11.08.2020

Playing around with video cameras at last night's concert. Focus peaking means different things to different devices...

 

Too tired to unpack everything on Friday and Saturday. Now it's Sunday 
and I have to re-pack to finish up a project tomorrow. I can step over the 
mess for now. 

My Apple Watch 6 has a sound pressure meter built in. It measures the decibel levels in your immediate environment. I'd glad I had my earplugs in and my headphones on last night because 50 feet or more from the main stage of the outdoor concert at the theater the SPL was peaking up around 96 dB. My watch kept prodding me trying to make me understand that continued exposure at those levels could result in permanent hearing damage. A good thing to know. But I kept asking "Siri" to tell my watch that I was using ear protection devices and not to worry so much. My watch must not speak Siri because it kept warning me at intervals.

External monitors

I've been having a love affair with two different external monitor/recorders this week. One is my older Atomos Ninja Flame and the other is the smaller and newer Ninja V.  When I shoot video at the night time concerts, outdoors, I use the Ninja V clamped to my tripod leg and connected to my GH5 or S1H which provides me the ability to punch in and see the video in much greater detail for more accurate focusing while I am recording. You can't do that directly on the cameras. They won't punch in if you are already in the process of recording. The best you can expect from your hybrid video camera is to be able to set and see focus peaking indications. I want both. I want to be able to see the image writ large, with more magnification than a standard screen (100%?) and also see that magnified image augmented with the glimmering color indicators provided by focus peaking. 

If I can already see the focus peaking artifacts on my camera screen why would I also want them on the monitor? I guess it's a matter a visual discrimination. On the smaller screen the focus peaking indications are closer together and it looks like much more is in focus than I'll end up with when I finally view the video on a large monitor at home. 

If I can magnify the view and the see focus peaking generated by the larger monitor I'll be able to see the plane of sharp focus shifting more easily while I focus, as indicated by the dancing colors. The higher the resolution of the monitoring device (and the bigger the image on the screen) the better I get at hitting sharp focus. Having the image on both the camera monitor and an external monitor means I can turn on focus peaking on both and I can use different colors for the peaking. It doesn't do anything different but it's fun. 

In casual use the focus peaking on most cameras is good enough to get you into the ballpark but not good enough to help you achieve super sharp focus with fast aperture lenses. Or fast moving subjects. Or with darker scenes. But the trade-off is that there's some lag time between what you see on the external monitors and what you see on the camera monitor. You have to change focus carefully if you are judging via the external because you'll get impatient and overshoot correct focus while you are waiting for the screen to catch up. Small corrections done in short increments seem to work best. 

One thing I didn't think about in using either an internal or external monitor is the effect that a moving subject will have on the focusing indicators. I noticed last night that when my subject moved from left to right or vice versa the indicators vanished or diminished during the move. I had to wait for her to settle before I could re-focus and use focus peaking to help. At some point a fast moving subject, in concert, requires some careful anticipation. 

Last night I fell into a certain rhythm. I'd try to get focus peaking indications to show prominently on my talent's microphone and then tweak just slightly behind it. I'd monitor the full frame on the camera's screen and the use the external monitor punched in to 1:1 to fine tune the focus. That worked pretty well for almost every shot except for the ones where the talent was moving all over the place. Fortunately she was moving perpendicular to the camera so the change in distance was minimal and the need to constantly refocus wasn't there. 

The camera was set to 30 fps and I can imagine that focus peaking might work better at 60 fps since the underlying shutter speed would be faster and induce less blur. I'll try that next time I have a scene with more light in it. 

Now that I've used an external monitor for a number of night concerts, with much longer lenses I can't imagine trying to shoot without one. But I said pretty much the same thing to my assistant during our still shoot the day before. There's something great about handing your client a 7 inch  monitor at the end of a 10 foot HDMI cable while you are positioning a product or model and letting them see "exactly!!!" what your camera sees. It eliminates so many misunderstandings about physical point of view.

There's another thing I want to share about using Atomos Digital Recorders as simple monitors, running off batteries: Take out any SSD drives that you may have inserted in the drive bay. While the recorders are just set up to record video, as triggered by the video start button on your camera, they seem to know when there is an SSD inserted and they fire up their recording circuits, fan cooling, etc. in preparation. With a drive inserted they can blast through a big, fat battery in an hour and change. If you don't have a drive inserted the units can run for at least a half day and, with judicious shutdowns during scene changes, perhaps even a full day. 

One warning about external monitors. One of their amazing abilities is the lumen power to produce a very bright image. This is great for working in full sun. And on film sets (video) people tend to work carefully enough NOT to judge correct exposure just via the monitor image. They mostly use a waveform or even a light meter to set overall exposure. The very bright image of the external screen tends to push sloppy users to underexpose their files based on the bright image they are seeing. 

Of course, you can always calibrate your external screen to match levels with your camera's screen but that presupposes that you've been able to calibrate that screen! I think it's still best to use the waveform monitor in most situations. I've found that on a very dark stage it makes the most sense, when possible, to walk up onto the stage and take a series of incident light meter readings at the positions that the talent will be in. With a good cine meter and good technique (presuming the lights don't change much) you'll have a much more accurate starting point. Handheld meters are not dead yet.

I like the bigger screen of the Ninja Flame but the smaller Ninja V is just so convenient. And a lot better at conserving battery power. These monitors can also be daisy-chained so you could run one off the camera and use it close to the camera to really be able to see your scene in glorious detail. Then you can run a second monitor out of the first monitors "out" plug and set up that monitor as far away as you need in order to provide a safe, social distance, between you and your client. It's a good rationale to not trade in an "obsolete" monitor as you upgrade. You'll nearly always find a new use for a recent tech monitor. And anything you can do to make your set safer and more efficient is its own reward. 

Finally, all the professional monitors either come with a shade or there is one available for your model. I think it's a great idea to get into the practice of always using the shade for a couple of reasons. First, it shade the screen from glare and glancing, non-image forming light. This makes the screen easier to see and your assessment of comp and color better. Secondly, if you are shooting a concert with an audience all around you then the shade is doing a great service for the audience by keeping the screen's light from being obnoxiously visible to all the people on either side of you and a lot of the people behind your camera position. Less light spill is just a nice practice to get into. 

When I complained about the micro-HDMI plugs on some cameras I was channeling my experiences last night in setting up a camera in near darkness. I was guessing about the exact location of the camera plug and I was a bit rough with the cable. As the port was a full sized HDMI it's rugged enough to take a bit of abuse from time to time. Not necessarily so with the smaller connectors.....

That's all I've got for now. 


Well. The election is over and I'm looking forward to not having that weird and anxiety provoking sub-routine running in my head. On to the big question of the day: Will I buy a Lumix S5?


Before I get into the S5 I have to say that I've had the most unusual, personal realization lately. I think I've actually come to dislike the process of commercial photography. On one hand I've been quite busy and also able to command higher fees than ever before in my work history. But at the same time I enjoy the process of dealing with marketing directors and ad hacks much less than I ever have. The jobs I've come to enjoy are the ones with very little on-set collaboration with the clients who attend sessions to offer pointless input, not realizing that most of the ground they are anxious to cover is old and boring territory for me. 

I had a shoot lately during which no fewer than seven people vied for the title of "boss." None were particularly gifted with creative insight or massive brain power. It was almost as if they'd seen a 1990's television show which might have been a parody of a low end fashion shoot and they were determined to provide input. Not necessarily good input; just a rampant desire to mark the territory with their opinions. 

My favorite (least favorite) moment came when a group of product managers, ad managers, art directors and various other members of the org chart zoo, after spending half an hour discussing what to do about the hairdo of a person we had in the far background of our shot (out of focus - intentionally), all of a sudden realized that they could see themselves in the mirrored finish of a machine that was in the background of our shot. 

Panic broke out. Would we need to re-shoot everything we'd done in the last hour? Could the in-house (poor bastard) production person go through and retouch dozens and dozens of photos to remove the reflections? Would we need to add yet another day to the schedule? (Please, God, No!). When they calmed down for a moment I mentioned that they were viewing the machine from an angle 90 degrees different from the angle at which the camera was viewing the scene. There was no unwanted reflection in any of the shots.

They were flabbergasted and didn't believe this was possible until I showed them the images on a monitor. Only then did they relent. Some still didn't get the science behind the "angle of incidence." At which point I reminded them that their population in our relatively small, enclosed working space had swelled far in excess of the limits we set for social distancing and hygienic safety in our pre-contract negotiations. I hoped that the loudest and most aggressively undereducated in their number would surrender the space to their betters but they decided to jettison the only two people in the room who seemed to know what they were doing....

And so on. The pivotal moment for my career assessment came when we, as a group, were trying to make a product color choice with two variables in the same shot. They instantly decided that instead of making a choice we could shoot photos of each of two parts in all of the available colors. Red with red. Red with blue. Red with green. Green with blue. Green with red. Orange with green. Blue with orange. etc. etc. This would multiply our single set-up shot to something like 64 separate shots. 

The combined group had too much fear to make a simple choice. It was a choice (color) that could easily be changed in post processing with just a few steps. "And,"  they asked, "Could we do all the combinations of color with each of the three different models?" Just because it might be nice to have. At that point I was clearly presented with a choice which was to finish the job or pack up and exit. Sadly, I decided to stay and finish since it was a long drive home...and the day was rapidly coming to an end. 

Clearly, some in the ever re-swelling group were keenly unaware that our contract did not include working by the hour but rather by the shot. All of which as negotiated well in advance. Ah, the poor art buyer. He looked miserable every time we made eye contact. I made sure of it. 

I think there must be a turning point at which the universe slowly starts to hint that it might be time to retire from the commercial field. And if you don't listen the first few times the universe starts talking louder and even insinuating that you might not be very smart. Or that you are downright stupid...

I'm sliding toward a very detached view of working just for money. Augmented and amplified by a spouse and financial adviser who both suggest that I don't need to work at all. I think I'll side with them as we glide into the future. Work actually has, for the first time in my memory, taken on the aspect of something society demands in order to punish you for something you don't remember ever doing wrong.

The upshot of this is that I've started declining all work after the 17th of November. That's the last day for which I have already made a commitment. I think I'll see what it feels like to take the month of December off entirely. To that end I've already turned down a number of assignments I would have accepted in the past.

Now, on to the Lumix S5. And I should say that I do call them Lumix cameras for the most part instead of Panasonic cameras since it's a shorter word to type and it is the branding they use on all their cameras. Who am I to argue with that?

I am fascinated with the S5 and would rush out and buy one if I didn't already have a gaggle of S1x camera bodies. I was fortunate to play with an S5 for an afternoon and there's so much to like about the camera. Especially if you are into video or even glancingly plan to stick your toes into the waters of filming stuff.

The camera is slightly smaller than a GH5 but contains a full frame, 24 megapixel sensor. It's supposed to be the same sensor as is used in the S1 camera and, if that's the case, it's a very fine sensor with tons of sharp detail and also an excellent resistance to noise at even absurdly high ISOs. Like all of the new S cameras the 5 features in-body image stabilization. Some of the Lumix S lenses also have image stabilization and when both body and lens have I.S. the system delivers "dual I.S." which is very, very good. I've been using the S1x cameras for nearly a year now and when I match one with a lens like the 24-105mm f4.0 the stabilization is uncanny. Maybe not as good as an Olympus EM-1iii with a 12-100mm Pro lens (witchcraft?) but easily the best of the full format cameras. 

The S5 has nearly every video spec offered by the video flagship S1H of the Lumix family and the imaging capability in both photographs and video should equal any camera in the line. The exception is the S1R which provides much more resolution and fewer video choices. One video credential the S5 lacks, and which I think is a relatively big deal for very picky video users, is an All-I codec. The camera offers two vastly different ways of compressing files. You can have L-gop or ProRes Raw (coming with an update) but nothing in the middle. If you shoot for Netflix or several of the big video stock houses you'll want/need that All-I codec....

So, we have a smaller, lighter body, offered at a lower cost. We have a new camera that offers the same level of image quality as the most expensive camera in the system and, if we can find one in stock, we should all be pretty happy about this new camera --- if we're interested in the Lumix S system. Right?

Well, there are a few gotchas that make me hesitate to toss one in my shopping cart and cut another notch into my weary credit card. 

While the camera can perform there are several cost cutting design measures that make it a less exciting side grade for me instead of any sort of upgrade.

I'll start with the viewfinder. We devolve from the S1 series world class electronic viewfinder of nearly 6 megapixels of resolution to one that resolves less than half that. Also, the optics for the finder seem not quite up to the same level of quality as those on the more expensive cameras. Ouch. A year further into the evolution of the cameras and already a big step backwards. 

But! I hear my video friends dismiss this flawed finder because we have become accustomed to mostly using our hybrid cameras, in video mode, in conjunction with external monitors that have wonderful and richly detailed screens. 

Yes. I get that. But therein is the source of my next "deal killer" complaint; at least as far as buying the camera as a video content generator is concerned. All of the newest Lumix cameras are a joy to use with external monitors. They connect easily and the software is all very straightforward. The big, "A" type, full size HDMI plugs are such a professional touch and inspire complete confidence in the the video capabilities offered in the S1 series as well as the G9 and the GH5 and GH5S cameras. And that's where the S5 misses the mark...

The camera is burden with a micro-HDMI port. A tiny, flimsy, crappy connection point that most heavy users are certain will fail them at the least advantageous moment. It's such an obvious nod to intentionally crippling a model so as to not fully cannibalize from pricier cameras in the lineup. 

Some have suggested that the S5 is worth buying if for no other reason than to get better autofocusing than is currently offered in the S1 line of cameras but that's a non-starter for people who already own the bigger cameras since a promised firmware upgrade (free) being rolled out on the 24th of this month will feature the same new firmware for AF as the new body. I am especially looking forward to getting a few more file choices for video in the S1R camera. Nearly every project I've worked on since Summer revolves around a multi-camera video set-up and I'd like to press the S1R into more projects. I like the hulking, big cameras. They feel like real cameras to me. And if they all focus equally well... why change?

As someone who already owns a number of the S1x cameras another design point with which I disagree is the introduction of a brand new battery type/design. I'm sure it's a fine battery and will provide ample power for the S5 but I'm equally certain that I'm not anxious to add yet another family of batteries to my nearly unmanageable inventory of disparate battery types. I'd rather have the new camera use an updated but still backwardly compatible version of the battery used in the G9 and GH5. If they'd gone another direction I would have been happy if the new S5 camera body was just tall enough to incorporate the beefy battery from the S1 series cameras. But that in between zone is just irritating.

So, when you read this you may come away feeling that I'm not a fan of the new camera. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think it's a great product if it is evaluated on it's own. If it's a first purchase or part of a system switch. It checks a number of imaging "boxes" and does so at a high level (all while not overheating!).  The files are pretty and rich. The handling is nice even though I feel the camera is a tiny bit too small. The video files it makes are great. In all it's a very, very well thought out camera for the price and the times. 

But my assessment of the camera comes from my own point of view. I owned a bunch of Panasonic Lumix cameras and it's easy for me to see where corners were cut and changes were made that I don't like. 

For me, as silly as it sounds, my friction points are mostly about usability and have very little, if anything to do with image quality issues. I'm addicted to the finders on the S1 cameras. I love having big, fat, rugged HDMI ports because I use them all the time (I shot all day with two external monitors plugged into my S1R for a photography assignment on Friday and then spent Saturday evening monitoring my video shoot with an external monitor fed by a GH5. Both cameras feature the "A" series HDMI plugs). 

For some people the smaller size and lighter weight of the S5 are selling points but to me these attributes are neutral. Viewing, reliability and overall handling are more important.

I will nearly always see advantages aimed at better viewing and higher structural integrity as being the most important if all other things are equal. 

For me, not having to buy three or four new batteries that will only work in one out of seven of my cameras is a stumbling block. 

The S5 is a great compromise but it's a compromise in a direction that doesn't directly appeal to me. 

All that being written I'll have to add the caveat that it's nearly inevitable that I'll end up buying an S5 at some point. I'll have a trip into the wilderness planned and it will provide the perfect rationalization for getting all the performance I am used to but in a more compact package. The ability to rationalize this kind of stuff is both my super power and my kryptonite. It could be worse.