Tips for Small Camera and Hybrid DSLR Production

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It started in earnest last year and has no sign of abating.  Videographers are clearly in the midst of two revolutions: tapeless recording and the use of the hybrid still/video camera (HDSLR). The tapeless future started with P2 and XDCAM, but these storage devices have been joined by other options, including Compact Flash, SD and SDHC memory cards. The acceptance of small cameras in professional operations first took off with DV cameras from Sony and Panasonic, especially the AG-DVX100. These solutions have evolved into cameras like the Sony HVRZ7U and PMWEX3 and Panasonic’s AG-HPX170 and AVCCAM product line. Modern compressed codecs have made it possible to record high-quality 1080 and 720 HD footage using smaller form factors than ever before.

This evolution has sparked the revolution of the HDSLR cameras, like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, the new Canon EOS 7D and 1D Mark IV and the Nikon D90, D300s and D3s, to name a few. Although veteran videographers might have initially scoffed at such cameras, it’s important to note that Canon developed the 5D at the urging of Reuters and the Associated Press, so its photographers could deliver both stills and motion video with the least hassle. Numerous small films, starting with photographer Vincent Laforet’s Reverie, have more than proven that HDSLRs are up to the task of challenging their video cousins. From the standpoint of a news or sports department, we have entered an era where every reporter can become a video journalist, simply by having a small camera at the ready. That’s not unlike the days when reporters carried a Canon Scoopic 16mm, in case something newsworthy happened.

These cameras come with challenges, so here is some advice that will make your experience more successful:

1. Ergonomics / stability – Both small video camcorders and HDSLRs are designed for handheld, not shoulder-mounted, operation. This isn’t a great design for stability while recording motion. In order to get the best image out of these cameras, invest in an appropriate tripod and fluid head. For more advanced operations, check out the various camera mounting accessories from companies like Zacuto and Red Rock Micro.

2. Rolling shutter – This phenomenon affects all CMOS cameras to varying degrees. It is caused by horizontal movement and results in an image that is skewed. This distortion is caused by the time differential between information at the top and the bottom of the sensor. The HDSLRs have been criticized for these defects, but others like the EX or the RED One have also displayed the same artifacts to a lesser degree. This defect can be minimized by using a tripod and slow (or no) camera movement.

3. Focus – One of the reasons that shooters like HDSLRs is the large image sensor (compared to video cameras) and film lenses, which provide a shallow depth-of-field. This is a mixed blessing when you are covering a one-time event. Still photo zoom lenses aren’t mechanically designed to be zoomed and focused during the shot like film or video zoom lenses. This makes it harder to nail the shot on-the-fly. Since the depth-of-field is shallow, the focus is also less forgiving. Lastly, the focus is often done using an LCD viewer instead of a high-quality viewfinder. Many shooters using both small video cameras and HDSLRs have added an externally-mounted LCD monitor, as a better device for judging shots.

4. Audio – The issue of audio depends on whether we are talking about a Canon 5D or a Panasonic 170. Professional and even prosumer camcorders have been designed to have mics connected. To date, HDSLRs have not. If you are shooting extensive sync-sound projects with a hybrid camera, then you will want to consider using double-system sound with a separate recorder and mixer (human). At the very least, you’ll want to add an XLR mic adapter/mixer, like the BeachTek DXA-5D.

5. Movie files – Each of these cameras records its own specific format, codec and file wrapper. Production and post personnel have become comfortable with P2 and XDCAM, but the NLE manufacturers are still catching up to the best way of integrating consumer AVCHD content or files from these HDSLRs. Regardless of the camera system you plan to use, make sure that the file format is compatible with (or easily transcoded to) your NLE of choice.

6. Capacity – Most of the cameras use a recording medium that is formatted as FAT32. This limits a single file to 4GB, which in the case of the Canon 5D means the longest recording cannot exceed 12 minutes of HD (1920x1080p at 30fps). Unlike P2, there is no spanning provision to extend the length of a single recording. Make sure to plan your shot list to stay within the file limit. Come with enough media. In the case of P2, many productions bring along a “data wrangler” and a laptop. This person will offload the P2 cards to drives and then reformat (erase) the cards so that the crew can continue recording throughout the day with a limited number of P2 cards.

7. Back-up – Always back-up your camera media onto at least two devices in the original file format. I’ve known producers who merely transferred the files to the edit system’s local array and then trashed the camera media, believing the files were safe. Unfortunately, I’ve seen Avids quarantine files, making them inaccessible. On rare occasion, I’ve also seen Final Cut Pro media files simply disappear. The moral of the story is to treat your original camera media like film negative. Make two, verified back-ups and store them in a safe place should you ever need them again.

The new generation of small video camcorders and Hybrid DSLRs offers the tantalizing combination of lower operating cost and stunning imagery. That’s only possible with some care and planning. These tools aren’t right for every application, but the choices will continue to grow in the coming years. Those who embrace the trend will find new and exciting production options.

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Written for NewBay Media and TV Technology magazine

Apple Aperture 2 for Video Pros

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Programs for two-dimensional graphics fall into three categories: design, paint and photography. Adobe Photoshop has been the “Swiss Army Knife” software that most video professionals rely on to do all of these functions, but its main strength is image layout and design. Realistic painting that mimics natural media like oils and chalks continues to be the hallmark of Corel Painter. Neither application is much help if you need to organize hundreds of images, so programs like Apple’s iPhoto, Corel’s Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 and Google’s Picasa have come to fill that void for legions of photographers worldwide. These serve the needs of most amateurs, but if you’re a pro who needs industrial strength photo organization and manipulation software, then Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom lead the pack. Both applications offer similar features and Adobe and Apple have been responding to each other tit-for-tat with new features in every software update – all to the benefit of the user.

 

In early 2008, Apple released Aperture 2, which was quickly followed by the 2.1 update. Aperture 2 added 100 new features, but the biggest improvement was faster performance, enabling quicker previews and image browsing. Aperture 2.1 introduced a plug-in architecture that has opened Aperture to a large field of third party developers. To date about 70 plug-ins have been developed for functions that include image manipulation, export, file transfer and Apple Automator workflow scripts. Apple has targeted professional photographers as the main customers for Aperture 2 and offers extensive support, such as video tutorials, on their website. There’s also a growing community of users and developers focused on Aperture and its plug-ins.

 

Organization

 

Documentary films and corporate image videos make extensive use of photographs to tell the story. Aperture 2’s file management is the biggest selling point for video producers and editors. Images in your library are organized by projects, albums, books and light tables. You can store master images in the Aperture library or link to other folders. There’s a new Quick Preview mode to that rapidly updates images during browsing. When not in the Quick Preview mode, Aperture 2 loads the full resolution images into the viewer (if they are available on the mounted drives) from the master files. You may use the Loupe (photographer’s magnifying glass) to isolate and analyze a portion of the photo at a 1:1 pixel size, which is accessed from the master image. Or just zoom the image to its actual size if your prefer. If the drive with the master images is not mounted, then Aperture displays a hi-resolution proxy image. Standard image corrections can be made when master files are available and these are applied as non-destructive filters, like adjustment layers in Photoshop, so your master image is never altered. Corrections are applied only to an exported image, therefore “baking in” these changes to a new version of the photo.

 

You can add custom metadata to each photo, which can be used to automatically populate smart albums. For example, as you browse and evaluate images, a rating system or keyword can be applied to each selected still. Smart albums can be tied to certain metadata information, so as you apply the right criteria, these images instantly show up in the appropriate smart album. Photos in an album, smart album, book or light table are linked back to the original image files in the project. As you adjust the non-destructive color settings, these changes ripples through to all the instances of that image in an album or light table. There are numerous templates and now export plug-ins to send images to locations outside of the Aperture 2 environment. The application is tightly integrated with Apple’s MobileMe web service, but other options via third party exporters include Facebook, Flickr, Gmail and Picassa to name a few. This makes Aperture 2 the ideal tool for location managers, casting directors, producers and directors who like to post photos to a web location for quick and easy client review. If you are a Final Cut Pro editor, there’s even a plug-in to send selected images out as a Final Cut Pro sequence, complete with a choice of transition effects.

 

Image tools

 

Imposing structure on a ton of photos is very important, but in the end, it’s all about image quality. In the documentary scenario, many stills given to the editor require a lot of clean-up, like dust-busting and cropping. Newer snapshots may require red-eye correction. These tasks have been traditional Photoshop strengths, but are actually better handled in a photo-centric application like Aperture 2. The tools include straightening and cropping, as well as a variety of color balance and enhancement filters. The image adjustment toolset is rounded out by non-destructive retouching brushes (repair, clone, healing) and vignettes. If you shoot camera RAW photography, Aperture 2 supports a wide variety of camera models plus the Adobe DNG format, and gained new RAW fine-tuning tools.

 

Photographers can now tether certain Nikon and Canon digital SLR cameras to the computer and capture their images directly into Aperture 2. You might not think this applies to video editors, but I’ve done a lot of projects where old photographic prints had to be scanned or shot with a video camera. Tethered operation for copy stand work seems like a much better and faster way to accomplish this task!

 

While we’re talking about camera RAW images, I have to quickly point out that the .R3D format of RED Digital Cinema’s RED One camera is not supported in Aperture 2. One of the beauties of shooting with RED is that the high resolution progressive frames also make great stills for print campaigns derived from the same shoot. Much like pulling a frame out of the 35mm negative after a film shoot. The RedAlert application can export 2K and 4K stills in the TIFF format, so it’s a simple task to import these into Aperture 2 for further manipulation. Aperture 2 isn’t as complex as Photoshop and its photographic tools are more comfortable for most directors of photography. So, it’s the ideal place for a DP to import sample stills from RED and do a quick grade for the director, client or colorist as a reference for his intended look.

 

Plug-ins

 

Aperture has offered an “edit with” feature since the beginning, which lets you designate an application like Photoshop as an external image editor. The new, third party image filters are accessed through the same “edit with” menu selection. Unlike other plug-in formats, these filters open as separate applications with their own interface. Apple got the ball rolling by integrating a full-featured Dodge and Burn filter. Tiffen and DFT joined the party, as did traditional photography software and Photoshop filter vendors, like Nik Software (Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro) and Picture Code (Noise Ninja). Unlike Aperture’s own internal tools, these filter changes are destructive, so when you use one, a copy of the image is created with the applied effect, so you aren’t locked into that result.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine and NewBay Media, L.L.C.