Essential Gear for the Arizona Trail

Northern Arizona Cinder Cones Now that I’ve finally finished adding photos from the Arizona Trail to my website, I can now focus on other tasks. One such task is this blog post, a list of gear that I found invaluable and/or highly useful on the trail. Note that some links may be affiliate links, but I was not approached by any company to write anything below. They are my honest opinions about the gear that got me through the trail. Continue reading "Essential Gear for the Arizona Trail"

Recording Voice Overs

AT2035 in case

AT2035 in case

Recording voice overs isn’t as simple as it seems. I’ve been working on getting the audio set for Antarctic Tears: The Movie, and it’s been a long haul getting audio correct. As all still cameras now have video capability, learning better audio to present your video and still work is worthwhile. The Nikon D800 records amazing film, as well as the Canon 5Diii. Photographer  journalists are now virtually expected to produce good video as well as compelling stills.

Apple would have you believe you can just hook your ear buds into the computer, click the Record Voice Over in Final Cut Pro X and everything will be good. Only if you want room noise, the dog next door barking, and lots of static hiss to ruin your otherwise good film.

How about the built in microphone on your Macbook Retina? Only if you want to record fan noise, your keyboard strokes and who knows what else.

No, you have to go to some effort to get good audio and a great deal of effort to get excellent audio. People spend a lot of money on it! How do you make a basic voice over that sounds decent?

  • Buy a great mic
  • Buy an awesome audio recorder
  • Build a sound booth [you’re an audio engineer, right?]

10k later, you’ll be set for your first audio book. Maybe.

OR

Don’t believe it? Here are 2 audio samples of what you’ll get if you chose

A bad recording location: Wood floors, cathedral ceiling, lots of windows. This was recorded directly into a Zoom H4n into the stereo mics

You can hear the room echo. It’s terrible and makes the voice over difficult to hear.

Now, listen to this audio recorded on a Audio Technica AT2035 connected to the Zoom H4n in mono mode (mono input mode makes it possible to use a single microphone and record on both stereo tracks).

You can hear the voice, it’s clear and there’s no high or low frequency echo. Would this be better if it were recorded on a Schoeps CMC641G microphone? Sure! But you’ll be set back $2000 or more just for the microphone.

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Panasonic Lumix DMZ-FZ1000 review

panasonic-lumix-dmz-fx1000It shoots very nice UHD (not truly 4k) video. There is some noise in the image but that’s to be expected for this price point.

For the body size and handling, it’s really a nice camera for the right person. I can’t use it for my general shooting for several reasons but if I want a stealthy UHD camera, this one just might fit the bill. At a price below $900, I was stunned just how good it actually was.

Image quality

Photo courtesy of Sava Malachowski

Photo courtesy of Sava Malachowski, © Sava Malachowski

The IQ (image quality) of the camera for a still is pretty good, though it’s not a higher end Nikon or Canon. Don’t be fooled. In dark areas at low ISO it’s easy to see the noise. A huge zoom lens just won’t have the resolution for stills. For most, they’ll be amazed. But if you’re discerning, you’ll be only “okay” with the shadow performance.

If you click on the image on the right, you can see a small sized sample of the full image. The red box shows the 1:1 sample area of the image on the moose hide. For as good as the image looks in full screen, when you get down to the nitty gritty, you’ll see it’s “okay”. I didn’t have time to do a MTR test or anything, but those don’t translate well into “what does it actually look like” terms.

1:1 quality of moose hide, you can see noise in the image, 1/160, f/5, ISO 125, 63mm

1:1 quality of moose hide, you can see noise in the image, 1/160, f/5, ISO 125, 63mm

But for video quality you get a very nice image. I was pretty amazed to see it on an iMac display, even though the image was interpolated. It was just clearer than I’ve seen HD. Really, it looked like HD played on a 120Hz TV display. That was the look. The video samples were shot at 60FPS, so perhaps that helped. It really looked like the real thing. I didn’t expect it to be that much better than HD. But if you stack up a 3-chip HD camera with better dynamic range against a limited range, small sensor like this, you might be pressed to tell the difference. Again in the shadows there will be noise. The again, what do you expect for a small form factor single chip camera?

Lens

The aperture goes from about f/3 to ONLY f/8. That’s really miserable for photography. Nature of small sensor cameras. Even though the specs claim f/2.8 to f/11, in the shooting I was testing it with, it only really gave me f/3 to f/8 to work with. That’s a tough one, especially in full daylight shooting.

That zoom and optical stabilizer is awesome. I’d love to have something that goes from 25mm to 400mm and does a real good job on my D800. If I did, I could dump a bunch of other lenses. But I’d need it to be f/2.8 and have it go to f/22. Oh well, I can dream.

Dynamic Range

We had a snow shot with moose and it worked pretty well. But the snow on the mountains was blown out in the video with zebras set to 95%. Again, it’s not a D800 but it’ll blow away your little basic point and shoot. But I think my Sony RX-100 probably still beats it for dynamic range.

View finder

The electronic viewfinder – not bad for a video camera, okay for landscape shooting but poor for sports/action/moving things. When you pan/tilt, you get an image jitter. The swim is very small but the smearing in the image will irritate you if you shoot an optical DSLR. EVF (electronic view finders) aren’t there yet. I worked at a digital night vision company where we went to great efforts to have zero swim, jitter or anything else and this isn’t even close. Then again, those systems were $60,000 and this is $900. You get what you pay for.

The info in the viewfinder for a video camera is very nice. It fits the bill of shooting things where a video camera would get you into trouble. For the price, the image quality is pretty amazing. Is there better dynamic range and such out there? Yes, The GH4 and upwards. But for what this is going for, it really makes UHD accessible.

Controls

The switch to go from zoom to MF – not a fan. 2 rings are more expensive, though. There’s the zoom rocker on the shutter release. Eh, it’s under a finger, so it feels like a little point and shoot zoom for the video camera it’s designed for.

The fully manual video camera mode – thank goodness! Not allowing me to control Auto-ISO ruins other camcorders/DSLRs. Locking down exposure is critical if you want professional-looking images.

The different programmable function buttons are nice for getting what you want. Some of the switch modes like focus control are appreciated. They’re not in ergonomic places like my D800 at all. There are buttons which are appreciated on a video camera but the layout leaves lots to be desired. Like all things, it’s something you get used to.

Autofocus

The autofocus – amazingly fast. I’m not sure what they put in there but it must be a hybrid phase/contrast focus system because it matches my Nikon D800 focus speed quite easily. However, when you need to control focus points, that’s where it falls apart.

Storage

You’ll need lots more storage to use UHD on this camera. Your puny little 320GB drive will be gone in no time shooting with this. Think 2TB drives minimum. Why do I say this? I’m editing my film, Antarctic Tears, which is a feature length film. And it eats up 228GB of my SSD drive. And that’s shot in HD. This camera has almost 4x the resolution. Even a 500GB SSD won’t even come close to supporting a feature length film. 4k/UHD video is what HD was to our computers 10 years ago. Be ready to spend a LOT of money if you want to really work with this.

Other items

Major video shooting issue: This thing has no earphone out. That is one major failing. Why in the world they left this out is beyond me. Perhaps Panasonic is trying to push you into a higher end camera. You might be able to use the AV out and cobble something together. Who knows w/o that cable.

If you don’t have ears on your video camera, you’ll realize only after the shot is over what went wrong. I can pipe audio through my ZoomH4n and listen there, as I can use that as my XLR input, but still. No, this doesn’t have XLR. Of course not.

ND filters for video – buy one. You’ll need one. Or two. For a 3-stop ND, I use this Hoya filter.

The batteries seem to konk out pretty quick, but we were shooting at 10 degrees F with wind chill. Buy more batteries.

You’ll need an UHS-1 SD card for it. UHD video eats up a LOT of card space. I hope you bought a spare hard disk or three. Editing this video – get Rocketstore Thunderbolt enclosure with a SSD drive with a fast computer.

Buy your Panasonic Lumix DMZ-FX1000 here at B&H Photo.

Thank you to Sava Malachowski of Sava Film and Open Range Films for the sample images and video. He had excellent footage to sample and work with in tough conditions, shooting in a Wyoming winter with dark animals and bright snow. There’s not much tougher.

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Camera, lenses, filters – what else do I need?

We are getting you "geared up" for an amazing experience in nature and wildlife photography.  I have discussed camera essentials, lenses, and filters in the last postings. This time I want to wrap-up the gear you will need  by discussing some of the accessories needed to photograph in the wild.

By now you know or have the big things needed to capture digital images, but as with most endeavors, the devil is in the details. So what is in the camera bag or backpack that keeps you taking great photographs? The first thing is the bag itself. There are 3 or 4 options for carrying your gear in the field. The first is going bare with lens and camera for a specific shot. This works sometimes but nature is not always predictable and more times than not, she will offer you amazing and totally unexpected opportunities, if you have your gear along. A second option is a traditional over-the-shoulder camera bag. This is nice near the car but usually doesn't lend itself well in the back country or down a long trail. A third option is a gear vest and/or a fanny pack. These were great in the film days when you needed many rolls of film and a means of separating fresh and exposed film but I find these are too small to carry extra lenses that I might need. Option four is a rigid travel case that works great in the city but has little role once you are outside your car. Finally, my choice for outdoor work is a purpose-design SLR back pack such as those made by Lowepro and Tamrac. In my Tamrac Expedition 5x pack I can carry a spare camera body, 5 lenses, and all of the accessories I will discuss later. It has an integral tripod holder and many tie-points to strap a water bottle and additional gear.  I added a padded waist belt and can haul about 30 pounds of gear for several miles in reasonable comfort.  Everything is padded, adjustable, and easily accessible.

Nothing can ruin a photo shoot faster than a full memory card or a dead battery.  For this reason I carry at least one spare battery for each camera body (and their chargers for both car 12VDC and AC mains (110 or 220VAC) with the proper adapters. I also carry a 32GB memory card in the camera and several 16 GB spares. I can shoot more than 1,000 high-resolution RAW shots with one battery and card.

I have a velcro filter case strapped to one shoulder in which I carry a variable neutral density filter, circular polarizing filter (CPL), and spare UV/haze filter. In the pack I carry a rectangular 2-stop hard-edge, graduated neutral density filter, holder and adapters. These filters usually get me through most difficult lighting situations. I also have a 5-way, collapsible reflector to help bring light to the shadows. At this time, I do not carry a flash/speed-light/strobe with me in the back country. I probably should but I find the pop-up, in-camera strobe and the reflector serve me well. Someday maybe I will find space for a flash, and a flash extender, flash filters, and spare flash batteries, and a bigger backpack.

In the bag I also carry a 1.4x teleconverter and a set of 3 extension tubes.  The teleconverter increases the range / magnification of my telephoto lenses and the extension tubes can be used to reduce the closest focus point of all of my lenses. These are especially useful for close-up and macro shots.

Don't forget to carry a remote shutter release with you in the wild. These come in several varieties from mechanical, to electrical, to infrared, to radio controlled. The important thing is to be able to fire your camera without touching it and causing motion (camera shake) during long exposures or high magnification shots such as macro or long telephoto shots.

Finally, in the bag I carry cleaning gear including a Lenspen brush, several microfiber cleaning cloths, lens cleaning solution, a blower, and lens paper. These essentials usually get me through any field clean-up operations and keep my optics clean.

Lastly, the most important accessory of all, is your camera stabilization gear - your tripod. Camera stabilization is critical for telephoto shots, long exposure shots, high dynamic range (HDR) shots, panorama shots, macro and close-up shots - did I miss anything? I cannot emphasize the importance of a good tripod in capturing good photographs. Not all shots are taken with a tripod but many are, and virtually all shots could be improved if a tripod is used. Now the reality is that tripods are large, bulky, awkward, and heavy to carry.  However, small, light-weight tripods are totally worthless and a complete waste of money.  The purpose of a tripod is to provide an absolutely rigid mount for your lens or camera - it must be solid, sturdy, and stable. What choices are available?

One of the first choices in selecting a tripod is the strength defined by the maximum load weight capacity. You need a tripod capable of holding the head, camera, and largest lens you will use. Once you know the weight capacity you need to choose the construction - most tripods today are made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Pound for pound, carbon fiber is lighter, stronger, more durable, and more capable of reducing vibration than is aluminum - obviously, with these qualities, it is also more expensive. Next, you need to consider the maximum and minimum heights at which the tripod can be used.  High quality tripods have legs that extend widely to place the camera very low to the ground and straighten to give lift to eye-height.  Some tripods have a central elevating column to gain additional height.  The center columns often reduce the stability of the tripod when extended and interfere with lowering the tripod for low-level ground shots.  

Two other choices are available in tripod construction - the number of leg sections and the means of securing the leg extensions. Most brands of tripods have both 3 and 4 section leg extension models. The 3 extension models are usually quicker to set-up, stronger and sturdier but also fold to a longer storage length. The extensions can be secured by either flip-locks or twist locks. People tout the advantages of both but as long as the locks are strong, I don't think the type of lock makes a difference. Some tripods offer padded feet with extension spikes for greater stability.

Sometimes a monopod is a useful camera stabilization tool in the wilderness. It is no substitute for a good tripod but the monopod can reduce fatigue and add stability to action shots such as sports or birds in flight. Monopods have aluminum or carbon fiber construction and are available with a 3 or 4 section leg. Some tripods have a detachable leg that works as a monopod. Some inovative photographers have modified their monopods to be used as a walking stick or their walking sticks to be used as a monopod.

As if tripods were not difficult enough, the head that joins the tripod to your camera or lens is even more complicated. Older tripods used almost exclusively a "pan and tilt" head to control the three planes of rotation of the camera on the tripod. These heads are modification of what was used for video and movies. These heads require either two or three adjustment knobs to change the camera position. Most still photographers in recent years have adopted a ball-head mount. The ball head allows faster re-positioning by loosening only one adjustment knob to move the camera in all three planes. The ball-heads come in several sizes and the larger sizes usually support the most weight and give the greatest stability. There are many designs of the ball-heads and costs vary widely. The third type of head used by nature photographers is the gimbal head. This is a significantly larger mount that is necessary for today's super-telephoto and very large aperture lenses. The gimbal mount keeps the center of gravity of the camera and lens at the exact center of rotation so there is no resistance to movement and no tendency for the heavy lens to drop downward as it can with a pan-and-tilt or ball-head mount. These gimbal mounts are fairly heavy and quite expensive.

The last accessory is a quick-release fitting between you tripod head and camera or lens. The quick-release comes in several styles but the ARCA-Swiss style is becoming an industry standard. The quick-release allows a strong and stable connection between your camera/lens and tripod but yet allows the camera to be removed quickly for hand-held shooting. The last thing you want to do to your camera is to screw it off and on your tripod and risk damage to the camera or lens. The quick-release is a good solution. Get a system for your tripod(s) and a mounting plate for each camera/lens with a fitting.

With all of the complexity of tripods and heads, you might ask what do I use? Unfortunately, the answer is all of the above. For years I got along with a Manfroto carbon fiber tripod with center column elevator, 4-extension, snap-lock legs, and a ball-head. It was a perfect union for the nature photographer who like to hike deep in the woods or high in the mountains. Then I got my 600mm f/4 super-telephoto lens. This monster 12 pound lens simply could not be used safely or comfortably on a ball-head so I was forced to get another tripod and head - this time a Sirui carbon fiber tripod without a center column elevator with 3-extension, twist lock legs and a Wimberly gimbal head. This is a rock-stable rig that will hold the heaviest dSLR lenses and cameras made - but, it is heavy. The tripod weighs over 5 pounds (and extends to my full height) and the head weighs another 4 pounds. Add a 3 pound camera and 12 pound lens and it makes you want to give up hiking!

There you have it - all the accessories you will need to accumulate for serious nature photography. So before you dip your toe in this water consider the merits of a nice 1.5 pound point-and-shoot camera with a super-zoom lens - it does a pretty good job and will always be with you in the wild.