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Aug 9, 2015

Advice on being a media guy for a dragon boat team

That's me on the right, in my usual habitat--with a camera at the ready.


Hey all-- I'm James Nguyen, and I've been more or less the unofficial media guy for the Space Dragons for the better part of the last 5 years.  Over that time, I've had a good number of questions that I get asked frequently about equipment, covering tournaments (especially when travel is involved), and just requests for general advice.  After handling a few more questions at our most recent away tournament, I've decided to go ahead and post something to the blog that I can always refer people to.

Why Bother?

I'm clearly biased, but in my mind, Space Dragons fully embracing the use of technology and media has been to our advantage over the last several years.  You see lots of dragon boat teams with cameras on shore or head cams on the boat these days.  It wasn't that long ago that these were uncommon, now they're almost expected.  What teams do with that footage is where I think the difference is made.

We're Gonna Need a Montage

One of the things that I love about Space is that we've got a good number of creative folks on the team.   And with the vast majority of our tournaments documented in pain staking detail, that leaves ample video footage for those creative folks to create video montages.  While it's simple to just post the raw footage of race heats,  I genuinely believe that video highlight reels like this provide a huge bump to general team morale.  They serve as a team history or time capsule that can be visited as frequently as you like.  I've had teammates tell me that they still, years later, go back to certain videos and moments in time to help them stay motivated or focused.  When they get posted, they're conversation pieces amongst teammates that helps foster team unity.  I mean, who doesn't love a good montage!?

Some of my favorites over the years:
There is lots of art and sadly not tons of hard science when it comes to dragon boat.  What makes for the most effective stroke?  What's the most efficient way to approach a start?  Lots of intuition.  Media isn't going to help you there.  But where it can provide you with is near instantaneous feedback.  Is the boat sitting too low in the back benches?  What bench is our timing starting to break down?  Easily answered with some video footage.  Space Dragons' coaching staff also film all of our time trials and provide feedback to each individual paddler on their technique and what they should prioritize improving on during practices.  Does a paddler need to extend and reach more?  Do they need to keep their head up and open up their airways?  Need more leg drive?  Again, video footage that can be re-visited and super, super useful and worth the effort in recording, uploading, and analyzing. 

Gear, Gear, Gear

More than anything else, this is what I get asked about the most.  What gear do I use.  Why did I choose the gear that I did.  What do I pack with me when I travel on the road.  To the best of my abilities, let me try to address these.  I'm going to try to stray away from directly recommending specific cameras however, as technology is constantly changing and the moment I hit publish on this post, my words will become dated.  That said, I'll speak to the gear that I've used in the past and what I currently turn to, why it is that I've chosen the gear that I use (and why I've dropped other things over the years), etc.

Action Cams

For action (e.g. head) cams, the primary camera that Space Dragons use are Contour's line of action cameras.  We've had a half dozen of them over the last 5+ years, spanning 3 generations of products from the company.  In fact, our use of them spans a period in 2013/2014 where the company filed for bankruptcy (they've since seemingly emerged from it and are starting to produce new cameras again).  We currently have 3 in rotation with the team, but at one point have had as many as 4 in rotation.  Space sometimes fields up to 6 different crews (3 mixed boats, open, women's, masters), especially at our local races where travel costs / vacation time aren't a factor.  At any point in time, we might have 3 boats ready to hit the water, meaning having enough cameras to be spread amongst those crews means having multiple cameras in flight.

When Contour's future seemed uncertain, I had dabbled with steadily replacing our Contours with GoPro Hero cameras.  A number of teammates already owned various GoPro models from over the years, so I was familiar with the cameras.  And given what was an uncertain future for Contour, investing in the swap over seemed sound.  With Contour's resurrection, I'm not wholly convinced anymore but am instead of the belief that the two camera form factors each have their place in our arsenal.

Near fool proof operation.  Too bad they lag behind in modern optics.
When given to our callers and steers, the general feedback has been that Contours, typically worn via a hand band such that it rests on either temple (operator's preference) are more comfortable to wear.  GoPro's, typically mounted in a sealed enclosure, weigh significantly more and are worn via a "hat" that is basically two elastic bands worn such that the camera rests at forehead level.  Generally, the Contours are far more foolproof for the operator as well.  Operation is a simple slide forward of a very chunky slider on the top of the camera.  It's effectively the only point of interface on the top of the camera (the only other button on the camera is a button on the rear that allows you to check battery life and memory use).  It is very difficult to not operate the Contour properly.  GoPros on the other hand require the camera to be powered on the front face and recording operations started/stopped with a similarly sized button on the top.  We have had lost recordings in the past due to operator error in pushing the right button.  Not helping the situation is that GoPros generally are set to automatically turn themselves off after a set idle duration in order to conserve batteries--meaning callers and steers need to remember to turn the camera on.

After much use, the Contour wins hands down in ease of use, comfort, and battery life.  The GoPros however clobber the Contours in terms of picture quality.  Even more so when you factor in the newer generations of GoPros that record in 120 fps (1080p) or in 4K resolution.  The cost of that lovely, lovely source footage however is that battery life becomes abysmal.  Recording in either mode means that the small battery in the GoPro will die after approximately 40-45 minutes of recording time in my experiences (manufacturers estimates be damned).  

These days for race weekends or for any situation where the action cam needs to be worn, I'm having folks wear the Contours.  For cameras that can be mounted, say on a boat and attached via a suction mount (see above), I've been using GoPros.  We've done this to great success, both in practice settings as well as race weekends (when neighboring boats have been obliging), allowing me to capture footage at "water" level, from the side of the boat--a perspective that a worn headcam would never be able to provide.  As I'm always looking to improve our process, one experiment I'll be trying soon is having folks attempt to wear the GoPros with a lightweight chest harness--hopefully addressing at least the comfort issues with the form factor.  I think those cameras, especially worn by the steers, could provide some interesting POVs.

Cameras (SLRs) / Camcorders

There used to be a time where a standard part of my gear was a Nikon SLR and an array of lenses.  At first, the SLR was purely there for me to capture stills (or to hand off to a teammate to randomly snap photos) and I had a dedicated camcorder that was generally there to record the actual races from shore.  This was OK for awhile.  Two major issues started popping up however that I wanted to address.

  1. SLRs and camcorders don't share lenses or batteries.  For travel, that meant doubling up batteries and chargers, adding to my overall weight load.
  2. Camcorders (consumer grade) generally do not have interchangeable lenses.  Meaning any magnification they provide is going to be largely software based, not mechanical/optical. Translation: the more you zoom in, the crappier the footage you get would be.  In dragonboat, where you might be as much as 1/2 a kilometer or more away from your subjects at the start of the race, that's quite unfortunate.
Solution #1 came with me simply ditching the camcorder and using my SLR for recording races.  This at least solved problem #1 but didn't fully solve #2.  On the whole, your average SLR that has solid video capabilities (as most modern Nikons or Canons would) produce better video output than your average consumer camcorder.  They however introduce a whole slew of new problems.

  1. To actually record from potentially over 500m away means using a zoom lens, which depending on its range of focal length,  may or may not be capable of recording the action once the boats get closer.
  2. Recording video (of good quality) is far, far more difficult to do on a SLR than your average camcorder.  Most consumers, even those who own SLRs, don't know how to adjust things like aperture or ISO--which you can mostly get away with taking stills (auto all the things!) but can be a huge hindrance when trying to record video.
  3. I was swapping lenses.  A lot.  Race on the water?  Long lens.  Oh wait, teammates doing something zany right next to me?  Sheet.  Short lens.  Swapping back and forth became a chore.  And there was no way I was going to carry two SLRs, though I contemplated it.  The weight of two bodies was just prohibitive.  Especially since while doing all of this, I'm actually a paddler too and need to be able to hand off / drop off gear and swap it out for my paddling gear in an instant.  
These aren't the exact cameras I have in use, but the size differences are representative of my own experiences.

Where I've ended up now is that I've ditched my SLR and lenses and swapped to using mirrorless cameras.  Specifically, I've become a huge fan of the micro 4/3s form factor.  The cameras (and lenses) are generally significantly smaller than their SLR counterparts (ESPECIALLY the lenses). They generally run cheaper (hard for an apples to apples comparison, but I won't get into that here).  And frankly, many mirrorless cameras are WAY, WAY better at taking video than your average SLR.  They're not quite still up to the ease of use of your average camcorder, but they pack features that most SLRs don't (focus aides like zebra stripes or focus peaking, fully articulated screens, far better codecs and framerates).   Below is some sample footage I recently recorded using one of my micro 4/3s cameras and a long lens.

From an ease of use standpoint, mirrorless cameras sit somewhere between your average SLR that also records video and a dedicated camcorder.  The quality you potentially gain by splitting the difference is well worth it--at the expense of the SLR, in theory and in some contexts, produce better stills than what a mirrorless can.  Shooting dragonboat though, most of those contexts don't apply--I'm not shooting stills for print work, definitely not shooting in low light, and crazy shallow depth of field isn't what I'm after 9 times out of 10.

Because of the smaller form factor of micro 4/3s, these days I'm actually packing two bodies.  One will generally have a long lens attached (a 90-400mm stabilized zoom) and the other, which I'll generally wear on a strap while I'm recording video, will have some sort of portrait lens attached--generally a 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm equivalent, depending on what I think might be the most useful length depending on what's going on.

I love photography and videography, and as a new dad, I had no qualms in switching out some gear to suit my needs, both at home, and in support of the team.  For most folks though, they'll likely just use whatever SLR or camcorder they might already happen to own.  Either can work well for the purposes of capturing dragon boat races.  For me, the trade offs in weight and flexibility and image quality were well worth it.  Recording video on mirrorless cameras still takes some training (I can't just hand the camera to a teammate and be "here, go hit the button"), but recent tournaments seem to indicate that it's way more approachable to do than when presented with a full size SLR whose ergonomics simply aren't well built for the job of capturing video vs a still photo.

Other Gear

Invest in a halfway decent tripod.  Many cameras these days can provide OK stabilized footage built in, but the more and more you zoom in, the less and less any stabilization will be able to handle it.  Lightweight is great, but adds cost (but will save a little wear and tear on your body).  Something that folds up is a must in my book.  My two requirements in a tripod were that it had to be light, and it had to fold up small enough to fit into the duffle bag that I generally take with me to race sites.

Get yourself a decent camera bag to lug your gear.  If you travel as much as I do with this gear, do yourself a big favor, and go straight for the good stuff.  Any time I travel with my video gear now, I use a Pelican case.  They come with dense packed foam that can be cut out to customize the fit around the gear you want to travel with you.  Pelican cases come in multiple sizes, though I happen to use the Pelican 1510, which conforms to the smallest regulated FAA carry on sizes and even fits the overhead bins of some smaller planes these days that no longer fit "standard" carry on suitcases.

Not my load out, merely for illustrative purposes of how customizable the foam interior is.
When traveling now, I generally have my video gear as my carry on item along with a shoulder bag that I'll keep essentials with me--toiletries, maybe a spare jersey and shorts.  In the event of a catastrophe and my checked luggage is lost, than at least I haven't lost anything expensive and I'll still have a uniform to change into.  :P

For the curious, this is sold by Monster Cables and called the Outlets 2 Go

Pack a power strip with you on the road.  Doesn't have to be a full sized one.  I use a mini power strip that provides 3 outlets, folds in on itself to pack away neatly, and even provides a native USB port to charge USB based devices.  Since I often have a laptop with me, between this powerstrip and my laptop, I can simultaneously charge 3 USB devices at the end of a race day.  Super handy.

Misc Tips / Lessons Learned

Power is your friend

Bring spare batteries.  Note the plural of battery.  Not a spare battery.  Batteries.  I'm lucky enough to be on a team that has accomplished some major milestones over the last five years.  Almost all of which have been documented.  Because not only did I always bring my chargers with me, I also always had at least a couple spare batteries per device on me.  (If you're keeping score, that's a couple spare GoPro batteries, and a couple spare batteries per camera body)

For those items that instead have internal batteries or for items that have USB power plugs and can be charged at a race site, invest in a good, sizable battery pack, and PACK SOME USB CABLES OF THE CORRECT SIZE.  GoPros and Contours charge with mini USB.  Your typical Android phone charges with micro USB.  I pack several of both and keep it in my camera bag / Pelican along with a 25,000+ mAh battery pack.

Memory cards are fragile

On the one hand, don't cheap out on memory cards for your devices.  After having used many brands over the years, I will now only use SanDisk branded memory cards, and even then, only their Extreme line of cards.  I've been fortunate enough to not lose much over the years, but it truly, truly sucks the few times it has happened to me.  (As recently as last week, when I wasn't paying attention and used an off brand card and had it die within 2 hours of operation).

Even quality cards are but tiny little pieces of plastic with exposed data connectors on the back.  These things can get dropped and stepped on.  Dragonboat races generally occur in sandy or muddy or wet (duh) or otherwise dirty environments.  Bad things happen.  Carry spare memory cards in your bag.  If you are able, offload any important footage on site if possible so that you have backups of it in case a card is damaged or dies or lost.  Consider rotating cards over the course of a race weekend if you have no ability to offload footage while your'e on the road.

Don't lose your stuff!

I mean this in terms of your photos and video.  Although I guess it applies to your actual cameras and such as well.  If you're straight up forgetting about or misplacing your expensive camera gear though, sorry, but no advice from me is going to prep you for being a seasoned media vet.  To my original point however, Don't.  Lose.  Your.  Stuff.  BACKUPS ARE YOUR FRIEND.  I repeat.  BACKUPS ARE YOUR FRIEND.  

Do you know what sucks?  Taking all preventative measures and making sure you copy your precious footage off of your fragile memory cards and onto your computer's hard drive.  Phew.  All is good in the world.  Except it's not.  Hard drives die too.  Especially non SSDs, but even SSDs fail.  All things electronic eventually fail.  Accept that and prepare for that.  Back in 2011, Space Dragons won its big local race (known locally as "Big Long Beach") for the first time in the team's 10 year history.  The reactions on the boat were of pure delight and raw emotion.  I nearly lost that footage when I went to edit a montage together and the HD it was stored on died.  Fortunately, I religiously backup (for what it's worth, I use Backblaze, but any provider is fine) and merely lost the time it took to re-download a 2+GB file.  I would have been heartbroken however if I'd forever lost that footage of the team hitting a milestone like that.


For the most part, I've been avoiding trying to steer people toward any specific model of camera or accessory.  I do think however it could be insightful to understand the lenses that I will typically pack with me for a tournament.  Keep in mind, with my switch to mirrorless cameras, the size and weight of lenses is significantly lighter/smaller, so I now find myself far more willing to pack a lens with me as a "just in case".  I'll try to stick to what I feel are MUST haves though.

You're going to need a zoom lens.  Your position relative to a dragonboat at the start or finish line might be upward of 500-700 meters away.  If your'e wanting to capture everything, or at least have the opportunity to do so, that means your'e going to need some long glass.

For me, that's a 90-400mm optically stabilized lens.  (Technically 45-200, but micro 4/3s has a full frame equivalent ratio of 2:1, meaning all focal lengths on the lens need to be doubled to get the equivalent focal length on a full frame SLR).

You're likely going to need to take a team photo at some point.  And if your team is as large as mine, that might mean trying to squeeze 40-80 people into a single shot.  I have both a 15mm and 24mm at my disposal for this.  Frankly, I only pack a lens this wide for the express purpose of taking these team photos.  But when you don't have something of the appropriate width, getting a full team photo can potentially become basically impossible, and that's not really tenable either.

Standard Portrait
I love prime lenses (fixed focal length).  Like, I LOVE PRIME LENSES.  To the extent that is practical, I avoid using zoom lenses, and when I do have to use zoom lenses, I stick to fixed aperture if I can.  Prime lenses give a depth to the image quality that I feel is rarely matched in a zoom lens, and those that do, are always going to be quite costly.  My go to lenses are standard portraiture focal lengths--lens sizes that render images with as little distortion as possible and that generally render human faces in the most flattering possible angles.  I generally pack a 50mm and 85mm with me, and make sure that I have the fastest aperture possible for both.  Because dragonboat settings are often cramped (think marshaling or team tents), I'll also often pack a 24mm or 35mm for when I'm shooting in cramped quarters like that. 

Stay Positive

I do all this media stuff because I have a passion for photo and video stuff.  But I also do it because I firmly believe that it meaningfully makes the team better--which as someone who wants to give back to his team, is reason enough to do so.  To be a team's go to person for media stuff is often a heavy burden to carry.  Teammates can be quick to demand to see photos in the days even hours after a tournament.  It can mean having an extra several dozen pounds of equipment to lug around, sometimes halfway across the globe.  It is straight up work on race weekends when sometimes you'd rather just be hanging out with your teammates and relaxing.  It is quite easy to get down on shouldering that burden.  Only you as an individual can speak to whether that burden is one that you feel is worth the investment in time (and let's face it, money).  I'm super passionate about this stuff and even I have needed to take breaks away from it at times (fortunately having wonderful teammates pick up the slack when I wasn't covering it).  

Keeping a positive North Star has kept me stay grounded about it all.  And while there have been "vacations" from being the media guy here and there, it's something I've sustained now for 5 years for the team and my passion for it all hasn't slipped any.  Hopefully some of this ultimately proves useful to you and your team(s) as well!