måndag 13 juni 2011

Docu-work with the Sony F3

I shoot current affairs and documentaries. Some people would say that the F3 is not for me. I disagree. In a sense they are right of course; an ENG-camera with a nice long zoom is very comfortable when you are shooting “the real world”. But there is another aspect to it – the look!
With the F3 you can take a big leap away from the bland esthetics of news and low budget documentaries and enter the same realm as high budget productions traditionally shot on film without breaking the bank. It is true that this possibility has been available ever since Canon released the 5DmkII but the image quality of that camera and its siblings has unfortunately not been able to match its nice look, at least not for HD acquisition. And there have been other serious problems in using DSLR:s for serious documentary work, including poor sound, heavy moiré and aliasing and limited recording times with the camera shutting off after about 15 minutes.

Docu-setup of F3 with Zacuto rails, two radio recievers and a shotgun microphone.

But the F3 is not trouble free either. I was lucky to get one of the first Sony PMW-F3 cameras that were shipped and ever since I unboxed it I have struggled to get my system and myself up to par with what I could do with my previous setup centered around a Sony PMW-EX1r. Now – when I say up to par I am not talking about the quality of the images, the F3 wins that battle hands down. No, I’m talking ergonomics, flexibility, being able to control focus and exposure in a run-and-gun situation, the time it takes for me to get ready shooting and more.
  The purpose of this article is to share with you my experiences after four months of shooting with the F3 and hopefully to get a discussion going on how to keep improving all aspects of using the F3 in non-narrative situations.
The first days and weeks with the F3 were somewhat of a struggle. It felt like a real brick next to my EX1r and after putting on a lens and picking it up my initial excitement faded away a bit. This was until I took it out for a first shoot. When I got home and inspected the footage I forgave the F3 for being a brick.

This is the first footage I shot with the F3 using a very limited choice of lenses View on ExposureRoom

However, this article is not about the great image out of the cam, we all know it’s great, it’s about my struggle to collect these great images in situations where time often is scarce, lighting is hard to control and the shooting location is more or less where you happen to end up.

I think the largest problems with the F3 compared to a traditional ENG-cam are the following.
1.       Bad ergonomics for handheld
2.       The viewfinder/LCD
3.       The limitations of not working with full range zoom ENG-lens
4.       The difficulties induced by short depth of field caused by the large 35 mm sensor.
I will go through these problem areas and give a few suggestions on how to work around them in a minute but first I’d like to point out what I consider a huge advantage in using the F3 for documentary work. In short – the sensor! Two aspects of the sensor make life much easier when short on time or when the shooting location is less than optimal.
1.      The size of the sensor gives you very short depth of field using the right lenses. (More on that in a bit). This makes it so much easier to set up nice interview shot. The troubles of trying to get a decent background for your interview are greatly reduced. I now approach nightmare scenarios such as conference rooms with only white walls and the occasional poster, with much more confidence. It is just so much easier to get a nice shot when you can throw the background out of focus. This aspect of using the F3 almost outweighs the problems and extra time you sometimes need to spend when shooting with it.
2.      The second time saver is the incredible low light capability of this camera. Basically my new ground rule is – if you can see what you want to shoot, you can shoot it. With a fast lens and creative use of ambient light you need a really small light kit. For most interview situations I only bring a small Litepanel Micro pro as an extra kick for key light and let nature do the rest. Below are two examples of this.

The advantages of short depth of field also make it easier to shoot nice b-roll, although you have to consider the hassle of changing lenses a lot. But let’s focus on the problems for a while. I’ll go through them one by one.
The ergonomics of this camera are definitely not ideal. It’s a brick without any design effort invested in making it usable for hand held work. This does not mean that it cannot be used for hand held, it only means that you have to put some effort into making it work.
Initially I tried using my old so called “el cheapo” (credit Philip Bloom) shoulder mount but the camera was far too heavy for it to work. The “el cheapo” works well with lighter cameras despite all the weight of the camera being in front of the operator thanks to the chest support. The F3 however, proved too heavy.
After that I tried a Zacuto system with shoulder pad and counter weights. It was balanced but the rig was a monster. Now, I’m not saying that counter weighted rigs are no good. In fact I think they can be an excellent solution. However the problem with the F3 is that the viewfinder is useless and the LCD is placed in a way so that the camera has to be placed quite far in front of the operator to end up in a comfortable position relative to the operators eye. This results in a front heavy rig and lots of counter weight to compensate. The result is a very long and heavy rig.
There are two solutions to this. One is to use an external view finder such as the Zacuto or Cineroid EVF. An external EVF can be mounted further forward of the F3-body closer to the lens and this will allow for the camera to rest on your shoulder. This in conjunction with a shoulder pad and a smaller counter weight would make up a nice compact balanced setup of traditional shoulder mount type. None of these viewfinders were available when I got my F3 and only the Cineroid is when writing this so I had to choose a different path. The solution for me was the Easyrig. Despite the slightly silly looking “carrot hanging from a stick” design it has proved to be an excellent solution. The Easyrig Turtle X strong can carry up to 6 kg (13 lb). With matte box, rails, follow focus and a small lens my F3 weighs in at 5,5 kg. I was a little worried that this would be too close to its limits but it works just fine. The Easyrig really does what it claims to do. It puts the weight on your hips and back instead of in your hands. It is easy to hold the camera still for a 20-30 minute interview without strain. Another advantage over the shoulder mount solution is that you can pull down the camera to waist height and shoot from there just as easily. This is ideal when standing up and filming people that are sitting around a table.
The downside of the Easyrig is that it is hard to actually run or walk while shooting without the string jerking the camera and creating jumpy footage. Most of this you can compensate for after a little practice and after I realized that you really need three contact points with the camera, my camera work became a lot steadier. I now support the camera with my right hand on a handle, my left hand on the follow focus and the back of the camera pressed against my chest. This works really well but I will probably try to improve it further by adding some kind of pillow or shoulder pad to the back of the rails for even greater stability.

Another good thing about the turtle X is that it doubles as a backpack. The backpack can easily be removed and carries a bunch of lenses and sound gear. In this image the back pack is removed.
To conclude the ergonomics part of this article I must say that I am now very confident and comfortable when running and gunning with the F3. Whatever other people might say – it actually is possible!

Viewfinder/LCD - exposure and focusing

There is a lot of debate concerning the viewfinder and LCD-screen of the F3. In short I think the viewfinder stinks and the LCD is great. I wish I could just remove the whole viewfinder (you can actually remove the top bit. Can someone please make a cap for it!). The viewfinders image is sharp but it is too tiny and the viewfinder is placed in a very uncomfortable position. I am also very annoyed by the rainbow effects that you get when looking around at the image. I don’t know what causes this but it reminds me of what you sometimes see on DLP-projectors.
The LCD-screen however is my friend. Ever since I got my EX1 (that uses the same LCD-screen) more than three years ago I’ve been very impressed by it. It is very sharp, fairly colour accurate and once you are used to it you can judge exposure extremely well with it. I find that I can see exactly when the red channel starts to blow out in people’s faces or when highlights get over exposed. Combined with the histogram, that I love, exposure is not an issue. Or rather, it wouldn’t be if I only shot indoors. Shooting out in the sun on a bright day makes things more complicated. However, I find that a Hoodman H-400 works very well for me. The histogram prevents me from misjudging exposure due to high surrounding sunlight and the Hoodman shades the screen enough so that focus is not a problem.
Focusing a Super35 HD-camera is not super easy but the peaking feature of the EX-series beats everything else I have seen. Once you are used to the coloured peaking it is a great help when focusing! I prefer yellow peaking set to low or mid sensitivity. Speaking of focusing – let’s talk about the really fun part of owning this camera – glass!
ENG lenses versus still lenses
The largest difference between the F3 and large ENG-cameras as well as smaller handheld pro cameras is off course the large sensor and the multitude of lenses you can use with this camera. After getting an F3 you are faced with a lot of different possibilities when choosing glass.
Basically you can go down three paths; PL-lenses, the Sony ENG-style lens and still lenses.
To get the absolute best you should buy PL-mount cinelenses. They have it all: Image quality, speed (large apertures), ruggedness, they have gears for your follow focus, little or no breathing (zooming when changing focus) and they are parfocal (focus stays in the same place when zooming). Also – the F3 can “talk” to them (if they have the Cooke or Arri-interface). That means that the camera displays aperture settings on the LCD and you can even set up custom made profiles for each of you lenses, changing color balance and other cool stuff, and have the camera change profiles automatically when changing lenses.
Apart from size (zooms can be huge) there is basically only one problem with these lenses: THEY ARE EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE! Traditionally PL-lenses have been used exclusively on 35 mm film cameras and in Hollywood lens costs are not a big problem. Also – the demand for PL-mount-lenses is only a fraction of that of a still camera lenses. That also affects price a lot.
Hopefully we will soon see a lens manufacturer creating a new value line of PL-lenses aimed at the growing Sony PMW-F3/FS100 and Panasonic AG-AF101/100 crowd. Until then, if you don’t have lots of cash lying around, your best deal is to use still lenses.
The Sony 18-252, ENG-style lens
Now, this is a very interesting lens that is not yet available. It has been shown behind glass at NAB and looks very promising. It has a great range, 18-252! This is a full range zoom and it could work as your only lens. It will basically transform you F3 into an ENG-camera. There have been different rumors regarding how fast the lens will be. One of them says it will be a constant T3.8 all the way through the zoom range. Let’s hope so! The largest disadvantage with this lens I fear will be the price. It will probably cost as much as the camera.
Still lenses
This is the path that I currently travel and so far I am really impressed with the quality I get out of still lenses on the F3. There are some downsides, but at least to me, the price difference compensates for them several times over.
So what are the disadvantages? Well – first of all some lenses can hardly be used at all. When writing this the much awaited Birger adapter for Canon EF-lenses has not yet started to ship which makes the transition for Canon DSLR-shooters to the F3 less interesting. Right now the best solution is to use Nikon lenses with the MTF F3 to Nikon-adapter. The great thing about this adapter is that you can use it with almost all kinds of Nikon lenses, even newer lenses without an aperture ring. The adapter has its own mechanical control of the lens aperture and it can even be used to override the aperture of older lenses. This is good if you have not had the aperture click-stops removed and want smooth continuous aperture control. Another downside of still lenses is that they don’t have gears for your follow focus. This can easily be solved using one of several third party solutions.
My favorite lens gear is the Zip tie Focus gear from Half inch Rails.
Now you have smooth aperture control and gears on you still lens - is it as good as a PL-lens now? Well, that really depends on what lens you are using. There are some real gems out there that perform almost as well as “real” PL-lenses. You can find still lenses that don’t breath, are par focal and just as sharp and fast at a fraction of the price of a PL-equivalent! One example is the Sigma 18-50 f2.8 (€400) that has the same glass as the equivalent Red zoom ($4000). And when it comes to telezooms it is a hard to beat a tack sharp new Nikon 80-200 f2.8 for €700.
So – will a still lens work for me when running and gunning a documentary? I think so. It’s not as comfortable or flexible to use as an ENG-lens but if you plan your shoot and know what you are after it’s not that different. The difference is that you need to make a choice! You need to ask yourself and the reporter/producer what you really want and choose the right lens before you start shooting a scene. I think this is both an advantage, because it makes you think, and a disadvantage because you are somewhat limited by your choice.
My current collection of lenses. Nothing slower than f2.8. The total cost of these lenses is less than €3000.
When I shoot handheld I almost always use the Sigma 18-50. It gives me a nice zoom range and covers almost all situations. If I want a more compressed and intense look I put on a Tokina 28-70. I lose a lot of the wide angle but I can get shallower depth of field and better close ups. When in a car or other confined spaces or when I want that special look I use my Tokina 11-16. And if I’m shooting where it is really really dark I choose my prime 50mm f1.4. They all give different looks and that is what I love about using the F3. I have so many more parameters to play with to create the images I want.
So, the bottom line when it comes to the F3 as a documentary tool is basically that it can be great BUT it can also be horrible. It’s really up to how you configure it and if you are prepared to work around its quirkiness. If you can see yourself changing lenses a lot and don’t mind researching how to put together a balanced system for hand held, you are going to do just fine. And your images will reward you for your trouble. That I can guarantee.

8 kommentarer:

  1. I bought a MarZpak about 10 years ago and it's similar to a turtle X ... love it and use it with my ex3. I haven't tried it with my ex3/SG Blade 35mm lens adapter yet but ... it's possible!

  2. A welcome overview, thanks, Ola. I'm in a similar situation. I don't do as much news work, but more documentary and so when people start moving around I really need a good lens range. The Sony zoom would be welcome if the price is right.

    I've ordered the F3, having hired and shot with it already and am keen on its low light sensitivity but am a little concerned about its factory settings. The colour and contrast seemed flat. Do you have preferred profile set ups?

    I also noticed its DOF was much greater than I expected compared with my EX1 and Letus. Do you, for interviews etc, get the shallow DOF you want shooting wide open?

    Finally, I'm trying to get a definitive answer on the FOV of the F3. I've looked at the Abel Cine FOV calculator and read that compared to a full frame camera, eg shooting with Letus adapter, the crop factor on the F3 is x1.5. Does that mean 18mm effectively becomes 27mm?


    Michael Power
    4/41 Sir Thomas Mitchell Road
    Bondi NSW 2026
    t +61 2 9365 4231
    m +61 409 127 686
    e michael@afterglow.net.au
    w www.afterglow.net.au

  3. Michael - it seems like we have a very similar situation, as you point out.
    I have not yet experimented with color and contrast settings in the matrix. What I have done is dialed down sharpness to -15 and increased aperture to +20. I find that the camera gives a greenish/yellowish tone when shooting preset 5600 outdoors. I compensate for this in post. Not a big deal and perhaps a matter of taste.
    I agree that the DOF is much greater compared to my previous EX1 and Letus. Especially when using zoom lenses with an aperture of 2.8. You have to struggle a little harder to get that really short DOP. When I want that I use primes instead. With a 50f1.4 or 85f2 you can still get pretty shallow DOP.
    The crop factor is about 1.5. An 18mm does not technically become a 27mm. It is still an 18mm but it has the same FOV as a 27 mm on a full frame 35 mm stills camera. Another way of looking at it is that the F3 has approximately the same FOV as a Canon 7D.

  4. Fantastic write-up. The more I read about the F3 the more I want to make the leap from the Z7U.

  5. Great review and thank you for doing it. Very clear and useful.
    I'm doing my first long shoot with the F3 next week and I'm using my Nikons (I'm usually a DSLR shooter).

    That Easyrig looks intriguing too, and I liked your video pieces on your site.


  6. Also, thanks for doing it in English!


  7. Thanks Mark!

    You're welcome. Good luck with your shoot.

  8. Thanks Ola for a wonderfull blog you have her. I wonder if you have been able of testing the Sony 18-252 you mention above yet?