Saturday, November 7, 2015

Testing The Sony A7S MkII For Adventure Filmmaking

In a previous blog post, I wrote about how the Sony A7S II might be the ultimate adventure filmmaker's camera and about how it might be a replacement for my Panasonic GH4.  I went ahead and bought an A7sii from Sony, and a used Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 lens, and that's what I used for the video below.

I took it to the climbing wall, and used it the way I would be using it outdoors, to see if I liked the way it handled. I climbed with it, anchored myself to a bolt and shot the climber below me.  I liked how I could turn the camera on with one hand (very Nikonesque), and the grip, although short, was sufficient.  The setup, with the Zeiss 24-70, although not light, was well balanced, and the 5-Axis Stabilization worked very well.  All in all, it worked out well for me. Check out the test video below:

Adventure Testing Sony A7SII: A Day At The Climbing Gym from Kenneth Koh on Vimeo.

I shot this video as a quick test to see if the Sony A7s Mkii would work for me as an adventure filmmaking camera.  Meaning if I could get used to the handling of the camera, and if if I could get it to work with the way I shoot, and get the results I wanted.  I wanted some creative control, but not be overburdened, and so I chose to control only the aperture, and left White Balance, Shutter Speed, ISO and (mostly) Autofocus in Auto.   Everything was recorded at 4k resolution, 24fps, and the aperture was left wide open at f/4.  I used the Autumn Leaves Creative Style in camera with the saturation and sharpening turned all the way down, the Dynamic Range Optimizer set to 4, and white balance set to Auto.  The light in the gym was a mix of sunlight filtered through the skylight, and florescent light. All shots were hand-held (except for the title clip where I used a slider), with a little stabilisation (Coremelt Lock and Load) applied in post on about half the clips.  Editing was done on FCPX, with some color balancing, contrast, grain and a vignette added in some shots.  Voice over was recorded on location, using a Audio Technica ATR3350 lavalier mic plugged directly into the camera.  The whole thing was shot in about 2 hours, and the edit took about a day.

Here's what I liked about the A7sii:
  • What I found most useful was the 5-axis stabilisation on the camera.  I had that on the Olympus OMD EM5, and missed that feature sorely when I sold the camera to buy the GH4.  
  • Video Autofocus - It can be a bit slow for faster moving subjects, but it's surprisingly useable. 
  • ISO freedom.  It was a bit dark in the subway station, but ISO wasn't even a concern. 
  • Internal 4k, but I already had that with my GH4.
Here's what I didn't like:
  • Ergonomics and the Menu System could be better... but then you already knew that ;)
  • Mine's a PAL model, and I need to set it to NTSC to shoot 24p and 120p.  Every time I turn on the camera, I get a warning that the camera is in NTSC mode.  There is no way to disable or turn off this warning.  Seriously?  Every time?  Don't you think once would be enough?
  • No way to set up a custom button to shoot in APSC Crop Mode.  I've set up one of the Memory Recall settings on the Mode Dial to shoot 120fps, which also puts me in APSC Crop mode, but that activates Program Mode and I have no control over aperture or shutter speed.
I've only had the camera for a week, so I've got a lot more learning to do.  I want to play around with some of the other color profiles, and I need to buy and test out the Time Lapse App.  One other big unknown for me is how the small Sony batteries perform in extreme cold.  

Will I be replacing the GH4 with the A7sii?  I think so, although it was closer than I thought.  I really liked the 5-Axis Stabilization, which comes in very useful for a one-man, run and gun type shooting.  Video Autofocus has difficulty with subjects moving too quickly to and away from the camera, but is otherwise very useful.  The image quality is very nice, both at 4k and in the APSC Crop at 120fps, with an organic feel and nice subject separation.  My main issue is with the weight.  In order to keep the weight reasonable, I've chosen to replace my M4/3 standard 3 lens setup with focal lengths that range from a full-frame equivalent 14-280mm for a single 24-70mm f/4 zoom.  In doing so, I'll lose a lot of focal length range, but that's the tradeoff for the features on the Sony I think are worth having. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A World to Share: Q&A with Brandon Li

Brandon Li is a former MTV Reality Series Producer/editor where he learned documentary style filmmaking.  In 2013, he sold everything he had, and is now literally living his life out of a suitcase, editing projects on a MacBook Pro with the hard drives velcroed to the back, travelling and making award winning short films about the cultures and people he visits.
Brandon Li.  Image courtesy of Brandon Li
I'm stoked to have had the opportunity to interview Brandon about his life and the art of travel filmmaking.  His short films buzz with energy and have won numerous awards.  Check out what Brandon has to say and see some of his work in the blog post below.

Gateway to the Ganges from Brandon Li on Vimeo.

On the Nomadic Lifestyle, Travel and Inspiration
“I draw most of my artistic inspiration from that feeling of being in a new place.   When everything is new to me, it's easy to feel inspired to shoot.  It's constantly exciting and interesting, but at the same time I frequently feel uprooted or disoriented by the constant moving.  I've had a lot of days where I would wake up wondering what country I was in.” 

“I really don't have much other than my camera gear and about 5 days of clothes.  If it doesn't fit in a suitcase and a backpack, I can't own it.  Language barriers are a constant issue.  I get lost a lot.  I frequently have little doubts, like when I'm lost wandering the streets of a new country with all my bags… and it starts raining!”

“It is difficult to stay grounded, but what makes it worthwhile is getting to immerse myself in other cultures instead of just passing through like a tourist.”

Tokyo Roar from Brandon Li on Vimeo.

The Method, Process and Technique
“I consider the commercial work and the personal work to be practice fields for each other.  I learn things doing my commercial projects that I want to apply on independent films, and then I figure out techniques on those films that I can bring back to the paid gigs.  I always want to push my abilities a bit further with each film.”
“For my personal projects, I improvise based on the people and landscapes I encounter while wandering around.  I look for things that can't be planned; this is what I feel gives a film energy.  For instance, filming a mountain at sunrise is much more interesting to me if there are children playing a pickup game of football in the foreground.”

“My reality TV experience taught me how to spontaneously shoot scenes that feel complete. Basically I shoot "coverage" - wide, medium, close.  I try to encourage people to ignore the camera, another skill from reality TV.  It's a game of getting close without being intrusive, and it just takes practice (and lots of mistakes).”

“In editing, I put together this coverage like one would do with a scripted film, re-arranging shots to make the scene flow naturally. Once I have a few key scenes edited, I'll figure out the bigger storyline of the whole video.  That's the main challenge.  The most difficult part of editing is getting the pacing right so that the film seems to follow a natural trajectory and ends satisfyingly.  This just takes many, many revisions.”

“I consider shooting to be kind of a sport, so I make sure I get out there and shoot as often as possible and improvise new techniques.  I think techniques are as important as gear.  Most of my camera moves are done just by moving my body in the right way, and most of my edits are simple cuts with no fancy effects or plugins. If you're not getting the shots you want, try changing your technique before acquiring more gear.”

Brandon shooting in Guam (  Photo by Jessica Peterson
Tools of the Trade
“I like shooting with any camera that can deliver the image and still fit in a backpack.  That's my main requirement - I have to be able to travel easily with it.”

“GH2 was great for a while, but then the A7s came along with a myriad of superior features, such as low light performance, zebra stripes, peaking, slow motion, etc.  Plus, the A7s is actually a pretty tiny camera provided you aren't using the larger, heavier lenses for the system.  It's lighter than the Gh2 body.”

“I've just recently bought a Sony A7rii, which I used on my last personal project along with the Sony RX10ii and a few GoPros.  I like shooting 4k, even if I will be outputting a 1080p final film, because it allows me to crop and re-frame my shots in post.”

"If I had to choose 3 lenses to travel with, they would be the Sony 24-240mm, Nikon AIS 50mm f/1.4, Sony 10-18mm.  First requirement is covering the "normal" focal lengths.  As a travel filmmaker, I rely on my zoom lens quite a bit to frame distant subjects.  It's not a fast lens (f/3.5-6.3) but the Sony cameras have good low light performance so I can still use it for most circumstances.  Second requirement is having shallow depth-of-field ability, which the 50mm takes care of.  That Nikon lens focuses quite close, so I can use it for macro-type shots as well as normal portrait stuff. Also, because it's adapted, I can remove it from the adapter to do lens whacking (special defocus effects).  If I had to lose one perspective it would be the ultra-wide one.  I can almost always re-frame my shot, or just step back, to get that wide perspective."

Where to Next and Chilling Out
“I usually pick my locations to be near my potential future projects.  It's kind of a tricky game planning where to be - I don't want to fly off to a remote corner of the globe and then book a shoot in London, for instance.  I just use my best intuition.”

“I've been to Tokyo twice this year because it's just awesome.  I love re-visiting places and catching up with friends.”

“When I chill out, I'm the laziest person on earth.  Earlier this year I rented a beach shack in Goa, India and spent a week just watching the sun set every day.”  "Maybe I should learn to play racquetball or something?”

Brandon's portfolio site showcases his personal and commercial works, and his tech blog describes shooting techniques using minimal equipment.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sony A7s II: Is This The Ultimate Adventure Filmmaker's Camera?

A travel and adventure camera should be lightweight, rugged, and simple to use while offering good image quality.  Last week, Sony announced the Mark II version of it's legendary low light camera, the A7s II.  Here are my thoughts as to why I'm considering this as a replacement for my Panasonic GH4 in 2016, and maybe why you should be considering this camera too.
Sony A7s II
When I got my Panasonic GH4 in 2014, I considered 3 cameras, each with its own special 'party trick':  The first generation Sony A7s with it's legendary low light sensor; the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 5-Axis Image Stabilization, and the Panasonic GH4 with internal 4k recording.  The Sony A7s Mark II combines all these 'party tricks' into one camera.
  • 5-Axis Image Stabilization
  • Low Light Sensor
  • Internal 4k Recording
For a fast and light, run and gun, adventure/travel type photographer/filmmaker, these features are killer.

5-Axis Image Stabilization
I would put this feature at the top of the list.  It's the only feature I miss, moving from my Olympus OMD EM5 to the Panasonic GH4.  While it's useful for still photographers, it's simply incredible for videographers.  It's almost like having a gimbal/steadicam built into the camera.  Technologically, it's quite a feat that Sony has been able to stabilize a sensor 4 times the size of the M4/3 sensor like the OMD EM1.

With a little stabilization with software in post-production, this would look very solid

Low Light Sensor
Low light shooting on the A7s is a different league and opens up new shooting possibilities (I'm thinking pre-dawn alpine starts).  The A7s sensor also has more dynamic range than the GH4, and the new A7sII should be the same or even better.  Higher dynamic range will allow more flexibility in post processing, both for still images in for video.  The A7sII has a full frame sensor, which will give me more options with depth of field.

Check out the low light capability of the A7sii in this video from Sony

Internal 4k Recording
While the original A7s had the ability to shoot in 4k, it could not record this internally.  The new A7sII adds internal recording capability, which keeps the 4k setup compact, lightweight and simple.  This was the one killer feature the GH4 had over the original A7s.

Other A7sII Benefits over the GH4
USB Charging
One advantage the A7sII has over my GH4 is that the batteries can be recharged in camera by USB from an external battery, saving the need to carry a charger and cable.  It also makes it easier to possible to recharge in the field using a simple external battery like the Anker that I usually carry to recharge my iPhone and Gopro.  The A7sII battery doesn't last as long as the GH4, but they are also about half the size and weight, so I think that's a wash.

'Always On' Depth of Field Preview
One of the least used buttons on cameras is the Depth-Of-Field Preview button.  Cameras normally keep the lens apertures stopped wide open to allow the maximum amount of light in for a bright viewfinder and make it easier to manual focus.  When you press the Depth of Field Preview button, the lens is stopped down to the selected aperture, the image gets darker, and shows you what is acceptably sharp or blurred.  The A7s II can be selected to have the Depth of Field Preview 'always on', which means as you change the aperture, you can view the resulting depth of field changes 'live' on the LCD or EVF.  

Ability to Transfer RAW Images Wirelessly to iPhone
I shoot RAW still images.  It's nice to be able to grab a RAW shot off your camera, then send it wirelessly to your smartphone where you can do some basic editing, then upload it to social media.  The A7sII can do this with RAW files by converting them on the fly to JPEG images, which it then sends to your IOS or Android device.  If I wanted to do this on my GH4, I would need to shoot 2 copies on the camera, use the JPEG files to transfer to my iPhone, then come back home and delete all the JPEG files that I didn't need in the first place. 

Useable Continuous Autofocus in Video Mode?
Technically, the GH4 can rack focus by touching the screen.  Practically, I have not been very successful with this and tend to use manual focus.  Continuous AF in the A7sII video mode looks very useable in the following video clip.

No details on how the AF works for video, but this looks very useable

A7s II, which has a Full Frame sensor, comes with some downsides when compared to a Micro Four Thirds camera like the GH4.
  • Weight
  • Cost
The A7s body and lenses, while lighter than comparable full frame equivalents from Nikon and Canon, are significantly heavier than the Panasonic GH4 kit that I'm presently using. The A7sII body weighs 584g. 480g for the GH4.  To replace the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 Lens(300g) I'm currently using, I'll need the Sony 16-35mm F/4 Lens (518g).  Some increase in weight is to be expected, stepping up from M4/3 to Full Frame.  Sitting here at my desk, it's hard to imagine what an increase in load will feel like on my shoulders and back 3 days into a multi-day adventure, but I can tell you I won't like it.  As a side note, the A7sII battery doesn't last as long as the GH4, but they are also about half the size and weight, so I think that's a wash, weight wise.

You get what you pay for.  If you are coming from a Full Frame camera, the A7s II may be reasonable, or even cheap.  Coming from a Micro Four Thirds camera, I find the camera and lenses expensive.  Again, you get what you pay for, as it's a step up from M4/3 to Full Frame, just something you should factor into your considerations.

Final Thoughts
The Panasonic GH4 is the best handling camera I've ever used.  It is a great balance between image quality for its size and weight.  I've used it in wet/humid, dry/dusty conditions, and it has not failed me yet.  But it's not particularly great in low light, nor does it have 5-Axis Image Stabilisation.  Ultimately, my decision to switch will rest on what Panasonic comes out with the GH5.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tools for Bike Travel

I travel often with my bike, and I can't travel with all my tools when I fly with my bike.  To save weight, I bring a minimum of tools, which I keep in a little travel tool box.  These are an addition to the typical bike tools that you should always have with you, like a bike multitool, pump and tire levers.  These are the tools I may use to assemble my bike at the destination, then they stay behind with my bike box or in the car.  Here are some tools you should consider bringing with you when you travel with your bike.

Ritchey 6-Bit Bicycle Torque Key
1. Ritchey 6-Bit Bicycle Torque Key
Carbon parts and titanium bolts require some care to fit.  Both over and under torquing the bolts could affect the ride, and shorten the life of the parts.  I love the Ritchey 6-Bit Bicycle Torque Key as it's compact and lightweight, and really fast to get bolts on and off with the 'spinner'.  I use the 5Nm preset mainly for my stem faceplate bolts, but I think it's also a good 'general' use torque, and better than my 'feel'.

Topeak D2 Smartgauge

2. Topeak D2 SmartGauge
Getting consistent tire and shock pressures is one key to riding better.  I use a floor pump at home, but I don't bring that when I travel.  This gauge can check tires, front and rear shock pressures.  I do bring a travel tire and shock pump, but I can use whatever pump is available to me, and still maintain consistent pressures.

3. Park Tool HR-8 Hex Wrench (8mm)
It's easy enough to get a pedal on with a bike specific multi-tool, but after a long ride, it can be tough getting the pedal off if you cannot apply enough torque.  One solution is to throw a long-armed 8mm allen key into the travel kit.  I use mine to get the pedals on, and it stays with my bike box until I return to take the pedals off.

Leatherman New Wave

4. Leatherman New Wave Multitool
A bike specific multi-tool comes along with me on every ride, but a general purpose one, like the Leatherman Wave pictured above, can be a useful addition to the travel kit.  I use a tool like this to cut up and pull out the staples on cardboard bike boxes, slice fruit and duct tape. The little screwdriver can be useful for sunglasses, the file used to deburr sharp edges after a crash, and the pliers useful for taking apart power links. I've heard of the saw being used to cut up some wood to rig up a chain guide for a single speed conversion when the derailleur broke.  It's mainly a basecamp/hut/car tool as it's too heavy to take along most rides, but I sometimes carry a smaller/lighter tool on epic rides.

5. Old Inner Tube
If you have an old inner tube that is no longer useable as a spare, throw that in with your travel kit.  They can be cut up to use as shields or shims to protect your frame, rubber bands, GPS retainers.  I have also seen them used with tent pegs as a splint for a broken frame.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Bali Rides Again

Destination: Bali, Indonesia
Activity: Mountain Biking
Season: Mid-June through Mid-September
Operator: Guided, with
Cost: Low to Moderate

Back again to Bali for some mountain biking.  I'd been cooped up for the past few weeks video editing at my computer and needed to kick start my training and get some biking in. A change of scenery is great motivation, so I contacted Ramang Kristian of Bali Rides to see if he could fit me in for a multi-day ride.

Mt. Abang to Telaga Waja River Ride.  Photo by Bali Rides/Ramang Kristian

Ramang arranged 6 days of riding for me.  3 days on, a day rest, followed by another 3 days of riding.  It was a no-hassle trip.  Bali Rides arranged everything from the airport pick-up and drop-off, all meals and accommodation.  Bali Rides' airconditioned rooms were all full, so I stayed in the non-airconditioned bamboo hut - Simple, rustic and comfortable, although a little noisy in the early morning.  One balinese massage was also included in my package.

Bamboo Hut at Bali Rides B&B

Each ride was about 42km, and mostly downhill, but had an average of 550m of total climbing.  Technical difficulty ranged from the easy, but scenic Ubud loop, to intermediate trails like the Abang to Mengwi trail, easily the best ride in Bali with small techy drops, swooping singletrack, and breathtaking views.

Riding the beginner Ubud Loop trail through rice padi fields and coconut trees.  Photo by Bali Rides/Ramang Kristian.

Costs are low to moderate, depending on where you come from.  A day ride will cost IDR1.1 million (USD$78, SGD$110), which includes the guided ride,  hotel pickup and dropoff, lunch and snack, and full-suspension bike rental (Specialized carbon Epic 29ers or carbon Stumpjumpers - really good rental bikes!).  Multiday rides are all custom arranged.  Contact for a quote.

I just wanted to ride, so I didn't shoot any photos or video this trip.  But here's a video from my first trip with Bali Rides.  The riding is pretty typical, but we chose to stay at different hotels to get to see more of Bali:

Bali Rides from Kenneth Koh on Vimeo.