Stuff that worked well on Friday's three camera video shoot and stuff that could be improved....

We did a video shoot for Zach Theatre yesterday, in a hidden recording studio just west of downtown. I just transferred and reviewed the footage and I'm giving 95% of the stuff we shot an enthusiastic two thumbs up. We have more than enough primary footage, second camera angles and b-roll to create multiple final videos as well as three really great interviews. But part of the process of reviewing results is to see where we could have done better and whether or not some piece of gear let us down. 

This was our first three camera shoot on which we used the Fujifilm X-H1 cameras and I'll start out by saying that I love the look of all the files and personally think that the "Eterna" color profile provided in the X-H1 and X-T3 is the most beautiful profile I've ever worked with. Bar none. While I might consider using a log profile if we are shooting in contrasty Texas midday sunshine I'd want to really, really test out that choice because the stop or stop and a half of dynamic range the log file might  provide would likely be offset by lots and lots more time trying to get the color grading right while shooting, metering and light correctly while working with the Eterna profile would give us a file I could use right out of the camera. A big win for Fuji with the Eterna color profile. Nice, soft, flat but not too much... (I like it so much I used the Eterna profile all day long on a corporate job that was mixed daylight and flash, since I was shooting raw I didn't have to have any regrets but, for the most part, the Eterna files were very malleable and, with minor tweaking, looked just great). 

The image stabilization in video, using non-stabilized lenses, was very good. Not quite as good as some of the amazing Olympus camera bodies (EM-1.2, EM5.2) but good enough for me to handhold up to about 60mm with success. 

The video menu is great and very straightforward to master. Love that all in the stuff that doesn't  work in video is already greyed out. The ability to punch in for focusing and then back out to full frame couldn't be easier. The EVF is wonderful and the rear screen with touch controls makes using AF in manual focusing good. I was so happy to find that, when in the video mode, you can actually select 1/48th of a second shutter speed giving you a true 180 degree shutter angle when shooting 30 fps. Finally, I was super happy with the sound quality I got from the cameras. Not just when we were able to pipe in a beautiful feed from the audio engineer's mixing board but also when I was recording interview audio directly into camera via wireless lavaliere microphones. 

And you knew the list of things I want improved was going to follow right along, right? So here goes.  What the bejeepers is the deal with the battery grip and complement of batteries???! Here's the premise: Fuji: "Yes. We know our camera bodies suck juice out of our puny batteries at an alarming rate. Here's what we've done to make that better, we're making a battery grip that will hold two batteries while you keep a third one tucked into the camera. Cool, huh?"  Here's the real (tormenting) issue: The batteries switch over from the two in the grip, sequentially, and then finally hit the camera battery ----- but only when shooting stills! If you are shooting video and your first battery in the grip runs out the entire circus comes to a screeching halt. The camera just stops shooting. It doesn't care if you have two other fresh batteries in the same product, just brimming with fresh, juicy electricity, it just stops recording. 

What is the work around? Um. Um. Hit the record button again. A (sarcasm laced) great idea for the middle of an interview.... Just start over.

I must be missing something. Maybe putting the camera and grip in boost mode changes the battery usage order. I guess that's the next thing to test.

But let's not take the battery grip out of the hot seat just yet! One reason videographers grudging part with over $300 per camera for an added battery grip is to get the headphone jack that they finally just included on the body of the X-T3. It didn't exist on a stock X-H1. Yes, the camera body has a microphone in jack but no, the body without grip has NO headphone jack. So, across three camera bodies I have about $1.000 worth of battery grips; proprietary to one camera model, just in case I want to run audio at each camera location (and need to monitor it for quality!!!). 

(All the stuff in the strike throughs below is faulty information. Read the added material just below the strike throughs. Thanks, Kirk 04-09.)

If everything worked the way I think it is supposed to then I would be hearing beautiful sound through my headphones but, sadly, this is not the case. Lucky, I discovered an audio glitch when I tested the camera more or less feature by feature before committing to using three of them on assignment. At first I thought the whole audio chain was compromised or required some very special (and unobtainable) microphones or something. I would set the levels so they would never go into yellow, much less into red, and even with a minus 12 to minus 18db level I was getting some distortion in the headphones. The headphone level setting was set in the middle of the range as well. In fact, the setting level for the headphones had no impact on improving or worsening the distortion I was hearing. 

I thought it might be the headphones so I tested the camera+battery grip with AKG headphones, Audio Technica headphones, Apple earbuds and even a set of Bose noise cancelling headphones. Each had the same issues. I thought it might be a microphone mismatch so I tried a box of different mics and a squadron of microphone pre-amplifiers. (yes, we disabled the internal mics for our test). I even went so far as to disable the external mics and to test again just using the internal mics. 

Edited on 04/09: Interestingly we did not have the headphone distortion problem on a shoot we did last Friday, using many of the same components. To be fair to the Fuji X-H1 I went back and re-tested again. This time I did it in my living room. Components all over my coffee table. But the times I tested the cameras before were all done at the desk in my office. I took the camera, headphones and a microphone back to the office, sat down and listened again and there was the distortion. So I started looking around my desk to see just what the heck might be causing the distortion I was hearing.

For starters my desk is the epicenter of about ten hard drives, each in their own enclosure, each with its own power supply. Then there is the 27 inch iMac about two feet from my little test area. Oh, and there's also a dual band modem/router, and, and, and...... As I moved the camera set up closer to the desk and tested it the distortion was a bit more obvious and when I moved away from the desk it diminished. And when I moved to the living room, about 30-40 feet from all electrical circuits, the microphone pre-amplifiers were as silent as mute angels.

So, this is a big mea culpa. Sometimes we imagine that technology has perfected all the routine stuff and that it will work perfectly no matter how much we try (wittingly or unwittingly) to fuck it all up. The pre-amps are a bit sensitive to huge, giant, unsavory electrical fields. Can you blame them? 

I am now chastened and must send an e-mail to my friends at Fuji to apologize to them for blaming my bad technique on what I see is now a nearly perfect camera.

In addition, all the audio that we ran into three X-H1 cameras at our video shoot last Friday is perfect. Not a trace of distortion or noise. 

I'm sorry to have been so far off on this and will try to be much more careful in my testing of microphone and headphone circuits in the future.

Moving on. Let's talk about lenses. While I love the Fuji XF-18-55mm f2.8-f4.0 you can already see the problem. It loses a stop from the wide end to the telephoto end. If you think of it as an f4.0 lens and don't shoot at f2.8 you won't see the exposure change as you zoom through the range but many times, in low light you'd pretty much kill for that extra f-stop. 

I queried Fuji about their cinema lenses but someone suggested that for corporate video work the really nice, red badge, constant aperture lenses from the XF line up would work just fine. And I'm happy to say that if you never want to zoom that's probably really true. They are very, very good lenses. But, sometimes you want to zoom during a shot; or the client wants you to zoom during shot and so you go for it and give the system a try. On Friday I was a little shocked. I was using a 16-55mm f2.8, constant aperture lens and I needed to do a slow zoom in from a medium composition to a tighter composition and somewhere, mid-zoom, there was a disconcerting and abrupt bump up in illumination as though passing through a certain focal length range triggers a compensation that opens up the aperture to compensate for the light lost when zooming longer. It's a design glitch. I could hardly believe it but I tried it twice more, here in the studio today and was able each time to replicate this issue. 

We need to find a zoom for the system which doesn't do this (I guess that's why I was asking about the cinema zooms...) while zooming. I love the images from the 16-55mm but I'll never be able to do a zoom shot with it in video. And even though zoom ins are generally overused it's still a tool we need from time to time.

Moral of the story? If you don't do your own tests, on every piece of gear you own, problems will come back and bite you on the ass. But don't think this glitch bitch is just about Fuji, I can well remember more than a few heat related shutdowns from a number of Sony cameras. All full-framers....
Seems the only perfect digital camera ever made is the Sony RX10 IV...

Enough about the cameras. We'll get that stuff sorted out. The video looked astounding. The rendering of flesh tones was the best I've seen from a less than $10,000 video camera. I think it's a bit above the benchmark Sony FS-7, less noisy than a Panasonic GH5, and fun to shoot with. Loving the front and rear tally lights....

But my favorite piece of video gear is fast becoming my Beach Tek DXA-2T audio interface. It's not powered  and uses really clean transformers to convert a balanced signal from XLR connected devices to a signal that is perfect for most camera's microphone inputs. I love the device because it makes professional microphones sound and perform better with most consumer hybrid cameras but it comes at no cost in terms of signal loss. And there are no batteries to forget or to run out of mid-shoot. I would tell everyone to run out and buy one but I think the product is now discontinued except for a copy-cat variation from Saramonic. I love being able to grab one of the knobs on the small unit and pad down the signal to the camera rather than having to go into the camera's menu and touchscreen to accomplish the same task. I won't go to a shoot without one of these. It may have been a perfect audio product. I'm sad not to find one on B&H's site or on Amazon. 

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't again make the point that in video handheld shots are, to my mind, special effects shots that get really boring and annoying really quickly. If you value your audience you'll put the camera with which you do the majority of your shots on some sort of stabilizing platform rather than defaulting to image stabilization. I love having a locked down version of a shot, using a good tripod. A moving shot, also using a good tripod, and then, in order a shot from a "chicken foot" monopod with a fluid head, a monopod with no head and finally, a gimbal. The less jittery the shot the happier the audience. 

There are a lot of good $10,000 video tripod and head combinations in the marketplace and most are probably made for cameras in the 18-30 pound range. I've got a Manfrotto video tripod with a 501 head and I think for DSLRs practicing a lot with one of these probably trumps the results of someone who uses their pricier tripod a lot less often. As with anything else, it's not the Speedo or goggles the determine a good 100 butterfly, it's 99.9% the swimmer. Same with adequate versus perfect tripods. 

wow. That was a lot to wade through but it's helpful to me to put it all down so I can process my most recent experience. Would I have changed the way I shot, lit or ran audio? Probably not. If anything I would have pushed my partner to spend more time of some sort of camera support and dissuaded him from too much "Jason Bourne inpired camera movement (fight scene kinetics...). But it's all a big learning process, right?

If anyone is interested my cold is receding and I'm giving credit to Mr. Nyquil for getting my first good night's sleep of the week last night. And this is how I reward you? With a long, rambling blog about video? Almost criminal.

Exposure. White Balance. Stable platform. Enough headroom for audio. The foundation for successful video production.