Holiday 2012: HDSLR Innovations

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As 2012 draws to a close, we have the opportunity to take a look back at a year which saw many innovations in the world of HDSLR video. One of the most prominent trends of 2012 has been the continuing blending of still and video acquisition technologies into the same tools. Other products introduced this year focused attention on providing improved usability, control and comfort over previous versions. Compared to any other recent year, 2012 was a year that brought us innovative equipment and tools, designed to help create video content more easily than ever before.


Every year since their initial introduction, the market for HDSLR cameras and equipment has continued to thrive and grow with little signs of slowing.  2012 was a breakout year for innovation in this field.  We saw new technologies and equipment to meet the ever growing demands of HDSLR shooters; providing more function, comfort, quality and control than ever before.  As the year draws to a close it is important to look back to see which innovative products made an impact and how they will change the industry. 

USB Focus Controllers

Almost as soon as HDSLRs were introduced, complaints began to arise about the difficulty of focusing while shooting video. Videographers, accustomed to a comparatively deep depth of field, had difficulties handling razor thin depth of field. Photographers, often accustomed to using lenses designed to capture a frozen moment, were having trouble constantly refocusing while recording. Initially, mechanical tools like follow focus were adopted from the traditional film industry to combat focusing issues. In 2012, HDSLR shooters using Canon cameras were treated to a new generation of electronic focus controllers which took an entirely different approach to the problem. These new controllers use the camera’s USB port to provide manual control of the autofocus motor.

Manfrotto has released two such focus controllers, aimed at beginner and intermediate Canon HDSLR users. The SYMPLA HD-SLR Clamp-on Remote Control bears a strong resemblance to Manfrotto's video focus and zoom controllers. Videographers who have used Manfrotto camcorder controllers may find themselves already familiar with the button layout and the variable speed thumb rocker of the SYMPLA remote. However, we should be careful not to mistake this product for a simple repackaging of a traditional video controller. Manfrotto has designed their SYMPLA controllers with features aimed at addressing the unique needs of HDSLR users. With the Clamp-on remote, users can turn live view on and off to save power between shots, magnify the live view image to check focus before recording and switch between the camera's photo and video mode.

Beyond controlling the camera's settings, the SYMPLA also has a memory bank which allows users to preprogram focus points. This gives video shooters the ability to automatically and accurately rack focus to preset the point with the push of a button. Perhaps one of the most easily overlooked features of the Clamp-on Remote is right there in its name. This remote clamps to tubes ranging from 12mm to 23mm in diameter. This means users should be able to move the remote from a tripod handle to a 15mm support rig without the need for specialized adapters.

Manfrotto also released the SYMPLA Deluxe Remote Control. The Deluxe Remote is well suited to users with the need for more feedback and control. In addition to providing the same camera controls found in the Clamp-on Remote, the Deluxe Remote allows users to control shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance. Feedback about these settings and the status of the camera's battery are provided to the user via the onboard backlit LCD. Another distinct advantage of the Deluxe model is the directional pad, which allows the shooter to remotely navigate around a magnified live view. This is especially useful for checking focus before recording, when your subject is not in the center of the frame. Being the Deluxe model, Manfrotto has also included niceties in its design, such as the ability to change the direction of near and far focus control on the thumb rocker.

For HDSLR shooters who want a USB focus controller with the feel of a mechanical follow focus, Okii systems has released the FC1. While it may feel like a mechanical follow focus, the FC1 possesses features only available with an electronic lens controller. The FC1 allows users to preset focus points (like the SYMPLA Deluxe Remote), as well as a feature Okii calls “focus stops.” Focus stops are essentially the virtual equivalent to hard stops found on mechanical follow focuses. If the user continues to turn the dial past the focus stop, the focus motor in the lens will not travel further than the preset point. In addition to focus controls, the FC-1 offers control over shutter speed, ISO and aperture control via dual purposed buttons. Other features include live view start and stop, live view magnification and navigation. Mounting the FC1 is a relatively easy task with a standard 1/4" female thread located on the back of the unit.

Okii also makes the compact MC1 USB Mini Controller. The MC1 offers many of the same functions as the FC1 in a more compact form factor. Measuring 3" by 1.5" by 3/4", the MC1 is a fraction of the size of its larger sibling. To accomplish this, the MC1 dispenses with the large focusing knob found on the FC1, while still managing to offer control of aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focus settings. Another handy feature of the MC1 is the ability to quickly stop and restart recording at 11-minute intervals, as a work-around for the 4GB recording limit on the Canon 5D Mark II, which kicks in after about 12 minutes of continuous video recording.

Viewfinders

Manual focus control would be a moot point if you could not see what you were doing. Luckily, a slew of new LCD viewfinders with high contrast, high resolution LCD panels have been released this year. The Kinotehnik LCDVFe features a 3” screen with 800 x 480 resolution to aid with precise focusing. Low latency video processors scale non-standard resolutions to full screen while providing customizable zebra stripes, audio meters and false color peaking overlays. The LCDVFe comes with most of the equipment needed to mount and power the device included in the box. The viewfinder’s loupe is comprised of aspherical ultra low dispersion glass elements to increase sharpness along the corners of the image and reduce chromatic aberrations. Four AA batteries will power the LCDVFe for approximately 6 hours.

The Alphatron Broadcast Electronics EVF is another recently released model. As the name suggests, the Alphatron is intended for the broadcast market, which is not to say that it doesn't meet the HDSLR user's needs. The Alphatron EVF has both HDMI and HD-SDI for those who currently use HDSLRs but may be thinking of upgrading to a camcorder like the Sony NEX-FS700. The LCD panel in the Alphatron is 3.54” diagonally, with 960 x 640 resolution. The Alphatron also includes standard monitoring features like zebra stripes, false color, peaking and audio meters. HDMI to HD-SDI conversion is a handy feature for relaying your camera’s HDMI signal to a broadcast monitor or external recorder.  Of course, a device like the Blackmagic Mini Converter can also perform this function.

The last EVF that we’ll take a look at here is the Cineroid EVF4RVW. The most immediate improvement over previous Cineroid viewfinder is the contrast and sharpness of the LCD panel. The EVF4RVW has a 3.5” display with 960 x 640 resolution. In addition to the usual features—like false color, peaking, zebra, etc.—the Cineroid is the only viewfinder in this roundup with a built-in waveform and vectorscope. The Cineroid is also the only viewfinder to offer support for the Canon LP-E6 battery, among other options. An LP-E6 battery will power this viewfinder for approximately 2 hours.

LCD Hoods

Those of you who rely on your HDSLR's built-in displays to focus and frame your shots might want to consider an LCD hood, to avoid glare in bright environments. The Vello 2.7”, 3.0”, and 3.5” are new models that are specifically designed for cameras with articulating LCD screens. The touch fastener attaches and detaches quickly, and the hood folds away for more convenient storage.

Lenses

There are several qualities beyond optics which distinguish cinema lenses from ordinary photo lenses. Samyang addresses a few of those qualities with cinema versions of their still lenses. The 8mm T3.8 fisheye Cine Lens, the 14mm T3.1 Cine Lens, the 24mm T3.1 Cine Lens, the 35mm T1.5 Cine Lens and the 85mm T1.5 Cine Lens have all been optimized for video production. This makeover includes industry standard gearing for the focus and iris adjustment rings, which provides an interface for a follow focus system. Samyang has also removed the clicks from the aperture ring to enable smooth aperture adjustments while shooting. Also, the aperture ring is now measured in T-stops, the motion-picture unit for measuring light transmission.

Canon has also introduced new lenses that have been optimized for video shooting. Their Stepping Motor lenses—or STM—feature smooth and silent autofocus, and with compatible cameras like the Rebel T4i, STM lenses will provide camcorder-like, continuous autofocus in live view and video mode.

Bi-Color LED Lights

The innovation of a bi-color LED was introduced several years ago as a solution to the problem caused by LEDs that often produce inconsistent results when using color-correction gels created for tungsten lights. While this technology itself is not an innovation introduced in 2012, the market for these lights has exploded this year with new features and improved efficiency.

In 2012, Litepanels introduced their first bi-color, on-camera light, the Croma LED. The design of the Croma is strikingly simple, with just two rubberized knobs for control. One knob is for smooth, flicker-free dimming, meaning light output can be adjusted while shooting video. The other knob adjusts color temperature from a cool 5600K (daylight) to a warm 3200K (tungsten). The Croma can run 1.5 hours on six AA batteries.

There are few on-camera LED lights that can match the brightness of the Switronix TorchLED Bolt LED Light. The Bolt is equivalent to a 200-watt tungsten light, with an output of 3,800 lux at 3.3'. The light’s high brightness is matched by a relatively high color rendering index of 89. A Sony L-series NP-F970 battery will power the light for roughly 2.5 hours.

The Ikan Mutli-K Variable Color Temperature LED Light is technically a tri-color LED. Rather than combining tungsten and daylight balanced LEDs, the Multi-K combines red, white and yellow LEDs to simulate a relatively wide range of color temperatures (3,200K–6,500K). The Multi-K differs from the other bi-color lights in regard to control as well. The Multi-K has a button that lets users quickly cycle through 5 color settings.

Rod Support Systems

Rod support systems can be deceptively complex pieces of equipment. On the surface, these rigs might appear relatively unchanged from year to year, but nothing could be further from the truth. Manfrotto's SYMPLA Flexible Mattebox Kit is an interesting example of looking backward to advance forward. The SYMPLA mattebox is a modern take on the bellows matte boxes that have been in use since the dawn of filmmaking. In order to block unwanted lens flare, the rubber hood extends and collapses, assuming whichever shape best suits the situation.

The foundation of all SYMPLA configurations is the SYMPLA variable plate. Worm gears run vertically and horizontally through the plate to allow for a range of precise adjustment during setup and a tight locking system while shooting. A third axis of adjustment is provided through a sliding quick release plate. These three axes of adjustment should allow SYMPLA support systems to precisely align most cameras and lenses for a seamless interface with accessories such as a matte box or follow focus.

For users shooting handheld, SYMPLA allows for a high degree of adjustment to provide comfort for the camera operator with their Shoulder Support System. The handles swivel 360 degrees and can be mounted on rods upside-down, allowing users to position them at whatever angle they find comfortable. The shoulder pad is based on a similar concept. Although it does not swivel, the shoulder pad can be mounted normally or facing up, to act as a brace against the operator's stomach.

The SYMPLA Long Lens Support System is exactly what it sounds like. Of course, SYMPLA has a different take on minimizing shake when mounting long lenses. With many long lens support systems, the camera mounts to the rods as it normally would regardless of the lens, and the lens is propped up by a support further down the rods. As you may be starting to realize, SYMPLA components don't necessarily do things the normal way. In the case of the SYMPLA long-lens rig, the lens mounts directly to the plate via an adapter that attaches to its collar. The camera is then supported behind the rig by a padded brace attached to the rods.

Vocas is another company taking a step forward by taking a look back. In an age when innovative glass and plastics (e.g. Gorilla Glass, D3O, etc.) are being introduced on an almost daily basis, who would have predicted that a pair of Wooden Hand Grips would be such a hit in 2012? With Arri style rosettes, these handcrafted grips should have high end appeal. The left and right versions of these ergonomic handles are sold individually. For those without an Arri baseplate, the rosette adapter from Shape will allow you to attach these grips to 15mm or 19mm rod supports.

Audio Adapters

The professional audio equipment industry has seen a tremendous surge in demand over the last few years from HDSLR users looking to overcome the poor audio quality recorded by their cameras. Beachtek, the maker of professional quality audio adapters for consumer camcorders, found themselves in a good position to meet this demand. They responded with the DXA-SLR Pro HD-SLR Audio Adapter. The features which separate the DXA-SLR from Beachtek’s previous offerings have everything to do with overcoming the challenges of recording audio directly into an HDSLR.

The most striking difference is the size and footprint of the unit. Designed to closely match the shape of the base of an HDSLR, the DXA-SLR hugs the bottom of the camera. The DXA-SLR has two XLR inputs with phantom power running into low noise pre-amplifiers. Most professional-grade mics use XLR and many require phantom power. The built-in AGC-disable function does exactly what it says. It attempts to stabilize fluctuating automatic gain levels by mixing an imperceptibly high frequency into the signal that is sent to the camera. This tricks the camera into thinking there is always healthy audio coming in, so it won't automatically adjust the gain up or down.

Functionally, the Juiced Link RA333 is similar to the DXA-SLR, but with a slightly different feature set. The RA333 offers three XLR inputs. Three inputs and a single stereo output open up new mixing choices. One intriguing option for mixing is the camera overload protection, which mixes the 3 channels and sends this mix to both outputs with -16dB attenuation on one channel. This enables the fixing of problems due to overload in post production.

Another way to circumvent poor HDSLR audio is to record dual-system audio. This technique is decades old, but Røde has put a new spin on it with the Røde VideoMic HD. Rather than recording audio to a bulky external recorder, Røde has added a built-in recorder to the microphone. Or did they build a microphone into their recorder? Either way, the VideoMic HD allows HDSLR shooters to simultaneously record audio on a microSD card and pass audio on to the camera to record for reference. Unlike other devices that only pass audio through to the camera without recording, the headphone output monitors the recorded signal. The VideoMic HD is capable of recording at 24-bit/96 kHz quality. A 32GB memory card should provide enough capacity for more than 10 hours of audio recording.

External Video Recorders

The most prominent innovation of the past year may have been in the cameras themselves. Before this year, innovations in external video recorders might not have made a big splash in the HDSLR world, but then the announcement of full screen, 4:2:2 quality HDMI output on HDSLRs like the Nikon D4, Nikon D800, Nikon D600 and the Sony A99 have changed that. Now, HDSLR owners are looking more closely at video recorders to improve the quality of their video recordings. The Atomos Ninja 2 recently replaced the original Ninja, offering new features such as HDMI loop through and upgradable firmware. The DNxHD format recording is a welcome addition for Avid editors.

Cases

Kata has introduced the Pro-Light Resource-61 PL Shoulder Bag to enable HDSLR shooters/editors to carry their entire mobile studio around with them. Measuring 20.9 x 11.4 x 13", the Resource 61 has space to carry a fully assembled HDSLR rig—and a 15.4” laptop—while still being svelte enough to fit in most airline overhead compartments. The case includes a rain cover to keep the contents of the bag dry, regardless of the advent of precipitation.

From the cameras you shoot with, to the cases that protect your investment, the entire industry has undergone a significant overhaul in the last year.  These innovations may have revolutionized the industry but they have still managed to stay true to the spirit of the HDSLR movement.  The idea behind HDSLRs has always been to put the most powerful tools in the hands of the most users possible, and these products are no different.  No matter where your interests in HDSLR video capture lie, the innovations of 2012 are bound to influence the way you shoot video for the foreseeable future. 

Add new comment

I'm interested in a 7" LCD to mount on my DSLR camera that would show live view of the picture being taken.

Hello,

This was a great article with a lot of information about the wonderful evolution taking place in this remarkable time of image-making. I would like to see (or work with) the deployment of focus-control devices for the Nikon family of DSLR's. If anyone is in this arena, feel free to contact me.

Thank you,

Thad