Micro Expressions: exploring motion image photography (using the 1DC)
Pulling still frames from video is not a new concept. I have lovingly browsed through some of my great photo journalistic compendiums from the likes of Time Magazine, LIFE and the Pulitzer Prize winning images of the 20th Century. It’s amazing to discover that some images are “sequenced photographs”- which means they are still frames that originated from 35mm Motion Picture footage. Early War photography is often seen with such bylines. In fact when we look back at the development in the photographic process, we find the style of photography developing with it.
In the last few years we have seen RED’s remarkable innovations in what they call DSMC (Digital Still and Motion Camera) concepts, so the idea has been a slowly evolving one. What I think makes the 1DC such an exciting new prospect is that finally this technology is in a form that is suitable for the photographer. (we should remember that the 5Dm2′s video function was added to enable journalists to produce video clips in the same camera whilst in the field). A RED camera is simply not practical for run-and-gun scenarios that DSLR’s are designed to do so well. So with all this in mind, when we first “paused” the moving 4K footage from the 1DC, we were buzzing with anticipation.
The very first image we extracted from the footage via Quicktime’s export to still option was simply amazing. Right off the bat we had an image that was visually striking. The images held together very well in terms of colour reproduction (especially the skin tones) and were incredibly sharp. Right then we realised that a full scale shooting test was what we had to achieve.
The 1DC Specs
Physical body: What was refreshing was how familiar this new camera felt in my hands straight out of the box. Having shot with previous Canon DSLRS – the 5Dm2, 5Dm3 and 1Dx – the 1DC was a natural progression. It takes the physical weight and size that comes with being a Series 1 camera from Canon, however it still remains incredibly compact and versatile. The external chassis of the 1DC is the same as the 1DX, however, despite online discussions that it’s simply a firmware update that distinguishes the two cameras, my rep at Canon assures me that the boards, circuitry are different between the two.
Canon’s 1DC shoots 24 frames per second 4K video (4096 x 2160) as an 8 bit 4:2:2 Motion Jpeg. One of the biggest concerns raised early on was the absence of shooting in RAW. As an 8 bit Motion Jpeg, a reasonable amount of compression going on. So understandably there is far less information and manipulation possibilities in post than if you were shooting in RAW 4K. Currently, there is no other camera that shoots 4K RAW AND which has a comparable physical attributes as the 1DC. This of course perpetuates the saying “you never get everything you want from one camera”. I have no doubt of the next few years we’ll see advancements in the compression and roll out of RAW across many camera choices. Having said all that, we should remember that the 1DC does have a Canon LOG Gamma that dramatically improves the dynamic range of the motion images – 12.5 stops at 400 ISO. What records as quite a flat-image initially in playback, will enable far more detail to be retained in both the highlight and shadow areas. The rolling shutter effect and moiré, whilst still lingering, is less evident than in the previous Canon DSLRs I’ve shot with. There is a mixture of other recording formats available in-camera, however for the purposes of this blog, I’ll leave there discussion out.
Suspected limitations and pit-falls.
Our earliest tests highlighted the need for precise accuracy in focus and shutter speeds. When shooting films, we often pull focus (drift the plane of focus) as a storytelling method. You can draw the viewers eye from one part of the screen to the other. If shooting film for stills you would want to keep focus in check at all times. We found shooting with more depth of field preferable to ensure focus was hitting at all the critical times. Shooting video with the 1DC means manual focusing, which takes time to perfect if following subjects.
The other major consideration is that film is through-out its history always been filmed in landscape orientation. So what does this mean for the portrait shot? I guess it all comes down to whether you are filming first with the idea to extract stills later, or if you are just using video mode as a means to aid purely your photography. It may be harder to imagine including the vertical footage in a finished edit, however, one only has to look to the work of Alexx Henry and his inspirational “motion art” concept shoots to see the new ways in which motion and stills (both horizontal and vertical) can propel the creative process.
As discussed above, it is a motion jpeg so the need to correctly set your exposure and white balance manually is imperative. Having shot video with DSLR’s for over 4 years now, i like many others have been forced to shoot extremely cleanly. This is down to the fact that we just haven’t had the latitude later in post to correct terribly under or over exposed clips. This training looks like it may prove invaluable when shooting for motion images with the 1DC. (further testing with Canon Log will determine the true expansion of the dynamic range)
When it comes to shutter speeds, traditionally cinema has stuck to the 2:1 rule with frame rates. When in Australia we shoot at 25FPS (frames per second) we double our shutter speed to 1/50 of a second. This ratio best retains a slight motion blur within the frames and reproduces a aesthetically appealing “cinema look” to the motion. If you shoot at much high shutter speeds with a 25FPS shutter rate, the resulting playback takes on a very staccato look. (it should be noted that this high-energy strobe look can be desirable on certain occasions. It can be seen to great effect during the open Normandy beach-landing scenes in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”). Photographers rely on higher shutter speeds to freeze the action in pin-sharp form. With the testing we have done during this project, we opted to find a compromise between film and stills. The happy middle ground seemed to be 1/100 and 1/200 shutter speeds. This mostly retained the “cinematic feel” to the motion whilst delivering more useable still frames for export. If no consideration were to be made for the video being captured, then higher shutter speeds may be valid to use. We did find many useable frames from all four of our test shoots (including the most demanding – the Sue Bryce fashion shoot with the free flowing dress) and each provided many useable stills.
As predicted, even without shooting RAW 4K, the 1DC produced buckets of data. With recording times requiring approx 1GiG of memory per 15 seconds of recording time! So a commonly used 16G card now captures just 4minutes of 4K. (at least that’s easy to remember!) So naturally, larger capacity, and faster performing Compact Flash cards are necessary. We were fortunate enough to have SanDisk provide us with two new 128G 100mbs CF cards for this project. Each of these 128G cards could hold 30minutes of 4K footage. The camera offers dual CF slots, and plenty of reasons to start saving for memory. For those lamenting the cost of high capacity media, remember cost will inevitably come down. I remember when first shooting with the 5Dm2 in 2009, 8 + 16G cards were prohibitively expensive and with time costs became much more bearable. History repeats itself.
Power-hungry processing: Anyone who has worked with 4K video will tell you of the massive grunt needed for playback and working with such file sizes. (We shot a commercial for a prominent Australian designer on the RED Epic earlier in the year and experienced the pain first hand.) Not only will larger hard drives be required, but more powerful PC or Mac’s to drive them. I should note we conducted this project using only a 17inch ACER laptop with an Intel i7 2GHz processer with 16G of Ram. From the impressive performance and playback of the footage on this laptop, I can only assume ever better results on a beefed-up desktop PC or MAC.