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This post is really about the pertaining long-form video, above, that takes a deep dive into the features of an exciting new product from Luxli called the Cello, part of their Orchestra series of full-color lighting that started with their smaller Viola. The video is a full tour through the smartphone/tablet app called Luxli Conductor for Android and iOS, showing you its numerous Bluetooth control features that include white balance control, color gels, color pickers (from a live view or from recorded media), and RGB sliders. I show the app controls as an inset on the right side of the screen, with a matching live view of the light’s actual emission (onto a 1.1x projection screen) on the left side, starting at the 8-minute mark, captured using a Sony a7 III, with no color profile, in UHD-4K resolution, set to reference indoor white balance (3200K).
As mentioned in the video, if we were to judge things by the annual hysteria at the NAB show last month, this year it was all about color lighting, which goes by several abbreviations: RGB, RGBW, and RGBAW. That last spec, which defines the Cello, stands for red/green/blue/amber/white. It literally means that there are separate light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for each of those colors, combined under one “lens” as seen in the below close-ups, that work together casting pretty much any color you can dream up. You could achieve it less effectively with just red, green and blue LEDs in combination, but by adding white, you get better performance especially when you want to use the light just for its most common purpose, illuminating subjects in indoor and outdoor color temperatures without any hue/color bias. And by adding amber, you get even better performance than mixed RGB, when you want to throw purer incandescent-range color temperatures into the mix.
The video best explains (at great length!) the various nuts and bolts of how it works, and the design of the product. Some highlights include the fact that it takes Sony NP-F series batteries, which you never need to buy in the form of Sony/OEM because these are, after all, just lights. So Luxli includes a generic NP-F750 battery that runs about two hours, while you can also upgrade to a Watson NP-F975 for longer than three hours. Speaking of Watson, I also like that they include their innovative wall charger with retractable AC prongs — which also can double as a charger for just about any battery on the market, using removable adapter plates for two bucks each. I explained and reviewed Watson’s charging system here at the blog a few years ago. (Lately, it’s an affordable remedy to answer Sony’s greed for not providing any charger with the new a7 III.)
When it comes to external power options, unfortunately that USB port you see here isn’t actually for bus power — just for firmware updates, if they happen. The round “coaxial” barrel socket to its left is what you’d use for powering via an AC adapter, though they don’t specify what to get. Here’s the product that B&H links to at their pertaining Recommended Accessories page; at twelve bucks, they probably should’ve just thrown one in.
I’m looking forward to their release of a promised diffusion soft box that’s custom-molded to this Cello, just like the one they made for the Viola. That’ll make this product a portable all-purpose contender, perhaps creating buyer’s regret for that well-received but overpriced Aputure Amaran MX that I reviewed a few weeks ago. Of course, the combination of a strong diffusion filter, and its spacing away from the light surface, will result in decreased total light output, but having this flexibility to add diffusion easily, is a must.
Speaking of price, it’s available now at B&H for $399. That feels like a tough pill to swallow for such a small light, but there’s nothing else like it on the market, considering the broad range of control via smartphone/tablet app, and programmability for special effects that can equally serve modest theatrical/musical performances as well as any movie set. In that regard, multiple units can be chained together for discrete or synchronized control via Bluetooth. I just hope that this Orchestra product line takes off (would their 1×1 panel be called “String Bass”?) so that it’s possible to build a truly integrated kit with centralized remote control. Even better: could all these LED light manufacturers get together and agree on a standard protocol for light control — sort of a Z-Wave for studio lighting? That would be awesome.
Aputure is finally (slowly and belatedly) delivering their Amaran MX portable LED light, following up their innovative ultra-compact Amaran M9 that costs $45. At more than triple the price, is this new MX worth it?
Well, it arguably out-performs the M9 by at least a factor of three, so that’s something. But Aputure seems to be fast forgetting its modest roots as a budget alternative to Litepanels and the like — I’m sure it costs a lot to pay poster child Ted Sims‘ salary, and send him on a non-stop global evangelism tour — so now, it’s sad that they’re losing focus on the survival principle to tag what it really costs to make these things, even after a healthy profit margin. And anyway, they blew their manufactured hype by making everyone wait almost a full year since announcing the product mid-2017.
But here’s the run-down, before diving into the technical details:
- Internal lithium battery, not removable: a good thing
- USB-C power: because Micro-USB is dead
- Solid construction: but did that heat sink need to be so thick and heavy?
- Diffusion: frosted plastic plus flexible gel are a great combination
- Interface: solid, logical, and easy to use
- Price: way too high, but there’s no competition (yet)
Opinions will vary, but I really like the way that there’s no external battery mount on this thing. It would have made the total form factor much bigger, while also, USB-driven external power as a supplement is extremely ubiquitous these days: we all stash a USB battery pack and charger with our gear anyway, and that’s the trend we’re seeing in, for example, the Sony a7 series cameras — the option for USB power, both for charging and for an active power bus. Then, I’m glad that Aputure went with the USB-C port standard, which is much more durable, with less fiddling at insertion because there’s no directionality to the plug (up vs. down).
Compared to its plastic M9 predecessor, the metal MX is substantially heavier owing mostly to a thick and heavy red heat sink on the back, seen in the picture at right. After leaving the light on at full brightness, I didn’t sense that it was fully necessary, but here you could give Aputure’s engineers the benefit of the doubt. Yet it certainly more than doubles the weight and size of the thing, so I hope it’s worth it.
I love the textured black metal surface, the solid tactile button controls, and the intuitive layout. As seen in the below pictures, the up/down buttons on the left control either color temperature, or brightness, depending on the mode selected by the switch just to their right. There are only five gradations/steps in either category, however, so this is not a device you can finely tune (and you definitely can’t make adjustments during a rolling shot, like you could on a light with continuously adjustable knobs).
Also, this is a typical LED matrix with light elements that have fixed indoor color temperature, interspersed with light elements that have fixed outdoor color temperature, as seen at right — and all you’re doing is adjusting the relative brightness of each category. Thus you actually achieve maximum brightness during a blend of indoor and outdoor LED elements, at the halfway point — though in real-world use, given the realities of complicated shooting environments that usually reflect and create blended color temperatures, you’ll usually find yourself firing in that brighter middle zone anyway.
Speaking of brighter, there’s that exciting-looking button labeled Booster: it gives you a temporary, one-minute burst of around 30% more overall brightness. Oddly and counter-intuitively, it also only works from battery power: if you’re getting strong USB bus power, no dice. I doubt I’ll ever use the mode anyway, failing to remember when setup and shooting ever lasted less than a minute; but perhaps for quick clips of objects and retail products in close-up, etc., it’s nice to know it’s there.
In the above pictures, you can see the whole face of the light without any diffusion, which of course will look harsh when it’s on (my a7 III camera can’t really capture those lights separately firing), while Aputure also provides a magnetically attached hard frosted plastic diffusion panel. Unfortunately, it shifts around in place pretty easily, and it should have been designed to notch into position, though Aputure includes an extra one just in case.
But what I really valued most was the combination of the hard panel, and the gel that they include, pictured at left, attached with velcro. True, the total light output decreases a little, but given that warped separation you see from the surface, and an additional layer of diffusion, the final result is really pleasing and still quite a bright source for soft lighting. I can see it serving as a portable fill light for interviews, supplementing of course a bigger, primary key light. And you can easily mount it to numerous camera accessories (e.g., mini tripods, mini light stands, etc.) using its standard 1/4″-20 socket that’s really well reinforced at bottom.
Complementing the sturdy chassis of the MX, Aputure includes an extremely well made zipper pouch, seen above. At first it looks oversized for the small wonder of the MX alone, then you realize that to carry the diffusion gel without damaging it, you need a large enough pocket to avoid folding it. Then, there’s also plenty of room for the included USB-C to standard USB cable, and a couple of branded rubber bands that are just sort of thrown in for no likely field use I can think of. There’s also room for the pictured ball mount with hot shoe adapter. Although no one seems to have actually reviewed the MX as of this writing (besides trade show tinkering), I’ve noticed advance plaudits about the ball mount, even though really it’s nothing special. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve usually seen better.
Should you get this thing? Well, at $150, it’s overpriced — sort of a luxury item. It reminds me of the main reason the Sony RX0 matters/mattered: “The best camera [or light] you have, is the one you have with you.” And even if you’re normally kitted out with a suitcase full of lighting gear, life doesn’t always make that possible. I love having an option to run and gun with this kind of little light. I owned the Aputure Amaran M9 before this, and I keep stashing an Ikan iLED-ONE as a tiny little kicker and rim light, for backup. Until something else comes along, this Aputure Amaran MX is getting a permanent spot in my camera bag and I trust it’ll get me out of some unexpected situations, with passable light — after all, when shooting with large-sensor digital cameras these days that increasingly suck up light at historically stunning sensitivity, something like this can really do the job.
Blackmagic Design has just announced their Pocket Cinema Camera 4K at the NAB show, and pre-orders to get early in line for planned September delivery are already being taken at this link (and for those in Europe, also here). They did a great job building suspense, with a huge banner outside the convention center. Some leaked photos added little to the launch, as usual, with misleading speculation about a 16mm sensor size, flip-out screen, and even IBIS!
One of the great virtues of the original Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera was its stripped-down nature, offering just the most fundamental settings that any budding (and experienced) cinematographer needs to know. And as one of the first early adopters to shoot something cinematic with it, I really cut my teeth with this test run, shot over a weekend in New York City:
As my associated commentary on the video explained, there were big issues to work around — mainly, battery life and ergonomics/menus — but the payoff far outweighed those hassles. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera delivered compelling 1080p video in log format with excellent highlight roll-off, film-like grain, 10-bit 4:2:2, and a “vintage” look from its 16mm sensor (the same aesthetic accorded by the now-defunct Digital Bolex). After starting the biggest User Group dedicated to Blackmagic Design (combined with Facebook and Twitter) built primarily on user-submitted content, it became clear that the original Pocket was a sort of democratization tool, putting cinematic videomaking into the hands of more creatives than ever. It definitely kickstarted my career.
That makes the arrival of the Pocket’s successor a bit anxious. If one thing has changed since the launch of the original Pocket, it’s that mirrorless cams have gotten even more feature-packed — while even so, what never changed is the split-identity crisis between still cameras and cinema cameras. Aliasing was the biggest Achille’s heel of hybrid cameras, but then, enlarged photosites and optimized pixel binning have minimized what used to seem like an impossible technical compromise. Menus on the Sony Alpha and Panasonic Lumix cameras, for example, continue to be a swirl of endless features that mix still photography with optional video features that aren’t really in a professional cinematographers’ wheel house (e.g., auto-focus). Thus it always felt like the future would bring us an amicable divorce between digital still photography, and cinematography.
So the first concerning feature of the new Pocket 4K is the addition of still photography into the mix. Lots of us would rather not have it; and the sensor size doesn’t accommodate sufficient megapixels for the camera to become a serious candidate for stills.
But that would be nitpicking, if the stills feature doesn’t really compromise the video features. On the early side, I’ll get my hands on this to make sure, but let’s focus only on video. First, it’s useful to consider what everybody else is doing wrong — especially the market leader, Sony.
Yesterday, Sony “re-launched” their PXW-FS5 with a Mark II model that added one of the least relevant features for serious creatives: high frame rates (and even so, that’s only after hooking in a “compatible” external recorder for the marquee feature — nearly mooting it). But worse, it failed to include what I think we should all agree by now is the baseline minimum for acceptable cinematography: 10-bit 4:2:2 capture. Panasonic has laudably packed that into the small GH5 body, and there’s no option anymore to leave it out in this market. Sony didn’t launch the a7S III at NAB, but whenever they do: if it’s mainly just a bump up to 4K/UHD at 60fps, it’s another non-event from Sony. And what all these cameras have in common is a relatively lossy internal recording codec, in every case a derivative of H.264 compression. It’s simply not ideal.
But back to Blackmagic. This is where the new Pocket 4K continues the tradition of its predecessor: 10-bit 4:2:2 at high bitrates into a robust recording codec. ProRes remains a proprietary (and protectionist) industry standard by Apple, that I have always estimated — and still do believe — is on its way out. ProRes RAW had promised to breathe new life, but it’s missing on the new Pocket 4K. (Bitter rival Atomos might have eclipsed that possibility, given secret industry boardroom hijinx, but who knows.) Regardless, for a better alternative, the new Pocket 4K also offers 12-bit true CinemaDNG 4K RAW capture — and to make that feasible, the high-speed USB-C port can connect to an external SSD for longer recording times in RAW.
As to high frame rates, even 60fps at UHD/4K still lacks priority in this overall context (along with the capability to crop in, for lower-resolution 120fps capture). Other, larger cameras can be leveraged for those very rare (please!) occasions when slow-motion can be creatively justified. I hope that the strangely persistent customer demand for high frame rates (wedding videographers?) didn’t cripple other features that could have emerged in the Pocket 4K — and in cameras across the market, generally. Again, to mention the FS5 II: Sony exploited a tiny tweak in high frame rate capability for justifying a whole new product launch (which is an accounting department con to increase profits), which was, in reality, just a firmware update to the original FS5. (Does anyone even look at this kind of behavior from an environmental perspective, as it adds more metal/plastic to Earth’s landfills with no real reason?)
But on to some positive things: the lens mount staying Micro Four Thirds was sort of pre-ordained, but it’s nice to see it again (especially after lens investments for the predecessor, and those of us who dallied with Lumix cameras when they were hot). Mounting those rarer lenses that actually include Power O.I.S. will be all the more critical, since the new Pocket 4K lacks in-body image stabilization. The full HD monitor on the rear will make those days of squinting at the old Pocket, seem comical — I hope the “nits” of lux are loud. How the internal audio pre-amps perform remains to be seen, but the stereo/dual microphones on either side of the lens (assuming the lens motors are quiet!) seem promising, while having a mini-XLR input with phantom power literally shames every other portable camera on the market today. Using the ultra-ubiquitous battery that’s used on Canon DSLRs, too, will open up cheap and longer-lasting power, paired with the further option of external 12V all-day hookup. (Meantime, Sony lawyers bully the third-party market against emulating their overpriced yet much-hyped NP-FZ100 for newest Alpha cameras). And best of all, the sensor: though we’ll lose that forced vintage look, and wide depth of field, from the former 16mm sensor, going to Micro Four Thirds was all but certain — not only for better light-gathering, but also to evade that prior 3x crop factor (and there’s only so much room to cram in pixels for 4K video).
The price at $1,295 retains the democratizing and generous spirit of the original HD camera, and the estimated September 2018 delivery might need to be taken with a grain of salt given Blackmagic’s history — but they’ve improved on manufacturing, and I know they’ll deliver. This is a really exciting new product, exceeding nearly every expectation. I love this company. The Aussies are killing it.
Here’s a gallery of photos from the NAB presentation:
What do you think? Looking forward to your comments here and on Facebook/Twitter. You can see the entire product page at Blackmagic Design’s website, and as mentioned earlier, pre-orders are already being taken at this link (also here in Europe) for planned delivery in September.