Monday, March 22, 2010

Hard and Fast Practical Thoughts on the 7D

OK.  First thing, I am not an expert on VDSLR's.  Stu Maschwitz and Ben Cain are really amazing at providing all the technical analysis you'll need.  And you know where to go for your fix of camera test porn.

I realized last week that I needed to regroup a little and pull together what I needed to know to use them successfully.  So, instead of going out on a beautiful Sunday, I turned my apartment into this:

Don't worry, there will be no screen grabs of waveforms or vectorscopes.

What have I learned?

1.  DSLR's are really simple to use.  That's why people who buy them are like crack addicts with them.  They are pretty much a pick it up and shoot kind of deal.  Sure, you can get into superflat curves and whatever, but the real truth is that you can take the standard setting, knock the artificial sharpening down most of the way (lowers the amount of aliasing) and the contrast down some and you are good to go.  Just make sure you know how to white balance the camera correctly.  That is the one aspect that is a little confusing and the one area where I consistently see issues with the finished footage.

2. White balance- the instructions are more complicated than they should be.  Find a white object.  Focus and expose it correctly and then take a photo (you can do this in movie mode) of it.  The camera uses the rectangle in the middle for the white balance calculation, so the whole frame doesn't need to be white.  Then go to the menu, select the 2nd tab (a camera followed by a colon), scroll down to CUSTOM WHITE BALANCE and select it (the "set" button).  Select the image you just shot with either the QUICK CONTROL DIAL or the MAIN DIAL and hit "set" again.   Select OK.   Hit the MENU button again to exit the menus.  Use the WB button on the top of the camera to select CUSTOM WHITE BALANCE and you are good to go.

3.  Heat- if you shoot with the camera running all the time, it may overheat.  If it is your only camera, you are shooting documentary footage, and it is warm out, bring an ice pack and a wash rag to keep the camera cool.

4.  Data Corruption- I have pieced together the following procedures to help prevent data corruption.  Yes, it happens quite a bit.  I've personally seen it and it's all over the boards.
  1.  Format the cards only in the camera
  2.  Be careful putting the cards into readers/cameras.  Bent pins can cause corruption.
  3. Make sure that the camera is done writing and that the computer is done offloading before pulling the card out of the reader/camera.  Always unmount the card before removing it from a card reader.
  4. A remote, but real, possible cause of corruption are computer viruses.
  5. Buy only UDMA cards.  I think that the all the SanDisk Extreme Cards are UDMA. 
  6. Format the cards in the camera before leaving for each shoot to ensure that they are good.
  7. Don't use a super cheap CF card reader.  I use the SanDisk Extreme FW 800 Card Reader (they also make a USB 2.0 version).  The SanDisk Extreme cards seem to be the consensus card I see in production environments, so I bought the reader that they made to go with the cards.  Believe me, I didn't want to spend the extra $40.
5.  For most shooting situations, set your shutter at 1/60th.

6.  If you can afford it, get a lens with Image Stabilization.  Shaky footage seems to be a real hobgoblin with these cameras, particularly on a long lens.  They are hard to hold steady.  I've met one person who is an absolute genius at operating these cameras, keeping them really steady handheld and being able to "blend" the out of focus moments really nicely on the fly.  Most people just can't concentrate enough or practice enough to reach that level.  Or there's always the monopod.

7.  Focus- you wanted shallow depth of field, you've got it now.  Now you know why there's someone on narrative films whose sole job is to ensure that the image is in focus at all times.  Outside of sound issues, an image with "searching" focus is the most issue likely to draw your viewer out of the story you are working so hard to tell.  You don't have to have a follow-focus, fancy mounting gear, etc. But you do have to concentrate always and practice a lot beforehand.  It isn't easy.

8.  Sound- the sound is not very good on these cameras, everyone knows that.  Great sound is essential to any project.  Google "dual system sound DSLR" or something like that and you will get all kinds of solutions. 

I just tried the new Canon E-1 plugin for Final Cut. I'm sure it'll work fine, but I deleted the thumbnail files, and I think you need them to make it work.  My one complaint is that it's getting ridiculous trying to keep up with all the plugins necessary for all the codecs out there.  Somewhere along the line it's easy to lose track of upgrades.  I actually used MPEG Streamclip to batch convert the H.264 files to ProRes today.  It works, is free and is faster than Compressor.

The 7D is an amazing camera, it made a ridiculous, backlit shot of my dining room table look all sexy and romantic.  If I had shot it with my HPX 170, it would have looked like a backlit bunch of stuff on a table.  Just remember, that along with the good comes some annoying and sometimes ridiculous issues.  I promised myself that I wasn't going to post any footage, but it's short and it makes me laugh out loud.   Can someone please explain this?  I've seen lens breathing before but not like this.  Why is it that the white bar only moves?  The dynamic range of the camera explains itself.

Have fun, but for god's sake, don't make your dramatic climax a rack focus shot of a Kodak Super Gray Card.

UPDATE:  I got this explanation from Charles Haine, uber-technologically adept DP/Colorist:

     A lens will breath differently for different colors/wavelengths of
     light, since everything wavelength of light will bend differently.
     Since white light has all the wavelegnths of light in it, it'll spread
     much more, and in more directions.  I think that's why you see some
     color fringing on the white boxes.  Since the black boxes are the
     absence of light, they won't spread as much.

No comments: