FOR ALL OF US WHO ARE projection designers, visualists, digital lighting designers, or multimedia artists, displaying images is the end result of our process, but display always has to be preceded by creation. We turn most often to the digital camera at this first point. Anything that can be accomplished in camera as opposed to “in post” is almost always easier and better for the end result. So our motto is, “When in doubt, whip it out.” The camera, that is.
We thought it might be useful to canvass the current camera landscape in both the still and video realms, making some observations along the way regarding what might interest the designer in need. First, let's talk about still cameras.
Power vs Portability
There are two fundamental types of digital cameras: small point and shoots, and larger SLR-styled digital heads able to utilize specialized lenses and accessories. The purpose of the point and shoot is flexibility and portability. Good point and shoots have decent resolution (basically picture size and quality), coupled with small form factor. These cameras are so useful to us as designers because they are always easy to pick up and take along for the ride. Targets of opportunity become reality. There's nothing like the fantastic images you find along the way to build a killer gallery to draw from in times of need.
The higher end (and higher priced) digital SLR are serious tools for serious shooting. The reason to have such a fine instrument is to fully utilize its flexibility in lensing. It would be entirely common to spend three times as much as the value of the camera on additional lenses. These camera bodies often are able to utilize the same SLR lens options available to their 35mm brethren. Their native picture taking resolution is always very high in quality. If you are shooting for a source that will end up on an 80' wide drop, this is what you want to be using. These cameras will have a much higher degree of user control over every discreet attribute as well, allowing you to be very precise in determining exposure, color quality, in addition to focus and depth of field.
Point and Shoot Picks
The Canon Powershot G3: This is the point and shoot we have, and we like it a lot. It has a robust feature set, ranging from panoramic presets, landscape, portrait, low light, and most usefully, total manual. The amount of control over exposure and F-stop is really deep for such a little camera. It also benefits from a large swing and tilt LCD screen on the back, allowing you to frame your shot even with the camera held far away from your body (reaching over a cliff for instance). The caveats with this camera are that it is chunky for a point and shoot (there are much slimmer cousins in this class), and its native resolution is now only 4 megapixels. Most cameras in its class have gone to a 5 megapixel standard, but most lack the depth of control this camera has. To sum up, the lower resolution is more than offset by its powerful features and zoom lens. [Editor's note: Canon has replaced the G3 with the G6.]
Also notable: For the ultimate in slim line stylishness, the Sony DSC-M1 Cyber-Shot offers a super sexy large LCD screen that deploys with a twist of the wrist. The camera is simple and quick. It's also able to do 30 second 640×480 video recording with stereo sound — that's crazy. The Sony has a very decent resolution and a moderate price tag at around $600.
Digital SLR Picks
The Canon D series: Canon's D series of Digital SLR — ranging from the Digital Rebel on up to EOS 1D Mark II — are very serious cameras, with serious accessories. The Mark II has the fastest continuous shooting frame rate of any digital camera. We have the middle of the line D20, and it rocks. It takes nice fat 8.5 megapixel shots and offers every control and attribute a professional photographer might hunger for. It has all of the reassuring weight of a 35mm head, and the camera sounds a pleasant “ca-chunk” as it opens and closes the virtual shutter. We bought an image stabilizing long zoom for distance shooting and several filters. We always keep a polarizer or clear filter attached to lenses to prevent any damage to the actual lens surfaces. We recommend this for any camera you have that accommodates filters. The camera takes wonderful low-light pictures, making it extremely useful for shooting shows. The feature we love most: Instant on — if you turn it on with the picture-taking button depressed it instantly starts snapping away.
Also notable: For the serious photographer who might already have an investment in Nikon glass, the Nikon D70 is a very intelligently designed and responsive DSLR. It shares much of the same control subtlety as the Canon, while taking very decent 6.5-megapixel pictures. It can reel off frames at a furious rate while continuously shooting.
Even though many of you in the non-design world already know this, we feel compelled to have a little discussion on format, because things are afoot in the world of digital video, specifically as it relates to how we might be using it in projection and multimedia. The most common form of consumer and prosumer digital format these days is DV. It comes in two flavors, Mini-DV and DVCam. The difference is basically in tape stock size, with DVCam equipment using a larger, hardier form of tape. DV cameras come in many stripes, some of them simple point and shoot, others being highly advanced tools for cinematographers.
Professional digital video cameras (in standard definition) break down into three basic categories these days. Digital Betacam, a Sony product, delivers stunning results at a price tag that makes it ludicrous to consider. Why? Well, as we will see momentarily, there are high-definition options that will blow its price out of the water. Then there is DVC-Pro. This is a Panasonic standard, and it is enormously popular with local broadcasters and news organizations. Thus it has a large and lively user base and wide availability. It's also more costly, but its compression is superior to “regular” DV, making it worth the premium. It also plays well with all major NLE software apps. Finally, there is professional level DV, which invariably uses the DVCam format discussed above but on professionally sized and optioned camera heads. This gives the user the option to utilize the larger world of prime lenses and camera support gear (think dollies and cranes — we love cranes) that go with the pro-sized camera heads.
The problem with almost all of the pro gear discussed above is that it has been equaled or superceded by the prosumer level of DV camera. Canon's XL-2 and Panasonic's AG-DVX100A are both solid tools that are commonly used in independent film and commercial production. We'll look closely at these two choices momentarily.
And finally, our point. The DV standard has been joined recently by HDV. HDV uses the same physical media as DV (mini DV tapes, or in some cases the larger DVCam), but it records an HD resolution signal to it. Real purists will register their complaints regarding its level of compression, but it still wipes the floor with anything in standard definition, and it's cheap: as low as $3,500. When you consider that any other HD camera is more or less $50,000 and up, this is mind blowing.
With the format discussion in behind us, let's talk about specific cameras.
Canon XL-2: The XL-2 is the current offering in a line of cameras that began with the enormously popular XL-1. This platform has come extremely far. Always attractive for its flexibility in changing lenses, the XL-2 now features native 16:9 aspect ratio chips. This is important for designers because the aperture is much more analogous to the average stage opening. How many shows do you do with a square portal? The XL-2 also has added amazing new cinema gamma and image control capability, making the image it captures rich and beautiful. Because of the platform's popularity, there is a huge aftermarket for accessories like special lenses, various mounting configurations including Steadicam rigs, as well as a wide presence in the rental market. We've used the XL a lot, and we love it. The Canon line also now features the GL-2, little brother to the XL, and an amazing camera in it's own right.
Panasonic AG-DVX100A: We work a lot with cruise industry clients. The stage shows we work on for them generally end up featuring a lot of preshot elements, plus we've found ourselves working on other media features for cruise ships that require shooting. Initially our favorite DP, Matt Skerritt, was using a large Sony Beta rig for all the shooting. With it came the extensive camera grip responsibilities that go with that size platform. But it had 16:9 chips, and it took good pictures. Then one day, Matt brought his AG-DVX100A along to get pickup footage. Lo and behold, the Panasonic was producing gorgeous, rich, beautiful pictures and at a price and size about a third as much as the big camera. And capturing via DV means we can edit in the field, something we can't do with Digibeta. Mmmm, good.
So, what about HDV? For now, there are two companies on the HDV landscape actually producing cameras you can buy: JVC and Sony. They are priced between $3,500 and $6,000.
JVC GR-HD1: The GR-HD1 was the first HDV camera out of the gate. It operates at an HD resolution known as 720p. This particular flavor of HDV is smaller in pixel resolution than the Sony offerings. There are reports from end users about some compression artifacting, but it seems to take place in traditionally tough shots, like quick horizontal moves, so this isn't unexpected. The picture (to us anyway) looks lovely, with pretty good color reproduction. Certainly better than most DV we've seen. The camera has only a low-resolution viewfinder, so focus can be difficult. The control accessibility isn't conducive to easy professional use either. But hey, you're shooting HD for God's sake, and it's only costing you $3,500. JVC also has begun showing a full sized, large chip/3 chip HDV camera that is totally professional in its capabilities, and ought to be for $20,000.
Sony has two offerings at the prosumer level that designers might find affordable. The HDR-FX1 is what Sony calls their consumer level model. This camera (and its more advanced sibling, the HVR-Z1U) utilizes a resolution known as 1080i, which has 1080 vertical scan lines, as opposed to the 720 in the JVC. The HVR-Z1U has many of the cinema gamma features and professional amenities that we discussed with the Canon XL2 and Panasonic AG-DVX100A. The HVR-Z1U is also format flexible, allowing you to record in HDV or DV in flavors including 60i, 50i, 30fps, 25p, and Sony's own version of 24p. These frame rate and format options mean good options for designers who want to have slowed or sped up footage, as well as obviating the need for a second DV camera for SD work. We like that. Not to mention it's a cool metallic blue color.
There's another factor coming into play in the design world due to this adoption of HDV. The projection manufacturers are following suit in finally rolling out affordable HD format projectors. More pixels=better quality. We like that, too.
Bob and Colleen Bonniol are the principal designers at Mode Studios in Seattle. For more information go to www.modestudios.com.
CAMERA TIPS & TRICKS
Tip 1: Turn off the @*%$*@#* Flash! Always set your camera to a manual exposure mode, and learn to use your exposure and light controls. Nothing can be more crucial to a good picture than proper, planned exposure and lighting (well okay, focus is pretty important too).
Tip 2: Speaking of focus, when focusing on an object at a middle distance, zoom all the way in, make sure your target is sharply in focus, then zoom out. This will ensure good sharp detail.
Tip 3: Get a good grip on what quality and file sizes your camera is generating. Wide open, uncompressed, RAW files shot by your camera will take an insane amount of space on your storage medium, as opposed to taking just one or two half-steps back. Understand when it's critical to get highest quality, as opposed to balancing that with quantity. If you're out of space on your memory sticks when the UFO arrives, then you are out of luck.
Tip 4: Speaking of memory sticks, we invested in a Belkin universal memory media reader that conveniently connects to any one of our iPods. This way we can offload the stick in an effort to make room for that UFO shot.
Finally, carry a camera with you or nearby, always. Take a lot of pictures with it. You'll build both your portfolio and your skills concurrently. One of the reasons digital rocks is that it costs nothing to take pictures after you buy the camera. So get out there and shoot.