Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I Bought a GH2(or a DSLR), Now What?

I have been actively participating in an open discussion forum about what gear to grab once acquiring a camera on the GH2 user group.  And there's actually a lot of great information on there.  The guy driving the thread is completely clueless and asking basic questions that most of us researched elsewhere to find.  And as a result, a lot of great information has been compiled into one place.  I feel this information ought to be woven together and presented in a straightforward way to be easier to read.  So I'll give my own interpretation of it here.

Ground Zero
You have learned that shooting video with large sensor picture cameras is in.  You want to jump on and run with the new breed of backyard cinematographers.  You crave the depth of field.  You drool over the low light capabilities.  You want the amazing image quality.  But more than likely you're from the old school of videomaking.  You are spoiled by autofocus, and just about auto everything.  And you will quickly learn that this camera is a CAMERA.  Your new EVIL (or a DSLR if that's what you have) is designed first and foremost to take still photographs.  Video is a feature on these machines.  And where I was at this stage, I had no clue about exposure, and lacked any sort of photographic background.  So first things first.  Treat your camera like what it is, a camera.  You need to learn how to take pictures.  Without this knowledge you are out of your league.  I suggest going to a local photography group and signing up for a workshop or taking some sort of beginners photography class.  What you really need to do is acquaint yourself with your camera and learn it inside and out.  I feel the most important thing to become aware of initially is exposure and how that works.

Exposure is a three tiered foundation of photography.  Without this knowledge you're blasting yourself in the foot.  You might as well send me the money you'll spend on your camera.
  1. Aperture - to me this is the key component.  This is what controls your depth of field.  The aperture is the opening of the iris of your lens.  This is the first portal for light to enter into your camera.  The wider your aperture, the more light enters your camera.  The smaller, the less light.  Yet aperture initially is tricky, it's numbered opposite what you would expect.  A wide aperture is a lower number, a small aperture is a higher number.  Let's say you have a 50mm 1.8 lens.  The first number is the focal length, which is indicated in millimeters (more on this later).  The second number indicates how fast your lens is, or the lowest possible aperture.  The faster your lens, the wider it opens, the more light it will let in to your camera.  This number determines two things:
    1. Low light capability
    2. Depth of field
      • Depth of field is how much of your frame is in focus.  Narrow or shallow depth of field means a small portion of the frame (hopefully your subject) is in focus and the rest is blurred out.  The wider your aperture, the more shallow your depth of field.  The smaller your aperture, the greater the depth of field.  This is akin to squinting to see things in the distance.  When you squint you are letting less light into your eyes and therefore make what you are seeing more sharp and in focus.
  2. Shutter Speed - This is indicative of the amount of light which enters the camera each second, as regulated by your shutter.  Shutter speed is, for the most part, measured in fractions of a second.  1/60 means your shutter is open for one sixtieth of a second.  The longer your shutter is open, the more light is allowed to hit the camera sensor.  The shorter it is open, the less light.  Fairly straight forward.  Now, what shutter speed regulates image wise is no longer depth of field, but blur.  We have all had experience with point and shoots at night time, the images tend to blur more easily.  The reason for this is that the shutter must remain open for a longer period of time to allow for a good exposure.  However, as the shutter remains open, the camera is recording information for this period.  Any movement will be picked up and thus creating blur in the image.  This same principle applies to video.  Video is nothing more than a sequence of consecutive images.  Therefore a longer shutter speed will create a blurry, almost dream like effect in your video.  A shorter shutter speed will do the opposite.  It will create choppy, crisp frames, creating an effect used in many war films like Saving Private Ryan.  As a general rule in video, your shutter speed needs to match your frame rate in order to create the best illusion for actual motion.  The rule is that the shutter speed is half your frame rate.  That means, if I am to shoot at 24 frames per second (or fps) then my shutter speed must be locked at 1/48th of a second.*  So it follows that if I shoot at 30fps or 60i my shutter speed is to be locked at 1/60, and if I am shooting at 60fps my shutter speed should be at 1/120.  When shooting video, shutter speed is the single aspect of exposure that has very little wiggle room.  Unless of course you want to create a certain visual effect such as more blur or choppy motion.
    • * On the GH2 you are unable to shoot at 1/48 shutter, the closest shutter speed is 1/50, so if you are to be shooting at 24fps, keep the shutter speed at 1/50 and you will be fine
  3. ISO - This is what I consider to be the last line of defense in exposure, and should be treated as such.  The reason being is that ISO is the rating of your camera sensor's sensitivity to light.  The lower the number, the less sensitive it is to light, the higher the number the more sensitive.  Meaning if I am shooting at 160 ISO less light will be picked up by my camera than if I were to shoot at 600.  Now, you may recognize a pattern developing that each factor of exposure affects a certain aspect of image quality.  And ISO affects the amount of grain in your shots.  Why?  Because at higher ISO's you are making your sensor strain to pick up light.  An easy thing to remember is: "The more strain the more grain."  Grain is also referred to as digital noise or artifacts.  Unless you have a software program to eliminate or reduce your grain, you're stuck with it.  Grain can make or break footage.  Extremely grainy footage is completely unusable, unless you make your images black and white, which doesn't eliminate it, but just hides it better.  Grain is bad.  Keep your ISO as low as you can when shooting.  Rely on it sparingly.  I generally don't shoot above 1600 ISO.  Even though the GH2 can shoot at 3200 unhacked and now at 12800 hacked, I still don't go above 1600 if I can help it.  It's just too much of a bother to deal with grainy footage.
Now that you have a better understanding of Exposure, start taking pictures with your camera.  Not video, pictures.  Take still images with it and familiarize yourself with the Exposure triad.  This will benefit you greatly in the long run.  Turn on your histogram and figure out how to use it.
  • To turn on the histogram go into the camera menu, look for the c with the wrench beside it (Custom).  "Histogram" is the third setting.  Set it to "ON" and keep it there.  I place mine at the top right hand corner of the LCD frame.  The histogram is a waveform that displays the light information in the scene.  On the right is your white, the left is black.  Expose your images so that the whites are touching the right, but not blown out.
  • Another great feature of the GH2 is the highlight peaking.  This allows you to tell what parts of your highlights are overexposed.  To turn this feature on, go down in the Custom menu and turn "Highlight" on.  Also, in Manual Movie Mode, enter the menu with the film camera icon.  This is the Motion Picture menu.  At the bottom of the third page there is the option to turn "Rec Highlight" on.  Turn that on as well.  Overexposed highlights will flash black.  Make sure only objects which are true white flash.  Or play it safe and avoid flashing.

Owning a great camera does not make you a great cameraman.  I'm sorry if this is new information.  You are not guaranteed to make great video content just because you have the best camera you can afford.  What you need to learn is what makes great shots, and that requires a study of shot composition.  Thousands of books have been written on this subject and so I'm not going to go into detail here.  I feel it's extremely important to have a good understanding of composition and why certain images have an appeal to you over others.  Aside from what you may believe or have heard, beauty is NOT in the eye of the beholder.  Beauty is a mathematical truth.  And there's a proportional formula which makes certain images awesome and others shit.  Luckily for us we don't need to figure this out because people before us already have AND have put it into our camera for us.
  • In the GH2 there is an option to turn on the rule of thirds guide lines.  Go into the same "Custom" menu (C with wrench).  "Guide line" is the fourth option down.  Select it and choose the grid just beneath "OFF."  Now when composing your shots, never place your subject in the middle of the frame.  Always frame your subject at the intersection points of the lines.  Like I said earlier, read up on composition and practice with it.
Gear Acquisition
You have your camera and are antsy to become a pro.  I had developed a sickness.  This sickness is the idea that if I have all the right gear then I will make awesome films.  This is a sickness, a mental disease that will run your pockets dry and have you purchasing unnecessary equipment.  Just because I look the part of a Hollywood cinematographer with a mattebox and a follow focus and a DSLR rig and a rail system... doesn't mean I can play the part.  It just means I have spent a lot of money and look like an idiot.  Most of the equipment out there isn't necessary to start shooting great video.  What's necessary is the know how of exposure and composition and a solid, bare bones no hassle equipment foundation.  There are certain things you need and things you can do without.  So I'm just going to cover what I need to shoot.  And that's what I regularly grab.  I made the mistake of doing too much at once, and as a result a lot of my gear is collecting dust.

I mean, this is why you got the camera in the first place, the perk of changing out your lenses.  Coming from a video background this was foreign territory.  I am used to everything in one package.  Which is why I feel many people making the jump to EVIL/DSLR video possess an everything now mentality.  Building up a solid lens collection will take time and money.  It doesn't happen over night.  As you learn lenses you develop preferences for image quality.  You'll find you gravitate more towards a certain focal length, desire certain apertures, want a particular bokeh (the blurred out portion of the shot).. etc.  The best advice I can give, is that if you are clueless at this point, just get a kit lens and start there.  You'll have a slow zoom, but it will give you an idea while you familiarize yourself with your camera of what you will want in the future.  Plus a zoom is more familiar to someone from a video background.

Surprise, lenses are expensive.  Get used to it.  This does not go away.  If you want a great lens you'll need a great deal of money.  You have invested your money, not necessarily into a camera, but into an interchangeable lens system.  It's all about glass, now.  But how awesome your lens is, again, won't make you an awesome cinematographer.  It's what you do with the lens that matters.  And there are ways of saving money on glass.  Read my post on buying vintage lenses.
  • Primes - Get them, love them, make them your friend.  It's time to move away from the old ways of shooting video and thinking like a videographer and enter the new land of shooting video like a cinematographer.  Primes are fixed focal length lenses.  Meaning your stuck at a certain distance.  Why is that awesome?  Because they are faster than zooms.
    • Focal length refers to the optical range of your frame.  A wide lens will have a smaller measurement, anywhere from 6-35mm.  This gives you what the name indicates: a wide field of view.  A standard focal length is anywhere around 40-60mm.  This provides a 'normal' field of view, meaning it recreates perspective closer to what our eyes see.  A telephoto lens is any focal length from 60mm and above and they magnify things in the distance, allowing you to get closer to your subject.
    • Crop factor refers to the affect of your camera's sensor on a lens' focal length.  This is important and should not be overlooked.  The GH2 has a crop factor of x2.  This means that a 14mm lens on the GH2 acts the same way a 28mm lens would on a full frame camera.  This is important to note when selecting lenses.  Always multiply by two.  Unless you have a DSLR with an APSC censor, then the crop factor is about 1.5x.
Research focal lengths and how it affects the look of your subject.  For portraits you want to use a short telephoto.  I advise getting a standard focal length prime first.  Then add a wide angle and telephoto.  Then experiment with different focal lengths to see which you prefer most.

Two things to keep in mind when selecting lenses are aperture speed and focus distance.  If you're crazy about shallow dof and love bokeh, you want to get as fast a lens as your money will allow.  Focus distance determines how close you can get to your subject and this is measured in meters.  If you enjoy getting close to your subjects, then get a lens that allows you to get under a meter.  Macro lenses are lenses which provide this, but there are non macro lenses that allow you to get about a foot away from your subject no problem.

A great way to learn what lens you want to use is to research that particular lens.  Watch test videos taken with it.  Pay attention to sharpness and clarity of images, color rendition and contrast.  Pick a lens that jumps out at you.  If that lens is out of your budget, start saving or look elsewhere.  Now, if a lens made for a different camera catches your fancy, you're going to need an adapter to mount it to your camera.
  • Adapters - Adapters are listed in certain ways: 'what lens this is' - to fit - 'what camera body I have'.  To fit my Minolta MC Rokkor 58mm on my camera I need an adapter that fits Minolta MC/MD lenses to my GH2.  The GH2 is a micro four thirds camera.  So what I need to look for is a Minolta MC/MD to MFT adapter.  Say I have a canon EOS lens.  I will need to find an EOS to M43 adapter.
I've found the most cost effective way to experiment with lenses is to purchase vintage glass from Ebay,, or even craigslist.  For just a couple hundred dollars you can build up a solid prime lens collection at varying focal lengths.  And, these lenses are still great lenses if you do proper research and buy smart.

Your on board camera mic sucks.  Even with an external mic attached, your audio will be sub par.  This camera is a picture camera and audio is not one of its strong points.  To solve this issue, you need to invest in a digital audio recorder.  I found a refurbished Tascam dr07mkii.  It has served me very well and haven't had a need to upgrade yet.

To get more range in recording I also picked up a shotgun microphone.  I picked up the Rode video mic.  Occasionally I'll attach this to my Tascam.  Often I am attaching it to my GH2 for secondary/backup sound recording.
  • To make your camera more like a video camera turn the audio monitor on.  Navigate through the Motion Picture menu to the bottom of the second page.  Turn Mic Level Disp. 'ON'.  I've found that the GH2 audio peaks easily.  So I also turn the sensitivity to the lowest possible level.  At the top of the third page is the 'Mic Level Adj.', turn this to level 1.
Camera Stabilization
You can forget about hand held shooting.  It doesn't happen any more.  Your camera is so small and is not outfitted with image stabilization, so it will pick up every shake of your hand.  Invest in a monopod immediately and make it your friend.  Either grab one with a fluid head or buy a $30 one and purchase a separate fluid head.  I am going very quickly over this, but don't overlook the importance of a monopod/fluid head combo.  You need it.  Get it.

You will need a memory card with a write speed of at least class 6.  If you hack your GH2, as I have, you will need to invest in class 10 memory cards.  I have only ever used Transcend or PNY cards.  The only reason I bought a PNY card was that it was on sale at Staples that day.  Otherwise all my cards are Transcend.  You can find them on Amazon.  There really isn't a better deal out there on memory.  I've had no problems.  I get by fine using 8gb and 16gb cards.  I have never had a reason to purchase anything larger than that.  You don't want your footage sitting on your card.  First thing you do when you get back to your studio is upload the footage.  Get it off your card because they can crash.  Hasn't happened to me yet but you hear about it.  It's a possibility.  For that reason I don't have any cards over 16gb.  There's just no need really.

Packing Your Stuff
For some odd reason camera bags are mad expensive.  So I purchased a really inexpensive Amazon basics DSLR bag.  I think it was $30?  Whatever, it's inexpensive and works.  Roomy enough for two GH2 bodies, 6 lenses, LED light, Rode videomic, Tascam Dr07mkii, L-bracket, batteries, cleaning supplies, and Liliput monitor.

I just reminded myself when listing the gear in my bag.  Get a LED camera light.  I got one from Cowboy studio that dims for about $40.  Yeah, it's cheap, but it's a start and is extremely helpful, especially when the bride decides she wants to dim the lights for the reception... people...

But I also use it as a fill light when doing interviews.  Works great for that as well.  Yes, eventually I will upgrade and get field lights with umbrellas or softboxes, but to start out all I really needed was a single on camera light that I was able to dim.

Rigging it All Together
You DO NOT need a $1000+ dollar DSLR rail rig system.  Stay away from them until absolutely necessary.  I am able to mount my light, rode mic and tascam on my camera using my camera's hotshoe and a flash L-bracket.  The L-bracket cost about $20 and sees continuous use.

Camera Care
You just spent well over a grand on your camera and lenses.  You need to take care of it.  Get a cleaning kit with a lens cloth and lens solution.  Get a lens brush.  Get a rocket blower to clear your sensor.  Clean your camera often.  Clean your lenses before each shoot.

That's a Wrap
That's it.  Get out there and shoot.  You stop being a noob when you learn your camera.  You learn your camera by making videos.  Go make videos.  Go fuck up and learn.  Stay hungry.

Please comment below if you have any questions or found this post helpful.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I'd love to know how you're able to fit a light, microphone, and audio recorder to your camera using only an l-bracket. Could you share some more details? Thanks!