Category Archives: Reviews

Panasonic AJ-PX270 Footage Shot on Texas Coast

On Monday, I ventured down to Padre Island and Corpus Christi, Texas, to shoot some b-roll for a documentary project I’m doing this summer. I also wanted to take the opportunity to test out a couple of cameras: the new Panasonic AJ-PX270 P2 AVC-Ultra small-body broadcast camera, and the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, configured with a Century Optics 1.32X B4-to-Super16 converter and a Canon HD 18X ENG zoom lens.

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I’m more impressed with the PX270 every time I shoot with it. My last 1/3″ cam was the Panasonic HPX170, which was a great camera – for certain applications – but the PX270 is so much better, it’s usable in many more situations than the HPX170 was. To begin with, the picture is way better. The dynamic range and sharpness is greatly improved, as is the highlight roll-off, especially. Out of the box, the PX270 had a crappy image (over-sharp, gritty, and flat) because of the way the camera is set up from the factory, but after I spent a little time dialing in and customizing the picture by creating my own scene file, it became superb.

Shooting with the Panasonic AJ-PX270 at Padre Island, Texas
Shooting with the Panasonic AJ-PX270

The PX270 is the first small body camera in the Panasonic line that is AVC-Ultra equipped (AVC-Ultra is what Panasonic is calling its group of professional AVC codecs; there is no codec called AVC-Ultra). AVC-Ultra codecs include AVC-Intra 100 & 200 (upgradable option), AVC-Intra 50, & AVC-LongG 50/25/12. It also shoots in good old DVCProHD if you need it to. The PX270 also features many more professional menu options and picture/color tweaking capabilities than any previous small body Panasonic. I think it actually has the same menu structure and options as the new AJ-PX5000 2/3″ shoulder cam, which lists for about $25K, sans glass. The PX270 was intended to be used as a companion to the PX5000 if needed, and I can easily see how the quality could keep up with the big brother. The PX270 really is a broadcast-quality camera.

First Impressions of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (BMPCC)

Canon 18X HD ENG lens on Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
Canon 18X HD glass on the BMPCC makes a very nice picture, even though the doubler is engaged. I’ve since removed the lens control module, which may have been a huge mistake.

Thanks to a super fast eBay seller, my BMPCC got here in a flash, and I was able to start tinkering with it today. The first thing I did was make an utterly ridiculous contraption out of it by mounting the BMPCC to my Canon 18X HD ENG lens, then Instagramming photos of it to all my camera nerd friends. Then I took it out into the yard and starting shooting clips of my trees and other junk (by the time UPS got here, the light was already fading, so there wasn’t time for anything else). The other accessories I have on order are still in transit, so I wasn’t able to build the real kit, so I simply sandwiched my ciecio7 B4/M43 adapter between the lens and camera, and stuck it on a tripod.

Actually, I tried two ENG lenses on the BMPCC today. One was a Fujinon SD 10X Super-wide, which looked like complete garbage on the Blackmagic’s sensor. Completely discouraging. The HD Canon lens however, looked absolutely gorgeous. It was sharp! Not only is the lens of a very high quality, but the sensor in the BMPCC is the sharpest of any video camera I’ve ever owned or used. I’ve read that it resolves 1000 TV lines, and after seeing my test footage, I certainly believe it. The picture is wonderfully-detailed, and the dynamic range is indeed all it’s cracked up to be. I haven’t seen much evidence of moire or chromatic aberration, but I also haven’t shot any brick buildings yet. I’ll test that tomorrow. The rolling shutter is evident, however, but it didn’t look like it was any worse than what you would see with a 5D Mark III or D800. The sharpness and dynamic range of the BMPCC more than makes up for the rolling shutter. I can shoot around it.

A. Brick, shot with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. Light grade applied.
A. Brick, shot with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. Light grade applied. Note the sharpness and detail of the Canon HD 18X ENG lens, a lens that was designed for 3-CCD 2/3″ cameras!

So, about that dynamic range… I shot a clip of a white brick in my yard, which had the evening sun shining directly on it. Most of the rest of the scene was in dark shade. The BMPCC held detail in the highlights of the brick and also in the darkest of shadow areas, with room to spare. I was really impressed by this. Any non-RAW DSLR would have blown the brick right out.

So, let’s briefly go over what we all know already: The build quality is very good; The screen is very dim in sunlight — get an EVF; the battery is dead before you know it; unless all your pockets are filled with juiced batts, turn the camera off as soon as you stop your roll, if you have the time; you can’t format the SD card in-camera (I’m still trying to figure out why this is the case, and it simply defies all logic – format all your cards for the day as ExFAT before you leave the studio).

I never planned on trying to keep my BMPCC rig small just because the camera itself is. I wanted the Blackmagic Pocket Camera for two reasons: 1). The 13 stops of dynamic range, and 2). The Super-16 sized sensor. I have a lot of legacy glass that can take advantage of that sensor, and as I’ve shown already, it has breathed new life into a VERY expensive B4 HD lens that had been sitting around on a shelf until today (since discovering that my big Panny HD cam has a big fat dead pixel right in the center of the picture).

Since my rig is not required to maintain its dainty curb weight, I’ve already negated a couple of the BMPCC’s shortcomings with some additional gear. Instead of rolling to SD cards, I will be rolling to my Atomos Samurai via the Atomos Connect HDMI/SDI converter. I’ve ordered a pair of Ikan tilta wooden grips with LANC S/S button, which should trigger the Samurai directly. The lack of audio meters in the camera should be taken care of by simply using the new and improved – thanks to the recently-released AtomOS 4.2 – audio meters in the Samurai, which are much more accurate now, and can also be set to display horozontally. BTW, you can now manually dial in audio delay in the Samurai, whereas before it could only be done with Ninja2. The weak battery life will be dealt with via a 1.5-meter D-Tap 12V cable, running from a Beillen 95WH battery either mounted to the rails or held in my pocket. The dim screen will be remedied via my Cineroid Metal EVF, which will make use of the second HD-SDI output of the Atomos Connect converter. All this will be mounted to the View Factor Contineo BMPC cage basic kit.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the BMPCC is missing a lot of options and that the menu is very, very basic in what you can do with the camera. This is absolutely true. However, it’s one of the things I like about the camera. I’m drawn to the fact that I only have to worry about a couple of settings before I can concentrate on shooting. I actually felt a sense of relief when I realized I didn’t have to worry about the mental checklist of technicalities that normally must be dealt with before shooting. The BMPCC is EASY to use; which leaves more time and energy for concentrating on composition.

I’ve also heard complaints about the relatively few increments for ºK options when choosing color temp. True, you can’t do a custom white balance in the BMPCC like you can with a DSLR, but considering how good the white balance of the BMPCC looks, that has yet to bother me. Even under the flourescent lights in my kitchen, the picture looked very good. The tonality of the picture is really nice. Also, considering that the BMPCC is very much a camera that is designed to shoot for the grade, this isn’t as big of a deal to me as it seems to be with others; each clip is going to be timed to hell and back anyway; the occasional off-color cast won’t bother me, especially when the camera gains the ability to shoot in RAW.

I think that’s about it for now. I will post some footage in the next day or two, after I’ve had a chance to shoot some more material.

My AF100 ENG Kit is Shaping Up

I’ve been modifying my Panasonic AF100 to work with ENG lenses, and it’s finally taking shape. The only thing I have left to install is a Y-cable that will power the lens as well as connect to the camera’s LANC port in order to activate REC start/stop from the lens. Abel Cine makes such a cable, but it’s 260.00, which is considerably more than I was hoping to pay. However, I don’t think anyone else is making it, so it looks like I’m going to have to fork over the cash to them.

Panasonic AF100 ENG Kit with Fujinon 10x4.8 Super-wide lens, Cineroid Metal EVF, and Atomos Samurai recorder
Panasonic AF100 ENG Kit with Fujinon 10x4.8 Super-wide lens, Cineroid Metal EVF, and Atomos Samurai recorder. Anton Bauer battery powers the ENG lens' servo zoom.

The latest addition to the kit is a Cineroid Metal HD-SDI electronic viewfinder, mounted on a NOGA articulated arm. The Cineroid arrived a couple of days ago from B&H and it really makes all the difference regarding usability of this rig in the field. Prior to getting the Cineroid, I pretty much had to mount the camera on a tripod to shoot anything. Moving the entire rig back on my shoulder and using the EVF makes all the difference, obviously. When I mounted the Cineroid, I moved the Atomos Samurai recorder from the front-left rail to the right-rear since I no longer needed to use it as a monitor when shooting. In its new position, it can serve as a secondary monitor for the director, and also provides some needed counter weight to the right side of the rig, since the EVF made everything shift left a bit. The Samurai is very reliable, and the battery life averages ten hours on a full charge, so I’m not too worried about not being able to see it while shooting hand-held footage. I know that if the camera is rolling, the Samurai is rolling. It tucks in nicely next to the Anton Bauer battery. You may recognize the AJA accessory plate and rail mount that the battery is bolted to; it used to hold my AJA Ki Pro Mini, which I ditched in favor of the Samurai. BTW, if anyone wants one, I’m selling a Ki Pro Mini…

Panasonic AF100 ENG Kit with Fujinon 10x4.8 Super-wide lens, Cineroid Metal EVF, and Atomos Samurai recorder. Anton Bauer battery powers the ENG lens' servo zoom.
Panasonic AF100 ENG Kit with Fujinon 10x4.8 Super-wide lens, Cineroid Metal EVF, and Atomos Samurai recorder. Anton Bauer battery powers the ENG lens' servo zoom.

To mount the ENG style Fujinon lens, I ordered an adapter from eBay user ciecio7. I highly recommend his adapters, as they seem to be very well built. In fact, this B4-M4/3 adapter is the highest quality I’ve yet seen from any of the adapters I’ve ordered for my AF100; I wish I’d found him earlier. Ciecio7 offers two flavors of this adapter; one with and one without the tripod collar. I ordered the one WITH the tripod collar, as I knew I was going to have to fashion some sort of lens support, since the camera’s lens mount is only rated at four pounds. Otherwise, it’s a sure bet I’d rip the mount right out the first time I used it in the field. I initially feared that it was going to be costly to get a really good lens support that would secure the lens in all directions so I could use the ENG grip, but as it turned out, the threaded 3/8″ hole in the mount adapter’s tripod collar (it also has a 1/4-20 hole) aligned perfectly with a threaded 3/8″ hole in the Redrock Micro M2 baseplate, so all I had to do was get a threaded stud from Home Depot and hacksaw it to 2.75″. That was $1.75 well-spent.

AF100 ENG lens support stud mounted under Fujinon 10x4.8 SD lens
Home Depot Special: AF100 support stud mounted under Fujinon 10x4.8 SD ENG lens

I really, really love having a proper ENG lens to use on the AF100. It really takes this camera from being quirky and odd to being a serious camera for pro video work. When Panasonic released the AF100, I was elated at the thought of what was basically a large-format HPX170 (although without my beloved P2 media), but then I was immediately puzzled when they kept demo-ing the camera with those horrible, slow, M4/3 stills lenses. What?! No servo lens? Unbelievable. So, for a long time, I used my Canon EF 16-35/2.8 L zoom with the Redrock Micro Live Lens adapter as my go-to run and gun lens, and it worked great. Not much reach, but it had the wide-to-medium area covered fairly well, and it was just fast enough to use in low light. It sucked not having a servo zoom though. With this ENG setup, now I have the best of both worlds. Granted, with all of the kit, it makes the AF100 about the same size as my HPX2000, but it’s still lighter.

So, what about image quality? ENG lenses are designed to be used on three-chip cameras, which means the glass projects onto a prism that separates the image into red, green and blue paths. There are two methods of adapting your ENG lens to a Micro 4/3 camera: the “cheap” way, which is to use a lens with a built-in 2X extender that will double the size of the image circle to cover M4/3, or the “proper” way, which is to use Abel Cine’s HDX2 adapter, which not only doubles the size of the image circle but also optically corrects for the three-chip projection so you don’t get color fringing in your highlights. Considering that, it seems to be a no-brainer on which method you would choose, until you consider cost. I got my B4-M43 adapter from ciecio7 for 240.00. That’s the entire cost of the “cheap” method. The “proper’ method is going to belt you for $5500.00 for the relay lens plus the cost of a PL adapter, because – btw – the HDX2 relay lens only comes in PL mount. SO, including the cost of PL/rails support for your AF100, we’re looking at a total cost of $7000.00 to be “proper” if you go with the HotRod-esque option. Ciecio7 also makes a PL-M43 adapter if you already have rails that would work, like I did.

I figured from the start that I was just going to put up with a little color fringing in my highlights. But then, I had a pleasant surprise. The Fujinon 10×4.8* is a really high quality piece of glass, and also considering that it’s so wide, fringing is very minimal. In fact, I don’t notice it at all unless my highlights are totally blown out, and even then, not all the time. In short, the picture looks pretty damned good. I’m sure the “proper” method is better, but I’m not positive that it’s $7000-better. Note that if you use the cheap method, your ENG lens MUST have a built-in 2X extender. With the HDX2, your lens does not need an extender, as the HDX2 doubles the size of the lens’ image circle.

Screen Grab: Fujinon 10x4.8 SD ENG lens on Panasonic AF100 recorded ProRes422 to Atomos Samurai
Post-grade Screen Grab: Fujinon 10x4.8 SD ENG lens on Panasonic AF100 recorded ProRes422 to Atomos Samurai.Click through to see a 100% crop.
Screen Grab: Fujinon 10x4.8 SD ENG lens on Panasonic AF100 recorded ProRes422 (HQ) to Atomos Samurai
Post-grade Screen Grab: Fujinon 10x4.8 SD ENG lens on Panasonic AF100 recorded ProRes422 (HQ) to Atomos Samurai.Click through to see a 100% crop.

* A note about the Fujinon 10×4.8 ENG SD lens: Some variants of it have a 1.7X extender and NOT a 2X extender. These will NOT WORK. You must have a 2X extender to expand the image circle to 22mm in order to cover the Micro 4/3 sensor.

New Announcements from Atomos at NAB Show 2012

I had the chance to interview Atomos CEO Jeromy Young at NAB, and he told us some very cool news about some upcoming products and updates, including the new Ninja 2 and the AtomOS 3.0 update, which will be released on April 30, free for Ninja 2 and Samurai users. Original Ninja customers will not be able to apply the upgrade (I’m betting due to hardware limitations), but Jeromy says that an economical upgrade path will be provided for original Ninja customers. Check out the video below!

Watch this video on YouTube or on Easy Youtube.

Atomos Samurai Review: Unboxing

Atomos Samurai Shipping Box
Unboxing the Atomos Samurai

My Atomos Samurai arrived yesterday, and after trekking to AllTex Electronics to pick up an SSD drive, I finally had a chance to try out the little recorder that I’ve had my eye on since I first saw it behind glass at NAB in 2010. The only SSD that AllTex had in stock that was fast enough, and not insanely expensive, was the 90GB Corsair Force SATA 3. It was not on the Atomos approved list of drives, but I figured with a peak write rate of around 500MB/sec it was plenty fast to record ProRes422 (HQ), which puts data down at around 220MB/sec, give-or-take. It was strange, though, that there was absolutely no information in the Corsair tech specs at the store about the drive’s sustained write rate. I decided to take a gamble on it, and sure enough, it seems to work just fine. After recording a single fifty-five-minute take in ProRes422 (HQ), I didn’t get a single glitch from the drive.

Atomos Samurai Case and Contents
Samurai case contents (clockwise from top-left): Samurai recorder; regional power plug adapters; SSD caddies (2); SSD Dock; Dual Battery Charger; Batteries (2)

First Impression:
If I had to choose one word to summarize my unboxing experience of the Atomos Samurai, it would be, “impressive.” The unit comes in its own custom hard case, similar to a Pelican, with custom foam inserts and an included shoulder strap. In this case is everything you need to get started using your Samurai, including the recorder, SSD dock, batteries (2), charger, USB cable, USB bus power cable for the dock, and a FW800 cable. An especially-appreciated inclusion were two (2) BNC to Mini BNC adapter cables for your camera’s SDI feed, so that’s one less thing you would have to order separately, as you would with other recorders on the market. In fact, the ONLY two things you have to supply separately of what is in the Samurai’s case is the SDI cable that leads from your camera, and the hard drives to record to.

Atomos Samurai Field Recorder
Detail of the Atomos Samurai unit
Atomos Samurai I/O ports
Atomos Samurai I/O (from left): HD/SDI in/out (record loop-thru/Playback); LANC Control; Stereo in/out/headphone

Immediately after opening the case, it was obvious how nice the build quality is. The Samurai unit and the dock are both very well put-together, and I immediately fell in love with the fact that the dock is bus-powered; you don’t have to plug it into shore power, and this is so incredibly handy for field work. I was also impressed with how well the SSD fit snugly into the drive caddy. Tolerances through the system seem to be engineered very precisely; seams are nice and even, components fit together tightly, and the drive caddy fits into the Samurai with a nice snug click that inspires confidence.

Atomos Samurai Included Accessories
(clockwise from left) USB cable; power adapter for battery charger; regional power plug adapters; SDI-MiniSDI adapter cables
Atomos Samurai Included Cables
FireWire 800 cable (upper left) and USB power cable

There were some other features about the package that I thought were just plain cool right out of the gate. The battery charger not only has two slots for batteries, but it also charges those two batteries simultaneously, which most dual chargers do not do. Also, Atomos has included four different standards of plug adapters for the charger, so if you’re traveling, you don’t have to worry about powering your Samurai… Just the rest of your gear, which likely did not include this amenity at time of purchase. Yet another nice touch.

I didn’t think I was going to have anything to shoot that first night after getting the Samurai, but as luck would have it, my friend, comedian Jay Whitecotton called, and had something to shoot. We’re working on a documentary together, and it turned out that night was opportune to shoot something. I recorded a single take that was fifty-five minutes long in Apple ProRes422 (HQ). The file size was about 60GB. At the end of the night, the power meter on the Samurai showed that I had used less than 1/4 of one battery. Good power consumption? Check.

Next: Using the Samurai

Final Cut Pro X? No. iMovie Pro X? Sure.

I just got back into town from Dallas, and I’m really tired, so I’m going to bed. BUT, I wanted to post a word of warning beforehand, just in case I can save a poor soul or two from blowing $300.00 on Final Cut Pro X between now and tomorrow, when I get a chance to write a better post on the matter.

If you are expecting the new Final Cut Pro X to replace Studio, just get off that bus right now. I bought and installed it, and let me tell you that it has been WAY over-simplified. A video professional cannot make use of it to satisfy clients. You can’t even import or export XML or EDL files, so right away, working in DaVinci Resolve or Adobe After Effects is right out. Forget about it. Wait until Apple updates it and gives it the professional options it needs before you buy it.

That being said, it does have a lot of really cool stuff going on under the hood. Background rendering is really sweet, as is the native 64-bit processing. The in-app color tools are really nice, and there is a lot of other stuff that’s cool, but it is nowhere near ready for prime time. If you’re a hobbyist, or pro-am, go for it, but if you make your living via moving pixels, WAIT.

First Day with the Ki Pro Mini on my AF100

I took delivery of my AJA Ki Pro Mini yesterday (I lucked out and found one at Adorama – they had two at the time, but I suspect the other one is already gone), and after ferreting out two CF cards that are fast enough to handle the ProRess422 (HQ) stream that the Mini will drop onto them, I took it to set this evening to shoot another scene for the “Piracy” trailer.

But before I did that, I made sure to do a couple of comparison tests with footage that was captured to the camera’s SD card. Below is a combined screen cap of the scopes in Final Cut Pro of frames that were recorded simultaneously.

The top image is if a frame that was recorded to the camera’s SD card via the AVCHD codec, than transcoded to Apple ProRes422 (HQ) with the FCP log and capture function. The bottom image is of a frame that was recorded to the AJA Ki Pro Mini from the camera’s HD-SDI port, and converted on the fly to ProRes422 (HQ) by the mini. Visually both clips were very similar, with the slight nod going of course to the HD-SDI frame. However, the real advantage to the native ProRes recording comes in post.

Both clips were dropped into the same FCP timeline and had the same [very] basic color correction filter applied to them. Note the difference in the histograms between the two after the color move was applied. The frame that was recorded with the Ki Pro Mini held together nicely, while the AVCHD frame broke apart immediately. Imagine how much worse it would be with larger color moves applied to it.

AJA Ki Pro Mini and Panasonic AVCHD post color data comparison
AVCHD>ProRes422 (HQ) on the top, and HD-SDI>ProRes422 (HQ) on the bottom, with the same simple color filter applied to each.

The AJA Ki Pro Mini is really easy to use on set. It automatically detects timecode in your SDI signal and starts recording when you hit the button on the camera. By my estimation, a 32GB card gets you about 20 minutes of storage. Not bad.

It’s also smaller than I thought it was going to be. It actually fits on the rails quite nicely behind the camera. One thing that I do find unsettling about it, though, is that it gets quite hot. That’s understandable, considering the amount of work it’s doing, converting uncompressed video to ProRes422 in real time. That takes a lot of horsepower. Still, though, when you pull the cards out of it, they can be very hot indeed. Not sure if that affects the life of the card or not.

 

AJA Ki Pro Mini with Panasonic AF100 video camera
AJA Ki Pro Mini with Panasonic AF100 video camera

 

AJA Ki Pro Mini with Panasonic AF100 video camera
AJA Ki Pro Mini with Panasonic AF100 video camera

 

Frame Grab from the feature length motion picture, "Piracy," currently in production
Frame Grab from the feature length motion picture, "Piracy," currently in production

Look for more Ki Pro Mini updates to come…

ikan Follow Focus on Panasonic AF100

I finally got around to replacing my old, cheap follow focus with something a little better. It isn’t a Zacuto or anything like that, but it will do in the mean time, until I’m willing to drop $2k on a better one. After a very strategic, analytical, consumer-aware ten minutes spent on eBay looking at options, I balanced price with notoriety and chose the ikan follow focus. For about 400.00, it came with a couple of zip gears, two lens protectors, a speed crank, and an 18″ whip. Wasn’t sure how the quality was going to be, but I knew ikan makes pretty good stuff, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

It arrived today, and I must say that I’m fairly impressed. There is a tiny amount of play in the action, but I don’t think it’s any more than the Redrock Micro FF. Build quality is very nice; it’s very sturdy and feels reliable. It definitely beats the cheap-o FF I was using before. Happy purchase.

iKan Follow Focus on AF100
iKan Follow Focus on AF100

A Good AF100 Pelican Case

Last Thursday, I decided it was time to get a proper case for my AF100, and since I regularly shoot for a travel show, I made sure to look for one that was of carry-on size. I like to travel light, and I hate checking bags unless I have to. I’ve pretty much got it down to a science, and usually the only thing I have to check are my sticks.

That being a main criteria– well, it was the only criteria, because I already knew I was going to get a Pelican case, since they’ve been so awesome for me my entire professional life. One glance at their site told me that the one to get was the Pelican 1510 rolling carry-on.

A quick Google search revealed that the best price (with foam) was going to be from Amazon, so I ordered one – and another 32GB SD card – for “one day dlivery” that turned into “four day delivery”, thanks to shipping FAIL plus the Presidents’ Day holiday. To be fair, the SD card got here in one day, but the case did not. Luckily I didn’t need it for the weekend.

Looking at it, it seemed a little smaller than I thought it would be, but some foam-plucking time later, and it holds the camera body, battery, EF adapter, batteries, and my 24/1.4 and 17-40 lenses perfectly, which is a great minimalist run and gun solution for quick shots. I highly recommend the Pelican 1510 if you need a smaller, carry-on legal case for light shooting, or of course, as a compliment to more cases for travel.

Pelican 1510 Rolling Carry On Case with Panasonic AF100 and Canon lenses
Pelican 1510 Rolling Carry On Case with Panasonic AF100 and Canon lenses