Scenes from the play: "Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch."
Last week I tried to show that most of the pundits on the web are not accurate when they pronounce: deal killer! deal killer! deal killer! about the Lumix S1 cameras, arguing (incorrectly) that continuous AF doesn't work with video. I even supplied video which showed the camera I was using locked in tight on a person we were interviewing. But facts don't seem to matter much anymore...
(added: Feb. 28: Hey, how about all you folks who are having trouble getting a state-of-the-art camera to focus correctly read the instructions first so you know WTF you are actually doing when you shoot?
Ignoring the negative propaganda of the online faux reviewers entirely I took the same cameras, along with several really good lenses, along with me to make marketing, dress rehearsal photographs and also video content for a new play that my dear friend, Emmy award winner, Allen Robertson wrote, scored and is currently directing at Zach Theatre. The play was great. I laughed, cried and fogged up my glasses.
But I also used the Lumix S1 cameras under tricky conditions to make both photographs and video; not for my hobby, but for an actual client who depends on the quality of my content creation for most of the marketing they do for their productions. The Theatre is a non-profit enterprise with many employees and an operating budget that depends on ticket sales and solid performances; not just from the actors and crew but also from the marketing team and marketing vendors like me. In other words while some people on the web show tests of cameras done in bright sun, with fake models and lots of time to fine tune, or add light, the tests that I tend to show and write about are done in situations with no time or resources for re-do's if I screw something up. And no opportunity for me to tweak light levels, to modify poses or, really, to do anything but document. And the ramifications of failure ripple through the workflow of the theater and affect, well, everyone in the organization.
So, when I use a camera I am not subjecting it to the cotton candy happiness of a best case scenario or a set-up situation meant to show a camera (or lens) in its best light. I'm mostly using cameras near the ragged edge of what's possible. It's surely a better way to understand just what a camera is capable of in real use. In bright sun, with a cute model in a bikini, or in a bold and colorful landscape, just about any camera out on the market in equivalent categories will do pretty much the same great job. It's when things aren't optimum that differences show.
This is what we might call an "after-action" report based on the way I used my two Lumix S1 cameras and assorted lenses from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. last Friday. I documented two runs of the play I mentioned to produce a collection of marketing photographs and then applied the camera, with the V-Log upgrade, to making promotional videos for the show without the crutch of additional lighting (just stage lights). We had a lot to do in a short amount of time so I worked fast and without more than two or three takes per set-up, max.
The first run through of the play was done without an audience. It was a polished tech rehearsal and even without an audience it's a challenging hour of shooting. Here are the obstacles: 1. This was on our smallest stage which is a theater in the round. That means action happens in 360 degrees. You have to try and intuit which way the actors will be facing in each dramatic (photo-worthy) situation. I had help from crack lighting designer, Austin Brown, who has been hands on with the production from the minute they moved from the rehearsal stage to the studio. He cued me to the locations I needed to be in with enough time for me to get in place. 2. The ceiling, walls and entry doors are all black. Matte black. The lighting is sparser and less powerful than the array of stage lights the theater has "on tap" in the big, shiny-new MainStage. 3. This play is made especially for kids (but with appeal for adults) and the action moves very quickly. If you aren't ready and poised to shoot you'll miss a lot of stuff.
I chose to use two identical cameras so I could mirror color and exposure settings between the two. I put the new Panasonic 24-70mm f2.8 S Pro lens on one body and the 70-200mm f4.0 S Pro on the other. I used both lenses wide open, whenever possible. A typical exposure setting was ISO 3200, S.S. 1/160th, Aperture f4.0. I shot raw because this play has lots of different color gels in play for the lighting and I wanted the luxury (and certainty) of being able to fine tune after the fact.
When you walk in cold it takes a few minutes to really understand the feel of the production, the physical quirks of the actors and the general balance of the lighting. After that you pretty much go on autopilot and start looking only at content, gesture and expression.
I used an AF mode on the camera that's like a single point mode but adds a bit of smart slop space around the chosen AF square. It's a tenacious setting. I shoot these plays mostly in S-AF because I don't want to lock on and then have the camera shift focus unintentionally. Even in this low light, with moving targets and a moving photographer my hit rate for AF was about 95%. When I edited out photographs it was mostly because the timing was wrong or an actor blinked or my composition was off. Usually it's the timing. The hit rate was easily as good (or better) than anything I had gotten in previous shoots with cameras like the Sony A7R2 or the Nikon D810s.
After we broke for a quick lunch we took a deep, collective breath and got ready for the second run through which had an invited audience. Usually far fewer people show up for invited performances in the early afternoons during a work week. Allen's work (and Allen) is so admired that the house soon filled up to near capacity. I had only 180 degrees of the back row in which to shoot and move. The audience pushed the performances up to 11 out of 10 and I captured even better material in the second go around.
When the play ended things started to get trickier. We wanted to keep about half of the audience for a quick section of our video. Two of the actors would lead the audience is a dancing/singing routine with the most popular song from the show. I needed to switch my brain from photographer to videographer/director in five minutes or less.
I had staged a Manfrotto video tripod just off the entry door. The tripod was fitted with a wheeled dolly so I could move it around for shots and place it quickly for lock down shots. I had an audio interface on the camera and I had the sound engineer for the show drop a long XLR cable to camera position so we could get a music feed directly into camera to make post processing easier.
It's important to understand that the line coming off most professional sound boards is a line level output rather than a mic level output. You'll need an interface of some sort if you are bringing the feed into the camera's microphone plug. The S1 allows you to set the difference in a camera menu but most cameras do not. Also, the XLR adapter from Panasonic for the GH5 and the S1 cameras also provides switches for each channel to allow for mic or line.
The two actors; young women from Zach's Pre Professional School, led the (enthusiastic) crowd through three rounds of song and motion while I rolled camera and panned through and across the audience. I used continuous AF in the "tracking" mode to maintain focus on the closest actor and it locked in like a dog with a bone and never wavered. No glitches. Happiness under time pressure.
During our shooting for the rest of the afternoon we did several scenes in which five actors are sitting on a big, black box, all with their backs to each other, singing the theme song for the show. They were very active and moving around a lot. I used the wheeled tripod to do a number of 360 degree moves around them. I used the face detect AF and took advantage of a technique a smart pro who also uses the Lumix S1 cameras showed me.
He insists that the people who can't make the face C-AF work on the camera aren't playing with a full deck or they haven't read the freakin' manual. You can't just point a camera at a group of people and expect the camera to know where you would the like the focus to reside. Further, as you circle around a group the prominent, camera facing face changes five times!!!!
To use face AF in a situation like this the camera operator must exert a bit of control and give the camera some intelligent direction. Every camera on the market will hesitate as you are moving and the face you had locked is going away while a new one is coming into the frame. You can let the camera decide when and where to focus or you can take charge; like a real videographer.
In the Panasonic S1 when there are multiple faces in a frame the camera puts boxes around all the faces (or bodies) and prioritizes to the closest face unless you intercede and tell it which face you want in focus. You do this by using one finger to touch the box in which the image of your intended subject is contained, on the rear touch screen. That box will turn green and the AF will stay on that person until such a time as the person turns away and the face detection is forfeited in favor of a more recognizable face. But the bottom line is that not only can you make the decision, if you want success you MUST make the decision. This is not a fault of the camera, this is a reality of film making and a reality of the camera not knowing where you want the focus.
If you want to track only one object which will always stay in the frame you can use focus tracking. But even in focus tracking you'll need to tell the camera which thing in the frame it is that you want the camera to track. You do so by putting the AF square on the (in this case) face of your subject and then touching it on the rear screen to engage. The camera will not automatically find the thing you find most captivating in the frame, agree with you, and then engage without fail. How could it know?
After talking to several photographers I think I understand where they are having issues with C-AF and various cameras. They expect the camera to do all the decision making without their input. They would suggest that one should be able to pull a camera out of a camera bag, point it at a general scene and instantly have the camera lock on to the thing the "photographer" most cherishes in the scene. It might work that way on some cameras but it's certainly not an optimal way of working when confronted with scenes that are more complex that just a centered selfie vlogger.
To sum up: The cameras worked well for both photography and video. The AF in video locked on securely to anything I asked it to focus on. The 4K, 10 bit files, recorded in camera look fantastic; especially the skin tones. In short, when used as designed the S1 is a remarkably good, all around, hybrid imaging machine. Especially so if used correctly and intelligently. I'd say "read the manual" but most manuals are too sparse. Better to understand what the camera needs in terms of guidance and then figure out how to accurately deliver the input that will make both of you shine.
Amber Quick and Samantha Beam as "mother and daughter"
in "Somebody Loves You Mr. Hatch."
Below is a crop from the side of the same frame.
Nicholas Kier as "Mr. Hatch."