Obsessive attention to image quality, coolest gear on Earth, relation to time, Swagmiliation (yup, you read that right) and Storytelling make this impossible dream worth pursuing.
Since the X1D has been in my bag, rumour websites, review videos, product announcements have left me stone cold. And that’s not confirmation bias. That camera was designed with a persona in mind that corresponds 100% to me.
And while it’s scary to imagine there are others out there with similar obsessions and pet peeves, owning gear that addresses all of them brings peace to the restless mind and to the pierced wallet.
But anyone who’s tried meditating knows that the mind resists it. At least the lizard and homo consommerus parts of the brain do. So much for dodging GAS attacks ’til the end of time … and enter video! Oh dear … 😉
Having repeatedly, for years, ranted against the pollution of photographic cameras by video features, I now feel somewhat under scrutiny by my readers, as if back in the school principal’s office after pulling one too many jokes … 😉
Unfortunately for you, there’s a fair chance you’ll share my – largely virtual – infatuation by the end of this post. Because it turns out real video is beyond cool.
And this coolness stems from a passion for great image quality, a richness of technique that boggles the mind, utter devotion to storytelling, a fascinating relationship with time and with audio, sublime gear, and – well – the thrill of a challenge. Where do I even begin?
Unlike photography, formats, frame rates and resolutions are standardized in the video/movie industry. So there’s no race for more pixels, more ISO, more fps, more anything beyond the sheer enjoyment of new opportunities and the impact on image quality.
The pace at which a leading manufacturer such as ARRI adopts larger sensors and higher resolutions can give IT services in charge of moving away from COBOL a run for their money. Parasite (a masterpiece in composition, lighting, colour, and storytelling) was filmed in 4K. Many (most ?) other superproductions before are not even that fancy (Star Wars 2, filmed with a 9 mm sensor, anyone?) While phones boast 8k (with predictably uncharitable results) to lure the unaware, most of Hollywood sits quite happily at the lower end of the resolution scale. And lenses that sell for 30 000 euros have lower MTF curves than your average 100 dollar kit lens. AF? Nope. As one operator puts it “AF hasn’t read the script. It doesn’t know where to focus”.
The emphasis, instead, is on dynamic range – high end cameras offer close to 17 stops of it – and bit depth. And a cheap BlackMagic 4k camera, with its M43 sensor, wipes the floor with a very famous full-frame low-light monster costing 4 times the price, which will remain nameless for my security, in terms of colour fidelity and dynamic range. Video cameras do far less, far better.
Control is the master word, on set. Total, absolute, control of highlights. Total, absolute, control of rendering. Total, absolute, control of unwanted aberrations. And aesthetics play a major role in the final gear decisions because of how they relate to storytelling.
Before starting a production, the director and the photography team will often rent various cameras and various sets of lenses (from Zeiss, ARRI, Cooke, Fujinon, Leitz, Canon, and others) to determine which combination provides the look that best serves the story. It’s a wonderful approach and I think there’s a lot we photographers can learn from that.
And the same goes for post-processing. First, getting it right, in camera, is essential. PP is here to augment a look, not to compensate for sloppy camera work. Second, lighting, apertures, speeds, focal length, framing, audio, processing, editing all work as a continuous chain to produce the desired feel. How refreshing is that, compared to our quantitative deviant mentality?
Now, we try to tell stories with our photographs. Street photography is nothing if not storytelling. Portrait and studio photography can also lean that way. But video, just like the Rolling Stones, can say “Time is on my side”: 30 second adverts, shorts, documentary, feature films, all have storytelling at their core. There is always the unfathomable experimental film outlier, that gets all the prestigious awards and makes me think I’m mentally slow, but everything else is storytelling-centric.
So much so that every single course on framing, lighting, processing, editing, writing, … is based on storytelling. The film industry recognizes that the human brain is geared to understand the world exclusively through stories, and I personally find that fascinating. It’s pretty obvious for entertainment movies. But even documentary is story. Werner Herzog explains that facts aren’t truth and that, rather than a fly on the wall, the documentary filmmaker must be the hornet that stings to get stories in motion.
Oh, and did I mention audio? For some types of filmmaking, documentary, in particular, audio is possibly more important to the storytelling than the images … To anyone passionate about photo, storytelling and audio, the pull is a hard one to resist!
DJI Osmo Pocket 2. A tiny little gadget combining a gimbal, a camera, a screen, a wireless mike, a phone app and very decent image quality for 350 bucks. How cool is that?
An iPhone 12 Pro Max with a Moment anamorphic lens and proper processing puts 2.35:1 Hollywood in your pocket for 1500$.
I dare not mention drones, because they are such a disturbance to people seeking peace, to birds, to small animals. But, in the right environment, they open up so much creative potential. And fun.
Then, there’s the big boys. The senior league of ARRI and RED. Most of those cameras are priced beyond the reach of most mortals. It’s easy to spend 30 000 dollars on a camera, then have to dish out (at least) as much again to equip it with the minimum to get it working in real life. A memory card costs more than a high end mirrorless camera, in those climes. This is a whole other world of financial pain.
But not all of them sit so high in the dinero food chain.
Cue the RED Komodo. Yes, 6 grand and you’ll need at least two more to make it fully functional. So, not exactly cheap. But vastly more affordable than the others in the stable and vastly more desirable than hybrid cameras. There’s something utterly enjoyable in purpose designed tools, isn’t there?
In fact, I want one, so bad. When I was 12, the walk into town took me past a photo shop that did printing and sold a few cameras. In the window sat an Olympus OM-2 that made me stop and look and pine, every single time. There was no way I could afford it, but my desire for it eventually landed a much cheaper Mamiya in my lap and started a life long passion. Never since then have I been so drawn to a piece of kit as by that Komodo.
It’s a 4 inch cube, with a screen on the top, a lens on the front and batteries on the bum. If your knees have ever trembled at the sight of a Hasselblad 500 series, you’ll immediately know what feelings the the Komodo evokes. The little RED is a crash camera, used in stunts and situations that do not guarantee the survival of the filming gear. Often quite the opposite. Cheaper, simpler, sturdier. Perfect.
And it’s a serious tool, perfect for documentary. 6K allows you to crop in without having to change lenses. Exposure is … something else. ISO only regulates where medium grey lands. Shutter speed and aperture determine how much light reaches the sensor and this is represented not just by a histogram (judged very insufficient by users) but also by charts indicating how much of each colour channel is completely dark or blow out. All this with 16 stops of dynamic range. Simply brilliant. Add colour science to at least match Hasselbald’s and it all becomes quite irresistible.
The joy doesn’t end there. The Komodo uses a global shutter sensor. Meaning that, if you don’t want to use a gimbal, footage can be stabilized very efficiently in post (because everything is straight and just needs a bit of realigning). A global shutter is ideal for moving footage, but is usually restricted in dynamic range. The wizards at RED have pulled 16 stops out of this APS-ish shutter, 2 more than my already spectacular X1D.
And RED cameras and Leica glass seem to get along really well! So the prospect of using Mandler designed jewels on this signal management beast is enough to keep me up at night.
To top it off, you can attach anything to the body. As a phone, for instance, using the brilliant app to pilot the camera and use as external EVF. It’s as if RED read my mind (aliterate that). Someone at RED HQ said: “That French guy with grey hair is always moaning about cameras. Make something to shut him up”. They did. I’m shutting up, and moving on 😉 (and saving my pennies)
That’s latin for Video inverts Time. The intellectual challenge is fascinating.
In photography, we usually aim to prevent blur through short exposures. Or compress time through long ones. Video does neither. Cinematic look comes from slow frame rates (24 fps) and long exposures (typically half the max possible frame exposure, hence 1/48th) that blur each frame to ensure smooth transitions. While most photographers will shoot in Aperture-priority to control depth of field, video essentially is a Speed-priority technology. Or, rather, a constrained speed technology.
While, at the same time, it enjoys the luxury of near endless time to tell a story, when we togs must evoke as much as possible from a single frame. You have no time and I have no competence to go into the consequences of this dual inverted relationship to time on framing, panning, tilting, pushing in or pulling out … but it is a mind-blowing new world to understand, for me.
Which brings me to my conclusion. It’s all very easy to close my eyes, hand my dream credit card to the smily sales person and swagger with my flashy new RED camera and Mandler glass.
Making a video is far more complicated. In fact, I told myself to get out and shoot and to buy the Komodo without a second thought the minute gear becomes the limiting factor. I use a Galaxy S9 for that experiment, footage quality is beyond atrocious, but the content itself is far, far worse still. I feel like that 12 year old with his Mamiya and no idea what to do with it, all over again. It’s all very humbling. Humiliating even. Hence the swagmiliation conflict. And I’m loving every second of it.
And I will persevere as, to my naive mind at least, video would complement my photography perfectly. As much as I enjoy running and gunning the Hassy in the most literal sense of the word (I do run 90% of the time I’m making photographs, and just grab whatever comes along), the prospect of sitting down with a pen, crafting an idea, crafting images, crafting sound and crafting a story in editing, just sounds like a desert island pursuit to me. One of those abstract ideals you learn to master in only 25 years and can then die happy. Watch this space.
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