Well I’ve just returned home from NAB and a week of Tornado Chasing in the USA. For the Tornado chasing I was shooting in 4K using my Sony F5. I’ve shot run and gun with my F3 and FS700 in the past when shooting air-shows and similar events. But this was very different. Tornado chasing is potentially dangerous. You often only have seconds to grab a shot which involves leaping out of a car, quickly setting up a tripod and camera and then framing and exposing the shot. You often only have time for one 30 second shot before you have to jump back into the car and move on out ahead of the storm. All of this my be happening in very strong winds and rain. The storms I chased last week had inflow winds rushing into them at 50+ MPH.
The key to shooting any thing fast moving, like this, is having whatever camera kit your using well configured. You need to be able to find the crucial controls for exposure and focus quickly and easily. You need to have a way of measuring and judging exposure and focus accurately. In addition you need a zoom lens that will allow you to get the kinds of shots you need, there’s no time to swap lenses!
For my storm chasing shoot I used the Sony F5 with R5 recorder. This was fitted with a Micron bridge plate as well as a Micron top cheese plate and “Manhandle”. Instead of the Sony viewfinder I used an Alphatron viewfinder as this has a waveform display for exposure. My general purpose lens was a Sigma 18-200mm f3.5-f6.5 stabilised lens with a Canon mount. To control the iris I used a MTF Effect iris control box. For weather protection a CamRade F5/F55 Wetsuit. The tripod I used for this shoot was a Miller 15 head with a set of Carbon Fibre Solo legs.
Overall I was pleased with the way this setup worked. The F5’s ergonomics really help as the logical layout makes it simple to use. The 18-200mm lens is OK. I wish it was faster for shooting in low light but for the daytime and dusk shots, f3.5 (at the wide end) is OK. The F5 is so sensitive that it copes well even with this slow lens. The CamRade wetsuit is excellent. Plenty of clear windows so you can see the camera controls and a well tailored yet loose fit that allows you to get easy access to the camera controls. I’ve used Miller Solo legs before and when you need portability they can’t be beaten. The are not quite as stable as twin tube legged tripods, but for this role they are an excellent fit. The Miller 15 head was also just right. Not too big and bulky, not too small. The fluid motion of the head is really smooth.
So what didn’t work? Well I used the Element Technica Micron bridge plate. I really like the Micron bridge plate as it allows you to re-balance the camera on the tripod very quickly. But it’s not really designed for quick release, it’s a little tricky to line up the bridge plate with the dovetail so I ended up removing and re-fitting the camera via the tripod plate which again is not ideal. The Micron Bridge plate is not really designed for this type of application, when I go back storm chasing in May I’ll be using a baseplate that locks into a VCT-14 quick release plate, not sure which one yet, so I have some investigating to do. The VCT-14 is not nearly as stable or as solid as the Micron, but for this application speed is of the essence and I’m prepared to sacrifice a little bit of stability. The Micron bridge plate is better suited to film style shooting and in that role is fantastic, it’s just not the right tool for this job.
The MTF-Effect unit is needed to control the aperture of the Canon mount lens, it also powers the optical image stabiliser. But it’s a large square box. I had it mounted on the top of the camera, not in the best place. I need to look at where to mount the box. I’m actually considering re-housing the unit in a custom made hand grip so I can use it to hold the camera with my left hand and have iris control via a thumbwheel. I also want to power it from one of the camera’s auxiliary outputs rather than using the AA batteries internally. The other option is the more expensive Optitek lens mount which I’m hoping to try out soon. I’m also getting a different lens. The Sigma was fine, but I’m going to get a Sigma 18-250mm (15x) f3.5-f6.5 for a bit more telephoto reach. The other option I could have used is my MTF B4 adapter and a 2/3″ broadcast zoom, but for 4K the Tamron will have better resolution than an HD lens. If I was just shooting HD then the broadcast lens would probably be the best option. After dark I swapped to my Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 for general purpose shooting and this worked well in low light but with the loss of telephoto reach, I need to look into a fast long lens but these tend to be expensive. If you have deep enough pockets the lens to get would probably be the Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9, but sadly at the moment my budget is blown and my pockets are just not that deep. The Cabrio is very similar to an ENG broadcast lens in that it has a servo zoom, but it’s PL mount and very high resolution. Another lens option would be the Canon CN-E30-105mm T2.8, but overall there isn’t a great deal of choice when it comes down to getting a big zoom range and large aperture at the same time, in a hand-held package. If I was working with a full crew then I would consider using a much larger lens like the Arri Alura 18-80 or Angenieux Optimo 24-290, but then this is no longer what I would consider run and gun and would require an assistant to set up the tripod while I bring out the camera.
From an operating point of view one thing I had to do was to keep reminding myself to double check focus. If you think focus is critical in HD, then it’s super critical for 4K. Thunderstorms are horrid things to try and focus on as they are low contrast and soft looking. I had to use a lot of peaking as well as the 1:1 pixel function of the Alphatron viewfinder, one of the neat things about the Alphatron is that peaking continues to work even in the 1:1 zoom mode. As I was shooting raw and using the cameras Cine EI mode to make exposure simpler I turned on the Look Up Tables on the HDSDI outputs and used the P1 LUT. I then exposed using the waveform monitor keeping my highlights (for example the brighter clouds) at or lower than 100%. On checking the raw footage back this looks to have worked well. Quite a few shots needed grading down by 1 to 1.5 stops, but this is not an issue as there is so much dynamic range that the highlights are still fine and you get a cleaner, less noisy image. When shooting raw with the F5 and F55 cameras I’d rather grade down than up. These cameras behave much more like film cameras due to the massive dynamic range and raw recording, so a little bit of overexposure doesn’t hurt the images as it would when shooting with standard gammas or even log. Grading down (bringing levels down) results in lower noise and a cleaner image.
So you can run and gun in an intense fast moving environment with a large sensor camera. It’s not as easy as with a 2/3″ or 1/2″ camera. You have to take a little more time double checking your focus. The F5 is so sensitive that using a F3.5-F6.5 lens is not a huge problem. A typical 1/2″ camera (EX1, PMW-200) is rated at about 300 ISO and has an f1.8 lens. The F5 in Cine EI mode is 2000 ISO, almost 3 stops more sensitive. So when you put an f3.5 lens on, the F5 ends up performing better in low light, even at f6.5 it’s only effectively one stop less sensitive. For this kind of subject matter you don’t want to be at f1.8 – f2.8 with a super 35mm sensor anyway as the storm scenes and shots involved work better with a deep focus range rather than a shallow one.
Having watched the footage from the shoot back in HD on a large screen monitor I am delighted with the quality of the footage. Even in HD it has better clarity than I have seen in any of my previous storm footage. This is I believe down to the use of a 4K sensor and the very low noise levels. I’d love to see the 4K material on a 4K monitor. It certainly looks good on my Mac’s retina display. Hopefully I’ll get back out on the plains and prairies of Tornado Alley later in May for some more storm chasing. Anyone want to join me?