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    The Camera Gear I Use to Shoot Tested's Videos

    This is part of a three-part behind-the-scenes series on Lighting, Shooting, and Editing for Tested.

    The first camera I ever worked with professionally was the Panasonic HVX-170. It was handed to me, while working as a videographer on a tour bus with a band. I was given the camera, and the user manual, and had to start shooting almost immediately. The camera was easy to learn, in part because during the early 2000's this ENG (electronic news gathering), 3CCD style camcorder became very popular with young filmmakers and students. The cameras were relatively inexpensive, and produced good quality 720p HD footage. More importantly, they also gave the operator all the manual knobs, dials, and buttons they needed, right behind a versatile stock 2-3 ring zoom lens.

    During this period, accessibility of high quality cameras, and editing software coming down in price, meant it was much easier for almost anyone to get there hands on these tools to practice and learn. Many of professionals in video production learned on these kinds of cameras. I was one of these guys. I owned the Canon XHA1 -- a camera I purchased with a portion of my college student loans -- and I spent countless hours cutting my teeth on this thing. When I was given the Panasonic HVX-170, my familiarity of the camera translated over--ENG style cameras were good for that. They were all different in their own way, each had their own nuances, but the form factor and menu control became somewhat universal for that prosumer market. Once you've learned one of these cameras, you felt like you knew, technically, how to operate all of them.

    When I got the job at Whiskey Media (the former home of Tested), our studio was equipped with four of those same Panasonics. Every video you've seen from those days were all shot with these cameras. They gave us good 720p quality video and had SDI outputs to push a video feed for Tricaster live mixing. They recorded to reusable SSD flash media, and produced videos in the DVCProHD codec which was super friendly with Final Cut Pro 7. And, they were lightweight, making all day convention shooting a little more tolerable.

    This is, however, a digital camera that is now about seven years old. The codec is starting to show its age when compared to more recent cameras, and as people clammer for higher resolution video, native 720p might seem a little dated (and before you ask, no, I have no intention of introducing a 4k workflow into our studio. 1080p seems like a good resolution to work with on the web).

    As our video content pushed us out on the road a bit more, to unpredictable locations, with no chance of bringing much supplies or lights (or have the man power to lug that gear), I started looking into other cameras. A camera where I can change lenses to match the style. A camera that would allow me to dial in a higher ASA without introducing too much noise. Something that can handle both low light and have a big enough dynamic range that I don't lose information in light and dark spots, and something with a codec that ins't highly compressed--something that I can take into post and dial in correction setting with out pulling forward all those compression artifacts. It also needed to be ergonomically friendly--something I can hold all day long, with audio recording built in, and enough shoe mounts to hold my wireless kits.

    I have my eyes on a camera in particular, but the timing's not right on that big ticket purchase. Some day, I hope.

    Last year I searched for something that was more in our price range and what I found was the relatively inexpensive Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera. DSLR-like in its form factor, this is not something that I was initially comfortable with. I've used shoulder cams up until now, and putting a brick of a camera on some rods, hooked to all sorts of external devices, kind of intimidated me. However, the features (lean, but effective) on this camera kind of excited me, and it was something I felt I needed to try out, as the climate of prosumer cameras continue to change. Here's how I built out our current Blackmagic rig.

    The Rescued Film Project: Developing 31 Rolls of WWII Film

    Levi Bettwieser of The Rescued Film Project talks about the developing of 31 rolls of film shot by an American soldier in World War II. While the images that come from this discovery are striking and beautiful, it's also fascinating to hear about the painstaking film developing and restoration process. Bettwieser explains why film is so fragile, all the ways it can be damaged, and how it must be handled in this laborious process.

    In Brief: Adobe Releases Lightroom Mobile for Android

    Last year's release of Lightroom mobile for iPads and iPhones was a big deal for me. I called it a killer app for photographers--because it let me perform essential photo tweaks and sorting while away from a desktop or laptop (eg. on the plane ride back from a comic book convention) as well as seamlessly push photos taken on the iPhone to my home computer for desktop editing. The only thing missing was an Android compatible version. That was announced and released last night. It has the same functionality as its iOS counterpart, and still requires a Creative Cloud subscription--even if you have a standalone copy of Lightroom 5. The only thing it doesn't do is sync RAW photos taken with Android phone back to the desktop--just rull-res JPEGs. Hope that's coming in a future update!

    Norman
    Living with Photography: My Favorite Photos Taken in 2014

    Oh shoot. I looked at the calendar and realize it's already the middle of January. We're back from CES, and as I was reviewing photos from the show, I remembered that I had ran out of time during the holidays to post my annual gallery of my favorite photos taken that year. In the past two years, I've called this series my Favorite Tested Photos, but I'm changing that this year to just my favorite photos in general, taken either for work or outside of it. Out of 11039 photos taken in 2014, these aren't necessarily my best (I don't know if even I took 100 "good" photos last year), but they are my favorite. Each is memorable to me for a different reason--the subject, composition, lighting, or connection to an event. I've tried to group them thematically to tell a story about the year as seen through my camera lens. The final 10 are the only ones in any particular order, counting down my absolute favorites. Here's to 2015 and many more shutters.

    CES 2015: DJI Inspire 1 Mount Handheld Gimbal Camera

    Quadcopter maker DJI loaned us a prototype of their upcoming Inspire 1 Mount--an accessory for the gimbaled camera that comes with their latest quad. We take the mount and camera to roam the floor at CES, testing the stability and video quality of this camera setup. The results were pretty good! (This video was shot with a Sony PXW-X70 camera, which we're testing. Thanks to B&H for providing us with gear for CES!)

    How I Light Tested's In-Studio StandUp Videos

    This will be a weekly three-part behind the scenes series: Lighting, Shooting, and Editing.

    "Standups" are what I call the solo presented video segments we do at Tested--a term taken from the news industry, in which a reporter addresses the camera, usually to another anchor, or the audience. It's become a common internet video format: one person, in frame, talking to camera (audience) with coverage layered over. We do them with our Makerbot videos, Show and Tells, Product reviews, etc. Everyone approaches the lighting, shooting, and editing of these segments differently; whether it be natural lighting, close-up center frame (ie, webcam), lighting quick hard cuts, etc. Today, I'd like to share my process on how I approach the lighting for these segments, specifically the 12 Days of Tested Christmas video series for 2014.

    Let me start off with this amazing illustration of my light direction and placement.

    For this shoot I used 5 lights: 2 Background Lights, 1 Rear-Key Back Light, 2 Fills

    • #1 Background Light, 650watt Arri, CTB half, medium flood/spot
    • #2 Background Light, Kino Flo Diva-Light, half-cranked
    • #3 Rear-Key Back Light, 650 Arri, CTB half, full flood
    • #4 Lowel Rifa-Light Softbox, 75%
    • #5 Kino Flo 4' Double

    I wanted to stick with traditional omni-lit studio lighting for this shoot, while adding harder lights to help sculpt the subject. We recently redesigned and painted the set with much more color and props, naturally I wanted to show it off with background lights, but still contrast that with the subject.

    Above is a short video I put together of each light's specific contribution to the scene. Let's walk through what each of those lights does for the shot.

    In Brief: National Geographic's Roboticist and Photography Engineers

    National Geographic may be known for its photographs, but you don't see much about the people behind the cameras. And I don't mean just the photographers. The organization has a small team of engineers who invent and build camera and robotics equipment for photographers to use in the wild, either to document wildlife up close or to reach parts of the world that humans and cameras just can't normally operate. Last year, National Geographic's Proof blog profiled one of its roboticists, Walter Boggs (video below), and more recently, produced another video documentary showing the work of another one of its engineers, Kenji Yamaguchi. As National Geographic describes them, they're the Q to the James Bonds of nature photography.

    Norman
    Taking Jamie Hyneman's Tintype Portrait!

    You may have seen those striking black and white photos of Adam, Will, and Norm in our studio set--those were taken by photographer Michael Shindler with a process called tintype. Michael is one of the few practicing tintype artists, and we visit his studio to finally have Jamie's tintype photo taken as well!

    Living with Photography: Testing Sigma's $950 50mm f/1.4 Art Lens

    For the past month, I've been testing the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG DSM lens. Announced at the very beginning of the year and shown off at CES, it's been one of the best reviewed full-frame lenses released this year, and is the highly-anticipated successor to Sigma's 50mm f/1.4 EX lens released in 2008. That prime lens, if you recall, was the first lens I bought with my DSLR, the Canon 6D. It served as my primary lens for several months before I saved enough for some Canon zoom lenses. As I explained way back in Feb 2013, I opted to buy Sigma's f/1.4 over Canon's f/1.4 as my 50mm prime because it was just a better lens--more elements (8 vs 7) and more diaphragm blades (9 rounded vs 8) for sharper photos wide open and better bokeh, respectively. The tradeoffs were that at the time, the Sigma 50mm was $150 more than Canon counterpart, and weighed more as well. I thought it was worth it.

    Jump forward to almost two years later and I actually rarely break out the 50mm anymore. For convention photography and events shoots for Tested, I keep my Canon 24-70m f/2.8 on the camera 90% of the time. The versatility of the 24-70mm range is too convenient, and I found that the most I would close down to on a prime is f/2.0--the depth of field at f/1.4 is a little too shallow for my taste. When I do need the sharpness and wide aperture of a prime lens, I borrow Adam's Canon 35mm. What I end up using the Sigma 50mm for are macro photos (eg. for sixth-scale figures), with a Fotodiox macro adapter attached.

    But Sigma's new 50mm lens intrigued me. Instead of trying to be the best lens for the price, it follows along the path of Sigma's previous 50mm lens of trying to achieve the best image quality possible, no expense spared. On paper, that's a line of thinking that appeals to me: why not allow users to spend the extra money for the best product possible? Just as I didn't mind the 2008-model Sigma 50mm f/1.4 costing and weighing more than Canon's 50mm f/1.4, I figured I would embrace the new lens, even with its $950 price and 60% weight increase (815g vs 505g). Yeah, this single 50mm weighs as much as my all-purpose 24-70mm zoom.

    Let's start with where this lens shines.

    Hands-On with DJI's Inspire 1 Quadcopter

    DJI's new quadcopter is one of the coolest we've seen--a huge upgrade from the current Phantom 2 Vision+ we've been using. The Inspire 1 can record 4K video, lifts its propeller struts, and transmit clear HD video to the pilot. We chat in-depth with Eric Cheng, DJI's Director of Aerial Imaging, about all the new features in the Inspire 1 and then take it out for a test flight!

    In Brief: How to Photograph an Atomic Explosion

    The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently interviewed film archivist (and early ILM visual effects artist) Peter Kuran, who literally wrote the book about How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb. Kuran, who also directed a 1995 documentary about nuclear weapons testing, runs a website and YouTube channel dedicated to restoring and archiving films from American atomic history. Kuran talks about the current digitization efforts of nuclear research film, and what scientists and historians can learn from re-examining the footage. The HD video that Kuran and his team archive are also a resource Hollywood filmmakers tap into when needing to show footage of atomic explosions--like in this year's Godzilla.

    Norman 1
    Color Grading Breakdown for a Beauty Commercial

    Joey shared this awesome video with us yesterday, a time-lapse screen capture of post-production colorist < ahref="http://www.colormeup.de/">Andreas Bruekcl's work on a L'Oreal beauty commercial. The three-minute clip shows about 30 minutes of realtime grading of video shot with on an Arri Alexa, and gives just a taste of the incredibly complex task of tweaking colors and lighting of video for production. It's far more complex than the developing of RAW photos in Lightroom, for example, because the colorist has to mask and track moving elements for video. Something to keep in mind: this is a process that almost every shot of every produced live-action commercial, television show, and film goes through today, to some extent.

    Chris Hadfield Explains His Space Photography Techniques

    Adam tweeted this link to a great Q&A with Chris Hadfield from the Dark Sky star gazing festival happening right now at Canada's Jasper National Park. The former astronaut spoke a bit about Earth-gazing, and explains in this video how astronaut take advantage of the micro-gravity environment on the ISS to steady and position their cameras to photograph long-exposures of the Earth. No tripods needed in low Earth orbit!

    Tested Asks: How are Holograms Made?

    While in New York, Norm stops by Holographic Studios, one the last remaining independent holography galleries and holography studios still operating. Its founder, Jason Sapan, has spent almost 40 years practicing the art of holographic imagery. We figure he's the best person to explain to us what exactly is a hologram, and how they're painstakingly made.

    NIkon's D750 Temps me to Switch from Canon

    Early last month, Nikon announced its D750 full-frame DSLR camera. It sits between the popular D810 and entry level full-frame D610. The two aforementioned cameras are the Nikon equivalents of the Canon's successful Canon 5D MK III and 6D, but there's no comparable camera in Canon's lineup to the D750. And now that I've read some early reviews of the D750, this is beginning to worry me as a Canon user. First off, some specifications. The D750 is a 24MP full-frame camera running Nikon's EXPEED 4 processor. It basically combines the 24MP sensor of the D610 with the 51-point autofocus system of the D810. The processor bumps the framerate up to 6.5fps (using appropriate SD cards), and video recording features are adopted from the higher-end D810. New for Nikon FF DSLRs is a tilting LCD display and Wi-Fi for photo transfers. It's on sale now for $2400 (body only). This video below does a good job giving an overview of its specs.

    I've been very happy with my Canon 6D, and was looking forward to upgrading to Canon's next 5D release, if that happens in a year or two. For these full-frame cameras, upgrading the body every 3-4 years or so makes sense, since the lenses are where the money's at. But this new review by photographer Ross Harvey gives me a little bit of envy. Harvey demonstrates the tremendous low-light auto-focusing abilities of the D750 in a wedding shoot, and the image quality of photos he shot at ISO 9000 made my jaw drop.

    The best way to use a camera is to adjust your shooting style to the capabilities of your equipment. Camera performance dictates best practices. For example, the FF sensor on the 6D and a wide zoom lens lets me shoot pretty great low light photos, but I know I have to frame and compose my shots quickly because of the limited autofocus points. I shoot center point focus because I can't rely on full auto. A 51-point AF system that can lock in focus at -3EV, as well as the tilting LCD would absolutely change my shooting style, or at least expand my shooting options. It's like unlocking new abilities in a photography skill tree.

    Since I'm actually in no rush to buy a new DSLR body, all I can hope is that Canon has a good answer to the D750 in the next year. Based on recent trends, I'm not sure that's going to happen. Canon has been putting a lot of effort into video recording, from the 7D Mark II to its professional Cinema cameras (and respective lenses). The last Canon product that really excited me was its PowerShot G7X, and that was a response to Sony in the point-and-shoot market. Nikon is really impressing with its continuing innovation in traditional DSLRs, while Sony has lead the way in new format cameras like the A7r.

    In terms of ecosystem, I'm about $4000 invested in the Canon EF format. That's not a lot compared to some photographers, but it makes switching to Nikon and Sony something I can't just do on a whim. For those of you who have switched, how did you go about doing it and how was the transition?

    Living with Photography: The Nonprofessional

    Surprise, time for a long overdue Living with Photography column--I missed writing this regularly. I'm returning this week to talk about something that's been on my mind for a while now--a question I've been struggling to wrap my thoughts around since the summer: what defines a professional photographer? Or more specifically: what's the line that separates an amateur and a professional photographer?

    This question started bothering me at this year's Comic-Con, where I met a bunch of Tested readers at our Incognito party. A few of you brought up the photo galleries I post on on the site (mostly praise--thanks!), and there was even a request to schedule a photo shoot back in San Francisco. I had to respectfully decline, because I honestly don't think I would be qualified to do so as a hired photographer. I really don't consider myself a professional photographer.

    In the work I do for the site and in my own time, I've taken thousands of photos of products, events, and people. Through that experience, there are types of photos that I'm well on my way to having spent the requisite 10,000 hours of practice taking. If you need a photo of a smartphone for an article, my brain can immediately pull up the dozen different ways to illustrate its features to a viewer. If you need a photo of a cosplayer posing outside the San Diego Convention Center on one of the last weekends of July, I'll know how to frame a few good shots. There are photos in my Lightroom library that I really like, and some that I think could be considered "professional" in quality. But I am not a professional photographer. No way. And every time I get a compliment from people I respect, I feel like an impostor.

    Which leads to my original question, which I want to discuss and explore with you guys: what defines a professional photographer? Maybe the best way to start is to consider the attributes that I don't think define a Professional with a capital P.

    Education is probably the most logical attribute belonging to a professional photographer. The study and practice of photography under an academic setting--whether it's a photojournalism class or at one of those photography seminars or retreats run by notable photogs. Education is great, and goes a long way to giving you a structured understanding of the important technical aspects of taking photos. I've always wanted to take a few weekend classes for myself. But I don't think it's a requirement. It's not essential. There are plenty of working photographers who are self-taught or never had any formal training.

    Ah, so maybe that phrase--working photographers--can point us in the right direction. Is a photographer a professional if they've been paid for their work? I suppose that in the strictest sense, making money from photography would define you as a professional. But I don't think that's the case, either. Paid photography says as much about the photographer as it does about the client purchasing the photos. It's subjective. And just because someone liked a photo you took enough to pay you to license it, doesn't necessarily mean you would be qualified to do the same kind of work again. I've sold two photos before, but they were far from my favorite photos--they just suited what the licensee needed. Just because you see a great photo on Flickr doesn't mean that the photographer would be capable of taking an assignment to produce the same caliber of work. Photography is fickle, and new technology has made it easier than ever to take a good photo without explicitly knowing what you're doing.

    That's not to say I don't take the photos I shoot for Tested seriously. When I shoot product photos for stories, YouTube thumbnails, or behind-the-scenes materials, my mind is absolutely "on-assignment." So can the definition of a professional photographer be something literal: a sense of responsibility and professionalism? Again, I think that falls short of a proper definition. Professionalism and a purposeful approach to photography are valued qualities of a professional photographer, but not what I would consider essential for professional practice. We're getting closer, I know it.

    How about that Gladwell-notion of mastery, then. Is the number of photos taken or how many hours you've spent practicing the craft that makes you a professional photographer? I don't doubt that 10,000 hours spent taking photos would give anyone a technical mastery of photography, but this is still talking about experience in terms of quantity, and not quality. There's likely a strong correlation between quantity and quality that converges as you reach a certain amount of experience, but this still is too abstract an association that doesn't satisfy a concrete personal definition. As someone who isn't a professional photographer, I want a objective definition that doesn't feel like an arbitrary goal.

    So after much thought, here's my proposed definition of a professional photographer--the standard I hold myself against as an amateur:

    In Brief: GoPro Announces Hero4 Line of Action Cameras

    Another year, another GoPro release (how many people actually upgrade every year?) This generation of the ubiquitous action cams builds on last year's strengths--more high-speed fps recording options and better 4K video. On the high end, the $500 GoPro Hero4 Black now shoots 4K video at 30fps (double that of the Hero3 Black), as well as 120fps at 1080p (and other resolution/framerate options). The $400 Hero Silver has the same recording capabilities of last year's Black edition, but now includes a touchscreen for viewfinding and control on the back. GoPro also now has a budget option in the $130 Hero, which can record 1080p at 30fps and is also waterproof. 120fps at 1080p is appealing, but I care more about the usability improvements. The controls have apparently been reworked for faster access to recording settings, and new night shooting modes add manual control to the camera shutter. We'll likely buy one for testing, but have not had the best experience using the GoPros for our own productions. For long videos like shooting Still Untitled podcasts, the GoPros have overheated a few times.

    Norman
    In Brief: FAA Begins Granting Production Companies Drone Waivers

    Last Thursday, the FAA announced that it has begun granting video production companies exemptions to its unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) regulations. Six companies now have permission to use quadcopters and drones for production purposes, after convincing the FAA that their operations would meet a minimum standard for safety. Operators at these companies, for example, would hold private pilot certificates, keep the aerial systems within line of sight at all times, and keep flights restricted to designated "sterile areas" on set. The FAA would still have to inspect the aircraft before each flight, and nighttime aerial production is still prohibited. But this establishes a precedence and procedure for commercial companies to seek regulatory exemptions for drone flights with the FAA. 40 more requests are being considered, and the FAA is encouraging interested firms to work with their respective industry associations to create the appropriate safety manuals and operating procedures required for new exemptions. In other quadcopter news, DHL has begun a monthlong trial of autonomous aerial delivery of medicine and supplies to a sparsely populated island off the coast of Germany.

    Norman