Canon 5D Mark III

I know that 5Dmk3 reviews have been done to death, so I’ll try to skip over the really obvious stuff.

I have mixed feelings about the Mark 3. I used one on a music video the other day, and I do really like the design. It’s solidly built, the aperture wheel feels nicer than ever before, the LCD screen is huge, high-res and widescreen. It’s the little things that count here, that’s what I’m saying. The camera alerts you if you’re trying to scroll the aperture wheel while it’s locked. The menus have been redesigned, and while they initially seem more complex (there are fewer menu sections, but each section has 4 pages) I think it’s well thought out. Previously, functions such as Highlight Tone Priority needed to be added to the “favourites” menu to be accessed quickly. Now HTP and ALO reside in the same menu section as your picture style settings, which is a lot more logical. It’s also easy to find quite obscure cutomisation functions, such as assigning the shutter button to record video rather than take a still shot. That kind of thing.

Again, I’m not going to talk about image quality in detail here. All I’ll say is I think it’s a real pity about the codec “fizz” that is apparent even at low ISO settings. I really like the fact that you can record all I-frames, that’s a big thing for me. And despite the “fizz”, I’d much rather shoot with the Mark 3’s highest quality video codec than with the old codec on the 5D2 and 7D. The fizz seems most obvious in the mid-shadow tones, and if you’re looking for it, it’s easy to find. Still, I prefer it to the old long-GOP compression which might be cleaner on a static shot, but present much more damage and artefacting on shots with a lot of detail and movement. At least the Mark 3’s fizzing is consistent, like a texture or grain to the image (maybe that’s a stretch).

Is this a revolutionary camera for shooting video? Of course not. Showing other people the footage, you’d most likely have to *tell them* “I shot that on a 5D mark 3” in order for them to see any difference. At the end of the day, shooting on a Mark 3 feels much the same as DSLR shooting always has. But if you need that full-frame sensor look, this is still one of your best options (until “Red Dragon”— or whatever Mr. Jannard decides to call it — comes out). Personally, if the D800 didn’t have moire problems, I’d see it as a winner against the Mark 3. Uncompressed HDMI output (hopefully firmware updates will make it more compatible than it currently seems to be) and a potential extra bit of sharpness compared to the Mark 3 sounds pretty compelling. But you’ve got to weigh that up against better low light performance, greatly reduced moire problems, slightly shallower DOF (the D800 goes to a 1.1x crop for FX video shooting) and Canon lens compatibility on the Mark 3. So it gets a bit murky. For shooting music videos and the like, I don’t really need extreme ISO sensitivity, and moire problems are usually avoidable in most shots — and I just like recording straight to Prores. But for many purposes the Mark 3 beats the living daylights out of the D800.. so go figure.

To be honest, I’m just looking forward to see what the FS700 is like. Debating Mark 3 vs D800 is like arguing about whether to get McDonald’s or KFC for dinner, when there’s an incredible Japanese restaurant across the road. Let’s move on.

Sony PMW-F3

I’ll be up front. I like this camera. I find it strange that the F3 is overshadowed by the C300 in a lot of film reviews and blogs — at least that’s the impression I get from my RSS feed. To some extent, I’d attribute this to the fact that so many people are already invested in Canon EF glass, dictating what modern “DSLR-killer” seems most appealing.

After 2 days of shooting with the F3, I can safely say I prefer it to any other “DSLR killing” camera I’ve used (By this I mean any camera that’s not a DSLR, that was released after the rise of the 5D mark 2, that is not a RED/Alexa/F65, that was created to satiate our voracious need for relatively affordable large-sensor cameras that aren’t as freaking annoying as DSLRs).

The AF100 did not impress me. Its clumsy menu interface seemed to be borrowed from a Nintendo DS and strange colours would appear in parts of the image that were just about to clip. The C300 was a very likeable camera — extremely portable, comfortable to hold, with incredible low light sensitivity and pleasing grain. But something about the F3 feels more “serious” to me. The C300 feels like a rushed attempt at creating a mutant DSLR-camcorder hybrid, borrowing 8-bit architecture from the XF300 camcorders and failing to provide 1080/60p capability. To me it seems like a quick fix. Others love the broadcast-ready 4:2:2 50mbit internal codec, and criticise the F3’s internal 4:2:0 35mbit offering as inadequate. I can understand both arguments. For news, events and live coverage, the quality of the internal codec is paramount. For films, ads, music videos, and so on, you’re typically going to harness the increased quality and codec robustness of recording all I-frames to an external recorder of some sort — Well actually you’re probably shooting on RED.. But let’s pretend you’re not—  and the internal long GOP codec starts to lose importance. It’s here that the F3 shines, especially with the Dual link RGB 4:4:4 Log upgrade (which I did not have)

The F3 is a big “chunk” of a camera. Much wider than I’d expected based on deceptively slimming photos. Despite the excess girth, the plastic exterior keeps the F3 nice and light. I can’t complain about the button layout — very similar to an Ex3 — so far I think every camera review on this blog has involved me saying “this camera should be more like an Ex3”. One thing I’ll complain about are the ND filters. There are only 2 ND settings, and so the exposure change between them is extremely dramatic. It’s great for radical lighting changes but if you want to cut down on light by just a stop or two, don’t look at the ND filters for help. By contrast I think the C300 has 3 strengths of in-built ND.

My other complaint is that manually dialling in white balance settings on this camera is a frustrating process at best. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, a shortcut or something. But do I really need to delve into my picture profile menus to change the preset white balance? It would be great if I could specify colour temperatures for Preset, A and B separately, on both Blue/Orange and Green/Magenta spectrums. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to do this (or at least no easy way of doing this). I can specify the temperature of “Preset” and possibly “A” by going into the picture profile settings, but I never found a way of manually controlling the colour balance of “B”. I guess “A” and “B” are designed for you to actually get a white card, hit the “WB” button and let the camera do its thing. But I feel like there should be a way to override this so that you can quickly switch between three predetermined colour balances, for instance 3200K, 4300K and 5600K.

Now, I don’t want to get into a debate about resolution or colour rendering or noise patterns between the F3 and the C300 or any other camera, that’s too messy for me to handle here. Go to Pro Video Coalition for all that good stuff. But the Prores 422HQ files coming out of the Pix240 were brilliantly sharp and handled intensely saturated colour well. (much of the shoot took place in a club with powerful blue lights pumped into rotating disco balls). The camera was not S-log enabled, so I shot with Cine3 gamma, Matrix at -5, and everything else left at factory preset. Cine3 provided a boost to midtones, which will need to be pulled down slightly in post (making the colour much richer — the footage is so much more malleable than what I’m used to on a 7D).

I do think there’s a tendency for F3 footage to clip out suddenly rather than gradually roll into the highlights.. it probably doesn’t look as automatically “organic” as some other cameras can. But for a punchy club music video I don’t think that this harshness in the highlights was too detrimental. (I’ve read in a few places that Cinegamma 4 handles highlights in the smoothest fashion)

The background lighting conditions in the club were pretty extreme, and definitely pushed the camera somewhat. Some thick colour fringing was present in shots where the subjects were strongly silhouetted with clipped white light against a heavily saturated background. Here’s a screengrab:

And a 100% crop: 

Ouch. Not pretty. But these are tough conditions for any digital camera, I’m not too surprised at these results.

Ok, a couple of other quick notes. I used my own Redrock Micro baseplate, and the rest of my usual 7D rig (including Nikon primes and Redrock Blue FF) to kit up the camera, and there was only one small complication. Because the F3 is so wide, it was difficult to lock the slide plate onto the Redrock baseplate because the wingnut would hit against the bottom of the camera. You can pull the wingnut outwards to adjust its position, but it’s still tricky to lock. And secondly, I know this is common sense really, but don’t try and record out via the HDMI port unless you really, really can’t help it. It’s just too risky. We lost a few handheld takes because the HDMI cable was slightly loose, and we had no BNC alternative. It’s quite dangerous, as the Pix240 can display an image that looks perfectly fine, but upon closer inspection on a computer monitor you can see all sorts of weird visual glitches.. from dancing speckles that look like dead pixels, to colour phasing shifts, to thin dark lines of corrupt image flashing on and off.. awful stuff. So yes, I’m an idiot and left the rental house without insisting on getting a BNC cable, and lost some shots because of it. We even lost of a couple of locked off tripod shots as well because the strong breeze was enough to move the HDMI cable around. That’s what I get. To be honest, I’m now a lot less inclined to shoot with an FS100, (or D800 for that matter) since HDMI out is the only option.

Canon C300

I’m willing to put up with a lot for the sake of image quality. Surely this is the only reason why camera operators around the planet were willing to return to the dark ages — saying goodbye to their XLR inputs, timecode and inbuilt ND filters for the sake of a full-frame 35mm sensor in the Canon 5D2. The irony is that while I’ve damned Sony’s Z5 and Canon’s Xf305 for being impractical and frustrating to operate, the camera I work most frequently with is my own Canon 7D. Go figure. I put up with running dual system audio, living in constant fear of moire, restarting my camera every time it overheats, trying to ignore the horrible compression damage, all because the thought of simply shooting on a 1/3″ 3-chip camera makes me shudder.

So in that spirit, looking at the C300’s image quality alone, I must be willing to put up with quite a lot. Extreme low light sensitivity, 4:2:2 chroma without an external recorder, XLR audio, ND filters, clean HDMI output… it’s like Jesus returned to earth as a camera. (excuse my blasphemy)

But I have to say, operating the C300 is not the most intuitive process. Admittedly, I’ve only used the camera twice and I had no time to prepare or pre-set the camera. After half an hour of messing with some settings, I went straight into the field, shot in the dark of a club, and discovered a few quirks and problems as I went. To me they’re certainly not so damning that I’d hate to use the camera, but when you’re covering live events and you need to adapt your settings on the fly, it doesn’t seem as quick and immediate as operating an Ex3 for example. Now everyone who owns or is thinking about owning a C300 will flame me and say that I’m just a Sony fanboy and why don’t I just go and use an Ex3 if it’s so good, blah. But hear me out.

There is no dedicated ISO/gain switch on the C300. There is no dedicated white balance toggle, nor is there a dedicated shutter speed control. To me, this came as a big surprise. To access any of these settings, you need to find an ambiguously labelled “function” button on the rear of the camera, which cycles through each of these settings. So if I want to change the ISO, I hit “function” a few times until the ISO setting is highlighted on the LCD screen — then I can use a rotating wheel on the left side of the camera to increase or decrease ISO. Looking at a picture of the C300, you’ll see that there are two rotating wheels on the left side of the camera. The upper wheel is the one you want to change your ISO. If you accidentally scroll with the lower wheel, the camera will deselect your ISO toggle and instead adjust your aperture (on Canon EF lenses). Then you’ll need to go back and find the “Function” button and cycle through it until you reselect ISO. Does this not seem overly complicated? On an Ex3, you’d slide your hand down to the left side of camera, find the little silver nib and flick it from Low to Medium or High. The ISO values for L, M and H were configurable in a menu, so you could figure out appropriate gain presets before your shoot. Same deal for White Balance presets.

Here’s another problem. It’s hard to find the ND+ and ND – buttons in the dark. Of course, you’ll laugh at me here. ND filters in the dark?? Well I was shooting a burlesque show where the lighting changed all over the place. As a baseline, I had my ISO at 12,500 (fairly incredible), but at times my subject would move right into a spotlight and she’d be in danger of clipping. And as I’ve previously stated, lowering the ISO is not the fastest process. My gut reaction was to flip on an ND filter, but as it was so dark, and because the ND control buttons feel no different to any other buttons on the side of the camera, I had no hope of finding it without losing my shot for a moment.

This really feeds into a larger problem that I have with the camera: the controls are not easily distinguishable by touch. On an Ex3, or even an XF305, you can feel that your hand is touching the ISO toggle, or the ND slider, or the scrolling menu wheel. On the C300, all buttons are round and black and similarly sized — and on average, you need to find more buttons to execute any particular setting adjustment than you would on a traditional camcorder. Having two scroll wheels right next to each other, with one that cancelled the function of the other was also an annoyance — but of course after a day of solid work with a C300, I’m sure muscle memory would take over and it would become more natural.

In closing, I have to admit that for most purposes, none of what I’ve mentioned is a serious problem. For short films, music videos and advertisements, anything where you can do multiple takes and you can spare 5 seconds to change camera settings, you’ll be fine. In a controlled environment, the C300’s image quality far outweighs any quirks of its design and button layout. I just wish that for shooting in a completely uncontrolled environment where you’ve only got one take, that Canon had borrowed a little more from standard camcorders and made dedicated buttons for ISO and WB that could be identified by touch.

Canon XF305

Another 1/3″ camera? Seriously?

I realise, I’ve promised a blog about “digital cinematography” and so far I’ve only delivered reviews of two “camcorders” that “digital cinematographers” in 2012 wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I’ve just been covering events recently — hence i’m briefly back to camcorders and fixed lenses and deep focus with noisier images and all that awful stuff. (And while I’m stuck shooting with an XF305, another guy is shooting on a C300, which I might write a post about if I can get to handle it a little more).

Anyway. The XF305 is quite a nice camera. There’s not an awful lot to complain about, and I much prefer it to Sony’s Z5 (not that this is saying much). It’s a larger, heftier camera than I imagined based on the pictures, at least as large as an Ex1 and I feel like it’s heavier as well. For the most part, if you’ve used an Ex1 or a Z7 or any equivalent camera, you’ll have 90% of this camera figured out before you start (which is to be expected on a “camcorder” really).

Now here’s the problem. Everything that I like about this camera is borrowed from other typical camcorders. The button layout, the design and build quality, etc. It’s all good, but it’s all exactly what you’d expect from any of these sorts of cameras. And while the XF305 borrows a lot, there are a few glaring omissions that I find quite problematic. In short, anything that can be considered “unique” to the design of this camera is something that I don’t like, and that I wish they’d just borrowed from an Ex3. For starters, there’s no nib attached to the zoom ring, so say goodbye to your crash zooms. The zoom ring is also (of course) fully electronic — there’s a significant lag to your zoom movements, and the camera constantly attempts to turn your “quick crash zoom to get focus” into a long, graceful zoom shot. Urge to kill. Rising.

Similarly, the aperture ring is electronic with no hard stops, and again this infuriating “smooth effect” creates a delay when changing exposure. There’s probably a way to configure the responsiveness of the electronic zoom and aperture rings, I’ll be using this damned camera for the next week so I’ll see what’s possible there. But even if I can configure these parameters, nothing compares to the responsiveness of fully mechanical lens controls.

My last lens-related complaint: the zoom ring is too stiff. What this means in practice is that when I want to crash zoom and focus, I’ve got to turn, turn, turn the zoom ring and it’s very easy to accidentally brush against the aperture ring and change your exposure inadvertently at the same time. (as you can see in the picture, the zoom and aperture rings are set closely together)

Ok. That might be enough lamenting about electronic lenses for now. My only other problem with this camera (for now at least) is the design of its menu buttons. After years of using Sony Z and Ex cameras, I’ve become very used to the little scroll wheel that you push in to select different items. I think it’s a great system, very intuitive, and once you’ve found the scroll wheel, there’s no reason to take your hand away from it to find other buttons. I have to confess, I’m fairly new to Canon camcorders, so perhaps the design of the XF305 is nothing new. But I don’t like it. You’ve got your scroll wheel, a separate “select” button to the left of it, and a “cancel” button to the left of that. So what you used to do with one button on a  Z1 now requires 3 separate buttons on the 305. I’m sure you get used to it, but it feels so clumsy. And in the dark, trying to keep track of where your hand is on a camera that’s coated in tiny buttons… it’s a pain.

Oh yea. One more problem. (of course there are more!)  You know the handgrip/zoom rocker thing on the right side of the camera? This one can’t rotate at all. It’s fused in position with its zoom controls facing up towards the ceiling. On an Ex1 or whatever, you could rotate the grip forwards, so that the zoom controls faced straight out in the direction of the lens. I found this really convenient for covering runway shows where you’re constantly panning and zooming backwards with each model. With the zoom rocker pointing up to the ceiling your wrist has to bend so that you can reach your fingers up to the controls. Sucks.

So. Remember what I said at the start? “The XF305 is quite a nice camera. There’s not an awful lot to complain about…” Yea. I take that back.

Sony HVR-Z5

Alright. I know it’s 2012. No one uses 1/3″ cameras anymore. You shoot your amateur short film with a 550D, a kit zoom lens and a cheap LED panel now, end of story. None of this 1/3″ 3-chip HDV tape-based, anamorphic pixel crap any more, to hell with tapes. But anyway. Despite my sweeping statements, I quite like Sony’s HVR-Z cameras, and when you’re covering events you’ll find these cameras along with (vastly superior) Ex3s and XF305s. But the Z5… the Z5 makes me angry. I’m fine with the Z1, I’m even more fine with the Z7, but the Z5 makes me want to kill people. I want producers, and non-camera people who organise shoots and often order cameras without consulting the camera operators to know that the Z5 is *not* just a better version of the Z1.

What’s changed? The introduction of a new “G Lens” with an extremely long 20x range. This sounds great in theory, but what I really hate (this will probably become a recurring theme on my blog) is that the focus ring is no longer mechanically connected to the lens — it’s all electronic. I don’t know why they do this, since it’s surely simpler to make it all mechanical, but you can turn the focus ring around and around forever without it hitting a hard infinity stop. Turning the ring must register sensors in the camera, which in turn electronically control the camera’s focus. “Why is this so bad?” You ask. If you’re used to shooting with DSLRs and Canon EF lenses, it sounds like just another day in the park (not sure where that analogy came from). Well, there’s more to it. As you zoom in, the camera automatically adjusts the sensitivity of the focus ring so that you don’t need to turn it around as much as you would if it were mechanical. The guys at Sony really are lovely people, making sure our wrists don’t get tired when we’re zooming in to focus. I’m sure some people must love this feature, but for me it perfectly epitomises the concept of “film rage”. You can’t turn it off. There’s a lag between your turning of the focus ring and the actual focusing happening. The sensitivity of the focus ring changes depending on your focal length which messes with my mind, and my most important point is that it is completely impossible to perform repeatable focus pulls on this camera! As soon as you zoom in or out slightly, the focus ring’s sensitivity changes and you’ve lost your marks. And if you turn the ring past infinity, again you’ve lost your marks. Yes I know, it’s only a 1/3″ camera and everything should be “pretty in focus”. And I know, the Z5 is designed for documentaries and events coverage where there are no repeatable focus pulls anyway. But it’s something to be aware of, and for me, a massive deal breaker. The wonderful “G lens” also stops down dramatically over the course of its zoom range, down to f/5.6 from memory, which severely limits it in low light situations. And my last point against this camera is (I think this is correct, if not please flame me) that the zoom ring has no nib that you can grab onto to quickly crash zoom and focus. If I was shooting a documentary, I’d want the process of getting critical focus to be as fast as possible, and the slow electronic zoom ring combined with the laggy electronic focus ring would frustrate me to no end. But that’s just me.

To anyone looking at shooting short films or advertisements on this camera (there won’t be many people in this boat but it’s possible), please look at using a Z1 or a Z7 instead. You’ll have real mechanical lens control in addition to the *optional* electronic “smart” AF modes, so focus pulls will be easily achievable, and no one will want to kill anyone.