10.04.2020

OT: A quick reminder that doctors and scientists are finding more and more evidence that exercise (not fad diets, or regimented fasting, or sleeping under pyramids, or wearing crystals) is the real "Fountain of Youth."

I ran with my phone in my hand today. I stopped and took photographs from time to time.

I was scheduled to swim with my masters team this morning but when I woke up I had two thoughts: The first was -- "It's a beautiful, cool day. Maybe I should go for a run instead." And the second was --- "I've already done five swim workouts this week and put in north of 12,000 yards in the pool. Maybe a run on the trail would be good cross training."  

Of course, I always worry about overdoing things so before I laced up my Asics and left the house I grabbed my pulse oximeter and checked my pulse rate and my oxygen uptake. My resting pulse rate was right where it should be at 55 and my oxygen reading was steady at 98. And no, I'm not on supplemental oxygen.

Just for good measure I also grabbed by my blood pressure measuring device and put it on my wrist for a quick reading. I was happy enough with 118 over 65. Again, unassisted by meds.

I headed down to Lady Bird Lake to hit the hike-and-bike trails and was thinking about just knocking out the 3 mile loop. I've been running off and on through the Summer and I'm more or less acclimated to run in temperatures up to about 96 degrees (f) but today, at the start of my run the temperature was still in the lower 60's. (Yes, I run slower when it gets hotter).

I started slow and stiff but quickly worked out the stiffness and found a rhythm and by the time I got to the turn-off for the three mile loop I was feeling so good I just decided to pop for the five mile route instead. I'm here to tell you that five miles with low temperatures and low humidity beats the crap out of three miles with high heat and elevated humidity. It wasn't my fastest run by a long shot but the face mask adds a bit of resistance so I'm using that as an excuse for my slower time. It took me a bit less than an hour to finish my run today. Slow by daily runner standards but not bad for someone who spends too much time in the pool and not nearly enough time with shoes on. 

I noticed several things which may, anecdotally, provide evidence for exercise being a prime determinant of health and longevity. First, there were more women running the trails this morning than men, a ratio of about 3:2. The women ran smoother and a bit faster, on average. Coincidence that women outlive American men by about seven years? Maybe they are just more disciplined about getting exercise...

Second, the larger the person (BMI = body mass index) the more leisurely (slowly) they walked. The thinner the person on the trail generally the faster they were traveling. This makes me think that people aren't necessarily overweight just because of what or how much they eat but maybe even more importantly by the deficit of overall movement and pace in each aspect of their daily existence, as evidence by their casual approach to even walking. A brisk walker might cover a mile in 12-15 minutes but based on my observation the people with the higher BMIs were walking at a leisurely pace that I judged would get them a mile every thirty+ minutes. 

Scientists are finding that people really do need to be up and moving for at least (AT THE LEAST) an hour a day. More is better. A good measure for me is the wear and tear of my running shoes. If' I don't have to replace them at least every six months I know I've gotten lazy. 

My intention is not to be preachy. If you don't want to exercise more that's up to you. But walking briskly is....free. It doesn't cost anything. And if you can feel better and live longer it seems like a good bargain. 

I try not to judge anyone who is already out on the trail and moving at any speed. They're way ahead of all those folks still sitting at home on the couch, or the Lazy-Boy recliner, getting ready to spend an afternoon of staying very, very still and watching stuff on TV. 

Tell me again why we have the highest cost for healthcare in the entire world? And with really poor outcomes compared to almost every other civilized country? It's not just the Big Macs and the sodas...


Let's talk about the Panasonic GH5. A blast from the recent past.

Day of the Dead mural on East 5th Street.
Raise your hand if your hybrid camera can shoot 60 frames per second and record 10 bit, 4:2:2 from the full width of your camera's sensor. Now raise your hand if your state-of-the-art camera can record in an ALL-I format. Now raise your hand if your camera provides both a vector scope and a waveform. Now raise your hand if your camera can shoot as long as the battery lasts without ever, ever overheating. Now raise your hand if the combination of your camera and your favorite lens is light enough to use on an affordable gimbal. Raise your hand if your camera has highly competitive image stabilization. How about an audio interface that will give you two phantom powered, XLR inputs. And can it do all this while writing to the two UHS-II internal memory cards?

Exercise complete? Now imagine that this camera is available right now and only costs $1295. Oh, and it also takes really great photographs and works with an enormous range of dedicated and adaptable lenses. 

If you don't own a Panasonic GH5 your hand has probably been down by your side for a while now. 

Random office buildings and blue sky.

So, while everyone seems to have been chasing higher and higher resolution sensors, paying a bundle for nearly unusable 8K video, learned to warm their chilly hands by the glow of their flaming hot cameras, the users of the three year old Panasonic Lumix GH5 have been holding fast and making great video and are still waiting for someone else not to exceed the features and performance of this little camera but just to match them.

If you never shoot video and you love the look of full frame sensors for your photographic work you can probably just click over to something on YouTube and ignore this particular blog but, if you take your video work very seriously, in spite of having a less amazing budget, you might want to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with the GH5. A camera I consider to be highly competitive today and so affordable that everyone with m4:3 lenses who likes to shoot motion/video should rush out and buy one today. But, of course, with my luck the minute I give out this advice, and you act on it, Panasonic will rush out a GH6 just to taunt me. Think it won't happen? I bought a Lumix S1H for $4,000 the DAY BEFORE Panasonic announced the feature-gorged S5 for a bit less than $2,000. 

Let's look at the GH5 and I'll tell you why I added one back into my inventory this week. Hint: I learned a lot about working on gimbals in the last month...

The GH5 is a monster. It uses the same 20 megapixel sensor as the G9. It uses the same battery as the G9 and with the latest firmware version (2.6, introduced three years after the camera's initial launch) it's got nearly equivalent auto focus capabilities and wonderful color. I thought the G9 was a great replacement for the video-centric GH5 so I "upgraded" a couple of years ago. But what I didn't really understand at the time was just how revolutionary the GH5 was/is for hardcore video production in the hands of a one man crew. 

Mural on East 5th St. 

I say all this after having used both the S1H and the G9 during my various video productions last month.

If I could only have one camera to shoot video with for all kinds of projects I might seriously consider that camera being the GH5, even over the Panasonic video flagship, the S1H. Here's why: 

The sensor in the GH5 is smaller which means it runs cooler and is much easier to control during image stabilization. These two things mean that even though the GH5 battery has less capacity than the one in the S1H it can run the camera for a much longer time. And it also means that there is less heat generated (not that it matters with a fan-cooled camera like the S1H). The sensor, being smaller also has a faster readout time than the majority of 24 megapixel, full frame sensors which means you can actually shoot 4K at 60 fps without having to crop the frame at all. The faster readout also means that rolling shutter is much better controlled than that from bigger, slower readout sensors. Less "Jello-cam" is always a good thing!

The trade-off with the smaller sensor is more noise as the ISO goes up. ISO 1600 on a GH5 looks somewhat similar to well exposed ISO 6400 on an S1 or S1H. But keep in mind that's only two stops and you could use a lens with a two stop faster aperture to compensate. With equivalent angles of view you'd get pretty much the same depth of field...

While the GH5 was well regarded on its launch I think people tried it at the time, put it into a niche and then, when shinier stuff came along they stopped updating their understanding of the camera even though  it was being constantly improved via firmware. For example, in its original form the continuous AF was poor by today's standards. If you shot video with the camera using the C-AF feature you were likely to get a lot of hunting and a retreat to focusing on the background compared to phase detect AF enabled cameras at the time. This limited its use to situations in which manual focus was the best option. Brave people would also use it in C-AF for subjects that filled the frame and had limited movements.

That's just how it was three years ago with firmware version 1.0. Updates to firmware can have enormous impacts. With (current) firmware 2.6 the camera's AF is vastly improved. How do I know? I owned two of the GH5 cameras back in the era when they were first introduced. I used them in manual focusing mode almost all the time for video. When I bought a new copy recently and updated the firmware to the latest build I was amazed at the difference. Night and day. The camera is at least as proficient as the G9 and I was able to use the G9 on a constantly moving gimbal as I wended my way between actors and dealt with inky black backgrounds. It worked 90% of the time.

The biggest fix is probably how quickly the camera locks on to subjects and how gracefully it moves from one subject to another. The second biggest fix is that the camera no longer defaults to just switching focus to the background when it does get confused. 


It's amazing to me how much Panasonic improves their older cameras (for free) over their lifespans. When Panasonic gifted G9 users with 2.0 it took a really good still photography camera and boosted it past the video capability of much more expensive cameras in the market. The new firmware moved the camera from being an 8 bit, all around, nice guy camera with low data rate, m4p files to a 10 bit, 4:2:2, 4K powerhouse (up to 30 fps, in camera) and also gave it the ability to shoot at 60 fps in the full frame (but only with 8 bit 4:2:0 color). With a clean HDMI output the camera is capable of providing the full 60 fps AND the higher quality 10 bit, 4:2:2 color if recording into something like an Atomos Ninja V recorder. Pretty heady stuff for what is now a sub-$1,000 camera. And yes, it offers both a 3.5mm microphone jack and a headphone jack, but no waveform monitor or vector scope. 

With firmware 2.6 in the GH5 the camera has effectively been updated to match or exceed the current state of art for video in hybrid cameras (excepting a few high speed specs in the Sony A7SIII). In addition to everything in the G9 the GH5 also offers the benefit of an All-I codec. While the data files in All-I are 2.6 times bigger than comparable L-Gop files there are benefits in both editing and in greater freedom from motion artifacts in videos of fast moving subjects. 

Many professional applications and production companies require All-I files from shooters on larger projects so the GH5 opens doors to more commercial jobs as well as being an easy to edit and very stable file type. 

Another differentiator between the GH5 and the G9 is the ability of the GH5 to make use of the DMW-XLR audio interface originally designed and produced for the GH5 (but also usable on the S1 series of full frame cameras...). At a stroke one gets the benefit of being able to plug in and use two XLR balanced microphones. The unit provides great physical controls of audio levels as well as phantom power for microphones that require it and does so in a nice and compact package that sits in the hot shoe of the camera. I've used the DMW-XLR on three different Panasonic cmaeras, the S1H, the GH5 and the GH5S and it's a game changer for using professional microphones on hybrid cameras. The pre-amps are low noise and the unit is powered by the battery in the camera. It's quite an elegant solution. 


So, why my renewed interest in GH5 cameras? It started when I did my deep dive into video production back around the first of August this year. I'd done video for years before but it was mostly just workmanlike stuff; talking head interviews and simple moves on a dolly. And the times I undertook video represented a small percentage of my business and my time. Not enough commitment on my part for really jumping in and understanding, in my use cases, the features and benefits of all the different combinations of the physical and file properties of the cameras.

With the steady drumbeat of the web and the millions of videos about new cameras weighing on my good judgement I started to follow the herd into the corral of video fans who salivated at the idea of shooting video with full frame cameras. Like that's the holy grail of making video. I like shallow depth of field as much as anyone else in photography so I presumed it would be equally valuable in video work. By the time Panasonic came out with the S1 series of cameras I'd already experimented with shooting video in the 35mm, full frame format on a Nikon D810 (low data rate but nice looking files), the Sony A7Rii (incredible range of codecs and settings but nothing better than medium data rate 8 bit .Mov files, as XVAC), the amazing Sony RX10iii (with the same limitations as its "big brother"), and a big sampling of the Fuji cameras (nice files but ultra crappy audio interfaces). I threw down hard for the Panasonic FF stuff and it's been good. 


My recent addition of the S1H was even better. It's a powerhouse. But.....It's big and cumbersome for some work and God, it's pricy!!!

In early August I started experimenting using video cameras on gimbals. It's something I'd never done before. I started by working with an S1 and the 24-105mm on a Zhiyun Crane but the camera was slower to focus, harder to balance and not as facile as something like the G9. My left biceps protested the weight. Once I put the G9 on a gimbal it all just felt right. Then I re-discovered a real benefit to a video shooter working on a gimbal out in the real world --- the increased depth of field at equivalent angles of view gave me nearly 2 stops more depth of field. I could use the camera in a manual focus mode in bright sunlight, set f5.6 on a wide lens, then set a hyperfocal distance on the lens and basically never have to worry about the system not being in focus. It was a life saver. 

It's a funny thing that as a still photographer I love the look of a single frame with very shallow depth of field but as a videographer I favor the look of most of my foreground subjects being in sharp focus when the camera is moving. With a still image the selective focus of a fast aperture lens used close-in can be addictive. With a moving frame the ability to see the subject with heightened clarity makes it more impactful. 

If you are a video shooter only I think a lot of choices are easier to make. If you are a Sony fan and you only shoot video the A7Siii is an obvious choice. You stumble more when you want both super high resolution AND great video. The same paradigm exists in Canon-World; if you only want to shoot video the C70 seems like the obvious choice but if you want great video and the highest resolution in one camera body get ready for a sloppy bucket full of compromise. Panasonic makes it very clear that one buys an S1H if they are super serious about video, one buys an S1 if they want really good video and really nice photo files, and one buys an S1R if you only care about making the best high resolution photographic images you can make. Of course, if you are like me and bounce around from one niche to another you might end up buying all three...

In context the GH5 gets a lot of stuff just right. For the price and size the video is exceptional. But even when you use the camera only as a photography camera it performs very, very well. When you want to work with gimbals the lower weight of really good m4:3 lenses, coupled with a body that features current, state of the art video files,  the G9 is a great choice and, with ALL-I files and lots of extra video tools,  the GH5 is an even better choice.

After my experiences handling cameras on two different gimbals I knew that I wanted to expand my video resources to reflect two different uses. The full frame S1 series cameras are perfect for traditional, camera on "sticks" scenarios where you want total control over....everything. With an S1H and an Atomos Ninja V I can shoot long takes in ProRes Raw and have the benefit of incredible dynamic range and exposure latitude along with nearly "unbreakable" files for extensive color grading. I can put on super fast lenses and drop the focus on background and foreground objects to the most luxuriant blur you can imagine. I can run the S1H for hours, or until I fill up all my 1 terrabyte SSD drives on the Atomos. But when it comes to gimbal work, for me, it's time to admit that I want a separate system that's more kindly to my arms, shoulder, back, etc. 

For me that's the G and GH Panasonic cameras. If you don't need ALL-I, a vector scope, a waveform meter, shutter angle settings, and a 400 m/bs data rate you'll be very happy to use the G9. If you want all the video gingerbread and a camera that's nice to hold you might be sold on the GH5. With a handful of great lenses it's the perfect small and light system and it costs a fraction of the price of the S1 series to get into. 

Put either of these cameras on any current, mid-sized or larger gimbal (Zhiyun Crane V2, Ronin-S in my studio) and you'll have a package you can hold (depending on your overall fitness) for long periods of time throughout the working day. I'd use either the G9 or the GH5 in continuous AF in scenarios with good lighting and then depend on depth of field and MF for lower light.

I've put together a nice, small and compact system for shooting video on the micro four thirds cameras: A GH5 and a G9. The 12mm, 25mm, and 100mm Meike cinema lenses. The 12-60mm f2.8 - f4.0 Panasonic Leica lens as a standard zoom, and the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 Summilux and the Sigma 16mm f1.4 lenses when I've got a need for speed. There's also still a nice collection of Pen-F lenses in the drawer for those times when I want to go old school. 

I'd been building the smaller system around the G9 camera while using a GX8 as a back-up but when a very clean, used GH5 came into my favorite store I hopped in the car and went up to the store to check it out. The body looked mostly unused and, buying confidence bolstered by Precision Camera's generous return policy I decided to snag it. I also picked up a lens I'd owned a while back, during the period when I worked extensively with the GH4 cameras. It's the Leica/Panasonic 25mm Summilux. It's fast, sharp and tiny (relatively speaking). 

It's interesting to become aware of the "empty calories" marketing delivers when it inveigles you to shift from cameras that work well to newer cameras by dangling the promise that new features or different sensor configurations will pay off in your work. Sometimes it's true but most of the time the camera companies are offering features or new technology that, when viewed in the rearview mirror of actual experience, really add nothing to the quality of your work or the pleasure of your working experience. 

Am I considering buying an S5? I'm not. I've read all the stuff about the camera and the primary advantage when compared to my existing S1 series cameras is potentially faster and better C-AF. That's all good and well but Panasonic have clearly stated that the same AF capabilities will be added to my existing camera bodies in a soon-to-come firmware upgrade. So, mostly I'd be stepping down to a lesser EVF and having to add a fourth battery type to my Panasonic collection. The GX8, the GH5/G9 and the S1 variants already take three different types of batteries and I'm just not up for adding a fourth.

While the smaller size and lower weight look like a good idea it's really the lenses that are the choke point for the overall mass and weight of the system. I think I'd do better, if travel, etc. was my goal, to buy newer, smaller lenses as they come out instead. 

Is the Sony A7SIII a better choice for video? Honestly, if you need the best AF you can get your hands on in the moment I'd say that's the camera you might need. But if I was going to start fresh and get into a new system just for video I'm afraid the Canon C70 just popped Sony's balloon. I think, from my reading and the feedback I've heard from two people who used a prototype, that Canon's decision to ignore photography with the new camera yields a better overall video solution. But we'll have to wait and see how it turns out in actual practice. I'm pretty sure it's one camera from Canon that's not going to overheat. 

If I knew everything I do today back a couple of years ago would I still have moved away from the GH5 and the smaller system? Probably not, if video was my primary concern. The GH5 is an amazingly powerful and brilliantly thought out product. It just works. All the time. And with the generous firmware updates it's a camera that's as relevant to filmmakers, production companies and wedding videographers now as it was three years ago. I think it's a better video solution for almost any one-man-crew application and the files look great. Couple that with a price drop from nearly $2,000 at introduction to $1295 brand new today and you might as well just buy two bodies and a careful selection of lenses and microphones and be done with it. 

But, since I do a lot of traditional photography and love the big, new evfs and the big sensors for still imaging I think I would have bought into the S1 cameras anyway. They are pretty amazing tools. 

The bottom line is that there's no single perfect camera for everything you might want to do. Most of us can shoehorn a range of cameras into making our work possible but we'll be cutting corners here and there if we try to do everything with one camera model. If you can afford it there is a certain efficiency and effectiveness in matching tools to specific jobs. But these are mostly considerations for people who are trying to do a range of jobs for clients and also trying to make money. 

When I retire I'll sell the whole mess of cameras and buy whatever the current Leica full frame camera is, along with the 50mm Apo Summicron and just be done with it. But we're a few years away from that. 

Just some thoughts about cameras. That's all. 

"Thoughts and Prayers" to the Prez.




10.02.2020

A quick, final note about our "Red, Hot and Soul" fundraising livestream project for Zach Theatre.

The theater announced in an e-mail this afternoon that their final tally for funds raised during the  live cast event totaled over $450,000 (USD). Far above the original goal and a testament to what can be done with good creative content and strategic live-streaming. 

I'm proud to have been involved in such a successful program centered around our video production and Zach Theatre staff's incredible creativity. 




Here's the entire run of the show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPZRFACxT_c

We're always looking for the sweet spot between price, performance and operational smoothness in fluid head tripods. Will this one fill the bill?

Sirui VH-10X
 

I never know what to think about tripods for video. Oh, I get what makes a good set of sticks (the tripod legs) but I'm often mystified by what makes one tripod head a universal budget classic at under $200 (the Manfrotto 5oo series) and what makes a Miller head that much better at a couple thousand dollars. 

Sure, there are different use cases. A big, heavy camera and lens combination logically requires a stronger head that will handle the weight. And I understand that some tripod heads are able to be very well balanced and silky smooth to operate but.... really, is the last 10% or 5% of performance actually worth ten times or even 20 times the price? 

If you are a cinematographer; a real one who works with big cameras like the Arriflex Alexas, the Sony F55s and the Canon C500 series I can guess why you need a bigger and more expensive tripod but if you are in the same boat as me I'll find it hard to understand your rationalization if your goal is to get a Sony A7S3, a Panasonic S1H, or Canon C70 up on a platform with which to pan or tilt, and you're looking at $10,000 tripod heads. I'd suggest you re-think the strategy but at the end of the day it's your money and I'm even willing to admit that I might be missing something about which you have more insight. 

But I'm basically putting a camera like the S1H, along with a medium range zoom lens, on my tripod platforms and all my moves are slow and practiced. No "whip pans" here. 

I've been using a Manfrotto head that's the ultimate compromise. It's the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 PhotoMovie Tripod Head with Q5 QR Plate and I bought it many years ago because it has a control that allows you to throw a switch and convert the head from a horizontal video head to a photographic style head that is in a vertical orientation. The price hasn't changed much; it's still about $340. 

But last week when I went to execute a pan on a shot I felt a slight hesitation or null spot when I initiated the pan instead of a smooth start. And I've never understood why the handle mounts to the tripod in such an overly complex way. A method that introduces a bit of play there as well. Finally, it's set up to be strictly a left hand operating head. And since I'm profoundly left-handed I prefer to operate my camera and focusing ring with my left hand and pan with my right. So I'm constantly just a little confused. 

I still like the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 (who in the world thought that was a brilliant name for a product???) and it's great to use in situations where you might make small adjustments to a shot and mostly stay locked down, but I don't love it. I'm also less than thrilled with its handling as a photographic tripod too.

Even though I suspect that I'll want to do more and more gimbal shots I know I'll still need two good tripods and fluid heads for two camera interview set-ups and three position streaming shows. So I'm always hunting for a new head that won't break the bank but still delivers an good performance. 

"Good performance" means the head pans from start to stop smoothly and with no hesitation. The head can be balanced for all kinds of camera and lens weight distributions and it can tilt up and down with the same smoothness I expect in the pans. I want the head to do all this and the heaviest load I expect it to handle would be about seven pounds (camera at 2.5, lens at 2.5 plus small monitor and audio interface). 

I was picking up fresh gray cards at Precision Camera and I found myself doing a bit of shopping. I found the Sirui head on display and played with it for about 20 minutes. It felt much better than the Manfrotto 500 series head I gave away to a young videographer earlier in the year. It felt and operated more smoothly (and logically) than my current, bi-directional Manfrotto head as well. The price was a frugal $250. I think it's a better all around video head just because it's not trying to also be a photo tripod head.

I'll use this on a set of Gitzo legs and the MH055M8-Q5 on a set of big Benro legs about four times this month. We're filming a concert series under the stars on four consecutive Saturday evenings. The client is looking for a two camera set up and this head and matched tripod matches up with my intended "A" camera perfectly. 

I'll also bring along a smaller tripod with a Benro S4 video head on it because I think I'll want to put a fixed wide angle camera close to the stage and run it for the full hour of the show. Just to have a third look for the editor to cut to...for fun. 

If it didn't seem ultimately indulgent to me I guess I'd pick up a Vinten Vision 250 video tripod and be done with it. Curious to see what $13,300+ buys you in a video tripod? See for yourself: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/271968-REG/Vinten_VB250_CP2M_VISION_250_Carbon_Fiber.html

Me? I want a tripod I can accidentally run over with my car and not feel devastated about destroying. I mean, I would be devastated if its demise happened before a job... but I wouldn't be that upset if we already had our material shot and in the "can." For me that's a video tripod; with head, in the $400 to $700 price range. 

I mean there's professional and then there's Professional. I generally only charge for professional...

10.01.2020

There seems to be a perception that we're all on the hunt for one perfect camera. Not me!

                     
While it's easy to get lost in the Jungle of Too Many Choices I think it's just as easy to get mired into stagnation by the soporific haze of narrowing down your choices too far. When everything starts to look like a wide shot it may be because you just have a 28mm lens and no other choices. When you limit the scope of tools at your disposal you eliminate a valuable avenue of experimentation. 

There are writers on the web who insist that your work will improve if you (doggedly) use one camera and one lens for an entire year but I don't think that's based on anything more than some people being really, really slow learners; or too lazy to try new stuff. I never thought about the damage caused by self-limiting your choices when making art but then I read a post from a person who, as a seven year old, ate one microwaved honey bun (packaged cinnamon pastry) every single morning for an entire year. His health still suffers 51 years later. It's good to have multiple sources of inspiration. And it's good to mix it up a bit at breakfast. 

If I valued landscape photography enough, and it was the only interest in my life, I could see buying a very nice view camera or high resolution, medium format digital camera and lens and using the combination every day. If I did good work with it then my brain would create a virtuous circle of cause and effect that would re-inforce my singular choice. But I'm far too sybaritic and mentally healthy to bow to too much obsession.

I have a small collection of cameras and I find that each one does something very special. Something that enhances my pleasure when working on projects that cover wider ranges than any one specialty. That's not to say that I'm especially good at the full range of work I like to pursue but if I wasn't having fun in each of the niches I certainly wouldn't waste my time on them. 

When we taped our recent virtual gala show at Zach Theatre I was happy to have three matched, big, heavy Lumix S cameras on tripods. There was lots of space on the exterior of each body and a plethora of external controls. My hands didn't accidentally push misplaced buttons and nothing overheated or shut down. The batteries lasted a long time.  The lenses I used were big, ponderous and flawless (for the most part). They were exactly what I wanted to use for highly controlled project and the fact that the cameras and lenses were big and heavy was meaningless since everything was brought to the shooting area on a cart and anchored in place for the run of the show. And part of their charm was the large range of options and controls. Which are so much easier to offer on bigger bodies.

But lately I've been working hard to develop a snapshot perspective for my personal art videos that would work well on the street, on the move and in places where big tripods and heavy cameras might be a disadvantage. I'm basically looking for the Leica M series equivalent of a video camera. 

That leads me these day in two directions. The first is the Panasonic G9 which does so many things so well. The second is towards the Sigma fp which has a wonderful look and does so many things....eccentrically.

In the photo above I'm showing a basic rig with the Sigma fp. In most situations I'd probably use the 24-105mm Panasonic lens but I like the looks I get with the Zeiss 50mm and the Sigma 45mm. And those lenses keep the package profile small and light. For most of my street video I don't bother to use a microphone so I take off the audio interface and the microphone and just use the bare camera. But, for a quick interview or just a ten second "blurt" the audio package is good. It's a Beachtek interface that provides an XLR input and phantom power for the Aputure Diety shotgun microphone. You could do worse. I have.


I almost always use the Sigma fp with a Smallrig cage. It's like a perforated exoskeleton for a camera. A small, metal set of "guard rails" that have 3/8ths and 1/4 screw-in points everywhere which makes attaching various accessories pretty quick and easy. This cage is cheap (as far as dedicated video cages go) and comes with a comfortable hand grip made from real wood. With the strap attaching only on one side the cage makes the camera an even more manageable package for walking around video.


When I use the Sigma fp it's to make images and video that looks quite different from the work I do with the bigger cameras. It's small enough to take anywhere but it lacks stuff like: long battery life and an EVF and that makes me work in a different way than my more adaptable and amiable cameras. 

The Sigma is more portably available but it makes me work harder. But you probably know that I think working friction has to be present in order to make good art. Work cameras should labor fluidly but art cameras should keep you on your toes.


One of the things I really like about working with cameras that make use of accessories like the audio interface (or the enormous Sigma loupe for the LCD) is that the add-ons can be pulled off the camera in order to streamline it. The accessories can be left in the drawer until needed while the camera and lens parade around nearly buck naked. But still capable of banging out great images and nice movies.

The Panasonic G9 or a Panasonic GH5 might be the all around best compromise for a video street shooter because they are more geared to all kinds of diverse work and less stingy with features. It's always a trade-off though. There's something about the Sigma fp that I still can't put my finger on but I know that when I think of the camera during the day I'm almost certain that there's crazy good potential there that I might learn how to tap. If I keep it with me regularly, and work hard enough. 

Then again, using the bare bones fp for a while reminds me (when the phone rings or a client texts) that when you have to get stuff done quickly, with practiced fluidity, nothing beats the high functioning, all around tools like the S1H.

I'm not sure it's a great idea to mix too many systems. I've tried it in the past and it does deliver some resistence based on having too many choices because that leads to procrastination and paralysis. That my fp takes the same lenses as the Lumix/Panasonic systems is a step in the right direction. And the fact that it's a very "singular" product.

Mixing Nikon, Canon and Sony together in the same bag? Only if you are actively trying to become a schizophrenic. 

9.30.2020

It was a friendly, f2 sort of day. An interesting exercise to try if you are more interested in walking than getting the perfect photo.


I walk a lot because it's fun but also because daily exercise is emerging as the #1 "miracle cure" for a long and healthy (and happy) life. I walk, in addition to a daily swim workout, because it's a weight bearing exercise. And that's a good thing. Add a Lumix S1R and the Sigma 85mm Art lens to your walk and you can also add it a bit of resistance training for your biceps and wrists. But the best reason for me to walk through Austin is to stay in tune with the feel of my city. 

Yesterday, just for fun, I decided to take along a heavy camera and a big lens. The S1R and the Sigma 85mm seemed like just the right combination. But to make things more interesting I decided to add a restriction to my photographic approach. I decided to spend the entire walk with the lens set to f2.0. I thought it would be fun to restrict my options and see what the rig was capable of with the lens nearly wide open. 

I think that as we get more and more experience in our photography we forget the "happy accidents" of the early years. We learn dogma about lens quality and optimum apertures that might make our images sharper but more...boring. 

I was thinking about this as I went through a box of old black and white prints from a time when films were slow and lenses weren't nearly as good as the best ones are today. I found a bunch of images from the middle 1970's that were shot with a Canonet QL17 rangefinder camera and remember that I shot a lot of pictures of people inside buildings, houses and dormitories; places that had low light levels. This meant that most of the time I was making photographs with my camera set to f1.7 (wide open) since my fastest film was Tri-X rated at ASA 400. 

If you think about it a lot of the images from the period were shot "full frame" (the Canonet was a 35mm camera) and "bokeh" was unintentionally plentiful. But the interesting thing to me, when I look back, is how much more interesting the images were with their smeared backgrounds and cinematic lack of high sharpness. 

I thought about the cameras and lenses we have today and our manic pursuit of high sharpness, crisp contrast and a general obsession with image quality over everything else. And I thought it would interesting to take a step or two back and at least see what modern life looks like when we go "over the top" wide aperture. 

It is cheating a bit to use a very modern camera. Some of my sun-drenched scenes would have been far outside the range of my old film camera. I could never have shot wide open in the sun with a film camera, the shutter of which could only go as high as 1/500th of second. With the S1R I watched in several situations as the camera's shutter pegged at 1/16,000. Fun stuff. 

Looking back at the old prints makes me wonder why I set off in pursuit of more "image quality" because it almost always came at the expense of so authentic feeling in the images. Another case of media reinforcing an easier to understand method, or commercial considerations beating the creativity out of us working photographers. 

For my next walk I'll grab an older, manually focusing 50mm and shoot that wide open but with the additional overlay of shooting nothing but Jpeg and always in monochrome. Let's see if we can create a time machine and turn back technique to a more visually interesting period. 


The Photographer at work.



















 

Why Volunteer Projects Can Be Valuable.


When you volunteer and collaborate with charitable organizations, especially creative and performance-oriented ones, you get some leeway to try new techniques and new looks which can be the lifeblood of your quest to stay relevant. 

I've done a number of video projects for corporate clients over the years and a prerequisite for most of them was the need to be "safe," not do anything visually or stylistically risky and they nearly all revolved around doing interviews in fixed spots. Hit the mark on the floor and don't move. Even if you love the "idea" of filmmaking that's a quick way to go stale, lose interest and start showing up just for the money. 

Over the years my work as a photographer and a filmmaker for Zach Theatre has allowed me the freedom to continually explore and take chances with gear, color looks, compositions and so much more. 

Sometimes, when I've bought a new lens, I've just called up the marketing team at the theater and asked if there was anything they needed images for. When I bought the Sigma 85mm f1.4 for the L-mount system I called and asked if I could come by and shoot some of the early dance rehearsals for "Christmas Carol." No guarantee to the theater that I'd turn out anything they could use but my track record with them is pretty good so they were happy to have me there. I shot for hours and worked the lens hard. I shot a lot at f1.4 and f2.0 (which is probably why you would buy that lens!). Having thousands of frames from the same low light venue to compare I could probably tell more about the virtues and limitations of that lens by the end of the weekend then I would find out walking around with it, casually snapping a frame here and there. 

By the same token no one at the theater actually asked me to go out and buy a gimbal (or three). I knew that it was a look they really wanted but since I was volunteering they were okay with me trying to fudge it all with handheld cameras or watch me try to move fluidly (not) with a camera welded to the top of a monopod. But their collective desire somehow invaded my brain and I decided to give something new a try. Now I'm pretty delighted with what we produced and I'm looking forward to using gimbals extensively on my own projects and on projects for clients with actual budgets for video. 

But the important point is that I might never have tried one without both a push and the comfort of knowing my collaborators would let me try my hand at it and look the other way if I made grievous mistakes. 

Had it been a commercial project I probably would have hired one of my friends who already has an impressive track record with gimbal work, added him to the job as "mobile camera op" and moved myself to the role of "director." I would not have run out and bought a gimbal and taken the chance that I'd not be able to master it in time. Or give it the time and attention needed for me to become at least competent. 

People ask me a lot why I bother to do some pro bono work for arts organizations and sometimes I question myself as well. Zach Theatre pays me to photograph their tech and dress rehearsals but they don't always have a budget for stuff that I think would work well for them. Stuff that would elevate their social media or provide for pre-marketing shows. Since I love attending the theater and am friends with dozens and dozens of the creative people there I like giving back a little extra. 

But if I do an exemplary job (luck?) then I have another good piece in my portfolio to share with prospective and ongoing, for-profit clients. And I'm sure you know how hard it is to effectively self-assign and create good portfolio pieces consistently. At least a volunteer assignment, even if it's self-assigned, gives you a framework to keep you focused and gives you the discipline to follow the project all the way through to the end. 

I can't point to any specific, giant project for a commercial client that's ever come my way as a direct result of a volunteer opportunity but I also am serially baffled when people all over Austin already know my name and reputation before we've even met. Since I hardly market they must be getting the branding message from somewhere...

But really, I got into photography because I loved the process of taking photographs of all kinds of people. I love to make environmental shots as we'll as studio stuff and, guess what? Theaters are full of interesting, vibrant, high energy people who love to be photographed. I'd call a sprinkling of pro bono work a win-win. 

An added bonus: My family and I get to see a ton of really great theater performances! 

9.29.2020

What can you do with lousy weather, tight schedules and a couple evening hours to film young actors and dancers outside?

 

When you shoot for yourself you can pick the sunniest days, the nicest locations and the very best times. When you're on a schedule and the schedule depends on matching the schedules of 20 or so younger actors who don't drive yet you take the time slots you can and try your best.


I showed you two of the videos we did for Zach Theatre's "Red, Hot and Soul" event yesterday. I thought they were a good first project for a gimbal newbie. But we also did a video for the kid's program and it also ran in the middle of the livestream.

We had lots of frustrations with scheduling because the weather didn't want to cooperate. We had several evenings booked that had to be cancelled for rain and we suggested several other evenings only to have schedule conflicts with the talents. We knew we wanted to include work from the Zach Pre-Professional Company so we kept pushing.

With our broadcast date fast approaching and lots of editing yet to be done we finally all targeted a date and time. Sadly, it was an evening that featured dense clouds, low light and lots to get done. By the end of the evening we were fighting to even get usable video at 1600 ISO out of my gimbal mounted G9 --- and that's pushing it!

The dance number was a work in progress with choreography still happening on the fly but my producer, Joshua Cummins, had a firm idea in mind, and a bluetooth speaker in his hands. 

A few of the gimbal moves are rough but we only had time for one or two takes of each scene. The editing helps make my kludgy gimbal work in places look better than it is. 

Still, I'm happy with the movement and a lot of the scene were the group of dancers is racing toward the camera because you have to understand that I'm trying to keep them comped in a small view finder at the end of a big gimbal while blindly moving backwards just as fast as I can. 

I sure couldn't have done this on a tripod. 

Tech notes: I was using a Lumix G9 with the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm f2.8-4.0, locking in at f5.6 to give me some much needed depth of field. I set the focus for most these shots manually and then tried to maintain a fixed distance between the camera and my subject. A few times I used face detect AF to capture closer shots of individuals singing.

The camera was set for 4K, 10 bit, 4:2:2 at 150 Mbs. It's a long-GOP codec but that's all you can get from a G9. With time, budget and a perfect day I would have tried using the Sigma fp and Pro-Res Raw but certainty beats possibility when you are in "crunch time." 

The gimbal is a Ronin-S. I can't decide whether the Ronin or the Crane is my favorite so I'll just have to spend more time with both.

Let me know what you think. That's what we've got the comments for.






9.28.2020

Let's talk about gimbals. I had no idea there were so cool. Now I'm starting to crave the latest ones the way I used to covet lenses....


 I'm so resistant to change. At least I think I am. Up until two months ago I thought gimbals were complicated gadgets and I was convinced that everyone shooting video should just stick to "sticks" (slang: video tripods) and stop fidgeting around. It's easy to convince oneself that something is merely a gimmick if you've never tried using a new tool or technique. It's easier to rationalize sticking with what works. 

We were preparing for our big August/September video project and we all (the producer, myself, and the marketing director) sat down to discuss what we wanted it to look like and how we might go about filming. It quickly became obvious that my two under 30 counterparts were smitten with the look of a constantly moving camera and were hoping they could convince the Luddite before them to get on board with the new technology. Use a gimbal. It was uncomfortable. Mostly because I value their opinions and I hate to appear stuck in the past. 

The smart thing I did was to consult with a filmmaker I know who loves moving cameras around on gimbals and has a long tenure of experience with six or seven gimbals from four or five geological strata of gimbal development. He had an interesting idea and I guess I grabbed onto it the way a panicked, drunken non-swimmer clings to a flimsy float when accidentally pushed into the deep end of the pool. 

He suggested baby steps. He counseled that before I lunged off the deep end into the jungle of available "big boy" gimbals that I might be better served by getting an inexpensive model made for phones and give that a try first. I might be able to learn a lot without making a big and ill-considered investment. 

I trundled off to Precision Camera with a bit of attitude. I wasn't even sure I really wanted a gimbal and I harbored the fear that I might not be able to figure it out. Or worse, that I was already so far behind the learning curve that I'd never become proficient with one. 

After "kicking many tires" I settled on a phone gimbal that my trusted sales associate thought to be a good seller. I asked him what the definition of a "good seller" was and how that might affect my purchase. He let me know that a good seller, to him, is a product that is reliable and does the job. It's a good seller because people want it and not very many people return them. Works on so many levels. 

The one I settled on is a Zhiyun Smooth 2. It cost a hundred dollars and change and comes with its own internal battery as well as a simple set of instructions. I carted it home, charged it up and, after learning that it worked best if I took the fancy case off the iPhone XR I was walking around the studio trying to get used to the three basic control settings. 

I spent three or four days working with the gimbal and my phone. My skill set, while not as fluid as those of a Zoomer Gen operator, advanced to the point where I could get the phone camera pointing where I wanted smoothly and consistently. Once I added more image control via an app called Filmic Pro I was become comfortable with the process and happy with the output. Still seems like magic. 

But I knew we'd need more control over the video images for the real project and that would mean a camera with a robust video codec as well as a range of good lenses. I was back at the camera store a handful of days later splashing out for my first real gimbal. It was a Zhiyum Crane V2. I bought it because it does all the basic stuff: panning mode, follow mode and lock mode. It also lets you trigger the record start via bluetooth and it has a nifty table top tripod thing on the bottom so when you get tired of holding the gimbal and camera in one hand you can put it down on the ground without messing up the balance you worked hard to set up. 

Two days later I was on the pedestrian bridge filming a group of dancers marching toward me as I marched backwards. Here's what I learned that made my first big days with the gimbal work:

1. You need to match the capabilities of the gimbal to the weight of your camera and lens. A combo that's too heavy for your gimbal will cause some jumpiness and motor vibration. I started out by using the Lumix G9 + 12-60mm on the Zhiyun Crane. It's about a two and a half pound load and the gimbal is rated up to a little over four pounds. That worked. 

I tried to use that gimbal with the Lumix S1 and the 24-70mm f2.8 lens but that was pushing it. The combo was right at the edge of the specification and it quickly became obvious to me that the gimbal maker was over estimating the product's chops. 

2. You have to practice with a gimbal in non-stress situations to master it. Spend time walking around your backyard with the camera+gimbal, shoot some footage and review it. You'll soon intuit a feedback loop and start fine-tuning your technique. I started out with the phone gimbal but as soon as I bought bigger gimbal I started working with it in my off time to try to get as comfortable with it. Theoretical is great for conversations over coffee but experience is almost always a much better teacher. 

3. Start re-learning how to walk. I know it sounds crazy but the normal gait of most people is decidedly bouncy. You see it with new gimbal users like me. The footage just tends to bounce up and down as you walk. You have to crouch into it a bit and also bend your knees and try to walk as flat as you can. Smaller shuffling steps seem to work best. And it's the same when you are moving backwards. Bent knees, try to stay low and flat and do more toe to heel, toe to heel.  Again, it takes practice and looks really goofy. But the goofier you walk the nicer your gimbal footage tends to look. 

4. For the life of me I just couldn't figure out how to move side to side for shots that would require me to follow along next to someone like I was a camera on a dolly. I'd look at the screen and try to kind of shuffle to the side I wanted to head in. My footage looked awful. Absolutely junk. Then my gimbal mentor shook his head and flipped my camera's rear screen out so it was perpendicular to the camera. That way when I pointed the camera at my subject I could look in the direction I wanted to travel and I'd be looking straight into my screen. It's like my subject and I are walking side by side but I'm holding the gimbal so it's pointing at her while the screen is right in front of my face. All of a sudden my tracking shots cleaned up enough to be useable.

5. Some newer gimbals come with controls that allow you to actually focus using a thumb wheel while working with your gimbal. Mine don't. And I'm not sure how people can concentrate on both watching their composition, walking and also checking focus. I can do two but maybe not three. Instead I try to set a focus for a specific distance, use an aperture that gives me a little safety via depth of field and then work with the gimbal while being cognizant of keeping the distance. Of course, this assumes I'm working with manual focusing. 

6. I've had some luck using autofocus but just as often when I move off a subject the camera flails to find focus and everything goes to hell. My best luck has been a combination of enabling all the AF points and also using a helpful aperture. The basic, full frame AF will nearly always try to find the closest object on which to focus and that's nearly always the actor I want to follow with my gimbal. If I use face detection AF and my subject turns away from the camera while there is someone else in the frame the camera thinks it's being smart by shifting focus to the other person instead of just waiting for person one to turn around. 

It can be a bit frustrating. Not as bad outdoors where light levels are high and sensors are more easily satisfied by not everything we shoot camera be in bright sun. In fact, I'm generally happier if that's not where we shoot. 

7. If you shoot projects like we do there is probably a lot of time (five or ten minutes?) between takes. You can stand there with the gimbal torquing your biceps or you can put it down on the little built in tripod but I favor a different compromise. I stick the bottom edge of the gathered mini-tripod legs against my upper thigh. That point of contact takes most of the weight and takes the load off my left arm (that's my gimbal handling arm, by default). Eventually I'll make a little gimbal tip holster you can wear hanging down from your belt and it will receive the tripod legs (all gathered together) and take the weight off without damaging your fine trousers. 

8. Following on from point seven... The further out from your body that you hold the weight of the gimbal plus camera rig the shorter amount of time you'll be able to handle the strain. The closer you hold the gimbal to your body the less force it will exert in concert with its best friend, gravity. Elbows in with the gimbal as close as you can get it and still operate it and you'll be good for much longer. I learned that doing lifts with a ballerina girlfriend in high school. If you want to lift someone up onto your shoulder you want to lift as close to your body as possible. You might also ask your dancer to bend her legs and jump up in sync with your life. Anything helps. Also, try to only date dancers that weigh less that 105 pounds. Not always possible in north America...

9. Use a handheld meter, or a waveform monitor, or even histogram to set your exposure but bump up the brightness on your LCD so you can clearly see the edges of your frame if you are shooting in bright sun. Also, a bit of black wrap and some tape will make a decent hood for your LCD which will enhance the image a lot and make you look like a DIY pro. 

So, after a bunch of shoots with the G9 and the Zhiyun Crane I was ready to try a gimbal that could handle one of my full frame, Panasonic cameras. A friend had a DJI Ronin S that's rated to handle up to 8 pounds (I'd call it at 5 lbs.) and he was ready to move on to a newer and more technically advanced gimbal so he offered the Ronin to me at a nice price. I've been using it with the Lumix cameras and some of the lenses and it works well. But I've also been using it with the much lighter weight Sigma fp and it feels like a match made in heaven. 

I think gimbal development must be where camera sensor development was back in 2010 or 2012 and it's still changing rapidly. I'm trying to master the basics first and get more projects under my belt before I go looking for the greener grass in the next field. I'd hate to fill the studio with a gimbal collection of greatest hits from every era of development; even if that's what my trajectory looks like in the moment. 

Go Gimbals. (P.S. I still dislike drones. Mostly on principle). 

And Just Like That VSL Is Back. Warning, a lot of this post is about the big show I've been working on. And video. If you don't like that, don't worry, we forgot to charge you for the programming.

 


Here's my favorite video for the show: https://vimeo.com/462396471

The opening number for the live stream program is at the bottom of this post!

You have to go to Vimeo to see them. I don't trust you guys to watch it in some tiny, embedded format here and the bust my chops because it's too small...

Vacation from the VSL blog.

I really needed that break. I was trying to concentrate on this enormous volunteer project for Zach Theatre back in late August and I kept running out of mental bandwidth. And time. I was feeling stale on the blog since we hadn't worked much and even I'll admit that swimming isn't really a spectator sport. I'm glad some of you waited around to see if the blog would revive. I did write in my Sept. 2nd post that "this is not goodbye.."

How did I recharge the "creative batteries"? Mostly by working a lot on new stuff instead of writing about working. That, and copious amounts of swimming and walking. Between sessions of filming out in the heat and humidity I took times for naps, ate well and read more books. The end result is that I wanted to come back and write. Seems like I missed writing at least as much as you missed reading new stuff. 

So, let's catch up. 

I'm not sure I've been very clear about the project I've been working on so I think we should start there with some background and description. 

Zach Theatre's Annual Fundraising Gala: AKA: Red, Hot and Soul. 

Zachary Scott Theatre has been actively making live theater (plays, musicals, dramas, lectures) for the last 99 years. For the last ten years we've been lucky to have a brand new, state of the art theater space to work in as well as three other stages on the campus in which to produce kids programs, smaller productions, and intimate, limited time engagements. 

The Theatre, while regional, is a standout in the country for the quality of its work and is often used as a resource by famous playwrights to develop new productions. Anna Devere Smith has done two of her debuts in our theaters. Holland Taylor debuted "Ann" in our theater before taking it to Broadway. Tony Kushner was in our audiences for the first regional run of "Angels in America." And the list goes on. Steven Dietz often debuts his work here; most recently his take on "Dracula." 

Our theater is big on education and community outreach. Each year 50,000 school age children are treated to live performances here. There is also an accredited academy for kids who want an alternative learning experience with emphasis on theater as well as a regular school curriculum. Many of the children who see plays at Zach are able to do so because their attendance is subsidized. Scholarships are available for those who want to go to the academy but lack financial resources. 

So, every year Zach Theatre's budget is split between creating great, community-based theater and providing a wide array of learning opportunities. Add in a very a professional staff and you can imagine that expenses are high. But in normal years the theater is able to make ends meet by combining ticket sales for their MainStage shows, private donations, grants and support from the city of Austin. They've always been able to come up with needed $$$  and the event that tips the budget out of the red each year is a fabulous fundraising gala they call: Red, Hot and Soul

The theater erects a giant, air conditioned tent in the central plaza, the furnishings are top shelf, as is the alcohol. The catering (lovely dinners) is by the Four Season Hotel and is flawless/delicious. Singers and actors serenade and entertain the guests and, of course, there are the pitches for the guests to get generous, open their wallets and support Zach. Every year they raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from this one night event. It covers a lot of the expenses of providing a first class live theater venue for our community. 

But this year is different. The Theatre went dark at the end of February because of the pandemic. Audiences have been unable to attend any indoor productions. Staff has been laid off. There has been a real existential fear that after 99 years of creativity, inspiration, and the delivery of happiness and joy, our theater would run out of money and close its doors. 

The senior staff decided to throw a Red, Hot and Soul gala this year, but virtually. They needed to capture the excitement of the event but without the catering, the cramped banquet table camaraderie and the open bars. But what we still had was a bunch of very creative and popular actors, a committed choreographer, a bright, young in-house video producer and a masochistic volunteer with a history of shooting video. That last one would be me. 

It was decided that we'd create a bunch of creative content, intermix that creative content with a live show featuring two emcees, and we'd stream the whole thing up live on YouTube and Facebook. The show would eventually come together (last night) and run almost two hours. The first half hour consisted of photos of past productions intermixed with music, auction items people could bid on, and snippets of interviews with actors and directors. 

After that virtual happy hour we'd launch the main show. It would have a creative opening video which we shot back in August mixed with the two live presenters. Then a video of the the kids performing a musical dance number mixed again with the two wise guys in the house.  We would cut away to (pre-recorded) quick "check-ins" of people celebrating the event with "watch" parties in their homes. I filmed one such party and my brief was to cut back on the production quality and try to make video that looked like the party attendees were shooting it with their phones. I tried but sadly, it's still in focus and well exposed. I did shake the camera a lot... But the audio is just too damn good.      

The one hour (plus some O.T.) ends with Los Angeles based singer/actor: Chanel singing two hits from Tina Turner. That's no coincidence as she was recently cast by a theater in London's famous West End to take on the role of Tina Turner for the season. Of course, that was just before the pandemic shut down the whole London theater scene. 

After Chanel's video there's a video of tap dancing to a Stevie Wonder hit and then we sign off and cut to a pre-recorded video of a D.J. to finish up with a bit more house party. 

So, what was my role? 

It started out with me volunteering to help make video, along with a couple other professionals who initially volunteered. But before we even started shooting they realized that this was an enormous project and they (gracelessly?) backed out. That left me and the in-house producer as the sole crew for a couple parts of the project. Namely, the first half and the second half. 

Using a creative narrative conceived by the theater's artistic director, Dave Steakley, we would need to create original video for six different modules for which Joshua and I would do the pre-production, story-boarding, camera work, direction and post production. One critical duty I had for each program was to bring the bling. I was the donor of any and all camera and lighting equipment that was required. I operated the camera for every second of every video. I also went from being a gimbal virgin to a gimbal pro over the space of six weeks (easy enough to do if you have a gimbal in your hands for at least a couple hours a day, every day).    

When we ran out of light I pulled lighting stuff out of the studio inventory and had it ready to go. If we needed to record an interview I brought along the bag full of microphones. We'd let the space dictate the microphone we ended up using. 

Joshua worked with the development team to schedule our talents. On several shoots we had several dozen talents on exterior locations to work with. We'd do a quick rehearsal and try to get our footage in a couple of takes.  At the end of every day I'd put all the raw footage on a hard drive and Joshua would have to take it home and scrub through it, looking for whatever visual gems we happened to get. Then he had the unenviable task of doing all of the editing. We worked hand-in-hand to find codecs and color profiles that would work under wildly different conditions but still keep shadows and highlights under control. 

Just last Sunday we were shooting the last of our video properties. We'd shot nearly every weekend and lots of weekdays between August 16th and September 20th. Mix in regular clients and a consistent schedule of swims and you start to get an idea why I felt that also keeping the blog well stocked might be a step too far...

So, at some point in the mix, we had to decide how to handle the live show. We would have our creative performances pre-recorded and in the can but how would we handle the live streaming? In a moment of heedless delirium I suggested that we do a three camera production but I was pretty adamant that since I'd never streamed live before (and didn't want to learn how or buy that kind of gear) we should get a professional crew to do the live show audio and technical work of making a show seem bulletproof and seamless. We bit the bullet and hired a company called, "Werd." And they turned out to be great. They brought along a show director, a video/switching professional and an audio engineer. They did their jobs perfectly. And they were fun to work with. 

We lacked a teleprompter and teleprompter operator and the three cameras that would present the live feed on the big day. I guess I was still dazed from a month of volunteering but as my consciousness floated above my body I heard myself suggest that "since I was no longer busy shooting video every day I guessed I could handle the three cameras on the big day." As I floated back down into my body I screamed at my inner self -- "What the hell were you thinking?" It was a rhetorical question. I was already committed. 

One of the emcees provided the teleprompter pro. An old family friend. He was great.

The three camera "TV" show. 

So, here's what I learned about live streaming a multi-camera show to Facebook and Youtube: 

No one streams 4K video. No one streams 10 bit video. No one streams 4:2:2 video. No one streams .Mov video. Your goal is to provide a 1080p video feed that is as skinny (anemic?) as your camera can possibly provide and to make all the color and contrast tweaks humanly possible in camera, in advance, since there is NO opportunity to fix anything in post. Good files = small files. 

I found out that all three of my Lumix S1x series cameras can (under humiliating distress) shoot M4P files at the blistering data rate of.... 28 mbs. Not 280. Just 28. 

To make things easy for the continuous uploading while switching seamlessly between three cameras you want to make sure that all the settings match up. If you are shooting the show at 30 fps then all three cameras need to be set to 30 fps. If you chose to make a custom look with a tweaked "natural" profile then all three cameras need to have the same color profile. 

To make it visually transparent to the audience you also need to make sure you color balance all three cameras with the same target in the actual lighting the presenter will live in. And it's a big help to keep both of your presenters in focus. 

We filmed our live presenters in front of a wall of donor plaques in the main lobby of the big theater building. I had the Lumix S1H set up, with the teleprompter, right down the middle. It was a medium to medium wide shot that took in both presenters and bookended them with a flower arrangement on each side. My instructions to them: Stay inside the flowers and you'll be visible. Venture beyond the flowers and you'll quickly fall into obscurity.

The S1H was equipped with the battery grip which (tested in advance) would give me a minimum of 2.5 hours of run time. Without high data rate files, AF and image stabilization it would be closer to 3 hours. I used the 24-70mm f2.8 at f5.6 and tweaked exposure with the ISO setting. At the shooting distance, f-stop and shutter speed I had a zone of sharp focus that was about three feet deep. If needed, I could tweak on the fly. I knew the presenters weren't used to using teleprompters and I figured they'd be scared to go too far off script and get lost so I knew our center camera would get the most play time. 

I used a second camera, a Lumix S1, over to the left (as I faced the presenters) by about 35 degrees in order to get a different look. That camera was used with the 24-105mm zoom set to about 50mm and also tuned in at f5.6. Since I only had the one battery grip I set up each of the two side camera with  Anker Power Banks plugged into the camera's USB-C input. This charged the battery while the camera worked. 

The third camera was an S1 on the other side, but a bit further back than the left camera and set up to use a longer lens so I could get tighter shots that showed bigger heads and less background. This camera also had an external battery running into the USB-C and sported a 70-200mm f4.0 Lumix S-Pro lens. Since this and the 24-70mm both have manual focusing capability via a clutch I took advantage of it. I decided on a focal length that worked well and then focused on the closest presenter. I marked that focus point on the lens with a piece of white tape. I then focused on the second presenter and marked that focus point with a white piece of tape. By using those reference marks I could fine tune focus for each person, when they led the script, without having to punch in to check focus. Two reasons for this: First, the Lumix cameras won't punch in while you are currently running video recording! and secondly, if you could punch in you'd see the magnified image in the mix at the video mixer. The old, tape-on-the-lens method works without a lot of fuss and obviates the need for eye-strain. 

I did cheat on the center camera by using a Ninja V monitor (not recording video, just monitoring). With the Ninja you can take the HDMI signal out of camera and into the monitor so you can punch in there to confirm or tweak focus. The magnification doesn't affect the image output. It also gives you a bigger, brighter screen that's easier to visually assess accurate focus on. In the "monitor but not record" mode the Atomos Ninja V lasted all evening with one Sony NP-900 series battery. In fact, it was so parsimonious with power that the battery indicator never showed less than 100%.

When the live show started I stayed close to the "tight" image camera on the right side as long as we were live. If we switched and played a canned video I made the rounds to the other two cameras to make sure everything was going according to plan. I knew the run of show from memorizing the schedule earlier so I knew the points at which we'd be off and the pre-recorded stuff would be on. I'd get back to the tight camera with 30 or 40 seconds to spare, check focus and then pay attention to the presenters' movements.

The streaming production team was thrilled to get feed from three tightly matched cameras but I have to say that seeing the final product highly compressed on YouTube or (even worse) on Facebook is a bit depressing. At least I have the three isolated channels saved from the three cameras. Just in case I want to make some alternate edits in the future. 

So, how did the show work? 

We didn't miss a beat. No one on the crew messed up. The teleprompter guy was a consummate pro who never got ahead or behind his speakers. My cameras were rock solid every step of the way. The two back ups weren't needed. The presenters sold the program well. We did this whole thing on a shoe string but at last count we raised, over the course of two hours, well over $200,000(+) for the theatre. We beat our initial goal comfortably. Success. 

Funny to observe that during the technical rehearsal the day before, and prior to the start of the show, nerves are frayed, anxiety runs high, actors pace the room like trapped animals and engineers triple check their tools. 

Once the show starts people get pulled away from thinking about "what could go wrong" and just get into the flow of doing their jobs.

When the show is over there's a delay of any show of emotion until the donation tally is announced. If we did a good job everyone becomes euphoric. Happy. Optimistic. 

Someone actually said, "I can hardly wait to do this again next year.....!" I slunk closer to the wall and quickly got my gear out the front door. I didn't want to take the risk that I might inadvertently volunteer again. For once the logical side of my brain had a firm grip on the car keys. 

And here's the video we opened the show with: https://vimeo.com/462399373

This week I'll break it down into smaller chunks and talk about how I learned to gimbal, etc. Stay tuned.