For Me Shooting Still Images And Motion Simultaneously Changes Everything

- - Working

Guest post by Scott Pommier

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.

dragon still life 2014

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:
 
Cost
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.
 
Storage
Crisis: You’ll need lots of it, backed up even. See above.
 
Opportunity: N/A
 
Workflow
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.
 
Lenses
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.
 
Weight
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.
 
Learning Curve
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.

Sample Images:

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There Are 22 Comments On This Article.

  1. I have an interesting perspective on this. I started out as a DP doing my own color correction shooting regional TV ads, music videos, films, etc… I later transitioned into photography and retouching. My big take on this, and I think clients are starting to pick up on it is this:

    Just because the tool is the same, it doesn’t mean the disciplines are the same, nor are the visions the same.

    Stills are moments in time, singular moments, which is why they can look so beautiful, especially the framing. Motion is about a sequence of events. Any DP worth a dime understands “the line”, continuity, the need to make sure that the shots string together in a cohesive manner – all of this results in a very different way of working, even framing shots. Most shots from a movie would be verly lack luster as stand alone images. Sure, the establishing shots of scenes could compare, but when you get into the dialog, the real “meat and potatos” of the scene, the framing tends to be more practical, beautifuly lit, but practical, because it’s not a single moment in time, it’s a minute or two and the viewer needs to understand whats happening when the image are strung together. I hear Vogue mentioned all the time, but seriously, have you looked at the Vogue videos? They are either music videos, or runway walking shots with no need for continuity or context.

    Framing and artistic vision aside, film is inherently more expensive to light and crew. Unlike a dedicated photo shoot where you can use compact lightweight strobes to replace a 5 ton grip truck worth of lighting and fix a bunch of stuff in post; motion is far more disciplined. You can’t easily fix stuff in post, and it costs a hell of a lot more to do it. Then there are the realities of production logistics. Whenver I see stills guys shooting video, I laugh. It’s obvious they really don’t know what on earth they are doing and experienced clients can see this clear as day. They are trying to work like a photographer, but just “turn on video mode”. It shows. The same is true for DP’s trying to suddenly move into stills. They overkill it. They bring out the HMI weighing 100 pounds, along with the generator required to power it, when they could just setup a 10 pound battery powerd monolight that is several times more powerful than their HMI.

    When you really step back, you realize that it’s usually going to be an “either or” type of situation. There aren’t many instances where mixing disciplines will work well. Artistic vision, technical details, and especially budget (you WILL spend FAR more on capturing quality motion).

    With all that said, I do recommend photographers learn to become a proper DP, but I don’t recommend trying to dual market themelves as some kind of “cinephotographer”. You can’t be all things to all people. I’ve recently split my website and marketing into two camps. One for DP / colorist work, the other photography / retouhing, but both sites link to each other.

    Just my 2 cents.

      • A limiting factor of trying to extract stills from video is that optimum stills and video require different exposures, thusly requiring two cameras for the proper acquisition of stills and video.

        Long story short, he art and physics of stills & video acquisition demand the following:

        Stills and Video Require Different Approaches, Shutter Speeds, Etc.

        A salient fact that one must honor while capturing simultaneous stills and video is that the two mediums generally require different shutter speeds for optimum quality. This is especially important when motion is present—either at the camera’s end, such as with a handheld rig, or when the subject is moving. When I was shooting Kelly Slater’s journey to victory at the Hurley Pro, exposure times for the Nikon D4 stills were generally between 1/2000s to 1/5000s, thereby freezing his action in mid-air, while the exposure for the video was around 1/60s to 1/120s—well over a magnitude of order difference!

        A touch of motion blur in video frames is more pleasing to the eye, while sharpness is generally sought in photographic stills. For this reason, the Red cameras are limited, even with their 4K and 5K image sizes. If you optimizes the shutter speed for sharpness with speeds of 1/2000s or just 1/1000s, the video will appear “stuttery,” like those old black and white WWII film clips. Should you optimize the shutter speed for video at around 1/60s to 1/120s, motion blur will creep into the stills, showing up in handheld shots or when the subject is moving. When photographer Kevin Arnold used a $65,000 Red EPIC rig (now around $40,000) to shoot skiers at Whistler Mountain, he concluded, “The EPIC’s sensor, while amazing for video, just isn’t on par with top-end DSLRs and certainly not even close to medium format digital cameras when it comes to still images. The bigger challenge—especially when shooting fast moving lifestyle or sports action—is achieving fast shutter speeds. The great majority of the frames we shot were soft due to either camera movement or subject motion blur. This is the single biggest issue with pulling stills from video.”

        So it is that two dedicated cameras–one for stills and one for video–will beat any single camera trying to do both.

  2. carlos armando jackson

    Scott, I wonder if you could also speak on other production realities that go along with still capture such as the shutter speed needed for freezing action, vertical compositions, and the culling process and turn around time. I think this camera is a great resource for producers, but It would be good to know the trade offs of not hiring a separate stills unit.

    • RED markets the Epic and Scarlet as stills capable cameras, but the dirty little detail they don’t market, last time I checked (the camera is always being upgraded) is that the “stills mode” does not exist yet. Even the flash sync port on the SLR style grip does not work the last time I investigated that. It’s a cinema camera only right now. I’ve heard that in order to get flashes to work, you’d probably need a special light to do it. I know they now have a “motion mount” that might make some degree of studio strobe light possible, but it’s an expensive add on. Why mess with all of this?

      My brother assisted on a big commercial shoot in California a while ago that shot “dual”, they did not use the RED for stils. They had two dedicated crews – obviously, in my opinon, the producers did their research.

      • Chris, I think the idea is to shoot motion and grab the stills from that, so it’s dual-purpose (rather than using “stills mode.”

        • I understand that, but originally the company was touting that the camera could used like a fully functioning still camera, ie. flash sync, individual RAW files, etc… They haven’t kept the promise and it’s been years since it’s release. As for grabbing frames out of motion, 99% of the time that isn’t an option. Most filmmakers agree that motion looks best at 24p with a 180 degree shutter (aka 1/48 in photographer speak). That’s way too much motion blur for stills. A smaller shutter angle will give you a better still but the motion will look very ugly and is rarely used by DP’s. I only know of a few films that have done this for artistic effect. Saving Private Ryan used a small shutter angle for the landing scenes. I has a weird unrealistic feel, not really the kind most directors want for most material.

          • Well, the sample images posted here look nice and crisp; I wonder what the frame rate etc. was for those (I assume they’re video grabs, not still shots).

            • I think this part of the thread is the most important—shutter speed difference for still and motion picture. As stated above 24p (1/48th sec) is ideal for motion picture but not very good for stills (most of the time). So the notion that both stills and motion picture can be shot in one take is still not a reality. There is still going to have to be a still take and a motion picture take. So might as well use the best equipment for each department—which is what we do now. Even when I use the same camera for stills and motion, we still have two different camera package setups that get handed off when it’s time to shoot motion vs. still.

              Really the only way to get great still and motion from one take would be for RED to somehow create a camera that can shoot at two different shutter speeds at once and write two different files. But that would create two different exposures. So along with the dual shutter speeds, the camera would also need to be shooting at dual ISOs to compensate for the exposure (I’m assuming the 3rd part of that equation would be modifying the aperture or ND filtering and that sounds physically impossible). RED already has an HDRx mode which creates a high dynamic range file by shooting two different exposures simultaneously so this is probably doable at some point.

              Jim, the images above are being displayed on the web at 72dpi probably around 800 pixels wide down sampled from a 6000 pixel wide file. So they look great should there be any artifacts in those original 6000 pixel wide files. But if you tried to print a spread image for an advertisement of an image shot at 1/48th of a second at 300dpi 17inches wide, you may not feel the same about the image. Case in point, your iPhone images look great on your phone, Facebook page, Instagram, etc. but try doing a full size print…

              • Well, from the article: “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.”

                I’m from the old school, I’ve made 16mm films and shot thousands of chromes on assignment, and developed thousands of rolls of b&w film, and shot MF and 4×5. So I totally understand these issues. But we’re living at a time when iPhone photos have been published on the cover of Time magazine.

              • I’ve heard of possibly pulling a second exposure out of the Reds HDRX mode, but as always, the devil is in the details. Last time I looked, it has less data to work with and of course, workflow is a nightmare.

                I really think that, despite the technology changing, stills and video are inherently different beasts with vastly different goals and methodologies. What on earth prevented us from having “dual” shoots in the past with blimped DSLRs and 35mm film cameras? Nothing. The only reason people are suddenly talking about it is because the cameras converged, as if that’s really something special? It isn’t, even with HDRX mode. I’ve decided I’m going to write an extensive blog post to address this and aim it at art directors, producers, etc… People are too focused on “its the same box-o-circuits and lens now!” and are missing the more fundamental problems. For example: I as a DP, suddenly have TWO SHOOTS but only time enough for one allotted (that’s how most producers will likely set it up). How on earth is that going to bennefit anyone? So you increase the time for stills production, ok… so why are we smooshing two shoots together again? Am I doing both? If we have two different guys, the photographer might have conflicts with the director. Remember, photographers direct talent. DP’s don’t, they collaborate with the director who works with the talent. Does a director have any idea what makes a great still photo? Just another HUGE detail people are missing. I think this could be a very informative blog post.

                I’m not entirely against dual shoots, but I see lots of issues affecting over all quality and artistic vision that aren’t being discussed.

      • Yes Chris! As you say! “RED markets the Epic and Scarlet as stills capable cameras, but the dirty little detail they don’t market, last time I checked (the camera is always being upgraded) is that the “stills mode” does not exist yet.”

        For the past several years, we have been inviting RED fanboyz to a stills & video shoot-out–a RED EPIC DRAGON against our 45surfer rig at pro surfing events.

        http://45surfer.wordpress.com
        https://vimeo.com/87324248

        So far, there have been no RED operator takers nor attempts to match word and deed and live up to the marketing hype, but just more marketing hype, which is beginning to wear thin, escpecially with all the rising 4K/5K options. Model shoot, surfers shoot, any shoot–we’d like to challenge any RED operator to see who can obtain the best stills & video shot at the same time. And now, with the soon-to-be-released Sony 4K Camcorder, followed by a deluge of other 4K goodness, acquiring 36mp stills alongside 4K video, with two dedicated cameras, will rock.

  3. I’ve worked a lot on dual sets where I’m shooting stills in between or during film shoots. Shooting stills is very different than film. I’m bopping around different heights angles etc …. While the film crew is locked into rails. I think the idea of pulling stills out of film shoots will really degrade the moments that make stills great. It can sometimes be tricky working dual sets but mostly it’s been great.

  4. Folks have been accurately pointing out how shooting video and stills simultaneously is far from ideal. But we’re living in an age where phone photos have been published on the cover of Time, and newspaper staff photographers have been fired and writers are asked to shoot phone photos for their stories (Chicago Sun-Times).

    Of course shooting both at once is problematic, but people have been doing it with good results, and the reality is that at least some clients are going to ask for this whether it’s a great idea or not; to save money and to get the most out of a shoot.

    The sample stills posted here look pretty good to me, though I haven’t seen them at full res.

    • My biggest concern is really of a business nature. As photographers, we can do better than DPs in most situations because we control the media and it’s rights. DP’s do not, its work for hire. The production company is the one controlling the rights. Crap deal for the DP and I don’t want that kind of mindset washing over into photography. I can only hope that DP’s will wake up and start requiring that they own the footage or get a portion of license fees / backend profits from films.

  5. Great article on the changing times. Could you clarify the part where you say you bought a RED One, but then were in line for a RED EPIC upgrade? Those camera bodies are not exchangeable/upgradable — and a difference of tens of thousands of dollars.

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