an Elgato HD60 Pro or Blackmagic DeckLink Mini. Although it will ultimately depend on how often I end up needing to stream. If it’s not something I do often, then I’ll stay as I am for now. But if I do start to stream regularly, this’ll be one of the first things to see an upgrade.

I do need to get some kind of acoustic foam for the walls at some point. The audio isn’t terrible from the two shotgun microphones, but a little help from some acoustic foam will offer a big improvement. The in-camera audio sounds like an echo chamber.

As mentioned earlier, the cameras will all be replaced at some point. The D7000 bodies will go back to being on timelapse duty. The D800 and D5300 will carry on as my main photography and vlogging cameras.

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K is looking to be the most likely option right now, given the cost and benefits of a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor. But we’ll have to see how the reviews look once they get out in the real world.

I may end up switching brands completely to go with Sony. Although I won’t ditch Nikon to do it, an A7III and a couple of Sony A6500 cameras could work very well, although it would be a much more expensive option than BMPCC 4K cameras.

I’m sure there will be other changes in the future that will pop up the more I shoot here. I’ll find a need for something and then figure out a way to satisfy that need. And I’ll probably vlog those changes as they come up.

If you have any questions about my new setup or want to offer any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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4 responses to “Building my new video home studio to maximise space for multiple cameras”

  1. Joost Avatar
    Joost

    nice to see this! It’s such a hassle working in small spaces, trying to get everything in and all. Nice job John

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      Thanks Joost. Yeah, it can be a pain, but it’s worth it when it works out. :)

  2. Frank Nazario Avatar
    Frank Nazario

    Very cool setup … I like the fact that you used Nikons APS-C and a full frame as a main… the layout is almost exactly what Casey Neistat uses in his studio if you haven’t noticed! the camera placement selection and the layout of your studio are almost identical LOL!!!
    Very cool choice :)
    Looking forward to seeing what you do with this layout.

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      Thanks, Frank. I hadn’t studied Casey’s setup, but I have watched a lot of his vlogs over the last few years. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced. :)

      As for the Nikons… They shoot video and they’re what I had. I’ve held off buying more video oriented cameras because the technology’s just been evolving at such a rapid pace that most of what I was looking at would’ve been a compromise between what I already had and what I really wanted. So, I never really felt I’d get the benefit out of it that would equate to the kind of money it would cost.

      Now, though, especially with the BMPCC 4K, video cameras are starting to get to a feature & price range that’s very attractive, and I can use something like the BMPCC 4K with my existing lenses and an adapter (I almost never use AF for video, so losing that wouldn’t be a problem).