A Very Cool but Imperfect Video Cam

When Canon produced the first video DSLR, the 5D Mark II it did so almost as an after-thought. Canon added the video capabilities because Reuters and Associated Press were requesting it. Canon had the technology and to add it did not change the look or the size of the camera. Compared to the original 5D, the two cameras are nearly identical in size and button layout.

That was just 20 months ago and since then, much to Canon’s surprise, indie film makers and even pros have pushed aside their technically superior, properly-designed HD camcorders for this imperfect, deeply flawed tool : a DSLR that happens to shoot great video. They were buying the camera not for it’s stills capability but for the video.

Why all the excitement about this camera? It’s mostly all about size…the size of the sensor. Bigger is better when it comes to sensors and the 36mm X 24mm CMOS sensor of the 5D makes all the difference in the world. Most HD camcorders record with tiny 1/3 or 2/3 inch chips. Even those costing tens of thousands of dollars. Chips that small means a lack of dynamic range, poor low light capabilities and an inability to produce shallow depth of field.

Now let’s look at the good and the bad. Looking at my list below, you’ll see that the disadvantages out-number the advantages but don’t let that discourage you. The advantages far out-weigh the frustrations of shooting video with these still cameras.

Advantages :

  • Price
  • Rich, filmic image quality, incredible dynamic range and low light capability
  • Small size
  • Wide range of lenses
  • Looks like a still camera which can be an advantage in some shooting situations
  • Oh yes…it takes great stills – even the frame grabs off the video look great

Disadvantages :

  • Ergonomics not suited for video
  • No auto focus while shooting
  • Difficult to manually focus
  • Poor audio : no balanced xlr, no visible audio meters, no headphone jack
  • No auto zoom
  • No image stabilization built into the body – need to rely on noisy lens stabilizers
  • No built in ND filter
  • Records only 12 minutes at a time
  • Can produce rolling shutter and moire
  • Overheating issues
  • Highly-compressed codec
  • No raw format

Next up, a look at how to make some of the above listed disadvantages a little more tolerable.

A Presidential Visit

President Obama is in the bay area for a few days and I thought I’d share a quick glimpse at what that means to the bay area media.

At the SF Chronicle, whenever there was a presidential visit, we’d have nearly the entire photo staff covering his every move. It was called unfortunately the “Death Watch”. A gruesome name for a not so fun job. Even though many of the images would not be published, we had to be there whenever the President was out in the public. From the moment Air Force One arrived at the North Field of San Francisco International Airport to when it left, we had a photographer there.

On a personal note…nothing is worse for a photog than to have to arrive somewhere hours before the President’s arrival, sometimes in the pouring rain or bitter cold to set up a position and wait for his arrival – all this knowing that the photos you take will not be published. I know…I had to do it many times and I hated it! But, we had to do it. We were witnesses to history. We had to be there.

Photos by Michael Maloney/ SF Chronicle

Managing Stills and Video

Before Canon released the highly successful 5D Mark II, the shooters at the San Francisco Chronicle were using the Sony HVR A1U to shoot video along with the Canon Mark IIn for the still photos on some of their assignments. Needless to say, this was awkward at best and so very difficult to manage. Shooting video meant bringing along a fluid head tripod, making sure the audio was set up properly and trying to figure out when to shoot what camera. Either we were missing sweet video sequences or missing great still moments. It was difficult if not impossible to do both well and very, very frustrating.

The best example of this was when I did a story in 2008 on Bob Coomber, an amazing athlete who lives in the San Francisco bay area. Due to juvenile diabetes, Bob is confined to a wheelchair but does not let that get in the way of what he loves to do best and that is exploring all the trails in the bay area. I had heard that Bob was training to be the first person to climb 19,000 foot Mt Kilimanjaro in a wheelchair unassisted. What a great story! This was a natural for both compelling stills and video, so I pitched the idea to my editors at the Chronicle and they gave me the time to work on it.

Bob was about to tackle a 3 day trip on the Mt Diablo Regional Trail that runs along the foothills of Mt Diablo so he welcomed me to spend a day with him on his trek. Remember, I’m shooting both stills and video so packed with me was a Canon Mark IIn, a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm, a 100-400mm, a strobe, a video tripod, the Sony HVR A1U and a Sennheiser wireless mic system. A lot of gear to be hauling up and down the steep trails of Mt Diablo! I remember wishing at the time that I could shoot both video and stills with just one camera. What a luxury that would be and so much easier on the back!

Fast-forward to today and my wishes have come true. While I was struggling with both cameras on the trails of Mt Diablo, Canon was just about ready to debut the new 5D Mark II. Reuters and Associated Press had asked Canon to come up with a DSLR camera capable of shooting both high quality video and still images. Canon listened and came through on September, 2008, updating the popular 5D with the new 5D Mark II capable of producing stunning 1080p HDV video along with a 21 megapixel full frame image. Since then, Nikon and Pentax have jumped on board adding HD capabilities to their line of DSLRs.

Link to my video and photos of Bob Coomber
Link to story by SF Chronicle writer Peter Fimrite

Next, we’ll look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of shooting video with the DSLR.

Tour of California Rolls Thru the Bay Area

The best cyclists in the world will be rolling through the San Francisco bay area this week giving us photographers ample opportunities for some great images.

The Amgen Tour of California starts Sunday in Nevada City and winds it’s way through the bay area and then on to southern California where it finishes Sunday, May 23 in Thousand Oaks. The field of 128 professional cyclists from 23 countries features three-time consecutive race winner Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa, and his teammate and seven-time Tour de France champion – some guy named “Lance”.

If you’ve never photographed a bicycle race, you’re in for a treat – these are the very best cyclists in the world. Most will race in the Tour de France this July and they’re in our back yard this week! And, the best thing is that you don’t need to have press credentials to get awesome shots – you don’t need that 300mm or 400mm 2.8 lens you see all the sports shooters carrying. Even a little point and shoot can do the job.

I’ve covered this race every year for the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m a cyclist and a big fan of racing, having raced for a local bay area amateur team in my younger years. So, I’ve always looked forward to shooting this colorful race. And even though I had press credentials giving me all kinds of access, I rarely used them. This race is accessible to anyone willing to be creative in their planning and shooting. Careful planning will increase your chances for some memorable photos.

The Amgen website is very helpful in planning your shoot. For each day’s stage race, they list approximate times when the peloton is expected to arrive at various points in the race. This helps you decide where you want to be and when. Keep in mind that in most areas, the race route will be shut down to vehicle traffic 1 to 2 hours prior to the racer’s arrival and not open up until after the last riders come through so again, careful planning is important to get the shots you want.

Starting Line …The race team buses and cars arrive 2-3 hours before the start of the race. You’ll get a chance to photograph the expensive bikes and watch as the team mechanics do final prep on them. You’ll also get to see the riders on their stationary trainers warming up and if you’re lucky enough, some will even sign autographs and pose for photos. At Team RadioShack, be prepared for a huge crowd of fans – mostly due to that guy named Lance. Bring a step ladder and the crowd will not be an issue. At race time, riders will gather under the start sign and the days leaders will be introduced. Again a small step ladder will be your friend and shooting over the 4-5 deep wall of fans will be no problem.

Along the Route …These guys are fast! Keep that in mind when planning your shoot. If you choose a location on the flats, they’ll whiz by at over 30 mph – on the downhills, they can go over 60! Trying to pick out your favorite racer will be impossible. The peloton will be bunched up at the base of some of the early hills, giving you the opportunity for some great colorful shots of the entire peloton. A telephoto lens really helps here to compress the mass of riders.The hills will slow the riders down – just a bit! – but enough for you to get the shots you need. Wide angle or telephoto both can work here as you can get close to the riders. If you’re trying to get a great shot of Lance, wait for him near the top of the steepest hill that is late in the race. The peloton will most likely have broken apart at this point and will be strung out. Who knows, Lance may even be in the lead!

Finish Line …Shooting the finish can be exciting. If the race is a hilly one, there may be just a few riders sprinting for a podium finish. Soon after, the entire pack will sprint to the line at speeds over 40mph which is exciting to witness. You just need to be flexible and again, bring that step ladder. Here, a long telephoto could be useful as I love the compressed view of them coming straight towards the camera.

Awards Ceremony … A few minutes after the last riders straggle in, the awards ceremony will start. Race leaders will be introduced and the yellow jersey will be presented to the overall race leader. Podium girls, politicians, sponsors, racers, and fans – all will be here making for a great colorful photo op. A telephoto lens will help here as it will be difficult to get near the stage however the stage is always raised so that ladder you smartly carried all day today probably won’t be needed.

Helpful Links :

Amgen Tour of California

Stage Info

Now go out there and have fun shooting!

All photos by Michael Maloney/SF Chronicle : 2008, 2009