Vlogging Virginia with an iPhone XS Max

It’s a rare thing to have your movie screened and to be able to host a Q&A about it at an Alamo Drafthouse, so I decided to use my iPhone XS Max to try to capture my recent experience in Virginia. I wanted to see how the new smartphone held up to as a vlogging camera, especially without any of the other accoutrements I’d typically need to shoot something like this (e.g. external recorder, gimbal, etc.).

In making this, I developed a much greater appreciation of what it takes to shoot a good vlog (iJustine makes it look totally effortless). In particular, I don’t think I shoot enough b-roll to transition from location to location. I also just generally didn’t have enough coverage — I tried to make this as a one-man band, but there are definitely a few moments that could’ve benefited from alternate angles. Overall, I optimized for enjoying the evening rather than shooting as much as possible, and unfortunately I think that definitely shows in the final product.

That said, how did the iPhone XS Max fare? Not too bad. I think when you have a decent amount of light (e.g. outdoor), it’s a fantastic vlogging camera. The image is solid and it gives you decent normalized stereo audio. But in low light conditions and in most indoor situations, the phone’s camera jacks up the ISO and provides some pretty aggressive noise reduction. There’s lots of detail loss and the colors and skin tones don’t look great (See: how this camera is really different than the old one). Without a camera app that gives you manual control of the settings, it can even be difficult to use with a decent light — just compare the first and last shot of the above video.

For this specific situation, the XS Max worked out great. I could travel light and shoot quickly. But if I wanted something more professional looking and sounding, I’d definitely go with something with a larger sensor like an Sony RX100, Sony A6000-series, or a Fuji X-T-series, coupled with an external recorder. It makes a difference, particularly if you’re viewing the video on anything bigger than a mobile device.

Seattle to Las Vegas and Back Again – a GoPro Timelapse Video

In the past few days, I’ve driven the better part of 2500 miles from Seattle to Las Vegas and back again. To capture this trip, I used the timelapse feature on my GoPro Hero 5 Session and created the above video. A few production notes:

  • Overall, I’m impressed with the image quality of the Hero 5 Session here. Where it really shines is how rugged it is. I would not feel comfortable leaving my phone or my DSLR camera baking in the sun for over 10 hours, but the Hero 5 Session (at $300 new) is not only a lower priced investment, it also survives in extreme conditions easily.
  • The Hero 5 Session’s battery life is not great. To record a timelapse this long, I needed to power it using an external power source connected through the USB-C port. This limits where you can easily place the Session, since it always needs to be powered, but ultimately allowed me to film continuously for 12+ hours.
  • Obviously the biggest downside of this timelapse is that I did not have some kind of car mount. Instead, I put it on the car dashboard, which resulted in the camera drifting quite frequently and needing to be repositioned. Still, the Hero 5 Session’s grippy texture helped make the video at least somewhat usable.
  • After experimenting with many different time intervals for the timelapse, I believe 2, 5, or 10 seconds to be the ideal for a trip of this kind. Anything longer is too jerky and doesn’t make for a pleasant viewing experience. Your mileage may vary.

Megan and Alex’s Wedding

I had the opportunity to film my friend’s lovely wedding last weekend at Lakedale Resort in Friday Harbor, WA. It was an unconventional shoot; since I was recovering from a recent surgery, I wasn’t even sure I could attend the wedding until a few days before the event, let alone film it.

As a result, I didn’t have a chance to film any of the preparations, first look, or any of the other conventional stuff that a videographer capturing the day would usually get. Instead, I just stole whatever shots I could during the ceremony and afterwards at the reception. What really saved me is that I was able to hook up a wireless lavalier microphone onto the officiant (Jason, a local friend) to capture the ceremony. All the audio in the video is from that single microphone, and it really gave the video a solid backbone.

This video was filmed with a Panasonic GH4, mostly at 24fps and occasionally at 72fps conformed to 24fps. The ceremony was lovely, although the lighting conditions were punishing from a photography standpoint – because the ceremony was outside and in direct sunlight, a lot of the colors were washed out by default and saturation had to be added back in in post. The microphone was plugged into a Zoom H4N (my poor Zoom H4N is slowly dying after many years of good service – pretty sure i will need an H5 soon to replace it). I used my standard cheap-o Polaroid rig to stabilize the camera, plus used a stabilization filter in post.

Technical elements aside, it was an emotional, joyous day. I hope the video is able to capture that.

A Video Portrait of Fremont Market

Recently, I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to sell my Blackmagic Pocket Camera. While I’m still in love with the image it produces, there are other cameras that I’ve been lusting after which fulfill different purposes that I’m now more interested in (including the Canon C100, the Fuji X100S, and the Canon XA25), and which don’t require the trade-offs that the Blackmagic demands.

Nonetheless, no one has taken me up on my offer yet, so this weekend, I decided to take the Blackmagic camera to Fremont Market and give it another spin. While I was initially just planning to shoot a bunch of b-roll and make a video montage, I ended up shooting several documentary-style videos.

As usual, these were shot using my Blackmagic, my cheap-o Polaroid rig, and a Tascam DR-05 (on-board microphones). Some of the audio is pretty rough, but my objective here was to maintain as low of a profile as humanly possible. All audio was recorded in impromptu interviews, and I think mic’ing people using a lavalier would have taken away from the spontaneity and made people less open on camera. It’s a trade-off for sure, but I think the audio is adequate.

Here’s a video of local artist Brittney Lyons, and her incredible gum wrapper art:

Here’s a brief profile I shot of Beanfish, a local company which creates delicious fish-shaped foodstuffs:

Here’s a local band, Elephant Gazebo, performing “Wrecking Ball.” Fun times:

My takeaway from these videos is that, while I think the footage still looks amazing, I really feel like I need at least a couple more lenses to get the most out of this camera. The Super 16mm sensor gives MFT lenses a crop factor of nearly 3x. Wide angle shots are challenging with my current, limited lens selection, as are shots with shallow depth of field (my favorite).

I remain conflicted about this camera, but I’ll keep trying to find logical uses for it before putting it on sale on Amazon.

Re-Appreciating Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Sometimes, I make an essay that’s just for me. This Scott Pilgrim vs. The World appreciation was one of those times.

No one was begging me for my updated take on the film, but while I was doing some research for an upcoming video I’m working on (with the help of Edgar Wright), I felt compelled to revisit Scott Pilgrim and some of its themes. In truth, I also used the essay as a way for me to get a handle on some things going on in my own life. I’m glad it’s resonated with so many other people.

As of this writing, about 15 hours after publication, the video has received about 28,000 views. It was getting a decent number of hits at /Film, but then Edgar Wright tweeted it and it was posted at the still-massive Scott Pilgrim Facebook page, where it received a staggering 7.6K Likes. That’s what really helped tip this thing, I suspect. 

In the past couple of months, I’ve made a bunch of different videos that have received varying amounts of attention through different means. I’m hoping to publish a future blog post that sums up some of these findings, so look forward to that. 

The Engagement of Micah and Nicole

After acquiring my new Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, I longed for an opportunity to try it out. So I asked my colleague, Nicole, if she’d be interested in shooting an “engagement video” with her fiancé, Micah. Neither of us had never done such a video before, but the possibility of a relatively novel way to announce an engagement to their friends was exciting to everyone involved.

This video was shot at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Belltown (a very competitive spot for family/wedding photos, as there were 2-3 other shoots going on in the area at the same time as ours). For this shoot, I used the following equipment in addition to the Blackmagic camera:

Alright, baby. Let’s do this thing! pic.twitter.com/FLgmetZXtR
— David Chen (@davechensky) October 16, 2013

Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens – This lens was just refreshed and is now significantly pricier than its older brother. It delivers great image quality, although the lack of “manual focus” option makes using this lens manually a bit of a chore.

Polaroid Video Chest Stabilizer – When I first started investigating DSLR video, I was pretty shocked at how expensive some of the accessories were. $470 for a Red Rock Micro DSLR rig? Surely there was a cheaper solution. In fact, this $55 Polaroid stabilizer is just what the doctor ordered for Blackmagic Pocket Cameras. While the rig itself is really flimsy and hard to tighten to a degree that I really felt satisfied with, it worked perfectly for such a small device. It would also work with a DSLR and maybe a pancake/prime lens, but any more than that and I’d seriously start to question the safety of my gear. Overall, I think it gives the final video a good “handheld” look, without being overly jittery. As a bonus, it’s super light and easy to carry around. I could see myself shooting a bunch of footage with just this camera and this rig (audio would need to be captured separately).

Tiffen ND Filter – Essential for shooting outdoors and achieving shallow depth of field.

As usual, I used FilmConvert for most of the color grading. For comparison, here’s an ungraded shot and a graded shot. You can see how flat the initial image is, as well as how much info and detail is contained in the ProRes HQ file that can be pulled out in post.

The only thing I wish I’d been able to do was shoot more b-roll of the couple doing other activities. But the scope of this project was very limited (only about an hour of shooting in one location). Next time!

The Wedding of Lucas and Heather

A colleague/friend of mine, Lucas (a talented photographer in his own right), recently approached me with an interesting proposition: he needed me to edit his wedding video. This was a bit odd to me, both because I hadn’t attended or shot his wedding, and because he had gotten married nearly a year ago. Turns out, a friend of his had shot a bunch of footage from the wedding and Lucas wanted to see if I could put something together to surprise his wife with on their one-year anniversary.

It’s a really weird feeling to edit footage from a wedding that you didn’t shoot or attend. When I shoot, I typically have some kind of vision for what I want the final product to be. “B-roll goes here. Speech goes here. This sequence goes here.” When you have nothing but raw footage, it’s like having all the pieces of a puzzle but without a picture to show you how it’s all supposed go together. Also — in this increasingly strained analogy — you have the option of dictating what the final puzzle picture looks like.

In this case, it was important to me to understand Lucas’ priorities for what events he needed to have shown, and what order he wanted to show them in. The video is also set to music that has emotional significance for the couple. But the most important part of this entire process was watching and studying all the footage, categorizing it into easily understandable and usable chunks, and then being able to assemble different sequences in compelling ways. “Need a clip of a toast? I know exactly where it is and what section of the toast to use in the final video.” And so on.

One of the pleasures of the experience was seeing a wedding through someone else’s eyes. I edited down 2.5 hours of footage into this 7-minute video. Thus, the vast majority of footage didn’t make it in. But I was able to find some “money shots” that I think worked wonderfully. That feeling of discovery, and of incorporating that discovery into a finished, beautiful product, is pretty unique to editing a project like this.

Also: loved the last sequence from the video. Still kind of gives me chills.

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera – Initial Impressions and Footage

After two months of waiting, IT HAS FINALLY ARRIVED pic.twitter.com/NNjD9U0kDi
— David Chen (@davechensky) October 15, 2013

In early August, I placed an order for the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera at B&H. For months, I waited to receive word that my camera had shipped, and for months, all I received from B&H was the occasional note that they still had not received any stock. Finally, just a week or two ago, a miracle happened: Adorama suddenly and unexpectedly listed the camera as “in stock.” Not believing my eyes, I quickly placed an order and hoped for the best. A week later, I was unboxing my very first Black Magic Pocket Camera!

This camera takes any lens with a micro 4/3rds mount, which includes Panasonic’s wide range of Lumix glass. Never having used any MFT lenses before, I agonized over which one to buy and studiously perused a bunch of reviews (thanks to The Phoblographer for a lot of useful lens reviews). To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much work I was going to end up doing on the Pocket Camera, so I didn’t want to invest too much in glass quite yet. If I wanted to go all out, I probably would have ended up with the legendary Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm. Maybe one day I still will.

Instead, I opted for the new Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II. It’s a relatively new lens but I’d heard great things about it and more importantly, it was relatively cheap. I also recently ordered a Rokinon 7.5mm fisheye, which actually functions more like a wide-angle lens with the Pocket Camera’s nearly 3x crop factor.

Before I even bought the camera, here are a few things I’d already learned from watching/reading reviews about the Pocket Camera from the likes of CheesycamPhilip Bloom and Dave Dugdale:

  • The battery life is crap – I was able to get about 30-40 minutes of standby and recording time on a single battery. Buy extra batteries! Fortunately they are relatively cheap and easy to carry around.
  • The camera is very selective about SD cardsHere’s a list of compatible cards. I picked up a Sandisk Extreme 128GB on sale a few weeks back, and that worked just fine after the most recent Pocket firmware update. You must format cards on your computer, as the camera firmware is incapable of formatting cards in the camera. Furthermore, you can’t delete media off the card in camera either, nor does the camera tell you how many hours/minutes of space you have left. Kind of a pain, but okay if you know how to deal with it. 
  • The microphone is terrible – Any sound recorded onto the camera, even when using an external microphone, was likely to be unusable. I actually went out and bought a Tascam DR-05 off of Craigslist for the express purpose of using it to capture sound for Pocket projects.

Taking all this into account, I shot the following video at Pike Place Market in Downtown Seattle. The audio was recorded using the Tascam DR-05, and the video was graded using Filmconvert. Everything was shot handheld.

Here are some further thoughts I had while shooting with this camera:

  • Wow, these images are incredible! – Despite the smaller Super16 sensor size, this footage looks almost as good as the footage from the full-size cinema camera. The ProRes (and it is ProRes HQ only as of this writing – no CinemaDNG Raw yet) truly gives you a ton of flexibility in post and I look forward to experimenting more with the capabilities of the camera in the future.
  • The screen is far worse than I could have imagined – I’m spoiled from using camera like the Canon 5D Mark III, with its gorgeous, crisp, glossy screen. But yeah, the matte screen on the Pocket Camera is really difficult to use and quite challenging to focus with. That being said, a double tap of the focus button reveals in-focus areas in bright green on the screen (Thanks to Andrew Gormley for pointing this out to me).
  • Lack of meters makes life difficult – While recording, the screen has no meters of any kind except for a timer noting how long your current clip has recorded for. I did not realize how much I would miss the light meter until it was gone. When you’re using a crappy screen (with variable user-set brightness) and no light meter, you’re basically flying blind when it comes to shooting an image that will be properly exposed. Shooting in ProRes does allow you to correct a multitude of mistakes in post but that’s no substitute for a properly exposed image in-camera. Update: I should point out that zebras are available as overlays on the screen (which is okay, but in my opinion, no substitute for a proper light meter). In the heat of the moment, I neglected to use zebras for the above video, which may explain why many of the highlights are totally blown out. That, and also it was exceptionally bright inside the market. In retrospect, I should have exposed for highlights and tried to pull out shadow detail in post. Instead, I exposed for the subject.
  • It is exceptionally difficult to manually focus using an auto-focus-only lens! – This is a basic observation but it’s new to me with this MFT glass. The lens gear just doesn’t feel very good turning in my fingers, and I always felt like I was damaging the lens in some way. I really missed having a manual/auto switch on the lens, as I do with all my EF glass. Also, my camera iris would sometimes spaz out, meaning that the aperture of my lens would occasionally change all of a sudden and unexpectedly. In addition, sometimes the iris button would not function (I’d press it and nothing would happen). Pretty sure these latter two phenomena are connected in some way – perhaps my camera was getting a delayed reaction from the iris button presses? Either way, I would strongly recommend you adjust aperture manually on this camera, whether through the up/down buttons on the back of the camera, or, if you have a fully manual lens, on the lens itself.
  • ND filters are essential – Unlike a DSLR, the Pocket Camera doesn’t allow you to jack up the shutter speed in broad daylight until the image is properly exposed. That wouldn’t be advisable anyway, as high shutter speeds can affect the quality of the footage, but at least it was a possibility. The Pocket Camera only lets you control shutter angle, which I left at 180 degrees. Thus, ND filters are a must for any outdoor work. 

I’m planning on doing more shooting with the camera this weekend, and hoping to combine it with a very simple Polaroid rig. I’ll post the results when I’m done.