Category Archives: Product reviews

Reviews of filmmaking products or services that I’ve personally used.

Fujinon MK 18-55: the Tesla of documentary filmmaking?

Fujinon HK 18-55

Fujinon HK 18-55

The Fujinon MK 18-55 is the first legit cinema lens that this documentary shooter has a prayer of owning. But $3,700 is still a lot of money. Is it worth it? To find out, I was among the very first people to rent one.

MK 18-55 vs Canon EFS 17-55

Fujinon MK 18-55 vs Canon EFS 17-55 with Metabones adapter.

First off, it’s much more compact and lightweight than the photos I’ve seen imply. By way of comparison, my go-to lens on the Sony FS5 has until now been the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens with T Smart Adapter Mark IV. Check out the photo on the right: this extraordinary lens from Fujinon is about the same weight, and only slightly longer.

The Fujinon MK 18-55 is also sharper than my Canon 17-55. But not dramatically sharper – I had to blow the image up 200 percent to perceive the difference. See below.

What about barrel distortion? The difference is slight, but the Canon EFS 17-55, which has plenty of barrel distortion on the wide end, fares better than the Fujinon MK 18-55. I do wish that the MK didn’t bend vertical lines (i.e., walls) the way it does shooting on the 18mm end.  And there’s really no way to correct that in post, like you can automatically do when shooting with the Canon on a C100 with lens profile correction enabled, for example.

Warmer and sharper

Compared to Canon EFS 17-55, this lens is warmer, sharper, and a little wider. See for yourself:

Fujinon MK 18-55 at 18mm

Fujinon MK 18-55 at 18mm (Sony FS5, Cinegama 1)

Canon EFS 17-55 at 17mm

Canon EFS 17-55 at 17mm (Sony FS5, Cinegama 1)

In the frame above, the Fujinon 18-55 reveals itself to be significantly warmer glass than the Canon.

To see the difference in sharpness, you need to zoom in to 200 percent:

Fujinon 18-55 @200 percent

Fujinon 18-55 @200 percent (uncorrected)

Canon EFS 17-55mm

Canon EFS 17-55mm @200 percent (uncorrected)

Smooth operator

This lens makes me want to pull focus all day. I was really impressed by how easy it is to get extremely precise pulls. The heft of the rotating elements, all three of which are geared, is just right for hitting repeatable, consistent marks. It would be a joy to use this lens with a wireless focus puller.

As a rule, I don’t use zooming as shooting technique. But after rocking this lens, I’m beginning to wonder: why not? With the Fujinon MK 18-55, it’s hard not to feel like I’ve just added a new word to your vocabulary.  “Parfocal.” Mmmmmm. Sexy.

While it is still quicker to digitally punch in to check focus, with this lens it’s possible to crash zoom in, grab focus, and back out to your shot. Where that’s truly useful for a documentary shooter is when you’re rolling on something, and want to cut in-camera. Instead of having to refocus every time you zoom in or out, now you just keep rolling and watch your keeper count go up, up, up.

Look Ma, No Breathing!

This is the first lens I’ve ever used that doesn’t show any noticeable breathing. Know what I’m talking about? Narrative-style focus pulls, coming soon to a documentary screen near you. To see how lovely this is, here’s a short clip comparing the Fujinon MK 18-55 to the heavy breathing Canon EFS 17-55:

NO IS

As you probably noticed in that clip above, you have to be really careful when pulling focus not to jar the camera. With no IS, any shaking or vibration translates directly into your shot. Small amounts of this can be removed in post, but for many situations, such as shooting handheld, there’s no substitute for IS. For example, I was working on a doc a couple weeks ago where I found myself shooting on a bridge, with lots of car vibration. For those situations, this will not be your lens. But for many, many other situations, you will most definitely want this to be your lens.

Mind the gap

You have to pay attention to the focus gears when pairing this lens with a focus puller. The Fujinon MK 18-55 appears on first glance to have a very wide gear width in which to seat the focus puller, but actually, it isn’t that wide – the geared area slopes down toward the front, causing your gears to not mesh correctly if mounted too far forward. Be sure to place your gears behind the red line:

focus gear inset

Correctly mounted focus puller, above. It’s easy to mistakenly mount focus puller too far forward.

Best lens support: Shape

This lens is long enough that you really should use a lens support. It’s not absolutely essential, but for vibration-free focus pulls, I found I needed it.

Shape lens support

Shape lens support pairs perfectly with MK 18-55

I tested the lens with two supports, Zacuto 1/4 20″ Lens Support and Shape Lens Support. The winner, hands down, for documentary shooting was the Shape support. Not only is it far more affordable than the Zacuto, but it also allows faster lens changes.

The Shape lens support simply cradles the lens perfectly. The Zacuto requires screwing in a locking support rod, and that will slow down your lens changes. Speaking of that, this lens will really come into its own when it’s sister, the MK 50-135, is released this summer. That will give you a range that will cover most documentary situations with just two lenses. So you’ll be able to spend more time shooting and less time swapping glass.

It’s worth noting that the Fujinon MK 18-55 does not have a 1/4 20″ support mount hole. It’s mount screw is smaller:

mount point

The Fujinon MK 18-55 does not have a 1/4 20″ mounting point, so if you want to attach a support you’ll have to use the adapters that ship with the lens (but not with the rental).

Lensrentals.com did not include the adapter in their package, so be sure to specify that you want the adapter if you plan on supporting this lens with a screw-in support.

Mattebox Mate

Using still lenses with a matte box is a pain in the ass because every lens diameter is different. But the MK 18-55 is designed to mate seamlessly with a matte box in seconds.

How easy is it to swap the lens in and out with a matte box? I tried it out with my Genus Production Matte Box, and I was delighted to discover that the GPMB default lens fitting pairs perfectly with the Fujinon HK 18-88. The box simply sides over the front element of the lens, and screws tight to mate. Like so:

Genus Production Mattebox

Genus Production Mattebox pairs perfectly with Fujinon MK 18-55.

85mm-clamp-on-fit

The Genus Production Mattebox’s default 85mm clamp is perfect to mount it securely to the lens.

I found the best way to use the Production Matte Box was to remove the rail block mount altogether, and simply clamp the matte box to the lens. It’s overall lighter that way, and the Fujinon MK 18-55 lens is designed to accommodate the weight of a matte box without damaging the lens in any way. Contrast that will many still lenses, like my Zeiss CZ 50mm f/1.7, which fell apart under the weight of my Genus Matte Box Lite, forcing me to use them only with rail-mounted boxes.

How to adjust the backfocus

The focus can change depending on the temperature and humidity with this precision lens, so it’s important to set back focus on the Fujinon MK 18-55 correctly before a big shoot. Here’s how it’s done.

First, grab a tape measure and focus chart, if you have one. Otherwise just focus on something with fine detail.

  1. Set up on sticks, and measure 10 feet to your subject.
  2. Set iris wide open at 2.9.
  3. Zoom to 55mm. Focus.
  4. Zoom to 18mm. Release backfocus screw, and rotate it (not the focus barrel) until you get sharpest image.
  5. Repeat 3-4 until your lens is perfectly focused at both 55 and 18mm.
  6. Lock the backfocus screw.

Another neat trick this lens does is maintain the same light level throughout the entire zoom range. When I zoom from wide to tight on my Canon EFS 17-55, it gets noticeably darker on the long end. But not the Fujinon – it’s precisely the same brightness at both ends of the zoom.

“Demanding.” That’s a word I’d use to describe this lens. It’s not forgiving like IS glass. But once you go there…

“Tesla.” That’s another word that wasn’t in my vocabulary until a few years ago. I don’t own one (yet). But I imagine owning this lens could make me feel a lot like someone who does.

Travel lighting: 2-person interviews with Kino Flo Celebs

I just returned from a week on the road, shooting 2-person, 2-camera interviews for a documentary film that we hope will shine a light on an unsolved murder. Although I can’t talk about the content yet, I can talk about our lighting package. I chose Kino Flo Celebs, and I have some insights to share about these industry workhorses.

Kino Flo Celeb 401 kit

Kino Flo Celeb 401 kit

Kino Flo 201 Celeb kit

Kino Flo Celeb 201 kit

For this documentary production, we needed to light both the interviewer and the interviewee. So the job required something a little bigger than my usual kit. The shoot location was in a major US city that I would be flying to. And with extra baggage fees, it became clear that it would be more cost effective to rent locally than it would be to travel with my own lights.

Kino Flo Celebs rental package

Rent it or pack it?

On American Airlines, your first piece of checked luggage is $25. The second is $35. Each additional bag jumps to $125 each. I already needed two checked bags for my camera and tripod. Therefore, to bring my own lighting kit would have required two additional checked bags, totaling $600 round trip. With fees like that, it makes more sense to rent locally – and skip the hassle of traveling with all those cases.

Here’s what I specified in our package, which came to $942 for a 5-day rental:

  • 2 Kino Flo 201 Celebs
  • 1 Kino Flo 401 Celeb
  • 4 c-stands (2 for 201s, 1 for my Dedo DLED 7 which I packed, and 1 for sound guy)
  • 1 combo stand (for 401, which requires a Junior receiver)
  • 1 25′ stinger (with power strip for distribution)
  • 4 15lb sand bags (for c-stands)
  • 1 25lb sand bag (for combo stand)
  • 6 A-clamps
  • 2 furniture pads (for blocking light if needed)

To drive all this around, we rented a Yukon SUV.  It was big enough to fit our 4-person filmmaking team and the entire lighting package and camera gear in the back.  Note that we also hired local sound recordists, who drove their own vehicles. We also had a local PA for a couple of shoot days, but we traveled light enough to not require a PA.

What I packed:

Why Celebs rock

When you’re both the gaffer and the DP, you really don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to fuck with the lighting for very long. You have to put your camera hat on pretty quickly. I chose the Celebs because they offer controlled, soft light right out of the case. A light that requires setting cutters or flags or diffusing isn’t going to cut it. I need a light that I can set and forget.

The Kino Flo Celeb is perfect for these situations. Not only are Celebs soft without additional diffusion, they also include a honeycomb grid that focuses the soft light and aims it just where you want it. It’s hard to overstate how well this honeycomb works. One of the best things about the Celeb is its ability to minimize light spill.

To set up a Celeb,  you just pull it out of its case, yolk-mount it on a c-stand (in the case of the 201s) or on a junior stand (in the case of the 401). The 401 really does need the Junior stand – it weighs 26 pounds. That’s a lot of light.

Celebs are built like a tank. They are designed to withstand the wear and tear of day-in, day-out production. A set of convenient metal handles allows you to easily lift the lights in and out of their road cases. The only cord you have to hook up is the power cord – the ballast is built into the back of the unit. And as color-selectable LED sources, the lights can be dialed from 2700K – 6500K. You can also dim them to about 2 percent, invaluable when you want just a hint of fill.

The lighting setups

The basic setup for our 2-person, 2-camera interviews was to place the 401 as fill for both subjects on the camera side. Then we placed the 201s on the opposite side to key each person individually. We could then adjust the fill level down to get the dark, brooding vibe the director wanted, while still holding enough detail to reveal expressions.

kino-flo-celebs-basic-setup

Basic 2-person, 2-camera interview lighting setup

The above setup worked great in conference rooms without windows. But we also often shot in rooms that had a daylight window on one or more sides. In those cases, sometimes I would use the window as fill, and the 401 as key for both subjects, with a 201 to wrap the light a little further around onto the fill side of their face if needed.

Daylight window lighting setup

Daylight window lighting setup

Sometimes we filmed a 2-shot with one of the cameras, placing the 401 as fill by raising it above the 2-shot camera. This setup required placing both 201s on c-stand arms and raising them until their stands are out of the shot:

2-shot interview lighting setup

2-shot interview lighting setup (note both 201 lights are raised on arms to avoid seeing their stands in background of 2-shot camera)

In one case, we had to light three people: two interview subjects sitting next to each other,  with the interviewer opposite them:

3-person lighting setup

3-person interview lighting setup (note 401 is raised and on c-stand arm to keep it out of both camera shots, which requires counterweighting the arm. Dicey!)

Sketchy to boom

We had to shoot the above 3-person setup at night. So I chose to use the 401 as key for the 2 subjects so they could be lit evenly. However, to keep the stands out of frame, I had to boom the light out over the camera and aim it down on the subjects at a 45. I was able to make this work by clamping the yolk in a c-stand grip head, and placing a 25’lb bag on the other end of the arm as a counterweight. But this was a pretty shaky setup, and I probably should have used a 201 for each of the subjects and the 401 for the interviewer. This is where having something like a LiteGear LiteMat2L (which weighs just 3 pounds) would have been really nice.

Nitpicks

The Celebs are not bright enough to match open window light in the background of a shot. You’d need HMIs for that. But they are bright enough to match windows that are controlled with shears, curtains or blinds. And on overcast days when you have foliage in the background of a window (which reduces the light level a couple of stops) the Celebs can match it. If the sun comes out, though, you’re cooked.

I also wish the locking power cord, which is only about 8′ long, was at least twice that length, the way Arri lights are. Because manufacturers really should include a usable length of cord with their units.

Kino Flo Celebs are clearly built to withstand the rigors of daily use in production. However, I feel they are actually overbuilt. Why couldn’t these lights be both lighter weight and durable? Competitors like Aladdin and LiteGear are making lights that are almost the same size but weigh a tiny fraction of these beasts. So I look forward to reviewing some of the lighter Celeb alternatives soon.

Lesson’s learned

  • Pack a small light stand. Many rental houses don’t have them, and standard C-stands don’t let you place small backlights like the Dedo DLED7 as low as you may want to.
  • A Baby Pin is a much better way to mount 201 Celebs to a C-stand. This allows you to mount them on the grip-head end of the stand’s gobo arm, and angle the light more precisely.
  • For really soft light, or room ambience, bounce the 401 into a wall or ceiling (or foam core, but we didn’t have any of that with us).
  • 1 stinger with power strip wasn’t always enough. I should have asked for 2 25′ stingers in my G&L package.

Bottom Line

With the Kino Flo Celebs and a small crew, I was able to handle a wide variety of documentary lighting challenges. The honeycomb grids allowed me to effortlessly control light spill by simply angling the light, rather than placing flags or cutters (which require more stands).  Due to it’s design, you’ll never see a single LED. Celebs produce a light that is soft enough to require no further diffusion, and they pack up very quickly. That allowed us to schedule more shoots in a day. Because of this all-in-one design, I noticed that it took more time to break down our c-stands than it did to break down and pack up our lights.

It’s no wonder NAB awarded Kino Flo Celebs “best new light” in 2014.

As for that unsolved murder? It’s a long-standing mystery, one that our team believes deserves a new hearing in the court of public opinion. So stay tuned.

Fiilex Matrix LED is about as bright as an Arri 650. But much cooler

Fiilex Matrix LED

Fiilex Matrix LED

I got my hands on one of the new Fiilex Matrix LED location lights the other day. It was for a shoot that was unfortunately canceled, so I didn’t have a chance to use it on a job. But I tested it out, and I do have some observations I’d like to share.

The Matrix is quite compact – about 8.5″ square on the front, and 5.5″ deep on the side. It packs into a rolling case that would be easy to check on a plane, but too big for carry-on (though once you start checking luggage, you’re usually better off renting lighting at your destination, given how expensive extra luggage fees are these days).

This light has been billed as an HMI replacement. Others have described it as comparable to a 1,500 watt source. So I was keen to test its punch.

I found it most comparable to a 650 watt Arri fresnel in terms of intensity. A bit of a letdown in that department. But it’s much cooler in other ways.

Placing the Matrix side by side with an Arri 650, the beam of the Matrix with it’s unique quad fresnel lens is slightly wider than the 650 fully flooded. But it doesn’t focus, so it’s impossible to spot it like a 650. But the Matrix doesn’t really seem designed for use as a fresnel; it’s more at home bounced into foam core or diffused with a softbox.

With the fresnel attachment on, and the Arri almost fully flooded, the two lights match each other in intensity in Tungsten mode (at 15′, my Sekonic light meter gave me a reading of f/4.1 @1000 ISO @48th sec. shutter).

Bounced into a 4×4 bead board at same distance, my meter gave me f/2.0 for the Matrix and f/2.3 for the Arri 650 (both at 3200K). I was able to squeeze another half stop of brightness out of the Matrix by going to 5600K.

The Matrix’s ability to spit out daylight is very very cool. But by the time it’s softened through a softbox or bounce, I found the Matrix is no match for holding sunny daylight window detail in the background of a shot, unless you move the light very close to the subject. Way too close.

The controls on the back of the panel give you not only the ability to control color temperature and dimming, but the middle knob gives you plus or minus green, which could come in very handy on shoots where you’re trying to match fluorescent lighting.

The Matrix has a built-in fan that runs quiet enough to be inaudible in all but the most pristine recording environments.

The speed ring that is built into the M1 is larger than a standard ring, and the rental house told me it wouldn’t work with soft boxes other than the one Fiilex makes specifically for this unit. However, I was able to fit my medium Photoflex softbox on the M1 without too much difficulty.  But I sure wish the holes were slightly angled (about 15 degrees, like this speedring) to make removing the softbox easier. I found it a real pain to get boxes on and off, including the Fiilex box.

I long for the day when I can roll up to a location with an LED the size of the M1, and turn on the grid-cloth-punching power of an Arri M18. That day is coming. But we’re not there yet.

LED lighting is getting brighter by the year, and the M1 Matrix from Fiilex represents a step in the right direction.

 

Genus production matte box review

Genus Production Matte Box

Genus Production ovcamatte Box

You’re driving home at the end of a long day, turn a corner and run straight into the sun. Bam! You’re momentarily blinded. You reach up for the sunshade, and twist it down. Ahhhh. Five minutes later, you’re home with a cold beer in your hand.

For most documentary filmmakers, having a matte box is like having a visor on your car. You won’t use it very often, but when you do need it, you’ll be glad it’s there.  Unfortunately, however, a matte box does not come standard with a camera like a visor does with a car. There are a million camera setups, so there is an bewildering array of matte boxes.

My own matte box journey began a few years ago when I picked up a Genus Matte box Lite. This simple solution snaps onto the front of your lens via a ring that screws into your filter threads. It worked great — as long as I used a zoom and didn’t have to change lenses frequently.

But alas, it didn’t take long before my needs become more complicated. When I began using prime lenses more frequently,  the weight on the front lens element was too much for my Contax-Zeiss primes. The barrel of the lens twisted off it’s moorings. After a second repair, the technician warned me: “Don’t screw anything heavier than a lens filter onto the front of this lens.”

So I ponied up for a Tilta matte box that had a swing away arm to enable easy lens changes, which mounted to rails for support. But this is a heavy solution, and over the years I’ve found myself leaving it at home when I rolled out on documentary shoots.

When Genus invited me to review their Genus Production Mattebox, (which I’ll hence refer to as GPM) I was eager to try it out. Genus has a reputation for making matte boxes that are a good fit for filmmakers with simple needs. Here’s what I discovered.

Pros:

Relatively Light weight. 2.2 pounds with all flags attached (vs. 2.9 pounds for Tilta-but Tilta has swing-out arm and the GPM, although one can be added as an option).

Deep French flag. The GPM has a nice, deep French flag which cuts 6.35″ of light off the top of your lens. By comparison, my Tilta is 2″ shallower. This extra depth goes a long way to reducing the amount of light hitting the lens. Love it!

Multiple options for mounting. The GPM comes with two options for mounting the box to your lenses. For larger glass, use the included nun’s knickers. For lenses 82mm and smaller, use one of the half dozen included step-up rings, which vary in size between 52mm and 77mm. But the truth is, I don’t use any of these things. I simply align the box in front of my lens and start shooting.

Since I use a matte box simply to keep light from striking and flaring the lens, it's not necessary to block light from entering the rear of the box

Since I use a matte box simply to keep light from striking and flaring the lens, it’s not necessary to block light from entering the rear of the box. This allows easy use with lenses the change length when focused, such as my Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8.

The reason you’d need to choose a mounting solution that blocks all light from the rear is if you’re using a filter in the tray, to eliminate reflections caused by light entering from the rear of the matte box.

Small footprint. I am able to fit this matte box (not including the top flag) into a 1400 Pelican case. See the difference in size between the case I use to store my Tilta matte box and my GPM:

The Genus Production Matte Box fits into a small Pelican case

The Genus Production Matte Box (minus top flag) fits into a small 1400 Pelican case.

Tip: I store the top flag in a side zipper compartment on my camera case. If I stored it in the Pelican case with the matte box, I would have to use a larger case. So it makes sense to break up those storage locations.

Cons:

No option for bottom flag. But then, I think I’ve only ever needed to use a bottom flag once in my entire career. So it’s not exactly something I lie awake at night worrying about.

Lens changes are awkward without swing-away door. If you’re using prime lenses a lot (rather than the zooms that many documentary shooters prefer), this can be kind of a big deal. It’s a real pain to have to release the rail block, slide the box forward, change the lens, then slide it back and retighten it. But swing away arms add weight. And when it comes to matte boxes, I prefer lighter to heavier. Also, you will need the Genus Height Extension Bracket to adjust the box to the right height for different lenses.

The Genus height adjust braket is essential to setting the correct height for different lenses

The Genus height extension braket is essential to setting the correct height for different lenses

Wide-format tray. The GPM box accepts only 4 x 5.65 filters, and Genus offers no tray adapter for it to accept 4×4 filters. Even though most documentary shooters won’t be using filters anyway, I wish there were an option to use it with 4×4 filters, because, well, those are the only filters I own! And 4×4 filters are more common than the wide format ones.

Update: Genus contacted me after this piece was posted with news they plan to make a 4×4 tray for the GPM. I look forward to testing it.

At the end of the day, my favorite thing about the GPM is that it’s small and light enough that I find I DO actually take it with me on shoots. Even though it stays in its case most of the time, when I need it, it is there. Just like that visor when I’m driving into the sunset on my way home.

 

 

Genustech Solar Eclipse variable ND filter

Genus Eclipse variable ND filter

Genus Eclipse variable ND filter

When I first discovered variable ND filters, it was like trying on a pair of photochromatic sunglasses for the first time. Suddenly, I had a kind of super power: I could steplessly adjust exposure without touching the shutter, iris or ISO. I thought variable ND was the solution to all my DSLR video exposure problems. Like magic!

Variable ND and polarization

Then one day while reviewing footage of a subject shot in bright sunlight, I noticed that his skin tone looked like play-dough. I had no idea why. But I knew I’d been shooting with my vari-ND filter, so I was suspicious. I did some Googling, and learned that variable ND filters work by placing two polarizing filters in opposition to each other.  On most variable ND, the rear polarizer is fixed, and the front can be rotated. As the front filter is rotated, the opposed polarization causes the lens to darken. At maximum darkness, the crossing point is reached, where the image contains an X (if the field of view of the lens is wide enough).

At maximum darkness, the crossing point is reached, where the image contains an X (if the field of view of the lens is wide enough).

Crossing point, where the two polarized lenses reveal an X

Of course at this point the image isn’t usable. But at lesser degrees of rotation, and by avoiding wide-angle glass, the effect appears to be a darkening of between 2 – 8 stops.

But polarizers are tricky beasts. They are often used in landscape photography, to darken blue skies, for example, and enhance foliage. But when shooting a wide shot that includes the sky, a polarizer doesn’t affect the whole sky evenly – it polarizes the light at a 90 degree angle to the sun but not that falling parallel to it.

So variable ND isn’t the magic after all. And it has some limitations. But those same limitations can also be strengths. For example, when you want both a polarizer and you want some ND at the same time! But most vari-ND filters only give you the ability to rotate the front element, not the rear. To control the polarization effect, you have to unscrew the filter and hope it doesn’t fall off, as I described above.

Genustech’s solution

Genustech has created a variable ND filter that gives you a measure of control over this problem. It’s called the Solar Eclipse. It has a lovely little handle protruding from the second element, allowing it to be rotated. Rotating the handle doesn’t darken or lighten the image – it simply controls degree of polarization in your shot.

By rotating the handle, you can change the angle of polarization – where the dark edges appear in your frame. Sort of like a graduated ND filter. Rotated 3/4, it looks like so (ungraded images):

Genus Eclipse rotated 3/4

Genus Eclipse rotated 3/4, vignetting occurs in upper left and lower right of frame.

Rotated 90 degrees

Rotated 90 degrees, it appears to vignette the image from both sides (but not the top or bottom)

Standard ND

Without Genus Eclipse, (using just the built-in variable ND on the Sony FS5)

As you can see above, the built-in variable nd on the Sony FS5 is something quite special. To my eye, the ungraded image that uses the built-in electronic nd on the FS5 looks very faithful to the colors present in the actual scene. The Genus Eclipse appears to suffer from a bit of color contamination that shifts colors toward green (IR contamination, perhaps)?

Here’s how a standard Hoya polarizer compares to the Genus Eclipse (with an unfiltered image for baseline comparison):

screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-5-03-11-pm

Genus Eclipse vari-ND filter

screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-5-02-50-pm

Hoya polarizer

No filter

Sony FS5 built-in variable ND only (no polarization)

In the images above, again we see some shifting of colors toward green with the Genus Eclipse. Nothing that couldn’t be corrected out in post, but something to be aware of.

Speaking of eclipses…

One place where using a variable ND filter like the Eclipse comes in handy is when shooting the sun directly. With a long lens, such as a 300mm, you can rotate to the Genus Eclipse to the crossing point of the filter, and use that to look directly into the sun, as if wearing a pair of welding glasses. I found in my testing that with my lens set to f/16, I still needed to active my Sony FS5’s built-in filter to really tame the sun. But the Eclipse came quite close all by itself.

The sun with Eclipse ND and additional ND filtration added

The sun with Eclipse ND and additional ND filtration added

Which size filter to get?

Because most lenses have different filter thread sizes, I recommend getting a 77mm variable ND. Then, using step-up rings, you can use your 77mm filter with any lens of smaller diameter. You can even use it with lenses slightly larger, with a step-down ring. I use the Genus Eclipse with my 300mm Nikon f/4 lens, which has an 80mm filter size, for example. It works great without noticeable vignetting. But anything larger than 80mm, you’re likely to get vignetting.

Conclusion

As long as you’re aware of its limitations, the Genus Eclipse ND filter is a useful tool to have in your kit. Especially for filmmakers who don’t have a camera with built-in ND, it provides you the ability to reduce the amount of light hitting your sensor by 2-8 stops, without touching shutter speed, aperture or ISO. Just be sure to keep an eye on how polarization is affecting your shot, and use the handle that Genus provides to control that.

 

 

Dedolight DLED7: the ultimate LED shadowcaster?

Dedolight DLED7: precise and versatile

The new DLED7 Turbo is an exceptionally precise and versatile light with all the Dedolight features plus optional battery operation

Lighting involves two big things: putting light where you want it, and NOT putting it where you don’t want it. To say a scene is lit means more precisely that an important part of it is lit, and an equally important part remains hidden. Placing shadows is just as important as placing highlights. And no light allows you to place shadows with less fuss than a Dedolight.

Original Dedolight

Original Dedolight

Dedolights have earned a reputation for precision in the film industry. The venerable 150-watt DLHM4-300 tungsten hot light can throw a 3200K beam exactly where you want it, with virtually no light spill, thanks to the company’s patented aspheric optics. What’s more projector attachments are available to further focus the light. With one of those, you can literally hit a nail on the head from across a room.

I’ve lusted after one of these beasts for a long time, but decided to wait until an LED version arrived, because more often than not, I’m mixing daylight on location rather than tungsten. The wait is now over, and it’s called the DLED7. (Note, Dedolight’s DLED4, which shares the same form factor,  has been available for more an a year but wasn’t powerful enough for my needs).

Dedolight DLED7 with DP2 projector

DLED7 rigged with optional DP2 projector

On paper, the DLED7 gives you everything its tungsten predecessor gave you in terms of precision while adding a number of new benefits:

  • Low power draw (90 watts) means it will run for a little over an hour at full power on a high-output v-mount battery such as the Switronix Hypercore 98WH.
  • Dimming is greatly improved, because the LEDs don’t suffer the red shift that tungsten lights do when dimmed.
  • The DLED7 is also runs much cooler, although it does require a very quiet fan. The light gets warm to the touch when operating, but never too hot to hold.
  • Color temperature is adjustable from 2700K to 7400K without gels.
  • The even beam of light produced by this instrument is gives you consistent light meter readings from nearly edge to edge. So you can use it to light a background with a single source. And, the light can be spotted from 1:20 (a typical fresnel is only 1:5) and cut very precisely with barn doors. Exciting stuff!

How does it work?

It’s a remarkable design achievement, really, that Dedo can make a bi-color light that remains fully focusable for both tungsten AND daylight. They achieve this by checkerboarding the different color LEDs at the focus point of the light behind the two aspheric lenses. I removed the lenses to have a peek at the guts:

DLED7 aspheric lens

It’s a simple matter to remove the two aspheric lenses and get a look at the LEDs themselves.

The LEDs are arranged in a checkerboard shape.

The DLED7 LEDs are arranged in a checkerboard shape. Half of the LEDs are tungsten and half are daylight (90 watts total for each)

DLED7 battery ballast

DLED7 battery ballast is rather large and heavy. It offers dimming and color temp controls and on/off switch.

The first time I used the light for more than half an hour at full power, I was surprised how hot the ballast became. The temperature increases the longer you run it all the way up to about 140 degrees, which is almost too hot to touch. I emailed Dedolight support asking whether that was a problem. I received a personal note from Dedo Weigert himself, explaining that the heat is a design tradeoff they made to keep the ballast as small as possible.

Another observation about the dimmer: it is not stepless,  changing in small increments like aperture control on a Canon. The steps are small enough to not be an issue, but it’s impossible to do a completely smooth fade up or fade down the light without visible stepping, just as smooth iris pulls are impossible with Canon still lenses.

DLED7 ballast controls

DLED7 ballast controls

The first time I switched on the light, I was surprised it wasn’t brighter. But then I realized just how bright it gets when focused. Just how bright is it?

DLED7 vs Lowel Pro Light

By way of comparison, I put the DLED7 head to head with my Lowel Pro Light, a small 200-watt light that throws a very nice beam a long way. I found that the Pro Light is about 3 times brighter when fully spotted, to the DLED7 in tungsten mode spotted equivalently (which is about half spotted). However, it’s possible to focus the DLED7 MUCH more precisely. But daylight is the great equalizer. With a dichroic filter attached to the Pro Light to bring it to 5600K, the two lights are equally bright, and with equal throw.

Wide color range

DLED7 color temperature indicator on the ballast

DLED7 color temp indicator

It’s worth noting that my DLED7 is slightly less bright at 3200K than it is at 5600K, by about 1/3 stop. The DLED7 goes even further up and down the Kelvin scale, though, advertised to go from between 2700K and 6800K. As it turns out, it actually goes quite a bit further up the Kelvin scale than that, as I discovered next.

Color accuracy scores

I tested the DLED7 with a Sekonik Spectromaster C-700R color meter, which reveals some interesting details about the quality of the light.

First test: How accurate is the ballast color temperature indicator vs. the actual measured color temp?

What I observed is that the DLED7 tends to run cooler than the ballast readout, and that the more you turn up the dimmer, the cooler the color temp gets. The only way I could hit 2700K, in fact, was to dim the light all the way down to 2 percent (the light is off at 1 percent), where it read 2733K.

Color temp set at 2700K:

Dim 2 percent: 2733K
Dim 10 percent: 2775K
Dim 25 percent: 2776K
Dim 50 percent: 2827K
Dim 75 percent: 2845K
Dim 99 percent (brightest setting): 2860K

Going to the far blue end of the scale, with my color temp set to 6800K, we find the same thing, only it’s even more blue-shifted. Here’s my readings:

Dim 2 percent: 6738K
Dim 10 percent: 6905K
Dim 25 percent: 7089
Dim 50 percent: 7395K
Dim 75 percent: 7459K
Dim 99 percent: 7422K

So where the DLED7 is furthest from its advertised color temp is when it’s at it’s bluest and brightest, at which point it’s about 600K over the mark. Definitely something to be aware of.

In practice, it’s pretty easy to adjust for this to hit 3200K. Just set the temp readout to 3100K, which put my readings within 100K of the target at all dimmer settings. For 5600K, though, things get trickier. At 25 percent dim, set to 5900K. At 50 percent, it wants to be at 5500K. At 99 percent, setting to 5300K got me real close. In practice, as long as you don’t mind being a few hundred K off your mark, you’ll be fine. But for precise color work? Carry a color meter and be ready to use it a lot.

How does the DLED7 stack up against other lights in terms of CRI rating?

I tested the CRI and color spectrum of the DLED7 at both 3200K and 5600K (as measured on meter, not by the color temp readout on the ballast, because those numbers are slightly different as outlined above). For this test, I used a Sekonic Spectromaster C-700R.

At 3200, the DLED7 scores exceptionally well. CRI: 97.3

The DLED7 measured at 3200K

The DLED7 measured at 3200K

At 5600, things slip just a little a bit. CRI: 95.3

DLED7 at 5600K color rating

DLED7 measured at 5600K

Most notable is the R9 readout in the far right column, above. The R9 shows how well the light does in reproducing saturated reds. These are important colors for skin tones. So we would ideally like to see as high a rating as possible for R9.

It turns out, though, that scoring 75.9 in R9 is quite good for an LED light. By way of comparison, my lovely bi-color LiteGear LiteMat2 has a measured CRI of 93 and a R9 score of 73.2 for daylight and only 64.4 for tungsten. And yet, it still produces fabulous results with skin tones.

To illustrate why, consider this: professional gaffers wouldn’t hesitate to place a full CTB filter over a tungsten light to match daylight. But guess what that does to the R9 score of a tungsten light? See for yourself (measured with my Lowell Pro Light and full CTB):

A tungsten light with full CTB filter shows even lower R9 and lower CRI

A tungsten light corrected to daylight with full CTB filter reveals an even lower R9 score of 68.4 with a CRI of 89.4.

Suffice to say, if the Dedolight DLED7 is posting scores that easily beat a tungsten light corrected with CTB, it’s more than good enough for film production work.

For information about how this light stacks up against other LED film lights, check out the very comprehensive light test results published by Indie Cinema Academy. As of this writing, their tests do not include ratings for the DLED7.

A few tips for getting the most from the DLED7:

Glue black felt on the  barn doors (the two larger ones, not the small adjustable ones). Because they no longer get hot, adding light-absorbing material to the surface of the doors makes them less reflective and improves their light shaping ability tremendously.

The barn doors feather the light when it is spotted, and cut it when it is flooded. For example, if you rake the light along a wall at full spot, closing the barn doors on the wall side, you can feather the light  to spread it evenly across the wall, achieving the same effect as a graduated scrim.

DLED7 as rim light

DLED7 as motivated rim light, with barn doors used to feather light as it falls off subject’s camera-right shoulder.

DLED7 as back light.

DLED7 as back light, visible as the splash of blue light on subject’s camera-right shoulder.

The power connectors on the ballast are well designed, and have plenty of length to allow you to run the light up a stand without fuss.

DLED7 battery ballast

DLED7 battery ballast

DLED7 kit all ready to roll in Nanuk road case.

My DLED7 kit all ready to roll in Nanuk road case, with both AC and DC ballast.

Hanging the DLED7

Avenger baby pin

Avenger baby pin

I’ve found that the best way to mount the DLED7 on a stand is with the aid of a 5/8″ baby pin. The yellow mounting screw on this light is a little funky, requiring like five turns to mount it to a light stand. And because it’s bottoming out at that point, it has to be over-cranked to get a firm enough bite to keep the light from slipping.

Using a pin gives you a lot more flexibility in how you mount the light, and because the 5/8″ pin is ticker than a standard light stand,  it doesn’t have to be over cranked.

Mounting DLED7 to stand using a 5/8" baby pin

Mounting DLED7 to stand using a 5/8″ baby pin allows more flexibility and security

A Norm’s Pin isn’t a good choice for this, because the DLED7’s receiver isn’t deep enough to engage properly. Instead, I use an Avenger E250 Long Double 5/8″ Baby pin which has a shallower lip. As a bonus, the Avenger baby pin also fits perfectly into a Manfrotto Boom Stand.

So, here’s what it all boils down to:

CONS

  • Pricey and doesn’t include required accessories.
  • LED version isn’t as bright as its tungsten predecessor.
  • Currently it’s a special order item in the US.
  • Measured color temperature runs cooler than ballast indicators display.
  • Dimming, especially at cool end, shifts the color temperature.

PROS

  • Wide color temperature range from 2700k – 7400K (measured)
  • Very portable
  • Dimming at warm end without significant color shift
  • Battery operable for long periods
  • Controllable, even light spread
  • Exceptionally focusable

The DLED7 is very special location light that can do what no other LED light can do in terms of focused throw with virtually zero light spill. It’s very easy to place a light or a shadow exactly where you want it with this light. It excels as a background light, and as a back light, rim light or hair light. For some kinds of commercial work, such as photographing a beer label illuminated just perfectly, it’s in a class all by itself. It’s portability, battery operability, and huge color temperature range make it the swiss army knife of location lights.

But at $1700, it’s also quite expensive and doesn’t ship with required accessories (you have to add a ballast, and the one for battery use costs over $500 and the one for AC use costs more than $700). The DP 2.1 projector with 85mm lens adds another $477. DP EYESET diffusers adds another $116. Barn doors: $50. Also, the ballast color temperature readout isn’t fully accurate, and especially at the cooler end of its spectrum, the light shifts color temperature as it is dimmed.

Nevertheless, this is a light that gives you real lighting superpowers: the ability to decide exactly where to place the light and shadow in your frame, at whatever color temp you want, without a power cord. I recommend it without reservation. It’s exceedingly well made and precise, exactly what you’d expect from a Dedolight. And the premium price is something we in the film industry expect to pay for top gear. I look forward to recouping that expense over the many years of service this light is likely to give me.

Want to try it out for yourself? Rent my Dedolight road kit, which includes all the above items, via Cameralends.com. (Seattle pickup only please.)

DLED7 road kit

DLED7 kit ready to roll in Nanuk 935 case

 

Shooting raw on Sony FS5 with Atomos Shogun Flame

Atomos Shogun Flame with sun shade on Sony FS5

Atomos Shogun Flame with sun shade on Sony FS5

I have been eagerly awaiting the raw upgrade to Sony FS5 that was released last week. What does 12-bit 4K raw look like on this camera? I purchased the $600 CBKZ-FS5RIF upgrade as soon as I could, installed it, and over the weekend, had a chance to shoot a little on a music video project. Here’s my initial observations, based on recording with a Atomos Shogun Flame.

First insight: the Flame isn’t actually a raw recorder just yet. You are limited to recording 4K 10-bit ProRes or DNxHR from the Slog 2 or 3 12-bit raw signal that the camera sends. This means you don’t have the option, if you want it, to “develop” the digital negative to your liking from CDNG using raw tools like Resolve or Adobe Photoshop. Atomos says CDNG raw will be supported in a future firmware upgrade.

If you want 12-bit CDNG raw now, an Odyssey 7Q+ with the latest firmware and an FS5 will do the job. I look forward to testing that combination soon. However, from experience I know the Odyssey screen isn’t as bright as the Atomos Flame, and I love me a bright monitor. However, the Odyssey is OLED, which the Flame is not.

Atomos Shogun Flame sun shade

Atomos Shogun Flame sun shade allows touch screen to be accessed through an opening in the bottom.

So, just how bright is the Flame? The sun was shining in Seattle yesterday, so I had a chance to really work it. And I found that it’s noticeably brighter than a SmallHD 702 (1500 nits vs 1000 nits).  In direct sunlight, though, you still need the hood. That’s because the screen is highly reflective, and in glaring sunlight, you need to cut down on sources of reflection. The Atomos hood creates a box with a little window you can peer through, which effectively reduces the area of reflection to a small rectangle in the middle. I found that wearing a ball cap while operating further shades this opening, making it possible to view the screen pretty effectively even in direct sunlight. But the best option? Shade the camera and operator with a flag or umbrella.

The HDR mode is…interesting. It does look cool, visibly brighter than in rec 702 mode. But it feels a little 1.0 to me. The pixels aren’t OLED, so brightness feels like it’s coming from over cranking the LCD pixels. I’ve seen a real OLED Sony HDR monitor, and wow, it blew me away with its brightness. This monitor doesn’t even come close. It’s more like a preview of coming attractions than the real deal. But it’s a start, and I applaud Atomos for shipping it as soon as possible, because HDR is going to be amazing when it gets here and is widely supported on consumer monitors.

There’s a display mode on the Flame that tries to convert Sony SLOG2 or SLOG3 to Rec709 using Sgamma 3 or Sgamma 3.cine color modes. The problem is, it doesn’t really work for me, because I (properly) overexpose my SLOG. To visualize that, you need a LUT, and the Flame happily does support LUTs, allowing you to load up to 8 custom ones.

I found that the LUT I normally use with SLOG3 looked slightly different when applied to the raw signal of the FS5. So that will need some tweaking. But the good news is that your LUTs will work and can be applied, not only to the screen view, but you can burn them in to the recorded footage if you choose.

Slow Motion is a non-starter on this Shogun. The Flame will display a 60p signal, but the record button is disabled, meaning it does not support any slow motion frame rates above 30p. The Flame doesn’t display anything but noise when the S&Q option is enabled on the camera. You’ll need a Shogun Inferno to record at 4K 60p, in burst modes, and in the 2K slow mo mode.

There’s also no way to down-convert the raw 4K -> 2K on this recorder, which means you HAVE to record 4K, fwiw. Not a big deal since you can record 10-bit on the camera’s sd card. But it would be nice sometimes for workflow reasons to go straight to ProRes in 2K instead of having to transcode the footage first, something the Odyssey supports.

Neither SDI nor HDMI output is available when shooting raw, which means you can’t send a feed to a director monitor (at least not to the SmallHD 702 I used for testing).

Battery: The Flame chews through batteries. Bring lots of them if you plan on shooting for very long.

Sound: The Flame has a fan, but it runs nearly silently after noisy boot up.  In a hot production environment, this might be an issue.

So, how about that 4K image? Jury’s still out. I definitely noticed the same kind of noise in the shadows that you see with SLOG recorded in-camera. Apparently 10 bits isn’t enough to solve for that. I’ve been told that 12 bits isn’t enough either – that you need 16 bits before those shadows really come clean right out of the camera. So just be aware that you will still need to overexpose the same way you do with in-camera 8-bit or 10-bit SLOG. Beyond that, the benefits of shooting 4K in 10-bit are all there: you can push the file around in post more without degrading the image, you get better color information and no macro blocking and artifacting that you can see when pixel peeping your XAVC footage.

Conclusion: I wouldn’t buy this recorder, but I would happy rent it again – until the Inferno is available.

Update: I finally got a chance to test out the Inferno. In a nutshell, it’s the same recorder as the Flame, but it allows you to record up to 60p in 4K with the FS5. It still doesn’t allow you to record slow motion at frame rates above 60p, and it doesn’t yet support 12-bit raw recording to CDNG files. Choose the Odyssey 7q+ if you want any of those features.

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.

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.

quickrelease-detail

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.

smallhd502

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.

LiteGear’s LiteMat is an impressively versatile location LED

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For a long time I’ve been hunting for the perfect LED light. In the documentary-driven work I do, that means a light that packs down small, sets up quickly, controls spill, accurately reproduces color, is bright enough to fill strong window light, can dial from tungsten to daylight without gelling, is fully dimmable without flickering or color shifts, can run off a brick battery, and is a good value for the money. Is that too much to ask?

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LiteGear came to my attention on a recent commercial shoot with Jeremy Mackie, a supremely talented Seattle gaffer. I noticed Jeremy using a home-made box light that he built out of wood and LiteGear’s LiteRibbon. It looked a little scary to me, but the quality of light it produced was absolutely wonderful. So I went to LiteGear’s website to see if they had something a little more approachable for us less DIY types.

LiteMat-Slider-2-1014x350It turns out my timing was perfect. After learning what gaffers like Jeremy were doing with LiteRibbon (used to light the set of Her, among other significant films), LA-based LiteGear decided to make a light for rest of us. The result is called the LiteMat, which had just begun shipping. After reading the impressive specs, I chose the LiteMat2 because at 21″x21″ it seemed big enough to be effective in a variety of situations, but small enough to transport readily.

The first thing I noticed taking the LiteMat2 out of the box is that it looks like a cousin of the KinoFlo. It has a Kino center mount built into the unit, and the backing on the light feels like it’s constructed of the same study plastic hollow-core material as many Kino lights. The kit ships with a Kino-flo branded twist-on mount with 5/8″ baby receiver. Good stuff.

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The LiteMat2 hybrid unit is the width of my thumb! This puts it into a special category of softbox.  At 21×21 inches, it’s a slightly awkward size to pack around. But the travel bag that comes with the unit has a pocket for everything, and it packs down really slim.

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The LiteMat2 hybrid kit comes with everything you need to get the most from the light in a variety of situations:

  • a velcro-lined skirt that allows you to control light spill and attach diffusion
  • a rugged travel bag with pockets for all accessories
  • 3 types of diffusion material (1/4 grid, 1/2 grid and full grid cloth)
  • flicker-free LED dimmer
  • extra-long power cable
  • AC adapter
  • mirrored egg crate that transmits 100 percent of the light (unlike the more common black crate that cuts output by up to a full stop).
  • Kino-flo twist-on mount with junior receiver.

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The whole kit weighs 14 pounds when packed. Because it’s so flat, it’s pretty easy to find space for it. The case is reinforced with hard plastic, so you really won’t need a hard case for this light, unless you plan to ship it. I haven’t flown anywhere with mine yet. For taking this baby on the road, I’m thinking a medium-sized suitcase in checked luggage.

IMG_6244The only additional item you’ll need, if you want to power the light from a brick battery, which I definitely recommend, is a $26 d-tap battery adapter.

Value comparison
As far as I know, no other LED panel that I’m aware of comes complete with this many accessories. Lets do a little comparison with LitePanels Astra, shall we? The Astra bi-color unit is $1,300. If you want to use a battery with it, you have to pay more – a lot more. If you want a softbox with it, more again. If you want different levels of softening for the front of the softball, each costs $50. Here’s a comparison:

Astra: $1,350
Softbox: $234
Set of 3 cloth diffusers $76.50
LitePanels grid: $225
Battery plate: $148
PortaBrace Astra case: $210

Astra total: $2,243.50
LiteMat2 total: $1,526

LiteMat2 savings: $719

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In addition to being a great value, the LiteMat2 is incredibly versatile. It’s light enough that you can tape it to the ceiling or a wall with painter’s tape, for example.

IMG_6470A velcro skirt attaches to the unit, turning it into a soft box.

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Three grades of grid cloth are included: 1/4, 1/2 and full grid.

I can imagine making a simple skirt for this light, using black fabric and velcro, that would turn it into a space light.

Brightness
I judge a light’s brightness by what f-stop I can set at ISO 800 at 6 feet. By that standard, this light is an f/4.0 cranked all the way up in normal (green) mode, 5600K, battery powered (see below for more on modes and battery operation). Which means it’s an f/2.8 at 12 feet, f/8 at 3 feet, etc.

That certainly makes it more than bright enough to use as a key light for an interior interview, and as fill for north window light. Controlling spill using the included egg crate is as simple as velcroing it on.

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It’s a cinch to hang it off a medium-duty light stand, using a stand extender to get it out over the subject, for a no-fuss interview key. In the example below, I’m using a scrim bag to hold the battery and dimmer, and a Manfrotto 420B combi-boom stand. This is a lightweight, aluminum stand, but with its counterweight bag, it’s no problem to boom this light securely.

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Battery operation
A surprising thing happens when the LiteMat is powered from a brick battery: it gets about 1/3 stop brighter than when plugged into AC power. I’m scratching my head over that one, but I love cutting the cord whenever I can, so I’m not complaining. Repositioning the light is as easy as grabbing the stand and moving it. Now that brick batteries are pushing beyond 250wh capacity, powering it with battery all the time becomes a real option.

How long does it last on a brick battery?  I tested it with a 98WH Switronix v-lock (make sure to use a high-output version such as the Switronix Hypercore – the older ones don’t support the required wattage draw of close to 100 wats). After an hour at full intensity (green mode, daylight), it had only lost 1/10th of a stop in brightness. Five minutes later, it was down 2/10ths of a stop. At 75 minutes, 1/3 stop brightness. By an hour and 20 minutes, it’s down a full stop, which is where I ended the test. Its slow decline in intensity probably says more about the battery than it does the light.

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Modes
The dimmer can be easily programmed in three modes. To do so, press the recessed Prog button with a pen for about a second. The status light will begin blinking. Then, dial the Kelvin temp dial to select which mode you want. Depress the Prog button again to confirm setting.

Three are three modes (activated by pressing the Alt switch):

White: Overdrive (default). This provides 1/3 stop more light on the daylight (6000K) channel. It has no effect on the tungsten channel.

Blue: Low-power. This cuts the output by 75 percent (2 stops), allowing more precise dimming at low light levels.

Yellow: 2-channel. This allows you to control the brightness of the tungsten and daylight channels independently, which allows both channels to be powered at 100 percent at the same time. This allows you to get maximum brightness from the light, making it twice as bright as it would otherwise be at 4300 Kelvin.

Color accuracy
The numbers for this light are VERY good. Not only does it score well on the CRI standard, but it does well on the newer standard, TLCI. According to LiteGear, this light scores CRI 95 across the temperature range. But TLCI reveals it’s more accurate at the daylight end, scoring a 95 there, 92 in the middle at 4300K, and 89 on tungsten. Very impressive.

My own test is a simple one. I shoot a Kodak grey card, first at 3200k white balance on both the camera and light, and then at 5600k. I look at the vectorscope. There should just be a tight dot in the very middle of the crosshairs. However, that’s almost never the case.

With LiteMat2, the color range stated on the dimmer is 3000k – 6000k. However, I was able to place things closest to the crosshairs by setting 2800K on the warm end and 5600k on the cool end. Here’s what my test showed:

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2800k

Looking at a scope like this from an LED makes me want to dance! Even though it’s not “perfect,” it’s really great. In fact, I’m guessing that my simple vectorscope measuring the temp is less accurate than LiteGear’s, but I wanted to see how it landed on my camera, since that’s what I’ve been using to measure all my other lights.

UPDATE 7/9/16: I tested my LiteMat2 with a Sekonic Spectromaster c-700R and here’s what I found.

Warm end: 2959K and 92.9 CRI

LiteMat2 measurements dialed to fully tungsten with CRI value

LiteMat2 measurements dialed to fully tungsten with CRI value

Cool end: 5879K and 93 CRI.

LiteMat2 at full daylight CRI rating and color temp scores

LiteMat2 at full daylight CRI rating and color temp scores

But enough about the numbers. How does the light actually look? I’ve been shooting with LiteMat2 on a few projects over the past couple weeks, and I’d like to share a few frames:

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LiteMat2 used as key light in softbox mode with 1/4 grid cloth

skerittLiteMat2 used as key-side fill with window light as key with 1/4 grid cloth

nicerLiteMat2 as key, with 1/4 grid cloth

boyLiteMat2 used as key-side fill to wrap light around face from window with 1/4 grid cloth and crate

Conclusion
This is, without hesitation, the best light I’ve ever used for quick interview setups. I can’t stress how freeing it is to control brightness and color by dial rather than by gel. I just set this light up, dim and color balance to eye, and roll camera. Most of my interviews last about 40 minutes, easily within the range of a 90wh brick battery, which in my testing lasted more than an hour.

No light is perfect, of course, and I find myself wishing that the mirrored crate wasn’t so heavy. It’s not as heavy as the light itself, but damned near. Is that all I can find to say bad about this light? For now, at least! I’ll update this post as I spend more time with it.

So. To sum up in a single sentence: the LiteMat2 is a versatile weapon in the war against lame lighting. It’s a light that gets me excited about lighting, because it shortens the distance between what I see in my imagination and what I see on the monitor. And it’s a real bargain considering it comes with virtually every accessory you’ll need.