Digital innovations and Filmmaking -

Friday, June 17, 2011

Prime Lenses - Tell the story more powerfully

When people say that DSLR cameras provide a strong cinematic look, they are often referring to the nice shallow depth of field that those cameras give. The best way to get a nice shallow depth of field is by using a lens with a big aperture (lower than f/2.8). One of the most important advantages of DSLR cameras is the possibility of changing lenses. A lens may be permanently fixed to a camera, or it may be interchangeable with lenses of different focal lengths, apertures, and other properties. Big aperture comes from fast lenses, and if you're on a budget, primes are the way to go. Lens with big aperture are always costly and it is not affordable for everyone. 

Fast zooms are more expensive : the more range you try to put in a zoom lens, the more compromises you must make, you lose quality in order to get range, or you spend a lot more money to keep the quality. Beginners often have only a kit with a DSLR body and a zoom lens. If you work on a short film or on a feature film, and if you ask me what lens you should buy with your DSLR camera, then my answer is in fact not to buy just one lens. You can also consider to rent a set of lenses. My answer would be different if you work on a documentary, because you could seek a wide-range zoom to duplicate what you could do and shoot very quickly.

Fast prime lenses are big and heavy if you have to take more than 3 of them at a time, but you need them to be able to focus on a person and leave the background, and also the foreground, blurry. Remember that you often need to do that to define a good composition of your shot. Fast lenses need less exposure time or can shoot in lower light, and I like to shoot at night. I like night life and night landscapes. So, I need fast lenses for those really dark scenes (indoors and outdoors). Most of my next short film will be shot at night.

I shoot with the Canon 5D mark II, and I carry all the time :
  • The Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, this is my travel/walk-around zoom lens and my short focal length lens, it has an image stabilizer which can be useful, but it is quickly limited in low light conditions
  • Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZE, this is the lens I use most of the time on my productions : long shots, medium shots, point of view shots, two shots, over the shoulder shots, american shots
  • Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 ZE :  this is my best portrait lens, it shoots most of my best footage, sometimes for medium shots, and at least 90 per cent of my close-up

The Zeiss 50mm is my "normal" human eye lens. No lens sees what the eye can see, but the "normal" lens serves as a constant. On one side of this norm there are the "wide-angle" lenses, which have a greater depth of field, and on the other, there are the "long" lenses, which compress space.

DSLR lenses by Carl Zeiss are robust, offer a high aperture speed, and feature an especially harmonious rendering of the out-of-focus area. Zeiss lenses are my favorite in low light conditions, and I think that it is a reasonable alternative for getting started in this business. 

During the NAB Show in Las Vegas, Carl Zeiss introduced an attractive bundled lens set offer for its SLR lenses. The set contains the following lenses with EF bayonet (ZE) : Distagon T* 2,8/21, Distagon T* 2/28, Distagon T* 2/35, Planar T* 1,4/50 and Planar T* 1,4/85... (FYI, in another price category, Carl Zeiss is also adding a new chapter to its Compact Prime CP.2 success story)

If you like Carl Zeiss products and if you have a budget, you should also consider to rent a Zeiss G.O lens set for your independent cinema production. A few months ago, the french cinematographer Crystel Fournier used the Zeiss G.O series with several Canon 7D to shoot the feature film Tomboy.

Finally, I would say that lenses can help to tell the story more powerfully. Keep in mind that the use of various lenses is one of the most important piece of the filmmaking puzzle because it enhances creativity.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Technicolor CineStyle - My tests with a Canon 5D Mark II

It's been several weeks since I've tried using the new Technicolor CineStyle. I wanted to make a comparison between this new picture style and the others. Picture styles bring the ability to shoot in the colors of your choice. Most experienced DSLR experts recommend using a flat picture style to get more control during post-production. If you choose a specific look before shooting and if you later decide that you don't like the chosen picture style, it will be really difficult to change it afterwards. 

Wikipedia defines color grading as “the process of altering and enhancing the color of a motion picture or television image, either electronically, photo-chemically or digitally”. In other words, Grading is when you choose a look for your film. It's better to choose the look in post-production and apply that throughout to get an unified artistic vision. So, you will have greater flexibility in color grading by shooting flat. Do not get me wrong, greater flexibility doesn't mean systematically greater quality. Other picture styles can also bring the same quality in post. It depends of what you want to do, what style you are following. Don't shoot flat if you don't have enough time in post-production. Remember that you can't ignore the color correction step if you shoot flat with the Technicolor CineStyle. On the other hand, in my opinion, if you have a cinema project, you should shoot flat.

Well, on Wednesday, I was shooting in Nantes with my friend Tug, and I decided to make a few pictures to test the new Technicolor Cinestyle.

(Place Saint-Pierre - Quick color correction)

(Château - Quick color correction)

(Palais de justice - Quick color correction)

CineStyle works with all Canon DSLRs but it was clearly aimed at perfecting the Canon 5D Mark II specifically. CineStyle optimizes the dynamic range in the image by leveraging the capabilities of the Canon imaging chipset. It is well-known that it helps to maximize shadow details without hurting tonal range.

So, I chose the castle of Nantes to make my benchmark and I wanted to show two things :
  • The Technicolor CineStyle helps to maximize shadow details in low light conditions
  • If shadow details don't matter, you can get more or less the same image quality in low light conditions after color grading whatever the picture style (so it's better to shoot flat because you can decide in post what is important or not)

The following pictures were shot in low light conditions with a 35mm lens, at f/2, 1/30 and 1250 ISO. Here is the default image I wanted to have for each picture style after color grading.

Let's make the comparison. The left column contains the shots with the different picture styles. The right column contains the graded pictures. All the pictures of the right column are more or less the same.

If you look very precisely the left pictures, the CineStyle picture is the one where you can see the most details in the dark.
The CineStyle shot

The CineStyle shot with the default color correction

The CineStyle shot with another color correction setting

The last picture is not really my favorite one but this is an example of what you can do in post if you need to highlight the details on the grass of the Castle. The Marvels Cine picture style allows also to get a good level of details on the grass, but the others don't, because the grass is too dark (since shooting).

Here is a short comparison between the Technicolor CineStyle and the Marvels Cine picture styles.

And if you want to learn from the masters :

To be continued...

Color correction for pictures in Canon DPP

Open Source color correction for videos in Avidemux

... and maybe color correction in Final Cut Pro X...