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The Sony PXW-Z90 – a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it’s best!

Normally when I travel up to arctic Norway for my annual Northern Lights expeditions I take a large sensor video camera. Last year it was the Sony FS5, which performed very well and gave me some great results. But this year I decided to down size and instead of taking a bulky camera I chose to take a pre-production sample of Sony’s diminutive new PXW-Z90 camcorder.

36B8104-683x1024 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
In Norway with the PXW-Z90.

On the outside the Z90 looks almost exactly the same as the older PXW-X70 camcorder. I’ve shot several videos with the X70 and it’s a great little camcorder that produces a very good image considering it’s small size. Being a new model I expected the Z90 to offer some small improvements over the X70, but what I didn’t expect was the very big improvements that the Z90 brings.

The Z90 is the first camcorder from Sony to incorporate a new design of sensor. It’s a 1″ type sensor, so like the X70, bigger than you used to find on small handycams, but not as big as the super 35mm sensor found in the FS5, FS7 etc. This is a nice size for this type of camera as it makes it possible to obtain a shallow depth of field by using the cameras built in ND filters (yes- it really does have ND filters built in) and a large aperture. Or if you need a deeper depth of field for easier focussing or run and gun then you can use a smaller aperture by switching out the ND filters. The maximum aperture of the zoom lens is f2.8 but it does stop down to f4 towards the telephoto end.

stacked-cmos The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
Sony’s new stacked CMOS EMOR RS sensor

This new sensor uses a new construction method that allows it to have several layers of electronics immediately below the imager pixels. The “stacked” sensor can as a result incorporate more image processing and a large memory area right under the pixels. This means that the sensor can be read out much more quickly than is normal for this type of camera and as a result rolling shutter is hugely reduced (I didn’t notice any in any of my footage).

As well as a reduction in rolling shutter compared to other similar sensors, the ability to do more on chip image processing appears to bring other advantages as the noise levels from this camera are very low indeed.

Z90-Night-scooter-ride-1024x576 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
Frame grab from a night time snow scooter ride. Shot at +15dB gain the noise is still very minor. (click on the image to view a larger version.

The low noise levels mean that this camera performs surprisingly well in low light. Adding in +6dB  was not a problem if needed. Even with +15dB of gin the images hold together very well. Clearly the camera is doing a fair bit of electronic noise reduction at higher gain levels and there is a slight increase in image smear as a result. Plus in certain circumstances the noise levels do rise, especially if you have large dark areas amongst in an otherwise brighter scene. In my sample footage during the night time snow scooter ride, which was shot at +15dB gain, you don’t see and noise over the snow, but you can see some grainy noise over the dark jacket of the snow scooter driver (see the frame grab above).  The fact that you can push the camera up to +15dB and in most cases get a pretty good image is very nice.

Z90-HLG-frame-grab-1024x576 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
Frame grab form a PXW-Z90 – Hybrid Log Gamma. Click on the image to see a larger version.

On top of good sensitivity you also have great dynamic range, more than the X70 and enough to make direct HDR shooting and log shooting possible with this tiny hand held camcorder. It doesn’t quite have the dynamic range of an FS5 or FS7, but there is still plenty of range to help deal with challenging lighting situations.

As well as bringing a nice improvement in image quality over the X70 (which is pretty good already) the new sensor brings a vastly improved autofocus system. There are 273 focus detection points which are combined with faster readout, faster on sensor processing and the same AF processing technology as used in the flagship Sony A9 stills camera. This brings a really remarkable autofocus system to this camera. The AF system is a newly developed hybrid system that combines phase detection AF with new algorithms created specifically for video rather than stills photography. At last this is an autofocus system that really works for a video camera. It is intelligent and responsive. There is no hunting for focus, it just seems to get on with the job.

AJC03989-1024x683 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
Adjusting the AF response on the PXW-Z90.

Just about every aspect of the autofocus system can be customised in the camera menu. You can choose between using focus zones, the full image width or selectable focus spot areas. The cameras LCD screen is a touch screen so you tap the screen where you want to focus.

You can also tailor the AF’s response speed, you can adjust the size of the tracking range, using a wide range for occasions when you want the AF to follow an object through the shot, or use a narrow range to restrict the focus depth range.

AJC03986-1024x683 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
The PXW-Z90’s variable AF drive speed.

You can customise how quickly the AF will move from one object to another, from staying locked on to a faster more responsive setting.

In addition it has that wonderful Sony face detection system that allows you to choose one face out of a crowd of people using the thumb stick on the hand grip or the touch screen. Once selected the camera will stay locked to that face.

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Working with the PXW-X90 in Norway.

While I was up in Norway it was between -24c and -30c. In those temperatures you really don’t want to take your mittens off for more than a minute or so. Being able to rely on the cameras autofocus allowed me to keep my fingers warm. Not one shot out of all my rushes from the trip has incorrect focus. That is truly remarkable and made shooting with this camera a real pleasure. I’m not saying that you should always use autofocus. When possible I love to be able to pick and choose how I focus. But in many situations or for less experienced shooters this autofocus system will be a game changer.

For my test shoot in Norway I mostly used Picture Profile number 10 which gives an instant HDR workflow thanks to the use of Hybrid Log Gamma. Using HLG you can shoot as you would do with any other conventional camera. Then take the footage and play it back in HDR on an HDR TV without any grading or other post production work. I also shot at a couple of locations using S-Log2 to test how that worked (I was shooting in UHD and the camera is 8 bit in UHD. For 8 bit I prefer S-Log2 over S-Log3). The Z90 has 10 picture profiles that allow you to tailor how the image looks, including a crunchy DSLR type look. Some filmic looks using Sony’s cinegammas as well as profiles for shooting S-Log2, S-Log3 and Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG).

Z90-dog-sled-frame-grab-1024x576 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
Dog sledding in the arctic (frame grab). Shot in HDR using HLG on the PXW-Z90.

The Z90 has Sony’s XAVC-L codec. This high quality codec offers 10 bit 4:2:2 broadcast quality recordings in HD and 8 bit 4:2:0 recordings in UHD (3840 x 2160). The camera records to SDXC cards, so media costs are very low. There are two card slots and you can record to each slot singly, record to one card after the other or dual record on to both cards at the same time for redundancy and an instant back. You can even use each of the cameras two record buttons to control the records on each card independently should you wish.

36B7978-1024x576 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
The PXW-X90 is very small, so carrying it around on the snow scooters was easy.
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The rear of the hand grip of the PXW-Z90.

The Z90 is a small camcorder and like all small camcorders this doesn’t leave much room for large buttons and switches. The menu system and many of the cameras functions can be controlled via the touch screen LCD or the small joystick/thumb stick on the hand grip. Iris, shutter speed and gain each have a dedicated access button that selects the function.

AJC03975-1024x683 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
The Full Auto switch and ND filter control on the PXW-Z90.

Then you use the thumb stick to select the value you want, or you can set each item to Auto. In addition there is a switch to put the camera into full auto on the rear of the camera. Just below the full auto switch is the control switch for the ND filters.

AJC03970-1024x683 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
The Sony PXW-Z90 compact 4K camcorder.

The lens is a Zeiss 12x optical zoom with built in optical image stabilisation. It is controlled by a single ring around the barrel of the lens which can be switched between focus control or zoom control. In addition there is the usual zoom rocker on the handgrip as well as a small zoom switch on the top handle. In addition to the optical stabilisation the camera also has Sony’s electronic “super steadyshot” stabilisation that can be used in addition to the optical stabilisation. Another very handy function is “Clear Image Zoom”. This is a form of electronic zoom function that makes use of a database of textures and object types. When using clear image zoom the camera uses this database to apply just the right amount of image processing during the electronic zoom process. In most cases you can’t see any degradation of the image when using clear image zoom. I left it on for all of the Norway shoot as it turns the 12x zoom into a very handy 18x zoom.

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The wide end of the PXW-X90’s zoom range.
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The long end of the PXW-X90’s zoom lens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After doing so much shooting on large sensor cameras with restricted zoom ranges getting back to a small camera with a big zoom range was fun. For future Norway trips I am very tempted to switch to a camera like the Z90.

AJC03972-1024x683 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
The right side of the PXW-Z90.

The Z90 body is almost exactly the same as the X70. The cameras top handle has 2x XLR connectors with the audio controls for the two channels on the opposite side of the handle.

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The audio controls of the PXW-Z90.

If you want to make the camera more compact the handle can be removed, but when you do this you will no longer have any XLR connectors. Instead you will have an MI shoe on the top of the camera body  that can be used to connect a Sony UWP-D radio mic or a n XLR adapter. There is also a stereo microphone built into the main body of the camera, so even with the hand grip removed there are plenty of audio options.

AJC03985-1024x683 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
The PXW-Z90’s flip out LCD screen.

The flip out LCD panel acts as the cameras main viewfinder. Opening and closing the LCD screen turns the camera on and off. It starts up and shuts down very quickly. The resolution of the LCD is similar to most other modern camera LCD’s. It’s adequate for this type of camera, but it isn’t the highest resolution screen in the world. To check focus you have a button on the top of the hand grip to activate the image magnification function and the camera has a coloured peaking system to help pick out what is, and what is not in focus.  I suspect that with this particular camera, many users will take advantage of the cameras excellent auto focus system and there is a lot of feedback to the user of how this is working including coloured boxes that indicate exactly what the camera is focussing on.

AJC03974-e1519143855419-683x1024 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
The rear of the Sony PXW-Z90.

As well as the side LCD panel there is also a small OLED electronic viewfinder on the rear of the camera. This is very useful for use in very bright sunlight, but it is rather small.

The cameras gain, shutter and iris functions each have a dedicated button on the side of the camera. One push of the appropriate button enables that function to be controlled by a small dial wheel just under the front of the lens.

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Iris, gain and shutter speed controls on the side of the PXW-Z90.

Press the shutter button and the wheel controls the shutter. Press the gain button and the wheel controls the gain. Overall this system works well, but I would still prefer a separate gain switch and a shutter speed up/down switch. On the rear of the hand grip there is a small joystick that sits under your thumb. You can use this thumb-stick to set many of the cameras settings and to navigate through the cameras menu system.  In addition you can use the LCD touchscreen to navigate through the menu as well as select your autofocus points etc.

The PXW-Z90 is a small camera that packs a very big punch. It’s never going to give the fine degree of image control that you get with most large sensor cameras and it won’t quite deliver the same image quality either (although it’s really, really close). If you need a small, discrete camera, perhaps you travel a lot, or you just need a “B” camera, then the Z90 offers a  possible solution.  I haven’t even touched on all the streaming, ftp and wifi capabilities of this camera. The auto focus system is a delight to use and it’s the best AF system I’ve ever come across on a video camera. The new sensor in the Z90 is clearly a fairly large step forwards from the sensor in the previous similar model the X70, it has more dynamic range, a lot less rolling shutter (not that it’s a big problem on the X70) and the final images look better as a result. I might just have to add one to my camera collection.

 

If you would like to join me on one of my adventures to arctic Norway please see take a look at this page. I’ve been running these trips for 11 years and EVERY tour has seen the Northern Lights. This year was no exception and we got to see some really great Auroras and had a great time dog sledding, ice fishing and exploring the Finnmarksvidda.

A7-first-night1-1024x684 The Sony PXW-Z90 - a compact 4K camcorder with auto focus at it's best!
2018 was yet another great year for my Aurora tours. This picture taken on January 20th.
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Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?

 

Please don’t take this post the wrong way. I DO understand why some people like to try and emulate film. I understand that film has a “look”. I also understand that for many people that look is the holy grail of film production. I’m simply looking at why we do this and am throwing the big question out there which is “is it the right thing to do”? I welcome your comments on this subject as it’s an interesting one worthy of discussion.

In recent years with the explosion of large sensor cameras with great dynamic range it has become a very common practice to take the images these cameras capture and apply a grade or LUT that mimics the look of many of todays major movies. This is often simply referred to as the “film look”.

This look seems to be becoming more and more extreme as creators attempt to make their film more film like than the one before, leading to a situation where the look becomes very distinct as opposed to just a trait of the capture medium. A common technique is the “teal and orange” look where the overall image is tinted teal and then skin tones and other similar tones are made slightly orange. This is done to create colour contrast between the faces of the cast and the background as teal and orange are on opposite sites of the colour wheel.

Another variation of the “film look” is the flat look. I don’t really know where this look came from as it’s not really very film like at all. It probably comes from shooting with a log gamma curve, which results in a flat, washed out looking image when viewed on a conventional monitor. Then because this look is “cool” because shooting on log is “cool” much of the flatness is left in the image in the grade because it looks different to regular TV ( or it may simply be that it’s easier to create a flat look than a good looking high contrast look). Later in the article I have a nice comparison of these two types of “film look”.

Not Like TV!

Not looking like TV or Video may be one of the biggest drivers for the “film look”. We watch TV day in, day out. Well produced TV will have accurate colours, natural contrast (over a limited range at least) and if the TV is set up correctly should be pretty true to life. Of course there are exceptions to this like many daytime TV or game shows where the saturation and brightness is cranked up to make the programmes vibrant and vivid.  But the aim of most TV shows is to look true to life. Perhaps this is one of the drivers to make films look different, so that they are not true to life, more like a slightly abstract painting or other work of art. Colour and contrast can help setup different moods, dull and grey for sadness, bright and colourful for happy scenes etc, but this should be separate from the overall look applied to a film.

Another aspect of the TV look comes from the fact that most TV viewing takes place in a normal room where light levels are not controlled. As a result bright pictures are normally needed, especially for daytime TV shows.

But What Does Film Look Like?

But what does film look like? As some of you will know I travel a lot and spend a lot of time on airplanes. I like to watch a film or 2 on longer flights and recently I’ve been watching some older films that were shot on film and probably didn’t have any of the grading or other extensive manipulation processes that most modern movies go through.

Lets look at a few frames from some of those movies, shot on film and see what they look like.

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Lawrence of Arabia.

The all time classic Lawrence of Arabia. This film is surprisingly colourful. Red, blues, yellows are all well saturated. The film is high contrast. That is, it has very dark blacks, not crushed, but deep and full of subtle textures. Skin tones  are around 55 IRE and perhaps very slightly skewed towards brown/red, but then the cast are all rather sun tanned. But I wouldn’t call the skin tones orange. Diffuse whites typically around 80 IRE and they are white, not tinted or coloured.

braveheart1-1024x576 Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
Braveheart.

When I watched Braveheart, one of the things that stood out to me was how green the foliage and grass was. The strong greens really stood out in this movie compared to more modern films. Overall it’s quite dark, skin tones are often around 45 IRE and rarely more than 55 IRE, very slightly warm/brown looking, but not orange. Again it’s well saturated and high contrast with deep blacks. Overall most scenes have a quite low peak and average brightness level. It’s quite hard to watch this film in a bright room on a conventional TV, but it looks fantastic in a darkened room.

Indy_cuts_bridge Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark does show some of the attributes often used for the modern film look. Skin tones are warm and have a slight orange tint and overall the movie is very warm looking. A lot of the sets use warm colours with browns and reds being prominent. Colours are well saturated. Again we have high contrast with deep blacks and those much lower than TV skin tones, typically 50-55IRE in Raiders. Look at the foliage and plants though, they are close to what you might call TV greens, ie realistic shades of green.

A key thing I noticed in all of these (and other) older movies is that overall the images are darker than we would use for daytime TV. Skin tones in movies seem to sit around 55IRE. Compare that to the typical use of 70% zebras for faces on TV. Also whites are generally lower, often diffuse white sitting at around 75-80%. One important consideration is that films are designed to be shown in dark cinema theatres where  white at 75% looks pretty bright. Compare that to watching TV in a bright living room where to make white look bright you need it as bright as you can get. Having diffuse whites that bit lower in the display range leaves a little more room to separate highlights from whites giving the impression of a greater dynamic range. It also brings the mid range down a bit so the shadows also look darker without having to crush them.

Side Note: When using Sony’s Hypergammas and Cingeammas they are supposed to be exposed so that white is around 70-75% with skin tones around 55-60%. If used like this with a sutable colour matrix such as “cinema” they can look quite film like.

If we look at some recent movies the look can be very different.

the_revenant Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
The Revenant

The Revenant is a gritty film and it has a gritty look. But compare it to Braveheart and it’s very different. We have the same much lower skin tone and diffuse white levels, but where has the green gone? and the sky is very pale.  The sky and trees are all tinted slightly towards teal and de-saturated. Overall there is only a very small colour range in the movie. Nothing like the 70mm film of Laurence of Arabia or the 35mm film of Braveheart.

deadmen-1024x576 Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
Dead Men Tell No Tales.

In the latest instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise the images are very “brown”. Notice how even the whites of the ladies dresses or soldiers uniforms are slightly brown. The sky is slightly grey (I’m sure the sky was much bluer than this). The palm tree fronds look browner than green and Jack Sparrow looks like he’s been using too much fake tan as his face is border line orange (and almost always also quite dark).

wonder_woman_still_6 Why do we strive to mimic film? What is the film look anyway?
Wonder Woman.

Wonder woman is another very brown movie. In this frame we can see that the sky is quite brown. Meanwhile the grass is pushed towards teal and de-saturated, it certainly isn’t the colour of real grass.  Overall colours are subdued with the exception of skin tones.

These are fairly typical of most modern movies. Colours generally quite subdued, especially greens and blues. The sky is rarely a vibrant blue, grass is rarely a grassy green. Skin tones tend to be very slightly orange and around 50-60IRE. Blacks are almost always deep and the images contrasty. Whites are rarely actually white, they tend to be tinted either slightly brown or slightly teal. Steel blues and warm browns are favoured hues. These are very different looking images to the movies shot on film that didn’t go through extensive post production manipulation.

So the film look, isn’t really about making it look like it was shot on film, it’s a stylised look that has become stronger and stronger in recent years with most movies having elements of this look. So in creating the “film look” we are not really mimicking film, but copying a now almost standard colour grading recipe that has some film style traits.

BUT IS IT A GOOD THING?

In most cases these are not unpleasant looks and for some productions the look can add to the film, although sometimes it can be taken to noticeable and objectionable extremes. However we do now have cameras that can capture huge colour ranges. We also have the display technologies to show these enormous colour ranges. Yet we often choose to deliberately limit what we use and very often distort the colours in our quest for the “film look”.

HDR TV’s with Rec2020 colour can show both a greater dynamic range and a greater colour range than we have ever seen before. Yet we are not making use of this range, in particular the colour range except in some special cases like some TV commercials as well as high end wild life films such as Planet Earth II.

This TV commercial for TUI has some wonderful vibrant colours that are not restricted to just browns and teal yet it looks very film like. It does have an overall warm tint, but the other colours are allowed to punch through. It feels like the big budget production that it clearly was without having to resort to  the modern defacto  restrictive film look colour palette. Why can’t feature films look like this? Why do they need to be dull with a limited colour range? Why do we strive to deliberately restrict our colour pallet in the name of fashion?

What’s even more interesting is what was done for the behind the scenes film for the TUI advert…..

The producers of the BTS film decided to go with an extremely flat, washed out look, another form of modern “film look” that really couldn’t be further from film. When an typical viewer watches this do they get it in the same way as we that work in the industry do?  Do they understand the significance of the washed out, flat, low contrast pictures or do they just see weird looking milky pictures that lack colour with odd skin tones? The BTS film just looks wrong to me. It looks like it was shot with log and not graded.  Personally, I don’t think it looks cool or stylish, it just looks wrong and cheap compared to the lush imagery in the actual advert (perhaps that was the intention).

I often see people looking for a film look LUT. Often they want to mimic a particular film. That’s fine, it’s up to them. But if everyone starts to home in on one particular look or style then the films we watch will all look the same. That’s not what I want. I want lush rich colours where appropriate. Then I might want to see a subdued look in a period piece or a vivid look for a 70’s film. Within the same movie colour can be used to differentiate between different parts of the story. Take Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, shot by Vittorio Storaro for example. The New York scenes are grey and moody while the scenes in LA that portray a fresh start are vibrant and vivid. This is I believe important, to use colour and contrast to help tell the story.

Our modern cameras give us an amazing palette to work with. We have the tools such as DaVinci Resolve to manipulate those colours with relative ease. I believe we should be more adventurous with our use of colour. Reducing exposure levels a little compared to the nominal TV and video – skin tones at 70% – diffuse whites at 85-90%, helps replicate the film look and also leaves a bit more space in the highlight range to separate highlights from whites which really helps give the impression of a more contrasty image. Blacks should be black, not washed out and they shouldn’t be crushed either.

Above all else learn to create different styles. Don’t be afraid of using colour to tell your story and remember that real film isn’t just brown and teal, it’s actually quite colourful. Great artists tend to stand out when their works are different, not when they are the same as everyone else.

 

Sony Venice at IBC 2017.

AJC05782-1024x683 Sony Venice at IBC 2017.
Sony Venice Digital Cinema Camera.

As well as several Sony Venice cameras on the Sony booth, Sony will be holding a special IBC screening of the Venice demo films projected in HDR using Dolby Vision in the main big screen auditorium of the RAI at 2.30pm on Friday. Ed Wild the DP of the UK film will also be there to answer any questions. If you are interested in Sony Venice this should not be missed.

Sony RX0 – Is this the ultimate mini-cam (for now at least).

RX0 Sony RX0 - Is this the ultimate mini-cam (for now at least).Sony have just released a rather exciting looking new type of mini-cam, the RX0.

I have not played with one yet, so I can only base my comments on the specs, but the specs are both impressive and exciting.

Most gopro type cameras use tiny sensors packed with pixels. This presents a problem as they tend not to be very light sensitive. However those small sensors when combined with an ultra wide angle lens eliminates the need to focus as the depth of field is vast. But for many applications that’s not what you always want. Sometimes you don’t want an ultra wide fisheye view of the world, sometimes you want to get in a bit closer. Sometimes you want a bit of selective focus. In addition it’s hard to be creative when you have no focus or depth of field control. Talking of control most mini-cams have very, very little in the way of manual control as they don’t have adjustable apertures and as a result rely entirely on variable gain and shutter speeds to control the exposure.

Enter the RX0. The RX0 shares a lot of features with the well regarded RX series of compact stills cameras. It has a 1.0″ type sensor, huge compared to most other minicams. It has 24mm f4 lens so it’s less wide and has a shallower DoF. It can shoot in 4K, it can even record using S-Log2 to capture a greater dynamic range so it may turn out to be a great mini-cam for HDR productions (although how big that dynamic range is is not clear at this time). I wish I had some of these for the HDR shoots I did at the beginning of the year.

It’s a camera you can control manually and it even has a special high speed shutter mode for all but eliminating rolling shutter artefacts.

Want to shoot slow-mo? No problem, the maximum frame rate is 960fps (although I suspect that the image quality drops at the higher frame rates).

It’s still very small and very compact, it’s also waterproof and has a high degree of shock proofing.

I can see myself using this as a time lapse camera or in a VR rig. So many applications for a camera like this. Can’t wait to get my hands on one.

Here’s the Sony product page: https://www.sony.co.uk/electronics/cyber-shot-compact-cameras/dsc-rx0#product_details_default

Beware Exposing To The Right With Log.

That may seem like quite a sensational headline – beware exposing to the right with log – but let me explain.

First of all, I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t expose to the right, all I am saying is beware – understand the implications.

First of all what is normally meant by exposing to the right? Well it’s a term that comes from the world of photography where you would use the cameras histogram to measure the exposure levels. Exposing to the right would normally mean setting the shutter speed and aperture so that the levels shown on the histogram are as far to the right as you can get them without going beyond the right side of the histogram. This would ensure a nice bright exposure with lots of light falling on the sensor, something that is normally highly desirable as you get a nice low noise picture once you have adjusted and processed it in your photo editing software.

You can expose to the right with a video camera too. However when shooting with Rec-709 or conventional gammas this can often result in nasty looking highlights thanks to the default knee settings, so it’s not normally a good idea for 709 and standard gammas.

With log or raw as there is no highlight roll off you can expose to the right and it should give you a nice bright exposure… or will it?????

The problem with exposing to the right is that you are exposing for the highlights in the scene. If shooting a low contrast or low dynamic range scene this isn’t going to cause any problems as exposing to the right will mean that everything in the scene is nice and bright.

But if shooting a high dynamic range scene, say an outdoor scene with bright clouds in the sky but large areas of shadow, the exposure will be optimised for the highlights. The mid range and shadows may end up too dark. On a sunny day if shooting a person with their back to the sun the sky could easily be 6 or 7 stops brighter than the skin tones. If you expose for the sky/highlights the skin tones will be 1 or 2 stops darker than the basic exposure level recommended for most  log curves.

(S-log2/3 has 14 stops. At the base exposure you have 6 stops above middle grey and 8 below. Skin tones are normally between 1 and 2 stops above middle grey. So if the sky/highlights are 6 stops above the skin tones, then exposing for the highlights will put the skin tones where middle grey should be, which is 1 stop under exposed and 2 stops below where I would normally like to see skin tones when shooting with log or raw).

The first thing a viewer will notice when they look at a scene with faces or people will be the skin tones. If these have been under exposed they will be grainy and less than ideal. The viewer will notice noise and grain and poor shadows long before they look at the brightest highlights. Shooting log and protecting the highlights or exposing to the right will often compromise the all important mid tones because you are exposing for the highlights, not the midrange. In addition exposing for highlights with a high dynamic range scene can often push the shadows down in level and they will end up noisy and grainy. The biggest issue with exposing to the right is that it’s extremely difficult to estimate how many stops there are between your mid tones and the highlights, so you never know quite where your mid tones are falling.

(Midtones – generally a white piece of paper or a 90% reflectivity white card would be considered to be the top end of the mid tones. Go down about 2.5 stops from white and you hit middle grey  (18% grey card). This range between middle grey and white is where skin tones, plants, most animals etc will be and it probably the most important part of most images).

An important consideration with log and raw is that there is no highlight roll off. Standard gammas (with the default knee found on almost every camera) , cinegammas, hypergammas etc all roll off the highlights. That is to say that as you approach the peak recording level the contrast is reduced as the highlights are squeezed together to try to extend the dynamic range. This reduction in contrast means that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recover any nice, useable picture information out of anything close to the peak recording level. As a result with conventional gammas we tend to avoid over exposure at all costs as it looks nasty. This highlight roll off is one of the things that gives video the video look.

Log and raw don’t have this same kind of highlight roll off. The image gets brighter and brighter until it clips. With log the stop immediately below clipping contains just as much picture information as any other stop brighter than middle grey. With linear raw the stop just below clipping has more information than any other stop. As a result in post production there is a very large amount of data that can be pulled out of these highlights, even if they are a little clipped! So don’t worry about a few clipped highlights when shooting log. The other thing to remember is there is no TV or monitor that can show these highlights as they really are, so they will never look perfect anyway.

Another thing that happens when exposing to the right is that grading becomes harder than it needs to be. Because the separation between the mid tones and highlights will vary greatly depending on things like whether you are shooting into or away from the sun, when you expose to the right you mid tone brightness will be up and down all over the place. So in post production as well as adding the look that you want to your footage, you are also going to have to spend a lot of time matching the mid range exposure to balance skin tones etc from shot to shot.

Rather than exposing to the right what I recommend is exposing for the mid range. After all this is the important part of the image. To do this you need to use a diffuse reflective shade. The most commonly used shades are a 90% white card and/or an 18% reflectivity grey card – middle grey. Get the mid range right and in most cases the highlights will take care of themselves. Getting the mid range right might mean exposing the mid range  brighter than the recommended levels. But it’s the mid range we need to measure, not the highlights, this is the important part of the image.

90% white is an incredibly important level in the world of film and video. A typical piece of office paper reflects about 92-94% of the light falling on it. Office paper often uses brighteners and special chemicals to make it look bright and white. This white is the brightest diffuse surface you will likely ever see.  Anything brighter than this is normally going to be an actual source of light. The sky perhaps or a direct bounced reflection off a shiny, reflective surface such as the bodywork of a car. So anything brighter than 90% white would normally be considered to be a highlight and to us humans, highlights are visually less important than the mid range. This is why the knee on most video cameras kicks in at around 90%. Anything brighter than 90% is a highlight so the knee only effects highlights and leaves the all important mid range alone.

Middle grey is also very important because it’s a shade of grey that to most people looks to be half way between black and white. Skin tones fall roughly half way between middle grey and white. In addition if you average all the brightness levels within a typical scene the end result is typically very close to middle grey.  Light meters are calibrated to middle grey. The relationship between middle grey and white is fixed. White reflects 90%, middle grey 18%, no matter how bright the actual light source. So whether you are indoors, outside. Whether it’s sunny or overcast, white and middle grey will always be close to 2.5 stops apart. They are extremely useful fixed reference levels.

There are many ways to measure the brightness of a white or grey card. My preferred method is with a waveform display. But you could also use zebras (use a narrow zebra window if you can).  You can also use false colour. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to use a histogram to measure the brightness of a specific target. The histogram is a great measuring tool for photography, but less than ideal for video. If you can’t get a white/grey card out in front of the camera you could consider using a light meter. It’s also worth noting that skin tones sit just a little over half way between middle grey and white, so if you have no other reference you could simply place your skin tones a touch brighter than half way between the values you are targetting for middle grey and white.

Just to be clear: I do still recommend exposing Sony’s S-log2, S-log3 and raw between 1 and 2 stops brighter than the Sony base levels. But the key take-away is that it’s the mid range you need to measure and expose at this level. Exposing to the right using a histogram or waveform and just looking at the peaks and brightest parts of the image does not tell you what is happening in he mid range. Measure the mid range, not the peak brightness.

 

The Pro’s and Con’s of 12 bit linear raw or recording raw to S-Log.

UPDATE: JUST TO BE CLEAR, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH SONY’S 12 BIT LINEAR RAW. BUT YOU REALLY SHOULD BE AWARE OF IT’S LIMITATIONS COMPARED TO 16 BIT RAW OR POSSIBLY EVEN 10 BIT LOG.

This came up in the comments today and it’s something that I get asked about quite a lot.

Sony’s high end cameras, designed for raw – F5, F55, F65 all use 16 bit linear data. This linear data contains an impressively large amount of picture information across the entire range from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. This huge amount of data gives footage that can be pushed and pulled in post all over the place. 16 bit raw gives you 65,536 discreet values.

The FS7 and FS5 use 12 bit linear raw. 12 bit data gives you 4096 discreet values, 1/15th of the values, a small fraction of what 16 bit has. This presents a problem as to record 14 stops with linear data you need more than 12 bits.

Not Enough Code Values.

There just aren’t enough code values with only 12 bits (which is why no one else does it). So Sony do some clever math to make it workable. This reduces the amount of tonal steps in in the shadows.  On it’s own this isn’t a huge problem, just make sure you expose brightly to avoid trying to pull to much info out of the shadows and definitely don’t use it for low light. On high key scenes 12 bit raw is very nice indeed, this is where it excels. On low key scenes it can appear very grainy, noisy and shadows often look coarse and lack smooth textures. Expose nice and bright and you will get great highly gradable footage. Expose dark and you will have big problems.

Transcoding can add to the problems.

Where you really can run into problems is if you take 12 bit raw (with it’s reduced shadow data) and convert that to 10 bit log (which has reduced highlight data relative to the scene you are shooting).

What you end up with is 10 bit log with reduced shadow data compared to a straight 10 bit log recording. If you compare the direct 10 bit S-log from an FS7 (or F5/F55) to 10 bit S-log derived from 12 bit raw from an FS5, the FS7 internal 10 bit log picture will have a little more shadow information while the highlights from both will be similar. So the direct internal 10 bit log recording from an FS7 will typically be a little better in the shadows than any log created from the 12  bit raw and there will little, if any, highlight benefit.  It’s a little different for the FS5 as in UHD this is limited to 8 bit, so the raw, converted to log from the FS5 will have better highlight data, but still be a touch weak in the darkest shadow areas.  Overall  10bit log derived from 12 bit linear will be better than 8 bit log, but not better than 10 bit log.

If 4K S-Log is really important to you – get an FS7, F5 or F55.

So I’d much rather have an FS7 (F5 or F55) if I want to shoot UHD or 4K S-log. That’s what these cameras are designed for. But, if you only have an FS5, the raw to log workflow will outperform the limited 8 bit UHD log, so it is still definitely beneficial for FS5 owners to shoot raw and convert it to 10 bit S-Log with an external recorder. But better still record raw, then you really will have a better image.

Raw with the FS7.

On the FS7 the benefits of recording 12 bit raw over 10 bit S-Log are less clear. For bright, well exposed scenes the 12 bit raw will  have a definite  edge. But the files you will create if using an Atomos or Convergent Design recorder are huge compared to the compressed internal recording and that needs to be considered. For low key or under exposed scenes there is no benefit to shooting 12 bit raw you will get nothing extra.

On the FS7 it is not a good idea to take the 12 bit raw output and record it as 10 bit S-Log on an external recorder. While you may have a less compressed codec, you will be compromising the shadows compared to the cameras own internally generated 10 bit log recordings.  In most cases you would be better off simply taking the HDMI output and recording that as it avoids the 12 bit linear shadow bottleneck.

Again though – exposing nice and bright is the key to a good result. Get the data up into the brighter parts of the recording and the raw can be fantastic.

Internal and external log brightness shifts.

When you record S-Log internally on the Sony cameras the recordings use full range data levels to maximise the codec performance. You can use data range (which exceeds the normal video range) as it is assumed the data will be graded and as part of this process restored to video range data for viewing. However when recording on an external recorder the recordings sometimes use full video range rather than data range or if it’s data range don’t have the right metadata. This shouldn’t be a huge problem if the grading software behaves itself and treats each type of content correctly, shifting each to one unified range, but sadly this is rarely the case (especially with Adobe). So not only do the internal and externally recorded images come out with different brightness and contrast, but also LUT’s designed for one don’t work the same with the other. It’s a bit of a minefield to be honest and one of the reason why I prefer to always grade with dedicated grading software like resolve which handles the levels conversions properly (most of the time at least).

ND filters for the Solar Eclipse.

I know many of my readers are planning on travelling to the US and the path of totality to shoot the solar eclipse on the 21st of August.

A couple of words of caution.

First, make sure you never view the sun directly or through an optical viewing device such as a DSLR camera, telescope or lens without covering the lens with a dedicated solar viewing filter.

DON’T try to use sun glasses, welding goggles or conventional ND filters.

Most regular photo ND filters only cut the visible spectrum. Many will pass IR (Infra Red) without much attenuation. When shooting or looking at the sun it’s not just the brightness but also the IR that can damage your eyes or the sensor as this is where most of the heat energy is. So a 16 stop ND might well reduce the brightness of the sun to a useable level for a video camera but may not reduce the damaging IR and heat. This could lead to damage to the cameras own ND filters or the sensor itself.

To look at the sun with your eye’s you MUST use a proper solar filter or solar viewing glasses. This will normally be a silvered reflective filter or film. The silver reflective coating reflects away the harmful and damaging infra red as well as reducing the brightness. If the filters you are using are of the film type, check for pin holes in the film before using them.

On a video camera it is much safer to use IRND filters rather than conventional ND filters if you can or add a good quality IR cut filter in front of the ND filters.  Don’t skimp on the filters you use.

Make sure you have enough ND for the camera to use an aperture wider than f11. If you are having to stop down to f11 or f16 you will not be getting the sharpest possible image due to diffraction effects. On cameras with smaller sensors such as 2/3″ or 1/2″ you really want to have the aperture more open than f8 for the best results, so that means you’ll typically need 16 stops of ND!!

Try to avoid screw on filters. Once the moon completely covers the sun you will want to quickly remove the heavy ND filters. Then once the sun comes out from behind the moon you will need to replace the filters very quickly. So use something that allows you to do this quickly and easily. A mattebox with slide in filter trays or magnetically attached filters are a good way to do this.

If shooting with a very long lens to get the sun to fill the frame you will be surprised by how fast the sun will move through the frame. So you will need a really good fluid head to allow you to slowly track the sun without jarring or bumping the shot.

Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway – Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.

I have just return from one of the most challenging shoots I have been involved in. The shoot took place over 5 days in and around Tromso in Norway. The aim was to gather footage to show off the capabilities of a new type of 4K TV from Phillips.

We shot the Northern Lights, we shot dog sledding , snow mobiles, shots of the city and sailing on the fjords. Each part of the shoot had many challenges and a lot of the shoot took place at night and at night the crew slept in cabins, tents and on the yachts. Shooting from the ice and snow covered deck of a yacht in temperatures well below zero is not something I enjoyed. And to top it all off the weather was pretty grim fro most of the shoot. Heavy snow showers, freezing temperatures and towards the end strong winds.

Because image quality is paramount for this project I choses to use the best lenses I could, but at the same time space and time constraints dictated that zoom lenses would be desirable. We were shooting 16 bit raw as well as XAVC class 480 on my PMW-F5 and some pick-up shots in UHD XAVC-L on a PXW-FS5. For the PMW-F5 the primary lens was the Fujinon Cabrio XK6x20, 20-120mm PL zoom and to ensure we had similar looking images from the FS5 I used the new Fujinon XF 18-55mm. I have to say that I’m quite in love with both of these lenses.

fujinon-xk6x20-20-120mm-t3-5-pl-mount-lens-cc1-e1490981959479 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
Fujinon Cabrio XK6x20 PL mount cinema zoom. A beautiful lens!

The Cabrio 20-120 is a beautiful lens and it’s really nice to have a servo zoom that is truly parfocal. The 20-120 produces really nice images even in the most challenging of conditions and at T3.5 it’s reasonably fast throughout the entire zoom range. This was the lens that I used for the majority of the shoot, in particular for the many night scenes we shot. The E-Mount 18-55 on the FS5 produces images that matched really well with the bigger lens and camera. This is a combination I would love to use on more shoots where the budget will allow.

One particular scene that we had to shoot was particularly challenging. It was a set up shot of a night time arrival of a couple of snowmobiles at a Sami camp site. The Sami people are the indigenous people of Northern Norway and they have a particular style of tent know as a Laavu which is similar to a teepee or wigwam. The idea behind the shot was to have the snow scooters arriving with headlights blazing and for the drivers to then enter the tent lit only by the light of a campfire inside the tent. At the time of the shoot it was snowing heavily and was totally dark. Turn off the lights of the snowmobiles and you could not see a thing.

A007C001_170317I9snwscter-wide-1.-e1490980652498 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
Wide shot of the snowmobiles arriving at the camp in the dark.

While modern cameras like the F5 are very sensitive, the light of a campfire inside a tent will not adequately light a scene like this on it’s own. I didn’t want a totally dark background, so I decided that I would subtly light the trees of the forest that we were in to add some drama and give some depth to the background and a sense of being in a forest.

In-tent-wide-e1490980747645 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
A slightly closer shot of the tent with backlit trees behind it.

As we were travelling continuously on this shoot there was no space for a large or complex lighting kit and the remote location meant we needed battery powered lights. In addition I knew before we left that there was a chance of bad weather so I needed lights that would work whatever mother nature decided to throw at us.

snw-scter-start-e1490980892561 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
A snow scooter comes into the shot. You can see just how heavily it was snowing in this shot.

I decided to take a set of 3 Light & Motion Stella battery powered LED lights. It’s just as well I had the Stella lamps as on top of all the other difficulties of the shoot the weather decided it was not going to play ball. We had to shoot the scene (and much of the shoot) in the middle of a snow storm. Fortunately the Stella lights are completely waterproof, so I didn’t need to worry about rain or snow protection. Just set them up turn them on and use the built in dimmer to set the light output.

To light the scene I set up a Stella Pro 5000 in the woods behind the Sami tent, aimed through the trees and pointed directly towards the camera. I chose to backlight the trees to provide a sense of there being trees rather than lighting them. I felt this would look less lit than throwing a ton of light into the forest from the front and I’m pleased with the result.

20170317_201335-e1490980965481 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
A Light & Motion Stella Pro 5000 was used to back light the trees and tent. The heavy snow was no problem as the light is totally waterproof.

The Stella Pro 5000 is very bright for a compact battery operated light, it’s 5000 lumen 120 degree output that is pretty close to what you would get from a 200W HMI, it’s very bright. It has a very high CRI and gives out great quality daylight balanced light.  It was positioned so that the light itself was behind the tent on a small bank, about 20m back in the woods. You couldn’t see it in the shot, but the light coming through the trees created shafts of light in the snow and the trees appeared as silhouettes. It added depth and interest to what would have otherwise been a near totally black background.

20170317_203855-e1490981224538 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
Light & Motion Stella 2000 used to light the forground, again the lamp is waterproof so bad weather is no problem.

Then to provide a small amount of light so that we could see the riders of the snow scooters as they walked to the tent I used a Stella 2000. I didn’t really want the light from this lamp to be too obvious as this would really make the scene look “lit”. I didn’t need the full 2000 lumen output so I used the built in dimmer to reduce the output to around 70%.

The third light was a small Stella 1000 and this was placed inside the tent with a scrunched up orange gel. The Stella 1000 would typically be used as a camera top light, but it’s full dimmable and produces a very high light quality, making it suitable for many applications. The creases and folds in the orange gel helped break up the light a little creating a less lit look sympathetic to the fire inside the tent.

in-tent-mid-e1490981340247 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
A Stella 1000 with orange gel was used inside the tent to give the light from the fire a small boost.

It allowed me to increase the illumination in the tent, adding to the light from the fire without it being obvious that the tent interior was lit. For some of the shots I had an assistant sit in the tent, out of shot and slowly move the gel in front of the light to add a little movement to the light to mimic the firelight even better.

sihuette-e1490981444887 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
One particular shot on the storyboard was the silhouette of the drivers entering the tent. The Stella 1000 really helped punch trough the canvas sides of the tent.

At the moment I can’t show you the footage. That will have to wait until after the launch of the TV. But I’m really pleased with the way this scene came out. It’s challenging trying to shoot in the dark, in a blizzard, in temperatures well below freezing. Every aspect of getting this scene was hard. Opening a flight case to get out some kit meant getting snow on everything inside it. Just positioning the light up the woods was tough, the snow was up above my knees as I waded through it. Operating the camera is so much harder when it has a rain cover on it. The viewfinder was constantly misting up as snow fell on it non stop. Seeing the witness marks on the lens is difficult (although thankfully the marks on the Fujinon 20-120 are huge and easy to see).

20170317_205922-e1490981701785 Anatomy of a shot. Night Scene in Arctic Norway - Fujinon lenses, Stella Lights.
The Fujinon Cabrio XK6X20 lens all iced up at the end of the day. After shooting out in sub zero temperatures don’t take the camera inside until you are sure you have wrapped for the day!

But sometimes it’s challenges like these that make the job interesting. I know I was cursing and swearing at times trying to make these shots work, but seeing the scene come to life in the grade is all the more rewarding.

I’ll be writing more about the Fujinon 20-120 very soon, so why not subscribe to my blog using the subscribe bottom on the left.

USA Workshops.

I’ll be in the USA presenting workshops in late Feb and March.

There will be workshops in Austin (Feb 28th, Omega Broadcast), Dallas (March 1st), Minneapolis (March 2nd, Z-Systems) and Boston on March 7th.

The workshops will look at the new Sony FS7 II with practical hints and tips for all of Sony’s super 35mm cameras. It will cover gamma curves from 709 to hypergamma to  log. Understanding ISO, CineEI and LUT’s. There will also be an introduction to HDR and post production. More details will follow in the coming days, but these will be great events for anyone that really want’s to get the best possible image quality from their Sony large sensor camera or is interested in learning more about them.

As the details of each of these becomes fixed I will let you know more. As you can see from the dates I have a spare weekend between the Minneapolis and Boston workshops, so if anyone would like a workshop or one to one training on the weekend of March 4/5th please use the contact form to let me know asap.

Here are the registration details for Minneapolis: http://zsyst.com/2017/02/event-alister-chapman-3-2-17/