So my wife was out for the day, going to see Chicago of all things ( I hate the theater almost as much as I hate………nope, theater pretty much tops it) So I figured I’d pop into the city and have a play with the new video features of the D300s. Luckily the awesomely unpredictable weather of Melbourne blessed me with sun (after weeks of on and off rain), however it did get a little windy. So once again, as I am primarily a video guy I am going to give my thoughts on the video elements of the D300s (I am ashamed to say that after having the camera for a week, I am yet to actually shoot an actual still other than for testing, more on that in a second.
Framing: Couple of things here, this is the first time I have used this camera in bright sunlight, mental note, go home and buy some form of shade device. I could barely see the Liveview display for framing let alone focus. I pretty much ended up switching off Liveview, framing my shot, checking focus, turning Liveview back on and shooting, which is no way to capture footage, especially if its random. Now when my rails arrive, oh did I not mention, if you want to shoot anything other than home videos, you will need to get a set of rails, follow focus kit and matte box. After many attempts I found that pulling focus, especially with my 80 – 200 f2.8 at full zoom was near on impossible, I constantly found myself overshooting the mark, I didn’t want to mark the lens with a chinagraph marker as I used to do with my old Super 16mm gear. So once the follow focus arrives I can see how much easier it gets. That being said, I was able to get a few good examples eventually after many attempts. And boy did that lens look great, it is now my new favorite lens.
The other thing that I think is almost a must have is an optical viewfinder, like this from Zacuto now, awesome as it looks, I don’t think I will be buying one just yet, as they are $395 US, which going by the exchange rate for Australian, equates to a few dollars shy of my left kidney. I am going to see how shooting with my external ref monitor goes and see if that will cut it, if not, out will come the Visa and my wife wont talk to me again for a week or two.
Exposure: OK so if you read the manual, the information regarding video goes for a whopping 2 or 3 pages. So most of what people have discovered is all from trial and error. For exposure, the D300s doesn’t support for manual control of exposure (sort of) and by sort of what I mean is. If you move your field of view from a bright to dark scene the auto exposure will adjust, which to be honest is not ideal. However, if you press and hold the AE lock button it wont. Additionally you can use features such as exposure compensation to dial in stops of adjustment. So basically all you need to do do get manual control is always hold the AE button, not an ideal situation but at least it means that we are just a firmware upgrade away from Nikon adding full manual control as it is physically possible. In the meantime I am going to see if I can rig a little bracket onto my rails that will allow me to depress the AE with a small arm of some sort and then just lock that in so it is always depressed for the entire shoot. (EDIT: Ok so it does pay to read the manual, seems there is an option in the camera settings to provide AE lock after the button is depressed and released, so once you have an exposure you are happy with just press the AE lock button once and it will hold that exposure until the AE lock button is pressed again). Here’s a little sample clip to give you an idea how it works ( and yes I know it is out of focus and handheld and I pan so quickly the infamous jelly wobble is visible but that’s not the point, so stop hassling me, stop it, I’m fragile)
The other thing about exposure that I noticed was the lack of built in ND filters like you have with most video cameras. I am so used to being able to dial in a stop or two of ND when needed, I actually found my hand reaching for the phantom ND switch that wasn’t there, this is once again another reason to have a matte box, instead of having to buy ND filters for each and every lens, a matte box allows you to slide in filters into the filter tray of the matte box, and it also allows you to stack them and t is much faster to add and remove them than screwing them directly onto the lens. The other option is a variable ND filter like this one but at over $300 US, I might just wait a little. As such, when it got really bright today, and I was trying to get some shots with my aperture wide open, the shutter speed went way up, which results in very staccato looking footage, for some things this is great, but with ND filters you can control how you ant the video to look a lot more.
Audio: I didn’t shoot any audio for this other than the amazing sound of wind, constantly blowing dust into my camera bag (you can actually turn the internal mic completely off but interestingly, as the exposure, aperture, lens information etc is not stored in the metadata of the video files, I have taken to doing a little voice ident on each shot, listing all the settings, that way when I am back in the suite and I see a shot that works particularly well, I know what setting went into making the shot). To this end the info button the the D300s is great, it gives you an instant full screen listing of every setting in one area, a little easier to read than the top display. That being said I have had time to have a bit of a play after remembering to bring my audio kit home from work. Plugging a lapel mic directly into the camera and recording some audio, and voila, 44 khz 16 bit audio. Now there is no way of actually monitoring the audio yet, which is insane. But I was able to get a clean signal that wasn’t too hot after adjusting the input level on the camera. You don’t have actual level control but settings for AGC, high, mid and low. I think I will probably end up getting a Beachtek as even if Nikon eventually add headphone support, you still need XLR in and fine granular control of audio levels.
A couple of other little things that while not massive features I found interesting. First off is the Virtual Horizon. Now when I used it for the first time when I first go the camera, I though, wow, what a cute and effectively useless feature, when will I ever use that. Of course that didn’t stop me assigning it to one of the function buttons on the front of the body. As I was shooting, I found that I was often having trouble seeing the bubble on my tripod due to the sun (great idea Miller, make it a yellow bubble on a yellow background, yeah that’ll never cause problems) so I found myself bringing up the horizon for a spot check more than once.
I also found the new Quick Menu for the D300s very useful. I was able to assign all the windows for video to that quick menu, so I could easily switch picture quality from HD to SD, adjust audio levels etc. now if only I could somehow assign the quick menu to a function button.
Finally, and this is not a D300s specific thing, in the past when shooting video, I am sure everyone knows that as soon as you setup a tripod and camera, its like your a leper, people avoid walking near you for fear of being filmed, either that or idiots jump in front of the camera and dance around like their final brain cell went away to college and left them in charge of their body. With a still camera, unless you are looking through the viewfinder people think your not read to shoot a still and so go about their normal days, so i had the exact opposite problem, as I was framing up my shot people were all in a hurry to avoid me and get out of the way, but as soon as I stood up and turned on liveview to record, it was if I wasn’t there and normality resumed, very handy indeed. That and the fact that every time I pulled out the tripod and whacked on the 80 – 200 mm within seconds I noticed a bunch of tourists would all stand near me with their cameras out shooting whatever my lens was pointed at, I assume they thought that if it was worth me pointing my lens at it then they better get a photo of it, even when I hadn’t actually st up the shot and what I was going to shoot was in the exact opposite direction. Oh well, at least I can rest easy with the knowledge that there are some Japanese tourists going home with some very ‘arty’ shots of random objects because of me.
Finally, I should point out something that I have seen little note of, it seems that the Camera RAW files the D300s creates are so amazingly awesome, that few packages support them (sarcasm is how I deal with stress by the way) iPhoto, Lightroom and even Photoshop CS4 wont read the files at all, you can download a beta plugin for Photoshop that will read the files, but honestly, isn’t RAW supposed to be a standard, what are these cameras doing differently each and every model that requires constant updates to each and every package I want to shoot stills for.
Oh and I should add, most of the add ons that I mention, I have found from reading Philip Blooms blog this guys blog is pretty much required reading for anybody using a DSLR as a video acquisition device. Oh and his video work is phenomenal.
So for interests sake I cut what I shot into a little video, keep in mind there was no actual plan for the shoot so the shots are entirely random, and as I was mainly doing this for testing purposes, there are shots in there that while technically imperfect gave me good information about things to be aware of, most notably the auto exposure, I tried to avoid the exposure pulsing as much as possible, but when panning and tilting, it was near on impossible to also hold the AE lock button. Finally I decided to leave it ungraded so you can see the raw footage as it came out of the camera, normally I would probably either use Magic Bullet Looks, or Colour Finesse to add that final little source to really make the footage pop.
For those who are interested, my system is running Windows 7, Adobe Master Collection CS4 and a BlackMagic MultiBridge Pro. The footage from the D300s imports into a BlackMagic timeline (I used the Varicam 720p, 24fps preset) and plays back in real-time with no render bar) I reference off a 1080p Samsung via HDMI and the audio goes via optical to a Yamaha Amp.
Oh and if you watch the video and like the music, its from The Killers, Day & Age, buy the album its great!