Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Is that a DSLR? You must be taking photos then??

Typical scenario. I have my Canon 600 DSLR setup on a tripod and I'm filming an event. I always get some "expert" coming up to me to say something like "taking photos are you?" or "are you a photographer?" and I always end up explaining (in the nicest way possible) that I'm shooting video. Yes, I know DSLRs were designed primarily for the taking of still images but I just find it so annoying when people can't get their head round their use for video. I do have a dedicated video camera (Panasonic 151) but for certain situations I prefer to use my DSLR to get that particular look.  

I'm in the process of turning my DSLR into a movie camera. I'm doing this for two reasons. Number one, to add a greater level of control so the DSLR becomes a better video camera and Number two, so people know I'm shooting video! They see the DSLR body by itself with a little prime lens and they assume you're a photographer. But, if they see a shoulder rig, big lens, matte box, follow focus, viewfinder, HDMI monitor and a microphone then they'll be more inclined to think you're shooting video. I recently purchased a shoulder rig kit for my DSLR and it came with a follow focus and matte box. The matte box is kind of cheap but it really transforms the look of your DSLR. Once my DSLR movie rig is complete, I'll post some photos to this blog. Ironically, I'll have to take them photos with my phone...

Sunday, 27 October 2013

DSLR movie making tips

More and more people are now using DSLR cameras to shoot their movies on. However, for the serious filmmaker you need to know how to get the best quality footage off your DSLR. That means ignoring automatic mode and getting used to all the manual controls for aperture, ISO etc. Most of the tips in this article are common knowledge but hopefully it'll be useful for some people. 

Start by setting your DSLR (A Canon 600d in my case) to automatic mode. Simply press the menu button while in movie mode and it's the first option "Movie exposure". Set this to Manual and you're done. At the bottom of this menu, there's something called "Highlight tone priority". Disable this then go to the next page in the menu. Set the Movie rec. size to 1920x1080 and if you're camera is set to PAL you can choose to shoot in either 24fps or 25fps. Personally, I shoot all my footage at 25 frames per second.

Next up is exposure. You can check for correct exposure by hitting the Av +/- button and a meter will pop up. Press the * button and a little tab will appear on the meter and you need to get this tab in the middle between the 1s for correct exposure. You can adjust exposure through the ISO, aperture and shutter controls. The dial on the top of the camera controls the shutter. Ideally, you should leave this set to 50 but in certain situations you might want a fast shutter so you can capture fast motion with more detail. Slow shutter = more motion blur. Fast shutter = less motion blur. 

Holding down the Av +/- button while moving the dial will adjust the aperture. A wide aperture (such as 1.8) will give you very shallow depth of field which will make it harder to focus but you get a very cinematic blurred background so your subject stands out more. A tighter aperture will provide a greater depth of field meaning more of the scene will be in focus. A tight aperture will make it easier to focus but it will require more light in the scene. You need to decide what's important for a particular shot(depth of field, motion blur etc) so plan beforehand.

The last setting which controls exposure is ISO. Press the ISO button and make sure it's not set to AUTO. The ISO on a DSLR is similar to the gain on a video camera. With a high ISO you get more exposure but it also introduces more visual noise on your footage. You shouldn't rely on high ISOs as an alternative to lighting your scene properly. On the preview LCD screen, your footage might look okay but when you play it back at full resolution on your PC, you'll see a lot of noise and this doesn't look very professional. It's generally recommended to set the ISO to a multiple of 160. On the Canon 600 however the ISO options are 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400. Personally, I wouldn't go higher than 400 and 800 would be my absolute maximum. However, for outdoor night shots you might have to bump the ISO up to 1600 and beyond. If you're shooting indoors, always light your scene properly.

Focus is something that you have to get used to when using a DSLR. On most DSLRs, autofocus is useless on video mode during recording. Set your lens to MF for manual focus. You can then twist the lens and focus on certain parts of the scene. There's also a focus check button on the back of the camera represented by a magnifying glass and + icon. You press this once to expand the frame by x5 and then again for x10. Pressing it for a third time will take you back to normal view. This is very useful as you can "zoom" in to part of the scene and get a nice sharp focus. 

Last of all, you may want to invest in some accessories to make your DSLR more practical for video work. Get a decent tripod with a quick release plate so you can quickly go from static to handheld. The Konig Kn-tripod is a decent affordable tripod which I recommend. For handheld camera work, look into buying a shoulder rig so you can get steady shots. Finally, the standard kit lens isn't that good so buy some prime lenses. The Canon 1.8 50mm lens is a good quality and affordable prime lens. Most beginners buy this lens before investing in more expensive lenses. If you're serious about film making, be prepared to spend hundreds of pounds (or dollars) on lenses.     


Saturday, 27 April 2013

Video shoot for Vodafone awards

On Thursday I got a call asking me if I could film an event on Friday. This was perfect timing because I had everything I needed whereas 1 month ago I would have had to borrow a camera. So Friday came and I packed up my camera and tripod then drove to the hotel where the event was held. The journey took me through the Peak District and the scenery was amazing. My sat nav got me there no problem and my contact there then briefed me about what they wanted. The event started at 7:00PM I got a lot of footage of guests arriving and mingling. They then entered the hall and sat down at their tables so I filmed a lot of this as well. The theme was Mardi Gras complete with Samba Girls and a band. My goal was to get a lot of footage and I filled up half of a 32 gig card (About 100 minutes).

I was using my recently purchased Panasonic HMC-151 video camera. I was a bit apprehensive about the quality of footage because cameras in this price range struggle with low light. You can't really judge how much visual noise there is in footage on the small LCD screen. I was filming at maximum quality (1080/50i) with 1/50 shutter speed and I decided to leave the Iris and Focus on auto. I didn't dare use gain because this would have introduced visual noise for certain. I just hit record and hoped for the best. They only wanted visuals so I didn't have to worry about sound at all. I kept bringing up the waveform monitor to check exposure and inevitably parts of the image were underexposed but most of the light was being directed to the stage which was the priority anyway. I had zebra stripes activated as well so I could check for overexposure. Certain parts were overexposed (such as light sources and white shirts) but overall I maintained correct exposure.

I got home at about 1:30 in the morning and connected the camera up to my plasma TV to check through the footage. It was a lot better than I expected and I breathed a sigh of relief. Couldn't see any visual noise but this TV does have pretty good noise reduction. I then transferred the footage to my laptop and played it back on there. The footage still looked great and there was visual noise but only in dark underexposed areas. Overall, I was content with what I had shot and packed everything up so I could finally get some much needed sleep. I'm so glad I bought this camera now and that night was the first time I used it properly. It definitely passed the test and I'm sure I'll still be using it in a few years time.     

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Panasonic AG-HMC151

Well I finally did it and got a proper video camera. The Panasonic AG-HMC151 is a full HD solid state video camera and I chose this one because I've used it throughout my time at university. The HMC151 is a few years old but the build quality and the image quality is great. The camera has three CCD sensors instead of a CMOS chip which is what my DSLR uses. The DSLR has a few problems that are not present in video cameras like this one. I realised that I needed a proper video camera to do certain projects. For a start, the weight and size of the video camera means it's easy to keep steady handheld. Handheld DSLR footage is atrocious sometimes and this problem forced me to use a tripod when making films. Also, the shallow depth of field capability found in the DSLR is good for cinematic shots but keeping a moving subject in focus is hard work.

The HMC151 pretty much stays in focus all of the time because of the greater depth of field and auto focus feature. Yeah, the Canon 600d does have auto focus but it's useless for video. I still love my Canon 600d to pieces though and I'll continue to use it for making films because the image quality is fantastic. Thing is, the Canon DSLR's data rate is 42mbps but this Panasonic camera is only 24mbps. This is almost half but it doesn't bother me because the pros outweigh the cons in my opinion. With the Panasonic 151 you get 13x optical zoom, dual XLR input for audio, manual control (no navigating through menus), HDMI output, half a dozen HD formats, zebra pattern and waveform monitor (for checking exposure). I have the zebra pattern feature in my little Panasonic video camera and it's a feature that I found very useful. Unfortunately, my DSLR doesn't have this feature and I struggled for awhile with exposure. 

I've done a few tests with the camera already and overall the footage is good. Getting this camera once again reminded me of the importance of having well lit scenes and subjects. With dull afternoon light coming through a curtain, my footage looked flat and average but when I attached my LED light, the camera was able to capture a lot more detail. I'm definitely going to have to invest in some proper lights for future projects. University has taught me a lot but the most important lesson learnt is about lighting. A lot of amateur productions overlook this and suffer in quality as a result. Anyway I'm digressing now so back to the camera.

I've tried mixing footage from this camera with footage from my DSLR (which is currently having a new LCD screen fitted). As I suspected, it's very hard to make a seamless transition between each shot because to the trained eye the differences are blatant. Footage from my DSLR is softer with certain parts of the shot out of focus (shallow depth of field etc) but footage from the Panasonic is sharp and not just the subject but the whole scene including the background. This is the most obvious difference but the colours and contrast (which can be adjusted in software anyway) are also different. Data rate (as previously mentioned) is also different with the Panasonic having half as many megabytes per second than the DSLR. 

Despite these differences, I'm confident that I can use footage from both in the same projects. I'm tempted to label the Panasonic my A camera and the Canon DSLR my B camera but for different reasons those labels should be swapped. I would definitely favour the Pansonic for moving shots where there's a lot going on and I need the greater depth of field. Conversely, the Canon DSLR would be better for close ups where the shallow depth of field is needed to blur the background for cinematic effect. Chances are, I will end up doing whole projects with just the Panasonic in the same way that I have done whole projects with just the DSLR.           

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Film shoot with Canon EOS-1D C camera

Today I helped out on a film which was shot on Canon's top of the line DSLR, the EOS-1D C. This is a serious camera and they were using thousands of pounds worth of equipment. The hire package featured several different prime lenses including 100mm, 50mm and 35mm. There was also a matte box, follow focus, shoulder rig, external monitor and viewfinder. It also came with 128gb compact flash cards and I've just googled them and they cost something ridiculous like £500+ each. 

The hire package cost was about £700 for the week, quite a lot of money. And here's me using a £400 consumer DSLR with £80 lens. This doesn't bother me however because I stand by what I always say. You can still create a brilliant movie with inexpensive equipment. All you need is a great idea and determination. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

New Phone

This post has nothing to do with film but it's sort of related. I realised 2 months ago that my humble Samsung d500 was outdated and I just could not keep up with the modern world. I needed a phone with more connection ability. So, I decided to upgrade and it was a very big jump. I had my Samsung d500 for 7 years and I noticed an advert for the Samsung Galaxy Ace smartphone in the newspaper. So, I got myself down to the phone shop and bought a Samsung Galaxy Ace on contract. 

I like the phone, especially the touch screen and virtual keyboard. The best part is being able to connect to the internet easily. My previous phone could browse the internet but it was slower than dial-up and cost me a lot of credit. It's also very handy being able to connect to the internet wherever and whenever. The video camera is nothing special (not even HD) but I don't plan on using it much so that's alright. I have problems with the signal sometimes so really that's the only negative point I've got. Overall I'm happy with it (9/10). Chances are, I'll still be using this phone in another 7 years.

How to make professional looking films?

Like many filmmakers, I started out by teaching myself and learning from my mistakes. I would often attempt to replicate what I saw in movies and this taught me a lot of what I know. I have a degree in Film Production Technology and since I started that course my filmmaking became more serious. I want to share some tips to help other aspiring filmmakers. Hopefully this will be useful and might benefit those who are starting out.  

I always pay very close attention to the audio in my films and I put an equal amount of effort into it as I do with visuals. Try turning the volume down next time you watch a film. Sure, the cinematography might be stunning but without sound you've only got half a film. You want to ensure your dialogue is crisp and can be heard clearly over the soundtrack and sound effects. By using an external microphone, you get more control over sound acquisition than your camera's built in microphone. However, not all cameras have microphone ports. I use a Marantz pmd660 to record my sound and it works great. I need an extra crew member to operate it on set but it's worth it in the end. Next time you make a film, try spending more time on sound design and you'll be glad you did. 

In film, photography, painting etc there's something known as the "rule of thirds". Just divide your scene into 9 equal blocks and position your actors on the vertical lines. This creates a visually pleasing shot and I was surprised at how effective this technique was. I don't know exactly what it is but it makes your film look a lot better. Every feature film I've seen does this. You don't have to do it for every single shot but it's good to have a few where your actor isn't dead centre. Check out the Wikipedia article here to learn more about the rule of thirds. Also, try and use a variety of Close Up, Medium and Long Shots because sticking to one shot type is boring.  

If you don't have a tripod then buy one now. Every film maker needs a tripod because it will help you a lot. Handheld shots are good for certain scenes like if you're conveying a sense of disorientation but an audience doesn't want to sit through an hour of shaky footage that will make them sick. A tripod also lets you pan the camera smoothly and can make a scene seem more interesting. Have a balance of static, moving and handheld shots in your film and it'll look great. Buy a tripod from Amazon and don't worry about it fitting your camera because they're universal. If you're filming with a mobile phone then don't. Buy yourself a camera because you can't attach a phone to a tripod. (Just googled "mobile phone" tripods and they actually exist. I've seen it all now)     

Light is very important because without it your movie will be a black screen. Outside during the day is perfect for filming because the sun is the best light source out there and it's free. However, if you're filming in your mom's basement you're gonna need some artificial lights. Most standard light bulbs won't do because they're not powerful enough. You can buy special light bulbs that are more intense but I prefer using  LED light panels because they're cheap, bright, use very little power and can be mounted on tripods. 

There's something that your camera probably has which you should never use and that's artificial gain. If you increase gain, your image becomes brighter but it also adds a lot of visual noise. This may look okay on your camera's small LCD screen but when you play it back on your computer or TV you'll realise too late how crap the image looks. Your camera has an aperture that restricts how much light enters it. Obviously, when there's too much light (like outside in daylight) you'll want to reduce the amount of light that enters the camera. If you're indoors, set the aperture to as wide as possible and increase the light in the room without touching that gain button. Make sure your shutter is set to at least 1/50 because if you decrease it further then you're going to be getting a lot more motion blur. 

Many cameras these days have 25p (or 24p if you're in the USA) which offers "cinema" like video. If your camera has this option then use it if you want that film look. Also, shoot in high definition because your footage will obviously look better. Many filmmakers are using DSLRs to make movies these days because they're cheap, have large sensors and can accept a wide variety of different lenses. I use a Canon 600 DSLR which is a consumer camera but it's great because of its ability to use all those Canon lenses on the market. The lenses are expensive but they will greatly improve the quality of your footage. 

Before you even start filming your production you must complete the pre-production stage. Plan every aspect of your film beforehand so you know exactly what you want. Obviously you'll have to write a script or at least some sort of guide (if you want your actors to improvise) but it's also worth making a storyboard. If you can't draw that well then just do it on a computer. There's plenty of storyboard software on the web which will make storyboarding fast and easy. Last of all, compile a shot list and shooting schedule for effective time management.    

After you get your footage it's time to put it all together. I'm not going to say one editing application is better than another but you're going to need something a bit more advanced than Windows Movie Maker. Movie Maker is good if you're starting out but it's limited in what it can achieve. I personally use Adobe Premiere Pro and that provides everything I need for editing. When I film on my DSLR, I tone down all the settings so I get as flat an image as possible. This allows more scope for colour grading in post production so I can shift contrast and adjust whites and blacks more. Pay close attention to the pace of you film as well. Think about the sort of mood you're trying to convey. Action sequences should be fast with a lot of cuts while a slow pace with very few cuts will build up suspense.  

That's probably the best advice I can give. Everyone has to start somewhere but if you're dedicated enough then eventually your films will look better. I look back at my old stuff and it makes me laugh and cringe but it all helped me get to where I am today. I'm still learning everyday though and my stuff is still far from perfect.