InFusion: Beyond Bokeh Art
Posted Jan 27, 2010

Attention Fusion still/video shooters: The honeymoon with so-called "bokeh art" is over. The harsh facts have been revealed. Working with the new generation of HD video-capable still cameras is just plain hard—many times it's frustrating beyond belief for the videographer wanting to take advantage of the buzz and technological edge. These "first born" supertechie cameras are just a year old and haven't grown up enough to let you in on their secrets.

This is the first column in a series aimed squarely at alleviating user panic and at getting the Fusion equipment babies trained and ready to work for you. Please note that I'll be writing only about shooting; transcoding the H.264 delivery format and the concerns of postproduction are other subjects entirely and will not be discussed here.

Trouble in Paradise
Starting off, we must stipulate that Canon introduced HD video capability for spot news reporters and war correspondents who need to make short clips completely ready for broadcast upload. But interest was obviously not limited to the news-gathering crowd. Not only did indie filmmakers instantly ask the 5D Mark II out for a first artistic date, but they fell in love with the beautiful capture. So have studios that film commercial business identity shorts, web clips, product demos, client testimonials, weddings, and events. That's when the problems started jumping out to bite the hands that so quickly embraced the admittedly gorgeous images and low-light capability.

The first and worst of the problems is that, in daylight, you can't see what's happening on the view screen very well, if at all. You crick your neck and dislocate your shoulder to peer at the LCD even in easy, controlled interior lighting. I have a hard time getting the camera physically high enough to see the screen, which means my spine takes the strain as I lean backward to compensate.

If you can actually see the image, how do you know it's in focus? What if the subject moves out of focus range? Even very steady operators who hand-hold their cameras will capture no more smoothly than "Uncle Bob's" shaky-cam. And what on earth do you do about sound since the on-board mic picks up the noise of the camera functions?

All that said, I love the 5D. I'm fascinated. You simply can't kill the beauty of the images. Like everyone else, when the camera debuted, I immediately imagined a long list of possible applications. But I come at it from a somewhat different perspective: My husband and partner, Karl, and I have always been in "fusion" with our artistic concept and technique, melding his video and my stills. So to us, hybrid equipment is just so much more jam for our toast! Karl, I'll admit, first grumped, "Why doesn't everybody just get a real HD video camera?" According to him, and others, his Sony EX3 practically walks on water in matters of exposure, gain, peaking, card capture, and the like.

On the Real Side
Coming back down to earth, reality and economics dictate that few wedding and event photographers can afford to purchase and staff three to five camera positions with this level of equipment. This is where the Canon 5D Mark II can really shine like light from above-it's economical, flexible, green, and beautiful.

But if you want the blessings of hybrid cameras, you've got to get the "prayers" right: Learn the camera settings, make full use of varied adjustments, and think like a still photographer who's looking for iconic imagery; most important, develop lens skills-this is totally new territory for the majority of wedding and event videographers.

It's All About Lenses
The cinematic film look that everyone favors is not, contrary to popular belief, dependent on 24p frame rate. Control of lenses and light, object relationships, proportions and angles, limiting or expanding depth
of field at will-these are much more important issues where the art of moving pictures lives. And the ability to change lenses on the 5D in a few seconds to alter the feel of the capture really boosts you on the way to cinematic style.

By now we've all heard about the hair-tearing time and aggravation it took to make the first round of exciting Fusion short subjects we've admired online.

We saw a fabulous art gallery full of bokeh art at the Collision Conference at the LA Film School in Hollywood last August and on SmugMug.com and heard in person the hair-raising production tales from the filmmakers. My job is to reveal some simple caveats and tips for savvy lens use to help you avoid the pain and frustration of these early efforts. I'll intersperse some juicy practical hints for success.

It's crucial to predetermine the role your hybrid camera is going to play in your production. Take advantage of the plusses without trying to make the camera do jobs that are out of its range. Your choices here will dictate the basic first steps toward the best results.

Fixed Camera POSITIONS Over Time
Sticks are your friend. Buy the most expensive video tripod you can afford, which will probably cost as much or more than the 5D itself. Sachtler is our recommended brand, if you can swing the budget. You'll eventually get one anyway!

Moving Around, Photojournalist Style
Choosing a rig is a dicey business. There are many manufacturers and many setups, each with very different ergonomics, add-on features, and prices. Steadicam-type gear is both less expensive and less flexible than rigs.

Beware that still camera controls are situated on the right of the camera, and most rigs are set up for video-style controls on the left. Take advantage of modular systems (our favorites are Zacuto and Redrock Micro), and set them up individually to suit your hands and physical size-like Tinkertoys for adults!

Switching Back and Forth Between Stills and Video
Switching is the hardest part of Fusion. If you must switch periodically on a shoot, choose a very light rig that will not get in the way of still functions or that
can be disassembled in an instant.

Here's a $10 solution tip: Try a heavy camera strap such as the Lowepro, worn bandolier-style, crossed over the body. With your elbows locked into your ribs, pull the strap tight about 1.5' out in front of you; it will give you improved stability for guerrilla-style video work. This simple technique is a winner at a location where a video camera-even a small one-might be less than welcome. Of course you can't use
a magnifier over the LCD because you've got to be able to see the rough framing. And this won't work well in outdoor light.

Precision Framing and Focus on the LCD
As I mentioned earlier, the shortcomings of the LCD are a constant issue with the 5D. A must-have is a Hoodman Cinema Loupe kit or the "Mercedes" of this type of gadget-the Z-Finder magnifying unit from Zacuto (for more on the Z-Finder, see Jerry Cleveland's In the Field article in the December 2009 issue).

Sound Recording
The 5D's ability to capture sound is surprisingly good. If you're a few feet from the subject, there's no contaminating ambient noise, as long as you don't move the noisy camera controls.
Grab a cute little battery-powered Sennheiser MKE 400, but remember the distance limitations of any shotgun mic. Our MKE 400 picks up great tone in a medium-sized room for both a person about 4'-6' in front of the camera as well as the camera operator behind the unit doubling as interviewer. We've yet to try it in extreme conditions.

In-Camera settings
For insider details on camera settings, read the upcoming issues of this series. Do you need some help right now? Canon's telephone support (800-828-4040) has never failed me! It's a gold mine of information.

Best Lenses for Weddings and Events
With these basics out of the way, we're now on to the lens part. Lenses really help you take advantage of hybrid cameras. I loosely classify lenses into wide, normal, moderate telephoto, telephoto, and specialty categories, as well as zoom and fixed focus. There are basic uses, handling tips, and ways to break the rules for each. The first consideration is, of course, what lenses to buy, and I'll surprise you with which lenses may suit your purposes better!

Zoom and fixed focal-length lenses, also called primes, each come in two subgroups. Here's why the more expensive, heavier, and better quality constant f-stop zooms are a necessity: Progressive zooms start with a higher f-stop, which increases as you increase the focal length, thereby defeating both the low-light capability of the camera and the cinematic shallow depth of field.

But wait! There's good news in the fixed focal-length category. I love using a standard 50mm and the 85mm and 100mm moderate telescopic lenses. And I use the less-expensive Canon models. (There's no comparison here of aftermarket brands.) My experience rates them a far better choice in most circumstances than the superfast, top-of-the-line lenses that cost three to four times the price. Check manufacturers' specs carefully, or—better yet—actually try the lenses out in person.

Here's the big secret: Standard lenses are made with excellent glass, and they auto-focus quicker, even though they have a slightly higher f-stop. They're more valuable on location or for a fast, candid PR shoot because they weigh less-sometimes as much as 50% less. The lens motor works quicker to focus since it is moving far less weight.

Most of my subjects don't hold still long enough to focus heavy lenses for still photography, and you'd only be gaining one-half to two-thirds of an f-stop over the already advantageous f1.4, f1.8 or f2, respectively, of the lenses mentioned here. Did I note that batteries last longer when lenses focus quickly? Nobody uses heavier equipment, unless there is a very a good reason. Try out this comparison for yourself the next time you visit a camera shop; you'll be amazed at the difference!

Thanks for reading, and come back for the next issue. I'll report on new developments as more manufacturers jump on the Fusion bandwagon. I'll discuss my secret tech weapons for camera settings, white balance, harnessing auto focus, setting up rigs, and carrying and protecting your equipment on location.

All these tips and more will be interspersed in this yearlong column, along with the essential info about each type and style of lens that you need to know to achieve that cinematic look.

Sara Frances (studio@photomirage.com), with husband/partner Karl Arndt, collaborate in their own unique brand of Fusion as “Foto-Griots” whose work has evolved past photojournalism into what they call 'Storytelling from the Heart."