Cinegearpro “Universal DSLR Baseplate”

You’d think it would be easy enough to find a decent DSLR baseplate. I mean, what can go wrong? Essentially you’re buying a chunk of metal that attaches your DSLR to a pair of rods. Well, in the case of my camera rig, I’ve had more trouble with baseplates than with any other rig component. I still don’t have one that I’m completely satisfied with.

The first baseplate I bought was a Redrock Micro “microSupport baseplate”. Really solid. Designed for much physically longer cameras than a DSLR, so I could adapt my rig for an FS100, C300, F3, whatever. It’s a great baseplate, and I’m still glad that I bought it. What, then, prompted me to subsequently buy a Cinegear pro baseplate, which I now use on the majority of my shoots?

Two main problems. First, the Redrock baseplate has a lot of weight to it. Much more than the tiny setups out there designed exclusively for DSLRs. Long days of shooting music videos handheld with a considerably front-heavy rig definitely made me question my choice of baseplate. Second, it takes up so much real estate on your rods that it can be hard to position other rig components where you’d otherwise want them to be. I was using 18″ rods, and I wanted to attach a Zacuto arm with a SmallHD DP4 monitor to my rig. Well, getting the magic arm into a postion where the DP4 eyecup could reach my eye was extremely difficult, given that so much space was taken up by the vast aluminium expanses of my Redrock plate. I don’t know if you’d even have enough space at all with shorter rod lengths either.

Anyway. You can see why I looked for a DSLR baseplate with a smaller and lighter presence on my rig. Hence the Cinegearpro “Universal DSLR Baseplate”. I couldn’t find any reviews of this baseplate… no info anywhere. I ended up making a judgement based on pictures alone, which is never a great idea. (this is why I’m going to write about it here)

So, you could argue that I deserved it when my Cinegearpro “Universal DSLR Baseplate” arrived and I discovered that it was the most poorly-machined piece of kit I’d ever seen. I tried to slide it onto a set of rods, and came up against heavy resistance. “Hmm, it’s a bit snug” I was thinking at first. I managed to get the baseplate onto the rods, but in the process of getting them back off, I ended up shredding the glossy coating off the end of each carbon fibre rod. To make matters worse, one of the wingnuts used to tighten the baseplate onto your rig didn’t actually tighten at all, and turning the wingnut made awful crunching noises.

This sounds like a horror story, and it sounds like I’m telling you to never, ever buy one of these baseplates. But it’s not as bad as that. After jamming a rusty pair of scissors into the snug rod-holes (is there a proper name for these holes?)and twisting repeatedly, I managed to scrape off the excess metal that was shredding my rods, and the baseplate slid onto the rig with comparative ease. I never got the left wingnut to tighten properly, but the wingnut on the right was enough to secure my baseplate in position without any danger of it sliding around. The baseplate still wasn’t what I’d imagined based on the pictures, but it worked, and it was much lighter and more flexible than my hulking Redrock plate.

And here’s the best part: the day after I “fixed” this baseplate enough to make it usable, Cinegearpro accidentally sent me another one — which worked perfectly straight out of the box. (Well it was still a bit snug, but I fixed this in under 5 minutes with some violent scissor-work). So now I have one perfectly functional baseplate for my 7D, and another slightly deformed baseplate that I use to mount my Tascam DR-40 sound recorder. Brilliant. (I’ve no qualms with keeping both baseplates, especially given the shocking quality of the first one).

I should quickly say that even my “perfectly functional baseplate” isn’t perfect — screwing the camera onto this baseplate can be a frustrating process as it’s very hard to line up the screw with the thread. It’s easier to do this if you take the baseplate off your rig and attach it to the camera in your lap, but this requires you to disassemble your rig since there’s no quick release plate. You can easily spend 5 minutes on set trying to align the thread, and it’s the most maddening process. Also, make sure you figure out which end is the “front” of your baseplate. There’s nothing obvious to distinguish “front” from “back”, but if you put your camera on backwards, the battery compartment won’t fully open and you’ll need to unscrew the camera to swing batteries.

So there. Now no one can complain that there was no information out there on Cinegearpro’s well-designed but horribly manufactured and dicey DSLR baseplate! It’s light, compact, fairly solid, and it’s the core of my current handheld 7D rig. I have no regrets about getting one.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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.

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.