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October 27, 2014

5 Things Every Photographer Learning Video Should Know about the Panasonic GH4 and 4K

… (and 4K Video)

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by Ron Dawson

When I first sat down to write this review, I was in a quandary. What could I contribute to the Panasonic GH4 conversation that has been going on since the beginning of this year? My research was quickly swept into an acronym, spec, and nomenclature-heavy stream of information. Then I stumbled on a forum discussion about the claim that the 4K 4:2:0 8-bit video captured by the GH4 could be converted to 2K 10-bit 4:4:4 color space when transcoded to CineForm or ProRes.

If your eyes glazed over reading that last sentence, I’m not surprised. I consider myself a technically capable and informed filmmaker, and I’ve been doing it professionally now for more than a dozen years. I have instructed on the topic for a number of media outlets and national seminars, and even I felt tech-timidated. Photographers who are just learning video don’t need to be dunked into the deep end head-first like that.

Here are five short GH4/4K nuggets of information that will give you enough information to understand and follow the reviews and information out there and to give you the foundation to make an informed decision when considering this camera and other 4K technology.

1. Two flavors of 4K. There’s true 4K, specifically 4,096x2,160-pixel resolution (Cinema 4K), and then there’s Ultra HD (aka UHD), which is 3,840x2,160. UHD is four times the resolution of the standard HD spec: 1,920x1,080 (twice the length and twice the height). Most consumer TVs are UHD.

2. Micro Four Thirds sensor size. The GH4 is a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensor size, which has viewing area of 17.3x13.0mm (21.6 mm diagonal). This is important to know because of the crop factor (just over 2X). Here’s how it compares to other DSLRs.

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Now before you write off this camera because of the tiny crop size, consider that an MFT sensor is larger than Super 16mm film, a format that was used to shoot part of Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated feature “Black Swan.” Many other well-known feature filmmakers have shot some classic films on Super 16 (e.g. Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” Aronofsky’s “Primer,” Robert Rodriquez’s “El Mariachi,” and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”). My point: don’t let sensor size prevent you from making a choice to use a camera, unless there is some very specific aspect of a smaller (or larger) sensor that is truly significant.

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For instance, larger sensors do have a shallower depth of field, so if for any reason you need super shallow DoF, a smaller sensor could be an issue.

Another point about MFT sensors worth noting is that there are so many lenses and lens adaptors already out there that can fit these cameras. The Metabones Speedbooster is a popular adapter that will allow you to connect full-frame lenses. They won’t make your field of view full-frame, but you’ll get a field of view closer to an APS-C (1.6X crop).

3. Recording format and quality. The biggest appeal of this camera is its ability to record 4K (both Cinema and UHD) directly to an SD card. When I was first using the camera, I had a heck of a time finding out how to do that. I discovered there are two menus you need to set. Recording Format (either AVCHD, MP4, MP4 LPCM, or MOV) and Recording Quality. It is in the Quality menu where you make the selection for 4K.

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SIDEBAR: Format and quality primer

Here’s where I’d like to provide some filmmaker insight that may cause some of the aforementioned head-spinning. You’ll notice that the GH4 has literally dozens of format and quality settings:

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Where on earth do you start? Here’s a quick primer:

Mbps is Megabits per second. The higher the number, the better the quality of the video. To give you perspective, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II h.264 video is approximately 45Mbps. The Nikon D7100 is in the neighborhood of 24Mbps. Traditional HD camcorders produced in the early to mid-2000s were also in the mid-20s.

All-I is “intra-frame” compression and IPB is “inter-frame” compression. The former looks at and compresses each frame individually. IPB looks at frames before and after and bases its compression on changes in the image. Theoretically, All-I will give you a better quality, but takes up more space and processing power. Which is why you’ll notice that none of the 4K formats are ALL-I. If you’re concerned about file sizes (i.e. hard drive space or SD card size) and processing power (for instance, if your computer is older), then stick with IPB formats.

The formats are AVCHD, MP4, and MOV. These are all what’s called “wrappers.” In the world of video there are codecs (how the image is compressed) and wrappers (the format the compressed video is placed in). The GH4 uses for the aforementioned wrappers for its H.264 compressed video. (Note: the MP4 wrapper here should NOT be confused with the MPEG4 codec.) You can have any number of different codecs for any one kind of wrapper. On the GH4, you’ll find the 4K quality resolution settings in the MP4 and MOV formats. AVCHD is a format common in consumer camcorders and lower end cinema cameras like Canon’s C100. It provides relatively high quality footage with a low Mbps compression rate. It can be tricky editing AVCHD footage, though, depending on which editing software you use. It’s not as easy as just dropping clips into a folder. AVCHD files are self-contained in a “Package.” Just about all the current versions of the major editing programs can “decode” this package and extract the videos you need. But each handles it differently. Know how you’re editing program works before choosing AVCHD.

LPCM and AAC are different audio compression formats. Frankly, I wouldn’t make any kind of decision on which format to choose based on this. If you’re using this camera to record video, and you need audio too, even though this camera will allow you to record (and monitor) audio, I still highly recommend using an audio digital recorder. Note that when choosing a format though, if you decide to go with the MP4, the LPCM option is best suited for video you want to edit later.

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4. High Speed Recording. For my money, in addition to the 4K recording capability, another huge benefit of this camera is the ability to shoot slow motion IN CAMERA, and at full 1080p resolution. As a quick review: most of you will most likely be shooting in either 29.97 frames per second (aka 30p), 23.98 fps (aka 24p) or 25 fps if you’re in a PAL country. You can always slow down video in your editing software, but this reduces the quality and can make it look muddy. To achieve true slow motion with better quality, you need to shoot at a frame rate higher than the rate in which you’re editing. Most traditional DSLRs have been able to shoot up to 60 fps, which in a 24 fps project will yield 40% slow motion (24/60 = 40%). However, they have to drop their resolution down to 1,280x720 (aka 720p) in order to do that.

The GH4 allows you to record up to 96 fps in camera using the Variable Frame Rate (VFR) function. In fact, using this function, you can step your frame rate anywhere from 2 fps (which will give you a sped up video equivalent to 1200% speed at 24p), up to 96 fps, giving you 25% slow motion at 24 fps. All at full 1,920x1,080 resolution.

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The VFR has to first be turned on in the format menu (either MP4 (LPCM) or MOV mode). Once you’ve set the format, you must change the Quality setting to 1080p at either 29.97 or 23.98 fps. You then exit back to the Motion Picture menu to turn VFR on.

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What is very cool about this feature is that the GH4 will now shoot in the target 24 fps, but take into account the VFR setting, in effect, giving you slow motion in camera. Usually, you have to shoot at the higher frame rate, then change that frame rate to your project frame rate in your editing software. This is known as “conforming.” In short, by using GH4s VFR feature, you don’t have to conform your footage. It will be imported into your editing software already slow.

It’s worth mentioning that you can still shoot regular high speed rates (i.e. 60 fps) at full 1080p, then conform later if you like. Why might you do that? Because the VFR functions are only available at the 100Mbps compression level (remember, the higher the Mbps, the better the quality). In the MOV mode, you can shoot up to 60 fps (technically, it’s 59.94) at 200 Mbps, All-I. If you need that extra quality and you don’t need slower than 40% slow motion, you might select this in lieu of the VFR.

5. Downscaling 4K to 1080p. As amazing as it may be to shoot 4K in camera, the truth is, most people do not have the ability to view videos in 4K. Unless you’re shooting something to be shown in a movie theatre, a full-sized 4K video will be useless to your client. But, fear not. There are two very significant reasons why shooting in 4K is better, even if your final output is traditional 1,920x1,080. And both are related to downscaling the video.

If you take a 4K video and edit it in a 1080p project, you now have a video that is 4X the viewing space. That gives you the ability to “push in” for close ups or reposition your image without losing quality. Here are three screen shots from a video I shot at UHD 4K to illustrate:

A 4K UHD image set to 50% of the video size (which fits perfectly into a 1080p project)

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Here’s the same shot, but with the video size adjusted to 75%

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And here’s the shot at 100%, giving me a nice close-up of the subject.

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It’s not uncommon for commercial video jobs to set up two cameras, one for the wide shot and a second for the close up. If you shoot in 4K, you can get both in one shot. Or, do like I did, and use the second camera for a super wide shot. (My second camera was a Canon C100 shooting at 1080p, ungraded using the Wide Dynamic range profile).

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Just think about all the editing options afforded you by having one of your angles shot at 4K resolution.

The second benefit of shooting in 4K actually relates to the head-spinning experience I mentioned at the beginning of this article: the ability to convert the 4:2:0 8-bit 4K video to 10-bit 4:4:4.

As I promised, my goal with this piece is to prevent you from being overwhelmed with all the technical jargon you may not be familiar with if you’re not a classically trained cinematographer (or a color scientist or mathematician). So I’ll keep this simple as possible.

Most DSLRs shoot in a 4:2:0 color space. This is a ratio of luminance and chroma (Wikipedia: Chroma subsampling). Again, the higher the numbers, the better (4 being the highest). The other color space combinations that are popular in the video world are 4:2:2 (as in ProRes 422) and 4:4:4 (or even 4:4:4:4, with the fourth 4 representing an Alpha channel).

Furthermore, the color depth of the GH4 video is only 8-bit (as opposed to 10-bit). Many Professional Photographer readers are well familiar with bit depth. Without getting into all the math, 10-bit is exponentially higher than 8-bit.

The theory is that if you transcode (i.e. convert) 4K footage to a ProRes 444 or CineForm 444 codec, the 4X resolution, when compressed down to 1080p, actually yields a richer color space. The extra pixels, in essence, increase your chroma values (the 2 and the 0), so that 4:2:0 becomes 4:4:4 (FYI: CineForm is created by GoPro and is most common on Windows machines whereas ProRes is common on Macs). The math for this actually works out. However, there is still debate on whether you actually get a 10-bit image from an 8-bit video. But it doesn’t matter. The 4:4:4 color space will give you a higher quality 1080p image than if you shot the video at 1080p. This will allow for better color grading or motion graphics work.

I ran a test where I compared 4K footage (transcoded to ProRes 4444 at 1,920x1,080) to 4K 4:2:0 footage dropped in a 1080p timeline. I then applied a Curves filter to it and adjusted some of the color values. The transcoded footage is on the left. The 4K footage (dropped in the 1080p timeline) is on the right.

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If you click to view the full-size image at 100%, you should be able to see a noticeable quality difference.

(You can download the 200% image on my blog and check it out at http://j.mp/ddmag-gh4test1.)

You’ll need to use a program like MPEG Streamclip (squared5.com) or Apple Compressor, or GoPro’s CineForm to convert the footage. But it’s well worth having that extra color quality, particularly if you plan to do a lot of color grading and/or motion graphics work.

The Final Verdict

In my opinion, this is an amazing camera and deserves serious consideration. I definitely plan to use it for my shoots for all the reasons I mentioned above. And what I haven’t mentioned yet, which you likely already know, is that it’s only $1,700 U.S. (That boggles the mind!) Still, I strongly encourage you to rent it first. Lensprotogo.com is my go-to rental house, and they were kind enough to loan me the camera for this review (Shipping is included in their rates and that every order ships in Pelican cases. Using the code x180 will give you a 10% discount). Whoever you use, there’s no reason why you can’t invest the time and money to at least try this camera out.

I encourage you to do more research. Hopefully this article will provide some insight, fill in the knowledge gaps, and make your exploration all the more effective.

 

June 7, 2013

How To: Prepare Photos for Video

By Ron Dawson

Photographers often ask me what resolution setting to use when they prepare photos to be displayed along with video in a fusion presentation. 

RESOLUTION

The simplest way to think about this is to understand the pixel ratio of video relative to a photo.

Canon’s 5D Mark III is a 22.3-megapixel camera. A full-sized image from this camera is 5,784 pixels wide and 3,861 pixels tall. Now compare that to a full-sized 1080p high definition frame: 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. The photo is just over 3 times the width and height of an HD video image. If you’re shooting at 60 frames per second on this camera (in order to achieve “pure” slow motion), then the video resolution drops down to 1,280 x 720 pixels. Now that same photo is just over 4.5 times the size of the image.

Why is all of this important? Because knowing this information will help you determine the pixel size and dimension of images you plan to use in a video. I’ll get to that answer in shortly. First, we need to consider aspect ratio.

ASPECT RATIO

Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of your horizontal length to the vertical. HD video has a 16:9 aspect ratio (also written 16x9 and verbally expressed as “16 by 9”).

1,920 / 1,080 = 16 / 9 =  1.7778

Most photos have completely differentaspect ratios. For example, 4x5 and 8x10 images come out to a 0.8 ratio. The aforementioned 22.3-megapixel image has a 1.49 ratio. So, when you export an image and maintain its aspect ratio, you know from the start that when you drop it into a video, it will not fit nice and neat.

But, depending on the project, fitting nice and neat is often not necessary. So this is where we get to the nitty-gritty.

EXPORT SETTINGS

When exporting photos for video from Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, you should determine ahead of time how you plan to incorporate the photo. If it will be a static image (no movement or growth), just export it constraining the ratio to 16x9 and selecting the width to match pixel width of the video, either 1,920 or 1,280 pixels wide. This will result in the image being cropped. If you don’t want that to happen, then you must settle on having black space on either side of you image in the video.

In a Photoshop workflow, use the Crop tool's aspect ratio drop down menu to select your ratio (or create a custom one). In the fields next to it you can set a specific pixel size by entering the number followed by px. Use File > Save for Web to minimize the file size while keeping the onscreen quality high. Assign a new file name to avoid overwriting your original.  

Here’s a video I produced for Canadian wedding photographer Gabe McClintock. Gabe specifically asked that I not put any movement on his photos. As much as possible he wanted to preserve their original look, minimizing any cropping. So where the aspect ratio didn’t allow for insignificant cropping, I added a white background to match his website so that the image presentation would appear seamless with no borders. 

Making the Connection - PerspectivEye Promo Film from Ron Dawson | Dare Dreamer Media on Vimeo.

If you plan to do any movement of the photo, Ken Burns-style, then you will want a photo that is larger than your HD video so that you zoom in on it without losing quality. The question is, how much bigger. There is no single answer to this. It all depends on how much you want to “zoom” into the photo. But keep this in mind: the bigger the photo, the more taxing on your computer it will be. Try importing twenty photos 4,000 pixels or wider into a video project and start adjusting the size. Unless you have a super-fast, ultra-powerful computer, it will be sluggish.

This video I did for Yosemite photographer Shawn Reeder did include the zooming in and zooming out I traditionally do with photos. In these cases, I used photos significantly large enough to zoom in and out without losing quality.

Shawn Reeder Photography Promo from Ron Dawson | Dare Dreamer Media on Vimeo.

I will typically export JPEG images and aim for a photo size that is in the neighborhood of 2,500 pixels on the wide side. These photos come in around 880k to just under 2MB in file size. Whenever a client gives me photos for a video and I see they are all 5MB are larger, I know right away they’re going to be way too big and I’ll need to shrink them all down to a more manageable size.

I should note at this point that dots per inch (dpi) does not matter when exporting. Meaning: you don’t need to worry if your photo is 300 dpi or 72 dpi. It's a setting that's only relevant to printing. All you need to know is the horizontal and vertical width in pixels. An 8x10 image at 72 dpi is only 576 x 720 pixels. Too small for HD video. However, a 4x5 photo at 600 dpi is 2,400 x 3,000 pixels. That’s larger than HD.

That’s basically it. Know your pixel dimensions and intended use, and aim for a size that won’t be too taxing on your system.

May 16, 2013

How To: Video Compression for the Web

By Ron Dawson

Perhaps one of the more challenging issues photographers entering the world of video face is compression for the web. It’s one thing exporting a jpeg. When it comes to creating videos for the web, it’s a whole different ballgame. There are so many different considerations.

Resolution

No doubt the majority of you are editing high definition videos: 1080p (1,920x1080) or 720p (1,280x720). For a majority of the work I do, I edit in 1080p then export at 720p for the web. If the site I’m uploading to will support it and the visuals would benefit from a higher resolution, I may export a 1080p file.

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Bits and Bytes

The next decision, and perhaps the most important, is what data rate to set. Most of the data rate figures you see will be in megabits per second (mbps). The capitalization is important, because if you write MBps, this traditionally stands for megabytes per second, not -bits (eight bits make up one byte). Don't be surprised if you ever come across an article using MBps, but meaning mbps. You'll know by the size of the number. Here are some common numbers to give you perspective.

● The .MOV files in popular Canon DSLRs are compressed at approximately 45 mbps.
● The .MOV files in some of the most popular Nikon DSLRs range from about 14 mbps to 24 mbps (depending on the quality setting)
● The popular Apple codec ProRes 422 is about 145 mbps
● Standard Definition DVDs range from 4 to 8 mbps 

Most compression programs will give you the option to do constant bitrate (CBR) or variable bitrate (VBR) compression. CBR will compress the entire video at the same rate. If you're not concerned about file size, this may be a good option as it's faster and takes less processing power. With VBR, the computer will compress different parts of the video at different rates (you will enter some target or average rate). So high motion parts of the video will get a higher rate than sections where there's no motion at all. That way you can better optimize the video.

Formats

There are a few different formats to consider when exporting for the web: mpeg4 (which includes .mv4 files), mpeg2, h.264, wmv, etc. These are all different codecs. Codec is short for "compression-decompression." It's the algorithm used by the computer to compress large video files into something more manageable. All major video sharing sites will accept all the popular formats. So whether you're a Mac or a Windows person, the format you export can yield a video people will be able to watch, regardless of operating system or browser. It should be noted that .MOV does not represent a codec. It's the suffix for a QuickTime video, but that video could be any number of codecs. You can have an h.264 .mov file, a ProRes .mov file, an MPEG-2 .mov file, etc.

The Perfect Recipe

There is no "best" combination of settings. It all depends on things like audience, upload destination, length of video, and such. Here's my usual recipe (using Apple’s Compressor):

Video:
○ AppleTV codec, h.264
○ 1,280x720 resolution
○ 4-7 mbps (depending on varying factors)
○ Frame rate (source, which is usually 24 fps)

Audio:
○ AAC
○ 128 kbps
○ 44.1khz

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Video compression is two parts science and one part art. With practice and time you’ll come up with a recipe that works best for you and your clients.

March 6, 2013

Stable and Able: Dougmon Camera Support System

By Travis Orton

The Dougmon handheld camera support system ensures stability through the use of a vertical grip combined with a brace strapped to your forearm. The friction ball head system in the grip, unique to this stabilizer, allows you to move the camera to any angle that your hand and arm can accommodate. The tension can be adjusted to your preference for smooth rotation, or it can be locked in. In other configurations you can use the stabilizer as a short monopod, a top grip for low-angle follow shots, and more.

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Designed by cameraman Doug Monroe, the Dougmon weighs 28.5 ounces and supports cameras weighing up to 5.5 pounds. I tested it over several days with a Panasonic P2 HPX170 camcorder, which weighs in at about 5 pounds.

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To adjust the Dougmon to fit your arm, you place the grip in the palm of your hand and hold it comfortably, then extend the forearm piece until the padded portion is tucked into your bent elbow joint. The arm strap is tightened with a backpack-type buckle cinch. Once mounted to the Dougmon, my camera worked like an extension of my arm.

It performs solidly as a stabilizer. Though it’s not the best I’ve used, it’s close. I’d give its effectiveness an 8 out of 10 rating. I’m happy with the footage I got while using it, including a variety of high- and low-angle shots.

I tested the Dougmon at Imaging USA in January. The maximum duration of any of my exposures was just a few minutes, but I wore the Dougmon on my arm for well over an hour while moving around for different shots. After a few minutes I did feel a degree of strain in my forearm, but it wasn’t prohibitive. This rig allowed me to be mobile and set up different shot angles in seconds.

The Dougmon is distributed exclusively in North and South America by International Supplies and is available from online retailers like B&H Photo and Video. It’s priced at $529.99, which is a little steep but not outrageous. There’s an optional accessory called a Slingmon for $199. This over-the-shoulder pocket brace lets you use the Dougmon similar to the way a stabilizer is used when clipped to a waist belt. The Dougmon/ Slingmon combo is available for $699.99.

Travis Orton is the producer and studio manager of the PPA Education Department.

March 4, 2013

Video Lighting on a Budget

By Ron Dawson

Ask any experienced filmmaker or videographer what is the most essential element of any shoot (other than the camera), and good lighting should be right at the top of the list. When you’re working with a huge production budget, you can pretty much get any kind of lights you want. As the budgets (and crews) become smaller, being able to get good lighting becomes a bigger challenge.

I own a small, independent production company, and many of the commercial video shoots I do fall into that latter category—small budgets ($3,000 to $10,000) and small crews (often just me and an assistant). That means I have to make both the dollars and the labor go as far as possible. I need something powerful and portable in the lighting department.

I’ve used a broad range of lights in the various film and video projects I’ve produced. As is the case with most things, the best of the best are worth the money you invest, but under budget constraints, they can be cost prohibitive. Luckily, there is a range of alternative solutions that offer similar lighting at a fraction of the cost.

Tungsten Lights

About seven years ago, when I first invested in a light kit, I got a small Lowel kit. Lowel is a leading brand in the film and video lighting business. The kit I chose came with four tungsten lights, stands, scrims, an umbrella, power cables, removable barn doors, and a case to carry them all in. It was a good kit for doing traditional three-point lighting setups.

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My Lowel light kit comes with a hard case. You get a
good workout carrying this bad boy around.

The downside to this kind of kit is that it is very heavy to lug around, and the bulbs get extremely hot. Within literally seconds of turning them on, the surrounding casings and barn doors can sear your flesh if you’re not careful.

Arri is another popular tungsten light brand. I see a lot of Arri lights on film shoots, probably more than any other lighting brand. But, like the Lowel lights, Arri lights can get very hot and can be heavy.

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Arri is a trusted brand that's very common on traditional movie sets.

Both Lowel and Arri lights can tend to be on the expensive side. I believe I invested nearly $1,500 in my kit (in 2006 dollars).

For most of the work I do now, I choose fluorescent and LED lights.

 

Fluorescents

About two years ago I was introduced to Kino Flo fluorescent lights. Kino Flos are one of the most trusted and popular brands for shooting commercial videos. They range in size and style, are dimmable, come in carrying cases, and do not get hot. You can use them with either daylight-balanced (cooler) or tungsten-balanced (warmer) fluorescent bulbs. The downside to Kino Flos is size and cost. Some of them can be relatively weighty and require large C-stands—heavy, three-legged metal stands used to hold everything from lights to boom poles to light blocking flags. Second, they are expensive. The cost of the light alone for a typical 4-foot 2Bank Kino Flo is more than $1,000 (2Bank indicates the number of fluorescent bulbs the unit takes). A 2-foot 2Bank Diva-Lite (another type of KinoFlo) can set you back more than $800 for the light alone, over $1,000 if you get a full kit. But, you get what you pay for. These lights are durable and powerful.

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I used a 4-foot 2Bank daylight-balanced Kino Flo to light the desk from above in this scene from my 48 Hour Film Project. Notice it’s mounted on a C-stand. One of my soft box fluorescent lights acts as a fill light to the side.

If I had my druthers, I’d use Kino Flos for all my shoots, but my budget doesn’t always allow me to rent them. I seldom use my Lowel kit, but opt instead to light with a set of fluorescent soft box light kits that my filmmaking partners or I own. They’re light, don’t get hot, and are quick to set up. The downside is that they’re troublesome to transport. The ones in the brand I own don’t fold up, and the ones in the brand my filmmaking partner owns requires a lot of time to take apart and break down—so much that whenever we use them, we don’t even bother dismantling them. We just throw them in the car.

The great thing about this lighting set is that it’s very inexpensive. The Cowboy Studio lighting set we use costs just north of $200 for a three-light kit that includes stands and a carrying case. The build-quality is not particularly durable though. We’ve broken a lot of bulbs on sets.

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The Cowboy Studio soft box lighting kit on a recent commercial video shoot.

 

LEDs

A few months ago I helped out on a shoot where my filmmaker partner had rented an ikan 500 LED daylight-balanced light kit. (FYI, 500 does not indicate wattage; it’s the actual number of tiny LED bulbs in the light. The wattage is equivalent to 350W). I immediately fell in love with them. They ran cool (both the color temperature as well as the actual temperature of the bulbs), were compact, lightweight, dimmable, and had a strong metal build. It was like having the lighting power of a Kino Flo without the high rental cost or size. I also loved the fact that they came in a padded, easy-to-carry case that included stands. In addition to dimmable lights, the back has switches for turning the four main panels of lights on and off. They run on AC power and can also be powered by Anton Bauer’s V-mount battery if an outlet is not available. Another popular feature of this kit is a remote control that allows you to control dimming and power from a distance. The light by itself runs around $430 at Adorama. You can get the three-light kit with case and stands for just over $1,400.

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The ikan 500 comes with attached barn doors, metallic body with handle, power, and remote.

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I’ve rented these ikan lights myself from a local rental house for as little as $105 for the three-light kit. Compare that to $165 to rent three 4-foot 2Bank Kino Flos, which are heavier, don’t include a remote and also require three C-stands (which most rental houses include with your rental). What’s also nice about the ikan kit is that they can actually be shipped (that’s how I received them when I rented them). That’s how compact they are. They can be mounted vertically or horizontally.

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Here’s a commercial video shoot with a traditional three-point lighting setup using three rented ikans. In the background you can see my Cowboy Studio lighting up the back wall to give the shot some depth. Image ©Mighty 8th Media.

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Here’s the reverse angle of the three-point ikan setup. You can see the third light (the hair light) under the moose head. Image ©Mighty 8th Media.

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Here I’m setting up the ikan lights outside. The lights can be mounted on light (i.e. non-heavy) stands that are easy to transport—a nice change from the heavy C-stands. Image ©Mighty 8th Media.

 

An ikan Competitor

Recently I had the opportunity to use a Flashpoint 500 C LED light kit from Adorama. This is an obvious alternative and competitor to ikan’s light. It has a similar build with metallic body, barn doors, handle, AC power, and dimmable lights. The Flashpoint model does not have a remote.

Whereas the ikan light has four sets of panels that can each be turned off by its own switch, the Flashpoint has two groups of lights, each controlled by its own dimmable switch. I tested two models: The Flashpoint 500 has all daylight-balanced (5,600K) LEDs, and the Flashpoint 500C has half the lights daylight-balanced (controlled by the dimmer on the left) and the other half tungsten balanced (2,700 to 3,500K and controlled by the dimmer on the right).

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The light on the left is the Flashpoint 500C model that’s half daylight-balanced and half tungsten (although in this image only the tungsten-balanced lights are activated). The image on the right is the model with all daylight-balanced LEDs.

Other than the fact that the daylight-balanced-only model has larger dimmer knobs, there's nothing to indicate the model on the unit itself. The LED 500C is the one with both types of balanced lights, but the paperwork I received for that light just read LED 500. So, if you order either light, test it right away to make sure you received the correct model.

If you want the flexibility of lighting with either a warmer or a cooler tone, then obviously order the 500C. However, the tradeoff is that you cannot use both knobs for more light (unless you want to mix color temperatures, which is not a good idea unless your video will be black and white). If you get the daylight-only model, then you can crank both knobs to their maximum setting to boost light output.

I had the opportunity to use the daylight-only 500 model on a shoot and I was pleased with the results. I was lighting my subject with an entirely black background. For creative reasons I did not want a traditional three-point light setup. I used only a key light, no fill or hair light. The Flahspoint 500, with both dimmers turned up all the way worked perfectly.

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Ungraded, raw footage screen grab from my video shoot. The subject is lit solely with the Flashpoint 500.

 

Flashpoint Pros and Cons

In comparison with the ikan, the Flashpoint build has less quality. For instance, the dimmer switches have a lower quality construction, and the Flashpoint 500 lights did not come on until the knob was at the fifth power mark. On the 500C, the lights did not turn on until the sixth power mark.

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Intuitively, as soon as the dimmer clicks on, there should be some light at the lowest power setting. However, the lights did not come on until the dimmer was all the way to the fifth power-level mark.

Also, from a design aspect, I would prefer it had a more traditional on/off switch as well as the dimmer. (You turn it on via the dimmer switches). In addition to dimmers, the ikan lights have on/off switches for each of the four banks of LEDs.

Those were the only issues I had with the unit. In doing research for this article, I did come across user reviews reporting other quality issues on adorama.com. I had no such issues.

As cons go, the ones I encountered are relatively minor when you consider the main pro: the cost. It’s about $240 for the Flashpoint 500C LED vs. $430 for the ikan. So if you’re on a budget and need a relatively sturdy, lightweight and powerful light for video production, the Flashpoint is not a bad investment.

 

Rent and Experiment

This article only touches on a small set of the possibilities at your disposal for lighting a video or film shoot. I strongly encourage you to test different options by renting first, then seeing what works best for you. Ultimately, you will get what you pay for, but even if in the short term you can get by with the lower priced options, you can still produce quality work, and hopefully earn the money to upgrade to the “big boys” later.

November 20, 2012

iLapse: Awesome Time Lapse Video Creator

By Joan Sherwood, Sr.Ed.

iLapse from Mea Mobile is a fantastically simple intervalometer for your iPhone or iPad. The app records your video at 1280 x 720 for output at 24, 25, or 30 fps. at intervals from .5 to 20 seconds, and for a total of up to 10,000 frames. It tells you how long your sequence will take and how long the resulting video will be at your chosen frame rate. You can lock exposure and tone, or leave it to the camera to adjust as conditions change. It works tethered to USB power or with the phone’s battery. If you do a long sequence, your phone will heat up noticeably. Once the sequence is finished, the app automatically processes it to High Definition time-lapse video, and you can watch it immediately and save it to your camera roll to use as you’d like.

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If you want to take a sequence of stills, you can do that, too. It’s amazingly fun and simple, and it’s only $1.99.

SPECIAL: ALL MEA MOBILE APPS FREE THROUGH WEDNESDAY, NOV. 21: www.meamobile.com/72for72/

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October 9, 2012

Picking the Right Video Stabilizer for your DSLR

By Ron Dawson

One of the tell-tell signs of a rookie DSLR filmmaker is a hand-held video that is so shaky you get sea-sick from watching it. A big drawback to DSLRs for shooting video is that their small size combined with the "line skipping" aspect of the CMOS sensor (every other line of resolution on the sensor is skipped in order to get that much data on a small card) makes hand-held video look awful.

Unless you're going for a very specific kind of cinema verité look, you absolutely should be using some sort of stabilization device when shooting video with DSLRs. The most basic and simple is your tripod. If you need to move around and get hand-held shots, you may want to use a rig. These create multiple points of contact from the camera to your body, thereby reducing the shakiness.

The game totally changes, however, if you need to walk or run with a DSLR while shooting. In that case, your only option to get steady, fluid shots is some kind of tracking stabilization device. One of the most common questions I get from my photographer friends looking into such devices is which one to get. There are two that I generally recommend: the SteadyTracker or the Glidecam.

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The SteadyTracker Xtreme and a Sony HD camcorder.

The SteadyTracker
For over six years, the stabilizer that has served me well is a CobraCrane SteadyTracker. I own the Xtreme model because I purchased it when a larger, traditional camcorder was my main camera. But the UltraLite model would be perfect for DSLRs (retails around $190). The first thing you may notice about the SteadyTracker is that unlike most other popular tracking devices, this one does NOT have a gimbal. The plate that attaches to the bottom of the camera allows you to slide it left to right, and forward and backward. This helps you find the perfect center of balance. It also makes it exponentially easier to balance than a gimballed device. You will literally be up and running in under 10 minutes the first time using it. (Click here to see someone putting it together and balancing it in 3 minutes.)

Continue reading "Picking the Right Video Stabilizer for your DSLR" »

GoPro HD Hero2: Compact Problem Solver

By Chris A.

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Image ©Court Leve

Recently I photographed a wedding at a beautiful, historic New England church. While the setting was perfect for romantic, sophisticated wedding images, I found myself faced with two church rules about photography inside the building. First, strobes were not permitted (which isn't uncommon), but the second and most disconcerting was that I was restricted to photographing the ceremony from the balcony only. This was apparently so my presence wouldn't distract the participants and guests during the wedding ceremony. Not being able to shoot from the main floor of the church was frustrating. Typically, I carefully, quietly, and discreetly move all around the wedding venue to get a variety of angles and perspectives. But not that day.

It was there, stuck in the balcony, when I wished I had my GoPro HD Hero2 camera with me.

The GoPro HD Hero2 has taken the video world by storm. From the X-Games, pro sports and Olympics, to television shows and rock n roll concerts, clever and creative applications for this diminutive professional video camera seem endless. But the Hero2’s video prowess is only half of the story as the pocket-size powerhouse offers versatile still photo capabilities as well.

As a still camera, the Hero2 is a well thought out, auto-mode point and shoot, offering minimal setting options for photographers. However, the lack of a pure manual mode shouldn’t dissuade a creative photographer from seriously considering adding one of these amazing cameras to their image-creating arsenal. While designed primarily for shooting video of action sports, put all of the HD Hero2 capabilities into the hands of an innovative professional photographer, and opportunities to capture amazing, dynamic images are sure to follow.

Continue reading "GoPro HD Hero2: Compact Problem Solver" »

January 12, 2012

Wrap Your Mind Around Warp: Adobe After Effects CS5.5 Warp Stabilization

By Jack Reznicki

Mid-number software upgrades rarely impress me. When Adobe’s Creative Suite had an inter-number upgrade, from 5.0 to 5.5, I was expecting just the usual bug fixes and minor adjustments. But buried in After Effects is a real “WOW!!” feature I would expect in a whole-point release. This new feature should really amaze and wow video shooters and the vast army of still shooters venturing into the video realm. The name for this feature, Warp Stabilization sounds like a feature you’d hear in an old Star Trek episode. “Captain, the Wrap Stabilization has seized up! She can't hold on much longer!”

Warp Stabilization is just Adobe’s name for a feature that takes shaky video footage and, well, stabilizes it to look like you used a Steadicam or shot the scene with your camera mounted on a dolly. It really doesn’t sound like much until you see it in action. Then your jaw drops. To me this feature alone is worth the total price of After Effects. The first video here is the raw footage, and the video embedded below it is the stabilized version.

What really blows my mind is not just what it does, which is amazing and magical, but the fact that it’s so automatic and simple. It’s drag and drop. There have been ways to stabilize shaky sequences before, but you had to know what you were doing, you had to find a fixed point, play with the parameters, input numbers. It took a lot of time, skill and praying. With CS 5.5, you drag and drop Warp Stabilization adjustment into the video sequence and After Effects does it all in a shockingly easy and fast way. No entering numbers, moving sliders, or looking up complex steps in the manual. It analyzes the footage on its own, and then processes the clip in the computer’s background, so you can continue working on something else, like more photo editing, web surfing, or solitaire. No waiting for spinning beach balls or slow status bars.

While it’s at it, fixing your shaky take behind the curtain, it also fixes another inherent problem prevalent with DSLR footage—the cursed rolling shutter artifacts. 

Continue reading "Wrap Your Mind Around Warp: Adobe After Effects CS5.5 Warp Stabilization" »

November 7, 2011

RED vs. Canon: Closing the Gap Between Cinema and Still

By J.R. Hughto

Five years ago, RED announced—with what was to become their signature bravado—that they were going to release a cinema camera that would revolutionize the industry. RED made 4K (4,096x2,304-pixel format) and RAW buzzwords overnight, and they promised that their system had the independent filmmaker in mind at a $17K price point. When the dust settled, it took over a year for RED to release what actually turned out to be a revolutionary camera, the RED One, though the actual cost to get a camera ready to shoot had ballooned to nearly $50K. That $17K price point, huge by amateur standards but a bargain in the film industry where cameras cost as much as Ferraris, must have remained in company founder Jim Jannard's mind, because on Thursday night RED finally released a camera that not only made good on their technological promises but on the dollar amount. RED's new Scarlet-X, the company’s less expensive companion to their higher-end EPIC, can indeed be set up ready to shoot for right around that $17K figure, depending on how many batteries or SSDs (RED’s recording medium) you wish to purchase.

(See how RED Epic is used in a wedding video trailer from Tonaci Visuals.)

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RED’s announcement of the Scarlet-X came only hours after Canon had announced their own brand new cinema camera, the EOS C300, priced very similarly to the Scarlet-X at $20K retail with a rumored $16K street price. Based on the success Canon has enjoyed with their video-shooting DSLRs, and in the wake of the announcement of the March release of their flagship EOS-1D X, the C300 is a purpose-built video camera that bears the EOS label and marks the company’s first official foray into a market segment traditionally dominated by Panasonic and Sony.

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Canon wasn't satisfied with simply announcing the C300, however. They went on to explain that the C300 was the first in a new Cinema EOS brand that would not only produce video-only cameras like the C300, but also include future DSLR releases designated with the new C that represents the line. Whether this means the well-equipped 1D X or the long-awaited 5D Mark III will be the first of the breed remains to be seen. Regardless, Canon seems to be finally taking the video side of their large-sensor cameras seriously by developing well-considered and designed responses to a rapidly changing camera industry and a more technically demanding user base.

When stacking the principle competition in the price bracket against each other, what advantages do each offer? All three prominent rivals—the previously released Sony PMW-F3, the Canon EOS C300, and the RED Scarlet-X—have Super 35mm sized sensors (roughly the same size of Canon’s APS-C format in use by cameras like the 7D). The Scarlet-X seems to have stolen Canon’s thunder in large part due to their 4K RAW recording, a feature that no other camera can boast in the price class. RED CEO Jim Jannard went so far as to boast that “1080 as a concept is discontinued”; RED’s always had the best hyperbole. Jannard described the camera as a 5K stills shooter as well as a 4K cinema camera, and when configured as such it is highly reminiscent of the Pentax 67ii, that old beast of a medium-format shooter that so many 35mm shooters preferred due to its SLR styling. By emphasizing the Scarlet-X’s still photography capabilities, he both distinguishes it further from the C300 and the Sony F3, and also places it in competition with still-image-priority cameras like the EOS-1D series. In fact, the RED has been used for magazine cover shoots for Vogue, Esquire and Vanity Fair due to its capability of pulling a single, RAW frame at 4K.

Continue reading "RED vs. Canon: Closing the Gap Between Cinema and Still" »

July 13, 2011

The Next Big Thing: Practical and Profitable Implementation of Fusion

By Jeff Kent

Vanessa Joy and Rob Adams are a husband-wife, photographer-videographer team that has been pioneering a progressive, and profitable, approach to the fusion of still photography and video. Joy handles the photography while Adams provides videography and video production services. Their partnership has earned them The Knot’s “Best of Weddings” 2010 award, WeddingWire’s 2010 Bride's Choice Award, numerous publications in magazines, and an eager clientele clamoring for their next big thing in fusion.

Joy and Adams, who are partners but run separate businesses, began offering fusion wedding coverage in 2009 and have spent the last two years perfecting their style, their workflow and their presentation. They stress that fusion is not wedding documentary video; it’s meant to augment the still imagery, not replace a videographer. As such, they caution against making guarantees about what moments will be captured on video. “Fusion is a subjective concept just meant to enhance the photography,” says Joy. “If a client wants a full wedding video, that is a different thing entirely.”

Of course, the ultimate point of fusion is to boost your bottom line. What’s the point of learning all of this if you’re not going to make money? Most fusion products revolve around a multimedia slideshow that incorporates still images, video clips and music. You can burn the slideshow to a disc or flash drive and then sell it to clients as an add-on or part of a package. Several album makers are now producing fusion albums that incorporate space for a digital display, such as an iPod, iPad or even an LCD screen sewn right into the fabric of the book cover.

Joy and Adams also sell digital fusion albums that can be viewed on computers or pad devices, or set up on a video screen and played on a loop. The layout is similar to a magazine-style album, except there is a mix of still images and video clips. The viewer turns the page, virtually speaking, and sees different images and different clips on each page.

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For a fusion slideshow, which Adams creates with Animoto, the charge is $600. A fusion album runs upwards of $1,000. Joy and Adams offer these products not only for weddings but for portrait shoots, trash-the-dress sessions and other events.

Take a look at these examples of their Wedding Fusion Album, and an Engagement Session Fusion Slideshow.

Continue reading "The Next Big Thing: Practical and Profitable Implementation of Fusion" »

July 5, 2011

Nice To Meet You, Virtually--Introduce Yourself to Clients with Video

Building trust and forming connections with Web-based videos

When Jasmine Star opened her Irvine, Calif., wedding photography business, one priority was to create an introductory video for her website. The impetus grew from her experience as a bride-to-be a few years earlier. Searching for a photographer, she saw such a video on the website of David Jay of Santa Barbara, and found it both engaging and disarming. Star knew video would play a pivotal role in her Web marketing.

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“When you enter a website, there’s usually a transactional feeling,” says Star. “But video gives a perspective on the personality of the photographer.”

The video is working. About half of Star’s clients book her purely on what they see on her website. “One bride said my videos were a decision maker she didn’t want a stranger photographing her wedding, but a friend. I talk about becoming friends with my brides in my video, and that convinced her.”  

Continue reading "Nice To Meet You, Virtually--Introduce Yourself to Clients with Video" »

April 6, 2011

Improve Video Stability and Production Quality with Zacuto Rigs and Z-Finder Pro

By Ron Dawson

If you decide to take up the craft of DSLR filmmaking, one of the things you will quickly realize is that shooting video is very different from shooting photos. One of the key differences is that unless you are extremely experienced, hand-held video shot with a DSLR will look terrible. It’ll be too shaky, resulting in significantly lower production quality than stabilized footage. The other thing you’ll notice is that trying to focus with an LCD screen is extremely difficult, especially at the wider apertures where depth of field is very shallow. These cameras were just not ergonomically designed to shoot video. As usual, Mother Necessity has led the way to a whole sub-industry dedicated to providing gear that helps the DSLR filmmaker shoot proper video.

Zacuto, based in Chicago, Ill., is one of the leaders in that industry. Created by veteran Emmy-award-winning film and video producers Steve Weiss and Jens Bogehegn, one of the reasons their gear has become so well known is because they bring more than 50 combined years of industry experience. I had the opportunity to try out three of their most popular DSLR accessories: the Z-Finder Pro, the Target Shooter, and the Striker.

The Z-Finder Pro: The Z-Finder Pro is perhaps Zacuto’s number-one DSLR accessory. It is an optical viewfinder that connects to the back of the DSLR, magnifiying the LCD live view image. If you’re using manual focus, this allows you to dial-in focus and keep it there as you shoot. It also blocks out glare from additional light sources like the sun. It also serves as an additional point of contact to get steadier shots. The more points of contact you can have, the more stability you have. When you hold a DSLR up to and against your eye with the Z-Finder Pro, you now have three POCs: two hands and your face. 

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When the Z-Finder first came out, you had to physically glue it to the back of your DSLR. It could be detached, but it was an awkward setup. Now they’ve designed it with a mounting frame and base plate that screws into to your tripod mount socket. You can adjust the Z-Finder to the left or right depending on the camera, and you can even add plastic extenders to push the Z-Finder farther out from the back of the camera, allowing you to adjust the focus on the Z-Finder itself to match your eyesight.

I found it very easy to use and extremely effective at monitoring focus. Of all the optical viewfinders on the market, it is the one chosen by high-profile DSLR filmmakers such as Vincent Laforet and Philip Bloom. If you’re doing a lot of moving around, it will be a key accessory in your tool kit.

Continue reading "Improve Video Stability and Production Quality with Zacuto Rigs and Z-Finder Pro" »

About Video

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives in the Video category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Tutorials is the previous category.

Feature is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.


 
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