Adventure Nomad

Adventure Nomad

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.
Password to view: 'nomad'

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.