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.

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