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.
It seems to be the latest trend among hip cinematographers. Shooting wide open with Ultra Primes or Super Speed lenses at light levels so low they barely register. Yet this is the style these days shooting in near total darkness and it is getting many DPs a lot of work.
With the advent digital cinema cameras with functional ISOs of 5000 or higher the prospect of shooting at ultra low light levels is becoming a reality. On my recent feature shoot EQUALS the young great cinematographer John Guleserian captured scenes on the sound stage with LED lighting pegged at a mere 2% on the dimmer. Yes there were flicker issues to struggle with and excruciating difficult focus to wrangle, but living on the edge delivering gutsy aggressive images at the constant risk of failure reflects in my mind a very high level of craft and confidence.
My Panasonic PX270 1/3 type camcorder shooting behind-the-scenes could not register a usable image under such low, almost-no-light conditions, but no matter the Alexa could at 1600 ISO with VERY sophisticated built-in noise reduction. And this is the key. Yes the camera optics are critical and sufficient dynamic range is essential, but it is the vast improvement in noise reduction technology that is the most main factor. The current fashion to shoot with minimal depth of field in very low light could have only been enabled by the substantially improved noise reduction algorithms.
Looking now to the 4K Varicam 35, the camera looks sensational at 5000 ISO, a legitimate rating that extends the low-light reach of shooters of feature films and high-bend projects even further. The 3X advancement in low light sensibility in a digital cinema camera means that we most likely are looking at yet another wave of projects captured still lower light levels.
Then again the alternative to ever lower light levels on sets might be simply utilizing a smaller stop so assistants can finally find and keep critcal focus especially when shooting with 85mm and 135mm lenses which is also very much in vogue. I for one would welcome this particular development as we look ahead to 4K image capture that owing to sharp focus actually looks and feels like 4K.
The current trend to use LED lighting exclusively on feature films and high-end commercials has carried with it some interesting dichotomies. On the one hand the advent of LED instruments designed for cinema applications like the Litepanels remarkable new Astra 1×1 delivers a very bright flattering light with an exceptionally smooth color output. The RGB/RGBW LED fixtures on the other hand increasingly requested by DPs tend to be borrowed from live theater and stage. The use of such lighting for feature production introduces a bevy of potentially serious problems; the dimmed output as low as two percent in my latest project contributing to a pronounced flicker that can be most difficult to read and compensate for.
Shooting in Japan and Singapore in August and September I found myself capturing the movie’s behind-the-scenes featurette at 29.976FPS with various shutter settings of 216º, 225º, and 230º, the middle setting seeming to me especially illogical given the 50Hz operating environment. The syhchro shutter in professional cameras can of course accommodate virtually any setting no matter how weird; the real problem is addressing the other discharge lighting that may be present in a scene like the rear projection screens in my particular operating at 24FPS (actually 23.976FPS) that require a shutter of 230º, the neon, fluorescent, and even the studio house lights that require 216º, and the RGB LEDs that would strobe obnoxiously if not captured at 225º.
With new suitably designed flicker-free LED fixtures entering the market from Litepanels, Kino Flo, and others, one can finally see some hope at the end of the tunnel for keeping all of this. Once the same manufacturers introduce RGB fixtures with the same flicker free characteristics we as shooters will be finally able to escape the LED flicker menace once and for all.
After my experience over the last ten weeks I for one am eager to embrace a more orderly RGB LED shooting environment.
Normally when light strikes a glass surface a portion of the beam is reflected. This loss of light is compounded in lenses with many elements, which can lead to a serious reduction in light transmission and speed. More and better lens coatings can reduce the light loss dramatically enabling lenses to maintain high speed with good resolution.
Now it may be a figment of my imagination but lately it seems more and more DPs are employing uncoated lenses. At a time when 4K and higher resolution cameras are all the rage and most shooters are indeed insisting on them it strikes me as deeply ironic and even macabre that many shooters are choosing to capture images with vastly increased flare and much much less resolution.
Of course, resolution, like wardrobe, music, and everything else, is and always has been another function of the visual story. For decades shooters used diffusion filters, metal gratings, and silk stockings, to effect a scene, to add fog or atmosphere, and yes, reduce resolution.
The great director Sidney Lumet once said that story is the conduit through which all decisions flow. The lowering of resolution is simply another storytelling device to be used and abused by shooter-storytellers of every stripe. The use of uncoated optics (as in the case of my current project shooting in Japan) is simply a reflection of this craft-oriented thinking.