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:

bigrig

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?

DJI-OSMO-01-650x489

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.

selfiesoft

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!

tooclosecamera

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.

New king of the ring: Cool-Lux gears

cool-lux-gears

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.

peel-on

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

slide-on

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

lacross

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.

KU0A2638 KU0A2657

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.

canonglass

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

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 10.08.21 AM

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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Sony FS5 project: The Puppet Maker

I’d like to share a project I just completed for the University of Washington, which tells the story of a grad school student who makes puppets. It features footage shot entirely on the Sony FS5. I shot SLOG 3 in Sgamut3.cine color mode, generated dailies in DaVinci Resolve, and cut the piece in FCPX.

This project required every one of the 14 stops of the dynamic range this camera offers, and the results speak volumes about what this camera is capable of.

My assistant Sean McGrath picked up a few of the shots, in particular the traveling shots which were shot on a Ronin M. The FS5, stripped to the body only, fits perfectly on the gimbal, which is incredibly light and easy to handle in this configuration.

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The approach with this story was to use the puppet making visuals over Reed’s story to explain how UW’s Core Programs can help students find a community and find their voice while in grad school. Using this cinematic, storytelling approach as opposed to straight documentary achieves the goal of making it interesting while staying on message.

We spent a lot of time searching for the right story in the preproduction phase of this project. Finding the right story to tell (one that offers interesting action to film) and then developing a storyline to follow makes it all come together like magic. It’s no exaggeration to say that I spent more than 50 percent of my time on this project in preproduction, and less than half actually shooting it (we did the shoot in an easy day – a few hours spent filming the sewing in the morning, and a couple of hours shooting the scene in the square in the afternoon).

Sony FS5 Quick Setup Guide

left-menus

If you’re starting out with the Sony FS5, and going for a cinematic look, ypere’s a setup guide that will have you up and rolling fast.

Codec: Select REC SET from in/out menu, and choose:

File Format: XAVC HD
REC FORMAT: 1080/24p 50Mbps

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XAVC HD will give you the best quality image this camera is capable of, in gorgeous 10-bit, which can withstand a lot of color grading without getting noisy. The default XAVC QFHD option gives you 4K, but only in 8 bit. So unless you need the higher resolution, stick with HD. And avoid using QFHD in low light.

Monitor

Enable the Gamma Display Assist. This increases contrast when shooting SLOG, making it easier to focus. When not shooting SLOG, it is automatically disabled.

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VF/LCD Panel: I set to LCD Panel. Choosing Auto (the default) means your LCD will turn itself off and on whenever you inadvertently block the eyepiece of the viewfinder. You can then enable the viewfinder when needed by sliding the switch on the top of the LCD screen to OFF.

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Hand grip buttons

I recommend setting Button 6 to Center Crop. This will give you a fast way to reframe the shot by punching in to it for a quick closer angle. But be careful: this technique isn’t great in low light, because noise in the image is magnified.

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Picture Profiles

For well lit scenes in general, where you need to hold all the dynamic range possible, shoot SLOG 3. That’s PP 8 for daylight, and PP 9 for tungsten environments. For some reason Sony made the color temperature part of the picture profile in SLOG 3, which is weird, but whatever. Choose the 5500K or 3200K option as appropriate.

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If you’re in a mixed light environment and want to split the difference, open either picture profile and dig into the menu, and select the 4300K option.

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For lower light situations, choose a Cinegamma rather than SLOG. I recommend Cine3 or Cine4: they will require a little grading, but not much – just some contrast adjustments to make them look less flat by crushing the blacks a little. I’ve set my camera up with Cine3 on PP6 on my camera, like so:

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Gain

From the Camera menu, set up the L-M-H gain switch on the left side as follows:

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I recommend staying at or below ISO 1600 with this camera when shooting with the hypergammas. The image quality starts to degrade significantly above 3200. For best results in very low light, try PP3 (Rec 709/Pro).

When shooting in SLOG, avoid exceeding the base 3200 ISO. If you need to push beyond that, switch to a hypergamma (I recommend PP6).

Audio settings

For general run and gun shooting with a shotgun mic, I set channel 2 for the shotgun mic, and set it to level 5 manual. Channel 1 I set to the internal mic, on AUTO. Adjust the manual level as needed depending on your environment. The auto channel is a backup, that should catch any prolonged loud spikes such as if your subject starts yelling, giving you something to cut to in the edit should you need it.

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For recording interviews or woking with a boom op, leave the shotgun mic as-is on channel 2 (so you can quickly untether and shoot b-roll without having to touch the menus again) and plug in your external source via XLR cable to Input 1, being sure to set the input on the XLR jack to phantom power (for most shotgun mics) or line level (from mixer output) as necessary. Then, set CH1 Input to INPUT1. That’s it in a nutshell.

Engage the AUDIO LIMIT to help prevent clipping from sudden brief loud noises such as coughing in an interview. I leave this off when working with a  sound recordist, as limiting is better handled by the mixer.

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Tip: How to expose SLOG vs. Hypergammas

Exposing SLOG (PP 7, 8 or 9) at the Sony-recommended levels results in noisy shadows. Fixing that is easy: Overexpose your footage by 1 stop (also referred to as a one-stop pull). You will still have plenty of headroom to avoid clipping, and your shadows will be less noisy. You can even go as much as a 2-stop pull, but the image on the LCD and viewfinder will appear blown out, so you’ll need an external monitor that supports LUTs to accurately gauge your exposure.

When shooting in any of the other picture profiles, slight underexposure, by a half stop, will produce the best results, especially with skin tones.

SLOG2 or SLOG3? 

For most situations, I recommend SLOG3. SLOG2 is more difficult to grade than SLOG3. Both will give you 14 stops of dynamic range, but the response curve is different. As a result, if you’re shooting 4K in SLOG, you’ll get the most information possible in the limited 8-bits available by choosing SLOG2. If you’d like to understand why this is, along with a lot of other excellent info about shooting SLOG with this camera, check out this talk by Alister Chapman.

A quick way to start your grade with SLOG3 footage is to use a LUT. I’ve found two very good LUTs for this purpose. The first is Sony’s Alexa emulation LUT. It comes in two flavors, one- and two-stop exposure pulls. The second is a higher contrast version of the same LUT, with a one-stop pull, called AA709A, that was developed by Art Adams. I’ve packed up all three and tweaked them so they’ll work with the magnificent SmallHD 502, a monitor that preserves the form factor of the FS5 while giving you the ability to gauge SLOG exposure correctly through use of a LUT. You can download these FS5 LUTs here.

Shooting tips

It’s very useful with this camera to toggle the WHT BAL on and off when shooting in hypergamma picture profiles. This turns auto white balance on and off, and I’ve found the auto white balance feature to be very useful with the FS5. With most other cameras, I wouldn’t be caught dead using auto white balance. But Sony seems to have implemented this well, and I find it quite useful in difficult mixed lighting situations.

Use Button 5 on the hand grip for fast access to ISO, shutter speed and manual white balance.

To get a quick shot you you’d otherwise miss, just toggle on FULL AUTO on the top of the camera. The camera will take over EVERYTHING – white balance, shutter speed, ISO (and aperture if using a Sony lens). You won’t want to use these settings for long, but it’s a lifesaver in some challenging situations, such as following someone through a doorway and into a house.

Toggling any of the three ISO/GAIN, WHT BAL or SHUTTER buttons along the left bottom side of the camera enables auto for each, as well as allowing you to manually set the shutter. For manually adjusting them,  I find it’s faster to access them via Button 5 on the hand grip.

ndsetting

Set the ND FILTER to VARIABLE and ND/IRIS to ND. This allows you to steplessly control exposure with the wheel on the left side of the camera. It’s really the best way to control exposure, and the most innovative feature of this camera. Use it!

Armed with this camera and these settings, your footage is going to look amazing. Get out there and shoot something awesome.

So this is how I configure my FS5. How do you set up your yours?

How does Sony FS5 compare with Canon C100mkii?

Sony FS5: Best documentary camera ever?

Is the Sony FS5 the best documentary camera ever?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve migrated away from DSLR shooting to pretty much using the EOS c-series cameras, in particular the C100mkii, for most of the documentary-style shooting I specialize in. But a few weeks ago when the Sony FS5 began shipping, I opted to become an early adopter. The specs were just too tempting.

Last week I wrapped production on my first commercial project with the FS5. And while I have a long way to go in exploring this camera fully, I’d like to share some of what I have – and haven’t – observed so far.

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First up: I haven’t seen anything nasty in the footage, as others have reported. The only unacceptable quality I’ve seen so far is when shooting in center crop mode in low light, with the gain jacked up to 3200 ISO or higher. That produces nasty pebble-sized grain. But as long as I hang at 0db (ISO 1000 in hypergammas or ISO 3200 in slog) I find the results are spectacular. Razor sharp, crisp detail, plenty of color information to play with in 10-bit HD.

The FS5 gets noisy when pushed past 3200. In fact, I would say it’s best not to push it past 1600 ISO. And in SLOG, don’t pus it at all. It really wants a lot of light. Like one to two stops more than base ISO. So to my way of thinking, this is an ISO 1000 camera, whether you’re shooting SLOG or standard gammas. Set it in your head and forget it. And ISO 1000 is a pretty decent base ISO, isn’t it? The C100mkii’s base is 850. So we’re in the same ballpark with both cameras here. But the C100mkii can be pushed well over 3200 with great results. So Canon retains the edge for low-light shooting.

Canon color science is also more cinematic with less effort. All you have to do to get great looking footage when shooting C-log is drop on a LUT in post. The FS5, in SLOG, also requires dropping on a LUT (more about which ones in a moment). But then you have to do more work. Sometimes much more.

The good news is that the 10-bit HD footage loves to be graded! And it’s actually a lot of fun to push it around and you can do that to quite an extreme without the image falling apart. It’s definitely a different look, the Sony. I read somewhere that because Sony has a long tradition of news cameras, their look is more video than cinema. Canon, with it’s EOS C-series, is gunning squarely for cinematic results. And I have to say I prefer the Canon look. Skin tones look more alive. But it’s a subtle thing. I like the image coming out of the FS5 a lot, it’s just different from the C100mkii.

The first project I shot with the camera didn’t lend itself to shooting SLOG (as Allister Chapman has eloquently argued, SLOG isn’t good in low light) so I shot in PP6, which is Hypergamma 3/cine. No LUT required, off we go. Here’s how a few of the interview frames looked without too much grading – I just added a little Film Convert using FS7 settings:

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You can see that the last guy’s skin tones are unfortunately rather lifeless, but that’s not the camera’s fault:  I didn’t do a good enough job flagging him off from ghastly artificial light in the warehouse location where the interviews were shot, so you get a lot of that light showing up under the key.

Regarding 4K, I haven’t shot with it enough to comment. And I don’t plan to use much 4K anyway. That’s not why I bought this camera. It’s a pain in the ass to edit 4k (at least on my circa 2011 iMac) and none of my clients are asking for it. The only reason I can imagine using it regularly would be for getting two shots out of an interview, but in most cases I’d rather have the 10-bit than the 4K. Still, it’s very nice to have the option, something the C100mkii doesn’t.

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

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

In my SLOG shooting tests, I definitely find that this camera needs to be overexposed by at least one stop to keep noise down in the shadows. This makes monitoring a challenge. With the FS5, you’re stuck with just a single LCD mode that boosts the contrast to help with focus – but does nothing to reduce the overexposure. Not good enough! You really do need to shoot with a LUT when shooting SLOG.

LUTs are not supported by the FS5, however, so to use them you need a third-party monitor that supports them. I rented the SmallHD 502 on the advice of Seattle DP Gabriel Miller, and liked it so much that I bought one after using it for a single day. I wouldn’t dream of shooting without it now. It’s screen is almost as big as my DP6, but it’s tiny. A photographer friend asked me if it was my iPhone when he first saw it! And ultra lightweight. It lives on the top handle of my FS5, without compromising the compact form factor of the camera. Unlike the Atomos Ninja, which I also rented. Way too big and makes the whole thing top-heavy. No good.

So, which LUTs to use for monitoring (and post)? I’ve found two very good LUTs for this purpose. The first is the Sony Alexa emulation LUT. It comes in two flavors, one- and two-stop pushes. The second is a higher contrast version of the same LUT, with a one-stop push, called AA709A, that was developed by Art Adams. I’ve packed up all three and tweaked them so they’ll work with the SmallHD 502. You can download the FS5 LUTs here.

Next up, I’d like to talk about my favorite thing about the FS5: it’s body.

The ergonomics of the FS5 are SUPERB. It’s the first camera I’ve used in years that makes me want to shoot handheld. And I’m doing it all the time now. I’d basically forgotten that shooting handheld was even an option for me, ever since trading in my JVC HM100 for a 5dmkii. Even with the C100mkii, I find it wants to live on a monopod. But not this camera. It begs to be held in your hand, and it’s so easy to get great results with it, because it’s so light and so easy to MOVE with it. It’s changing how I think about shooting b-roll.

With both the FS5 and the C100mkii, the beauty is you can arrive on location and pull your camera out of the bag and begin shooting without building anything. But I give the FS5 the edge here, because even with my SmallHD 502 monitor attached and rotated horizontal, it measures just 10” high. That’s enabled me to turn my unused Steadicam Merlin travel bag into the perfect grag-and-go camera case for the FS5. It’s the perfect size bag to fit camera with my Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom lens, with Metabones IV adapter, a shotgun mic, and 502 monitor attached. The only thing I have to do to begin shooting is rotate the monitor to the right shooting angle, and press record.

I find myself picking up the FS5 with my right hand, by reaching into the grip, squeezing it, and lifting it, one-handed. It’s so light you can do that. It just balances in your right hand like an extension of your body, freeing your left hand to focus, operate the menus, and to cradle the camera for stability. That right handle is perfectly balanced. Really, the design team at Sony deserves an award for the FS5.

lens-mount

I haven’t used the FS5 with any Sony lenses. I am using it with my Canon EF glass, using the Metabones adapter and speed booster. Unfortunately my Contax Zeiss set won’t work with speed booster, because there are elements on the lenses that protrude too far.  I haven’t been able to try out the autofocus features of the camera with Sony glass.

The nice thing about the Metabones adapters, at least the version IV one that I have, is that the firmware issues others have reported seem to be resolved. Changing the iris behaves as expected, with the aperture dial on the camera. Also, image stabilization works perfectly on Canon glass with the adapter. My go-to lens on the C100mkii has been the the Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8, and it works flawlessly on the FS5 with the Metabones adapter.

It’s also very nice to be able to punch in to center crop mode and get even more reach from the lens.  But I do find that center crop works best in plenty of light. The Clear Image Zoom feature is also handy, but in the situations I’ve tried it, I definitely noticed a drop in image quality. Not as bad as most digital zooms, but enough that I won’t plan on using it regularly. Apparently the feature works better in some situations than others, because it uses a database of images to determine what image processing to apply. This will require more testing before I determine its strengths and weaknesses.

To compare with the C100, the Sony FS5 is definitely a manual focus camera. I LOVE the autofocus on the C100mkii, and I will continue to rent the C100mkii when I have projects that need snappy autofocus such as sports shooting or other situations where I don’t have time or mental bandwidth to chase focus. However, paired with the 502, manual focusing with the FS5 is a joy.

Touching the joystick enlarges the image 4x or 8x

Touching the joystick enlarges the image 4x or 8x

Using the 502, I’m able to gauge focus on the FS5 very precisely. A quick flick of the joystick zooms me into the image to check focus while rolling, and the way SmallHD has implemented peaking on the monitor is superb. So I really don’t find I miss the C100 autofocus so far.

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I have rigged up my FS5 with a Manfrotto quick release plate, which allows me to go instantly from rails and follow focus on a tripod, to handheld configuration. The camera is so lightweight that I have to rig it up and raise the center of gravity in order for it to balance on my Vinten AS5 fluid head. But the quick release gives me the best of both worlds: super stable, controlled tripod shooting one minute, and nimble handheld the next.

ball-head-detail

With a C100mkii, I use an external monitor mounted to an arm coming off a rail block. But with the FS5, I’m finding it most convenient to put the lightweight, compact 502 monitor right on top of the handle using a Manfrotto LCD ball head. This is a heavy ball head! It weighs as much as the monitor itself. But it’s buttery smooth in its operation, almost effortless to adjust, unlike the cheaper, lightweight ball heads. These have to be cranked down so hard it hurts your thumb, and they work loose and sometimes fall off. So it’s worth every penny and every ounce to get the Manfrotto. It’s the right tool for the job.

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I find myself shooting with both the LCD and the 502, keeping the menu display active on the LCD, and the 502 clear of menus so I can focus and frame without any distraction. With the latest firmware, you now have the option to send the menu display to the external monitor, should you wish, as you can on the C100mkii. But the C100mkii’s monitor is in a much more awkward place than the FS5, which is completely configurable however you like it, and depending on your shooting situation. But the EVF on the C100mkii is superior to the FS5s, which feels just adequate.

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It makes sense to have everything as light as possible with this camera, and to that end, I purchased a very thin, very flexible thin gauge 24” SDI cable that SmallHD makes. It works amazing. This little guy is what you want for monitoring. HDMI cables don’t cut it! I’m SO very glad that FS5 includes an SDI out, something the Canon C100mkii does not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed the C100mkii when the signal drops out momentarily to my external monitor because I simply touched the HDMI cable. So yay for no more HDMI cables. And with the SmallHD SDI cable, you get the same thin flexibility as a thin HDMI cable. Yay!

 

swit

Another neat trick with the FS5 is to get Swit S-8U63 batteries that include a d-tap. I picked up 3 of these, which aren’t cheap at $180 apiece. But three batteries is enough for me to shoot all day. I get about 2.5 hours shooting time per battery while also powering the SmallHD 502. Also great news is that with the Sony FS5 charger, these batteries go from empty to fully charged in less than an hour. *UPDATE:  A reader commented that these batteries occasionally reset the camera clock on the FS5. This is something I’ve observed, but didn’t know it was the fault of the battery. So if you rely on accurate timecode for your projects, you should avoid Swit batteries for now, and choose Sony’s OEM batteries instead.

nd

The ND wheel that allows you to smoothly and steplessly adjust the ND to control exposure is the killer feature of this camera. I can’t overstate how epic this is. Finally, a tool to control exposure without stepping the iris and changing depth of field! It’s the best thing ever for documentary style shooters. Goodbye, matte box. I don’t know if I can shoot anything else again after using this. And apparently Sony is going to release a firmware update that allows this to be set to an auto mode, which will automatically set the correct exposure using only this ND. How cool is that?

The slow motion features are fantastic, but I haven’t had a chance to use them much yet, so I won’t comment on that other than to say it gives me great pleasure to know that 240fps in full 10-bit HD is  just a button push away when I want it.

To sum up, I love this camera for it’s body. Does that make me shallow? I don’t think so. This camera has taught me that form IS function.  I’ll continue to admire the C100mkii for its look, for its autofocus and low light capabilities.  But for now I’m going steady with the FS5.