With the advent of post-camera filter software like Tiffen’s Dfx4 and powerful color grading tools like Davinci Resolve, it’s easy to see how some shooters, even some relatively accomplished ones, no longer see the need for an on-camera filter. But this can be a big mistake. Especially given today’s onslaught of low- and mid-level 4K camcorders and DSLRs that produce overly harsh albeit very high resolution images.
Truth is, the impact of some optical filters cannot be effectively recreated in post. The polarizer, for example, is the only filter capable of increasing contrast and resolution; it is simply not possible to add picture detail post-camera if the detail was not captured in the first place.
Then there is the matter of finishing filters like the Tiffen Satin and Black Satin, and the Schneider Digicon and Black Magic types. These filters have become more or less obligatory in recent years, to mitigate the clinical brash look characteristic of many low-cost 4K cameras. The Blackmagic URSA, AJA Cion, and other relatively economical camcorders and DSLRs, often exhibit very poor shadow integrity along with a harsh roll-off in the highlights, which can only be effectively ameliorated by a proper finishing filter.
Today’s sharper diffusion filters from Tiffen, Schneider, and others, produce very little scatter and halation, and for all intents and purposes, are invisible to the viewer, but produce a more flattering look with lower noise in the shadows and smoother more pleasing highlights. Most importantly, these filters maintain sharpness in the pupil of the eye, while subtly blending and softening the skin tones and around the eye sockets and face. This is possible because these filters are designed from the outset with the proper telecentricity to accommodate modern digital sensors with deep bucket photosites.
Older series Black Pro Mist, Soft F/X, Fogs, and Double Fogs, produce too much scatter to be useful with modern cameras fitted with CMOS sensors. Still, having said this, I do find a 1/8 Tiffen Black Pro Mist filter can be useful to match certain type vintage optics, like an old Cooke zoom, to the latest generation Zeiss CP.2.
Around the country and world, BlackMagic seems to have no trouble attracting folks to its showcase events, like this one in Burbank last Wednesday.
The winning formula? Okay, a free lunch certainly helps.
But so does appealing to the burgeoning number of former DSLR shooters and low to mid-range producers looking to move up to more professional gear. The low end of the market has now all but displaced the once dominant mid range corporate and broadcast segments that were Sony and Panasonic’s former bread and butter.
Responding to the Isness of the market BlackMagic is capitalizing on this newest trend in a big way.
The data and power cables poking in and out of my MacBook Pro are pure crap. Take a look at how I’m managing my AC charger cord. I’ve added three cable ties over a sleeve of black camera tape to ensure adequate stress relief and thus forestall the eruption of arcs and sparks from the broken connection.
Why can’t cable manufacturers simply provide sufficient stress relief in the first place?
The matter of diseased trouble-prone cables is not a new phenomenon. After 35 years in the business I know from hard-won experience that 90% of failures in the field are due to defective cables and connectors. Thinking about it now my ARRI 16SR in 1976 was a true godsend. The camera utilized onboard batteries that eliminated completely failure-prone cables and plugs. It gave me great peace of mind that this disproportionate cause of failure was gone forever.
Thunderbolt is an impressive technology and we’ve grown to rely on the less than robust cables for our most critical tasks from off-loading original camera footage to preparing our backup volumes. With data rates up to 40Gbps in Thunderbolt3 the flow of data is sensitive to a range of cable snafus, especially at the point where the cable enters the rigid connector where most failures due to fatigue occur.
For manufacturers, the cost of producing cables with proper stress relief might amount to a few pennies per unit, but as shooters and content creators whose business is capturing, transferring, and managing critical data, the extra dollar or two per cable at retail is worth it, if only to avoid the indignity of having to affix a raft of cable ties simply to ensure a solid and reliable connection.
One of the truisms of our profession has long been a camera system is only as good as its optics. While computational non-optical lenses in devices like the iPhone have obviated the need in some applications for finely crafted optics, the demand persists for high-performance glass at the high end of our business, especially in light of the latest 4K and higher resolution cameras.
The new Sony PXW-FS7 4K camcorder is well-balanced and robust, with superb ergonomics. Particularly notable, however, is Sony’s own 28-135mm F4 lens that comes with it. It is not the typical crappy package lens that usually accompanies new mid-range cameras.
Employing precisely sculpted aspheric elements and low-dispersion glass the FS7 4K zoom represents a real breakthrough in economical s35mm lens technology. Remarkably free of chromatic aberrations – the main reason cheap lenses look cheap – the lens compares favorably with much pricier optics; its relatively slow F4 maximum aperture posing less of a challenge these days for shooters employing cameras like the FS7 that shoot virtually noise-free at ISO 2000 and higher.
Sony’s lens uses precise servo control of zoom and focus to enable a constant F-stop throughout the zoom range. Some shooters will object to the limited 5:1 zoom for documentary work but keep in mind the lens is a large format zoom. If you’re looking for a 23x capability you should consider a 2/3-inch camera like the Varicam HS, which is ideal for travel and sports, and certain wildlife titles, that tend to employ long zoom telephoto lenses.
With the advent of cameras like the extreme low-light ISO 5000 Varicam 35 the imperative to exclude, exclude, exclude, unhelpful story elements inside the frame takes on a more dramatic dimension. Shooting with the new Varicam in very low light at night, for example, means that streetlights suddenly appear blown out, the night sky over major cities is way too bright, and the intensity of incidental TV monitor and screens in the background must be substantially reduced.
This way of working is a revolution in how camera folks have managed the world until now. In the film days of years ago we needed light and plenty of it to gain even a minimum exposure. Moderately sensitive digital cameras like the Alexa of several years ago gave us the freedom to illuminate scenes with smaller low-wattage, more economical, cooler units. A blessing to be sure!
Today given the latest ultra sensitive digital cinema cameras entering the market we are back to spending a lot of time addressing the lighting in our setups, not so much by adding massive hot lights of course, but by employing more extensive lighting control, that is, by taking light away.
Given the new technology my old harangue to students to exclude everything not supportive of the visual story has taken on even greater relevance and urgency.
I’m in Abu Dhabi this week continuing my ongoing travels around the globe offering camera workshops and pontificating about one irrelevant thing or another. This morning a major sandstorm blew in from Saudi Arabia and completely enveloped the NYU campus where I’m currently holed up.
The extremely fine sand less than 50 microns in diameter is highly abrasive and can lodge dangerously deep in one’s lungs. It is also damaging to cameras and especially camera lenses, a lesson learned the hard way by many filmmakers and shooters in the region who are drawn inexorably, like I am, to the eerie other world feeling imparted on the landscape.
This week I am teaching a camera storytelling workshop at the London Film School. My students enrolled in the masters program here seem motivated and especially eager to embrace my lessons of life, business, and the camera craft.
For me offering such workshops at schools and universities around the world is a way of giving back. My mentor, Albert Maysles, who died earlier this month at 88, made it a point every year to spend a few weeks sharing his prodigious expertise with aspiring young filmmakers.
I am grateful to be able to follow in my mentor’s footsteps.
Vishen Lakhiani, the great entrepreneur and founder of MindValley in Kuala Lumpur, often speaks of the threes pillars of happiness. To find happiness in our lives, he says, we need to have a wealth of experiences. We need to feel we’re growing each day. And we need to know we are contributing in some way, somehow, to the betterment of others.
My mentor Albert Maysles died yesterday at the age of 88.
I will remember him fondly.
In 1976 Albert Maysles urged me to make Murita Cycles, a film about my very unconventional dad. He said the best documentaries are made by folks who are the closest to their subjects.
At the time Al was riding the trains around America carrying his modified 16mm Auricon and tiny (for its time) Nagra SN recorder. Utilizing his direct cinema approach he wanted to capture strangers meeting and getting to know each other on their respective journeys.
I don’t think he ever completed that project but he sure did complete many other great works.
I will miss him. He was a great filmmaker and a great source of inspiration in my life.
Let’s hope so. Up to now, LED 1×1 arrays, even relatively pricy ones, have been constructed of cheap plastic or flimsy thin aluminum. This has posed a problem for many docco ENG type shooters who must increasingly shoot standup of a egotistical weatherman or news anchor fighting to stay upright amid the winds and driving rain of a category 5 hurricane.
Unlike previous fragilely constructed LEDs the new Lowel Prime Location bi-color LED is built like a Soviet tank. Constructed of heavy grade alloy with massive heat sinks, the fixture is all but impervious to bad weather, hurricanes, and blizzards. It is the first instrument of its kind to earn an IP65 rating, reflecting maximum resistance to damage from physical shock and water penetration, short, that is, of operating the unit underwater, which is not advised.
For non-fiction shooters the Lowel Prime Location is hopefully the harbinger of a new trend. The smoothness of an LED’s spectral output in the field is of course critical, especially with respect, say, to a reporter’s flesh tones, but any discussion of CRI and color fidelity is moot if the LED is incapable of withstanding the rigors of actual field use.
If your bread and butter is shooting news, non-fiction, or documentaries, which covers at least three-quarters of us, a smallish-sensor camcorder fitted with a 1/3-inch, ½-inch, or 2/3-inch sensor makes a lot of sense.
Sony’s new PXW-X180 fitted with a 1/3-type sensor means in terms of imager size you can actually find and hold critical focus at the long end of its long 25X integrated zoom. I admit the whisker-thin narrow depth of field look currently in vogue offers some storytelling advantage: a blurry background with a shallow focus can help direct the viewer’s eye to what’s important inside the frame.
For documentary non-fiction shooters however our emphasis ought not to be so much on achieving the least amount of depth of field but rather how to capture the most compelling close ups. For those of us who earn a living every day in the non-fiction genre we know that close ups account for 80%-90% of our storytelling, which usually require longer focal length lenses with an inherently narrow depth of field.
Thus the full-frame sensor so ardently demanded by many shooters today may work against the exercise of a documentarian’s good craft; the extreme narrow focus in close ups may render such critical scenes objectionably soft, and thus communicate an amateurish feel to viewers.