Until recently I had no interest in the convergence of stills and motion. I bought a Canon 5d mark II well after the surge of photographer-made videos, and owned that camera for more than a year before I switched it to video mode. That was at the urging of my agent who had been telling me that it was becoming important to have some examples of moving-image to show clients. I shot one crummy video and went back to using my 35mm film SLR. I’d heard that photographers of the future would be shooting with magical hybrid cameras, but it didn’t seem relevant to my process (my camera of choice when shooting a portrait or a fashion story is still a Pentax 67). I knew that some photographers had been extracting stills from RED footage, but that was all purely academic, something that the Steven Kliens of the world were doing that made little sense for the way that I worked.
November of last year a friend let me know that RED was selling off their old Red One cameras at shockingly affordable price. These were cameras that company had taken as traded-in, and they’d been outfitted with a new sensor. Bigger and heavier than RED’s current models but fully capable of shooting a Hollywood feature. It seemed like an amazing opportunity and without nearly enough thought, I launched into a whole new dimension of my career. It’s now been a year since my first small moving-image production, and looking back it’s amazing to see how my mindset and how my way of working has changed. I thought I would share my understanding of what the latest breakthrough in cameras means for me.
I was looking to upgrade to a newer cinema camera, having outgrown the Red One. RED had recently announced an entirely new sensor. Current owners of the RED Epic could have their camera-bodies upgraded with the new 6k Dragon sensor (The Dragon camera is also available new, but, well, it’s complicated.
RED has sort of tiered approach to ownership, which is a topic for another day.) I bought a camera from a guy who was already waiting in the upgrade line, he had quite a good spot as it turned out. Overnight I went from being 15-years behind the times to using a camera that only a handful of people in the world had access to.
Red has been claiming that their cameras were capable of producing a usable still image for some time now, and to be fair that was sorta’ true. With the best resources it was possible and there are Vogue covers to prove it, but, having pulled stills from both Red One and Epic cameras I have to say, the results were, maybe not underwhelming, but not exactly overwhelming either, maybe just whelming? But for anyone tempted to dismiss the latest hype about the Dragon camera as nothing more than the same predictable public relations blast, I will tell you, for me, this camera changes everything. The Dragon allows you to shoot still images and motion images simultaneously.
A few numbers, for the uninitiated: RED’s new Epic ‘Dragon’ is capable of producing 6k files. What that means is that each frame can be up to 19.4 megapixel or 6144 x 3160 which gives you a 20.48” x 10.53” image at 300dpi. The sensor boasts a 16.5 stop dynamic range. Where the original Epic had a native ISO of 800, the Dragon performs well between 200 and 2000. Less impressive than the latest 35mm DSLRs but far more forgiving than current medium-format offerings (it is worth noting that DSLRs make use of ‘in-camera’ noise reduction, and which still results in significant loss of detail at high ISO settings.)
There are all kind of color-charts and controlled tests that plot one camera or film or digital back against another. I leave that kind of testing to people who are a good deal more thorough than I am. But after taking this thing out for a spin the difference was obvious. Shooting under the hot-noon sun yielded very similar results to print film, in terms of color rendering and contrast. There is also a sharp yet smooth quality to the images, like a high-resolution scan of medium-format film. In fact this ‘movie camera’ produces the best digital stills I’ve ever seen. I include in that list the Sony f55, the Arri Alexa, any and all DSLRs, Leica’s M9 and S2, The new Phase One back and even the Hasselblad that looks like a Ferrari, all of them. The Dragon is the first digital camera that has made me hopeful that I will be able to continue shooting images that match the look and feel of my current work even with the impending demise of film.
What does this all mean? Potentially it could mean a lot of things. One thing it could mean is that in many cases, photographers could be replaced. Talented DP’s who shoot day-in-day-out, use the sharpest lenses known to man and have a team of people to light a scene, they know how to take pictures, really good pictures. Now extracting those pictures is easier than ever, and the resolution of those pictures is greater than ever. Why bring in a photographer who’s going to disrupt the workflow when you could just reset, quickly change your shutterspeed/ISO (if that’s even necessary.) Imagine a 1st A.D. yelling out “Capturing for print! Okay, moving on.” Scary right?
Alternatively… say you’re hired to shoot stills but in addition to the stills you end up with broadcast-quality footage, footage that you could license to the client. Exciting right?
It’s what Homer Simpson might call a “crisi-tunity.” You can make of it what you will, but there’s every chance the world will change a little bit, for better or for worse, or perhaps for better and for worse.
Thrilled as I am with my new camera and all that it does, I will be the first to tell you that having your still camera wrapped up in a movie camera creates some difficulties. Here are a few things to consider:
Crisis: Expensive, buying the camera is just the start
Opportunity: Two cameras for the price of one. As expensive as the Dragon is, when is the last time Canon or Nikon allowed you to swap out your sensor rather than simply selling you a new camera? Or offered a factory trade-in program? The fact is for a camera that shoots capital M Movies the Dragon comparatively cheap. Red has also kept the same form factor, despite criticisms (believe it or not) that the camera is too small. The advantage there is that accessories carry over between models, even after upgrades. There are also a number of third-party manufacturers such as Wooden Camera that make some very clever and affordable components.
Crisis: You’ll need lots of it, backed up even. See above.
Crisis: If you like to chimp in the field (you know: shoot, look, shoot, look) it’s not nearly so quick to review footage, especially slow motion to double-check that you’ve got the shot.
Opportunity: When you’re editing you have the opportunity to find moments you hadn’t considered during capture. On slow-motion takes you’ll be able to pinpoint the exact timing you’re after. Also, programs like Premiere Pro 6 handle the native RAW files in a really interesting way, allowing your to review and edit the footage at a lower resolution, if you edit at say ¼ resolution, the footage is still sharp (HD sharp actually) but even a laptop is often able to play everything in real time. This is a huge leap forward from the old days of RED footage, the memory of which still haunts a lot of people who will tell you that the post workflow with RED cameras is prohibitively cumbersome. These are the people who thought that Elvis’ pelvic gyrations on the Ed Sullivan show were too obscene for the viewing public. Feel free to ignore these people.
Crisis: Cinema lenses are expensive and heavy.
Opportunity: Interchangeable mounts allow you to use your ‘still’ lenses, also cinema lenses can be incredibly sharp. Also, when collimated the ‘witness marks’ (distance scale) are accurate, so you can measure to ensure focus, or set marks on the lens to track focus on moving subjects. Inferior to tracking autofocus in some ways, better in others.
Crisis: Heavy! Hand holdable, but flying with cinema gear is a drag. Lugging it around a set is a drag.
Opportunity: Solidly built, steadier than your 7d footage. The system is modular and can be configured in all kinds of ways, from a fairly portable one all the way to a Hollywood technocrane setup.
Crisis: Lots to learn, from the gear to the workflow, to the jargon.
Opportunity: Lots of support to help you learn. Learning is fun. Mashing buttons is learning!
The Dragon is just the first of many cameras will further blur the line between still and motion capture. No matter how you feel about that, this is not the time stick your head in the sand, or to wait for the storm to pass, or to hope that the genie will go back in the bottle. Quite the opposite, which I guess means that, it’s time to emerge from the sand during a storm and unleash a genie? What I’m trying to say is that sooner or later this kind of technology will become commonplace, and you should think about what that will mean for how you work and how you market your talents.