Cameras & Lighting

Sound on a DSLR

mke400topd7000First thing to establish about recording movies on your DSLR, as you may have experienced, is that the internal microphone is next to unless and the recorded sound can only be really used as a guide track. This isn’t to say that the mic is awful quality or the recording system itself isn’t up to scratch, but the fact that the omnidirectional mic is built into the camera body, picking up every hand movement, the focus servo and your heavy breathing!!!!

So the first choice to make is which camera top mic to go for and what sort of situation it can be used in. Pictured is my brilliant new D7000 (more later!) and my Sennhieser MKE400 microphone - this is a great little gun mic, very well built, high quality sound and fairly directional - i.e. looking forwards from the camera in the direct you’re shooting.  The rubber shockmount also separates the mic from the camera body fairly well.

When it comes to talking to photographers about microphones, I always use the analogy that microphones are a bit like using telephoto lens (plus you have no zoom) and have to change the mic according to the recording situation. A big gun mic like the ones you see on sports outside broadcasts in their furry windshields could be a long telephoto lens, whereas a lapel mic pinned to someones chest is the equivalent of your wide angle lens. Obviously there are many different mics in between just there are lens! The analogy isn’t perfect, sound can obviously be picked up outside of the mics ‘focus’ (or pick up pattern), but it does go some way to helping understand how mics works

mke400ond7000The MKE400 is a petit self powered gun mic perfect in size to sit on top your DSLR and not get in the way. The hotshoe camera top mic is only ever going to pickup general sound or atmosphere, you can’t expect it to focus in on someone speaking a distance away - you need to get closer or move a mic closer to the sound source - just like you were moving in to take a portrait. There are other self contained camera top mics like the Rode Videomic, but they’re not half as well made, large, plastic and have a tendency to fall apart. The Sennheiser MKE400 is also much smaller than the competition, the last thing you want is for the mic to get in the way of shooting the pictures!

Professional microphones are usually Phantom powered, they need power to come down the cable from a mixer or such like. This means to use most other mics you’ll need to get a sound mixer you can carry on the shoulder like the Rolls MX410 and cable to the camera via 3.5mm stereo lead. You could then put the more direction mic on top of the camera using something like the Rycote Universal kit, but you have to remember you’re going up in size which could be a problem, especially if you’re handheld.

There are a few battery powered professional gun mic like the Beyer MCE86s, but obviously putting an AA battery in a mic extends it’s length by 5cm, which could mean it gets in shot.  You’d probably be better off with the mic set up on a stand, or even better, on a boom pole with someone else operating and looking after the sound whilst you do the pictures!  In the end there’s no substitute for a Sound Recordist!

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The rise and rise of the DSLR

The DSLR in the last six months has begun to make huge changes in the way we shoot video. The film like quality of the resulting video, the huge jump in quality SLR lens give over video camcorders, it all makes the format perfect for shooting artist material.

Have a look at the Canon promotional Video by Vincent LaForet below to see what can be achieved.

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Click the HD icon to see a higher definition picture - do pause the other one first!  Remember what you're seeing is, even in the higher quality version, only a compressed version of the 1080 line original.

They are many striking examples of the artistic medium given life by the digital SLR, but if you browse the net you'll begin to see a common denominator...... They're all music videos with sound and effects added later.  Why?  Basically sound was an after thought.  On the DSLR's for instance the microphone is obviously on the the camera, an inch from the photographers mouth so all you'll get on the sound track is breathing!  Heaviness dependent on work rate obviously!!!!!! As the mic is part of the camera body you pick up a lot of focus motor noise.

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But the D5 and D7 and now the D7000 have a 3.5mm jack I heard you say.  At the Broadcast Video Expo in Earls Court, London, a show aimed at the top video producers and technicians in the country. my most asked question was??? How do we get decent sound out of a DSLR?   Mainly from Photographers now using their cameras for video!

It is quite hard with just the camera, even if you know what you doing.  Plus Canon 5D 3.5mm jack input has an awful automatic microphone level control, giving you little chance of putting down anything decent in sync with the pictures.  The only answer is to go back a few years, pull the clapper board out of the attic and record the audio separately, laboriously syncing everything up in the edit.

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Have Canon been listening to you?  Maybe????  Have a look at the new 5D menu on the right!  Click on the menu to find out more.

The new firmware upgrade states:- "Improved audio functionality will allow users to set sound record levels manually using a sound-level meter displayed on the LCD screen. The audio sampling frequency has also been increased from 44.1KHz to 48KHz, providing the optimum audio signal typically required for professional or broadcast material."

Not only are they upgraded the digital sampling rate within the camera to 48k, making it compatible with all  professional equipment and software, they are making the audio input manual (you can turn the auto off) and you have audio metering in the eye piece - suddenly you have access to branch out from Artistic videos and use it on serious documentary footage!  With the right leads, instead of messing around with bits attached to the camera, it's now possible to use a decent Audio mixer giving fantastic audio quality, in sync, and great control and monitoring of the audio , whilst the camera simply has a light cable attached.

MX410Recommends, well what about the Rolls MX410?  Small Portable with four inputs meaning you can cover most  situations and a mic level 3.5mm output perfect to go into your DSLR mic input. And at a Price/Budget you can afford!

Have a look at it on this tiny mixer on the Kharisma Site, just click the image:-

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LED lighting

Health and safety are obviously major considerations in the practice of media within education, be it trying to get some naive student to simply think about where they’re going to set up a tripod (i.e. not in the road) or perhaps to consider the risk level of a particular location we’ve chosen to shoot in (swimming pool??).

Of all the Health and safety considerations the equipment that causes the most concern and risk must be lighting.  240v, live cables trailing everywhere to trip over, those cables attached to heavy lights high on stands to tip over and finally that’s not taking into account a few thousand kilowatts of heat to burn hands and set things on fire!

Taking into account these concerns I was impressed to see a new type of ’studio’ lighting.  We’ve all now got used to LED torches, which have now become the norm over normal bulbs, but seriously considering LED’s replacing powerful and accurate studio lighting (rather than a simple tiny torch bulb) is an altogether different consideration.

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I was delighted then to see a demonstration of a new 12 inch square LED light panel.  They come in various models and types, the basic models come in either Daylight or Tungsten available in either different angle spot or flood.  One of the problems I’ve seen in the past with any LED light is the production of lots of circles of light, rather than any consistent light spread, but there was no evidence of this, just a even spread of  light - how do you get a 15º spot from a flat panel I don’t know?  Having a daylight temperature light without having to use gel is very useful.  I measured the daylight output and it was about equivalent to a standard tungsten 300 watt light with blue gel.   On a light meter the tungsten measured 3210k, which I’m told is actually within the tolerance of the meter itself!!  -  Not bad!   There are other models available with over 3 times the light output of these models - although I’ve obviously not seen them yet.

Each light has a built-in dimmer knob on the rear and DMX control socket - so both a dimmer and full DMX lighting control built in!  Also there on the back is the 12v professional XLR 4 pin socket.  It comes with a 12v mains adaptor, but will run a good number of hours on a battery - there is an adaptor option available to attach to the back of the light to take a camera battery should you need it.  My thought was a good lead acid battery on a longish lead would make a good stand alone light and if the battery was attached at the bottom of the stand, it would act as a lighting stand ballast, making the whole thing hard to knock over.  Having said that the light itself only weighs just over 2kg.

Of the lights I saw, perhaps the most useful and impressive was the model called the ‘Bi-colour’.  It was a little more expensive than the stand light, but on the rear was a second knob, where you could change the colour temperature of the light from tungsten all the way though to daylight and anything in between!  Again no gels in sight!  Very useful if you turn up to shoot in a room with mixed tungsten and daylight coming in through windows and you can dial in the exact colour temperature of the room at that time and even adjust as the sun comes down!  Again available in either spot or flood.

Don’t ask me how this is done, but there is also an adjustable focal length version in either tungsten or daylight colour temperature.  Models are either 15º to 30º spot or 30º to 50º flood or a full 15º spot to 50º flood.

On the health and safety front these lights make a huge case against the normal tungsten lights and well worth considering for studios or for use by students on location. A very safe option and ‘cool’ option!

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Simple Lighting for Stills and Video

So what’s the big deal about lighting?   Surely if you can see what your shooting, you just point and shoot and the camera takes care of the rest?  And if it’s dark then cameras have their own light source, a built in flash for stills and video cameras can have a little ‘head light’ fitted, so what’s the problem?  The mistake here is to assume that your camera is as good as your eyes, frankly they fall far short.

Then, even if you have sufficient light on your subject to render it visible, it can be the difference between an ordinary picture and creating a great image where the lighting is placed and controlled in such a way as to enhance the artistic qualities of the picture.

Consider a portrait shot, whether for stills or moving image, if we have just one light (or flash head) where do we place it to enhance the picture?

To understand the answer to this question we need to consider the effect that a light falling on a subject has - other than making it brighter like the ‘front on’ built-in camera light source. A portrait lit with the flash or light source on the camera shows little or no shadow on the face and the resulting image looks rather ‘flat’.

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If the light source is moved from directly in front the subject (i.e. not the built-in light source), the person or object on which the light falls now casts a shadow which we can see, and it is these shadows that helps us create a feeling of depth and mood in our picture.

Move that light 45 degrees left or right of the camera and elevate it and we start to see classic looking shadows from the nose and chin.

If there is no other ambient light then this can look a bit dramatic as the shadowed areas of the face are very dark, but if we add a gentle light to help lighten or fill these shadows then we can still see the modelling that the first light gave but the picture looks more natural and less dramatic.  Remember a camera does not have the dynamic range of your eyes, so where you can see detail in the high contrast shadows, the camera will not.

This second ‘gentler’ light source need not necessarily be another lamp or flash head, it could just be a well placed reflector or piece of white card, reflecting the light onto the face from another light source.

If you really want to bring the portrait alive then the addition of another light coming from behind the subject, poin

ting towards the subject, adds a rim of light that helps separate the subject from the background lending further depth to the picture.

The technique just described is known as three point lighting and has been used in film and TV for many years as a basic form portrait lighting and yet it suits well for stills as well and is very flexible since there is wide variance available in the placing of those three lamps which can vary the mood from light and airy to dark and foreboding.ikealight

The pictures shown here to accompany this article were lit using a combination of up to three Ikea style 20w desk lamps.

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Video vs Stills

Video technology has moved on so quickly, today you can even record video on your mobile phone.  It’s revolutionalised journalism, with reports and news video footage from places that  would have normally been impossible even 5 years ago.  Just think about the protests recently after the Iranian elections and how little would have been reported world wide had it not been for mobile phone video and chat rooms!

So is having a video capability on a stills camera just a marketing  gimmick?  Or could you use a stills camera to shoot your video?  Whilst the use of mobile phone footage on the news has very much seen the case of content being much more important than the actual quality, you couldn’t really justify it’s use over a good video camera on your media project without some artistic reason.  If ten years ago I’d presented the staff at BBC news channel with video content of this quality they would have refused to broadcast it and laughed me out of the room!

In our media world we’re only just beginning to get used to the idea of video cameras with solid state media cards rather than tape - I now warn you, your world is now about to be turned on it’s head!!!   The new kid on the block takes the capability of digital SLR’s to shot video to another level and will start to cause all sorts of dilemma.

The new Canon D5 Mk2 not only has a very large CCD (see “Size does matter!“) giving you true HD pictures at the chip, it also has a 3.5 mm jack audio input allowing you to record your own sound rather than use the internal microphone, plus it records directly onto the flash card in Quicktime format so iMovie and Final Cut have instant access.  Obviously being an SLR you have a huge availability of differing lens and……..  it retails at under £2,000 - cheaper than your semi-pro HD video tape cameras!  Plus your using standard Compact Flash cards the SLR which are far cheaper than the extortionate price companies like Sony are charging for the bespoke cards used in their semi-pro solid state tapeless video cameras.

Quick, go chat up the head of photography!

Have a look the above shot on the new Canon D5 MKII and take look at Damien’s Professional Blog PROPHOTONUT to find out a little more from a photographers point of view.

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Size does matter!

The retail trade would have us believe that increases in mega pixel numbers (mB) i.e. the number of pixels on the photographic chip, are directly proportional to getting better images from any new camera, whether video or stills.

This is in fact not completely true!!!

Another major attribute that affects picture quality is the actual physical size of that CCD chip (i.e. the actual size of each individual pixel), image quality is not just about the number of pixels.

My first Digital SLR camera was a Fuji Finepix S1 pro which proudly announced itself as having a 3.4 mega pixel. My mobile phone, a Nokia N95, boasts a 5 mega pixel camera. So I wandered into my garden this morning and took a picture with both.




Click to see full image

Even though the Nokia has 50% more pixels as the Fuji, the Fuji’s pixels are over 6 times bigger, spread over a chip area of 23.3 x 15.6 mm, where as the Nokia’s pixels are crammed onto a tiny chip just 4.8 x 3.6 mm.

Now I know that there are the factors of lens quality on each, but the fact remains that even though the pixel count of the Fuji is less, on picture quality the Fuji wins hands down. Each pixel has 6 times the available light to work with, therefore definition and contrast are better – especially in low light.

This is largely the reason why a digital SLR camera out perform its compact camera cousin, despite the pixel numbers being equivalent or even in some cases larger.

The same can be said of a professional video camera over a domestic or even semi professional camcorder.

So when the nice new camcorder you’re buying for your University/School boosts ‘HD’’ on the size, how much should you believe it?

I was recently tempted by an advert in my local Maplins Electronics store for an ‘HD’ camcorder for a mere £149. At that price I thought I had to try it!! After I got it home and shot a few scenes on it I transferred them to my computer for more critical analysis.

The resulting movies were quite disappointing and although the cheap lens obviously played its part, the tiny chip size simply let the pictures down. When you are trying to cram enough pixels onto a 1/3” chip to achieve HD status, you loose light sensitivity and image quality by making the pixels smaller.

You have to remember the chip in a HD video camera can be trying to create up to 150 frames of picture a second (Red, Green and Blue x 50), a stills camera has to reproduce just one frame. The more sensitive the chip and the faster it can work.

The BBC maintains that to record a ‘full’ HD picture, the bite rate (internal speed of the camera) must be above 50 megabits per second (mbs). Most domestic HD camcorders have bit rates as low as 5 mbs! Speed is another undeniable fact that contributes to better image quality.

So the bottom line is that for increased image quality of both video and still pictures then pixel numbers, though important, are far from the whole story. Overall chip size and the internal speed of the camera also have a huge effect on the actual quality. So when you see a piece of equipment labelled ‘HD’, don’t simply take it at face value, it maybe just good marketing!

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Tape is Dead : Long Live Tape!

We have come a long way since cave painting was used as a means of documenting or telling a story, but in the last century the rate of change has been dramatic, and over the last twenty-five years that progress has been exponential.

Moving picture recording of any quality used to take a pantechnicon full of wire and associated hardware, is now available on a mobile phone.

For the first three quarters of the 20th century, Film ruled supreme, then in the late 1970s and early ‘80s; tape came snapping at its heels. Film inheritently had its own archiving in the form of the negatives, which were storable for years and new prints could be struck with no fear of obsolescence.

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Film was beautiful, a black art form in its self, mysterious and expensive.

Tape was comparatively cheap in comparison and the cameras were more accessible as domestic versions gave acceptable results for the masses. But the professional formats seemed to change almost annually. There was `Quad, `one inch, `‘U’matic, `Beta, `Beta-SP, `SX and finally, in 1993 the much revered `Digibeta(digital betacam). The Beta format in its various guises stayed ahead of the various `DV-CAM and `DVC-PRO Semi-pro formats. And archiving on tape was both cheap and straightforward and the digital tape media could be dubbed and copied many times with very little generation loss.

The 21st century has brought us to the next watershed, namely recording to solid-state media.

There are some massive advantages;

  • Instant access to the video rushes, no winding through a cassette.
  • Lower power consumption in camera, few moving parts!
  • Lighter smaller domestic cameras.
  • Tiny media cards – SD, Flash etc.
  • Faster downloading of rushes into the edit system, not real time like tape!
  • No ‘run up’ time from standby, so recording starts the instant the button is pushed (some cameras even have a built in ‘cache’, which means it is constantly recording over a 15 second memory slot if the camera is switched on!).
  • The ability to instantly delete the last take (but handle with care!),

…….to name but a few.

But, if we thought film was expensive then the price of professional digital media cards - SxS, P2 etc - takes media costs to a whole new level.

So as I slide toward having shelves full of portable Hard Drives at a Terabyte a time, but are they safe? What about archiving?

One little knock, simply the drive falling onto its side can see you forking out for Data Recovery in a panic…………..

So, where do we go from here?

The ‘in’ term is “work flow” and what ever that is, you have to ‘get it sorted’!

I have been using a semi-pro Sony EX3 that uses a Sony bespoke media card since November last year and I’ve only really just worked out a safe and acceptable archiving system.

I purchased a tiny Hewlett-Packard laptop with a built in Express card slot which allowed quick and easy downloading from my expensive Sony SxS cards to the hard drive of the HP note book and a 250 GB external hard drive. I now get two copies of 58 minutes of material on separate drives in about twelve minutes.

So is this latest generation of solid-state media digital camcorders worth the trouble?

The answer I think has to be a resounding yes. But…….

Archiving is very easy and cheap with tape and the cost of archiving media cards is expensive. Putting a labelled camcorder tape box on a shelf is a lot easier than trying to store a SD card the size of your fingernail! Let alone remembering where you stored your students’ rushes on the hard drive!

In the end it’s both a technical and budget driven argument.

So to sum up, in my humble opinion, the future is bright and the future is ‘Solid’.

And tape is dead, but long live tape!

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