Posted by: Josh Hinkle | April 6, 2010

Sometimes Size Does Matter

The double doors to the MetroRail had just slid shut when the pain in my side started. The particular car I had boarded was packed – every seat was occupied, people were standing in any space available in the aisle, and the poor bicyclists had no chance of using the bike racks. As we all rattled along the tracks on the commuter train’s first day in business, I became very appreciative of my camera of choice.

As a multi-platform reporter for KXAN, I most often shoot my own stories. Normally, I work with a 25 lb. XDCam and its accompanying tripod. Predicting the 32-mile journey from downtown Austin to Leander might offer little room for a those lofty luxuries, I opted for a chancy replacement. The HD FlipCam is about half the size of my hand. I know journalists use it regularly for supplementary video, especially on Web stories. Some even use it to put together the bulk of a television story, as well. The latter appealed to me a few times before, so I had no problem making the decision to shoot this MetroRail story the same way.

Crowded MetroRail

The cramp began on my left side, just above my hip a few minutes into the ride. It was similar to a feeling I had experienced about a week before, something that woke me up in the middle of the night. That particular pain subsided in about ten minutes, but my mobile scenario just wouldn’t let up. I knew it would be well more than an hour before I got off the MetroRail’s inaugural voyage, and my insides felt like someone was pulling a jagged piece of steel through them. This was definitely more than a muscle cramp.

Sweating from my attempts to play it off and do my job, while moving around as much as possible to keep my mind off the increasing cluster-of-death my side had apparently decided to inconveniently evolve into – I took my little HD FlipCam and shot video. I interviewed the people around me. I choked out conversations with them to find out what they thought of this first day on the MetroRail. Sure, the video was probably a tad shaky. Maybe it was the train, maybe it was the pain. Still, it allowed me to capture the excitement people had for what was happening. The free WiFi aboard for the businessman wrapping up work on his way home. The scenery whipping by for the kids. The thrill of saving money and gas for those environmentally-conscious frugalistas. It was all there.

By the time I was off the train at the Leander platform, the hurt was nearly gone. I knew that little camera had saved the day, keeping me from further trauma and getting the job done. Thinking back to the last time I used it to shoot an entire story a few weeks before, I considered how lucky I was the side mystery hadn’t popped up then. In need of specific rescue training after a man became stuck in one of Austin’s vast network of underground caverns, firefighters staged an emergency in a place called Whirlpool Cave. Photographers from most of the other local stations had shown up with their cameras, equally large as my regular XDCam. We each followed the 30 firefighters down a ladder into a large opening in the ground. 15 feet later, the bottom of the the entrance to the cave met us. It was large and seemed as if there was no other exit besides up.

Austin firefighter lowers into Whirlpool Cave

I heard one of the photographers say, “Well, I can’t fit through there with my camera.” He pointed to a hole about three feet wide, then turned to go back up the ladder. I was determined to make this story work, so I found a dry place to leave the big camera behind. I reached into my backpack and pulled out not one, but two FlipCams, just in case. Ducking down into that hole in the cave wall, I switched on the light atop my helmet.

Josh and AFD firefighter

The “victim” was 300 feet below Austin, and firefighters said it might take an hour to get to that point. The ceiling was very low and dripping with moisture. When I wasn’t stooping over to attempt to walk, I was crawling on my stomach through an inch or so of muck. Scooting myself along with my elbows and knees, I held one FlipCam out in front with my hand to capture the descent and kept the other in my back pocket.

After about 20 minutes of this dampness, I watched the screen on the FlipCam being held die. It turned gray, then there was a quick line through the screen before nothing. When we got to a point where I could sit up, I investigated the error. Taking the camera apart, I noticed moisture was collecting inside around the lens cover. I hadn’t dropped the camera, but I figured the air was saturated enough that far down to cause something like this to happen. I wiped a film of cave condensation from my face and had an idea, as I replaced the out-of-service camera with the one from my pocket.

As we continued on our course, I would stop recording every two or three minutes. Next, I pressed my lips up to the camera lens and breathed in hard. Weird? Sick? Okay, whatever. It worked. I was able to suck away any moisture from inside to keep the camera running the rest of the trip. We rescued the “victim” and emerged into the sunlight before I hurried back to the station to put the story together. Again, the FlipCam saved me. However, I might have actually been the one needing rescuing if that pain would have popped up then. Three hours, 300 feet below the surface, in a space big enough to only crawl. I hate to think about it.

The only way I knew it was possible for me to shoot an entire television story on a FlipCam was through an experiment last fall. My mother, you see, is a paranormal investigator. Yes, a ghost hunter. Believable or not, her job was reason enough for me to see if this shooting method was possible.

My dad and I booked the haunted room at Austin’s historic Driskill Hotel for such an occasion. A jilted bride supposedly killed herself in the room, so of course my mom was more than happy to take part. Morbid? I know.

Mom says, "Could that be a ghost following Josh across the street in front of the Driskill?"

Using the FlipCam, I discovered I was able to move around a lot faster. True, the video was in HD. It looked good but not as crisp as my XDCam. There were other shortcomings. To capture the best audio, I had to be very close to the audio source. And, with just one setting (besides a zoom feature), I was unable to use the lens in a way I would normally prefer. Regardless, the basic concept of the story turned out well. My parents were hilarious, and I received a lot of positive feedback.

As if that wasn’t spooky enough, I apparently had an alien growing inside me just a few months later on a train. I booked a ticket to doctor the next day only to find out I had kidney stones. Kidney stones! Mere millimeters of hardened compounds passing through me. It astonished me that something so small could have such a large impact… and made me appreciate the same gesture offered by my FlipCam.



  1. […] the side mystery hadn’t popped up then. To find out about that story and more, check out my full Living Off The Air blog […]

  2. That is TOTALLY a ghost behind you!!

  3. […] tripod. But on a couple of occasions, he’s shot entire stories with a Flip cam. On his blog, Living Off the Air, Hinkle describes covering a firefighters’ training exercise in a network of caverns. […]

  4. […] tripod. But on a couple of occasions, he’s shot entire stories with a Flip cam. On his blog, Living Off the Air, Hinkle describes covering a firefighters’ training exercise in a network of caverns. […]

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