Olympus Does 4K

These are two pieces I shot earlier in the year while working in Dallas shooting a USA series Queen of the South.

I wanted to try out the new Olympus EM1 Mark II video capabilities and by coincidence, I’d also just gotten a full set of the brand new APO primes by SLR Magic.

With the introduction of the Olympus EM 1 Mark II Olympus upped their video game greatly with their new top-of-the-line pro micro four thirds camera body.  As well as being a wonderful top flight stills camera Olympus have been working hard to up their video shooting credentials, introducing for the first time, 4K and UHD shooting options, as well higher data rates for their video shooting.

With that in mind and the new APO Primes from SLR Magic, I wanted to shoot something handheld and minimal in order to try out the improved IBIS or In Body Image Stabilizing.

One of the main reasons I like shooting Olympus so much in this platform is that their stabiliser is really world class.  And the best thing is that because it’s built into the body itself, any lens you mount on their can be turned into a stabilised lens.  Any vintage lens, and cinema lens I happen to adapt.  Or the wonderful new APO primes from SLR Magic.

Currently available as a 25mm, 50mm and 85mm T2 prime set, these lenses are easily adapted to MFT by SLR Magic’s own MFT adaptor.  They can also be adapted readily to EF or PL.  They’re actually really well made, very precise and optically are top notch from what I’ve seen so far.

Shot in a great carpark location in downtown Dallas with Hula expert Roxanna and master parkour fire-breather Jenin Gonzalez.  Most of this is shot at ISO 200 for daylight and ISO 800 for dusk and evening using the flat video profile.  Many of the wider day scenes are shot with the Olympus 7-14 Pro Zoom, but some selected daylight close ups and dusk and evening shots are mostly SLR Magic APO primes.

Anything realtime is shot 4K, anything slow motion is 1920.

Fire is one of the most difficult things to shoot.  The brightness of the flame itself is always an incredibly difficult test of dynamic range for any camera.  I think considering the EM1 Mark II is only recording 8 bit video internally, it does a great job in this very brutal dynamic range test.

I tried very hard to split the exposure and tried to protect the highlights when shooting Jenin,  hoping I could lift the shadows later.  A few times Jenin’s fireballs did catch me by surprise, but I think I found the best exposure compromise I could.

Roxanna’s LED hoop was also a challenge as super saturated LED colour is always problematic for almost any camera.

I do wish that Olympus would make the leap to 10 bit video, it would help a lot with dealing with high contrast and high dynamic range images like this. But considering this is an incredibly difficult subject to shoot, I’m really impressed with the pictures I was able to grade in available light.

I have mastered these as a UHD / 4K files.  You can download your own un-graded versions here if you’re up to the 32Gb ProRes files, or you can watch the 4K version on vimeo here or here. 

Huge extra special thanks to Jessica Clarke-Nash and Kyle Novak for their help in the shooting and editing of this piece.

 

 

 

Posted in Equipment | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Blad to the bone

*This is a kind of spontaneous look at a camera I tried out a while ago. All these photos are from a 6 hour walk on Venice beach with my first time shooting the X1D.

**Here’s a big 5GB collection of camera originals and processed stills from this article. There are JPEGS, Camera original X1D RAW files and DNG’s with my corrections added.

NOTE !! These are large resolution photos.  They don’t reproduce well at this scale so be sure to click the LARGE version.

I didn’t really intend to write this experience up, but I found when doing my research on this very interesting intriguing new camera from Hasselblad, the X1D, there wasn’t a lot of information out there that was relevant to what I was interested in.

I’m not a commercial photographer nor a studio and strobes guy.  I’m a cinematographer that takes photos on the side.  Mostly it feeds my insta account and I like sending photos out weekly to production as I shoot to remind everyone of what we’re up to on set.

So here’s my walkthrough of the X1D by Hasselblad.  I’m going to assume you know the basics of this one of a kind unique camera.

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Self portrait obviously. Almost a rangefinder experience here as the camera isn’t so large and does not cover all my face. Click here for a large JPEG

It’s a mirrorless medium format camera.   What really got me interested was the small size of the body compared to the humongous sensor it’s packing.  It’s remarkable how simply and elegantly Hasselblad have jammed such a large sensor into such a beautifully machined and simple to use body.

I reckon the last time I actually shot with a Hasselblad it was film and on a SWC and in many ways this X1D is a kind of spiritual successor in terms of it’s size and shape and simplicity of function

So now to me and my needs.  I’m glad you asked.

Mostly photography is an aside for me.  I do it as a creative part of my process as a cinematographer, as a way of pre visualising lighting as I’m working and to keep me in the zone.  But I have to work very fast.  I’m often shooting a still as the clapper board is going on, there’s only seconds to get a shot and then I kind of drop the camera and go back to my day job as the cinematographer, often operating a much larger camera instead, sometimes with the smaller stills camera still on my shoulder !

For last few years I’ve been shooting with Leica M rangefinders or Olympus OMD cameras.

What I like about both of these systems is their compact size and discretion.  I can steal a lot of photos when working with these cameras because people just don’t notice you using them as much.

And even if they are, they don’t feel as intimidated by the act of being photographed.

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Great colour and skin tone in this front lit shot. His shirt is just holding in there, but plenty of contrast. Click here for a JPEG

An optical rangefinder like a Leica M camera is a kind of anachronism.  The act of using a rangefinder to focus your camera manually means it forces you to SLOW DOWN.  You have to think about your photography more.  Until very recently, even the digital M’s weren’t very capable of motorised shooting either.  It’s strictly one photo at a time.

Your whole process and relationship to taking a photo changes with a rangefinder style of shooting.  The viewfinder never blacks out when you shoot.  On a DSLR you have a mirror that pops up when you take a photo.

If, like me, you’re a right eyed user, the camera doesn’t really cover your whole face like a DSLR does.  Your face is more exposed to your subject and you never break eye contact through the optical viewfinder.

With rangefinders and especially with the Leica M series, the whole experience of taking a photo, of how you get to that moment, changed for me.   It changed my process of taking a photograph.

I find I get nearly the same experience using an Olympus PEN or even the Olympus EM series bodies.  Though they have a digital or electronic viewfinder, they are small and discreet enough that they don’t get in the way like the dinosaurs that are cameras with mirrors.

I mostly shoot the Leica M-E, the little known last CCD sensor camera Leica make / made before they changed to CMOS.  I could talk a lot about why I stubbornly refuse to update, but for me the simple version is, I like the colour you get from a CCD sensor, well, from THAT Leica CCD sensor.

I tell you this as a backstory to the type of photography I’m seeking to emulate with a medium format camera instead of the smaller sized sensors I’m currently using.

I want to know… Can I use a medium format camera kind of like an observational street shooter setup in mixed and low light conditions, be fast and discreet with a small footprint ?

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These ladies saw me shooting and insisted I take their photo. They then proceeded to arrange themselves into this position. I kept wondering how the kid was doing. I could probably bring this up a little more and I think I made the vignette a little heavy, but it was one of the first images I touched in post. 1/500th @ F8.0 at ISO 100  Click here for a large JPEG

In order to try the X1D out I decided to rent it from my friends at Sammy’s camera while I was in Los Angeles.  As much as you can play with one in a store, it’s always in shooting that you’ll find the pro’s and cons. I actually initially requested a demo though the Hasselblad website but it just seemed to put me on a mailing list rather than give me a chance to get hands on.  So my grateful thanks to Ben Traves at Sammy’s for organising this.

With an X1D in my hand along with two spare batteries and the 45mm F3.5 for wides and the 90mm F3.2 as a kind of portrait lens I headed down to Venice to walk the beach.

Sammy’s kindly supplied me with a Lexar 64GB SD card and I bought a second 128GB card just in case.  And a nice surprise to find there’s two card slots in the side of the camera.

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If you look real close around his hands, I didn’t even notice till in post, the grains of sand flying off his fingers.  Very small detail !  I especially love the blues and yellows here and the skin tone is great in this front lit shot.  Strong colour but the skin tone still looks OK. This was shot at very close range, maybe 3′ but there was no problem with the shutter sound drawing attention.  Click here for a large JPEG

I started in the mid afternoon, hoping to shoot into evening.  Another thing I wanted to look at with the camera was how useful it would be in low light and in mixed lighting too.  Often on set, I am shooting at low light levels and the slower speed of the Hassy primes had me worried.  I know that some users have reported ISO1600 being pretty good.

The downside of my Leica M-E is that it’s pretty much topped out at ISO800 for me.  With an F2 or maybe F1.4 prime and a bit of luck around the 1/30th of a second mark I can get most of the shots I need at that kind of light level.  There’s a beautiful thin envelope of a little underexposure on the M where the noise only seems to add and the colour is beautiful and nuanced.

So here’s a camera with a stop faster sensor (untested yet) but primes that are more than a stop slower means I have a shortfall.

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I think I blew the sky on this one. I may have over recovered the sky.  1/750th @ F4.8 at ISO 100.  Click here for a large JPEG

These photos are the sum total of about 6 hours of shooting with me just having picked up the camera in the morning and just playing around.  I know it’s not the same as any kind of controlled test but for me, it’s the very best way to find out if it’s going to work.

Since I started shooting Leica a few years ago, I’ve moved towards manual everything.  I find it slows me down and makes me think more about what I’m doing, it’s changed my process.  So now even on digital cameras, I tend to turn the dial to M and set everything myself and I also almost always manually focus.

My first instinct with the X1D was to do the same thing.  I set the dial to M and pretty much left it there.  I always used the EVF, I hate live view.  I found it remarkably easy and quick to change my settings on the fly.

The EVF is very nice. It’s sharp and clear.  I could tell roughly what was over and what was under by eyeballing the image in there.  I really do wish you could have blinkies in the EVF BEFORE you take the shot.  An easy and much needed firmware feature fix /add.

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Once again great colour from this image. 1/90th at F6.8 @ ISO 100.  Click here for the large JPEG

I do also wish you could have some look around for the overlays.  Then you could have the full image up and have the information you need, but not overlayed over the image itself.  The only option then is to cycle through the info overlay options.   I want to see the shooting information AND what I’m shooting at the same time in the EVF without it potentially covering the image.

In bright sun walking along Venice, I didn’t struggle at all to see the image and make pretty informed exposure choices.  I used the meter too of course in CWA to help guide me.

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A tricky shot for dynamic range.  There was more information in the blacks here but I chose the darker approach.  There’s a little bit of oddness as it goes towards clipping and this is always a great test for ‘recovery” in any RAW software. Let me know if you can do better with it !  1/500th @ F4.0 at ISO 100 Click here for the large JPEG

With the lens in manual focus there was a very good peaking system which I found worked well.  I also really like the punch in feature activated by pressing the star button while looking through the EVF.  I ended up using that a lot for critical focus work.

So while looking through the EVF I could easily change the shutter and aperture, pick focus with focus peaking or by punching in with the star button, and toggle to the ISO / WB button on top easily too.

I can’t emphasize enough how big a deal this is to me.  I want to be looking through the EVF full time and not have to leave it to change a setting.

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Once again another great test of dynamic range. I have pulled the blacks up a little more in this one but it’s still very clean. I could have added more recovery but it was looking pretty weird on the sun so less is applied. 1/350th @ F6.8 ISO 100. Click here for the large JPEG

There’s another button on the top near the ISO / WB button that seems to have something to do with focus.  It’s the AF / MF button of course, I say this facetiously because as I mentioned I never use AF on motion or stills cameras…until now.

I accidentally found a really really cool feature.  There’s a small button on the back marked AF-D.  This button meant I could leave the camera in manual focus mode, but I could also hold the button in and AF on the box.  Genius.  So simple.  This became something I did often, especially on the wider lens, because it’s often harder I find to pick critical focus on those wider lenses when shooting at  shallow-er stops.

By having it decoupled from the shutter itself it meant I could more easily select when I wanted to AF or or not, instead of it happening every time I woke the camera up to work.

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Sometimes the AF-D misses, likely because of operator error.  In the large version of this you’ll notice the rail is sharp, not our ladies, most likely because I AF-D’d the wrong subject. 1/1000th @ F4 ISO 100.  Click here for a large JPEG

 The AF won’t set the world on fire for sure.  But after being so used to always going manual focus it was a little reassuring to have the backup or confidence check of AF if I needed but it didn’t change my manual focus process.

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1/500 @ F4.8 at ISO 100. Click here for the large JPEG

For most of these shots I worked in MF, occasionally checking with the AF-D button or using a combination of peaking and magnification using the star button, all while still looking through the EVF. Big tick.

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Skaters are especially hard to shoot when manually focusing ! Again I really love the colour here, especially as his yellow shirt heads towards clipping, the colour still looks great and saturated. The sky is just hanging in there as it heads towards clipping where the sun is setting. 1/750th @ F4.8 at ISO 100.  Click here for a large JPEG.

 

Taking photos

This is where I did find the camera was sometimes behind me. First of all the EVF has to be activated by the act of looking through the EVF.  Maybe in future, like on the Olympus OMD’s we can have a menu option to have the EVF permanently on by choice. I know it saves battery and all but I’d rather just leave the EVF active so I can quickly pull the camera up and get it working.

I found most of the time I was lifting the camera to my eye and madly pushing the shutter release to half way to get the camera to wake up.  Once awake the camera is fast and quick to change settings with a minimum of fuss.

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This one was a tough save.  I grossly underexposed her as I was shooting and didn’t want to miss the shot and didn’t make the right exposure correction in camera. You’ll notice the sun looks GREAT but she is in deep shadow in the original.  See if you can do a better job !   1/2000 @ F8.0 at ISO 800 Click here for the large JPEG

The camera itself is a delightfully easy thing to wield. It’s small and reasonably easy to manipulate.  I had little trouble changing lenses one handed with it strapped around my neck though the mount is pretty tight.  I had no trouble holding it for hours straight and liked the way it handled very much.

I had two batteries with me.  I took over 400 shots and used completely one battery and then about 50% of the second battery.  I didn’t ever turn the camera off for the first battery.  I slowed down taking photos for the second half of the day once it got dark and I think once I was caught once when the camera auto-powered off.

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Some interesting cloud formations that at first I thought were an issue with the sensor. The deep blues in the balck are probably pushed too far here.  1/2000 @ F8 at ISO 800  Click here for the large JPEG

Start up time for me was about 7 seconds. I can live with that. Especially once they give me the option to leave the EVF powered on at cost to power consumption and EVF burn in.

Let’s talk about the act of taking a photo.  Mostly, the camera kept up with me.  I’d read about the annoying three click shutter sound.  I can live with that too.  It wasn’t loud enough to draw attention to me in the ambiently noisy environment I was in.  Admitted that it wasn’t exactly a silent place to be, but I was very close to some subjects and the shutter sound never seemed to draw anyone’s attention.  I was close enough that peripherally in their vision they were more likely to notice me lifting the camera to shoot than the sound of the shutter itself.

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Getting into some lower light shots here. 1/1000th @ F5.6  ISO1600 Click here for the large JPEG

However, the blackout time is borderline unacceptable.  Once you take a photo it’s a good second at least, maybe more before you get your live image back in the evf.  It’s terrible.  I really really struggled with wanting to keep watching what was going on through the EVF.  Now this is the true advantage of a rangefinder, where you are always seeing the subject while shooting and you have zero blackout time.  So even if the camera isn’t quite ready to fire again, you can at least observe and see what’s going on so as to be ready to anticipate the next time you want to shoot.

I have no idea if this is something that can be addressed in the current build or in firmware.  I suspect it might not be that simple. But it was a bit of a show stopper for me.  I’d have to shoot with it a bit longer to see how much of an issue it turned into, but it definitely felt like I missed a few moments because the image was blacked out, and reduced my situational awareness.

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Low light again. 1/300th @ F4 ISO 1600.  Click here for a large JPEG

Lenses

I tested the 45mm F3.5 and the 90mm F3.2

From what I can see in the images they are very neutral and flat.  I understand that the Phocus software has the lens geometry “fixes” dialed in.  I certainly saw minimal CA and they had a “modern” look that was clean and crisp without too much contrast.  The Bokeh was kind of interesting, I probably need to explore that more as I didn’t specifically look to test it.

I was manually focussing most of the time and I was expecting to be more annoyed by the focus by wire native lenses.  I would be really interested to try some of the older H series Hassy lenses available with the adaptor as well.

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Getting into very low light now. This is 1/60th at F3.5 (wide open) at ISO 3200.  No noise reduction and it’s pretty clean !  Click here for a large JPEG

Post

So returning home I then got to see what I’d caught.  I know these aren’t the greatest of candid moments but I was pretty impressed with what I was able to get in the 6 hours of shooting that I had with the camera.

I shot RAW and after offloading, I came across a slight speed bump in my desire to augment or maybe replace my current setup.

Post processing of these Hasselblad files can only be done through Adobe Camera RAW or Hassy’s own freely available software, Phocus.

My problem is that I know and love Capture One.  I’ve been using it for several years.  And now I’ve just learned what perhaps many of you know.  Capture One only process their OWN medium format cameras, the Phase one series and do not speak Hasselblad.  

So a major down-tick for Capture one and by collateral extension Hasselblad.

 

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Low light shot with super saturated colour. Holds up well. 1/1500th @ F4 at ISO 1600 Click here for a large JPEG

And as an aside, the market can’t be that big.  Surely it makes NO SENSE to have these kinds of petty proprietary file and software approaches.  Protectionism like this is bad for the customer. 

I don’t really like the Adobe debayer of the Hassy RAW files. Every software application has their own algorithm or recipe for creating the image and it’s something that C1 is known for. Phocus also seems to do a great job for what it’s worth.

I did a very quick compare by doing a default JPEG output and the Phocus images had a very lovely Capture One like feel to them.  The problem is that Phocus lacks some of the sophistication of Capture One’s local adjustments.  

For example, the local adjustments you can do in Phocus are limited, where as C1 pretty much let’s you do almost any of the full suite of it’s controls within a local adjustment, and has some very good colour hue isolations tools for when you want to just grab a particular colour and swing it somewhere else but use the local adjustment to isolate where it’s applied.  

Still, I got the idea and managed to start to get things where I wanted within Phocus. And I must say, it was often hard to argue with where Phocus wanted to start with the image.

How do the pictures look ?

That’s what matters right ?  Right out of the gate the images are rich and thick.  The colour for me is very bold, especially the red / yellows and blues.  And yet the skin tones still look quite natural and warm.  It’s not a neutral camera by any stretch, but that’s a good thing for me. I love contrast and saturation.  And this thing does it in spades.

Some camera files you turn up the saturation and the color starts looking lurid and unrealistic.  Not so the X1D.  It’s strong bold color look never looked over the top.  In most of these files I only added a minimal amount of saturation, usually around +10 in Phocus and no vibrancy. 

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Again the blues are so strong. 180th @ F5.6 ISO 100 Click here for a larger JPEG.

Perhaps it’s the 16 bit files, but they’re damn hard to break.  I didn’t really run into any banding on those skies. In some of the later dusk shots there LOOKS like there is some banding in the sky, but it’s really just the cloud pattern.   

At ISO 100 the dynamic range is a huge improvement over the CCD I’m used to.  And the noise is very low too, I found I could deep dig into the shadows.

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I didn’t think much of this image and wasn’t going to post it however, it’s worth looking at because there’s a subtle reflection of the skyline behind me in the fire truck and the way the blue interacts with the red is very subtle and intriguing. Check out the RAW. 1/500th @ F 5.6 ISO 100 Click here for the JPEG

I went to ISO 1600 and then finally to ISO 3200 as the sun dropped.  The noise wasn’t terrible.  And in full daylight at 100 I could pull those shadows up a lot.  A whole lot ! I feel like I seemed to get better results from a ETTL or an underexposed image rather than my usual ETTR exposed right up to clipping style approach. It’s hard to tell exactly when shooting though cause there’s no way to see clipping till after you’ve taken the shot !

The dynamic range is a big improvement over the CCD of the M-E that I’m used to.  And the noise is pretty low too.  In many ways it reminded me of the stills from my amazing Olympus EM1 mark 2.  Rumor is Olympus use a Sony made sensor in there, and it turns out so the same rumor exists for the X1D.  I have to say it kind felt to me like there were similarities in the way the noise and underexposure pulled up. Maybe there’s truth to those rumours.

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I probably overexposed this a little. Now that I know how much shadow information can be pulled I would underexpose it more.  I wasn’t able to recover much from the sky. 1/350 @ F4.8 ISO 100  Click here for a large JPEG

 

I have included a copy of both the original files, DNG’s of my corrections in Phocus, and then JPEG files HERE and in the link below.  You may be able to get better results than me as I’ve only had an afternoon getting to know Phocus.

Is the X1D a viable alternative to the Leica M rangefinder style of shooting ?

There’s a heck of a lot to like.  The images are very robust, come right out of camera looking pretty good and needing minimal post. The body is so small for such a larger sensor.  It’s reasonably priced compared to the eye watering Leica S series, and it’s just too large to be considered the same style of shooting.

I have actually shot a bit with the Leica S TYP 006, which is a medium format version of the same CCD sensor I love from the M-E but it never really grabbed me in the same way the M does and the staggering price for a camera that is not a bread winner can’t really be justified. Beautiful images no doubt, but the size and price make it a no.

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1/750th @ F3.2 ISO 800  Click here for a larger JPEG

Now, the big $15 000 question is….will I buy one ?  I’m still undecided on that, the major thing for me is the damn amount of blackout time.  As it is I probably will crumble, but it’s a heck of a lot of coin to spend on a camera that doesn’t earn me anything back. 

To really decide I need to shoot a bit more with it and see if I can’t test it on my next set.

The XD1 is an unmitigated joy of a tiny beautifully designed medium format camera that’s smaller and lighter than a lot of DSLR’s. It easily creates beautiful large resolution images that look great right from camera and are thick enough to take a lot of post work and still look unbroken.

So far the colour is pretty close if not equal to the exquisite colour I’m used to from the Leica CCD sensors that I’ve been shooting the last few years.  With a few little tweaks to the firmware the XD1 will mature into a milestone camera. 

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1/80th @ F5.6 at ISO 400 Click here for a larger JPEG

I wish I could customise it more, for example reverse the dials and reverse the actions, make the aperture the shutter and the shutter the aperture.

I wish I could see blinkies before I shoot

I wish phocus would do better local adjustments.

I wish C1 would read RAW Hassy files.

But it’s a pretty small wish list.  I think my biggest wish, to vastly reduce the blackout time, will be more difficult to grant.

Perversely, it’s still a lot cheaper than the Leica S (by maybe 50%??), so there’s always the satisfaction you’ve gotten a bargain I guess.

Hats off to Hasselblad for their innovative design and it’s great to feel like this marque brand is back on the right path after some rocky times recently.    It sure makes nice pictures and so far the colour gamut the camera captures is pretty close if not equal to the exquisite colour I’m used to from the Leica CCD sensors that I’ve been shooting the last few years.

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Might have gone to far with a grad on the sunset and extra saturation. 1/2000 @ F4.8 at ISO 800 Click here for a large JPEG

So here’s a side bar question…Is it medium format ?  

135 is 36mm x 24mm

The X1d and Leica S are 45mm x 30mm

The smallest medium format camera is a 6 x 4.5 camera which is close to 56mm x 42mm.

It’s medium format lite really.  Even the smallest of the medium format film sizes is a fair bit bigger than the X1D and Leica S sensor size.  It’s somewhere in-between 135 and 645.

 I shot these photos using camera firmware version 1.17

Video !?

You may have noticed I’m a DP and cinematographer.  I did note that the X1D shoots video.  I did shoot a little bit because I can, but the rolling shutter looked pretty bad, and the native lenses have a terrible noise whenever you change iris while rolling that makes them hard to imagine using in a professional environment.  Perhaps with an adapted cinema lens with clickless iris we might revisit this.

Posted in Equipment | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Split! – Does it take a village to make a movie ?

 

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Director David Boyd ASC behind the three headed split on “Queen of the South”

While in the middle of production on a remake of Beaches for Lifetime with director Allison Anders, we started talking about the use of video split and she reminded me that the DGA have rules about the use of the video split.

DGA rules about the use of the video split

To quote from the bottom of page 71…

“Use of Video Assist The parties agree that on theatrical motion pictures and on television motion pictures ninety (90) minutes or longer, video assist may not be used without the Director’s permission. When the Director of a theatrical motion picture elects to use video assist, he/she shall determine the number and placement of monitors to be used.”

In other words, those watching a video split do so at the discretion of the director.

A monitor or video split or video assist on set these days showing the “shot” is so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have them.

Considering the 100+ year history of cinema, the video split is a relatively new innovation.  It used to be that a director would simply stand or sit near the camera and simply watch the performance.

 

One of the first ever narrative film directors Alice Guy-Blaché

One of the first ever narrative film directors Alice Guy-Blaché

 

There was this seemingly perverse idea that the operator (often the DP) would be entrusted with the framing altogether.

When I first started out in the early 90’s they still weren’t all that common, the camera rental company where I started out used to rent a video tap for the camera as an additional hire.  From memory a super 16 camera was $650 a day and if you wanted a B&W split it was another $450 and if you wanted a colour split it was another $550 on top of the camera body hire.

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Director Fritz Lang

It wasn’t unusual at all for a shoot to go without a split and the director would just occasionally look in the camera’s viewfinder and generally trust what the DOP / operator was doing.

Times have changed.

Walk onto any set today and you’ll see many many images.  There are sometimes multiple monitors on the cameras themselves, many focus pullers now have their own monitor for camera, then there’s the video village and the gallery village.

The series I’m in pre production on now has 12 monitors including camera on-board monitors.

The first splits I was working with were simple security cameras that were modified to show a grainy image from inside a film camera that could at best approximate the framing of the shot.  You couldn’t really judge lighting and it was even a stretch to really be able to judge performance.

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Jerry Lewis operates what appears to be a Mitchell 35mm cameras with an RCA video camera above the viewfinder. Notice he’s not using the split but is still looking through the film camera itself.

According to Wikipedia, Jerry Lewis was the first to really make use of the video split. He has also made claims to being the inventor of the video split.

From the Wikipedia page on Video Assist

“Comedian and director Jerry Lewis is widely credited with inventing the precursor to this system,[1] although some similar systems existed before Lewis first used a video camera to simultaneously record scenes alongside his film camera during production of The Bellboy in 1960.[2] Director Blake Edwards was the first to use the beam-splitter single-camera system invented by engineer Jim Songer in the 1968 film The Party.[2]

I find this story pretty interesting because 1960 is VERY early days for the recording of video.  Video recording had only been demonstrated as being possible in a laboratory in 1953 and the most plausible video recorder that Jerry Lewis would have access to would have probably been an AMPEX QUAD system, which was only introduced as a prototype at NAB in 1956.

It’s possible the first time quad video recording was used for drama in TV was on a few select episodes of a series called “The Twilight Zone” in 1960. Video cameras were still pretty exclusive and expensive items made primarily for Television broadcasters.  Video recording was even more of a unicorn, requiring a lot of infrastructure and equipment just to run.

Early AMPEX QUAD video tape recorder

Early AMPEX QUAD video tape recorder

 

 

“In one of his most noted technical achievements, Lewis was the first director-actor to make use of a “closed circuit television preview system” (now commonly referred to as video assist) on an American feature film with “The Bellboy.” Lewis never had a closed set on any of the films he directed, preferring to allow people on the lot to come and watch him at work.”

There’s also this interesting article that would seem to dis-credit the Lewis claim to inventing the video split.

Around the turn of the millennium, that is, the year 2000, things started changing. High Definition cameras started to genuinely compete with film as a medium for narrative drama orgination.

And then something that had never happened before in the history of cinema transpired…Those at the video split had a better picture of the action than those operating the camera.

After nearly 100 years of cinema history where the operator always had the best sense of what was in the frame, we had a reversal.

Now the director would see a high definition and large image while the first electronic EVF’s on those HD cameras were usually crummy black and white images or at best 720p LCD colour images.

And it wasn’t just the director.  Around the same time, the invention of the video village crops up.  And just as the name implies, the “village” means a lot of people.  Script supervisors, make up, wardrobe, standby props, art department.

Even the name “Video Village” implies it’s a village!  It invites democratic opinion.  And going back to my discussion with my director Allison Anders, filmmaking really isn’t a democratic medium.  But when you have a “village” of people back there watching, it seems to give some of those watching permission to make comment or pass judgement.

Which is a long winded way of me getting to the point.

For me the video split is a modern necessity.  At the pace we work at today, especially for Television production it’s the only way to stay on top of production. But I have become very particular about the way I like to have video splits arranged on set.  I usually try to set this up with my directors and almost all of them seem to like doing it this way.

The first one I’m talking about here is what I call the director’s split.

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Director Glendyn Ivin at the split behind actor Sophie Lowe on “The Beautiful Lie”

1.  Have the split in the same room

The most important first point for me to is to have this director’s split in the same room as the actors wherever possible.  Or at least be able offer this to the director.  There’s nothing worse than an actor and director yelling at each other across the set or between rooms for notes about a scene. Having the director in the same room shortcuts a lot of discussions about minutiae and again, having the whole crew hear about it !

Now, not all directors like to be in the same room as the actors doing the scene and some will prefer the separation, often because they want the thinking “distance” and prefer to chat to the script supervisor or producers / showrunners between takes and form a view about notes before coming into the actors space with those notes rather than workshopping them with the actors within earshot.   But mostly I find directors prefer to be as close as possible to the actors and will always almost always take the chance to be in the same room. It’s immediate and fast and inherently more collaborative.

Directors are also more situationally-aware when they’re in the same room.  This is something I often see as an operator as the scene evolves, the actors make discoveries about the blovking as they work in the space and through the scene.  If the director is there in the room they’re a part of that journey and choose to incorporate or not, those new discoveries.

The beauty of the directors split in-the-same-room model is that at any point or for differing scenes the director can choose to be in the room, or can also retreat to the larger video village split.

2.  Set this split up first before anything else.

Cameras and focus pullers aside, this should be set up before the Village get’s built.   That way I can be shooting faster and I’m not waiting for a village to be constructed.

3.  Still set it up even if the director doesn’t use it.

As I mentioned, some directors won’t want to use it.  But it should always be there in case they want to use it and be in the same room. Sometimes they can switch between the split in the room and the village.

4.  Keep it small and agile. 

One thing I do for this split is try to keep it small and portable.  I see all these rigs for directors that are somehow meant to sling and carry the split in their hands.

It never works past the first take because no one wants to carry that thing around!

So I try to find a sturdy stand, something with wheels if possible and then fit the monitors to that stand and create a small directors split that the director can watch. And they watch from a standing position.  Again, the key is be mobile and agile.

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Split set up from “The Beautiful Lie”

 

Split Protocol.

Film sets aren’t a democracy.  They are highly hierarchical and for good reason.  Unfortunately, when you stand at a monitor and look over a director’s shoulders, it can sometimes invite a conversation about what’s on the monitor.

Often on long running shows at the big village you find there’s all sorts of conversations about what someone did on the weekend or an upcoming event. Stop!  Don’t stand in someone else’s office and yammer away about something that’s not to do with the scene that’s being shot right now.

Smaller monitors, means only a few can watch and it keeps everything more intimate.  Larger monitors at “the village” mean more feel like they can voice an opinion and because you’re displaced from the set it means you’re less connected to the tone in the room coming off the actors.

Monitors

For years now I’ve been using the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q and 7Q+. I bought two and they have paid for themselves many times over. For a long time time for me they’ve been the benchmark for image quality and they have some very customisable exposure tools and the ability to apply LUTs as well.

Only now years after they were launched are others starting to compete with their feature set and screen quality.  One other nifty feature I’ve been relying on is their ability to slave record, that is, to record automatically when the camera connected rolls.  This was a feature likely intended to be used for backup recording from a camera, but I’ve been setting it to the lowest quality ProRes Proxy setting to maximize the record time and I can get many many hours of material recorded for later reference.

These days it’s not that uncommon to use a third or even fourth camera, and the Odyssey has a great feature of being able to display a second input so you can switch between two inputs or display both (and record!) at the same time

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Director Glendyn Ivin with his customised frontbox style table fitted. Yes, that’s cheese on the table.

So I go for these small Odyssey monitors on a small wheelable stand.   The directors often wheel it around themselves.  Some even add tables but most all use it standing.

Focus Pullers

These days a lot of focus pullers also have their very own dedicated split.  And there’s nothing first AC’s hate more than someone else peering over their shoulders at THEIR split that they’re trying to pull or check focus from.  And definitely don’t ask them why there’s weird red lines all over their image

Wireless

I’ve used almost all the wireless systems out there from BOXX down, and I’ve ended up settling on the Teradek 2000 as the most reliable / best value.  (Yes, I’ve tried the 3000).

The BOXX are great but very much larger and very expensive.

Mostly I like the Teradek 2000 because it’s one of the few wireless systems that pass the SDI record flag.  That means the trigger record or slave function of the Odyssey works.  Many other transmitters DO NOT pass the record flag, including some of the lessor Teradek transmitters.  The other big plus is that they work fairly reliably.

Right now the setup I have is 3 x TX units and 10 x RX units.  With that much WiFi floating around, a lot of other systems get hung up.  The Teradek 2000 seems to be pretty resilient in these situations.  By the way, don’t go adding those mushroom polarised antennas to the TX unless you also add them to the receivers.

You’ll notice that I’ve added little noga arms to the RX units.  Teradek themselves say you should always have about a meter or 3 feet of separation between the RX units.  The noga arms help separate them and also to orient them broadside to the TX source, which dramatically improves reception.

So there it is, a long winded piece about the politics of the video split, complete with the way I like to have it run.

I have no commercial relationship with any of the vendors mentioned in this post.  It’s just the gear I use and the way I like to use it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Queen Of The South Season 2 – camera tests

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Alice Braga plays Teresa Mendoza

I thought it might be interesting to share these tests with you.

I was invited to join the second season of Queen of the South, a successful FOX21/ USA network series which had already had a great first season.  It’s based on a very successful Mexican / Spanish language novel called La Reina del Sur by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

It had already been done as a Spanish language telenovela and this would be the second season of the US version of this epic narco cartel story.

I’d worked with showrunner Natalie Chaidez before on her show for SyFy, Hunters. David Friendly was the other EP who’d been with the show since the beginning.

Natalie originally described this story to me as a kind of cartel version of the classic All About Eve.  In the first season Alice Braga plays Teresa Mendoza who just barely manages to survive a trial by fire as she’s forced to flee from her comfortable and insulated life after her cartel pilot boyfriend Guerro is assassinated by cartel boss Epifanio Vargas (Joaquim de Almeida).  Forced to flee for her life she crosses the border illegally into the US from mexico and comes to the attention of Epifanio’s estranged wife Camilla Vargas (Veronica Falcón) who’s established her own Dallas based cartel stateside.

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Joaquim de Almeida plays Epifanio Vargas

Learning the ropes and starting off as a drug mule, Teresa starts her journey to one day becoming a drug queenpin in her own right.

In the first season Teresa was really only barely surviving episode to episode and this season would see a gear change and really begin to explore her rise.  By season end she will start to challenge Camilla herself and we wanted to find ways to offer more of what Natalie describes as the aspirational drug cartel boss lifestyle !

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Veronica Falcón plays Camilla Vargas

Our plan and remit was to bring more bling to the second season and to show the trappings of what success in a drug distribution world look like.  Aspirational locations and lifestyle, richer surroundings and more obvious wealth.  We would still have the gritty counterpoint and action that marked the first season as well, hopefully just adding on a layer of wealth and glamour to mask the ugly down and dirty side to her world.

This test was among the first I shot for Queen of the South, using Alice Braga’s stand-in Jamie Buckley.

Along with producing director David Boyd ACS, we tested a few ideas.  One was to shoot the more punk locations and scenes using a Super 16 sized cutout on the Alexa or maybe a RED.  We’d also use super 16 lenses for this to make sure it was a bit rougher and uglier looking, making it a bit more raw and unpolished.   Then we’d use the full sensor width / Super 35 for the richer and more lush locations and we wanted to see how that looked when shot.  You’ll also see a few different ideas for lenses as well.

The first season was shot using Panavision pVintage / Ultraspeeds and I was leaning towards keeping that choice, as I’m already a fan of those lenses.

We also looked at anamorphic lenses with the idea maybe of doing a 1.78 cut out but with the signature anamorphic look and flares on the glitzier locations.

We also came up with a simple idea that we used to do back on the old days on film where you simply stretch the frame by 5%.  This is a simple way to create anamorphic like bokeh.

If you listen to the sound on this, you’ll hear my candid views and discussion as I narrate this test to the show runner Natalie.  Normally we’d watch this together in a grading suite, but she was in LA at the time and David and I were in Dallas.

In the second longer clip here you’ll see me auditioning a few different looks for the show.  One would be the basic dallies look which I’d strike a LUT from for Dallas.  Then we tried a few different looks for whenever the show moves to Mexico.

Season 1 had already established a very heavy tint for scenes in Mexico, the typical yellow brown wash that is almost a cliche these days and I wanted to try and do something a little more sophisticated and subtle.  So you’ll see me auditioning those looks as well.

The second clip also has some practical tests of a few ideas from the first tests.  There’s a couple of “16mm” shots that re executed using a BM micro.  There’s also some auditioning of some techniques for shooting in a car.  I had my patient key grip Kerry Rike go for a drive with me as I tried a few ways of shooting him in motion.

There are some cool tests for an obscure device called an Arri Varicon and a newer version of the same thing made by Panavision, the Panaflasher.  The idea here is that you use a kind of veiling flare on the lens to alter the contrast in the image, or essentially, flare the blacks a little, sometimes with white light, and sometimes using coloured light.  If you watch you can see me adjusting it to eye as we’re shooting.  Let me know what you make of that !

The second season of Queen Of The South is currently airing on USA.

http://www.usanetwork.com/queenofthesouth

You can also watch the first season on Netflix.

https://www.netflix.com/title/80107369

 

 

Posted in Equipment, General, Uncategorized | Tagged | 6 Comments

IRND Filters

I recently shot a movie of the week in Vancouver and was lucky enough to get some early samples of the new Panavision IR ND filters.  I tested them here on both the Alexa and the Ursa Mini 4.6K.

You can see the Ursa Mini 4.6K is much more susceptible to IR pollution in this torture test under tungsten lighting.

I also compared the Schneider IR filters and you can see in the above link they really don’t measure up, whereas the Panavision IR’s look really great and were very consistent across their range.  I went onto use the Panavision IR ND filters for the movie and I thought they were great and really consistent.

Up until using them on this film, I’ve pretty much only used the wonderful Mitomo TRUE ND’s, but as some will know these are obscenely expensive and hard to come by.

Well, I recently discovered, much to my pleasant surprise, that you can now BUY the Panavision IRND filters, because they’re made by Lee, and Panavision own Lee.  And they’ve just started to sell them to us the general public !

Lee call these “ProGlass Cine IRND filters”.

Here’s the official page from LEE.

And here’s the official Panavision page.

And just to make sure they’re the same filters I checked by camera testing them!

So here’s a quick exterior IR filter test.  I shot using the Alexa Mini, shooting ProRes 4444 Log C 1920.

I shot the Panavision IR filters, my new LEE IR filters (which should be the same) and some Tiffen IRND’s as a comparison, along with the Alexa Mini’s own internal ND.

Below is a little edit of the 2.1 ND in all situations, so you can compare.  I was surprised how well the Tiffen did actually, as I’ve seen them be a lot worse.  The 2.1 ND is a real test because at that density you generally see lot’s of variation in colour and consistency.  As an extra check I’ve also shot using no filters at all.

Here’s the Digital Pigeon preview file (faster load)

Or watch here on Vimeo.

All I’ve done here is apply the Resolve / Arri default REC 709 LUT and I just used a curve to open the blacks up a little bit more.  I then applied this grade to all the clips.

I used shutter angle / shutter speed to regulate light levels and used false colour on the grey chip to maintain exposure.  It was all shot over about a 40 min period with very little cloud, so it should be consistent.  All the exposures are noted on the slate.

As expected, there are little variations in exposure and most surprising to me was that I found the Arri Alexa Mini internal ND’s to be a little green and differing in density on this default grade.

But if you want to check for yourself, go ahead and download the original camera files here courtesy of my friends at Digital Pigeon.

I’d be really interested to hear if anyone sees anything different, feel free to leave a comment if you do.

There are some tiny differences in the way the edges are finished on the LEE filters compared to the PV filters but the glass is the same, as are the pouches. I really like the little notches on the PV filters to let you know by touch how many stops they are.  I would pay extra to have my filters engraved with my name the way the Panavision ones are, I wonder if that’s hard to do?

 

 

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Intrigue – How far will you go ?

 

I’ve been flat out in pre production on a new Telemovie I’m shooting in Vancouver, but I wanted to share this little short film project from earlier in the year.

Following on from the launch video I did for the Olympus EM-5 Mark II, I thought it was time to put some of the newly updated features to the test on an actual short narrative style shoot.

I’ve been doing a lot of testing of the new FLAT video profile for the Olympus E-M5 Mark II and I was really keen to find out how far I could take the image if it was recorded to a more robust codec using an external recorder.

After the initial launch of the E-M5 Mark II Olympus have been taking feedback from video users and have included some of that feedback into firmware updates to further improve the video capabilities. Most significantly they’ve created a FLAT profile for shooting video and the thinking is to try and squeeze a little more DR into the image by starting with a lower contrast and flatter picture profile. This then allows you to put the colour and contrast back in during the final grade.

About the Shoot

I wanted to see how the camera and new profile would produce in a very minimal environment.  For me, this is when using a mirrorless camera really excells.  I can be very discrete and shoot without any requirement for permits.   With just two crew and the two actors, I was keen to try the camera in a few scenarios where I knew it might shine.

So I had three days.  Luckily I had some friends in LA on a recent trip to California that I was able to rope in for this shoot.

Now who hasn’t thought about driving the open highway in a classic car like a nice ’65 Mustang ?

So I had in mind to shoot some in-car work and also to visit some of the more iconic locations of California.

Starting at a wonderful standing “movie version” of an American gas station, we set the scene between our couple who meet for the first time.

The Story

After some initial frisson over the bowsers he leaves before they can talk, but she eventually finds a little surprise he’s left her.  A ring !

Later she realises that he’s left her a message inside the ring, it’s an Instagram handle.  Looking it up she realises he’s left her a picture clue for where he might be next, so she takes off to track him down.  After arriving at the beautiful Joshua Tree, she again finds another ring.  Checking in on Instagram, he’s left yet another clue, and she’s off again, this time to the snow capped mountains of inspiration point, about 90 mins outside of LA.

Once in the beautiful mountains she finds a third ring and it points her towards Santa Monica Pier where she finally meets up with the mysterious stranger.  They have a dance by the sunset before he finally offers her a final ring.

The Rules

I had no tripod.  This is all shot handheld.  No gimbal, no monopod.  There are a couple of shots where I had the camera mounted using a suction mount when it was on the car, but that’s IT !  So everything you see here is done using the amazing 5 axis image stabiliser.

The Outcome

With a grand total of four people, three days and 600 miles of driving this is what we got done !

The Gear

Everything was recorded on an external recorder over HDMI using the “clean feed function” of the camera.  I used a 5″ Blackmagic Video Assist recorder to record the HDMI signal to 1920 ProRes HQ on it’s internal SD card.

Intrigue was edited and graded using Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve (which is available as a free download here)

If you’re interested in what the visual differences are with the flat profile, you can get a sense of where the grade started to where it ended up by looking here. The first image is the final grade and the second is the ungraded shot.

 

I used a combination of lenses, mostly the outstanding Olympus 12mm F2, and the Olympus 9-18mm F4-5.6.  I love these lenses because they are so lightweight !  For ND I used the SLR Magic Vari ND and in addition to these lenses I had some PL mount Zeiss MK 3 Superspeeds from my friends at Blacklist Digital and an MFT–> PL lens adaptor from Hot Rod Camera.

Thanks to

Special thanks to the awesome Jane Harber,  Armen Taylor on acting duties and especially to Jessica Clarke-Nash, who helped shoot and cut this for me. My good friend Hook did the grade.

I also really want to thank Kristy Galea and Olympus Imaging Australia for her awesome support and making this shoot possible, and Quett Lai for his masterful technical support.

Download your own files

For direct viewing in vimeo go here.

If you want to download some juicy large ProRes files to try editing and grading your own clips then go here.

Very special thanks to my friends at Digital Pidgeon for making these files available for download, it’s not easy doing such fast hosting of large video files.

Posted in Equipment | 35 Comments

In Memory of Morgan

I just learned of the sad news of the passing of a colleague Morgan Evans.

You have probably seen him on your screens and not realised it.  I was lucky enough to know this amazing stunt performer and director and got to work on a few shows with him.  I’ll never forget his boundless enthusiasm and energy and love of life.

I still remember seeing one of his VCA films as a young filmmaker and being so astounded at the audacity of his stunts, humour, production value and the political commentary he managed to combine in one simple film.

Although we hadn’t crossed paths lately, I miss you already and the world is poorer for not having you around.

Morgan Evans (pointing behind camera), Tony D’Aquino and I working on a TVC in Vietnam

 

 

 

 

 

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