Outdoor Photography and Videography

Tobi Wulff Photography

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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.

Challenges Adjusting Time in JPGs and RAWs

I recently found myself in a situation where I had to adjust the date and time on all my photos from overseas, JPEGs and RAWs. Lesson learned: it is much easier to remember (if you do) to change the setting on the camera when you are switching time zones.

JPEGs

It is fairly easy to change EXIF and IPTC metadata in JPEGs because pretty much all the tools support it. Apart from just writing data directly, most of the tools (and luckily there are many options) I looked at also allow for automatic and intelligent data/time adjustments, so you only have to specify the offset in minutes or hours or whatever unit you require, and it will set the date and time accordingly. In the end this means the choice of the specific program comes down to personal preference. In Linux, there are several options, both for the CLI and as a GUI.

In digikam, the time adjustment can be found in the batch processing editor. To get there, select the photos you want to adjust, then hit B. You can select the individual destinations for the adjust times and I usually go with all the EXIF tags and the digikam timestamp (IPTC wasn't set when the files came out of camera). After the adjustments have been made to the files, it is important to re-read the photos back into digikam. To do this, select the photos again, then go to the menu Item and click "Reread Metadata".

On the CLI, the job is much easier in my opinion (as is often the case). To get a console for the album you want to edit, right-click on the album in the album view (sorry, this technique can't work when you want to edit photos based on tags or other filters; in that case you have to use the GUI method described above) and select "Open in Terminal". Now we can use (if installed) several programs to fix the date/time:

- exiftool: Does not have a date/time adjust option so for JPEGs I would not use it
- exiv2: Can read and write all the tags in JPEGs (and other formats, but not all RAW formats, see below) and has a handy date/time adjust function: "exiv2 ad -a -10 *.JPG" will subtract 10 hours from the EXIF timestamps. It can also be used to rename the files according to the timestamp ("exiv2 mv") but I like to use digikam for that (it can make filenames unique automatically if necessary).
- jhead: Functionality around timestamps and renaming is similar to exiv2 so it comes down to personal taste and specific use cases: "jhead -ta-10:00 *.JPG" will subtract 10 hours.

RAWs

This is were things get a bit trickier and depending on your camera's RAW format some of the programs will not work, e.g. exiv2 supports ORF but not RW2, and the GUI alternatives (digikam or UFRaw) didn't contain any options to write arbitrary metadata. exiv2 can work on some formats as described above (which is nice because it is the shortest and simplest command) but failed to write RW2 (Panasonic). What did work was exiftool. One slight quirk is that while exiftool displays pretty field names when you print all the metadata within a file (no arugments, just "exiftool file.RW2"), it requires the arguments for time adjustment to be the technical, compressed names of all the individual fields that you want to write, so: exiftool -"ModifyDate"-=10 -"DateTimeOriginal"-=10 -"CreateDate"-=10 *.RW2

I hope someone else who is on the search for the right tool to adjust their photos' metadata will find this information useful. I'll keep it as a reference for the future because I'm sure I will forget to set my camera to the right time zone again.

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.

Best of 2015 Photography Portfolio

2016 has been my second year of picking up photography. I've done a Best of Portfolio for last year as well, just never published it, but this year I decided to write a quick blurb about each picture and make my progress over time public.

The Process

I got the idea from the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast. Martin talks about how important it is to develop the skills of narrowing all your photos and great moments of the year down to just the very best 10 pictures. In the end I couldn't get below 12 and figured it's a good number because there are 12 months (my photos are not strictly by month though). There is also a bonus photo which has been my wallpaper for over a year and I still love it - both on my desktop and on my phone. I've divided the 12 best photos up into three panels and will talk very briefly about each photo, starting at the top left, going around clockwise.

12 Best Photos of 2015

Rolling hills: shot in central Otago, NZ, on the Pisa range near sunset. Probably my strongest light-and-shadow photo so far which is why I like it so much. The composition could probably be improved but the light was changing fast and this one was the best of the lot. The moon adds a really nice central accent.
Butterfly: Shot at Singapore airport, again at sunset. Since the butterfly garden is in an airport with buildings on 3 sides of it, this was a very lucky moment and the light was gone just 5 minutes later. There are many butterflies in the garden and they constantly feed on fruit nectar and flowers so one doesn't have to wait long to get a shot with a beautiful insect like that. However, it was the only spot in the gardens at that time that received the golden sunlight onto the nice contrasting white flowers.
Pine tree: This is a shot from the Black Forest in Germany. I was walking through swampy marshlands (on wooden boardwalks) and noticed that the trees had those pollen containers (Biologists please send me the correct terminology) primed and ready to go at the slightest touch. So I shook the twig and took a rapid burst of photographs as the branch swayed back and worth and shook out the cloud of pollen. This photo was the best of the lot where framing, sharpness, and the swirl in the pollen cloud worked out best.
Ominous bridge: This is taken crossing the Top Butler river on the West Coast of NZ. When I took the picture I thought it just looked nice because a swingbridge high over a wild torrent always looks good. But at home I noticed how ominous and dark everything looked and after fiddling with the sliders in Darktable for a while I came up with this photo that (in my opinion) captures the harsh and mysterious conditions when hiking on the rough West Coast really well. Unfortunately, it comes out quite dark on some monitors and so far I haven't decided if I should just up the exposure or work on the darker bits individually which would ruin some of the high contrast look.

Beach: another sunset (must be a theme among photographers) taken in Sumner, Christchurch, NZ. I like there is so much activity on the beach: people walking, surfing, paragliding, birds flying - and you can see the spray from the ocean really well.
Power lines: This one is taken among some wheat fields in Germany while out on a bike ride. That part of Germany consists of continuous rolling hills yet in this photo it's got a neat "Great Plains" look. I also like the colours and the very limited colour palette.
Snowy ridge: Back in NZ in the middle of winter. As the photographer I know exactly what the scene looked like in real life but I think the photograph successfully plays some tricks on the eye in terms of perspective. Because we happened to come down the steep part of this mountain at just the right time, less than an hour before sunset I think, we got this really string shadow line on the ridge. The hiker sort of (but not completely) gives the scene a sense of scale.
Tops hut: Not a particularly hard or lucky photo but it's got all the elements of a picture-perfect NZ backcountry scene: some snow, clouds, a cozy hut, and just a very pleasant to look at mix of colours.

Waterfall: I'm not a huge practitioner of blurred water and waterfall photography but when you are out in the mountains you do spot a lot of pretty looking waterfalls. This one seemed to work best in black & white because it's got a lot of texture but not really any colour that would be missed (the water wasn't glacier blue or anything like that). My only complaint about it is that the rocks on the right are a bit too shiny. I find it quite tricky to balance my circular polarizer effect when doing long-exposure of water because you want to take the glare of rocks but the agitated water actually looks better with the reflections left in.
Sand columns: Another one where it's nearly impossible to get a good sense of scale. These are actually very small pebbles and other debris that prevent the river sand on a bank from getting eroded by rainfall. It's quite a unique photo and perspective which is why I chose it for my Best of collection.
Swirly clouds sunset: Taken from one of the Canterbury (NZ) foothills at sunset while low clouds got blown around our mountain from the West. It was actually a really strong wind but we camped behind a ridge line where we had this great view just above the tree line.
Dragonfly: This was the first trip after buying the Olympus 45 mm prime lens for MFT and I was blown away but its detail and sharpness. This scene might be a little bit busy but it's a neat scene with a clear subject in its environment with some really nice colours and detail. A fairly lucky shot for sure.

Bonus

As promised, here is the link to the wallpaper in high resolution. This is one of my all time favourite photos because I love the perspective, the colours, and even the (yes, gimmicky) diorama effect. I hope someone else will also enjoy it as their wallpaper. If you want to redistribute the wallpaper, please link back to this blog post or to the photo in my gallery or on Flickr.

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.

RAW Timelapse Workflow with Darktable and Davinci Resolve

I shot a new timelapse in the mountains, this time exclusively recording all the frames in full resolution and RAW (unlike my previous outdoor timelapse). It was recorded with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (de) and Olympus 12-40mm F2.8 PRO (de) lens.

Out in the field

Basic outdoor timelapse 101: all manual settings, that is ISO, white balance, aperture, shutter speed. White balance was obviously daylight and I kept the ISO at its minimum (200). Shutter speed should be set to something "video-like". Video and film cameras usually use something called a 180 degree shutter which essentially means that the shutter speed is 1/(2 x frame rate). So for a 24 fps video that means 1/48 or (because photo cameras usually don't offer this setting) 1/50. Anything faster than that runs the risk of making the timelapse feel jittery and too sharp. For fast movements, like people or clouds, I like to go even slower and aim for something like 1/20 - 1/40. This gives the video a more dreamy and pleasing look.

I record every frame in RAW. I like to store JPEGs as well so I can generate a quick timelapse when I get home without having to go through the RAW workflow (described below) first.

To do the actual timelapse recording, there are several option depending on your circumstances and your equipment:

  • Using the camera's in-built timelapse function: most compact solution and works well on the E-M1 except when you want faster than 1 second intervals;
  • using a remote shutter release or remote timer: works great but you have to dial in the intervals using the anti-shock functionality and it's an extra cable flapping in the wind;
  • a slider or panning head triggering the camera: whenever the E-M1 sits on the panning head (see next section), it will receive it's shutter releases from the Genie. The result: accurate intervals perfectly timed with the stops between motions of the moving parts of the timelapse setup.

For filters I often use a graduated ND filter to make the bright sky and the darker ground a bit more even. This is particularly important at sunrise and sunset because the ground will be really dark. I also have a circular polarizer that lives on my lens 95% of the time: vegetation looks more lush, colours more vibrant, and annoying reflections of leaves or glaring surfaces disappear. It can also cut through a lot of haze and mist on a more cloudy day. Time in Pixels just released an excellent article about filters for video with many visual examples.

Getting moving

I've written about my DIY slider before and it is actually undergoing some major upgrades right now to make it more usable and flexible. However, I don't usually take it very far because it is heavy and big. In order to have something that always fits in even the smallest bag, is compact and rugged (not weather-proof, though) and "just works", I got myself a Genie Mini which is actually being developed here in NZ. It's controlled from a smartphone via Bluetooth so setting it up takes a few minutes since my phone is usually off when I'm in the outdoors (no reception anyway) but it's very intuitive and flexible (watch the videos on their website). All the shots in the video at the top of the page that have some side-to-side movement are done with the Genie Mini.

RAW workflow

The out of camera JPEGs are alright but (especially for landscapes) don't look nearly as good as they could when I develop my own final images from RAW: better colours, more dynamic range, more wiggle room in the highlights (and some in the shadows). This is particularly important when photographing sunsets, sunrises, or rapidly changing lighting conditions because the exposure can be adjusted so much in post. I load all my RAWs from one scene into Darktable, then do all my adjustments on one of them (shadows, highlights, general exposure, Velvia/saturation filter, contrast, noise reduction, but no cropping - I can always do that later when editing the video). Then, I copy the settings to all the other RAWs and export everything to bitmap files with a high bit rate, such as 16-bit PNG or TIFF. In theory, one could also make fine adjustments to individual frames at this stage.

Editing

The last step is to edit the photos into a timelapse video and maybe add some music and sound effects. I mainly use Davinci Resolve for editing because it also has colour grading built in but the colours should already be fairly correct and good looking from the last step. Davinci can directly import image sequences (i.e. individual files) and display them as video clips.

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.

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