Monday, May 11, 2015

Samsung NX1 moiré comparison

Last month I did a sort of "first impression" review on the Samsung NX1, concentrating on its 1080p video and things I liked and did not like about the camera. I touched on places I was seeing the dreaded DSLR moiré tendency, which is one of the many reasons I'm not a DSLR fan in general. But as stated then, I can not deny how many producers have an appetite for cheap, reasonably descent video.

Again, my decision to buy the NX1 over other DSLRs stems from a specific project I have starting in June, shooting finished architecture for a construction company wanting to show samples of their work at presentations and on their web site. My original pitch was to document their buildings in UHD & 1080p video as well as high resolution stills for print or any other graphic application. This way they would somewhat future proof their accomplishments in formats of the future. How dynamic would it be for them to display their work at a trade show in UHD, for instance, setting themselves apart?

My original plan was to shoot Arri Amira at both 1080p and UHD, (as that capability is now available through licensing and clip re-calibration). But that approach proved to be out of the client's budget range so another solution had to surface. I needed a DSLR camera to shoot the stills at high resolution but also shoot UHD and 1080p video. The Sony A7s only shoots 12MP stills, so despite it's superior video capabilities, I had to rule it out (this time). The Panasonic GH4 could shoot very sharp 4K video internally at impressive 100 Mbps, but again the stills were only 16MP, not quite enough for architecture. And aside from the needs of this project, I wanted the camera to be useful for other projects as well.

The Samsung NX1 caught my eye because it has an impressively sharp sensor, shoots UHD & 4K internally as well as 1080p as H.265 files, which are impressively compact files that can be easily sent to clients over the internet and stored using far less space compared to drive hungry uncompressed codecs. Of course, the caveat is that H.265 currently cannot be used as an editing codec and thus must be transcoded into a codec that is. So there is a time and machine dedication requirement, that to some, might be objectionable in their workflow. In my case, I was willing to accept that caveat.



For the most part, relative to DSLRs, I like the video quality coming out of the NX1. It's very sharp and colors are pretty good for 4:2:0 color space internally. It's dynamic range is average for DSLR cameras, which seems to be acceptable to producers and clients wanting a low cost solution. It has the fastest 1080p rolling shutter performance for DSLRs. The biggest issue I have with the camera comes down to moiré performance. I am to shoot architecture of brick and mortar that create very thin horizontal and vertical lines that asks a lot of any video camera's sensor, especially DSLRs. Moiré has been a very difficult tendency to overcome. Some DSLRs place anti-aliasing filters over the sensor to help minimize this problem but don't seem to eliminate it in all modes of shooting. The Samsung NX1 has no such filter, thus it produces ultra-sharp images but suffers from moiré under certain visual conditions. Changing the sharpness setting in the camera might tighten moiré but does not eliminate it in challenging situations.

So to understand what I was in for on the architecture project, I had to test the NX1 and see what it was capable of. At the very least, I expected I could use the NX1 for the stills (in RAW mode only) but could I shoot the video with it? 

Thus today's review is centered around a moiré comparison between the Samsung NX1, in both 1080p & UHD modes, and the Sony EX1 in 1080p mode and Arri Amira in 2K mode. I realize this is kind of an odd comparison. Ideally, I'd want to compare the NX1 against the A7s and GH4, in UHD and 4K modes, DSLR cameras with 4K capabilities. But that's not what I needed to know. I own the Samsung NX1, Sony EX1 and the Arri Amira (currently up to 2K) only, and one of these cameras would provide the video I needed to deliver an acceptable 1080 final product now. For 4K delivery, being secondary to my client, I could simply upgrade my Amira for 4K acquisition for less money rather than buying another DSLR that may or may not handle moiré better.

Again, for what I'm seeing in reviews, the GH4 and A7s still suffer from moiré to some degree in some modes and neither provided the still resolution I needed.

My first architecture subject is a high school with a red brick facade, fine tight lines, that would prove to be the biggest challenge for the camera sensors. I shot from a slider on the ground with mostly side-to-side motion to see how moiré would appear in movement. I shot at different distances from the building knowing the further away I got the harder it would be for the sensor to interpret the detail. I was using my Canon Cinema Zoom 30-105mm on both the Samsung NX1 and Arri Amira at 30mm (both having similar crop factors). I also used Canon FD 24mm photo prime on the NX1 to see if lens choice affected the moiré significantly.

The Sony EX1 fixed lens had a wider angle of view, and it's ability to resolve detail would be much less, given lens quality and smaller 1/2" sensor. I shot two different days. Samsung NX1 in 1080p and UHD modes, both lenses, day 1, (which was sunny), and the Sony EX1 in 1080p mode and Amira in 2K mode day 2 (which was overcast). All video was shot 29.97 fps.


1080 frame grab

1080 frame grab from down converted UHD
1080 frame grab from fit-to-scale 2K

1080 frame grab

Obviously these frame grabs do not tell you much about moiré, but can show a little bit how well the lenses resolve detail. You have to see the video in motion and the link is at the bottom of this article. It is worth noting that moiré can appear differently on different monitors. For instance, what I saw on my 24" Dream Color monitor was not the same as what I saw on my 27" View Sonic, playing the same H.264 file at full size. What you see on your monitor could be very different. My observations are based on what I saw on the Dream Color, this being the more accurate display. Note the UHD images were placed on a 4K timeline (thus the black border) and then exported to a 1080 file, which was placed on a 1080p timeline along with the other camera files. I did not wish to scale it up first to 4K for this test and I don't have a UHD preset option within Premiere Pro CC 2014. The Amira, shot in 2K 4444 mode using C-log and corrected, was scaled-to-fit within 1080.

I did not worry too much about leveling the slider, and I will be using a wider angle PL lens on the actual shoot day in June.

SAMSUNG NX 1 RESULTS:
In 1080p mode, the Samsung certainly suffered from moiré with either Canon Cine Zoom or Canon 24mm FD photo prime, but not as badly as I would have expected from a camera with no anti-aliasing filter, but not acceptable either. However, in UHD mode (which was down-converted to 1080) moiré was far less, almost gone. This was very encouraging to see! This being, what I expect is the worse case scenario, the sensor handled it pretty well; I would say acceptable. And for the speed of motion I am planning, rolling shutter is not an issue in UHD mode.


SONY EX1 RESULTS:
In 1080p mode, the Sony suffered moiré less than the Samsung in 1080p mode. Though, as expected, the fixed lens could not resolve the detail as well as the Samsung using the Canon Cine Zoom or even the FD 24mm prime. So even though there was slight moiré evident, I could see using this camera for all the 1080p video once I send the 10bit 4:2:2 SDI output to my AJA KiPro Mini. It will gain color fidelity and some sharpness while still matching the project budget level.

ARRI AMIRA RESULTS:
As expected, the Amira outperforms them all with virtually no sign of moiré at any distance. The image is as good as it can get, but the weight of the camera on this slider limits tilt movement; and the class level of the camera doesn't match the client's budget. But it served as a great comparison and benchmark. I'm anxious to see how this camera will handle the same test in UHD when I have that upgrade. (blog for that to come)

CONCLUSION:
For the budget of this project, I am content with the Samsung NX1 shooting UHD for the future-proofing file, plus all the high resolution stills in RAW; and the Sony EX1/AJA Ki Pro combo for all the 1080p video needed now. I even have the option to down-convert all the Samsung UHD files to 1080p and use them instead of the Sony files, should I find a much better level of resolved detail. So I will be switching out cameras from the slider on every setup, one to record UHD and the other 1080p. And should the client decide to up the image quality down the road, I will have my Arri Amira 4K ready.

My last task will be to play the Samsung UHD architecture footage out on a 4K monitor to see how that really looks. The only reason I'm not considering using the true 4K out of the NX1 is because of the reported poor rolling shutter performance in that mode.

Again, moiré evidence seems to vary from monitor to monitor. I can't say there won't be moiré on whatever monitor the client views. It's not just how well the camera sensor can handle faults detail, but also how well a monitor can handle it. All I can do is confirm that the camera sensor was able to produce (in some recording mode) a low or non-incidence of moiré in a quality monitor, much the way we access color. We use color accurate monitors to grade by but can't say what lesser displays will do to that image.

I feel I will be able to provide my client reasonable image quality in both 4K and 1080p and stills at the price level they were looking for.

Here's the link to the video.


As an added bonus, I have uploaded the lens comparison between the Canon Cine Zoom 30-105mm, set at 30mm, and the Canon FD 24mm photo prime mounted on the Samsung NX1. This shows how different the high-dollar Cinema Zoom can resolve detail over the photo prime FD. This is why I'll be using a PL lens for the real shoot day. Also worth noting, in this instance I took the original UHD files and place them directly on the 1080 timeline and scaled down to fit. Although this is a direct way of dealing with UHD footage, it is more difficult for the HP Z800 to work with compared to down-converting first. Here's the link.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Samsung NX1 initial review of HD footage

Up until now I have shied away from owning a DSLR camera for video production because of the limited dynamic range, weaker codecs, poor in-camera audio, moiré, and difficult production configurations to make them work in the field professionally. Yet, over the years, I have shot many productions using cameras like the Canon 7D and 5D Mark II and III using Canon photo lenses and have been somewhat impressed with the image quality. And there is no denying there are producers out there that actually request a DSLR for their video projects. 

My personal workaround was to use my Sony EX1 with a Letus Extreme adapter with Canon FD photo prime lenses. The advantage was having access to Sony's Cine Alta picture profiles and well adopted XDCAM EX files, plus an option to output 4:2:2 10 bit to my AJA KiPro Mini for ProRes files, and I had quality audio straight to camera, all while delivering the desired shallow focus image. 


My Sony EX1 rigged out with Letus Extreme, Canon prime, matte box

In fact, the Letus has a unique image quality that feels very 16mm film-like due to its vibrating ground glass system. It had an organic quality about it. I actually shot a feature length movie this way called ODD MAN OUT, (available on DVD, and in some places, VOD).


Scene from ODD MAN OUT using Sony EX1/Letus combo


But admittedly, the Letus has its cons too. I lost at least a stop of light, and recording an image off the ground glass lost a certain level of image clarity. Plus the Letus motor could die on location (which happened on that feature project). The Letus rig adds quite a bit of weight that was awkward for handheld setups (almost approaching a full size camera).


Then recently, I got an architectural video project that would require me to shoot both stills and HD video of large, newly finished buildings inside and out. I pitched a UHD video solution with my Arri Amira (once that option became available) or a Sony FS7 (in the interim) using PL glass and using a high MP still camera with a PL adapter to maximize image quality using the same PL lenses. Unfortunately, the client's budget could not afford this high-end approach, even if we dropped down to standard HD and the already sparse crew. I needed an economy budget solution. 


I looked at the Sony A7s because of its full frame, XAVC codec and high dynamic range and extremely low light sensitivity, but the stills were only 12 MP and I'd need another higher MP still camera. I wanted to help my client build a future-proofed UHD library from which they could pull stills from the video as well as present in UHD down the road.

The only UHD DSLR cameras I was considering were the full frame Sony A7s and the four-thirds Panasonic GH4. Both had pros and cons, like all DSLRs do. 4K on the A7s was only possible via output to a Atomos Shogun. The GH4 records internally with great 100 mbps codec but only on four-thirds sensor that lacks dynamic range and shallow focus depth, plus a pretty heavy crop factor. Its wide focus depth is a plus for architecture but I wanted the camera to be useful outside this project as well. I thought maybe this was the time to replace the Sony EX1/Letus setup with a fresh, new DSLR option.

Then I came across the Samsung NX1. It has 28MP stills and internal UHD/4K video that looked pretty good, but uses the new H.265 codec that would require transcoding to edit with. Plus there was a crop factor of the APS-C sensor (x1.5), which put it between the A7s and GH4 in sensor size. But it did have adapters to use PL glass and my Canon FD primes. Though it didn't have the higher dynamic range or low light ability of the A7s, I expected I could live without those traits. After all, when a client opts out of a high-end approach they are in essence saying, "we will accept image quality compromises for paying less money", at least to some degree.
My Samsung rigged with Canon Cinema Zoom & Fotodiox adapter

I had read both positive and negative reviews on the NX1, but many of the negatives were suddenly being addressed by Samsung with a firmware update, like recording 23.98fps, dynamic range options, luminance range options, among others. One of the big negatives that I don't think can ever be modified in firmware is poor rolling shutter performance, especially in UHD/4K mode. But all DSLRs suffer from this and the Samsung posted one of the best rolling shutter performances in HD mode (where I'd do far more shooting in). I knew I'd be moving the camera very slowly for UHD recording of architecture, so I'm expecting this will be acceptable. Again, no DSLR has good UHD or 4K rolling shutter performance. Why spend more?

The Review:

Sorry for the long-winded setup to my logic in purchasing this camera, but felt it necessary to explain that everyone has different circumstances behind purchase decisions based on advantages and disadvantages, project needs, and also based on other equipment they currently own.

I won't be reviewing every detail of the camera. There are plenty of those already online (the ones I read to help me decide on this camera). Instead, my review will be more specific to it's HD video performance after just a few professional outings.


DO LIKE:

Feel of the camera; straight forward menu layout; ease of use; excellent OLED LCD screen and EVF (huge advantage to determine focus); peaking (though limited); histogram; audio meters; spot meter; quick access buttons to settings; touch screen interface; custom white balance; good rolling shutter performance in HD mode; dynamic range and luma options; 4:2:2 color space out of HDMI; H.265 compression and storage; settings summary display; settings stay put after power down, Adobe RGB color space.

DON'T LIKE:

Some bugginess, i.e. occasional crashes, freeze ups; AGC can't be disabled in camera (yet); no H.264 option; slow conversion software; peaking only in magnification mode; poor in-camera audio noise (as do all DSLRs that I've used); HDMI HD output works in monitors but not recognized in my AJA KiPro (yet); poor rolling shutter in UHD/4K mode; hard to blindly feel the video record button; can't use magnify focus assist while output to HDMI monitor; 8 bit only; EVF does not activate if you've started recording while watching the LCD; and can't hear playback if plugged into monitor.

MY LENS SETUP:

I wanted to use the lenses I already have which consists of my Canon Cinema Zoom 30-105mm PL and my Canon FD photo primes. I bought Fotodiox adapters for each, which go on nicely and work well. The Cine Zoom is sharp as a tac, maybe even a little too sharp, depending on your point of view, but certainly a much higher level of crisp sharpness compared to my Sony EX1/Letus combo, as is the case with the FD photo primes as well. Though the vintage primes offer a softer, more film-look. Both lensing options delivered excellent shallow depth focus. I do plan to invest in the Samsung 16-50mm Premium S lens to achieve wide angle focus tracking down the road.

AUDIO SETUP:

Knowing in-camera audio is noisy in all DSLRs, I hated the idea of dual audio, which has become the standard approach to recording professional audio with DSLRs. I own a Zoom H2 and a Sony mic that needs phantom power, so that required I get some sort of powered pre-amp. As is my custom, I started with a low cost solution and tried a Beachtek DXA-Connect, which had attractive hot-shoe mount points, but this unit was too noisy and lacked enough clean gain, so I switched out for a JuicedLink RA222 (that even had an AGC disable mode) and found it provided much cleaner gain into the camera's lowest setting of 1. It mostly canceled out the AGC effect and delivered fairly acceptable audio straight into the camera. But alas, if the audio going into the Zoom is cleaner, which am I likely to use? You guess it, always the cleanest audio. But the JuicedLink to H2 to camera setup is not very streamlined like I'd like it to be. Too many cables, too many batteries, too many devices to setup. And if I wasn't going to use the in-camera audio anyway, why spend the extra dollars on the JuiceLink unit when, for less, I could get a Tascam DR-70D recorder with four channels, which allowed for safety track recording? Easier mounting, less cables, less batteries, less device setup time, and easy meter level viewing. I could even take a line/in house board feed. Just a lot more flexible options with this approach. So, I too, have now joined the ranks of dual recording workflow. Dang!
Tascam DR-70D rigged on rails to counter balance and easy viewing meters


VIDEO PERFORMANCE:

Most all of the reviews or video samples I have seen only speak to the 4K or UHD video quality (note: most never show the camera moving). I find this curious as there is likely more HD production to be done on this camera given market demand and it's superior HD rolling shutter performance. So these initial samples are 1920x1080 29.97p with a few 23.98p on the timeline as well.


1920x1080 29.97p Video clips showed minor artifacts on cheek kicker in wide angle

As stated above, the clarity of this camera is amazing! But I did see some 
moiré on certain clothing or backgrounds and some digital compression noise, aliasing and/or artifacts after file conversion (see clips). Moiré is a common issue with DSLRs, and really, with many digital cameras. There are different kinds of moiré and it changes with millimeter, camera angle, distance to subject, and to a degree, the amount of detail set in the camera. The example below shows moiré on the man's collar because he was wearing a very fine striped shirt that would pretty much moiré on any camera. 


Moire on collar in wide shot only (23.98p), +2 black level
Sharpness set to -9 did not eliminate moire, +2 black level (29.97p)
On this shot I did go into the dynamic range settings and brought the sharpness down to -9 (tops out at -10), however, there is still moiré on his collar too. I did not see a huge difference in sharpness either. It was rather subtle for setting it so low. 

Using Digital Anarchy BeautyBox

I found a Premiere Pro plug-in from Digital Anarchy called BeautyBox that was able to clean up the moiré on this man's collar above, but was only partially able to clean up the moiré on this man's collar below.

Using Digital Anarchy BeautyBox

And obviously, BeautyBox would not be useful in cleaning up large areas of architecture as it seems to be a pixel blending plug-in. BTW - it is excellent on cleaning blemishes and shine on people's skin.

Certainly, some cameras handle moire better than others because some have anti-aliasing filters built in. The NX1 does not. The A7s and GH4 is said to do a better job in this regard, but with every lens, every subject matter? I doubt it. At what point do we say this moiré is acceptable or unacceptable? My Sony EX1 would rarely moire with the Letus combo because the detail of the sensor and lens combination wasn't as clear.

I researched anti-moiré filters and found a pretty thorough test done by Barry Green using Caprock made filters. These are in-front of lens filters. I found his results would sway me away from trying the products because he determined you have to match the right filter for the right millimeter. Time consuming, thus not practical in the field. Plus the filters introduced a host of side-effects while combating moiré like blur, color shift, contrast shifts, etc.

A better product comes from Mosaic Engineering with their VAF series of behind-the-lens filters designed for mostly Canon cameras. This product is said to work with all millimeters. However there is not currently one for the NX1. And it also has a few caveats noted here on their site.

Zeiss makes a filter called Softar which has some anti-moiré qualities but also adds some degree of softness and bloom to highlights.

I always record in the camera's highest quality setting and convert at the Pro Quality level. The luminance option was set to 0-255 with dynamic range on, Smart Range off, black level 0 for some shots and +2 for others (factory shots and guy with marble background).


+2 black level setting (23.98p)

I found color to be fairly accurate, leaning toward warmer tones. Custom white balance works nicely and I appreciate that it samples a small box area on screen so I don't have to fill the entire frame with a gray or white sample.


Reasonable dynamic range (23.98p)

I did a shoot outside as well (though not in these clips) and found even at 100 ISO, I am going to need some ND to get shallow focus images. To solve this, I recently purchased a Schneider IR ND9, which I'm hoping will also help combat any IR issues outdoors. I can also pair that up with a pola for greater stop control. These are expensive filters in 4x5.65 P size for my matte box, but a must have when you are putting PL glass on this camera.

OPERATION:

As far as operating the camera, I like the the OLED EVF outdoors, but hate that I must start the recording with my eye to the EVF. If you start recording while looking at the LCD and then move your eye to the EVF, you can't get the EVF to activate. This is a pain because I have to start my dual audio recording after I start camera recording, thus I must move my eye away from the EVF a moment. It's just a discipline to remember when outside, always start recording with your eye to the EVF.

I wish Samsung had provided continuous peaking for the LCD or EVF during recording, not just when you punch in on magnification before recording. Most of the time I want peaking on rather than hunting for focus during moves. Continuous peaking is really needed for manual focus lenses.


It's also annoying that in order to punch in for magnification I have to unplug the HDMI cable to monitor. Also have to unplug the monitor cable to playback video with audio out of the headphone's jack. These are exactly the kinds of things that make DSLR video production difficult and make me always yearn for my Arri Amira.


CONCLUSION:
If not for the budget constraints of a particular project, I don't know that I would have bought this camera over the A7s, just because I think Sony has a leg up on Samsung knowing what video shooters need in terms of codec, dynamic range, low light capability, minimizing moiré, etc. I would love to see my PL lens on an A7s and compare. But at the same time this camera is at least 1K cheaper, more actually, when you factor in the higher adapter costs and external recorder for 4K recording. Budgets and shooting situations dictate what tools we use in the field. When a producer says he wants to shoot with a DSLR I'm to understand that he or she is accepting the short-comings of these cameras to save the budget. They want a reasonably good result and I think the Samsung NX1 can certainly provide that in most cases. I love the sharp image it delivers, and so far, clients are pleasantly surprised. As I fiddle with settings, (sharpness, black level, luminance, etc.) I think I'm going to like this camera more and more and glad I didn't pay a higher price for another camera that would still end up with a long list of short-comings.

I've learned that the market decides what works and what doesn't, what's acceptable and what isn't. Doesn't matter as much what I personally think about DSLRs so long as the client likes the images and the price he or she is paying. I want the camera to be easy and flexible to work with in the field while delivering great images. The Samsung NX1 seems to meet me half way, better than most, and holds a promising future ahead if they can continue to improve it.

Here's the link to the online video clips in their untouched form. No color correction or effects applied.

My next blog posting will be test shots of architecture using different lenses and different record sizes from 1080 to UHD to check moiré again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Arri Amira shoots cars well! And Adobe makes post easy!

This past weekend I got to visit the guys out at what is affectionately known as The 'Cudashop in Wylie, TX to shoot some new and old fast cars, modified for the need-for-speed. These cars were beautiful and the day had perfect lighting conditions, just a thin layer of cloud in the sky for the most part. The concept was a tribute to guys who love fast cars and keep the vintage ones on the road.


Whenever possible, I prefer to set the camera up 2K ProRes 4444, 23.98fps base and Log-C. I was shooting the cars peeling out at 23.98fps and 100 fps mostly, but a couple shots were 120fps and one was 200fps, which felt a little too slow, but very cool. 


My lens is a Canon Cine Zoom 30-105mm that really delivers that nice cinematic yet sharp look. I also used a IB/E 2X extender for many of the peel outs for that tighter, more compressed, dynamic image. I thought about increasing the shutter rate but opted to allow natural motion blur at 180 degrees. Also thought about adding a pola filter but decided it might cancel out the reflections in the glass and I wanted them to retain the sheen the sky was naturally providing. It's the sheen that makes cars look great!


What was cool to see was how the Amira in Log-C really retains the highlights in the sheet metal and glass that reflects the sky while at the same time seeing into the shadows at the front of the cars. All the cars were pretty much 3/4 back lit or back lit in the peel outs. I generally stayed low to the ground to maximize the power of these cars.


Upon ingesting the footage into Premiere Pro CC 2014 (updated) I found the Log-C clips were automatically given a Rec.709 LUT, which is cool to edit with without correction, but of course at some point I'm going to want to tweak it in SpeedGrade. So I learned I could turn off the LUT in the Master Clips (though one clip at a time) before linking to SpeedGrade, where I reapplied the Amira 709 LUT, but now was able to tweak the primary layer. I then added another primary layer on top to create a grad filter affect in the sky as if I had used a tobacco grad.


The beauty of this approach, compared to adding a traditional grad filter in camera, is I now have better control over the grad placement and how soft or hard an edge I want, or even what color I want the grad to be, or whether I really want the grad at all. And because of the wide 14+ stops of dynamic range of the Amira, I can actually pull detail out of the sky, (should there have been some clouds). Lower dynamic range cameras would lose that information unless they used some type of ND grad filter. In SpeedGrade I allowed a little soft transition from warm to natural blue.

Now I have always loved using grad filters, ND and colors, but the problem is they cover the entire upper third even if you don't want it entirely covered, plus they don't adjust for the action as the composition changes. They can become very apparent. And if I decide to grade the entire scene warm, as I did in this case, a "baked in" grad would go warmer still, which might not be what I want. In SpeedGrade I can decide the amount of warmth in both elements independently.


We also took a few cars out on the road for a traveling shot. I just set the tripod low in the bed of a pickup truck. Here I shot slow-mo simply to help minimize the bumps in the road. And by shooting 2K I had a slightly larger frame over 1080 to stabilize the shot in Affect Effects using Warp Stabilizer.

My computer is a HP Z800 with a single 6 core processor and it handled the ProRes footage very well, even switching back and forth between Premiere Pro and SpeedGrade. 

Many thanks to Adobe for finally updating SpeedGrade to allow display output to my Dream Color monitor. Before, I always had to "guess" my grading on the system's non-color accurate View Sonic and then go back to Premiere to get output to the Dream Color via the Blackmagic card.

Ultimately, Amira and Adobe make life easy and full of creative choices. This whole shoot was pretty much available light, just a little bounce card for close ups on people. Mind you perfect lighting conditions truly helped, and being able to select ideal angles too, but I like the technology combination.

A big thank you goes to Clint Cash who organized the great guys at The Cudashop. And also a big thank you to Mark Montgomery for helping out and taking those production stills of me and the Amira.

Here's the link to the finished spot.

Sometime in the next few weeks I'm planning to upgrade my Amira to UHD and blog about that experience. Stay tuned! And thanks for your visit.






Friday, January 16, 2015

Arri Amira on the NFL sidelines

Since receiving my own Amira last November, I've been looking for opportunities to use the camera in different situations. Kind of a bucket list dream of mine has always been to shoot an NFL game from the sidelines. An industry peer and friend, Ted Barnett of Lone Wolf Media, has been shooting every home game of the Dallas Cowboys for the past two seasons. He shoots extreme closeups of the game in a way the average broadcast doesn't cover. He calls it "sizzle" footage that the Cowboys organization uses on the famous jumbo-tron overhead in Jerry World's AT&T stadium as pre-game entertainment. It jazzes up the crowd to see this fluid, yet powerful footage from a cinematographer's perspective.



So naturally, once I had my Amira, I pressed Ted to get me down there. He was excited by the idea to compare our footage, and he got me a pass for the Cowboys - Lions Wild Card Playoff game on January 4th, 2015. Typically, Ted outfits his Sony F55 with a few primes to shoot the game. This day he was going to use his Red 300mm and give me his PL2x extender made for Ablecine by IB/E. It's a quality piece of glass that turned my Canon 30-105mm Cine Zoom into a 60-210mm zoom at a loss of 2 stops. It's especially designed to take deep seated PL lenses and it accepted my Canon Cine Zoom easily. I was curious if the extender would affect the quality images I am used to from my Canon lens. Would there be blurring at the edges, or other aberrations? But I found no such degradation from this adapter. It is a quality product.


We wanted to setup our cameras as identically as possible starting with 120fps, a high shutter rate, he used 1000/sec. I used 500/sec. 3200 ISO, which sounds pretty high for a bright stadium, but with an over-crank frame rate, fast shutter, and 2 stops lost, I needed to push the camera. I started out around f4 when there was sun light coming in and finished wide open at f2.8 on my lens after sundown. Because Ted needed to turn the footage over quickly to the Cowboys, we both baked in Rec. 709 as we recorded. We both white balanced off the same gray card.

I used the pre-game warm-ups as practice shooting action. I found I could follow the ball and focus far and near at this slow pace. Because the Amira weighs 11 pounds alone, I wanted to minimize what went on the system. Adding my lens plus the extender was 6 pound and then running an Anton Bauer Hytron added a nice 5 pound counter weight behind. I was holding between 22-25 pounds (kind of like the old Betacam days) and I was grateful for having Amira's unique shoulder and EVF adjustment on the camera. Ted typically uses his hi-hat to shoot with the 300mm for steady, ground level shots. I was planning on shooting mostly standing or kneeling, like the NFL Film guys were doing, though they had servo lenses. So ultimately, I did not add my rails, matte box, follow focus or grip handles. I didn't want the extra weight and I only saw slight flare when pointing up toward the stadium lights. And beside, I figured my hands would always be on the focus and zoom rings anyway.


There was a great energy being down on the field with the players during pre-game because I was allowed to roam anywhere I wanted, so long as I didn't get into a practice lane. The famous Cowboys Cheerleaders came out and performed. I was starting to get use to the rather short focus pulls from 60 feet to 20 feet, relying on peaking in the EVF to keep me on target. At 200mm and f2.8-4 this was more arduous than usual.


When the event started I got positioned right where the players come out to the roar of the crowd and quickly after that had to pick a position for the kickoff. There is a yellow line, perhaps just a yard off the field of play where all photographers can stand, sit, kneel, whatever, which is pretty close access to the action. We just moved around freely trying to avoid refs, coaches, down marker officials, the best we could. Only NFL Film guys can cross that line and be right at the edge of the playing field.

It didn't take long for me to realize that following the action during a live game in the tight style of shooting we were doing is a whole lot harder than during warm-ups. At ground level the 22 players tend to block a view of the action much of the time. Ted knew from experience the best place for his kind of action was looking down the line of scrimmage a lot of the time. But he couldn't follow an entire play from there. He was going for key moments of action. I was trying to cover him for more of the play but still give him that dynamic closeup that really immerses you in the action.


I blew a lot of plays, especially passing plays away from me or deep down the field. Following the brown ball in the dark crowd using red peaking proved challenging to say the least. Peaking almost became a hindrance with so many busy red lines going everywhere. Next time, I might try focusing without peaking. But as the game progressed, I did get better, and fortunately, I managed to cover all the important big plays pretty well.


Shooting slow motion has it's pros and cons. It smooths out your movement nicely but also tends to exaggerate how slow I'm focusing. So what actually takes 1/2 to 1 second to find focus plays back in 2-3 painful seconds. And the focus pull is often minute on the ring so it's easy to go too far. But there is no denying the fun and energy of covering these spectacular athletes in a deafening stadium.



I only own two 120 gig CFast cards and found I could shoot a quarter and a half of action per card at 120fps using ProRes 422 at 29.97 base rate (basically about 16 minutes of footage). Ted had arranged for a couple assistants (thanks Clay and Payton) to help with batteries and data wrangling for me, right in the end zone, under the rail of beer drinking spectators. Yikes! No damage, thank God!

The next day, Ted got all my footage and quickly assembled his highlight video for the Cowboys. He said they really loved it and they put it up on their website, but have since purged it, so here it is on YouTube

It's generally easy to see which shots are Ted's and which are mine because he has the tighter angles and I have the looser angles. Plus the F55 recorded skin tone a little more red than the Amira. He color corrected both by adding contrast and saturation.

Also, here is a link on my website of what I put together of just my footage.

Though my shoulder was plenty sore the next day, I felt the Amira performed very well. At 3200 ISO the image does get a little noisy, enough so I used Neat Video to clean it up. But the images were very dynamic and of high quality. 

It was a wonderful experience and I hope Ted can convince the Cowboys organization to add me to Ted's crew for every home game next season.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Arri Amira slow-motion product pours with fluorescent lights

Having worked with a rental Arri Amira over the summer on a dozen political spots (and loving it), I was anxious to get mine, which finally came in November. I was happy that the first shoot out of the box was a spec ad for Herman Marshall Texas Bourbon and that it would require some slow-motion product pours of bourbon over ice. The 60 second ad depicts a weary Santa home from his Christmas rounds and ready to kick back and start his own Christmas party with a glass of Herman Marshall Texas made bourbon whiskey.


Camera specs for the shoot were as follows: 23.976 project frame rate, ISO 800, 2K resolution, ProRes 4444 color space, C-log, Canon 30-105mm Cine zoom lens.


Like any tabletop shoot, I tend to use soft box lights overhead of the product. In this case I suspended a light weight, 2 bank, Flo-Light over a 2x3 silk to create a soft, even sheen over the glass bottle and then placed large white cards next to the camera lens for bounce back into the product label. This can be tricky because the white card also puts a sheen on the front of the glass that can make the liquid look milky. So bringing the card around the side of the glass helped to clear the glass front up. Santa, played by Pascal Thierry Gaulon, was lit with a soft box edge. Both lights were further diffused with 216 and color corrected with full CTO. The daylight lamps actually tend to be around 5000 kelvin in color temperature so full CTO actually set my white balance to around 2700k. That way my fire light in the background wouldn't go overly orange.


I flagged the product light off of Santa so he wouldn't go too flat and still appear to have a firelight edge. My only concern was whether using these fluorescent lights would introduce any flicker in slow-motion photography with the Amira. The ice drop and wider pour were shot at 100 fps and the extreme close up was shot at 200 fps. No visible flicker was seen! I had to boost the ISO up to 1600 on the 200 fps shot and was still a little short of perfect exposure, but knew color correction would bring the image out nicely without adding noise.

The rest of the shots were pretty easy normal photography. When Santa opens his present you will notice some real firelight dancing on the carpet and hearth below. To achieve that, I lowered my key light to force opening the lens aperture to wide open. On this shot I really appreciated a camera with wide dynamic range because I have a black label on the bottle and white fur trim on Santa's suit under the same lighting condition.


Same sort of approach was given in the foyer (wide open aperture) so the candle lights would stand out. My original intent when the door opens for Santa was to have him be a complete silhouette, but the Amira is so light sensitive, he actually had detail from bounce light hitting the outside wall. I decided I liked the slight detail and kept it, otherwise I would have had to flag the doorway just to kill the bounce back. The still below is from an iPhone, which isn't set at the exposure level used in the spot.


I owe a big thank you to J.P. Morgan for his grip help, Pascal for playing Santa, and Chris Magid and Eric Williamson for loaning some gear.

The video was edited in Premiere Pro CC and color graded in Speed Grade and then exported to H264 for YouTube. Here's the video link.

Happy Holiday's from Best Film & Video!

Alan Lefebvre

Friday, September 12, 2014

Arri Amira: First Looks with Models

In early August I was lucky enough to schedule a commercial shoot in Nevada using the new Arri Amira. The much anticipated camera had just arrived at MP&E Dallas and they let me be the first to use it. I've been very eager to try it out and now I have logged a couple solid weeks using the camera and have to say I'm a huge fan! The images are stunning and the camera is a joy to use!

But before I could take it to Nevada on a professional shoot, I needed some time with the camera to get the feel and operation of it. Nothing worse than fumbling around with a new camera on a paying gig, looking for menu items and wondering how all the buttons work. And since I've been slowly building up new images for my latest demo reel, I thought about a photographer friend of mine, Michael Owens. He shoots beautiful stills of every day women at his studio in Deep Ellum, east of downtown Dallas. His place is a wonderful old brick loft with a long bank of large windows facing west. He puts sheers over the windows and when the sun hits those sheers he gets awesome natural side light that he uses to capture the beauty of all these women. I asked Michael if he had a shoot going on and would he let me come shoot some video. Not only was he willing, he put together a team and made a proper shoot out of it.




It seemed like the perfect opportunity to really get to know the Amira in a real world situation. My plan was to shoot the session documentary style with a combination of handheld and tripod shots all with my Canon 30-105mm Cine Zoom. I set the camera up using the highest ProRes codec at 444, 2K, 23.976 fps, 400 ISO, and probably ND 6. (Love the full spectrum IR roll in ND filters!).  Michael's studio is so bright, it was almost like shooting at an outdoor location.

Since Michael had his very talented team of makeup and hair stylists, along with three models, I figured I'd shoot some of the prep the models go through before the shoot. I just shot available light and worked around them. I only added a 1x1 LED panel light to help offset the contrast a bit.


All of the stills (except the very top one) are frame grabs from the Amira. The entire video is on YouTube.

Admittedly, I fumbled around a little, getting use to where switches were on the camera, but frankly, it takes just a couple hours of use to really get to know the camera's layout and configuration options. The much touted bottom shoulder rest and top handle/eye piece bracket were easy to adjust for balanced hand-holding. Even with my nearly 5 lb. lens plus matte box it's very manageable. (I've only gotten better with it since). Focus was made easy using the peaking function in the very clear and crisp OLED viewfinder. I had taken a general light meter reading but found I didn't have time to measure every angle. This was documentary style and I ended up trusting the zebras for most of the shoot. I love it that I'm able to see a Rec 709 LUT in the VF while recording C-Log to the new 120 gig CFast cards. And I could record for 53 minutes at the highest quality setting without changing cards! (Of course, less depending on high speed frame rates).  



What was great about this test was experiencing the wide dynamic range the camera has. 14+ stops! It was more than a month later, and I'd shot 10 spots with it, before I was able to come back and see how my first attempt with the camera turned out. It was so exciting to be able to do so much to the 444 image in Adobe Speed Grade. I had exposed everything pretty well, but was thrilled to be able to adjust just the shadows or the med tones or highlights.



Notice how well the sheers hold up even though I'm exposing for her face. Yes, we had large bounce cards, but still, to hold detail in white sheers, getting full sun is amazing! Even out the window there is detail. Looking at the waveform I see how well the camera protects the highlights in C-log. Hope's hair is getting raw sun light and you can see color in the strands of hair! Using Speed Grade, I never let skin go much above 70 IRE. 


Another thing I loved seeing was how well the Amira handled flash photography. Usually we see only a part of the flash because of rolling shutter. But the Amira writes the information so fast that almost all of the flash frames were complete from top to bottom. And I was using the standard 180 degree shutter.




Over the course of this year, like many DPs, it seems, I've used a lot of different professional digital cameras, from BMCC to the Alexa and everything in between. We are seeing impressive imagery out of small, inexpensive cameras. So is the Amira worth the hefty price tag, especially with the 444 color space option? How much better is the image, really? Is it $25K better than a Sony F55? Is it $52K better than a BMCC shooting RAW? In the end, the way I see it, it's like the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $200 bottle of wine. Both may satisfy and serve the purpose, but when you want the very best, sometimes there is no substitute. I think many producers want the very best, and if they rule out film, then I personally think the next step down is either an Alexa or Amira.


Many thanks to the team of talented creative people starting with Michael Owens, who brings the best out of the women he photographs; to makeup & hair artists: Kelsey Rae Capo, Michelle McBride; stylist: Becca Jett; models: Hope Harrison, Toni Martin, Julie Petaros; video assist: Michael Frye; and composer: Ryan Irby of IrbyBeats. Also special thanks to MP&E Dallas for letting me have the camera a day early to test it.