Category Archives: Product Reviews

It’s Not a DSLR, It’s Not a Camcorder, It’s Black Magic!

Black Magic Cinema Camera

I’ve been shooting with the Black Magic Cinema Camera for the last month and what follows are my first impressions. In part one of this series on the Black Magic Cinema Camera, I will explain why this camera is different than DSLRs or even pro camcorders

Everybody knows that the Black Magic Cinema Camera was a revolutionary product when it was unveiled at the 2012 NAB show. Why then do they try to compare it to any other camera, and especially the Canon 5DMK2 DSLR? Continue reading

Why I Love Final Cut Pro X (The minority report, despite the tar and feathering by my peers.)

NOTE: Since writing this post, I have found serious flaws in Final Cut Pro X. Please see the follow-up post “How FCP X Broke My Heart.”

Okay, first sentence; it’s not perfect. But something this revolutionary, never is. In the words of Morpheus, you need to “Free your mind.”

FCPX GUI

iMovie Pro...Not!

I should just say that I have been editing video as a profession since 1985 and I’ve worked on everything from old CMX tape editors to KEM flatbed film editors to most the NLEs out there, I’ve edited national PBS shows and I teach Final Cut Pro editing at the local community college.
The most important thing I ask of an NLE is that it be fast and be intuitive. On these two counts, I’ve found Final Cut Pro X to be both. I’ll also add the caveat that while I’ve only logged about 16 hours using the new app, I’ve been able to do some pretty amazing stuff in that 16 hours.
Before I get to all the complaints that editors are posting (and they are well documented, to say the least) I want us all to take a deep breath and look at the bright side of life, as it relates to video editing. FCP7 was getting old, editors have been flocking to Premiere because of 64bit architecture, and “native editing” which FCP7 didn’t do. Also for the five editors in the world that edit 4K on a regular basis, FCP7 didn’t handle that workflow , so you had to use proxies (boo hoo!) Well, ladies and gents, FCPX does do 64bit, “Native” editing and 4K. I’ll actually use that 4K editing for time lapses, so hooray for 4K! The 64 bit is nice and in case you haven’t noticed we’ve now got a whole new host of 64 bit effects, They alone are worth your $300 that you are crying about spending on a full-featured NLE. It’s even got “Looks” included. I do love Stu and Red Giant, but for the price of Red Giant Looks, I’ve got a whole NLE attached.

Titles and Text sucked in FCP7, They suck a whole lot less in FCPX, font previews is just one little thing that makes me edit faster, and everyone knows a fast editor is an employed editor. Oh yeah, those nice 64bit effects and transitions are rendering in background while I keep editing, I wonder if I’m going to miss the “render wander” hmm… no more billing for watching the render bar, no wonder some editors are upset.
Video editors hate making friggin’ slide shows. But almost every friggin’ project involves animating Joe the photographer’s wonderful stills into the project. At times I’ve contemplated (gag) going into iMovie just to use the Ken Burns effect. For the record, I hate iMovie and I would hate iMovie Pro, if that’s indeed what FCPX was (and it isn’t.) But if I can take a still sequence and Ken Burns it without having to key frame, that’s mo’ money in my pocket. Yet another FCPX feature that makes me a faster editor.
Once you get over the initial new GUI shock, FCPX turns out to be very intuitive. I was able to make some edits right away without even opening the Help menu, where all the documentation is stored, a far cry from the four volumes of dead tree manuals that came with FCP6. For me anyway, the trim window and the precision editor are far more intuitive than FCP7.  Slipping, sliding rippling, and extend edits are all a piece of cake. Also I have to mention how easy syncing is now. On FCP7 I have the Plural Eyes plug-in just to handle syncing dual system sound. I shoot with a DSLR, so most of the time I’m doing dual system sound. With FCP X it’s as easy as importing the sound clip and choosing “Synchronize Clip” from the Clip menu, that’s it ! It’s simple and just works.
I’ll have to say that initially I’m not a big fan of FCPX’s media management. You kinda have to get over the ideas of projects, sequences, and bins. And that’s sorta like saying you have to get over the idea of breakfast, lunch and dinner. And no “Save As” is just freaky. I’m thinking events are like projects used to be and projects are like sequences used to be. I’m still messing with this whole new paradigm, So I’m going to say that I need to mess with this more to judge it. But I will say this, there are those that are saying you can’t put footage on an external drive and that you can’t share projects and assets, That is just plain wrong. You can import clips to wherever you want, and FCPX can use them, it does give you the option to copy the clips to the same drive as your project file, but you can opt out if you wish. And you have menu options for sharing and copying assets and projects for another editor to use. It’s no Final Cut Server, but big post houses that are running FCP Server are going to stick with FCP7 as long as their slow moving corporate giant minds will allow.
That brings me to “native” editing. Why the hell do you want to edit h.264 on a SD card natively? Because you like to be slow? Okay, most of you are smart enough to transfer your cards to the hard drive where you can import them into the NLE for editing. But then you say “I’m editing H.264 natively” you may think you are, but for all those edits you’re making, the NLE has to transcode and make I frames and reconstruct the GOP structure, that’s just the way it is. So while FCPX will let you do that now, the smarter way to edit is to let FCPX turn all that long GOP crap into beautiful 422 I framed ProRes for you in the background while you edit away “natively” and when you export your project , you’ve got a nice archival quality ProRes copy of your program. You DO have an archival ProRes copy of every program that you create, don’t you?
If you are worried about output formats, spring $50 for the new compressor or use your old compressor on your exported master file. And if you need to go to tape, you really should already have AJA or Matrox or Black Magic hardware. DVD? You probably already have DVD Studio Pro and the DVD standard isn’t going anywhere soon, so upgrading DVDSP is pointless. Blu-ray? You can output to an external burner and you even have limited custom menu options available in Compressor.
At this point I should point you to the excellent David Pogue article where he talks to Apple product managers to dispel many of the myths about FCPX. You can read that article here: Pro editors weigh-in on Final Cut Pro X
Now, let me tell you what i hate/ dislike or need to have added to FCPX. I need AAF export or XML export to send projects to After Effects. I need round-tripping or multitrack export to Soundtrack Pro or (gag) OMF export to send audio to Poor Tools (SIC.) Multi-Cam would be nice, although I don’t use it much in FCP7. I need more numeric input options. There are a lot of the time where I’m editing “by the numbers”, so knowing where to type in time code numbers for ins, outs and durations would be great. You should be able to tag clips on import like the old “Log and Transfer.” I’ve found in the “Import from Devices” window that you can import partial clips from devices, but you can’t label them in that window before importing them.
Finally, I’m going to directly quote David Pogue as to the bottom line:
“Professional editors should (1) learn to tell what’s really missing from what’s just been moved around, (2) recognize that there’s no obligation to switch from the old program yet, (3) monitor the progress of FCP X and its ecosystem, and especially (4) be willing to consider that a radical new design may be unfamiliar, but may, in the long term, actually be better.”

Sony NEX VG10 Pass and Fail

Sony NEX-VG10I received the Sony NEX VG10 with high expectations, here was a camera that promised to be a DSLR killer at a reasonable price, it’s not. Here’s why.
I was thinking, here is a camera with interchangeable lenses and a APSC sized sensor from Sony, finally a camera that could breach the gap between camcorder convenience and DSLR image quality but I was wrong. As far as video quality is concerned, yes, it is a winner, it has interchangeable lenses and a large APS sized sensor, rivaling the Canon 7D DSLR in a camcorder form factor. It has a flip out LCD and a convenient hand held body with a proper handle, decent on-board mics and both a Sony intelligent shoe and a cold shoe for mounting an external mic or light. The included E-series 18mm-200mm f3.5 lens is great and you can easily adapt the mount to accept not only Sony A series lenses but just about any 35mm still lens out there to wok with it. I bought the E-series to Canon FD lens adapter and threw my good ol’ Canon FD 50mm F1.4 lens on it, and it works wonderfully. The 24Mbs H264 codec delivers exactly what I would expect as far as video quality is concerned, although you are stuck with 1080i 29.97 FPS. I also noticed some moire artifacts when zooming or panning. And I have to say that this camera was ideally suited for the particular shoot where I tested it. I was shooting hand held POV shots with the camera mounted on my Jaybilizer HDSLR camera stabilizer.
So what’s my gripe? First, no manual audio level controls, sure it’s got an 1/8″ external mic input, but only AGC level control, this is totally unacceptable on a $2000 camera. I’ve got several sub-one thousand dollar Sony cameras that have audio level controls. I was actually hoping at this price point to see XLR inputs, but I would accept an 1/8″ mini input with level controls. This is a massive fail that I cannot over state.
Second , I have to address the insufficient user manual and unintuitive user interface. I took the camera out on a shoot and was stymied by such simple task as formating a SD card . You have to go to the Menu button and then the Setup item and scroll down to the Format Card item, where it tells you to press the OK button. there is no OK button. After trying all the available buttons, I discovered that this is the button labeled Focus, nowhere in the manual is there any allusion to the OK button and that it is indeed the Focus button. The manual is horrid, the worst manual I’ve ever seen for a camcorder, let alone a $2k camcorder. It feels like the manual was written by two marketing guys on a 12 hour deadline.
I could go on and on about the audio or lack of audio control, but what about simple things like LANC? It’s a Sony for Chrissake, A Sony without LANC remote? What? And the LCD viewfinder only rotates 90 degrees, again you wonder why? Every other flip out LCD viewfinder in recent history rotates 180 degrees so you can look at it from the front of the camera. Again, a big “What where they thinking?”
Overall this would be a great camera at the $1K price point but at $2K you are at least into the prosumer feature range and the lack of audio control is , as I said before, totally unacceptable. I have a forlorn wish that this is something that can be solved in a firmware update, but I’m not holding my breathe.
In the meantime, I’m torn between the great image quality that the large sensor and interchangeable lenses deliver and the dumbed down audio and the lack other features that we’ve come to expect of a camcorder at this price point. It feels like the whole thing was rushed to market without much thought to what professional videographers really need.

Why the (hacked) Panasonic GH1 is a better video camera than the Canon5DMk2

If you are a Canon 5Dmk2 fanboy you may want to shut your eyes. The lowly Panasonic GH1 just got supercharged with a firmware hack that makes a great HDSLR video camera even better. Here is my list of things that make the GH1 a better video camera than the 5D. First let’s take a look at the 800-pound gorilla in the room, The Canon has a full frame 35mm sensor, therefore, there is no crop factor when using 35mm lenses. Canon’s full size sensor is 4 times the size of the 4/3rds sensor in the GH1, which also means that the Canon must compress 4 time the data for the same bandwidth, all thing being equal (which they are not.) Supposedly the 5D is writing data at 35Mbs, compared to the (stock) 17Mbs of the GH1, which means that it’s still throwing away half again as much data as the GH1 (4 time the sensor and only twice as much data as the GH1).

GH1 Camera rig

My GH1 Camera Rig

But the GH1 has a secret, with the Ptools firmware hack from Tester13, the GH1 can shoot true 1080P 24fps with no pulldown at 50Mbs. And since both cameras use h.264 compression, with the software hack, the GH1 is compressing the data from its sensor far less.

But there’s more, the GH1 hack also enables the 1080P mode using MJPEG compression at 100Mbs for short shots. While this setting is kind of like using nitrous and it’s really pushing the limits of the camera, it is a real boon if you want to get the highest quality video possible. The advantage that motion JPEG has over h.264 is that it only uses spatial compression instead of the temporal and spatial compression of h.264. This means prettier pictures. His holiness, Phillip Bloom posted a great blog post on what the firmware hack brings to the GH1 which you can read on his blog.
I’ll admit that image quality is close enough between these two cameras that the 5D might win if that were the only issue. But the GH1 is a far more usable camera than the 5D, First off, for shooting video you can’t beat the fold out LCD screen on the GH1. It’s just better than the Live View screen on the 5D, period, even with a Z-finder. Second, the GH1 has continuous auto focus when using the kit lens. With 5D in live mode, you are stuck with whatever focus you had when you started recording. Thirdly, even un-hacked the GH1 can shoot 30fps 1/2 speed slow motion. You just shoot at 60fps 720p and play back the footage at 30fps, no frame blending or doubling, just plain good old fashioned over-cranking.
Okay, Let’s talk about glass. The 5D still uses an optical viewfinder, which means it has a pentaprism and a mirror, which it must flip up to take video, which, of course, makes the optical viewfinder unusable. This arrangement also means that the Canon has a deep flange distance. the flange is the measurement from the back of the lens to the surface of the sensor. Traditional film and video lenses have a short flange distance and don’t work well with 35mm SLR bodies. The GH1 has no optical viewfinder and therefore has a very short flange distance, which means it can use practically any 35mm SLR, video or film lens that someone is willing to make a adapter for. There is even a PL mount adapter that cost as much as the GH1, so that you can use cine lenses that cost 100 times as much the GH1. I use all my old Canon FD SLR lens as well as some Minolta, Olympus, and16mm film lenses and even cheap CCTV lens with my GH1.
Finally, let’s take a look at the form factor. The 5D is big and relatively heavy DSLR. Great if you’re trying to impress other photographers or the bridesmaids at a wedding shoot, not so good if you’re actually trying to shoot steady handheld video. The GH1 is lighter, smaller, more balanced and just plain easier to handle.
I won’t argue that the Canon 5DMK2 is a great still camera, and better than the GH1. But when it comes to real world video shooting and video quality, 5D, you’ve been served!

Panasonic previews the AG-AF100 camcorder at NAB

Panasonic AG-AF100

Panasonic AG-AF100

Panasonic showed off a mock-up of the AG-HF100 at NAB. The AF100 is a “Hybrid” camcorder that uses the micro 4/3 sensor from the Lumix GH1. This allows the use of a wide variety of interchangeable lenses, including 35mm still camera lenses. The AF100 features a camcorder body with XLR audio inputs and uses the AVCHD codec for video and linear PCM for audio. Panasonic says it will be available in December and go for about $6000 US. Considering that the anticipated pricing for the Lumix GH2 is $1500, I’m hoping that Panasonic will lower the price of the AF100 to the $3K range.

Samsung HZ10W WB500 Test

These are the first test shots using the HZ10W. Shooting in the 720P mode at 30FPS. This is somewhat of a contrast torture test, shooting from shade to extreme sunlight, and the Camera did pretty much as expected the highlights are blown out and this camera seems to be exceptionally noisy in the shadows. That said, I still like the image better than the Lumix TZ5, the JPEG artifacting and the CCD Flaring was unacceptable on the TZ5 and is why I traded to the HZ10. Another reason is the wider angle lens on the HZ10.
I’ll get some better video posted as soon as I get more familiar with the camera.

Samsung HZ10W WB500 Test from Jay Shaffer on Vimeo.

The Ten Best Bargains for No-Budget Filmmakers

  1. The Lumix GH1 $1500
    Lumix the Red, Scarlet slayer

    Lumix the Red, Scarlet slayer

    Okay okay, I know $1500 is a lot of scratch, but hear me out as to why you should use this camera to shoot your next no-budget indie film. Sure, being a DSLR Hybrid, it’s not as versatile and as easy to use as a camcorder especially for “Run and Gun” shooting (see the HF S1000 below), but for film style shooting this thing is the cat’s pajamas.
    First off there is no need to get a DOF lens adaptor to give you shots that narrow depth of field and nice bokeh in the background. This camera’s Leica G Vario HD 14-140mm F4.0-5.8 lens kit lens is a really nice 10x zoom, but the real story is because of the micro 4/3 lens mount and it’s narrow flange depth you can adapt just about any 35mm, 35mm cine, 16mm cine or 2/3 inch video lens to the thing.
    A couple other positives is that it uses SDHC cards to record AVCHD video. that you can drop strait into your editing workflow or use VoltaicHD 24p software to import full HD 24p. Also unlike the Nikon D90 and the Canon Rebel T1i this camera allows you full manual control over exposure and it even has a external stereo mic input.
    I know some of you are waiting on a Scarlet. and yes, the Scarlet does have variable frame rates and XLR inputs,and yes it may be worth it to wait in line and spend twice as much money on a Red 2/3″ Scarlet, but remember that the GH1’s sensor is bigger than even the Red One’s. Oh, and it actually comes in red.

  2. Canon VIXIA HFS100 HD Flash Memory Camcorder ~$900 street price
    For a couple of years now the low budget camcorder of choice was the Canon HV series ( the HV-20 HV-30 and the HV-40) so why the S100? It has all the features of the HV-40 and It shoots full 1920X 1080P at 24Mbs on SDHC cards and is under a thousand bucks on the street. ’nuff said.
  3. The Manfrotto/Bogen 701HDV,547BK Video Tripod System Kit $300 from B&H
    If your camera rig is less than 8.8 pounds then this is the tripod and fluid head you need. The 701 is buttery smooth for light camcorders and DSLRs and these two stage aluminum legs are super-solid for the price. If your rig is haevier then throw down an extra $60 for the Manfrotto 501 head that is comfortable up to 13 lbs.
  4. Audio Technica ATR-55 Condenser Shotgun Microphone $50 street price
    Sure you could spend over $500 on a Sennheiser ME-88 shotgun mic (if you had a budget) but for improving basic camcorder mics you can’t beat this package. You get a nice sounding shotgun condenser mic with a mini and 1/4″ connector and a hotshoe mount plus a boom or stand mount for the price of a smooze lunch.
  5. the Cavision Rs1580D-SPE Shoulder mount rail system $200 from B&H
    Nothing sexes up your camera rig like a rail system,and when you need to take the camera handheld having a dual-handle shoulder mount system will save your film as well as your back. The Cavision set-up wins by a hair over the $269 indiRAILSpro XVsm from Indiefocus.com because of it’s adjustable shoulder pad and extra $70 in your pocket.
  6. JAG35pro DOF Adapter $300
    If you have a small sensor camcorder, that wide depth of field is a dead giveaway that you shooting no budget video.. You want teenie-weenie depth of field to give you those luscious soft focus backgrounds for that big budget film look.
    There are tons of DOF adators and plans for DOF adaptors out there, but Jehu Garcia cut through all the BS and went and produced the best bragain 35mm DOF adaptor out there. You can spend 4 times as much on a Letus, but you won’t be getting any better video for your money. You can get the JAG35 Pro Frig-rig and a frig-rig rail system for under $600 and forget item #5.
  7. DFocus follow focus $100
    David Aldrich broke the price barrier on follow focus systems. If you are using 35mm lenses on a JAG35 or manual focus lenses on a DSLR rig, the DFocus system will give you repeatable control over those trick narrow focus shots.
  8. Budget Matte Box $189
    Most of the time matte boxes on camcorder rigs are just set dressing. Screw-on filters and a black cardboard french flag are all you really need. But if you do ever need to use 4X4 Filters or actually pull an in-camera matte and look sexy doing it, you need a matte box I think spending over $350 for a matte box without filters is ridiculous, that’s why I recommend this $189 beauty from ImageWest.tv.
  9. Low budget fluorescent Soft lights $399
    Again, the nod goes to ImageWest for a set of large cool softlights. These babies give you that wrap-around light that make starlets look sultry and (ahem older ) actors look, well, like well-lit actors. Being flourescent they are a bazillion times cooler and energy efficient than halogens. And they will last at least until LED lights become affordable for us mortals.
  10. Manfrotto /Bogen Modo Steady 585 Camera Support $100

    modosteady
    Okay everybody knows Stedicam Merlins are WAAAY overpriced and I probably should have used this slot to hype my homebuilt “Jaybilizer 3000” but even I can’t match the features and price of the Modo Steady 585. This thing is a do-everthing Sham-wow with Ferrari styling. I’m surprised everybody doesn’t have one of these. It’s a shoulder brace, mini-tripod, and a Merlin type stabilizer that folds up like a swiss army knife and is so cute it will have hotties signing model releases in nothing flat.
    Let’s just keep this a secret and I’ll give you a price-break on the Jaybilizer 3000 (which will handle a heavier camera than the Modo, BTW)

    The Jaybilizer3000 - Taking orders soon!

    The Jaybilizer3000 - Taking orders soon!