One way to modify Contax Zeiss lenses to work with Metabones Speedbooster

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One of the things I’ve noticed now that I’m doing the bulk of my shooting on super 35 sensor cameras instead of a full frame DSLR is that my set of Contax Zeiss primes just aren’t getting used that much any more. Why? The lenses, most of which are f/2.8, just don’t look as good when adapted with the crop factor of f/1.5 using the Metabones IV adapter. So, why not just just use them with a Speedbooster?

Answer: because of protruding rear elements (see below) that prevent them from fitting on the Speedbooster.

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It’s really quite extraordinary the difference in look that a full frame vs. a super 35 sensor makes with this glass. Using the IV adapter, my 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss becomes about a 52mm lens in terms of field of view. Sometimes the change in field of view is fine – when I want a longer focal length. But another thing happens that’s rarely desirable: what was f/2.8 on full frame now has the depth of field appearance of f/4. And the difference between apparent f/4 and f/2.8 on full frame? Huge.

Over the weekend, it occurred to me that there might be a way around this impasse. Why not get a Dremel tool and grind those nasty rear elements out of the way? A close examination revealed that the elements are useless for video work anyway. I will never be using these lenses, which are permanently cine modified already, for shooting stills on a Contax camera. So I ran across the street to my hardware store and got busy.

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First thing was learning about griding wheels – turns out the one you want for this job is the aluminum oxide grinders that are designed for metal work. Pictured above is the B132 grinding stone, which worked great.

To prevent fine metal shavings from falling into the lens, I carefully used painters tape to mask off the rear elements of the lens and block the openings into the lens. Then I made sure my glasses were on, and got busy.

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The metal pretty much just melts away with carefully applied pressure.

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Bits of metal become flattened and hang over the sides of the real element, which I was able to scrape away with a small screwdriver. I also used a vacuum cleaner to suck out any stray metal dust.

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Pulling away the tape reveals the flattened elements.

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Now the moment of truth: It fits! I ground down all 5 of my lenses in my set (25mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4, 135mm f/2.8).

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zeiss-only-wide

I tried all 5 of the lenses on, and all fit, but I noticed the 35mm in particular was very tight. This and the 135mm were the most difficult to work on, as they were very tight when attached to the adapter. But they seemed to fit OK after repeated grinding sessions. Woo hoo! I’ve got a set of dreamy Zeiss glass with the full frame look on my FS5!

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But before you get as excited as I did, let me tell you the rest of the story. When I put one of my Canon L lenses on the Speedbooster, everything seemed fine … except the image stabilization didn’t work. Crap. What did I mess up…

A close look revealed the despite my best efforts at grinding, something had remained on at least one of the lenses that tangled with the last contact in the row. For the Zeiss glass, it doesn’t matter – it’s all manual anyway. But for the Canon lenses, you need every one of those contacts in working order. Sigh.

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I’m still not sure what messed that up – but it obviously did. So my solution has to make this Speedbooster my dedicated  “Zeiss only” adapter.

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It now lives in the same Pelican case as the Zeiss Contax set. I had to spring for another one to use with my Canon L glass. If were going to do this over again, I’d start by purchasing one of the older Speedboosters (you can find them on Ebay for a few hundred bucks cheaper than the new Ultra Speedbooster that I used), and plan from the beginning to dedicate a Speedbooster to the Zeiss glass, instead of thinking I could continue to use the same one with L glass.

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All in all, though, I’m thrilled to have the full frame look back with my Zeiss glass on Super 35 and am looking forward to shooting my next project with this glass. Here’s why:

25mm f/2.8 Zeiss adapted to Sony FS5 with Metabones IV adapter (1.5 crop factor makes approximate field of view of 37mm):

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35mm f/2.8 Zeiss (after grinding) adapted to Sony FS5 with Metabones Speedbooster (.071 crop factor makes approximate field of view 37mm):

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Notice how much more selective the focus is on the orange umbrella in the second frame. If you’re not noticing the difference, click on each image to view at full resolution.

PS. Since this post went live, I’ve learned that Metabones makes a Contax CY -> Sony E mount Ultra Speedbooster. Duh! I would have been much better off just buying that, saving the contacts on my EF Speedbooster, and leaving well enough alone. But then I wouldn’t have had anything to blog about, would I?

 

 

Sony FS5 firmware 2.0 is out. And the Auto-ND is killer.

Sony has been pretty sneaky in their release of firmware version 2.0 for the FS5. There’s been no big public announcement that I’m aware of, aside from this brief post in Alister Chapman’s blog. Maybe that’s because it isn’t fully ready to roll out – for example, there’s currently no way to purchase the upgrade to the raw-output option contained in the 2.0 firmware. So what’s the big deal?

Well, for me, the auto-nd feature is pretty epic. It’s the first time I’ve gotten really excited about an auto feature on a camera since Canon released dual-pixel autofocus. Auto-nd on the Sony FS5 is like having a pair of sunglasses that automatically get darker or lighter, almost instantly, in response to brightness. You can now do things like go from indoors to outdoors seamlessly, without affecting ISO, shutter or iris. This is huge: a creative tool DPs have never had before.

Sony Catalyst Browse displays GPS info

Sony Catalyst Browse displays GPS info contained in video clip metadata.

Also cool: The GPS feature, which is now enabled by default. What’s it useful for? I’m not sure yet. None of the GPS info is showing up in FCPX. But it does appear in Catalyst Browse, the free app from Sony for logging and transcoding footage. I look forward to finding useful ways to use this info. Chapman has suggested that one possible use will be the universal time that each clip is tagged with. However, it does not appear to be frame accurate – the frame field is empty on all clips.

Note: The GPS feature seems to be quite unreliable, with the signal coming and going and most of the time I’m seeing “No GPS” on the screen. I know that there is GPS in my area, because my cell phone is working with it fine. So the receiver on the camera seems pretty weak.

This 2.0 firmware has me really excited about shooting raw. I can see one really great use for it: shooting interviews in 4K, to enable getting two shots (medium and tight) frame same camera.  I can’t wait to get my hands on the raw upgrade as soon as it’s available.

Why Inclusion Matters

When the Seattle School District cut funding for a beloved special education program, teachers and families were shocked. Then, they rolled up their sleeves and started a campaign to save it. This is the story of why inclusion matters at the University of Washington’s Experimental Education Unit.

I produce a video every year to support the EEU’s annual fundraiser. This video is screened at the beginning of the event, to help set the stage for fundraising. In other words, to prepare participants to open their wallets a little deeper. So the point of these pieces is to tell a human story. This year, we had a potentially awful story to tell, but one that has a very happy ending, thanks to the efforts of teachers and parents.

Technical notes: Traveling shots made with DJI Osmo; interviews and b-roll Sony FS5 in SLOG3. Interview mic: Audix SCX1-HC.

Is DJI Osmo more than a toy?

My first step on the journey from still photographer to cinematographer was to simply grab a camera and start shooting. I quickly learned to put it on a tripod instead. Or a shoulder rig. Or a slider. More recently, a Movi. But the reality of gimbal-stabilized shooting is that it can end up looking like this:

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Hardly freeing! So when DJI announced the Osmo late last year, with the promise of a stable camera that fits in your palm, I was fully intrigued.

Osmo is priced aggressively enough that I didn’t have to think about it too long before deciding to buy. Over the Christmas break I had a chance to do a little shooting with it, to answer the question: is Osmo more than a toy? Could the footage it produces work on a real documentary production?

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The first thing I noticed out of the box is that Osmo is cute. Sexy, even.  The sleek black device invites holding and feels great in your hand. If it were white, I would swear it was an Apple product. But then I turned it on, and the next thing I noticed was that the horizon wasn’t level. And it kept crashing when I touched the screen in the wrong place. Definitely not an Apple product!

Based on my early observations, it’s clear that DJI released Osmo before the firmware was fully ready. DJI embodies a trend in which camera manufacturers use early adopters as beta testers for firmware that is still in development. But within a few weeks, and just in time for Christmas, DJI released new firmware, and most of the problems I observed are much improved, if not fully corrected.

The Osmo’s lens is fixed-focus, like a GoPro, which keeps everything more than 1 meter away in focus. Everything close than that falls out of focus. A meter is almost 40 inches, and to get the camera that far away, you’ll need to use the optional DJI selfie stick (currently in short supply) to get sharp images of yourself. I’ve ordered one and look forward to the option of getting the camera up high (drone like) for close aerial perspectives with the Osmo.

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Selfie mode at arms length

Shooting in selfie mode produces a slightly back-focused subject in frame. Click the image above to view at full resolution, which reveals the full extent of the problem (the downsampled image as rendered above disguises this).

Another challenge: the Osmo with X3 doesn’t do closeups. It doesn’t even do medium closeups. Remember, the Osmo field of view is the equivalent of a 20mm lens on a full frame camera. That’s wide!

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Distortion and soft focus ensues when you get the Osmo closer than 1 meter

Moving Osmo too close both distorts your subject and throws it slightly out of focus. The slight defocusing is made all the more apparent because whatever is behind it will be perfectly sharp.   So, with Osmo, I have to fight my instinct to get the camera close, especially when shooting people.

The closest thing to a workaround (until the X5 camera for Osmo is released) is to shoot in 4k, and leave lots of room around the subject, then crop into the shot in post. But I find it’s best to just keep people a meter or more away. That’s just how this camera was designed to be used.

Slow motion

In 1080p, you have some nice framerate choices for conforming to 24p slow motion: 30p, 48p and 60p. You can also engage the slow motion mode which shoots at 120p in windowed mode.

The best quality slow motion results happen from shooting no more than 60fps. Anything more than that, and the image suffers from significant noise. To my eye it looks like 720p that’s been scaled up: a little soft, and very noisy. Still, with some denoising, you can get some usable results. The field of view when shooting in 120fps is much narrower due to the windowing of the sensor.

Battery life

You’ve got two batteries to stay on top of with Osmo: one in the handle that powers the camera, and one in your smart phone powering your screen. I find the Osmo batteries last about 30-40 minutes in constant use. So you’ll need a handful of them to get much shooting done.

iPhone battery life is greatly reduced when shooting with Osmo. During an afternoon of shooting, I was able to keep going by plugging my iPhone into a portable battery quick-charger. It’s easy to operate the Osmo with a charging cable running to your pocket. Your smart phone battery life may vary, but if you plan to shoot for more than 45 minutes or so I recommend something like this.

4K

I was unable to get the camera to record in cinema 4K at the DCI standard of 4096 x 2160. I thought at first that my card wasn’t fast enough, during the time I was writing this post, DJI released firmware version 1.4.1.8, and this resolved the issue (and many others). All 4K modes work perfectly now!

Selecting 4096 x 2160 changes the aspect ratio into a slighter wider field of view than 16×9 (approximately 1.9:1) and sets shutter to 24p. The more common UHD-1 (16×9 aspect ratio) 4k standard is supported in this camera in frame rates of 30p and 24p.

Screen Freezing issue

For some reason, the DJI Go app freezes occasionally when I tough the screen anywhere that isn’t a menu. This is definitely a bug, because the screen is designed to allow setting a spot-meter by touching the screen when in auto exposure modes. The v. 1.2.1.8 firmware update does not fix this problem. UPDATE: This issue has been fixed with the latest firmware update.

Manual controls

One of my favorite things about the Osmo is that it gives you full manual control over exposure. In practice, this means you will be able to get cinematic results from this camera that GoPro users can only dream about. For example, shooting in dark forested areas and emerging into more brightly lit areas, I was able to set the exposure to be correct on the brightest areas and allow the rest to go dark. Great for reveal shots. Trees and foliage tends to overexpose when set to auto, and going manual resolves this. The controls are easily accessible by touch, and unlike many other cameras, you can punch the screen while rolling without disturbing the shot because the brushless gimbals are doing their thing. So it works very well.

Another nice touch is the option to set shutter priority – which allows locking in a cinematic framerate of 50p, while letting the Osmo set aperture and ISO.

ND filtration

Although it doesn’t come with any ND, Neutral density filters can easily be screwed onto the Osmo’s threaded filter (it ships with a clear filter). The Osmo’s X3 camera uses the same filters as the Inspire 1. Luckily, there are quite a few options for ND filtration available for Inspire 1. I purchased a set of 3 Renaat ND filters for US $69. These filters weigh just 3 grams apiece, and won’t unbalance the gimbal. To purchase a set of your own, send an inquiry email to ceulenaere@gmail.com.

For overcast conditions, I found the 1/8 ND works great. For more brightly lit conditions and direct sun, the 1/16 and 1/32 filters will give you access to those cinematic shutter speeds. At 1/324, IR pollution becomes a bit of an issue, but I prefer to deal with a little color correct than to live with staccato shutter effect that results from high shutter speeds.

D-log

Osmo gives you a whole bunch of picture profiles to choose from. The most interesting one is d-log, which gives you a flatter image, holding onto highlight detail in post. I find it’s  more like Canon’s C-log than it is like Sony’s S-log: less dynamic range, but easier to grade. It feels to me like d-log gives you a ballpark of around 10 stops of dynamic range. Exceptionally good for this little camera!

In my original testing, d-log had a noticeable red shift, which had to be corrected in post. But this seems to have been corrected in firmware updates and I’m no longer seeing this issue.

What it’s really good at

Tracking shots! The Osmo excels when you’re in motion filming something that’s also in motion. For big establishing shots where you want everything in frame to be in focus, it’s killer. Think of it as a drone that you can hold in your hand, and shoot accordingly. So, passing between things or through things, big sweeping reveals, that sort of thing.

I’ve used the Osmo for one commercial project, and found it to be an incredible tool for getting shots I wouldn’t have been able to get any other way. In the video below, all of the traveling shots were shot with Osmo, and intercut with Sony FS5 footage. The cardboard walls in the space were 8′ tall, and I wanted a way to see over the top of the walls while moving, to reveal the participants interactions. I put the Osmo on a painter’s pole, which allowed me to extend it about 6 feet. This allowed me to get some dramatic crane-up reveal shots, like the shot that opens with the team huddled over an iPhone screen, booming up to reveal the view over the walls. Pretty sweet, and a shot I couldn’t have dreamed of getting with a larger camera rig in the cramped space.

What it’s not so good at

It doesn’t do closer than 1 meter, or selective focus.

Conclusion

The Osmo X3 is an exceptionally useful tool right now. For wide sweeping shots with movement, it’s killer. But the need to keep the camera at least a meter away from your subject limits it’s storytelling capabilities. The small sensor means everything in the frame is in focus.

When the X5 for Osmo is released, things will get a lot more interesting. Footage should then intercut seamlessly with higher quality cameras, and focus will be controllable, opening up a world of possibility.

But I’m not waiting for that. I’m carrying Osmo today on many of my commercial projects, looking to bag those special wide shots that I otherwise wouldn’t have time or budget for. The Osmo is the gimbal you can always have with you. And that makes it a winner with a very bright future.

C300mkii cfast file corruption issue – and one tedious solution

meNo shit. There I was. At the end of a long day of shooting for a commercial client with a rented C300mkii, and I get this error message: “Buffer overflow.” I tried to dismiss the error but the camera’s OS had frozen. I had to pull the battery to cycle power and restart. I hit record and same error. Additionally, another error popped up with something like “some files need to be recovered.” WTF?

My rented 256gig Lexar 3400 Cfast card was 6 minutes away from being full in slot A. I had a fresh card (same brand and capacity) in slot B, and my first thought was to switch cards. I did that, and everything was happy. I finished the shoot without further incident.

But when I inserted card A into the reader that evening, much to my surprise, my Mac froze and had to be hard-rebooted. Damn! Now I was getting nervous. This was a big project for a client who had flown to Portland from Austin, at considerable expense. I started to imagine the extremely uncomfortable conversation I was going to have to have with him.

“Um, you know that second day of shooting we did? The one where you kept telling me the shots looked so much better than our first day of shooting? Yeah, that extra day of shooting that you didn’t plan to pay for but did because I convinced you it would be worth it?”

I did some Googling, and discovered that the only Cfast cards officially supported by Canon for the C300mkii are all SanDisk cards, in capacities only up to 128GB.

SanDiskCampatability

 

I was extremely disappointed to find discover this fact, because my rental house, Lensrentals.com, had listed the Lexar drive as “works well with” the c300mkii. But who knows whether the Cfast card error thrown by the camera was related to the media anyway? Maybe it was something else. But I didn’t want to point fingers: I wanted to find a solution.

I put the bad card back into the camera, switched into media review mode, and held my breath as I tried to open the files. And guess what? I could open them! Big sigh of relief. If the data was readable on the camera, that meant the files would be recoverable. But how?

lexar3400After several attempts to do disk first aid and data recovery on the card failed with the same OS freeze as before, I got another idea. Would it be possible to copy, one at a time, the files from the Cfast card onto the camera’s SD card, which normally records proxy media? Nope. No can do. There isn’t even an option for that. But as I was exploring the C300mkii’s file options, I discovered that it IS possible to copy files using the camera menu from Cfast card A to B. I took another deep breath and gave it a try and…bingo! The file copied and the copied card was readable on my Mac.

It took me about half a day to painstakingly go through all 128 files and copy them over, but it was the best half day I’ve ever spent.

I alerted the rental house to the potential card compatibility issue, and they said they’d investigate. I still have no clear optic on what caused this data drama. But I do know a couple of things. The first one is that a problem like this has never happened to me while shooting with my Sony FS5. The second is that the next time I rent a C300mkii, you can be damn sure I’ll be sticking with the cards that Canon has officially supported.

UPDATE: After investigating, the fine folks at Lensrentals.com told me “it looks like the card was defective” and issued me a refund for the card rental.  “We haven’t had any higher issues with these cards/cameras than any other. I wouldn’t hesitate to use them again – just perhaps with a backup or two.”

New king of the ring: Cool-Lux gears

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I’m always surprised when I see documentary shooters working without a follow focus unit. To me, the precision and added stability are essential. But plenty of documentary shooters roll with Canon zooms, and gearing those lenses has until recently required making an awkward compromise (i.e., Red Rock gears) or an expensive permanent choice (Duclos mod). I’ve written about one ring to rule them all, but those hard-plastic gears are really for primes, and won’t fit on my favorite documentary zoom, the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 (above right).

Enter Cool-Lux Lux gears. These gears are unique in my experience in that they are made of a firm yet flexible silicone, which has just enough stretch to slip on over protruding zoom lens elements. Yet when finally worked into place, they stay put. Even with constant ins and outs from a camera bag, they don’t budge and have the look and feel of a permanent solution. Plus, they can still be removed when desired.

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The 76-77mm gear slides over the protruding stabilization switch on the 17-55mm f/2.8 Canon EFS zoom

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After I ordered one of the gears, and raved about it on Facebook, Cool Lux’s product manager Patrick Fee dropped me a thank you. Very kind of him. So I seized the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the company and how the gears are made.

Q: What kinds of gear do you make, who do you make it for, and how long have you been doing this? 

Cool-Lux started off as a lighting company way back in 1977 specializing in on-camera lights for video professionals, the type of thing you would see on the shoe mount of an ENG camera to add some fill light or get an exposure in the dark.  Advances in LED technology has since led to Cool-Lux’s current line of Pro LED Panel Lights.

In fall of 2013 I was hired on to focus on making innovative new camera rig and accessory products for cinema video professionals like yourself.  In that time, I designed a completely new shoulder mount camera rig system for Cool-Lux based on the idea of going from a tripod to the shooter’s shoulder with the press of a button.  It’s actually a really cool system with a flip out action and chest support aimed at rental houses and production companies that use a lot of different cameras because it works on everything. I also designed some very simple but effective lens gears called Lux Gears that are just now starting to take off.

Q: The market for gears seems pretty crowded. What inspired you to jump in? 

You’re right in saying the market for lens gears is pretty crowded but everything out there was just a copy of the same old terrible design.  I always hated the one size fits all type.  Yeah they are easy for a distributor to stock but the damn buckle is not only hideous to look at, it also prevents the product from doing what its intended to do, especially on lenses that don’t have built in stops.  The only other option was to permanently fix a gear to a lens, which is fine if you’re only going to use it in a cinema type setting, or have something custom made to your specific lens that could, in theory, be removable and still give you a secure 360° rotation.  The Lux Gears filled that gap by providing a simple range of 16 follow focus lens gears that look professional and perform like a very secure permanent gear but can also be easily removed in seconds without having to get out the tools.  There is nothing else like them.

Q: The striking thing about these gears is how they stretch over the lens to fit perfectly and stay put. How are the gears made?

Lux Gears are a precision molded product.  We use a high durometer silicone material to get the elasticity needed to stretch over the lens barrel but also have enough rigidity to hold up to the amount of torque needed to turn the lens with a manual follow focus or motor driven gear.  Most people might think that a flexible gear would lead to a lot of slop or backlash when it comes to dialing a follow focus back and forth.  I actually found the opposite to be true.  Consider that with two rigid gears the engagement has to be perfect.  Either there is space between the teeth which leads directly to “slop” between the gears or the teeth are too tightly engaged which leads to a grinding of the gears.  With the high durometer silicone the engagement can be slightly too tight and the gears will not grind because of their slight flexibility.  They provide more margin of error when engaging the driving gear which is a benefit I didn’t see coming.

Q: Where are these gears made? 

We partnered with a local Chicago company that specializes in elastomers to help with the product development and make the production molds and gears for us.

So there you have it. Cool-Lux gears are the clear winner in the quest to make the perfect follow focus gear. They run about $28 each. Learn more at http://www.cool-lux.com.

Great glass: Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS

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The Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens is an ultrafast autofocusing lens when paired with a DSLR such as 5dmkiii, making shots like this almost easy.

OK, I just gotta rave on my newest lens for a minute. The Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS USM lens isn’t a new lens – it was released 10 years ago. But that’s one of the great things about it: it’s a lens that sports all of the fancy new technology like 4-stop image stabilization and autofocus, yet it’s been around long enough that you can find a perfectly good used one inexpensively on Ebay. I picked up mine there for $785 including shipping, and with a little more patient hunting you can find one in the low to mid $700s. It retails new for about $1,200.

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As a stills lens, it’s ultra fast at autofocus. Consider these frames I snapped at a lacrosse game last night. Shot at f/4, the background is plenty out of focus at that aperture to provide good separation. The lens is small enough to carry around easily and handhold.

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But what gets me really excited is pairing this lens with the the Sony FS5 for video work. With the Metabones Speedbooster, you get f/2.8 brightness (albeit with f/4 depth of field characteristics), all in an easy to carry lens that doesn’t absolutely require additional lens support (as the 70-200 f/2.8 IS lens most certainly does).

It’s compact, easy to carry, and quick to pop on and off during a shoot. It interchanges quickly with other lenses because of it’s smaller size, and you get f/2.8 performance out of it with the Speedbooster. Want even longer length up to 300mm at f/4? Just pair it with the Metabones IV Smart Adapter instead.

gear

I’ve semi-permanently attached the excellent Cool-Lux gears to mine (the stretchy rubber gear is pretty easy to wiggle on and off should you want to remove it, but otherwise stays firmly put – making Cool-Lux gears the best focus gears I’ve ever owned). The size you want for a perfect fit with this lens is the 74-75 Cool-Lux Gear.

What’s your favorite bargain glass?

I’ll leave you with a few more frames I shot with this dandy lens over the weekend. Enjoy.

big-wing-vertical killergull KU0A0342 KU0A2085 KU0A2110 KU0A2126 KU0A2128 KU0A2152 seagull wings

 

 

 

Rhino Camera Gear hosts meet up at Gas Works Park **RESCHEDULED for 3/28 at 5:30pm

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I’m a big fan of Rhino camera sliders. They are lightweight, extremely well designed, and their support is top notch. When a connector failed on mine recently, the team shipped me a brand new replacement unit, featuring a better design, BEFORE I even returned my defective unit. What’s more, they are a Seattle company!

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 10.05.38 AMSo I’m thrilled to see that Rhino is hosting a meet up in my neighborhood, at Gas Works Park, on Monday, March 21.

** NOTE: This event has been RESCHEDULED due to rain for Monday, March 28 at 5:30pm.

They’ll be bringing sliders and the new Rhino Arc, and shooting time lapses. So this will be a great opportunity to check out some top-notch gear and see it in action, and meet the people behind the product. Everyone who attends will get a $100 gift card good for purchase of Rhino products.

Participants will meet at the south-east corner of the park at 5:30pm, and from there will spread out to find the best spots to make time lapses.  Unfortunately I’m out of town until Tuesday so I’m going to have to miss this. Looks like fun.

Here’s where you can RSVP for the the free event – https://www.eventbrite.com/e/rhino-meetup-gas-works-park-tickets-20981388899

Why the SmallHD 502 crushes Sony FS5’s built-in LCD

Above: properly (over)exposed SLOG looks blown out on FS5’s LCD. SmallHD 502 with LUT applied fixes that.

The SmallHD 502 is a monitor that feels like it was made for the Sony FS5, addressing the camera’s fatal monitoring flaw while remaining true to it’s handheld aesthetic.

Sony’s new FS5 is a killer documentary camera. After just three months using the camera on a variety of projects, I’m hopelessly addicted to it’s stepless ND, it’s 14 stops of dynamic range, and it’s hand-hugging ergonomics. But if you want to take advantage of those 14 stops, you have to shoot SLOG. And if you shoot SLOG, you need to overexpose by at least a stop, to kill noise in the shadows. On higher-end Sony cameras like the FS7 and F55, you can load monitor LUTs to compensate for this. But the FS5 doesn’t support monitor LUTs. So overexposing blows out the image, making it difficult gauge exposure on the LCD.

This problem isn’t going to be fixed in firmware, we’re told by Sony. The chip in this camera will never be fast enough to support monitor LUTs. So. What’s a self-respecting documentary DP to do? I went looking for an external monitor that supports LUTs. One that doesn’t disrupt the feng shui of this fit-in-your-hand camera. Here’s what I found.

First the bad news: many of the popular external monitors that support LUTs are too big for the FS5. I’ve used two, the Atomos Ninja Assassin and the Odyssey 7Q+. Perched on the top handle of the FS5, they are about as complementary to the aesthetic of this camera as Donald Trump has been to the presidential ambitions of Jeb Bush.

The whole point of the Sony FS5 is grab and shoot. This camera empowers you to feel your way into a scene, with everything at your fingertips. So bolting a lot of stuff, or turning it into a shoulder mounted beast like it’s bigger brother the FS7 (as Zacuto would love for you to do), just isn’t right. We need to look for an option that respects the form of this camera.

A fellow Seattle DP, Gabriel Miller, recommended I take a look at the SmallHD 502. And after spending a few days shooting with it, I got really excited and bought one. I’ll explain why in a minute.

But first, a few words about my old monitor, which happens to be the SmallHD DP6.  I’ve been using it since 2011,  and I love this monitor. But recently I’ve observed what seems to be a trend toward larger on-camera monitors. Good-quality LCD and even OLED screens must be getting cheaper to make, because there sure are a lot of them out there. And it seemed to me that having another inch or so of screen would be a very nice thing indeed.

So when SmallHD announced the 501 and 501 monitors last May,  I was skeptical. Why go small when you can go big? But all of that thinking changed when I got my hands on the 502 (The 501 is HDMI-only, and 502 offers SDI as well. SDI is the only way to go for professional use).

The first thing I noticed is that, as small as it is, the actual screen size is almost as big as the DP6 (which isn’t actually a full 6″ diagonal – it measures 5.6″). It’s very compact, very lightweight, yet manages to provide all of the essential features that larger monitors do, like peaking, scopes and support for user-created 3D LUTs.

The second thing is that the 502 is visibly much sharper than that DP6. It’s much easier to tell at a glance if you’re shot is in focus, even without using any of the focus assists. That’s because the 502 packs a full 1920×1080 pixel stack into that 5″ screen, while the DP6 maxes out at 1280×800. Those extra pixels translate into a clearer picture of what’s happening in your frame.

Scopes

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” That quote, attributed to Einstein, describes what my thinking on scopes. The original scopes on the 502 were TOO simple – they lacked any numeric display. I found it hard, for example, to figure out what the values are on the waveform monitor, because the lines were not accompanied with their number value, leaving me to have to compute where the values fell in my head every time I glanced at the monitor. So I was delighted to find, upon updating the firmware to v. 2.2, that marks had been added.

waveform

 

However, the histogram on the 502 remains a little too simple. I’d like to be able to drop in a zebra marker so I see where a specific value is falling on the histogram, as Sony monitors do. Here’s the histogram on the 502 (below):

smallhist

And here’s the Sony FS5 histogram, which allows the option to drop a  line at the zebra level (in this case, I’ve set it to 70 percent):

SHD_IMG_0024

On the FS5 histogram, the background darkens above 100 percent, clearly indicating the super white area. This way, without numbers, I can see at a glance where my data is falling. With the SmallHD histogram, I have to guess. A few tweaks like this would go a long way to making the 502 histogram more useful.

One very nice control that SmallHD gives you that Sony doesn’t is the ability to scale the size, location, and opacity of the scopes. You can also choose between RGB and Luma styles. And, with firmware v2.2, vectorscope has been added, which is very useful when dialing in a specific color balance using a grey card and for testing lights.

Frame grabs

Pressing the button on the top right of the monitor (about where you’d expect to find the camera button if it were a smartphone) captures the current frame as a still. Grabbing a frame captures the image without SmallHD’s overlays (but includes the FS5 overlays when sent from the camera). This is good most of the time, but there are times I want to capture all the overlays (such as for writing blog posts). I’d love to have an option for that.

Focus assist

The 502 has  3 ways to help you judge focus: peaking, and a joystick that lets you enlarge the image to confirm focus by pressing it upward, 2x and 4x. Pressing down on the stick zooms you back out. If you want to scroll around the image, you depress the joy stick and follow the arrows.

My favorite tool for helping me nail focus is the 502’s implementation of peaking. I find that the default value of 5 is too sharp – everything starts looking like it’s in focus. But setting it at 3 is just right. Focus planes snap into sharp focus while leaving out of focus areas soft. I really feel lost trying to focus without this peaking feature now, it’s that good.

Starting the 502 requires holding the start button down for about two seconds. Not bad, but I prefer the DP6’s simpler on/off switch. A switch shouldn’t require me to give it my attention for even a couple of seconds. I’ve got a lot of other things on my mind during production and having to press-hold-count to two every time I fire up the monitor actually turns out to be a minor irritation.

Support

I had a shoot against a white screen a few weeks ago, and for the first time I noticed that the screen of my 502 wasn’t quite right – there were darker, clouded areas in the monitor that I hadn’t noticed before (see below):

arrows

So I realized that I had a defective monitor. I put in a request to SmallHD service using their convenient online support system. I got an email the next day asking for clarification about the problem, so I sent in a photo of the screen. After a brief back-and-forth via email, the friendly support person sent me an RMA number and about a week later my monitor was shipped back to me, with a replaced screen, no charge. The new screen is now consistent from side to side and top to bottom, so I’m a happy customer and can say from experience that SmallHD support is prompt and friendly.

Bug: Every time I start the monitor, it opens the first screen in the menu. It should return me to the last screen used.

Design fail: It’s ridiculously difficult to get the SD cards in and out of the provided slot. You almost need a pair of tweezers to fish them out, because the protective door opens only halfway, making it impossible for anyone with adult-sized fingers to grasp the card.

But overall: This is a fantastic monitor choice for use with the Sony FS5. It’s small size, high resolution and support for LUTs enable me to preserve the ergonomic advantages while at the same time giving me essential big-camera exposure tools.

The Samsung T1 SSD is a video editing powerhouse – and it’s the size of a business card

samsungt1ssd

Who edits video on a desktop computer any more? Except for a final color pass and final audio mixing with studio monitors, 90 percent of what I do happens in my lap, on a MacbookPro. I edit on my couch, at a standing desk, in coffee shops, the kitchen, wherever I feel like it. But until I discovered the Samsung T1 USB3 SSD, I had trouble finding portable drives that were large enough to hold entire projects, fast enough to keep up with FCPX, and affordable.

This drive has been a game changer for me. Here’s why.

First observation: it’s tiny. With a smaller footprint than a business card, and weighing just 9 ounces, it feels almost weightless dangling from the side off my MacBook. Other drives will fall off under their own weight if left to hang like that.

But don’t let the small size fool you. The Samsung T1 USB3 SSD is a seriously professional tool, perfect for cutting video. Of critical importance, files stored on the T1 are significantly more secure than files stored on a traditional hard drives, because there are no moving parts.

But speed is where it really shines. Check out the Speed Test numbers below: 374 MB/s write and 425 MB/s read. That’s a zero-wait state for my video editing needs. This drive is FAST.

Samsung T1 speed test

The Samsung T1 is super fast, tiny, and secure

That brings us to price. The benefits of SSD media are well known to just about everybody these days. But affordability? Not so much. Until recently, the fastest SSD I could afford was a half-terabyte Lacie SSD. However, my projects commonly climb to around half a terabyte by the time they ship. So 500GB drives aren’t big enough. There are workarounds, such as cutting with proxies and storing original media on a RAID, and reconnecting later. But screw that. I want to carry ALL the original media around with me when I’m working on a project, whether it’s across my office or across the Atlantic.

So I paid $380 for my T1. Not cheap, for sure, but having used it a few weeks, I’ve got two words to describe the price: worth it. I’ve noticed the price has since gone up to over $400 on Amazon. But for me, even at that price, it remains a value. The time saved while editing, the peace of mind of having my project files on an SSD vs a spinning hard drive, and the ability to carry ALL of my files with me wherever I go is breathtaking.

Here’s a few of the other portable drives I own, in descending order of how I rate them (best at top) and why the Samsung T1 beats each of them:

1. Lacie 500GB Rugged Thunderbolt External SSD

This drive is actually slower the T1, which surprised me, given that it rocks Thunderbolt. And it’s only half a terabyte. And it costs $500 (although you can find them for close to $400 if you hunt around). If you want to step up to a 1TB Lacie SSD, the only option currently is the Lacie Big Disk Thunderbolt 2 1TB SSD – and that will set you back a whopping $1,200, which puts it out of my league.

For smaller projects, this drive is great. But all that rubberized ruggedness translates into bulk, and I find the Thunderbolt cable is too short to allow me to park the drive on the coffee table when I’m editing on the couch, for example. So I end up sitting on it, and it’s too big for comfort. On the other hand, you won’t misplace this drive! The T1 beats this drive in size, in price, and in speed. But the Lacie is certainly more rugged.

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2. Western Digital 4TB MyPassport Pro.

Despite the fact that this drive defaults to RAID 0 and sports a Thunderbolt connector, it isn’t fast enough to cut HD video with on my laptop without slowing me down. FCPX makes a lot of demands on hard drives when skimming through mountains of footage, and I find the spinning beachball is a commonplace when cutting this drive. It’s ALMOST fast enough, but frustratingly, not quite. The Thunderbolt cable is also too short at times. But it’s 4TB size makes it a great place to store backups, and that’s what I use mine for now. This drive costs $300. The T1 beats MyPassport Pro in both speed and size by a long shot. But MyPassport Pro has a lot more capacity, making it a great backup drive.

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3. WD Elements 2TB.

This is a dog in terms of performance, but it’s cheap, reliable, and a great way to hand project files off to clients or other editors. The $78 price tag is very attractive. What more can I say.

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4. Seagate Backup Plus portable 2TB drive.

This is another drive that’s really only useful for backups and handing project files around. It’s pretty much the equal of the WD Elements, and costs the same roughly $80. But I put it at the bottom of my list because it requires installing a driver to work on Mac, while the Elements works right out of the box.

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