11.15.2020

Cobbling together my own external SSD drives with a little help from Western Digital and StarTech.

I use SSDs in an Atomos Ninja V and a Ninja Flame to record high performance video from most of my cameras. When I buy fast SD cards with high speed ratings,  like the V90s, it seems like I'm paying about 4X as much for the same performance. There are also some features in the newer model cameras that only work when you hook your camera up to an external monitor/recorder. Stuff like 60 fps, 10 bit, 4:2:2 All-I from some cameras. Most cameras can do a cropped version of 60 fps internally but they tend to write them as 8 bit, 4:2:0 files; and once you've edited the good stuff it's hard to go backwards. 

Atomos monitors also enable you to write higher data rate All-I files like Pro Res and DNX when you use their approved drives which bypasses the usual in-camera compression to Long GoP files. Sure, the All-I files are bigger but they are much less complex to edit and they whip through your computers with more ease and elan.

When I bought my first Atomos external monitor/recorder a couple of years ago I also bought two external SSD drives that came pre-loaded in the caddies that fit into a slot on the back of the Atomos recorders and plug into the recording unit with a SATA connection. No wire required.

Both of those units were 256 GB sized drives and they weren't particularly cheap at the time. Now there are a number of units on the market that offer up to 1 TB of fast memory for less money than I paid for each of the 256 units. But that's always the way it goes with any kind of computer memory.

When I bought my Atomos kit it came with three or four plastic caddies one could use to load their own internal-style SSD units into in order to use them with an Atomos. All you had to do was order internal SATA SSD units, put them into the enclosures, then slide them into the SSD slot on the back of your Atomos and you were ready to go. Oh sure, you should probably format the units before use (in the device you'll use them in) but you already know that...

Then, after a long day of shooting video, it dawned on me that I could use the drive I'd just used to capture video to hook to the computer and also edit from. The SSD would offer faster performance than any of the 5400 or 7200 RPM spinning hard drives I'd been using on my desktop and they certainly are a LOT quieter.

All I needed was a SATA to USB-C connecting cable. I started buying WD internal SSD drives in the one terabyte size and putting them in the small, plastic Atomos enclosures then supplying them with $12 StarTach SATA to USB cables and they fire right up. My cost is about $120 per 1 TB drive. I can also disconnect the SATA cable and use each drive, without mods, on the Atomos units. 

Yes, I can buy a Samsung 1 TB external in a pretty metal case already ported to USB-C but that doesn't really buy me any more useable performance and then I have to find a source of USB-C to SATA adapters. 

So far I've put together three of these Frankenstein "external" SSD drives and they all work without flaws on my iMacPro and on both Ninjas. The WD drives I use are only rated to 540 Mb/s but they are fine handling whatever my recorders are dishing out. 

One reason I've stocked up on the SSDs is my desire to shoot my own video work in the latest ProResRaw format. That requires an external drive for for use with all of my ProResRaw capable cameras and I value the larger storage. It's nice not to run out of card space too quickly. 

It's kinda weird to work this way for shooters who came up through the photography ranks. You always find yourself thinking that everything should fit inside the camera, not hang on the outside. But if you've come up through the video pathway you're probably used to and comfortable hanging all kinds of crap off your cameras. Why else would they have invented "cages" for video cameras and not for still cameras?

There seems to be a big jump up in prices from 1 TB to 2 TB where SSDs are involved. I have a feeling my desktop will soon be littered with the smaller storage capacity drives but that's okay because I'm pretty good about labeling them. 

And actually having to handle a screwdriver and put them in cases makes me feel like one of those D-I-Y Windows users who are always going on about cobbling stuff together on some bench somewhere. Sure, the things they "build" sputter and smoke from time to time, and require weeks or years of troubleshooting but I've heard you can save enough extra money in a couple of years by "building" (assembling?) all your own stuff to pay for a workshop with Lloyd Chambers. In five years you'll have saved up enough to buy a Range Rover.

Of course, the minute Apple introduces their own bespoke designed and branded SSDs I'll buy a case of them and never think twice. Sure, they'll cost way too much but that's what it takes sometimes to make something that both works and is really pretty. 

At least I don't have to solder anything. 

11.14.2020

It's fun to waaaay over deliver if you're shooting video; as long as you aren't the one who has to scrub through the footage and edit it...

 

I spread the smaller tripod legs wider to give the camera more support. 
This one was just put down in front of the audience, right between two loudspeakers.
Unobtrusive in the dark.

I love participating in reckless overkill. If one view of a concert is good then two must be better. And three might be excellent. And sometimes the fourth one is a charm. 

Getting assigned to shoot a series of concerts at Zach Theatre gave me an excuse to trot out an inventory of cameras, set them all at the same basic settings and let them rip. With the exception of the one camera I used to track the person performing and render them large and isolated, all the cameras were set up on various tripods, pre-focused and exposure set. I'd just wait until the person from fundraising came to the stage to make a plea for donations and then I'd hop around the plaza, turn on the cameras and hit the red "record" buttons. I'd linger for a moment to make sure each camera was rolling and that the image on the rear screen looked good and then scamper off to the next one. If my timing was good I was back at the main camera putting on my headphones and grabbing the pan handle on my tripod to catch the arrival on the outdoor stage of our gallant troubadours. 

Every time I do one of these events I learn something more. On the last go I learned that I actually could use the autofocus setting in the Panasonic GH5S. No, I don't trust any camera to lock on and maintain a flicker free, pulse free focus using C-AF on a moving singer for an hour and fifteen minutes but I was getting frustrated having to manually focus a long lens over and over again. I took to the web and found a good tutorial on video focusing with GH series cameras and put the new knowledge to good use. 

You probably already know this but if you leave one of the focus controls in the camera checked (continuous AF) the camera will try to focus all the time. Sometimes well and many times less well. And, of course, the camera rarely knows what you want to focus on...

But if you go into the menu and turn off the "continuous AF," set the external control to "S-AF" and enable touch focus control AF in the "touch screen" menu you can take advantage of the camera's ability to do single point AF well and the setting keeps the camera from re-focusing it until you want it to. 

Since my singers were mostly moving perpendicular to the main camera I could get the camera to focus quickly once and then stay in the manual setting until the singer moved to a different stage, or walked from a position in the back of the stage to the front of the stage.

While the singer was making a long move, like walking from the main stage to the secondary stage, I just panned with them and ignored focus until they hit the mark at which they'd remain (hopefully) while singing through their number. When they hit their spot I'd touch the rear screen at exactly the spot where their face was and the camera would hit that focus with authority ten times out of ten. And I would get fine focus confirmation from the focus peaking indicators on the Atomos monitor. Easy and accurate. And any gap of focus could be covered by one of three other views from the stationary cameras. 

It would be great to do one of these shows with a person operating each camera and maybe even add a fifth camera on a gimbal to get some camera movement into the shots. In my theater fantasy we'd have everyone on communication gear and we'd have a show director calling out to each operator to let them know which way to move or what camera adjustments they'd like to see. 

When we actually did shoot a show a few weeks back with four cameras we had each camera set up to shoot 4K video at 10 bits, 4:2;2. The data rate from camera onto the memory cards clocked in at around 150 Mb/s and when I transferred all the content from the memory cards to a hard drive I saw that each camera generated about 80 Gigabytes of files/content. The grand total of information I handed off to the editor was about 320 GBs. And that's just for one show.

I was kind though; I did put each camera's files into separate folders and labelled them with camera position information. I was trying to make it easier for the editor...

When I saw the video cut together and ready to stream I realized that while 80-85% of the footage was from the highly magnified, moving "follow" cam but that each of the other angles, even if used sparingly, gave the project an aura of higher production value. 

But I think I'm getting a little addicted to the possibility of covering the next concert with even more cameras. I'm considering hanging a small camera with a wide lens over the top of the band, etc. I think I'll back away from that a bit and spend a little more time going "old school" and maybe do my next project with just one camera. Can you ever really go back?

this little guy was riding on a Leica tabletop tripod.
The tape is for visibility. While the public doesn't walk through this 
area I wanted to make sure the talent could see this camera and 
lens over to the side and avoid any unfortunate collisions. 
Makes it easier to find for me at the end of the evening too.

The GX8 does nice 4K. And it doesn't have record limits. It only features .M4p instead of . MOV but 
that hardly matters in the big scheme of things. 

The center stage camera was an S1 with a Sigma Art 35mm f1.4.
Just right for a stationary shot of the main stage.
Unmanned and sitting on top of a Sirui tripod.
The footage from this camera was the second most used in the edit.

When the client and I first discussed this project their assumption was that we'd just continue doing what their previous videographer had done and set up two cameras side by side. One with a wide view and the other with a longer lens which could follow the whoever was singing at the time. But they just weren't considering the artistic director's propensity for letting his actors/performers roam the stage(s). I could see from the outset that we'd need more coverage. Good thing we have some depth to the gear inventory. 

I think though that we'd have to limit future camera proliferation to eight cameras per show. Max. If we did more than that I'd either have to start renting gear or pressing Canon G16 point and shoot cameras into service. Probably not very practical. Also, I think it would take too much time to turn everything on and off.

But if you've got them you may as well use them....

Fun to play around. Just glad I don't have to do the edits. I would never have enough patience.


Lenses and memory cards and all the stuff that makes images work. Oh. And cameras. But not as much...

 

I don't know if you were around for the early days of digital cameras but it wasn't always a very pretty experience. Lots of stuff went wrong on a more or less routine basis. I'm remembering shooting one assignment in particular, in a helicopter over some golf course situated right next to Lake Travis, here in central Texas. I don't know what pilots call it when the atmosphere is a bit unstable but I call it "bouncy." 

It was pretty typical around the turn of the century, maybe a little later, to create images of a new real estate development and the almost mandatory, attached golf course, by going up in helicopters and making aerial images of the property. Of course, this part of the advertising process has been almost entirely replaced by drones and that's probably a good thing. Flying around in helicopters is dangerous and, if you have a weak stomach it can quickly get very uncomfortable pretty quickly. 

We mostly flew around in two and four-seater Robinson helicopters which are piston engine machines. I guess they were "affordable" because there seemed to be a lot of them in service. BSD (big swinging dick) commercial real estate guys all seemed to think of the Bell Jet Ranger as being the ultimate aerial status symbol (kind of an airborne Range Rover...)  so we occasionally got to use them to make images of big, industrial projects and of glamorous skylines. 

One time when we were shooting golf courses out by the lake I got into a helicopter owned by what we "affectionately" referred to as a "Dell-ionaire." That's someone who started working in the early years at Dell, Inc. and made a fortune as the stock busted up through the ceiling. It was the first time I had any experience with turbine engine helicopters. If I recall correctly it was a German helicopter and the selling point of the turbine engine was more power...which meant it could climb at some amazing rate; which the owner was thrilled to show off. Don't really get the advantage of shooting aerials at 10,000 feet but what the hell...

The day I remember, with misgivings, was spent in one of the battered Robinsons, along with two Fuji S2 Pro cameras. And some fairly new memory cards...

We were supposed to "capture" the magnificence of yet another golf course community and showcase its proximity to the lake. All from the air. I stuck some peppermint chewing gum in my mouth, got in the flying machine and put on a headset so I could talk to the pilot. I was always careful to buckle up because we were usually flying without a passenger door so I could shoot without restriction. Careful photographers often taped their seatbelt buckles with gaffer tape just to make sure nothing clicked open while leaning out of the door frame. We had a brief pre-flight discussion about what I wanted to get the pilot revved up the engine and we got airborne. 

I was shooting with the aforementioned Fuji cameras and a couple of Nikon zoom lenses and everything was going fine. Well, my equilibrium and digestive track were both unsettled and borderline rebellious from looking one way and flying another --- along with some chop and bounce --- but the photos were pretty much what the client wanted: endless green course next to bright blue water.

After ten minutes or so I got a "card error" message from the camera. I had learned early on with the Fuji S2s that there were several varieties of "gotchas." The cards frequently crashed or became corrupted and the two different battery clusters died quickly and at opposite times from each other. I knew I couldn't fix an errant card while in the air so I grabbed a second camera, changed lenses and got back to work. But I also tried to re-shoot some of the ground we'd already covered in case the card in the first camera was unrecoverable. After about 100 frames the second camera started giving me the same "card error" message, intermittently. I immediately stopped shooting, turned off the camera, took out the batteries (two different sets in a Fuji S2 - not at all compatible with each other) and dropped out the card. I replaced the ailing card with a new one, formatted it in the camera and started shooting again. It worked for about 120 exposures before sounding the alarm. 

By that time we had pretty much finished our flight and, if the cards could be recovered we be okay. I would have had the pilot hit all the important locations again but by this time the bumpy ride, hot morning and sticky humidity were conspiring to prod me into a feeling of deep and accelerating air sickness. I figured that a quick landing might prevent untimely regurgitation so I called for an end to the adventure. 

I was glum on the drive home. I thought about what I'd have to tell the client and I worried that unrecoverable cards would result in my paying for the next helicopter ride out of pocket in order to re-shoot. Three more pieces of gum and some time with my head between my kneess didn't solve the issue with the cards but a $150 piece of software and hours of sweating did the trick. I was able to save nearly all of the images. Only a few were horribly corrupted and unusable. After an hour or so I recovered as well. Mostly.

People ask me why I think I need so much back-up gear and I look at them as if they are insane. You can't sit in a flying helicopter that cost six or eight hundred dollars an hour and futz around with a broken camera. Or a corrupted memory card. Or a lens that's given up. You've got to grab for the next camera and get on with the business. 

I haven't been in a helicopter in nearly eight years and I'm pretty happy about that.  God bless drones. It's obviating the need to risk life and limb in a mobile death trap that makes the pervasive invasion of drones tolerable. I won't use them but I can hire someone who will.

So, that was early days in commercial digital photography. Things broke. Batteries ran dry in a hundred shots. Card's structural data integrity fell apart. Interfaces failed. Computers crashed and SCSI connections were frail. Where are we now?

Cameras, for the most part, are rock solid performers now. I can shoot with any number of cameras and not find anything too difficult to overcome. I've only had one camera failure (catastrophic) in the last five years and that one was replaced under warranty. 

It's been ten years since I've had a card failure. I chalk some of that up to card discipline (always format in camera, keep cards stored in their plastic cases when not in use, and, don't buy cheap cards) and some of that record of success to the fact that bigger and bigger file sizes mandate bigger and bigger memory cards so we end up replacing them mostly before they even have a chance to act up. All the cards I use now are either 64 GB or 128 GB and are either V60 rated or (mostly) V90 rated. Two of my cameras take CF Express or XQD cards and I like them for their structural ruggedness. The 128 GB CF Express card I have is extremely fast and buffers 47.5 megapixel raw files like they are tiny Jpegs.

I hate to say it but I think the real explosion in photo quality (output) isn't necessarily higher and higher resolution or increased dynamic range. I think lenses have actually gotten much, much better than they've ever been before. 

I'm convinced that if I could put a new Nikon 70-200mm or the new 85mm f1.8 on one of those old Fuji S2s I could make photos that blow away the ones we took 18 years ago. Just because the optical performance of the current lenses would be so demonstrably superior. I'm burned out on chasing legacy lenses because, inevitably, while they look good on lower resolution cameras they tend to fall apart on cameras with high pixel count sensors. 

I recently did a job where we shot for a day and a half against a classic white background. The subject was also backlit. I used a Panasonic S-Pro 24-70mm f2.8 zoom, mostly between 35mm and 70mm and I never saw the kind of veiling flare we took for granted with the older lenses. Even with a light shining directly in the lens I didn't see a decrease in contrast or any sort of softening of the images. 

While new, expensive and state of the art lenses would make the older cameras perform better there's nothing they can do to improve the memory card performance of the older cameras. 

In almost every way the new cameras, lenses and memory cards are better, more reliable and easier to use. 

If camera makers were benevolent and generous they might consider updating firmware on cameras that go all the way back to the dawn of professional digital. I guess that's a pipe dream since on-board memory and processor performance play such a big part on the data side of the process. And I guess that would make camera makers seem too much like socialist enterprises. But I sure would love to give those S2s and even the S5s another run for their money with killer lenses and current instruction sets. 

Who knows? Those old sensors might deliver a retro look that all the cool kids adore. 

I think I'll count myself lucky and keep filling out the lens bag with current, top of the line product. Then I'll be the only one in the chain to blame when the images don't meet (unrealistic) expectations. 

Hope you are having a mellow and Covid-free weekend. Keep those masks on tight. We don't need to see your nostrils. It's never a political statement, it's just best practice.