Canon 7D vs EX1 – lens comparison

With only days to go before I get my Canon 550D (I’m choosing that over the 7D so I can use my SDHC cards), I’m filling in the waiting time with final little checks and shopping lists of things I really shouldn’t buy yet, things I do need to buy, things to go and shoot for testing purposes. This, at the expense of proper work at times.

As I packed up after a shoot yesterday, I got thinking… If I shoot voxpops at around 30% of the zoom range, talking heads up to around 50%, presentations at 80-90%, and I have a 0.6x wide angle converter, what does this all mean in the language of a Video DSLR like the Canon 7D and 550D? What lens(es) do I need to cover myself if that were the sole camera?

So I got to work with a Spreadsheet. It’s not a comparison I’ve seen whilst doing my research, so I thought I’d share. It’s quite illuminating for someone such as I. If it’s popular, I’ll keep it updated with any corrections and maybe add 1/3″ and 2/3″ cameras in there.

But for now, I have some lenses to buy.

Here’s a PDF version

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LED astray

I shoot a lot of stuff in windowless rooms of swish hotels, pressed into the service of Presentation Theatres. It’s a living. But just last week, whilst shooting in a very new venue next to St Pauls Cathedral, London, I was confused with a problem.

The lighting in some rooms appeared to strobe or flicker. In a subtle manner, not the big horrible flicker of bad Fluorescent or Sodium Vapour lighting. It was so subtle that I reckon many mortals would not have noticed it. I’ve tried to capture it even though the compression process has lessened its effect:

Well, at least you can see it in the viewfinder, rather than when viewing rushes back at home AFTER you can do anything about it. And if you can’t see the ripple effect in the initial shots, don’t worry. It’s just the Vimeo/YouTube compression. It IS very visible on the raw footage.

You’re not seeing things, it is there.

So in these situations, it seems that you can’t stop it, you can only lessen it. Slow the shutter down or turn it off. Experiment with the shutter – you might find a happy harmonic which lessens the effect. At least the compression process seems to minimise it.

Pimp my EX1

EX1 Genus DV matteboxIt’s almost a rite of passage. I now own a matte box, and it feels strange.

Matte boxes are exquisitely expensive for what they are. Explain to anyone the cost of this simple lens shade and slot mechanism and jaws will drop. Of course, they’re full of carefully machined parts, hand assembled to fine tolerances and built to serve for a decade or two of heavy use. But they’re still a lot of money – even the cheap ones.

On the list of ‘things to buy’, they’ve been way down on my list. Way, way down.

Seen on movie cameras and ‘portable studio cameras’, matte boxes have become an icon of ‘shooting for cinema’.

The matte box serves two main jobs: to stop stray light from hitting the lens which could cause flare and lower the contrast of a scene, and whilst doing that, holding filters in front of the lens.
As a rule, film cameras don’t have built-in filters. If you need to block the amount of light, you can’t just dial in some Neutral Density, you dig out an ND filter or two and shove it in front of the lens. If you need to correct for colour temperature, you can’t white-set film, you dig out a Colour Temperature filter (dare I mention Wrattens?). Then there’s ND Grads and polarisers which need to spin around the lens axis, and you may want a sort of contrast reducing filter to even out harsh lighting setups or flattering your interviewee with a light Pro Mist or some such.

So filters are okay, and matte boxes are required to handle all of this. But what about the video end of the market? More specifically, the folks shooting on DV and prosumer kit?

I’ve been a little suspicious of matte boxes. I’d prefer to use effects in post where there’s an undo facility. Having a huge lump of engineering at the front of an EX1 isn’t exactly going to help in hand-holding shots, and lets face it, there are times when it’s going to be nothing more than a Camera Cod Piece.

So fast forward to a couple of recent shoots. Building sites (such glamourous jobs). The EX1’s a great camera with a wide latitude, but a neutral grad would have been great to knock back the sky (overcast but vaguely interesting) whilst leaving the foreground (mostly mud) at a reasonable level. Then the sun comes out so we have glare on damp concrete, grass, you name it. Pola would have tamed it all.

I have screw-in filters, but they don’t fit wide angle adaptors, and to use a pola, I have to take the EX1 lens shade off, and suddenly sunlight hits the filter and I’m holding my hand just out of shot to shade it, and I’m left thinking… life is short. I need a matte box.

I’ve shopped around, looking at some ‘inventive’ solutions that assemble with velcro, slot together like a box, I’ve looked at cheap ones imported from India, second-hand ones that crop up from time to time, and the new ones from Vocas, Chroziel, Red Rock Micro, True Lens Systems, and had to choose between the TLS Kestrel and the Genus DV. The Kestrel was much lighter, felt better made, but didn’t play nice with the EX1. The Genus seemed to be designed around the EX1, working around the annoying Mic bridge over the lens. It fits the EX1 with Century 0.6 wide angle adaptor like a glove, and has adapted the trays so it will accommodate it. Like I say, it’s the perfect fit with the EX. I bought my Genus from TLS, who distribute it in the UK, and took up their offer of a Schneider filter starter pack which includes ND, ND Grad, Pola, Pro Mist equivalent, and a skin tone enhancer. I will probably only ever use the first three, but even then it’s cheaper to buy the set than to buy the 3 filters. Good deal.

So I’m set. I never thought I’d have to own a matte box, but now I do, ready for some more adventurous shoots coming up. It will be put to good use and improve the results of my wide angle adaptor outdoors.

Ah… But then we have a certain interviewee who shall remain nameless, who continues to be dismissive of an EX1 and has an unspoken yet obvious desire for a full on film setup rather than this guy with a little black sausage of a camera, and really wants to see a big long microphone in a furry blimp – indoors – with all the bells and whistles. And, you guessed it, a big lens shade with a bigger peak on the front (he meant the French Flag).

And therein lies the rub.

It’s not just Keifer Sutherland who can only give ‘a big performance to a big camera’. Some interviewees want it too.

As much as I hate myself for accepting this, that Matte Box is going to be used to pimp up my EX1 for certain interviewees, and it will probably do more service in that than in controlling and shaping light entering the lens. And I don’t care.

More WOOT from the MxR folks

E-Films have some great new toys for PMW-EX1/3 owners that update and enhance the successful SDHC adaptors and add a couple of new products that tick a lot of wishlist boxes.

Ross and friends over at E-Films make adaptors so you can put SDHC cards into your PMW-EX1 for cost effective bulk-shooting. They’re wonderful little things, but as we shooters got used to the things, many realised it was a lot easier to let the SDHC cards ‘live’ in the adaptors – one per card – rather than swap them out. Some of the more hamfisted amongst us could occasionally and accidentally pop-out the SDHC card whilst pressing the adaptor into either the camera or the computer. Nothing bad happens, beyond having to unplug, reseat, replug, rinse and repeat. But…

Ross has responded by making an adaptor with no pop-in-pop-out mechanism. Plug a card in, and it’s not coming out without a ‘determined effort’.

In addition, the adaptor has been designed and tested with the newer 32 GB cards (with a view to future high capacity cards). 32 GB cards get you almost two hours of high quality shooting per card. Switch to HDV quality, and you can fit nearly 3 hours of material on a 32 GB card. With one in each slot, you’re good for almost 4 hours of XDCAM or 5 hours 45 minutes of HDV.

But wait, as Steve Jobs would say, “one more thing”. Here’s the Steve Jobs moment. The redesign of the adaptor has left room for (wait for it) a sticky label! Yay! You can write out a label and stick it on the adaptor and it won’t scrape off in the camera or jam up your computer. It sounds a simple thing, but ye gods – I miss my labels. If you’re new to MxR, go for the new adaptors, even if you’re going for 16GB cards, as the non-popup, futureproof capacity and writable labels are must-have features. Remember to get your boxes too!

With lots of cards, and maybe many hours worth of material (event capture, multi-camera) to ingest, with the slower transfer speed of USB, one could be in for some long evenings. I’m writing this whilst I ingest. So imagine the ability to ingest 4 cards at the same time. Boggle!

The E-MCR (Multi Card Reader) comes in a little zip-up soft case which will also store up to 6 MxR adaptors with the cards inside. It will work with ShotPut Pro from Imagine Software which can back up each card to up to three different locations with a range of data integrity checks ranging from a quick copy to bit-for-bit checking.

I’m a bit leery of recommending ShotPut as they’ve not given me particularly good customer service in the past, (the English way of saying ‘it sucks’). But hopefully there’s somebody out there who can give ShotPut the thumbs up.

Their store will point you in the direction of a local supplier or from their own store if applicable.

Am I buying any of these products? Well, right now, no – I’ve invested too heavily in the first round and am getting more than satisfactory (an English way of saying profanely brilliant) performance from my kit. But if I were to be heavily into multicam, or invested in a second camera which needed its own setup, yes: I would. Like a shot.

And if I found that Imagine Products’ customer service stopped sucking, I might look into giving it another go. Word on the wire is that keeping with the original file structure may be a wise thing to do, that we should back up our BPAV folders rather than the QuickTime movies that XDCAM Transfer creates. Right now, I’m not sure why my workflow would enjoy this, but I could be convinced.

PMW-EX owners: WOOT!

Ross Hereweni has done it again. His company, E-Films, produce the MxR adaptor designed to enable the use of inexpensive SDHC cards inside the Sony PMW-EX line of cameras. With a couple of relatively inexpensive 32GB SDHC cards, you’re good for almost 3 hours of shooting without swapping cards.

But there’s times when some need more than this, or need to start editing straight away – which is a problem if your rushes straddle two cards.

So here’s the scoop: his newest product is the HDR. This ingenious device allows you to connect a hard disk – any hard disk – to your EX camera and shoot directly to that. If you shoot conferences and presentation material, or even the ‘waiting for it to happen’ shoots when you have to keep rolling, the HDR is yet another ‘enabling’ technology.

It even comes with an enclosure with – get this – a power supply. So you’re not tethered to a power outlet.

Okay, so Sony makes the PHU-60K – so what gives? Well, if you have 4 days of conference to record, you’ll need two if not three units per camera, plus their batteries. They’re only 60GB. With the HDR, I can get any size I want, at street price, not ‘Sony Price’.

But lets go one stage beyond that. You can elect to fit a Solid State Disk – vibration proof, high performance and so on.

Combined with CalibratedQ software I reported on a few days ago, at last we have a system which enables shooters to capture long-form to disk, stop recording and IMMEDIATELY start editing – and in my little niche, that’s a big deal.

I’d been doing this trick with humble Z1s and recording DV directly to Final Cut Pro via FireWire. This worked well – no loss of content due to tape changes, quick turnaround and so on – but of course requires a laptop and a copy of FCP per camera.

With the HDR, maybe the time has finally come when I can retire my Z1s and invest in PMW-EX throughout, shooting 720p direct to disk (any hard disk) and then multi-cam the edits when done.

And you don’t need a PCIexpress bus on your MacBook Pro – Apple, thank these guys.

When you’ve blown the XDCAM-EX magic smoke…

There’s been a definite meme at work this week. I’ve heard it at training sessions, I’ve had emails, I’ve read posts, and had phone calls all about people having trouble with getting EX1 footage into their system.

Of course, XDCAM Transfer does a great job – check out my tutorial in the How-to section above. But some people have been, well, ‘playing’ – doing things that perhaps they shouldn’t. And suddenly there’s an EX1 card with stuff they can’t view, can’t edit, and haven’t backed up.

So here’s an interesting utility that I’ll be investigating soon:

http://www.calibratedsoftware.com/

Essentially, it promises that you can edit the native EX1 files, even if the magic structure of your SxS or P2 card has been mangled out of shape. It promises you can rescue your ‘orphan’ video clips – no bad thing, but hopefully people accept that SxS (or equivalent) cards are like your negatives, your original film. Best not muck around with them too much. But I digress.

Whether this is a codec or a way of generating QuickTime wrappers on the fly remains to be seen, but basically the idea is you can shove the mp4s directly into Final Cut and start editing – straight off the SxS card if necessary.

News cutters: rejoice!

The Film Look

 

The film look. That ellusive, ephemeral, desirable image we’re all after with our sub-$10,000 cameras trying to look like Panaflex or Arri with lenses that represent a years salary.

It’s highlights that don’t bloom, it’s shadows with detail. It’s the ‘not now’ 25p (24p) look rather than the hyper-reality of 50p or 50i. But more importantly, there’s a way that shadows record, highlights occur, the whole contrast isn’t some simple straight line. Shadows ramp up from black to visible. Highlights don’t burn out, they add little grace notes to the tone of the image.

For the last couple of years, we Z1 owners shot stuff to create this look in the edit. We under-exposed the footage to rescue the highlights. We engaged Black Stretch to ensure that the shadows didn’t disappear. We eschewed the CineGamma modes that the Z1 offered, and tried to better the image in post of the Panasonic HVX200′s ‘Scene File Number 6′. Yes of course we failed; the HVX200′s #6 is to die for.

I’ll have a go at a definition of the film look. It’s just ‘a’ definition, not ‘the’ definition, and hopefully it will stimulate some debate as there’s a lot of misunderstanding that the Film Look means 24p or CineGamma or other marketing check box.

So what makes the look IMHO? It’s a combination:

  1. Progressively recorded frames
  2. A frame rate within perceived motion but not within perceived flicker [1]
  3. A ramp up from black to dark tones that preserves detail yet produces rich shadows rather than a linear scale that makes shots look a little bland
  4. A ramp off the highlights, so the last few stops of exposure happen within a limited headroom, rather than going straight from pale to ‘super-white’.
  5. Big bokeh – these are the circles of confusion, the blobs of light that are totally out of focus in the background of a shot. In other words, shallow depth of field
  6. A richness of colours that don’t bleed out of their bounds – the Film Look neatly colours-in within the edges [2]
  7. Absence of artificial sharpening – those white edges round dark things and dark edges round light things that says CHEAP VIDEO
  8. A subtle ‘boil’ in areas of even tone, rather than the blockiness and banding of 8 bit video (so that’s why HVX200s are noisy!)

Okay. Now here’s the footnotes.

[1] The human eye tends to see motion from a series of stills from about 12-18 frames per second due to the persistance of vision. Why was the cinema known as ‘the flicks’? Because whilst we can perceive motion at that frame rate, our eyes perceive flicker in higher frame rates. It only peters off at about 40 frames per second, and quite frankly we’re much more comfortable with computer monitors at around 50-75 frames per second – or ‘Hertz’ as we should say.

So, do we increase the frame rate to the point where flicker is invisible? Could do, but that’s going to be expensive. Double the amount of flim to shoot, double the bandwidth of analogue video to record. Tell you what, let’s cheat! Let’s show every frame TWICE!

Heck, that’ll do it!

Ah, but whilst this may work really well for projected celluloid and for European TV, our US cousins have a bit of jiggery pokery to do when film moves to video. I’ll save that for another day, but the point is that 20-30 frames per second gives us a perception of motion that’s half-finished. And that’s the film look.

Because the frame rate of film – therefore the ‘Film Look’ – is half-baked, it requires a certain style of camerawork that avoids some nasty effects of such a slow frame rate. Pans, zooms and follow-shots require the sort of care that cabinet makers apply to dove-tail joints. You won’t see them, but they’re there – and if they weren’t there, the film would fall apart like badly erected flat-pack furniture.

[2] And that means high colour fidelity, usually meaning 4:2:2 but with better chips and optics, clever codecs and high definition, this is less of a deal breaking issue in most cases.

So there’s no simple formula to the film look.

And I’d argue that there’s a new look around the corner – Digital Cinema. Now that’s a goal worth pursuing. I’ve seen glimpses of it in 720p50, and 1080p50 and Red may stamp their mark as a desirable look.
So I get the feeling that the Film Look will soon be as quaint (grinning, ducking and running) as Black & White.

 

The joys of tapeless workflow

Since making room for an EX1 in my life, something wonderful has happened to my edit work: I have plenty of well named clips in projects that are filed and searchable.

Of course, logging and capturing is the foundation layer of any edit. But sometimes edits happen to tight deadlines under pressure, and the time taken to patiently spool through each tape and refer to the shot logs, selecting the best takes and marking their in/outs ready for batch capture is quite frankly longer than the time to suck in a whole tape, apply DV Start-Stop detection and switch your thumbnails on so you can roughly sort into bins of rushes. And as deadlines shrink and edit budgets get tighter, there’s a temptation to not actually label each clip according to content. Just rely on bin names. And then you find yourself plucking shots from whole rolls of tape rather than individual clips. And that’s when you hit the needle in a haystack syndrome. The trouble is, taking in each clip and giving it a name takes a lot of time that, thanks to the absurd shooting ratio that DV offers (today I am working my way through 3 hours of footage for a 3 minute insert – a shooting ratio of 60:1), it would take days. And for a 3 min insert I have hours.

Of course professional crews don’t overshoot, and take careful notes of what they shot, where, when, who, and so on. But when a client hands you three tapes, what do you do? So to cut to the chase: The Sony EX1 is partnered with XDCAM Transfer – an application/plug-in for FCP users. Its party trick is to highlight, say, a dozen clips out of 60-100 on a card/disk, and enable you to name them all ‘exhibition GVs’, then jump around instantly between clips marking some good, some no good (which can make them disappear from your shot list), pick out some and add ‘sponsor’ to their filename. 15-30 seconds. Onto the next batch of shots. And so on. Select all, import, and lo – neatly labelled shots minus the dross. And I’ve been timing this: for a 16 GB card (an hour’s worth, maybe 100-200 shots for event work), I can log/label and import in half the time it would take to ingest the footage from tape. And this is firmly implanted in my mind today as I ingest 3 hours of PDX-10 footage with an unset clock, so DV Start-Stop detection doesn’t work, and the tapes are full of TC breaks. Yesterday I had 90 mins of footage shot and edited by end of play for a 6 minute item. Batch naming makes the editor’s lot a happy one, especially in time pressured environments.

 

HVX200 – the Volvo 850 T5 of video cameras

In the next day or two, I am going to take a pot of cash and exchange it for a camera (I already own 2 Z1s, a PDX-10 and an HV20). I really want to own an EX-1. I am nuts: 

  • It has questionable build quality (paint rubs off)
  • It has questionable build quality (back focus issues)
  • It has questionable build quality (twiddly switches)
  • It has questionable build quality (battery ‘booty’)
  • It has been designed in a potting shed (battery runs down on-camera)
  • It has been designed in a potting shed (handle is 3 inches off centre)
  • It has been designed in a potting shed (doesn’t handle IR well)
  • It has been designed in a potting shed (controls ‘sneezed’ onto camera)

 Yet… 

  • Lens is to die for (maybe too sharp for Standard Def?)
  • Sensor is to die for (maybe a Letus isn’t totally necessary?)
  • Could this be the Infra-RED?

So what I posit is that the EX1 should be judged as the typical British sports car like the TVR Cerbera, in that it has no right to be lined up with Ferraris and Porsches in the same performance class, yet there it is. Hanging out on a Snout Break, ready to sprint with the Olympians. The Z1 is a sort of Prius in comparison, loading up on HDV Mung Beans. The Volvo T5 (looking awfully like an HVX200) is ready to pounce, using its reliability, dependability and sheer deliverability (feel the excitement!) to its advantage. Hmmm. The little Smart HV20 – small, fun, rather good… But still a little pip-squeak. And suddenly life turns into an episode of Top Gear…