For me early Summer means airshow season and there are a couple of events that I shoot every year. The first is Flying Legends at the Imperial War Museum site at Duxford and features vintage aircraft predominantly from the second world war. The following weekend is the Royal International Air Tattoo, one of the largest military air shows and is all about the latest fast jets and military hardware. For the last 3 years I have been tasked with shooting aircraft being prepared for flight at both shows and for this I have been using a variety of cameras, but almost always some kind of ENG type camera. I’ve used PDW700’s, EX1’s and EX3’s. This year however it was decided to try and use one of my PMW-F3’s in order to take advantage of the shallow Depth of Field and give the footage a higher quality, filmic look.
Of course using the F3 for a shoot like this brings many challenges and one of the reasons for using it on these projects was to discover exactly whether the trade off between ease of use and shallow DoF was worth it. Thankfully, producer Steve Connor (flying machinestv.co.uk) is willing to let me try new things on his productions.
So how was it? Well it was hard work compared to running around with an EX1 or EX3. You have to check, check and double check focus all the time and this slows you down a little. The other thing is the lens. A camera like the EX1 has a 14x zoom lens giving a great range of focal lengths from a good wide angle to a nice long telephoto. With the F3 your lens choices are currently much more limited. While there are some very nice zooms like the Optimo 24-290mm (12x zoom) these just are not practical for run n gun. The Optimo weighs a whopping 24lbs/11kg . The other alternative to PL lenses is to use a DSLR lens. One of my favourites is the old Tokina AT-X Pro 28-70mm as this does not telescope, has a nice big focus scale and proper iris ring, but it’s only a 2.5x wide zoom, not much use for longer shots. The upshot of all this is that you end up doing a lot of lens swaps going from a wide zoom to a longer one (Sigma 70-300mm in my case). In addition the DSLR zooms are varifocal so you can’t zoom during the shot as the focus will shift.
So… I’m running around with the F3 and a rucksack with a couple of lenses and my favourite Vinten 100 tripod, swapping lenses many times for different shots. There’s no one-push auto iris confidence check, no image stabiliser and the batteries don’t last as long. As I said, compared to an EX1 it was hard work. But, I was able to be creative. It was easy to introduce some nice foreground or background soft focus objects. To do gentle pull focuses and to generally get good looking shots as opposed to just getting ordinary looking shots.
When an aircraft is started things can get very busy. There are spinning propellors to be aware of, or dangerous jet blasts (not to mention the noise). Aircraft can taxi with no warning. At these moments I was able to stop down the iris a bit to give myself greater depth of field for a little bit focus tolerance. This is what I like about the F3. It’s got sensitivity to spare so you can pick and choose how much DoF you have.
By the time the second airshow (RIAT) came around I realised that constant lens swapping was costing me shots. So for RIAT I used a Nikon 18-135mm zoom. This 7.5x zoom gave a much better focal length range, but its a rather nasty lens in so much as it’s f3.5 – f5.6 so the aperture changes as you zoom and it’s not particularly fast. It also telescopes and extends a lot as you zoom in, so you can’t use it with a matt box. The focus ring has no scale and iris has to controlled using the MTF adapter iris control. So all in all not my favourite lens, but for this particular shoot it worked out quite well. One thing that did become apparent is that not having a super fast lens, on this particular type of project was not an issue. I could still get reasonable shallow DoF shots when wide and at f3.5. At longer focal lengths the DoF decreases anyway, so shooting at f4 or f5.6 still yields pleasing results.
The footage from the shoots does look good. It has a much nicer look to it than conventional ENG video. The shallow DoF adds a quality feel to the material. While I didn’t shoot as much as I would have done with a more traditional camcorder due to the extra time required for lens changes, focus checking and the need to use the tripod more often, what I did shoot looked better overall so a higher percentage of what I shot will probably make it into the final production.
So as for my original question.. was it worth the effort? Well I think the answer is yes. The F3 can be used for run n gun, but it’s hard work, however the results are worth the extra effort.