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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scopes

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

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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):

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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):

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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):

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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

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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

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If you’re starting out with the Sony FS5, and going for a cinematic look, here’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. But if you use zebras, it’s a convenient place to toggle those on and off as well, since there’s no dedicated button for zebras on this camera. If you go with 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, as noise in the image is magnified dramatically.

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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 when using the Sgamut color modes. Choose the option that’s appropriate for your lighting. OR, if you want precise control over color temp, choose Pro color mode. But I prefer to stick with Sgamut3.cine color mode when shooting Slog 3.

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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. Here’s the rule of thumb: For brightly lit scenes such as direct sun, shoot Cine1. For average lighting, choose Cine3. For low light situations, go with Cine4. Each of these 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

If you’re confused by the way the sensitivity of the sensor appears to be changing when you switch from CineGamma to Slog, you’re not alone. Rest assured the sensitivity isn’t changing, just the recommended exposure settings from Sony for each. So if you want to keep it simple, just change the ISO/GAIN SEL to GAIN. This will then display 0db when you are shooting at the camera’s native gamma, which is what you should be using most of the time. When you get in low light, boost the gain (as little as possible to avoid noise).

If you want to use ISO, 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 9db of gain (ISO 1600) with this camera when shooting with the hypergammas. The image quality starts to degrade significantly above 18db of gain (ISO 3200). For best results in very low light, try PP3 (Rec 709/Pro).

When shooting in SLOG, avoid exceeding 19db of gain (3200 ISO). If you need to push beyond that, switch to a CineGamma (see Picture Profiles above).

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 on 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!

Auto ND

With version 2.0 firmware, auto ND is enabled. This is a very, very cool feature. It’s a way to get an automatic exposure without messing with your shutter speed, depth of field or ISO levels. I’ve remapped the Status button (3) so that when pressed, it toggles auto ND on and off.

Oh, one last thing: When you copy your clips off the SD card, be sure to copy over the entire folder structure (not just the clips). Your NLE needs them when determining how to display the files at their optimum quality. Once you’ve transcoded the footage into an editing codec such as ProRes, you can throw them away.

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

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

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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.

smallhd_cbl_sgl_bnc_bnc_mm_thin24_thin_gauge_bnc_male_1446499276000_1194339

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.

Why do I love Zeiss prime lenses so much?

cu-lens

Why do I love my Contax Zeiss primes so much? I prefer them over Canon zooms just about any day. At least, any day I have time to change lenses between setups. Consider the following two frame grabs of my coffee mug…

Contax Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 @ f/2

Contax Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 @ f/2

Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 2.8

Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 2.8

Besides being faster (enabling me to shoot the first frame at ISO 1000 and requiring the second one to be shot at ISO 1600), the Zeiss has a dreaminess to it. And that bokeh with it’s hooked aperture blades? Pure magic. The Canon has a little higher contrast both in color and luma. But I would call that “clinical sharpness.”

Nevertheless, if you see me rolling handheld you’ll probably see me rocking a Canon zoom, for one reason: the ability to keep shooting without having to change lenses all the time is priceless for documentary work. Not to mention that you can do with a single zoom what you’d need a whole Pelican case full of fixed lens glass to do.

But if I’ve got the time, don’t get between me and my primes!

lenses-in-case

How has 6 years changed cameras?

howhas6years

Six years ago this month, my journey into documentary filmmaking began with the purchase of my first video camera, a JVC HM100. I loved that camera: it fit perfectly in my hand, used inexpensive SD cards, had built-in ND filters, and great audio capabilities. But its 1/4″ CCD sensor left me wanting more.

I used a rented Red One to shoot part of my first film. Since then I’ve used many cameras. I shot a feature length doc with a pair of Canon 60Ds, captured slo-mo with the FS700, and fell in love with the Canon 5dmkiii for its full frame, shallow focus look. Recently I’ve come to prefer the super 35 Canon C100mkii for it’s ergonomics, autofocus and color rendering. But none of them fit as nicely into my hand as that first camera.

This December, I am putting my end-of-year money on the Sony FS5. I’ll have plenty to say about this camera shortly. But as I await delivery today, I’m reflecting on how far cameras have come in six years.

In terms of image specs, the FS5 isn’t THAT big of a leap. Six years ago, there was a super 35 digital camera that could shoot video in 4K, at slow frame rates (albeit only 120fps). It was called the Red One. It boasted 11 stops of dynamic range, weighed a ton, and cost $17,500 (body only).

Six years ago, Red was roiling the market with big promises of “4K for $4K.” That never happened. Six years later, 4K is really an option. We have many cameras, most notably DSLRs from Sony, that can do 4K for considerably less than $4K. But I’ve learned over the years that a DSLR is an awkward choice for filmmakers. We need ND filters, audio options, and much more that has to be bolted on to DSLRs. Nevertheless, after 6 years of waiting and jerry rigging, we finally have a camera equal or superior to the Red One (including raw output coming in a future upgrade), that fits in your hand, for less than $6K. Amazing.

First observation: Good cameras still ain’t cheap. Six grand (the cost of the FS5 with an extra battery and EF lens adapter) is a lot less than $17,500, but it’s still a serious chunk of change. It’s almost twice the price I was willing to pay 6 years ago for my  JVC-HM100. And given the ease of renting through sites like lensrentals.com, $6K is on the outside of what I would consider spending to own any camera.

Camera sensors are currently evolving at the pace of Moore’s Law, so it’s a sure bet that, two years from now there will be another, better camera. However, I can sell my FS5 in two years for at least half of what I bought it for today. And in the mean time, I’ll be making money with it. So it definitely makes sense for me to own it at this price.

Apart from price, the biggest change is that today, small can be good. This is a really big deal. It’s not just a question of convenience. For me, it’s the difference between doing and dreaming. I can rig up my 5dmkiii into a very capable camera capable of shooting amazing, 12-stops dynamic range raw HD video (with Magic Lantern). That’s the combination I used to shoot Pearl, which won best foreign short at Milan this fall. But shooting with a DSLR is a pain in the ass. After making that film, I gravitated toward the C100, which doesn’t have to be rigged up: you just turn the camera on and start shooting.

So why am I not purchasing a C100mkii this year? The two things I most love about this camera – autofocus and color – are awesome. I have no doubt I’m going to miss them on the FS5, which requires a lot of work in post to get good results from the SLOG footage, and has mediocre autofocus. Even the fact that the C100 is 8-bit, and the FS5 is 10-bit in HD, doesn’t make that much difference. In my experience, 8-bit color from a C100 looks every bit as good as 10-bit from a Sony. For me the big thing is dynamic range.

Compared with 6 years ago, camera dynamic range is much improved today. The FS5 has seduced me by promising to give me almost everything I want in terms of image quality and features, in a camera I can fit into my hand, that has 14 stops of dynamic range. Fourteen stops! A documentary filmmaker can never have too much dynamic range.

I’m also seduced by the ability to shoot 4K, even though I doubt I’ll use it much because it slows down my edit. But there are situations, for example shooting an interview, where 4K will allow resizing the shot in post in to pull a closeup from a medium shot, effectively giving me a two-camera shoot from a single camera. I want in on that.

SD cards are still king. When I bought my first camera six years ago, a big selling point was that I could use small, affordable SD cards rather than being forced to buy something expensive and proprietary like P2 cards or red min-mags. While the competition seems to be moving toward expensive CFast cards, Sony releases a fully-speced camera that uses cheap, widely available media. I love that.

I’m looking forward to hand holding again. The C100 is ergonomically great, but it wants to be on a monopod. The soul of shooting for me is handheld. And I look forward to finding that soul with the FS5.

 

Lumu Power turns your iPhone into a color meter for $200

This is exciting: a $200 device that turns your iPhone into a color-temperature meter. The closest thing to this is the Sekonic SpectroMaster C‑700R, but that will set you back $1,700.

I’m not the only person who was excited about it: their Kickstarter campaign was funded in just 3 hours today.

The Lumu Power will be very useful in matching a fill light to ambient lighting conditions, for example. Or matching two LED lights, or just for figuring out what color temp the light is under any situation.

Behind the scenes with Megan’s Story

Megan’s Story, a narrative-style doc about a young woman’s recovery from traumatic brain injury, is a fundraising film I recently completed for the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington. Choosing to use narrative techniques to tell a documentary story changed the way I approached the filmmaking. Here’s what was happening behind the scenes.

For a typical documentary, my approach is interview and shoot b-roll (often on same day) then assemble the edit. My process in making Megan’s Story was slightly different:

  1. Interview first.
  2. Make story cut (no b-roll).
  3. Decide what scenes needed to be shot, and write shot list.
  4. Schedule and shoot them.
  5. Assemble the edit.

The nice thing about using this approach is that if the interview goes poorly, or doesn’t lead to lots of scene possibilities, you have an easy out. You haven’t invested a ton of time shooting yet. In this way, you can use the interview as a proof of concept.  If it goes well, it forms the spine of your story and you move to the next step of production.

Gear used:

Use of color
I set the white balance on the camera to tungsten and below (down to 2000K) to get the blue-green cast. I chose this color to represent her internal state after the accident.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 10.17.37 AM

Shot with Lensbaby

Lenses
Inspired by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I wanted to use distorted glass on this project to represent how it felt to be Megan. The Lensbaby Composer really does a wonderful job of throwing most everything in the frame out of focus, but preserves your ability to focus attention on one part of the frame. While I could have achieved something similar in post (and in fact the shot of Megan driving was tweaked this way) I like the control it gives you on the fly. And there’s something wonderful about committing to a shot in the moment.

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Macro shot with Canon L 100mm f/2.8 IS lens

I also used two other lenses on the film: a Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom, and Canon 100mm macro f/2.8.

Primary Camera
The C100mkii continues to be my go-to camera for so many reasons: It’s ergonomically awesome, great in low light, color grading is easy, and autofocus just works.

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Osmo makes traveling shots easy

Introducing the DJI OSMO
This was my first opportunity to use the DJI Osmo. I’m really excited about this camera! Don’t let it’s cuteness fool you: it’s much more than a toy. It’s tiny, sets up fast, and slashes the distance between imagining a shot and getting it. And the fully manual options and rectilinear lens blow doors off GoPro. At present it’s got a major issue, though: the horizon drifts away from level.  DJI provides a gimbal setting that allows you to manually level the horizon, but it requires constant fiddling. My solution was to shoot 4K and frame loose, and straighten the horizon in post. I hope this problem is fixable with a firmware update.

Another bummer about the Osmo is that the X3 lens is way too wide for shooting people up close. The traveling shot in which Megan flashes a smile as she approaches her desk is marred by the fact that her face is distorted by the wide angle (the equivalent of 20mm lens in full frame terms). The forthcoming X5 camera for Osmo will solve all of this, allowing the use of M43 lenses.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 10.36.15 AM

Rhino slider shot

Slider
I recently retired my dented Glidetrack Pro and picked up a Rhino EVO Carbon slider, after playing with the display model at Glazers Camera in Seattle. Moves are buttery smooth with the flywheel, an essential accessory. I have the 24″ model and am very impressed with it’s portability and consistently glacial moves. I’ll post a full review one of these days, but suffice to say I’m delighted with it.

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Backligting courtesy of LiteGear’s LiteMat2

Lighting
Most of this film was shot with available light. I wanted a gritty feel so that was an intentional choice. In fact, I used only one light in just two scenes: the interview was keyed with my LiteMat2, and the shot in which Megan cries while contemplating suicide (above) is naturally backlit, with some help from LiteMat2.

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Eye contact maintained using EyeDirect

EyeDirect
The EyeDirect device makes it easy to maintain eye contact with your subject during the interview.  Your subject sees an image of you reflected in a mirror over the lens. This increases the intimacy of the interview. I rented mine from Victory Studios here in Seattle.

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Improvised dolly shot using Multicart

Multicart as dolly
My Multicart is indispensable. It does the hard work of transporting equipment, and, it doubles as a dolly. In the grocery store shot above, I’m perched on a couple of pelican cases stacked on the cart, camera in my lap on a bean bag, while my assistant Sean McGrath pulls the cart down the aisle. I could have shot this with the Osmo, but it wouldn’t have had the Lensbaby look. So I reserved all the Osmo shots for the last part of the film, where the crisp 4K image and deep depth of field was a good match for her emotional state.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 11.06.01 AM

 

Music: All of the tracks for this story were licensed through Audionetwork.com. They have a great deal – unlimited use of tracks in any one video for $395. I used 5 different tracks in this video.

One last thing worth mentioning: the opening shot was something I got a few years ago. I was on a flight and noticed the rare shadow outside my window seat as we decended to land, so I grabbed my point-and-shoot Sony and rolled on it. Even though the resolution isn’t very good, it’s still an amazing visual. And as Werner Herzog once said, “Good footage always cuts.”