Not so long ago, creating a weekly documentary show would have required film crews, editors and producers, not to mention broadcast facilities to get it out. But star vloggers Stefan and Hannah Michalak need none of these to produce a hit show about their everyday life. The couple's YouTube channel The Michalaks has more than 275,000 subscribers, with some videos clocking up more than 600,000 views.
In the crowded world of vlogging, what's the secret of their success? How do they work, and what equipment do they use? What vlogging cameras do they recommend?
When they started out, they'd leave the house with little more than a pocket camera and then cut together the random clips they filmed each week; but what they do now, they say, could not be more different. "We often take up to eight cameras, tripods and a drone out with us and, unlike before, we now also script, write and research before we start the production. The mission is to create something that rivals film or TV in terms of production value."
Production value is key, then, but Stef emphasises that this does not mean being flashy. "Some people tend to think you need to have all these cinematic shots and beautiful montages, but that's where a lot of people hide who don't have the ideas," he says. "Viewers are getting bored with that now, and they want to see truth and honesty."
Accordingly, The Michalaks deals with everything from moving house to DIY, their wedding and having a baby – even the occasional argument.
"The only way you can really do this job is if you completely submit to it," Stef insists. "You can't hold anything back, because everyone craves truth. And they can see truth in nuance – in moments that you just capture, not orchestrate."
Stef's passion for filmmaking started at the age of 17 when he got his first camcorder and began filming his own sketch videos with his best friend. He went on to a job interviewing celebrities for a digital magazine, then noticed the growth of vlogging.
"I thought I'd take everything I'd learned and migrate across," he says, but it wasn't so easy. "It was an uphill struggle and financially very difficult – we were haemorrhaging money for about two years and were close to giving up. Then our first brand deal came in, and it snowballed from there."
After six years of vlogging full-time, Stef has learned what it takes. "You have to put in hard work and dedication," he says. "There's lots of things I wouldn't film. But I leave in petty bickers with Hannah because they're funny. For the most part, the camera's there, you press the button and you just capture something authentic. Once you bring that to life with grading and music, you can really pull the audience in emotionally, which is a powerful thing to do."
The Michalaks uses a greater variety of creative shots than a typical vlog. "One week it might all be candid shots. Often we'll be talking to each other and not even address the camera. That very much breaks the mould," he says. "Sometimes we make a three-minute film, but usually they last 20-30 minutes, which seems to be the golden number for YouTube."
Candid footage, usually shot by Hannah on the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II, is mixed with more planned content, which often requires multiple cameras. "I've got two Canon EOS 5D Mark IVs and one Canon EOS R," Stef explains. "For some scenes, I'll have all three cameras set up in a room to get the shots I want.
"The EOS R has revolutionised my workflow," he adds. "The flip-out vari-angle screen is the best thing ever, because it allows me to monitor the footage as well as being in front of the camera. My composition has improved a lot and editing has become easier, because I'm now able to monitor what I'm shooting."
The compact size of the unobtrusive EOS R has also proved to be an advantage. "I've been out with a Canon EOS C200 cine camera and had people coming up to me constantly asking if I had a permit or permission to film. With DSLRs and the Canon EOS R, I'm left alone. And I get quality results. That's why I've been very reluctant to migrate to anything bigger."
Best of all, Stef says, he uses the Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, which enables him to attach his EF lenses on the EOS R body and also an ND filter to give the characteristic shallow depth of field that he loves.
Stef now favours the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lenses – and because he can use the same lenses on all his cameras, there is no difference in colours between the footage from the EOS R and EOS 5D Mark IV, saving time in post-processing. The fact that the two camera models use the same battery and have the same familiar EOS controls also means he can switch seamlessly between them.
Although both the cameras can shoot in 4K, Stef prefers to record in 1080p HD, which produces smaller files than 4K, so he doesn't have to carry around lots of memory cards or an external recorder, which would compromise portability. For maximum highlight and shadow detail, he records in Canon Log almost all the time.
"I would like to spend a lot more time on my grading," he adds, "but it's one of those things that takes time. I have to try to be time-efficient and make that process as fast as I can – and the colours look amazing anyway. I like to use natural light as much as possible for a natural look. We'll very seldom use lights. I just prefer to try to manipulate natural light as much as I can, and that's where Canon Log really helps."
Another key technology Stef relies on is Dual Pixel CMOS Autofocus, available on both the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the EOS R. "Purists say you should always focus manually," he says, "but the technology is so good, I would never go manual any more. And with eye tracking, it's even better. I'm spoilt by Canon autofocus – it's fantastic, especially when you're in front of the camera, with a flip-out screen. I haven't got time to be messing around with the focus."
Stef is also a fan of slow motion, which he shoots at up to 100fps in 720p and then upscales for Full HD. "When things are happening rapidly, I generally switch over to it," he says.
As one of Britain's most successful vloggers, does Stef have any advice for budding filmmakers? "You need to establish what are you trying to do, then treat it like an art form," he says.
"Make sure to get the audio right," he adds. "I carry around a Zoom H6 portable recorder and use lapel mics."
You don't need a pro camera, Stef concludes, but he does recommend a camera with a flip-out screen, "like a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II. Get comfortable talking to the camera. Most importantly, convey truth and honesty."