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DIY V-Mount for Cheap

The V-Mount system is a popular battery mounting standard that is designed for large batteries in the 60-90+ Wh range. This means that with such a system you can run small cameras all day and even many of the more demanding ones for hours. However, since this is gear for serious enthusiast and professional filmmakers, it does cost a lot of money. After I got my hand on a second-hand Li-Ion battery pack, I decided to explore the options in making my own V-Mount for under $150.

Overview

The main components of a V-Mount system are listed below. For a great little overview of affordable batteries, check out this DSLR Video Shooter blog post by Caleb Pike. I will compare semi-professional solutions as found on Amazon or B&H with the parts that I used for my build:

  • The battery pack: should use good, branded Li-Ion cells for obvious safety and performance reasons. There can be pretty dramatic differences even between branded off-the-shelf V-Mount battery packs as seen in this (highly entertaining, like the whole channel) video (these guys deserve more views!) I don't expect to compete with high-end V-Mount batteries but the recycled pack I'm using still contains genuine Panasonic 18650 cells. We managed to find a pack for, I would say, 1/10th of the price of a good V-Mount battery but because it was quite a lucky find and specific to our local area I won't post details or exact costs. Individual 18650 cells go for around $11 a pair so you could still build your own 90 Wh pack for about $66. The configuration is 3 batteries in parallel and 4 in series. Make sure your pack has over-current and over-temperature protection! So let's say total cost so far: $70.
  • The battery pack mount: This keeps the battery securely attached to the mounting system. In V-Mount batteries it is part of the battery pack mould and there shouldn't be any way it could fall apart under normal usage. My recycled pack didn't have much in the way of strong attachment points and I didn't want to rely on glue but luckily some bolts through the plastic tabs on the side worked great. There is no way the battery is falling off and the mounting plate can hardly move despite my mediocre machining skills. Purchased from Aliexpress this was the most expensive part at $33. This brings the total cost to a nice round $100.
  • The camera rig mount: Most packs mount directly to the back of a camera or a 15 mm rails rig. Besides strong rail mounts, the mounting plate usually also provides outputs at varying voltages to power different devices such as camera, monitor, audio equipment, etc. Decent plates, e.g. from Lanparte or more professional brands, can easily cost $250 or more. Buying the parts separately, it really comes down to a cheap $9 plate, a $1 voltage converter, and a $18 rail rod clamp from SmallRig. This only bumps the total cost up slightly to about $130.
  • Now all that's left are some cables to connect the battery plate to your camera, your monitor, and other equipment. Since we're already building this ourselves, absolutely avoid regulator cables like the ones listed in the DSLR Video Shooter blog post above: they are horrendously over-priced for what they do. A standard low-power step-down voltage regulator (this means it's efficient and won't produce much heat) only costs $1. For my camera I got a D-Tap to BMPCC cable for $3.50 feeding the 14-15V from the battery directly into the DC input, and for the monitor a dummy LP-E6 for $4 which has to be regulated down to 7.2V to match the LP-E6 batteries.

Cost

So there you have it: a fairly sturdy DIY V-Mount system for just $150, maybe less if you can find some cheap recycled batteries. Obviously, cost is the main reason why an enthusiast would go through the trouble of building something like this from scratch, spending 1-2 days getting everything figured out and assembled, instead of dropping $300-$500 and just getting something off the shelf. Time will tell if it is sturdy enough to hold up to regular hobby usage (to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't recommend it for daily and professional use). Hopefully my instructions and photos are useful and will save others a lot of time.

Assembly

So here is how it was put together. First, I had to drill several holes in the metal bottom plate of the V-Mount adapter that will be screwed onto the battery. These holes are for the five wires that are connected to the battery pack. Two are positive and negative (make sure the insulation is sturdy since the plate is made of metal) and the three others get soldered onto the control pins of the battery pack to put it into discharge or charge mode.

The receiving plate already has a D-Tap socket built in so I only had to add the 7.2V output for the dummy battery for my monitor. The regulator has a little screw that needs to be calibrated using a multimeter to output exactly 7.2V (input voltage can vary as long as it's over ~10 and below the regulator's maximum of 23V). It is so small that it easily fits inside the housing.

I then bolted the SmallRig rail clamp into the bottom (two would be better but I don't see a need at the moment) to mount the whole system onto my camera. With the cables I've linked to earlier, I can then connect my camera and monitor to whooping 90 Wh, compared to the next-to-nothing mAh of the BMPCC batteries and the 1800mAh of genuine LP-E6s.

To charge the pack you'll need a dedicated Li-Ion charger or a good programmable power supply. However, this is the case for any battery system and there are of course proper V-Mount chargers out there. Because the receiving plate was so cheap, it would be easy to use one as a dedicated charger port.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Documentary Shooting: Interviews

We are finally at the stage where we conduct and film the interviews for our TWALK documentary. After a few days of acquiring and testing gear and then test-driving the setup, we now have something that looks great (not perfect but better than many other documentaries I've seen) and is very mobile and easy to set up for a 1-2 person crew.

But first, here is the latest trailer for our project with a bunch of little interviews (sound bites) we took during the event:

Gear

Here is a quick rundown of the gear that I think is required to get a well-lit interview with solid, good sound:

  • 1-2 cameras that can be matched in terms of exposure and color profiles (I struggle with matching them perfectly since one is a Blackmagic and the other one a GH4 but a color chart like the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport (de) helps tremendously to fixup color space and color temperature issues with one click in Davinci Rsolve)
  • A sound recorder because most camera pre-amps are really bad and don't offer enough inputs or control such as rotary dials and limiters - I use the excellent entry-level Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder (de)
  • Good microphones: it took me a while to accept that it is important to spend a good chunk of your budget on sound equipment - maybe not as much as on cameras and lenses but still enough to get at least one middle to top of the line microphone. I like to always have a backup option in case one microphone experiences cloth rustling, room echo, or simply stops working, so I usually mix a lavalier/"clip-on" mic like the Rode LAVALIER Condenser Microphone and a shotgun mic: the Sennheiser ME 64 Cardioid Condenser Capsule Head is great for indoor interviews, for outdoors think about the more directional ME66.
  • 2-3 LED lights with big enough batteries to work for at least an hour: depending on your exact kit and the conditions of the space you are conducting the interview in, you might actually need more lighting devices (see the section on the detailed setup below). All lights' color temperatures should match as closely as possible, unless you go for an extra warm fill light, or an extra cold hair light, etc. Mine are all daylight balanced (around 5500K) and have a good CRI value (95+). The entry-level smaller Apature Amaran LED lights work a treat indoors if you darken the room anyway, for more power I would look at the Aputure HR672W or Apature's more professional lineup.
  • A reflector and/or diffusion panel (or softbox): your light, in particular your key light, will always look better the softer it is, unless you are deliberately going for a harsher look. To achieve this you have to send it through a (the bigger the better!) Softbox (de) or white semi-translucent panel, or bounce it off a 5-in-1 Collapsible Multi-Disc Light Reflector (de) .
  • Enough Light Stands (de) for all those lights. Also a Microphone Boom Stand (de) for the shotgun mic.

I'm sure this sounds like a lot of gear for just one interview, and if it is not possible to buy or borrow all those things, an interview in natural light might be a better option (I'd still recommend having at least one reflector). However, for the style I was going for I needed a dark space and all those lights to make it work.

Setup

When you do the setup, make sure it's ready when the interviewee arrives. You don't want to bore them with 20 minutes of fiddling with lights and cameras. This means you need a stand-in, e.g. your interviewer, producer, grip, etc.

The first thing to do is find a good spot for the interviewee in regards to space (all the equipment you'll have to set up around them) and background. The background should be not too boring (avoid a plain wall but patterns are good) but also not distracting (no harsh light, no movement). This obviously depends on the subject of the interview and how you want to associate the interviewee with the environment. Typical examples are athletes and their trophies, scientists and their awards and books, and so on. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference and the style you are going for.

Next I will set up my key light. This is the main light that illuminates the subject. The typical rule is to have to about 45 degrees from the camera on the side of the camera the interviewer is sitting. You need a good light stand because the key light also has to be above the subjects head (again, about 25-40 degrees). Eye level can work as well but avoid a light source below eye level because it will make them like starring in a horror or zombie movie. Personally, I actually like my key light to be 90 degrees to the camera line and at about eye level. This gives the face a very strong divided look between the lit and unlit half right down the nose. I use a big diffusion panel to soften the light as much as possible. We will take care of the unlit half of the face in the next paragraph.

At the moment, the shadow line is too strong. Even with some natural light, this is what often makes cheaper productions fall short because the subject will have fairly strong shadows on their face. Our next job is to get rid of them. This is achieved with a fill light which can either simply be a reflector that bounces natural light or the key light, or an extra, smaller LED light than shines some light at eye level at the subject's face. Even at the lowest setting, it does immediately get rid of any hard shadows. The fill light should be closer to the camera to make sure what the camera sees is illuminated enough to give a pleasing and soft look. There are examples of professional interviews well done without any (noticeable) fill for effect, for example my personal favorite In the Shadow of the Moon (just google images for it plus "interview").

We've dealt with the absolutely necessary lights, now for the bonus: add a hair light behind the subject, slightly to the side of the fill light and just out of sight from the cameras. This will add a light onto one side of the hair, head, and shoulder of the subject and make them stand out more against the background. The background at this point should be as dark as possible as to be not too distracting. If it is receiving too much light spill, try to flag the lights with so-called barn doors/french flags or some cardboard. Another option is to move the subject further from the background and use the fall-off of the light's intensity to make it appear darker.

Now it is time for the subject (or "talent", i.e. interviewee) to take a seat. Set up your shotgun mic so that it points down at their chest, and either hide the lavalier mic under their clothing or position it low enough (but not below their sternum) so that it is out of the shot. I use a very tight picture that usually only shows their head and maybe the shoulders so getting the microphones out of the shots isn't very hard. Now do a sound check, get the cameras rolling, use a clapper board or do something similar (clap your hands or snip your fingers in front of the cameras) and you are ready to go for the interview. It can also be a good idea to use a color chart at this point to get a good reference with the final lighting setup.

This post has got long enough so I will talk about any workflow, interview tips and how to edit an interview in Davinci Resolve in another one. Just remember to do all your backups first thing after the interview is over!

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Home-built LED Panel for Video

Over the last weekend plus a few days I put together an inexpensive DIY LED panel that is so bright it will blind your interview subjects but doesn't break the bank - at all.

I won't explain all the steps and parts for this build because someone else has already done a much better job than me: DIY Perks on Youtube (you'll want to watch most of his builds once you discover the channel!). Watch the video from start to finish, then check your electronics and tools box for the few parts that are needed. I had to get a roll of 300 LED lights, a voltage regulator (or PWM controller if you're not worried about flickering lights but for video work a voltage dimmer is recommended), some MDF and some woodworking and power tools I didn't have (but they will serve me for many years to come). The rest is really simple and if you decide to skip painting it can probably be all done in one afternoon.

The colours here look a bit funny because I had the whitebalance on my camera set to my working light which is a tungsten light bulb whereas the LEDs are clearly much cooler. However, even though it was a cheap roll of LEDs (about $15), it doesn't have that nasty green shift that cheap LEDs are kind of known for. Its colour probably isn't perfect but I'm pretty happy with it. DIY Perks linked to some equally cheap LEDs that he measured at something like 95 CRI (which is really good) but I had already ordered some from another seller on Aliexpress.

The brightness is amazing and while I haven't tested its limits in daylight yet it's definitely too bright to point at your talent (say at an interview) at full power. Note that you need some fairly thick wires to hook everything up until it gets fanned out to the individual LED strips - I chose AWG16 but 18 is probably alright as well as long as you don't power more than 300-400 LEDs. With bigger panels your wire thickness requirements (and the ones for your power source) will obviously go up. I power the panel with 18V from a universal laptop power supply (I would prefer around 14V but the power supply chooses 18V with the 2.1 mm DC connector at the end) but a good LiIon or LiPo battery does work as well.

The box that houses the regulator as well as a switch and a potentiometer is actually a clear Raspberry Pi case that I had lying around. Due to the thick wire it was a bit of a squeeze and a solder joint popped off at one point due to the strain on a cable so better give yourself plenty of room for the electronics. This will also help with dissipating heat but with only 300 LEDs the heat sinks on my regulator don't get too hot.

One section where I deviated from the instructions in the video above is the dimmer circuit. While DIY Perks uses a multi-K Ohm resistor and a 22K pot, I used a 10K pot and no fixed resistor. I get the perfect voltage range out of it (I think my trim pot on the regulator is actually turned fully clockwise), meaning 7V (when all the LEDs just turn on) to about 11V which is as high as I want to go without compromising the lifetime of the LEDs.

To mount it on tripods etc I sandwiched a coldshoe with 1/4" thread between two pieces of MDF glued together, than screwed (and glued) that onto the back of the panel. Because the panel isn't very heavy, this is an extremely sturdy connection. Just watch the video to see exactly how it's done. I've since applied the same technique to make some adjustable mounting "bricks" for my motorised timelapse slider.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Fast Editing and Color Grading with a Gaming Mouse

There are many control surfaces out there to help with editing and colour grading but they are mostly geared towards professionals and are very expensive. Examples are surfaces from Tangent and Blackmagic.

North RouteburnSunset in the North Routeburn, Aspiring National Park, NZ. Cropping, exposure and contrast adjustments, monochrome processing in Darktable.

For amateurs and enthusiasts there are multiple cheaper options. I've written about my DIY controller for Davinci before but there are also consumer devices that can greatly speed up editing and grading. Because I have to use a mouse anyway (for lack of a complete, fully-features control surface), the Logitech G700s gamging mouse(de) is one of my favourite tools. Its main feature are the four thumb buttons on the left side that can be assigned arbitrary actions or shortcuts through the Logitech software. The configuration is stored in the mouse itself so once set up the Logitech software is no longer needed. This means the settings will work the same on any computer or any operating system. The mouse wheel is kind of special on this mouse because it can be pushed left or right (very useful for scrolling on a timeline), and it can be put in a free spinning mode with the button next to it. This is useful for browsing websites or scrolling through long documents such as the Davinci Manual (PDF).

Edit

For editing I use three of the buttons to switch between Davinci's three edit modes (pointer [shortcut A], trim [T], razor blade [B]). The fourth button is used to toggle snapping on or off since I constantly find myself switching between shifting clips around (in this case I want them to stick to the next clip so that there is no gap) and making fine adjustments to the length of clips or exact cuts. Another good option for those four buttons are the clip modes Insert, Overwrite, Replace, and Place on Top.

The top buttons aren't used as heavily because they are a bit awkward to reach while holding the mouse. At the moment I have the three buttons on the top left set up to set in and out points and to toggle video/audio linking for the selected clip. I almost find the I and O keys on the keyboard easier to reach but I also miss them sometimes when I don't look down. The two buttons in the center of the mouse switch through the profiles and turn the free-spinning mouse wheel on or off.

Colour

The most common action when colour correcting and grading, and the central piece of Davinci's colour page, are the nodes. So I set up the four buttons on the side of the mouse to quickly add serial, parallel, layer nodes, and also to add a serial node before the currently selected one. I haven't found a specific use for the three top buttons yet as there are so many possible shortcuts but none of them are used as often as handling nodes. Maybe I'll go for undo/redo, or for handling clip versions or the gallery.

Summary

Using a gaming mouse together with a few keyboard shortcuts or a simple control surface (I'm looking forward to see what the Tangent Ripple can do) can greatly speed up your editing and colour grading work. If you've only been using a normal three button mouse so far I highly recommend giving a gaming mouse with 7-10 additional buttons a go.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Preparing for a Documentary Shoot with Blackmagic and GH4 - Part 1

The actual production time for my first proper documentary is coming up in a few weeks so I want to start writing about the pre-production process and my experiences as each shooting day happens.

Upskilling

There are so many areas you have to cover as a mostly one-man-band when making a short feature and there is always more to learn. Most of those areas also go hand in hand so even if you want to hand something off to someone else it still pays to learn the basics and get into the editor's head, or the audio guy's head, and of course the camera man's/DP's head.

Over the last year I slowly learned to use Davinci Resolve 12 to edit and color grade, and even though color grading (and editing to some extend but luckily a documentary isn't 100% creativity and some things just fall in chronological order) probably takes decades or a lifetime to master I slowly get the hang of matching shots and giving it a certain look. So while I think that there is lots to learn on an actual big project I've also got the basics to tackle a short film. Really useful tutorials I used to learn the skills are the Youtube tutorial videos of Casey Faris and Miesner Media. The official Resolve manual is very content-rich and well written. It is definitely worth a read if you're serious about using the program to produce films - at least it should be handy as a reference document.

For dealing with RAW timelapses and turning it into an edited and color graded video the recent mountain timeapse was a good exercise.

Equipment

I've slowly gathered all (most? acquiring equipment never ends) of my equipment over the last few months and am now ready to shoot a variety of scenes in different weather and lighting conditions. The cameras and how I plan to use them:

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with Metabones speedbooster and full-frame or APS-C lenses (from 11mm to 105mm, some of that with optical stabilisation): use whenever feasible because it produces the best image but it won't shoot slow motion. It is also too heavy to go running with (unless way stripped down) and therefore won't work on my Roxant stabilizer.

GH4 with speedbooster and full-frame or APS-C lenses: due to the different crop factor gives slightly different focal lengths than the BMPCC. Can shoot 4K and slow motion so will be used when those features are necessary. Is also more rugged (see my test in the rain here) and works on the stabilizer with a small MFT lens. The GH4 has decent audio input (as long as the pre-amps are turned down) so I don't necessarily need a separate audio recorder - something that is absolutely required with the BMPCC.

GoPro Hero 3: I don't like the image of the GoPros that much but it is a great little camera and can do super wide-angle shots, good slow motion, and fit in tight corners where other cameras won't go. I plan to use it for timelapses with a tiny rig (e.g. on a Gorilla pod) and to leave it outside for longer periods without having to worry about it too much.

Either one of those or a photography camera like the Olympus E-M1 will also be used to shoot timelapses without using any of the precious video equipment.

I've experimented a lot with rigs from Smallrig and will write a post at some point about the specific parts. At the moment I'm still swaying back and worth between more parts and attachments and a smaller rig so I don't want to finalise it just yet. What I can say, though, is that a minimal cage works best for small HDSLRs like the BMPCC and GH4, and Nato rails and top handles are amazing.

What's next

The next step is to shoot a daytrip in the outdoors where we prepare the course for the event. It will involve using the stabiliser and trying to record good audio while being on the move.

Until then, here again is the clip from last year's event:


Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Shooting on the River

A few weeks ago I was shooting photos and a short film on and next to a river while also doing grade 3 whitewater action. This is a quick summary of some gear I used and some helpful tips to keep your gear dry and in good working condition. But first, here is the finished short film about the trip:

Equipment

First and foremost, your equipment has to be stored in a safe way. This means a good water-proof (even when submerged) and to some degree crush-proof case, ideally with foam inserts to protect against shock. Pelican cases have a great reputation and I use the Pelican 1200 Case (de) because it's just the right size for a MFT camera and a decent sized lens plus some accessories. It also fits perfectly behind the seat cushion of the river bug that we are using. Pelican makes cases in a lot of different size, for memory cards, small electronic devices, cameras and up to big carry-on roller cases that themselves weigh 6-8 kgs already. I did a few rolls in the river (as you can see at the end of the video) and everything stayed perfectly dry. The main thing to watch out for is that absolutely nothing gets in between the rubber seal and the lid when closing the case. Many a camera have been lost in the past due to a bit of cloth or a camera strap preventing the seal from working correctly.

I also keep a small micro-fibre towel in the case to absorb puddles and to be able to wipe off any water on gear or your hands. As usual with any photography/video gear, there is also a small lens cloth to wipe off moisture and clean the lens. One lesson I learned - even tough nothing bad happened - is to always put small and vulnerable things like batteries and microphones into zip-lock bags. Sooner or later your camera will get a bit wet or water will drip from you or your equipment into the case so extra protection is required for things that should never ever get wet. It also keeps everything more organised and things can't fall out as easily.

Action cameras (such as my GoPro HERO3: Black Edition (de) ) are of course the main work horses of all thrill seekers and outdoor enthusiasts. I put a piece of paper towel or toilet paper inside the case to absorb moisture - that's basically all the more expensive GoPro absorption papers do. It also helps you verify if everything stayed tightly shut at the end of the day.

Main main camera was the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (de) but in the future it will definitely be the Panasonic LUMIX GH4 (de) with Metabones Canon EF to BMPCC Speed Booster (de) because of its slow-motion ability and better codecs and video features (unless I need a smaller foot print or the IBIS of the E-M1). I couldn't use a good microphone but I think the sound of the river is still ok and luckily there weren't many other sounds to record on location. The E-M1 and PRO lens performed flawlessly in the heavy rain which was great because for basically any other video camera I would've needed an umbrella or camera bag handy whenever I took it out of the case.

Post-processing

Because I've only used the on-camera microphone and also because a GoPro in its water-proof housing doesn't record sound very well, the major "trick" to improve the finished video was to make a good wild river soundtrack and apply it to all the tracks where it made sense, that is where there are rapids and whitewater - but I also left the GoPro sounds (they are more like clicks when hit by a wave) in on a separate track because they give it a more immediate feedback to what is happening visually. The same is true for the sound of the rain on the camera: it doesn't sound great because it's the built-in mic and it's the sound of rain hitting the camera housing but it helps with audience immersion.

Color grading has taken another big step forward in this project: I used Davinci Resolve 12 Lite and the color themes are cool/high-contrast for the bad weather scenes and a warm slightly teal/orange look for the good weather scenes. The GoPro footage was graded to fit well into the surrounding clips but it also has a more realistic and less stylised look. For the supermarket indoor shots I added glow around the highlights to give it a slightly dreamy feel because it is so different to the harsh outdoor and action shots. I will post some before and after color grading shots soon.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Weather-proofing the GH4 with Speedbooster

When I upgraded from an Olympus OM-D E-M1 (de) to a higher-quality kit, it was pretty clear that the weather-sealing of the camera body, lens and accessories won't be as good - it doesn't get much better than the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (de) plus Olympus 12-40mm F2.8 PRO lens (de) (rain, dust and freeze proof) so it could only decrease. However, watching most professional documentary and expedition shoots, apart from when using GoPros, video cameras are simply not made for rough conditions. Usually you work around the weather-related issues, often with a crew, using umbrellas and camera bags/sleeves.

The Panasonic LUMIX GH4 (de) is a great video camera and it is weather-sealed. For a full weather-proof package you would have to get the Panasonic lens which isn't really the best option for video shooters for multiple reasons:

  • MFT lenses deliver amazing images and they certainly make sense in a lot of situations (my landscape photography camera uses one and I wouldn't dream of putting Canon L glass on it when going hiking) but they are not a good long-term investment for film;
  • going wide with a GH4 in 4K mode (2.3x crop) or with a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (2.88x crop) is quite difficult so a focal reducer is a must for wider than normal angles;
  • smaller sensors such as MFT and Super16 still have quite a disadvantage over full-frame or cinema cameras such as the C100/C300 when it comes to low light so a speedbooster can greatly help to get those f1.0 or better apertures.

All of this combined means that vintage or modern Canon EF or Nikon mount lenses, both APS-C and full-frame, are the best choice for film. Good glass greatly improves the image and will work on many other, higher end cameras as well, for instance Blackmagic Ursa Mini or RED. Canon L lenses are great because not only do they deliver the goods optically, they are also weather-sealed, one example being the very versatile Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS (de) .

This, of course, leaves only the Metabones Canon EF to BMPCC Speed Booster (de) in between the camera and the lens vulnerable to the elements. It's a shame that Metabones hasn't implement better sealing because the front and back end of the speedbooster is a pretty standard EF and MFT mount, respectively, and it is made of solid metal. I think the lens side of the speedbooster might actually be slightly sealed because of the rubber gasket from the Canon L lens, however, the camera side of things is just metal on metal and therefore not sealed at all.

Taping over the speedbooster with Gaffers tape works pretty well since it is easy to work with, and it comes off without leaving and residue behind (unlike Duct tape and other, stronger tapes). Unfortunately, it is kind of hard to get the camera to speedbooster interface taped off perfectly because of the awkward protrusion that is the GH4 EVF/flash housing. I added a layer of cling film as a first layer of protection, then taped everything in place. So even if the sides of the tape let some water in (which they shouldn't), hopefully the plastic will still keep the openings in the speedbooster dry.

My test consisted of a roughly 40 minute walk in moderate to heavy rain, keeping the camera level or pointing down (mostly to keep rain off the front of the lens) and always horizontal. I also decided to throw my SmallHD 501 On-Camera Monitor into the mix which also meant exposing the HDMI interface of the GH4. A plastic bag and more tape covered it nicely and I could still operate the buttons and joystick on the monitor. Swapping batteries on the monitor also still worked but it'd probably try to cover it more completely in the future and just cut a little opening for the HDMI cable (it was easier if it attached to the bottom of the monitor instead of the back at a 90 degrees angle).

Overall, it worked beautifully and I feel like I could venture out into a few hours of rain if I had to shoot something without the help of an assistant holding an umbrella. Swapping batteries or lenses or fiddling with any of the accessories is almost impossible without additional cover, though. Also, using a microphone would require a broader rain cover as well.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Use a MIDI Controller as a Video Editing and Color Grading Surface

Control surfaces can greatly speed up editing and color grading work and also avoid issues like CTS because your hand can move around more freely instead of clutching a mouse all day. However, like most things in the video/film world, they can be very expensive. At the top end there are full suites like Blackmagic's Davinci (multiple $10,000s), the Avid Artist line (many $1,000s) and smaller devices like the Shuttle Pro V.2 (de) ($129). While they are often very well made and can be worth it if your profession is to produce multimedia every day as efficiently as possible, the actual cost of the functional parts is actually much lower. So I decided to build something similar to the Shuttle Pro but with a few key differences:
  • Sends MIDI messages instead of registering as a keyboard
  • Fewer buttons but a shift function that doubles the number of functions, including the jog/shuttle wheels
  • Different placement so that the hand can rest on the left and easily access buttons on the top and the right

MIDI

The MIDI protocol has been around for decades and is primarily used in the audio and lighting world for input devices and synthesizers. As opposed to using an input device that emulates a keyboard, MIDI has got the advantage that the incoming messages can be easily translated to keyboard shortcuts, whereas an Arduino emulating a keyboard will always send the same shortcuts. This gives much more flexibility, e.g. when changing programs or modes within a program (think media, edit, and colour pages in Davinci Resolve).

Within Resolve, shortcuts can be configured (or are configured by default) for pretty much all functionality apart from curves and colour/lieft/gamma/gain wheels - without a dedicated control surface one still has to use the mouse to modify these parameters. In order to process incoming MIDI messages on Linux I use mididings. I actually gave a talk at KiwiPyCon 2014 about using mididings to control photography (or any) software on Linux. On Windows I wrote my processing code in C++ and used the rtmidi library which is easy to compile (I use MinGW gcc) and comes with many excellent examples.

Assembly

The physical parts come down to a few buttons (cents to a few $), LED(s) (cents) and the jog/shuttle made by ALPS ($15-20). Figuring out the pins on the jog/shuttle was pretty straight-forward but this article goes through the process in more detail and might be useful to anyone trying to get a similar part working. I already had the plastic case and an Arduino to power the project lying around. In order to turn the Arduino into a MIDI device you'll have to replace the firmware on the ATmega used to communicate with the computer via USB (which is different from the main ATmega on an Arduino Uno!). The firmware and detailed instructions can be found on the HIDUINO Github page.

The shuttle controls forward and backward play at different speeds (J, K and L in Resolve) and the jog dial advances or rewinds the playhead one frame at a time (left and right arrow keys).

I still need to figure out a way to make an outer wheel for the shuttle and a knob or inner wheel for the jog rotary encoder. 3D printing might be the best way but first I'll have to learn how to create the virtual parts for it. At least the shuttle and jog wheels have sturdy grooves that should make it fairly easy to attach knobs or wheels to it.

At the moment, the Arduino will be connected to each button, LED and ALPS shuttle/jog through cables that go into the female headers on the little green board. Eventually, the Arduino will have to move into the enclosure and more sturdy, soldered connections between its pins and the components will be made.

Please use the comment section below or head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Experience shooting TWALK 2015

Earlier this year I shot a video at TWALK 2015, the Canterbury University Tramping Club's annual 24-hour orienteering event. It was kind of a last minute decision to bring my camera (an Olympus E-M5) and an older GoPro Hero along so no shooting plans were made and I had no big ambitions to produce a very polished, finished product.


If you want to read more about the event, check out the CUTC TWALK website.

I ran with in a group of 6 and because we could share the tasks of navigating and searching the hidden checkpoints, I had enough time to run ahead and film my team and also a lot of the other competitors. Obviously, the busiest and most crowded time was at the start and it thinned out as the race went on.

After about 3-4 hours we finished the first leg, had a quick rest and a decent amount to eat from the big table of free 24 hour warm buffet, then headed out again for the evening/night leg. Unfortunately, none of my cameras were particularly good in low light so as soon as the sun disappeared that was it for filming apart from a few shots of headlamps. An A7s would have been amazing but it also started to rain and get really cold while we were exposed on the tops so anything other than a GoPro or a really well weather-sealed camera could have got negatively affected.

Equipment

As mentioned above, the main camera was an Olympus OM-D E-M5 (de) with an old manual Olympus OM ZUIKO 28mm f2.8 lens which turns into a 56mm full-frame equivalent or "normal lens" on a MFT sensor. The reason I used an OM lens and not a more modern zoom lens was the great manual focus ring that is absolutely necessary for those rack focus shots. It's also a great looking lens: it's almost as sharp as my best MFT prime lens at a quarter the price. Finally, 28mm translates to 56mm equivalent on full-frame which is just a really nice and natural looking focal length for documentary-style shooting. To rig the camera up for better stability and handling for the indoor shots I used various parts from Smallrig such as Quick Release Handle with Nato Rail (de) and aluminium rods.

The second camera that I used when I needed a wider angle or high mobility was the original GoPro Hero (de) that I have since upgraded to a Hero 3 (which of course would have delivered much better image quality for this video, in particular in those low light shots). It was mounted on a cheap monopod to keep it steady and enable me to do smooth panning shots. While it impacted mobility a little bit (still a very lightweight kit), it improved image quality dramatically by making it possible to take very stable and steady shots and I highly recommend that people use a light monopod with their GoPros if shooting hand-held. It also keeps the horizon level almost automatically because the heavier monopod leg is always pointing down - keeping only a GoPro level in your hand is almost impossible. I specifically wanted to avoid the typical point-of-view helmet/chest-mounted GoPro shots so I tried to use it like a traditional film camera by getting close to the ground or high above people's heads as much as possible. That opening shot of the competition when everyone starts running is also the GoPro on the extended monopod.

For audio I used the Zoom H5 Portable Recorder (de) with the stereo microphone module for sound effects and room tone of the woolshed.

Editing and Grading

For editing and colour grading in Linux I used kdenlive. While it worked and all the basic editing features and effects are available (for free), it is not a completely hassle or stress-free experience, especially once the project grows past a certain size. I also started to get random shifting in some of my clips on the timeline, or it would suddenly use a different version of the same clip. For colour grading I had to go into every single clip and adjust curves and levels to get the right look. While colour correction and grading should always be done on every clip individually, unfortunately kdenlive requires a lot of repetitive steps to get there while other programs make it much easier and faster (it's one middle mouse button click in Resolve). In the end, I got the project done without any major hiccups and I recommend kdenlive as a first, free editing program if you're on Linux but if you are serious about your projects I would step up to something like Davinci Resolve which is much more stable, feature-rich and also free.

Please head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff (see links on top of the page) to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

Smart Watches for Photographers

About a decade ago smartphones entered the market and gave us photographers and videographers many new tools to make our daily lives easier (has that ever actually worked out?). Such tools are for example: notes for screenwriters or location scouting, ephemerides to figure out where the sun and moon will be at a certain time, remote controls for cameras and GoPros, and of course the incredibly fast turnaround from shooting something at professional quality to getting it onto social media. Can you even still remember that previously all of this had to be done on big heavy laptops or even on paper?

From there on, the next step are smartwatches. Not only do they add a second display to your mobile computing setup, they also enable new functionality for automation, remote control and reminders that haven't been able before. And we all know it won't stop there and the next "smart" device category is already just around the corner (whether it will be Google Glass or something very different).

In this article I want to show what, in my opinion, a smartwatch like the Pebble Steel (de) or the new Pebble Time Round (de) can do for us photo and video people. Some of those features might not apply to other Android Wear devices or the Apple watch because the Pebble takes its own, different approach to the whole smartwatch thing. The Pebble watches are waterproof which means they can be used in bad weather or wet conditions where the phone should stay safely in a pack or dry bag.

Watchfaces

Custom watchfaces are essentially very simple "apps" that only have the task to display time and some additional information such as the weather. The are not very interactive, i.e. you cannot easily switch modes or go into submenus to trigger actions.

For photography my favourite watchfaces are 24-clocks that represent day and night time graphically on the face. The most popular and fully functional in the Pebble store are "Sunset Watch", "Twilight-Clock", and "SunTime Pro" - all free. The former has the cleanest watchface but takes a few seconds to retrieve or calculate sunrise and sunset times every time you switch to it; the latter displays the most information on the screen including inclination of the sun, battery and bluetooth status, however, it does not show the current phase of the moon. "Twilight-Clock" is somewhere in between and it's the watchface I'm currently using if I want sunlight information. Not only does it show when the sun rises and sets, it also graphically displays when and how long the different twilight periods (civil, nautical, astronomical) are.

Some watchfaces and some of the more complicated apps that act mostly like watchfaces with extra functionality (the most popular being Glance) can display upcoming calendar events. If your are shooting an event and you have to know what's going to happen every hour and where you have to be, a quick look on your watch can give you all this information and notifications (which make the watch vibrate) ensure you don't miss anything important.

Pebble + Tasker

If the "precooked" watchfaces and apps described above are not enough and you're not afraid of either searching for existing profiles or creating your own (essentially very simple programming using a graphical interface) then Tasker can turn your Android+Pebble into a gadget of truly limitless possibilities.

Use PebbleTasker to take photo remotely: PebbleTasker is a Pebble app that can directly run Tasker tasks on the phone. These tasks can be anything you want and they can contain one or many different actions (change volume, screen brightness, send a text, play music, lock the screen, etc). If used with a task that takes a photo (I'm sure video options exist as well), your smartwatch becomes something like the GoPro remote and you can use it to set the phone up in one place, then trigger it from up to about 10m away. Of course, Tasker can also be used to implement various self-timers so that the photo will be taken 2 or 5 or 12 seconds after pressing the button.

Use AutoPebble and Tasker's geolocation features to bring location aware menus onto your watch: Tasker can trigger tasks when the phone is in a certain location (either determined by cell phone tower, Wifi network, or GPS). AutoPebble can be used to push selection menus or lists of options to the watch. To do this, the Tasker task first has to have an item that opens the AutoPebble app on the watch, then shows a list of items. Each item in this list can be programmed to send a code back to the phone on normal and on long-press. Each code can then in return trigger another Tasker task using the Event Profile that listens for a code.

Say you want to record the ideal time for a photograph in a certain location while out scouting: when you get to the location, Tasker will vibrate the watch and display a list of actions, one of them being "record time and orientation". When the button for this item on the watch is being pressed, Tasker can then create a note (in Google docs or Evernote or any other note taking app with Tasker integration) with the current time and the orientation using the compass in the Pebble or the phone (I'm not 100% sure if the compass information is accessible within Tasker so the phone compass for GPS journey direction might have to suffice). Another similar possibility would be useful for film photographers: present a list of aperture values and then, when one has been selected, a list of shutter speed values, to record data about photos taken on a film camera without having to take the phone out and with automated geotagging.

Highly functional Watchfaces

Finally, both concepts of simple watchfaces and complex apps can be tied together using apps that mostly act like a watchface but can show additional information or integrate other apps using direct button actions or menus. My current main app that is on the watch 90% of the time is Glance. It displays time, weather and missed texts/calls in a clean and nice looking watchface, and the buttons bring up a list of notifications, past text messages, appointments and a PebbleTasker page to send commands to the phone (as described in the previous sections).

Conclusion

The possibilities are endless and my examples are only a few of the scenarios where the phone+watch combination would come in handy. Since I've just started using a Pebble, I'm sure I'll discover many more use cases in the future, some really useful, some more gimmicky. I'd be very interested in what other photographers have come up with.

Please head over to Google+ or Twitter @tobiaswulff (see links on top of the page) to discuss this article or any of my photography and videography work. My Flickr, 500px and Vimeo pages also provide some space to leave comments and keep up to date with my portfolio. Lastly, if you want to get updates on future blog posts, please subscribe to my RSS feed. I plan to publish a new article every Wednesday.

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