Archive for the ‘DSLR’ Category

A Dozen Useful, Low-Budget Camera-Related Items

Monday, November 7th, 2011

As you may have gathered from Ashley’s recent post about art department lifesavers we have been doing some filming lately. After several days on set, I’ve come to deeply appreciate some small, even seemingly minor, accessories and pieces of camera-related equipment — “kit” in industry parlance. I thought I’d discuss a few of these items, each of which is under $200.

We’re using a Sony FS100, a Red Rock Micro follow focus and low-rise baseplate, an assortment of Nikon lenses, and a Heliopan variable ND filter, but many of the items listed below would be at home on a DSLR-based shoot or a shoot with a more traditional video camera (Sony EX1, Panasonic HVX200, etc).

Zip tie lens gears.
Lenses that were designed for stills, not cinema, lack a gear that allows them to be used with a follow focus. One solution would have been to use the gear rings that we had from Red Rock Micro. These are functional, but they have a number of disadvantages: they’re large, they can be time consuming to put on/take off, and at $40 each, they’re overpriced. Zip tie lens gears are inexpensive and easy-to-add to every lens you own. Once on your lens, you can forget about them. $40 for 3. 

Zip tie lens gears from Wide Open Camera.

Wet Erase Markers
A good set of wet-erase markers will help you make marks on your follow focus ring. We like wet erase, not dry erase, markers because the dry erase ones will smear. $7.

Filter pouch.
Our Heliopan Variable ND filter comes in a less-than-ideal case. It’s a very tight fit, to the point of seeming like it could scratch or scuff the glass. We quickly bought a filter pouch to protect our investment. $9.

77mm step up rings and lens caps.
We use a 77mm variable ND filter on set, which at that size has the ability to cover all of our lenses when using step-up rings. After a few days of filming with one step-up ring per size needed (e.g., a 52-to-77, a 62-to-77, etc.) we found that we were being slowed down by having to unscrew the step-up rings from lens to lens, particularly when so many of our most-used lenses (e.g., 28, 35, 50) all had a 52mm threading. So we splurged and purchased the necessary step up rings for all of our lenses. Now all of our lenses have a 77mm “face” (and accompanying lens cap). Though step up rings seem like an inexpensive piece of kit, read the reviews and buy a reputable brand like B+W, Heliopan, etc. Lesser step up rings can seize up, making that expensive variable ND filter a big headache! Step-up rings: $25 – $45.  Lens caps: $5.

Lilliput 7" LCD

Lens cleaning tools. 
We switch lenses and filters often, which means more chance of dirtying them. We keep our glass clean with:
Nikon Lens Pen. $7
Kimwipes. $5
Purosol Lens Cleaner. $8

Lilliput 7″ 668GL On-camera HD Monitor
In 2010 I read about Lilliput’s small, inexpensive HD monitors. At the time, they only seemed to be sold on Ebay. I bought one off almost as a novelty, not expecting much from it since it was so much cheaper than other HD monitors on the market. While its picture is not as vivid or high resolution as that of other portable HD monitors I’ve used, it works, it’s lightweight, and it’s far more affordable. The one I bought over a year ago didn’t have a battery pack like the new ones they make, so I had to buy an Ikan battery AC/DC adapter plate, which allows me to use Sony batteries with it. The new models, which you can purchase through Amazon, now come with their own battery solution and component inputs. As for its application, I tend not to use it if I’m operating camera myself, but when working with a DP or camera operator I use it as my “director’s monitor.” It’s especially useful when filming in tight spaces (like a car — see below) where using your camera’s LCD monitor or viewfinder isn’t an option.  $170.

FilmTools Gripper 116XL

HDMI Cables It’s nice to have different lengths of HDMI cables to use with the Lilliput monitor. I’ve used these Insignia brand cables on set for a few weeks and haven’t had any problems. One’s a 9 footer, one’s a 3 footer. $10.

FilmTools Gripper 116 XL car mount.
Trying to shoot smooth car footage handheld , particularly with a CMOS sensor prone to “jell-o”, can be a test of one’s patience. This FilmTools car mount affixes to your car’s windows or windshield with a large suction cup and will support cameras up to 9 pounds. $110.

Coleman LED Quad Lantern
This ingenious LED lantern can be split into four smaller LED sections, which have a functionality similar to micro Litepanels at a fraction of the cost. We’ve used the “quads” for driving shots by hiding them on the ceiling, in the dashboard, and on the floor. Beyond driving, they’re useful for any situation where you might not have access to power and don’t need to light a large area. And if you need more light than one puts off, you can gaff tape them together. Though they’re not necessarily color corrected like a those designed for video use, they work great if you throw a gel on them or dial in the appropriate color balance setting on your camera. Plus, when you’re not filming, the lantern can be used for camping — you can’t say that about a micro Litepanel! $58.

Coleman LED Quad Lantern

Two-Way Radios
Or, as laymen call them, “walkie talkies.” I’m usually not working on a set that’s so large that we all need to be outfitted with professional two-way radios and headsets. That said, it’s nice to have an inexpensive set on hand for those occasions when your cast and/or crew is in different areas. I find them essential when shooting exterior car scenes (i.e., those in which the camera’s outside the car, filming actors driving). It’s the easiest way I know to cue talent or ask for another take. Roughly $35-$75, depending on features.

Canare breakaway cable
For the uninitiated, a breakaway cable consolidates multiple XLR and mini cables into one neat cable, which can be run from a location audio mixer to a camera (or audio recorder). Though it may seem overpriced for what is seemingly a bunch of XLR and mini plug cables wrapped together, if you’re using a mixer and feeding that audio into your camera the simplicity, organization, and mobility that a breakaway cable provides is well worth the cost. In addition to feeding your camera two tracks of audio with one cable, a good breakaway cable also give the sound mixer a means to listen to the “return” audio instead of the audio from the sound mixer. This is the best way to monitor the audio being mixed, so for me it’s worth the investment. $190.

How to Build a Lens Collection

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Today I was reading a camera discussion forum in which someone asked how to build a lens collection on a budget. He was looking for Nikon lenses to use on a Sony NEX-FS100 camera. I could relate — I was in his position in 2006 when I started to look for Nikon glass to be used on video cameras with a Letus, on the Red One, and so on. I hadn’t purchased a lens since my senior year in high school (for my venerable Pentax K-1000), and I knew only the most basic things to look for.

Since then I’ve built up a nice collection of Nikon lenses, which now work on a host of cameras. I love my Nikons and have no regrets!

So what follows are some very basic tips I’ve learned on how to build a lens collection. I make a few allusions to Nikons vis-a-vis the NEX-FS100 below, but my advice could just as easily be interpolated for someone buying Canon lenses for the Red Epic or a Panasonic AF-100.

Nikons © Csaveanu from Flickr

1) Determine your needs. Obviously, you need to think about what kind of coverage you want. Even if you primarily shoot wide angle footage, you probably also want a normal and a telephoto lens in your bag. But only you know your tastes.
Likewise, only you know your budget. You’re going to be keeping this in mind as you build a list and prioritize your needs.

But beyond these things, there are other considerations:

What cameras now and in the future, might you use these lenses on? Do your lenses need to be full-frame to be future-proof? Must they have aperture rings? I prefer having aperture rings on my lenses because I sometimes have to use “dumb” adapters (i.e., those that can’t control aperture).

Since I was working with a very limited budget, for me, the most important question when I began building my collection was whether to go for primes or zooms. I primarily would be using these lenses to shoot narrative work so I opted for primes; if I was shooting a documentary, I’d want a good zoom lens (if I was shooting with the NEX-FS100, would actually just get the Sony kit lens since autofocus is nice to have in a pinch).

The thing to remember about zooms intended for still lenses is that they are often not parfocal, which means that they don’t hold focus across the zoom. (Some are. You have to test to find out.) To me, a non-parfocal zoom negates at least part of the purpose of having a zoom, so that’s another reason I went with primes.

2) Familiarize yourself with the lenses that are out there. Researching Nikons, I visited sites like Photozone and those by Bjorn Rorslett (go to the LENSES page and then dig deep into his reviews, especially the “Best of” page) or Ken Rockwell. Different people trust different reviewers (some people HATE Ken Rockwell, for example). But the point is this: When all the websites praise a lens, that’s a pretty good sign of a winner.

I’m obsessive, so I prefer to make lists and tables of all the lenses I’m considering. It helps me keep track of what I’ve looked at, the (dis)advantages of each, and the price.

3) Read reviews, but with a grain of salt. Remember that if you’re only going to use lenses for video, you don’t have to fret about their resolving power nearly as much. A lens intended for full frame negative film or a 16MP digital camera must resolve far more detail than you’ll ever get out of HD or even 4K video. For example, many lens testers worry about blurring in the corners; you don’t have to worry about this quite as much since using a full frame lens on a Super35 sensor means you’re using the sweetest spot of the lens.

Having said all of this, I do think you should buy the best lenses you can afford. Like microphones, and unlike video cameras, they tend to hold their value for much longer. In 20 years we may be shooting with cameras that capture 8K footage… and it’s possible I could still be using my Nikons.

4) Test. Try out the lenses you’re considering, especially if they’re pricey. Assuming you don’t have a friend who happens to have all the Nikons ever made, your two best options for testing are a) visit a fantastic photo store in your area and try out the lenses or, if you don’t have a great photo store (I don’t), b) rent the lenses. I’ve saved a lot of money by spending a few bucks to rent a bunch of lenses and then buying the one that I actually like. (I have happily used and endorse LensRentals.com. I have received no promotional consideration for that endorsement.)

Your basic lens collection. These are Canons.

5) Buy used (if possible) and buy smartly (always).

Start by finding out the going price for a used lenses by visiting KEH and the going rate for a new version on B+H or Adorama.

If KEH has the lens, and you have the money, buy a lens from them — they grade their lenses very fairly and have a great return policy. (Again, I’ve received nothing from them for this endorsement.)

If they don’t have it, or it’s too pricey, go for one on buy on Ebay, keeping the KEH prices in mind. If you’re going for AI-S lenses you can get GREAT bargains on Ebay since many photographers, needing autofocus, consider these obsolete lenses. When buying on Ebay all the usual cautions apply. Make sure the seller has fantastic ratings and that the photos clearly show the quality of the lens. Only bid on the lenses that look pristine.

Whatever you do, don’t overpay! If a lens on Ebay starts approaching anything close to its price on KEH, just get it on KEH and be done with it. The return policy will be far better than the risks you take with an Ebay seller. Or wait for another auction.

6) Watch for warning signs and, if necessary, seek help. I say this jokingly, but building a lens collection can be addictive fun — and can distract you from the real purpose of building a collection, which is to go out and film! Don’t say you weren’t warned.

If you have other tips or disagree with any of the above, share in the comments below.

The Panasonic GH2: Some thoughts.

Friday, February 4th, 2011

I have made no secret of my frustration with DSLRs for making motion pictures. I’ve wanted to love them, sure. In my quest to find a small camera I could love, I’ve bought and sold (or returned) a Canon 7D, Panasonic GH1, and a Nikon D7000. The Canon and Nikon were each impressive in their own ways, but I gave them both up because I could never fully trust the image that I saw in their LCDs. After being burned a few times by outrageous moire that only appeared once I could view footage on a real monitor, I gave up trying to shoot with those cameras.

The GH1, which I tested last summer after my frustrations with the Canon cameras, was more promising, especially with the ballyhooed firmware hack that surfaced last year. That camera didn’t have problems with moire or aliasing, and its mirrorless design (the GH1 is not, technically speaking a DSLR at all) opened up the opportunity for using several different types of lenses (PL-mount cine lenses, Nikons, Canons, and many more).

Unfortunately, the camera clearly felt like the product of a “consumer” division of a large electronics company. Parts of the camera felt shoddily put together, there were reports of design issues with the lugs that held the neck strap and, worst of all, the camera exhibited a nasty fixed pattern noise problem that made any dim area in a shot have strange vertical blue streaks. Hacked or not, the camera didn’t seem ready for prime time. Hope springs eternal, though. I thought, Panasonic might be onto something if only they would fix some of these glaring problems.

In December, I managed to get my hands on the GH1’s successor, the still-hard-to-find Panasonic GH2, shortly after they arrived in the US. A month or so later, here are my thoughts on the camera as a tool for filmmakers.

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DSLRs, “Democratic Technology” and The Cost of Bokeh: Part 2

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

This is the second of two posts considering the rewards and challenges of using DSLRs for cinema work. If you’ve not read the first post, start there.

At the end of the last post we had assembled a Canon 7D camera, a Canon 17-55 f/2.8 lens with Image Stabilizer, a Zoom H4N audio recorder, and PluralEyes software to help us sync the picture and sound in Final Cut Pro. The cost: $3230. I hesitate to call this a “bare bones” package since it doesn’t even include a tripod or microphones. It does, however, get you picture and sound.

But you get picture and sound with a pixelvision camera. My intention with these posts is to compare DSLRs to a more traditional prosumer camcorder. And we still have a ways to go before it’s a fair comparison. So let’s continue…

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DSLRs, Democratic Technology and The Cost of Bokeh: Part 1

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

DSLR filmmaking has been much ballyhooed in the last year or so. Cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 7D have been hailed as the lastest in a long line of “democratizing” motion picture technology — inexpensive cameras that produce cinematic, shallow depth of field images that seem to rival the look produced by cameras costing many times more.

There were two reasons I was didn’t jump on the DSLR filmmaking bandwagon from the start. For one thing, in the last year I have been working on a lot of other projects, none of which involved needing to worry about how to use a new camera (finishing up a documentary and two DVD releases, raising money for a feature, and writing a script). Another reason was, frankly, I was skeptical. I saw photos of filmmakers dressing the cameras like this:

Going "indie" with a DSLR.

Going "indie" with a DSLR.

If that’s what you had to do to get it to work, I wasn’t interested.

As I mentioned in my previous post, though, I did recently decide to experiment with these cameras. And my uninformed skepticism has developed into experience-grounded ambivalence.

After a few months of wrestling with the cameras (especially the Canon 7D), I find them as frustrating as they are inspiring. Yes, I love the way they handle light. I love the lens interchangeability. I love their form factor, (at least initially).

But, as has been well documented elsewhere, these cameras have serious issues. Focus can be a challenge with their small LCDs. They’re prone to the “jello” effect. They shoot on a codec that is a challenge to edit and even more challenging to color grade. And, most frustratingly, they have major issues with aliasing, particularly moire, which is often not even observable while shooting.

Sure, I’ve had busted takes with other cameras — under-exposed shots on film that didn’t come out, shots that were a little soft in HD, or whatever. But DSLRs are built (or not built) for movie-making in such a way that you can very conceivably shoot for a significant period of time only to later discover that all of your footage is unusable. Not “disappointing” — unusable. Or perhaps you find something like this acceptable. (Note: I did not shoot this.)

To put it bluntly, these cameras have more red flags than a month’s worth of World Cup games. They carry a lot of risk for any serious project.

Because there are some undeniably awesome uses for these cameras, though, I have educated myself — by reading, by watching, by shooting — to find ways of working around their many, many problems. And I’ve learned to produce some nice footage.

But many of the techniques I’ve used to mitigate the problems involve spending more money, making the cameras bigger, and so on.

Fixing the problems often means taking away the very properties that make these DSLR cameras so seductive for filmmaking in the first place.

So in this post and the next I want to deal honestly with the basic costs of DSLR filmmaking and to consider whether these costs are worth the benefits.

It’s possible some DSLR acolytes will disagree with, or even have their feathers ruffled, by my writings about this technology.

That’s fine. These are my opinions alone and no camera is right for every person, at every time, for every project. But I think that by now this blog has established my credentials as a champion of smaller, less expensive, and simpler technology for movie-making. If I’m being critical, it’s probably for good reason.

So, today’s post will begin to consider the “cost of bokeh”, since their shallow depth of field is often touted as the leading reason for using these cameras.

My next post will finish pricing out the camera and accessories. I’ll also offer some thoughts on the notion of this technology as a “democratizing” force.

But enough prelude. What do we need to shoot motion pictures effectively with a DSLR?

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