2.27.2017

For smaller cameras pressed into producing video the Cage is all the Rage. Here's a great, cheap one.


Sony RX10-3 show in a Camvate Cage Rig. Providing vital mounting points for all the crap you need to make small camera video production workable. Photo:  ©2017 Kirk Tuck, courtesy: The Visual Science Lab.

What is a "cage" and why might I need one? Still cameras don't need cages...unless you are laboring under the idea that your still camera is also a potent video production camera which you can use to create video art and also to produce video programs for which you get paid. Then... you might start considering a camera cage. Basically, a cage provides a metal "exotic-skeleton" for your camera which protects it from some knocks and scratches but mostly (and most importantly) provides mounting points for all the junk that you are going to want to buy and hang off your camera in order to make nice video. 

The cage I'm looking at in this blog post also provides a basic rail system that, in addition to a bare bones cage, also gives you mounting points for follow focus attachments and a compendium shade or matte box. The distilled down cage is an assemblage of metal parts that fit around your camera and provide 1/4 inch and 3/8ths inch threaded mounting points. You use these to attach: external audio recorders, external microphones (though you are better off getting the microphone off the camera and closer to your subject...). monitors, pre-amplifiers and mixers. Or some combination thereof. 

If you take a Sony RX10iii as an example there are only two mounting points on the camera itself. One is the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera and the second is the hot shoe on top of the camera. But the hot shoe is right above the EVF and anything that sticks out over the EVF is going to get in your way, if you use the EVF to focus and compose. The hot shoe might also put the piece of external equipment that you need to use in just the wrong position to be helpful... The cage provides a better solution. (more below). >

Photo:  ©2017 Kirk Tuck, courtesy: The Visual Science Lab.

I recently bought SmallRig (brand) cages for both the Sony A7Rii and the a6300. Both of those cages were custom designed for those specific cameras and they fit snugly around the cameras giving you a very discreet visual profile. Adding a cage to the a6300 transformed that camera from a pain-in-the-ass (handling) camera, with great image quality and super video, into a much more ergonomic shooting package. The naked a6300 is too small to hold well and, if mounted on a tripod the only place to put stuff is in the hot shoe. Seems dicey to me to add much weight to such a small connection point, especially since there is so little "real estate" on top of that camera to play with. The SmallRig cage allowed me to put a Beachtek audio interface on one side while attaching  a monitor to the top area of the camera. The monitor allows a much better viewing experience than the smaller screen or poorly light shielded EVF while also giving us a headphone jack with which to monitor our audio. Even with both of those devices connected there is still at least one more available mounting point which I could use to attach a stereo microphone for ambiance. 

The A7Rii is a much bigger camera (it's all relative) so the cage for it is more spacious and gives me lots of room to make attachments. In addition to a digital audio recorder and external monitor is seems to me to be a good idea to also attach a big, lithium ion phone charger battery which could power the camera through the USB port for many hours. 

After many good experiences using cages on both of the above cameras I knew I wanted to find a good one for the RX10iii but I couldn't find one made specifically for that model. Bummer. I was going to order a generic model meant for a wide range of medium-sized cameras when I came across this one (see all photos) from a different company. The products looked similar to the ones from SmallRig but offered the rail system, in addition to the basic cage, for a price of around $120. I read the reviews on Amazon.com and ordered one, knowing that if it wasn't up to my standards I could easily return it. 

(more below). >

 Photo:  ©2017 Kirk Tuck, courtesy: The Visual Science Lab.

The product camera yesterday and I couldn't be happier with the flexibility and quality of the system. It came well packaged and the maker provided some extras that were most appreciated. The system is meant to be adapted to many different consumer camera models so it stands to reason that one can do a fair bit of customization. 

For instance, there is a bar that attaches the top plate to the plate on which the camera sits. You can adjust the bar at either end to fine tune the height of the top plate to the top of the camera. Some people might want a snug fit while others might want more space in which to get their fingers on the camera to operate controls. If the bar is too short, fear not! the package comes with a second bar that is about .75 inches taller.  I ended up using the shorter bar with the RX10iii (which is not a very small camera) but I would need to use the longer bar if I were to use the rig with something like a Nikon D5 or a Fuji XT(xx) with a battery grip. Nice to have it included in the package. ..

(more below). >
Photo:  ©2017 Kirk Tuck, courtesy: The Visual Science Lab.

While the "fly-by-wire" focusing system of the RX10iii doesn't lend itself to the use of a follow focus the rail system is great to have anyway. It creates several more attachment points for things like bellows shades and matte boxes which can help with some tricky film making. It can be used to balance the weight distribution on a tripod.  It also looks pretty cool...

(yes, more below). >
Photo:  ©2017 Kirk Tuck, courtesy: The Visual Science Lab.

I am happy with the products from both companies and I'm happy to leave the cages on the cameras. In this way I can outfit the cages with the gear I need for specific  video shoots before I leave the studio and then dump them into a Manfrotto video bag for safe keeping. Once I get to my location I can put my rig up on a tripod, connect the cables, and be ready to shoot. Even the best rigs won't be as fast and carefree to use as a dedicated video camera but even in that arena (ENG) I see many operators festoon FS-7 and FS-5 cameras with so much junk that you'd be hard pressed to use the cameras quickly, or even handheld. 

Photo:  ©2017 Kirk Tuck, courtesy: The Visual Science Lab.

Photo:  ©2017 Kirk Tuck, courtesy: The Visual Science Lab.

On every shoot I've ever done I learn something new. I learn some way to do something better or more efficiently. What I learned on recent assignments, which skewed heavily to video, is that having the audio recorder or other tool in the right place in order to reach the controls easily (and without adding unwanted vibration to the overall rig) is critical, and that a good cage, with lots of attachment points, can make a big difference in your overall effectiveness as a camera operator.  A bit of customization can go a long way. Now to see how the rig works on a shoulder mount for an upcoming documentary. More learning to come. I just hope it's not too painful...



2.26.2017

In "Sony Time" it seem like we're getting close to a refresh of the RX10 series. What would I like to see?

The Sony RX10iii in a Camvate cage topped with a Zoom H5 audio recorder equipped with an SSH-6 stereo/shotgun microphone. 

I'm a huge fan of the Sony RX10 series of cameras but I am not blind to their shortcomings. I get a sense that we'll be seeing another RX10 (or two) in the next few months and I'm hoping that Sony makes a few tweaks to the RX10iii product to make it even better. At the same time I'm hoping they introduce a new, more niche-y variant which I'll flesh out below.

The original Sony RX10 was a breakthrough product; a highly capable video camera, wrapped up in a high performance, one inch sensor photography camera. The two things that made the original such an important camera (for me) were the introduction of a really good sensor, at an interesting size, as well as a remarkably good zoom lens with a range I found to be just about perfect.

The original camera had a mediocre video codec but this was remedied in a firmware update which elevated the camera from having an AVCHD video file system that capped out at 28 mbs to a more advanced XAVC-S video file system that delivered 50 mbs; which delivered more detailed video images.

The next generation; the RX10ii kept the lens and body pretty much the same but delivered UHD 4K video and a much improved (higher resolution) EVF. Along with the UHD implementation the camera also offered faster fps settings in 1080p.

The current generation; the RX10iii, more of less blew the lid off

2.23.2017

First Walk Around Downtown in Weeks. Took my favorite "trash camera" the A7ii.



I worked on editing video all weekend and right up until the middle of Tues. When I felt like I had a fairly solid "rough cut" I uploaded a copy to Vimeo to share with my clients. I'd been "nose down" on the project for several weeks and felt overdue for a little photographic downtime. I also realized that I hadn't been in downtown Austin is a couple of weeks; and a lot can change in 14 days.

Yesterday started out at a chilly 51 degrees but by the time I got out the door it was in the 80s and headed for a (late February!!!) high of 91 (f). We went from jacket weather to shorts and flip-flop weather in a matter of hours. 

Being a traditionalist I took along the Sony A7ii camera and the new-ish FE 50mm 1.8 lens. It's a nice, small combination. I like using it the way we used older cameras. I keep the exposure setting to manual, pretend I'm using Kodachrome 64 by setting that ISO, and then setting the white balance to generic daylight. Of course, I am cheating because I have the camera set to generate raw files. 

The walk was non eventful. Austin is in a quiet lull. The calm before the storm that we call, SXSW. 
The restaurants looked a bit empty and the streets were strangely almost clear of traffic. In the first five minutes of my walk I passed by five different 30+ story building projects that will add more class A office space and high end residential capacity to the central business district. The next part of my walk was around Congress Ave. heading towards the City Convention Center -  ground zero for SXSW. All over this area crews were working to clean the chewing gum (and worse) off the sidewalks, putting up new food trailers, getting signage ready, finishing street projects in order to have open traffic lanes for the estimated 100 million people who will be escaping here from the frozen North to listen to bands, listen to panels about the future of social media and to either get drunk or overdose on coffee. 

The most interesting stuff I found in my walk was, again, wall murals. The one just above is more or less an advertisement for how to reduce your consumer footprint/impact. But I'm a sucker for "exploding balloon" graphic design so I just had to document. The entire wall was fun but I didn't feel like standing in the middle of a four lane street to try and get it all in. Just note taking here. 

If you are keeping score then you should know that I had a blast doing the latest video project. After our last project the biggest thing on my to-do list for the current project was to do a much deeper dive into pre-production. I wanted to have all my ducks in a row before I even pulled a camera out of the bag. I wrote a detailed scripting outline (our project was composed of unscripted interviews but I still wanted to concept the structure and direction as a map to lead the interviews....) a two page shot list and a "look and feel" statement (just for me). 

I asked for the names of the people we would be interviewing in Canada and took time to call each of them and do a phone pre-interview so that the interviewees and I knew something about each other, shared some stories, and didn't have to fire up an interview cold. That was a huge help!

I know we tend to spend a lot of time talking about gear but it's generally the least of my worries on projects like this. The big concern is whether or not you'll be able to create the right emotional space for the person on the other side of the camera to share their story in a way that will work for the whole of the video program. So much rides on the way you ask questions. You also have to create a physical space that makes people comfortable opening up and sharing. 

I could have used any number of cameras or microphones and gotten into the same rings of the target, technically. If the content seems transparent and the story keeps your attention then you have more or less gotten the hard stuff done. 

It's no different than photography in the sense that pre-production and having a plan makes for a much more efficient and light hearted shoot than just waiting for the client to show up at the door with a grab bag of stuff to shoot. 

Sometimes I feel like I ask too many questions when we begin discussing even the simplest shoot but, knowing that we'll be shooting chrome against white, or interviewing someone who has had a recent trauma, means we can be ready with dulling spray (for the chrome) or a quieter, more sympathetic demeanor for our interviewee. It's like scouting. A walk through of your primary shooting location before the actual day of the shoot gives you a mental map of the best locations in which to shoot along with understanding the location challenges for which you need to come prepared. 

Is the perfect room, visually, a bouncy, echo-y room, as far as audio goes? Knowing this in advance means you can prepare and treat the room with sound blankets and padded furniture to subdue acoustic problems. Is the interviewee prone to forehead/nose shiny-ness? Maybe bring along a make up person. Is the HVAC noisy and old? Find out who can help you turn it off for a half hour so you can get good audio. Heading out to shoot exteriors in the snow? Bring great gloves and shoes.

In the hierarchy of tools I guess I'd have to say pre-production, scouting and familiarity with the subjects, are much more important than which type of camera you'll use, or what brand of microphone you'll hang out in front of your subjects.

As I write this I know that it's a lot more boring to discuss pre-production than talking about which lens we might get if we decide to buy the new Fuji medium format camera, but --- the real mission of this blog is to share real information about what I do for a living in.....the real world. All the organizational stuff is really where the "rubber" of the businesses of photography and video production meet the road. 

The amount of time shooting or recording is about 5% of most projects. The rest is selling the project, casting, getting props, figuring out the logistics of getting there and getting back, archiving, editing and post production. Camera in hand? A couple hours a day. When working. Everything else? Days. Weeks. 

note on boy: Ben made it safely to Seoul (a bit jet lagged), he's having a blast. I am relieved. 



2.22.2017

The purchase of a "bargain priced" video tripod. For no good reason at all.

75mm ball socket for quick leveling of the tripod head. 

Some people love camera bodies, some love lenses and others are hellbent on collecting small flashes and radio triggers. Me? I'm partial to tripods. And tripod heads. I've owned enough tripods to outfit an entire workshop full of handholding camera buffs with their own "sticks." But somehow there always seems to be one that I "need" for some specific photo or video adventure. 

When I headed up to Canada to shoot video I bought a smaller set of Benro "legs" that would pack into one of my duffle cases. I wrapped a big Manfrotto head separately from the tripod, and I was impressed with my ability to pack so efficiently. I was less impressed when I actually got on site, put a camera, the heavy head and a weighty monitor on top of the new legs. When I panned the tripod you could see s little flex at the beginning and end of the move. You could also see that the top-heavy nature of the camera, combined with the seven inch monitor, created some vibrations when touching the camera that a heavier rig might have done a better job cancelling out. Next time, I vowed,

2.21.2017

I was consulting for a client this month and I recommended a camera to them. I'm sure the camera I recommended will surprise you.

Shooting by the shores of Lake Ontario. Warm as toast. Photo: Courtesy ODL-Design.
4K video for a project, courtesy Sony RX10iii. 

I'm a big fan of mirrorless cameras and an even bigger fan of cameras like the RX10iii which seem to be able to handle just about everything. But when a good client came to me and asked me to consult for their company about equipping a warehouse with an imaging system I made what might seem to be a contrary recommendation.

Here's the backstory: The client is a medical device manufacturer with offices on several continents. They have a wide range of products and an even wider range of replacement parts. Their warehouse needed a photographic solution that would allow them to shoot small to medium (smaller than a shoe box) products and parts on a shadowless, white background. The images would be uploaded and used on websites, and they wanted a solution that would not require post processing.

I researched and sourced a self contained light box. It's a box that's 30 x30 x30 inches in size, black on the outside and silver on the inside. There are two stripes of (quite good) LEDs across the top of the interior of the box and one can insert a white, plastic material as a cyc. There is a round opening in the front of the box that allows you to poke a lens through and shoot. It's a bigger and better version of the pop-up white light tents that some people use to shoot products destined for sale on Ebay.

The box is pretty much fool proof. We tested it today and the light, softened by a diffuser, is even and bright.

We also sourced a very inexpensive, Manfrotto tripod with a two axis head. It's not a big, carbon fiber Gitzo but it's adequate to hold the camera steady and, if handled with care, should last for a while.

Finally we come to the camera. Since we were working within a tight budget, and we needed a camera that was easy to operate and has straightforward menu, I opted to recommend the Canon T6. It's an inexpensive choice which, along with the 18-55mm kit lens, sells on Amazon for around $425-$450, depending on which sales and rebates are on offer. 

The camera is decidedly unsexy. But....it has an extremely uncomplicated menu system. It features 18 megapixels of resolution. It has a decent live view implementation. The kit lens is very decent and focuses down fairly close. It's very easy to train someone to use. And it's cheap.

Sometimes we forget that not every imaging situation demands an elegant and state-of-the-art solution. My client will dedicated this camera to the backroom of a warehouse in a city in a different state. We'll make a step-by-step chart for its use. It won't be seeing kids' soccer games, fast breaking Olympic sprint finals or fashion locations that feature Stygian darkness. It will spend it's life looking down on Flugal Joints and Bristom Arches; as well as mounting screws and radiation deflectors. Sitting happily on top of it's companion tripod, peeking furtively through the round window, onto the small white stage.

When someone calls and there is confusion about a product someone else will be able to put it into the box, turn on the camera and take an 8 or 4 megapixel Jpeg, and send a reasonably good and detailed photograph to the original someone to confirm that the part is or isn't what said someone requested.

My client spent about $700 for a complete imaging solution, carefully selected for ease of use, image quality and budget constraints. In this case the Canon camera was the wise choice. It is reliable, a good imager and has about 1/8th the number of menu items found in the typical Olympus or Sony camera. It's not difficult to see why people on tight budgets gravitate toward these cameras. They fill a need without the added encumbrance of pretentious spec-manship.

Would I own one? If my budget was under $500 for a good camera and lens system? You bet I would. And it would probably deliver images that would be fine for most work. Am I planning on minimizing my photo footprint to this distilled level of gear? Not on your life.