Pocket Camera Cinematic Challenge

There are certain rules when it comes to creating cinematic moving pictures. Shoot in 24 frames per second (or 23.98fps exactly). Record in widescreen formats, either 16:9 or 1.85:1 (anamorphic 2.35:1 looks really epic too). De-saturate and get some shallow depth of field shots.

I wanted to see what these rules would look like with a pocket camera as the recording device. Case subject: Sony HX9V. A pocket camera from last year with middle of the road reviews but regarded as a decent video shooter.

The biggest challenge was the small sensor. This meant making sure there was adequate light, as a lack of it would lead to noise reduction activation and a resulting super soft image. The other disadvantage of the small sensor, compared to the larger ones found in DSLRs, is the lack of shallow depth of field. Everything is focus, which has it’s advantages for sure. People definitely and defiantly overuse this effect. I’m guilty of it too. To overcome this I had to focus really close and use the camera’s good macro mode and to zoom in and switch focus locks.

Most of everything else was done on Final Cut Pro X. The HX9V records in 60 or 30 frames per second 1080p only but the 60p conforms nicely in FCPX to a 24p timeline. The added bonus is being able to slow mo any recorded scene smoothly since the editor has 60 frames to work with instead of 24 traditionally. I recorded in 16:9 but added some additional crops for a 1.85:1 ration. Finally I took saturation far down, the colors are actually quite nice on the camera, and added a slight vignette. Finally I added some slight orange, purple and teal.

 

Sony’s HX9V, and assume the replacement HX20V & HX30V, produces some sharp images that rival the GH2’s resolving power when there is sufficient light. There are two image stabilization modes that can be used together. One is optical, in the lens, and the other is software that when combined has a VERY smooth effect. Probably best I’ve used and similar to what a couple hundred dollar steady cam would achieve. The 16x zoom (20x on the newer HX20v) is pretty amazing as well as it effectively gives me a walk-around 24-385mm lens that fits in my pocket! Best of all you can probably find one used for a hundred bucks if you hunt around.

Sidenote: Stills suck, comparable to iPhone 4 photos.

So here are the results using a day of random shots:

See how this bite-sized camera stacks up against DSLRs 4-7 times the price.

Optical Flow

These tips stem from the fact that I have shaky hands. It started out with the intention to, for myself, pixel peep the Apocalypse Now 444 GOP 12-15 Soft hack on the GH2. I slapped on the Fotodiox Alpha A mount adapter, which I can recommend (has an aperture ring built in), and fixed a 35mm 1.8 lens. I paired this setup with the Pico Skater Dolly, found a flat wooden plank and shot different parts of the house.

After I imported the footage into FCPX, I discovered that on some shots I panned slow, on others too fast. In fact, I decided I wanted a much slower dolly effect after finding the music I wished to pair with it (Leather Wings by This Will Destroy You). Being lazy I decided to retime everything and smooth it out with FCPX’s built in Optical Flow.

Obviously getting the shot right in camera is ideal but in a pinch I thought it looked pretty good. There seems to be some warping effect on the intro scene around the asian fan lift. What do you think?

A77 vs GH2

There’s a lot of acclaim for the GH2 and hardly any talk about the A77 with regard to video capabilities. Just scour Vimeo and discover thousands of uploaded GH2 footage compared to only a few hundred decent A77 video. I wanted to run an unscientific test to see just how superior the GH2 is, if at all. All outside shots were at ISO 160 with an ND filter, 1/50th shutter speed and 4700k white balance. Indoor at ISO 320, 1/50th, 5700k. I used an adapter on the GH2 and guessed on the aperture to match the a77 which generally hovered between 3.5 and 4. I used the Sony 16-50mm 2.8 SSM on both with the GH2 on 25mm and A77 on 27mm to account for their respective crops.

Resolution. The GH2 produces the sharpest images, almost a true 1080p. Though you can record 1080p at 60, 30, or 24 frames on the A77 it produces soft pictures that look more like 720p. Tree leaves and bricks look great on the GH2. I can hardly tell the difference on macro shots as the A77 has no trouble resolving detail there. Also aliasing is less of a problem on the GH2 and non existent when using ETC mode.

Color. I like the colors on the A77. If I had no desire to do any corrections in post the A77 would win. But with a high bitrate hack, the GH2 has a lot of latitude with what you push around in post. The new Apocalypse Now 444 hack also helps with smoother gradients. Likewise, setting the A77 to Sunset with manual white balance accomplishes the same thing.

Noise. The A77 has ISo 100 to 1600 in video mode that generally feels like a stop brighter at each respective ISo compared to the GH2. Images are clean through ISo 640. I think it’s a hair better than the GH2. However, the GH2 (with hack) can go all the way up to ISO 12800 and the noise grain looks so organic and film-like that it’s not a distraction to me. When I see noise on the A77 it’s an eyesore.

Motion. The a77 looks better in my opinion and emotes a more cinematic visual. It can record in 1080p at 60 frames per second that can be retimed for some nice slow motion. The Gh2 can record at 60 frames per second only in 720p but it pretty much looks like the A77’s 1080p because it resolves so much detail. With a wide variety of patches, it also is less prone to macro blocking so filming water in the distance won’t be a worry. Moire is almost non-existant on the GH2, can’t say the same for Sony.

Rolling shutter. On the Gh2 record in ETC mode. On the A77 record in 60p. Poof gone, otherwise it’s a small issue all DSLRs have.

Crop. 2x on the GH2 still gets nice bokeh. Video crop on the A77 (because of SteadyShot) is 1.86x but it does get 1.5x bokeh and light which is nice.

Weird Stuff. The a77 and GH2 under certain lighting conditions can produce banding in the images. Usually scrolling through different shutter speeds or getting more light will resolve it. Both are equally distracting when it occurs.

Ease of use. The A77 is by far the easiest to use. It’s a great size, good heft for handheld shots yet not heavy. Slap an SSM lens, turn on autofocus and use that great tilty screen and thats all you need. No bulky monitors. Or use peaking for manual focus. Perfect ENG style camera. It’s also weather-sealed with a magnesium alloy body so shooting in the rain or dusty environment isn’t a worry.

Pro results. With the right exposure there is no beating the GH2’s image quality unless you’re ready to invest over 3k, not including lenses. Also, while peaking is great I had mixed results. I had a green light on the Red Bull in one of the above shots but it looks more than soft, it looks out of focus. The GH2’s zoom in video makes it easy to get pinpoint focus when setting up a shot. It won’t work during record though when peaking on the A77 does. The Sony can be used for producing great video, but the limited bitrate make it less than ideal.

Misc. If money is a factor, sure the A77 is more expensive, but with the in-body steady shot all lenses are stabilized. Slap an old Minolta 50mm 1.4 or Beercan and get creamy bokeh. The equivilent lens for the GH2 with cost substantially more if it had optical stabilization. BUT since the GH2 is micro four thirds you have an almost infinite lens supply. With the right adapter you can connect just about any lens from any era. Plus with 4:3 MJPEG mode you can shoot in Anamorphic Widescreen a la Blade Runner style!

Creativity. I think the A77, since it’s easier to pick up at random and use, allows me to concentrate on the moment, composition, and other things. It’s important for a one man crew such as myself.  There’s some technical prep work that needs to be done on the GH2 and quite possibly more gear that needs to be added. (ex.I want to go to the skate park and shoot wide angle. With the GH2 if I go with a vintage lens I need a steadycam and followfocus. I can get rid of the followfocus and get a Panny 20mm 1.7 but that has no Optical Stabilization (though it’s contrast detection auto focus is pretty good). With the A77 I can turn on focus tracking and slap any lens I want on it, hand held. In this respect, the A77 might be a bit more versatile with what its able to do.

Conclusion. The A77 is by far the better stills camera. If I’m out and about with no agenda I’m taking it with me. If someone is paying for video work, it’s gotta be the GH2 because when optimized, it produces stunning images.

P.S. I lost lots of footage on the GH2 recording on a 32gb Transcend Class 10. Everything looked good in playback but the files were corrupted when trying to transfer. I had no issue with the SanDisk 95 mb/sec Extreme Pro card. Plus it turns the a77’s 12 frames per second burst into a killer feature with 8 second buffer clearing on RAW + jpeg, 6 seconds full 24 megapixel jpeg, and even less on 12 megapixel mode. It’s again even faster if put into 8 or 10fps mode.

GH2 Hack on a Mac

The hack was pretty simple but gathering all the required parts and instructions took some laborious searching. The accompanying video hopefully helps speed the process for you, lends confidence you won’t brick it and remind me when I forget, I will forget. This is the main link you’ll need.

I’ve found that any bitrate below 100 mbps writes to cheap transcend class 10 cards fairly problem free. I’ve yet to receive a speed card error unless I go over that. As far as the quality, I can’t tell the difference between the stock firmware and the hacked one, with any settings even up to 176 mbps, unless I’m grading the footage. I was surprised when I pushed the shadows down on one shot to seehow much detail held up. Doing the same everything on the a77 crumpled the screen to black. For the most part, I can live with the footage from the a77. However, a hacked GH2 gives me 12,800 iso, audio controls, bitrate that can stand up to harsh treatment in post, noise that looks like natural film grain and a higher resolution video, even unhacked.

The Fotodiox adapter that allows me to attach all my Sony/Minolta lenses is pretty sturdy. It’s all metal with a dial to control aperture. There are no markings so you’re going to have to guess but it works well with the GH2 in A or M mode. I purchased the adapter here.

A Painful Gain – Reviewing Sony a77’s Video

The a57 was a world opener for me. The video I was able to capture was remarkable and got my creative juices flowing. For inspiration I swallowed the addictive drug that is YouTube and Vimeo. I knew I needed more glass (lenses), faster glass (smaller f-stop) and wider glass (16mm or below on the aps-c crop). Sony makes a well-regarded 16 – 50mm f/2.8 lens (through the whole range!) with SSM that goes for $800. This is relatively cheap considering the Zeiss equivalent goes for $2000 and is universally agreed to be on the same level (minus the Sony’s being aps-c specific).  Ready to pull the trigger I found that they package this lens with Sony’s high end DSLT, for $1750 at my local camera shop.  In essence the $1,400 retail body would cost $950 since I was set on the lens. I put my beloved a57 on Craigslist. Enter the Sony a77.

On the surface I thought this would be a clear cut upgrade and there would be no remorse changing cameras. I get 24.3 megapixels over 16.1 (I know I said it didn’t matter but the option to do huge prints is nice), a three-hinged articulating screen over the a57’s troublesome two, oled vs lcd viewfinder, better colors and a weather-sealed magnesium allow body over the plastic one I got used to. I didn’t realize I was going to lose a few things along the way. First I lost light sensitivity. The megapixel crammed a77’s sensor doesn’t fare as well as the a57 in low-light high ISO situations and cannot go above 1600 in video mode. The a57 can do 3200, not great mind you but better than no video. The a57 has a focus magnifier in the digital zoom function that can aid manual focusing in video mode. The a77 does not, but they both have peaking (where focused areas are highlighted in red, white or yellow). It’s also substantially heavier, though good for durability, making long handheld shots a workout. Overall, I still consider the a77 a huge upgrade. Moving on.

I started to unknowingly pixel peep the videos that streamed to me from Vimeo. I compared them to the raw footage from my new a77 and wondered why I wasn’t seeing the same quality. I was semi-obsessed with how the Canon 7d (most relative price and build quality-wise to the Sony) had such clear images let alone the $500-700 range Rebel t2i, t3i, & t4i line. Let’s not get started on the hacked Panasonic GH2 which produces a $10k sharp image. I know you can take an iPhone and produce some excellent video. It’s up to the framing and story telling to make motion pictures captivating but I needed to know why my highly rated a77 wasn’t delivering the goods. I dug a little deeper.

It’s in the codec. Sony created the AVCHD standard tp avoid paying h.264 royalties to Apple. While the 2.0 version is highly efficient, the 4:2:0 and 24 mbps bitrate (4:2:2 in the Canons and upto 170mbps in a hacked GH2) doesn’t hold up well to color grading. Things can fall apart if pushed too far. The codec also macro blocks (creates large blocky screen artifacts) in blues and exposed blacks. Video is softer than the Canons and retains less detail than the GH2 as a result of downsampling that monstrous 24.3 megapixel sensor to 2mp (or 1080p). I started to get depressed at my investment.

Then I realized something about all the videos I was watching. Canon’s DSLRs have been out for about 3 years and Panasonic had the hack on the GH1 which came out two years ago. Professionals have been using these cameras. That means they had the right setup, knowhow and equipment (lighting is huge). The launch of the Sony a77 in August 2011 was hugely affected by the floods in Thailand and they didn’t become readily available until early this year. So all the videos out there were enthusiast-level but hardly professional studio filming. Upon further investigation, searching for raw video test footage from amateurs on the Canon Rebels-T3i yielded the same quality footage I was seeing out of my a77. I was a Sony enthusiast once more. This was a challenge.

Thanks to the Alpha SLT shooters across Vimeo and the people over at EOSHD I learned a few things. One was to shoot in Sunset mode with manual white balance (important otherwise the reds will be pushed). Sunset mode creates smoother gradients and exhibits less artifacts. TURN DRO OFF. Sony’s dynamic range optimizer is on by default and though it brings up shadows, it’s artifact happy. Try and get the picture the way you want it in camera and don’t rely on heavy fixes in post. I like to keep sharpness at 0 with whatever picture profile I shoot. -3 is the standard but the a77 is softer than the Canon’s and +3 yielded choppy aliasing. (after further testing I’d suggest -3 sharpness). If you’re shooting in auto set the max ISO to 800. If you’re shooting in 1080 60p and want to use autofocus, point to different lighting sources and toggle the ael button on when you 1/125 shutter speed. Rule of the thumb is to double the frame rate. So a 24p rate should have a 1/48 shutter speed. On a DSLR/SLT 1/50 and 1/125 are the closest you can get for 24p/60p respectively for the most eye-friendly motion. Combat low light with fast glass not higher ISO but you knew that. I use an old photoshop trick to get cleaner images by overlaying a copy of the video and setting opacity to 50% with a slight Gaussian blur in Final Cut Pro X. It gets better.

If you’re a Sony shooter and were wondering about the video, be happy. First off, I’m pixel peeping on a Retina Macbook display and all faults are null and void when outputting to a tv or projected. We have a lot things that other cameras don’t currently. In body electronic stabilization for video works great negating the need for expensive IS glass. Cheaper lenses, money saved. Although it crops part of the video image to give it room to stabilize it, you still get aps-c sized depth of field. 60 progressive frames at the full 1080p resolution means super clean slow motion. It’s as easy as dropping the footage in a 24p timeline and conforming the speed. No need for Twixtor, money saved. That translucent mirror that blocks a third of the light, giving us the high ISO problems, enables us to see what we’re filming through the OLED. No need to glue a view finder onto the lcd screen, money saved. The way the lcd screen articulates and focus peaking means you don’t need a separate monitor. Money saved. Now the Audio Gain Control is a nuisance but it does work well and the on board stereo mic is not bad for B or ambient audio. The SSM in the kit lens designates it as fast and silent. The AGC surprisingly doesn’t pick up the sounds this lens makes under normal conditions. I also find that if you yell (it’s silly) into the mic when you first hit record, it pushes the AGC down creating a better floor level. Combine that with the fast Alpha SLT-only phase detect auto focusing and it’s a great run-n-gun/sports event camera. The AVCHD 2.0 codec is efficient and you’ll probably end up spending less in SD cards and hard drives if you record a lot. The GH2 and Canon’s Full Frame Mark iii still provide better video but one requires hacking, the other costs three grand body-only. In the end, composition and framing will do a lot more for video than the tech behind it.

Oh yeah, it takes pictures too…

…here’s some test footage from the a77