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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.
SUMMARY: If your Intel CPU supports Quick Sync, and if your motherboard lets you boot into running internal graphics simultaneous with your dedicated GPU, then your encoding times for H.264 files should go dramatically faster.
Anyone who uses Creative Cloud software has got either a love/hate relationship with Adobe, or doesn’t know any better. Premiere keeps bloating like a bad all-you-can-eat buffet, even as it leaves unforgivable major bugs alone for months and sometimes even years. Their Q1’2018 profits are rocketing out of orbit, just as they’ll be jacking up your subscription cost this month. Every year when the NAB Show rolls in, Adobe rushes to market a new line-up of added features, mostly fashionable things that drive fringe industries and deployments like VR. They do boast each time about bug fixes, which is actually a way to see Adobe finally admit publicly that the program’s basic features are a mess. Some highlights in their latest April 2018 fix list include “Crash when playing some files at 1/2 resolution,” “All frames are dropped on playback of an HEVC clip when playback is set to less than Full resolution,” etc. That’s not to mention Lumetri being the #1 reason for failed exports. And then, at this link, they admit to some current major, unfixed bugs: and that’s just from day one, before hundreds more will accumulate until the next update. All this adds new meaning to the term “upgrade,” which really amounts to “degradation” in Adobeland.
But amid that usual madness, Adobe introduced two stunning features this week. One of them has been reported endlessly, like a reprinted press release: a new comparison view in the Program Monitor, combined with “Sensei”-driven automated color matching between shots. It’s really incredible for color grading and it’s long-overdue. But what absolutely no one has written about, is a short blurb way down their list, that’s actually the most important productivity boost they’ve added in years.
Intel Hardware Acceleration of H.264 & HEVC Encoding
When you click this link, you’ll see a table at Intel’s website of every CPU that supports a technology called Quick Sync. If your Windows or Mac computer has one of those listed CPUs installed, the next thing to check is whether your motherboard allows you to simultaneously enable the internal Intel graphics driver, and any dedicated GPU (such as GeForce or Radeon). By default, the BIOS of most motherboards (a configuration screen you can access before booting into the OS) sets internal graphics to “Auto,” which actually means that if you have a dedicated GPU installed, Intel UHD/HD Graphics gets disabled. Some (but not all) motherboards allow you to force-enable internal graphics, and then it’s possible — though not guaranteed — you can boot into the OS with both internal and dedicated graphics acceleration active at the same time.
Of course, Adobe explains none of this, anywhere, underestimating how their new feature won’t be available to the vast majority of users without some “hacking” as described here. (Probably, true to lazy form, Adobe just doesn’t want to deal with anything remotely related to hardware — as if you can separate hardware from software development.) Same for the new and crowded majority of Adobe-lobbied “filmmaking” (i.e., wedding videography) bloggers writing about this release, too.
In the above screen capture, you can see how it looks, whenever a CPU’s internal graphics with Quick Sync actually works; yet in most cases, you’ll get “Software Only” in the new Encoding Settings/Performance field (“Hardware Accelerated” grayed out) if you have a dedicated GPU like most people.
But let’s say you do get the killer combo of a supported CPU, and simultaneous internal and external graphics enabled into a full OS boot. Great! Let’s see how much better it performs.
Here’s my case study. The above video represents a fairly intensive amount of churning at export. There are three camera angles using very different codecs, from a Sony a7S II’s UHD XAVC-S to a Panasonic GH4’s UHD AVC to a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera’s HD 10-bit ProRes 4:2:2. All of them are graded with Lumetri in combination with FilmConvert, outputting to UHD. So, this is reasonably heavy lifting.
The system I built has a Core i7-6700K CPU (that supports Quick Sync, per the reference table, using Intel HD Graphics 530) supported by 32gb of DRAM on a Gigabyte Z170X motherboard that allows me to force-enable internal graphics even while I am running a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 6gb graphics card. In effect (and this is ironic, given the current retail crisis in the GPU industry), it’s like the internal graphics is only data mining for the “cryptocurrency” of H.264 acceleration, without even being connected to and driving a monitor.
From the above results, you can see that the hardware accelerated export of the exact same content went about twice as fast. Let’s look at another test.
With the same multi-camera configuration and effects as the last one, here I’m getting slightly less of a difference in export speeds, but that’s explained by the much shorter running time. I note that this pair of exports drew from camera sources on a regular hard drive, rather than an SSD in the prior example, just to add variety.
Clearly, these examples portend a huge acceleration of our exports, to the most common codec in the universe. Seriously, it’s the rare exception that we export to anything but H.264. (Caveat: as the world migrates to H.265/HEVC, it’s frustrating to note that Premiere on the Mac OS allows both H.264 and H.265/HEVC Intel encoding acceleration; but on the Windows OS, only H.264 “at this time.”) One theoretical boogeyman worth mentioning, that has always hung over hardware-accelerated exports, is that they can allegedly do a barely perceptible worse job (e.g., digital noise artifacts) in comparison to the lighter lifting of the Mercury Playback Engine alone; meantime you’ll occasionally find the errant random report that software rendering actually looks worse. I score it all as needless pixel-peeping, in comparison to the extraordinary benefits of faster exports. So far, I’ve never seen any visual flaw attributable to a hardware-accelerated render.
Encoding vs. Decoding: there’s a big difference (of course)
But hold on: haven’t we seen Intel acceleration before? Take a look at the below section in Preferences — look familiar?
That checkbox pointed to in red, has been there for a few years. But the key distinction is decoding, as compared to this new encoding feature. It’s a great example of Adobe botching another feature, for years, and never explaining it well. Besides always leaving the h in H.264 lower-case, Adobe never addressed whether this feature requires Intel internal graphics being enabled simultaneously with a discrete GPU — and they let the checkbox be enabled no matter what (rather than grayed out, as for encoding). What’s more, it’s been widely reported, by an evident majority, that the feature actually offers no recognizable benefit, while it’s also often sleuthed out to be the culprit for failed/crashed exports. All told, we shouldn’t confuse these features — and, the only one that makes a real difference is the newer Intel encoding hardware acceleration added this week. For once, Adobe really did something (and fingers crossed that it holds up).
If you have any questions about how to configure your computer for this new acceleration feature, let me know in the comments with a system description, and I’ll do my best to help.
The headlining video for this page runs 1¾ hours. It is the most comprehensive guide to the Sony a7R III menus available anywhere. For your convenience, the below interactive guide breaks this video down into organized sections, taking you directly to a discrete explanation of whatever menu page you’re interested in. Just click it, and a video will play back with a detailed explanation. Use the top index to skip around between menu tabs and pages.
I got inspired to throw this together after creating a menu guide for the Sony RX0 recently. Now, after lessons learned from an ongoing trans-media creative project of mine (www.95thesesfilm.com/concordance), combined with a full test run using the Sony a7R III to create www.scroogeopera.com last month, I’ve combined sample footage from that project with observations about this camera (triggered by explaining its menus), resulting in a hybrid resource of: product tutorial, review, and footage samples.
SONY a7R III MENU INDEX
TAB 1/PAGE 1 — manual and automatic selection between full-frame mode, versus APS-C/Super 35mm “crop” mode:
TAB 1/PAGE 2 — on leaving things alone at the acquisition stage:
TAB 1/PAGE 3 — dual memory card slots:
TAB 1/PAGE 4 — (not relevant):
TAB 1/PAGE 5 — auto-focus modes:
TAB 1/PAGE 6 — auto-focus face priority:
TAB 1/PAGE 7 — (not relevant):
TAB 1/PAGE 8 — (not relevant):
TAB 1/PAGE 9 — ISO/gain, arbitrary minimum ISO in S-Log:
TAB 1/PAGE 10 — (not relevant):
TAB 1/PAGE 11 — (not relevant):
TAB 1/PAGE 12 — white balance, picture profiles/S-Log:
TAB 1/PAGE 13 — peaking:
TAB 1/PAGE 14 — (not relevant):
TAB 2/PAGE 1 — movie file formats, fast-slow motion, proxy recording:
TAB 2/PAGE 2 — auto-focus responsiveness, audio recording:
TAB 2/PAGE 3 — wind noise reduction, display markers:
TAB 2/PAGE 4 — accommodating non-native manual lenses, image stabilization:
TAB 2/PAGE 5 — zoom and ClearImage Zoom:
TAB 2/PAGE 6 — on-screen display, zebras, rule-of-thirds grid line:
TAB 2/PAGE 7 — (not relevant):
TAB 2/PAGE 8 — custom keys and menus (and avoiding the temptation to over-customize):
TAB 2/PAGE 9 — turning off the beeps:
TAB 3 — viewing/controlling from smartphone or tablet, absence of applets:
TAB 4 — playback:
TAB 5/PAGE 1 — gamma display assist:
TAB 5/PAGE 2 — overheating, world camera, cleaning the sensor:
TAB 5/PAGE 3 — touchscreen, say-no-to-timecode, wired remote control:
TAB 5/PAGE 4 — HDMI, USB options, tethering:
TAB 5/PAGE 5 — file naming:
TAB 5/PAGE 6 — redundant versus overflow usage of two memory card slots:
TAB 5/PAGE 7 — firmware version, both camera and lens:
TAB 6 — on being your own star:
The Sony a7R III is available via B&H for under $3.2k by clicking here. I hope this resource helped! Please share it with other Sony a7R III users.
There’s a durable adage that won’t ever go away, no matter what the future brings: “Your best camera is the one you’ve got with you.”
Buried in this week’s hysterical attention to Sony’s new a7R III cash cow — offering a tiny bump up from their already overpriced and mediocre a7R II — this sad little RX0 is having a hard time. So I thought I’d send the little thing some love with this thorough review, combined with test footage and comparisons, plus a guide to its menus. That video is embedded into this post from YouTube. (Sorry for the crap audio in the menu guide — never again!)
Complementing what’s said in the video, this post adds a few still pictures for further study, and written reflections. But let’s start out quickly summarizing the pros and cons of the Sony RX0:
- Freaking small – as in, ice cube (and just as waterproof)
- 1-inch sensor at ~3x crop, with mediocre light sensitivity (but much smaller than even APS-C/Super 35mm)
- Better glass and narrower angle than any action cam by GoPro, etc. (say goodbye to fisheye)
- Microphone jack with manual audio level control
- S-Log2 S-Gamut picture profile
- Clean UHD-4k output without pixel-binning/downscaling artifacts
- $698 is cheap: reasonable folks can disagree, but Sony packed a lot of value into this tiny thing
- 1080p-only internal downsampled recording, with severe aliasing
- Log profile requires minimum 1600 ISO gain, resulting in noisy image always at this sensor size
- Laughable $150 ND filter adapter option (for solving the fixed f/4.0 aperture problem)
- No optical (or even digital) image stabilization
Something I note in the video is that one key appeal of this product — like the affordable/modest/covert older siblings A6300 and A6500 — is its incorporation of a log picture profile. While Sony curiously leaves out its beleaguered S-Log3 here (lots of shooters actually prefer S-Log2 out of fear when seeing noise before REC.709 conversion), still, having S-Log2 in this tiny little box makes it a candidate for blending with footage from really any other professional cinema camera. That’s one of the great leveling virtues of log color: you stand a much better chance at being able to grade footage together from different cameras, especially when they’re from the same manufacturer. In the case of Sony, we’re talking about some of the worst color science in the industry, but what’s new? I make do with these compromises, and my a7S II has lately been my A-camera, until stubborn Sony finally puts that full-frame sensor into a proper cinema camera body without charging Venetian fortunes that are totally irrelevant to the vast majority of creators.
Problem is, like all other Sony cameras, S-Log2 starts at a minimum ISO gain of 1600. Bear in mind, 1600 on an a7S II looks a helluva lot different than on an RX0, because of the light-gathering capability of a full-frame sensor versus this tiny 1-inch sensor. Even though the RX0’s sensor size is a big selling point (and still bigger than legacy 2/3″ camcorder sensors), it’s laughably tiny compared to full-frame, or Super 35mm/APS-C, or even Micro Four Thirds…and that has the word “micro” in it! The result is, you get lots and lots of ugly digital noise at 1600 ISO. And since it only gets worse from there, S-Log on the RX0 is something of a catch-22.
I’ll still use only S-Log 2 in video mode, for matching the footage with other log shooters, but I anticipate lots of care exposing as best as possible, applying Denoiser plug-ins in post, and using ND filters.
Or maybe not that last part. Because Sony (typically and hilariously) charges a greedy, offensive $150 for this simple doodad that provides one single function that should cost ten or twenty bucks. Yet you need ND, badly. My video tests were toward the end of the day, under partly cloudy skies, in order to use S-Log2 without blowing out highlights at ISO 1600. To repeat from the Cons, you can’t control “aperture” on this thing because there isn’t one: just a fixed equivalent to f/4.0. And for anyone serious about making movies, ultra-high shutter speeds, to compensate for that, are not an option (though that won’t stop the majority of RX0 shooters from posting horrible-looking clips with strobe-y motion, just like GoPros).
But let’s say that you land right into that comfy spot of ideal lighting conditions, and want to shoot video. Ultimately, this thing delivers surprisingly well. Internal 1080p is exceptionally good, with one caveat common to such radically downsampling sensors: lots of aliasing/moiré. You’ll see that in particular at 7:06 in my video (the link goes straight to that timecode), when you focus yourself on the lines of the wall in the subway station. In the old days — e.g., Canon 5D Mark II — the solution was to avoid any wide shots with little patterns and lines, so you could consider this a vintage shooting limitation of the RX0.
Yet there’s one glorious way around the downsampling problem, and that is to … not downsample! The RX0’s HDMI port offers clean UHD-4k output without pixel binning, and in my video, you’ll see it looks spectacular. Add to that, you gain 4:2:2 color into any compatible recorder, such as the Atomos Shogun I used. I note that the usual self-proclaimed “pros” have comically whined about how nobody would possibly ever want to use the RX0 in tandem with a 4k recorder. Nonsense. I’m keeping this thing in my bag alongside bigger, more “professional” gear when I need another angle, either handing it over to a friend, or mounting it inconspicuously at a location otherwise inaccessible. I can run a long HDMI cable to the (extra) Shogun that I’m not using for anything else, or leave the Shogun hidden nearby. I can remotely control it all from my PlayMemories app on a tablet or smartphone, from my A-camera location. Besides all that, I can pocket the RX0 with me wherever I go, equipped to capture something unexpected with reasonably alright 1080p. So yeah, the Sony RX0 doesn’t somehow turn you into an amateur. It’s what you do with it that matters.
Speaking of which, still photography: while the gap is narrowing between dedicated cameras and smartphone cameras, this thing will still take a better picture than the best smartphone camera today. Here is a gallery of samples, unaltered, straight from the camera (click to enlarge):
But Sony notoriously skimps on optical image stabilization, especially when they slap that Zeiss label onto products (which is really just buying a license to use the Zeiss tradename). So while plenty of light buys you a high shutter speed, when things get darker, it’s nearly impossible to get a clear shot as the shutter speed dives down to compensate (or you pump up the noise with ISO gain). Thus in the last of these five samples, the blur was basically unavoidable. But the word “spycam” comes to mind, and the rather audacious notion — perhaps true — that this is the best camera in the world at such a miniature cube size. Nothing else comes close. That’s something.
What’s really going to save your video footage is proper stabilization, ultimately, while respecting the compromises of what you can shoot, and what you can’t. You’ll be avoiding aliasing when you compose your shots, you’ll be adjusting your shutter speed if you absolutely must (avoiding fast motion), and you’ll be locking this thing down on sticks. I spent ten bucks on this Manfrotto “Pocket Support” making sure I never have the excuse that I left my tripod at home: now it’s bolted 24/7 onto the RX0.
Is this Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera-level revolutionary? Sorta! Certainly, this reminds me how long it’s been since Blackmagic changed the world that way, and credit to Sony for taking the risk. Highly recommended.
Independent filmmakers often neglect to remember that our vast majority of time isn’t spent on set, behind cameras, and working with people. Instead, we’re sitting in front of computers for the longest stretches of time: video editing, marketing/promotion, correspondence, and tons more. If there’s anything to make that experience less painful and more productive, it may actually amount to an investment in creative filmmaking.
For video editing, the most important hardware control you can add to Premiere, Avid, Final Cut, Vegas, DaVinci, etc. is a shuttle dial with customizable buttons. The best and most affordable on the market are from Contour Design, and I reviewed their ShuttlePRO v2 here a few months ago, now pictured above paired with their innovative mouse alternative called RollerMouse.
The creators of this product, Contour Design, are offering readers here an exclusive 20% discount off any purchase from their webstore using coupon code FP20 at: www.contourdesign.com/store
It’s not just about medical ergonomics, but speed and productivity too: we ought to move our hands around as little as possible. When you think of any workstation, the default posture/hand position is this: keyboard at the middle; mouse to the right; our left and right hands on the keyboard; and if you’ve got a shuttle dial, it’s over to the left. RollerMouse begins with the idea that maybe you can keep your hands at the keyboard, without needing to move over to the mouse.
Does it work? Depends! Like anything in life, you can’t go wrong having more options, tailored to the task. After giving RollerMouse an earnest try over the past few months, for me, it’s a work-in-progress.
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts: you’ll see in the picture at left how there’s a horizontal bar positioned just above the pleather wrist rest of the RollerMouse. When you move that grippy rubber sleeve on the bar left and right, it moves your pointer left and right; and when you rotate it up or down (sort of like a gigantic, clickless scroll wheel on a mouse), it moves your pointer up and down. When you tap down on the whole bar, you get a left-click. It all feels really weird at first.
Before exploring the rest, let’s get real: this is a wrist rest on steroids. But that feature can’t be overlooked. As an aside, one pet peeve of mine (and bewilderment at the accessories market) is how there are almost no good keyboard wrist rests. About a decade ago, Microsoft was really nailing it with their Comfort line of keyboards that had integrated wrist pads, with just the right balance between cushiony pleather texture, and rigid support. Today, we either get firm plastic pads (e.g., the one that came with my pictured Corsair K70), or smushy memory gel accessories to slip under our keyboards. But when this RollerMouse arrived, my years-long quest ended. This is the mother of all keyboard wrist rests, striking just the right balance.
Below the RollerMouse bar is an array of buttons that go beyond the usual left-click/right-click paradigm of a mouse. Although the big left button does perform a left-click, and the big right button a right-click, the middle one sends a double-click with one tap. And the two slim ones above these big ones: they copy and paste in one click. I think the idea here is, since your fingers won’t be perfectly positioned to hit them up, as they would be at a dedicated mouse, this is a necessary compromise to add buttons that require less strain. It’s all factored into the benefit that you’ll be able to keep your hands at the keyboard, away from the mouse…but not always.
The truth is, I’m still stuck in my old ways and struggling to find middle ground. We start from a good place, though: besides the financial investment, you’d have nothing to lose by having it there: to my surprise, I’ve never once gotten any accidental cursor movement or pointer click during normal keyboard usage because of the RollerMouse — and it operates simultaneously with your mouse. You won’t be getting rid of your mouse. There are some things you can do better and more precisely that old(ish) fashioned way. There is definitely something more tactile about pushing down on a mouse button, with force, and dragging something into a precise spot applying pressure (and relative movement). This capability isn’t lacking on the RollerMouse, it’s just less of a thing. So, taking one Adobe Premiere task as an example, I’ll prefer a mouse if I’m dragging the handles on an image resizing operation, to get the precise alignment inside a video frame where one bleeding pixel can ruin a shot. But, to quickly move my cursor to another panel where I know I’ll be using my keyboard next, I’m better off keeping my hands at the keyboard and using the RollerMouse.
Ever heard of the Kuleshov Effect? I was teaching it to my film school students a couple of weeks ago, as an editing principle from early film theory: that the meaning of something changes based on what you see before it, and after it. And I really think of the RollerMouse that way: if you’ve got a pointer operation consecutive with using the keys on your keyboard, you’re probably better off using the RollerMouse. But if you’ve got lots of pointer-focused clicking to do in sequence, and with precision, that trip over to your mouse is worth it.
Even so, the RollerMouse gives you a few extra features to get you closer to mouse simulation. In the close-up picture at right, you’ll see how the cursor speed (“sensitivity”) can be adjusted in five steps. So, if you want to keep at your RollerMouse but perform that precise movement I was writing about earlier, this helps. In fact, it’s actually found on some mice, too: my Corsair Raptor M45 has it, too, with three levels of sensitivity that can be moved up or down using a toggle just under the scroll wheel.
Speaking of scroll wheels, the RollerMouse has that also, pictured at right. Notably, it doesn’t have a notched travel to it, like most mice, but it doesn’t freely fly either. I might have preferred that mouse norm of clunking up and down in clear bumps, but then again, now I have a choice between the two types of scroll action, between the RollerMouse and mouse.
The truth is, video editors aren’t the primary market for Contour Design when it comes to this RollerMouse, even though they own the market for jog shuttles. Naturally, word processing benefits the most from keeping hands nearest the keys. And those rainbow-colored keyboards for Avid editors of yore simply aren’t a ubiquitous reality anymore: we’ve moved on from that, and video editing today is fundamentally a mouse-based practice. Sorry, Walter Murch.
In a perfect world, there would be a background task (like the Contour Shuttle Device Configuration tool tray item) letting us customize the RollerMouse within Premiere, for example: since I’m constantly scrolling left and right on my timeline, it would be killer to have a mode on the RollerMouse where the bar’s horizontally-focused action only controls the timeline/time marker location, and the matrix of five buttons also could map to Premiere shortcuts.
But just as it is, the RollerMouse doesn’t require configuration or drivers: you hook it up via USB, and you’re ready to roll. It’s solidly constructed, with a metal base as seen at left, grippy feet, and great customer support. The killer question for you is its value for the dollar: at pricing that ranges from $200 to almost $300, it’s a big investment if you’re not sure. Contour Design does have a generous try-out policy, while another thing to consider will take us back to the start of this review: if we spend the majority of our time, even as artists, sitting in front of a computer, even this small impact on ergonomics and productivity can add a priceless benefit over the long term. I’m sold.
Keep an eye out next for their brand new product that brings everything full-circle, the Unimouse. I’ll try it and test here soon.
It’s a well-traveled theme that the worlds of still photography, and filmmaking/videography, are converging. Another way to say this is: the same cameras that snap still pictures are also shooting cinematic videos, and professionals who used to do just one thing, are expected to do both. And something else: cameras keep getting smaller — just one effect of becoming a “mirrorless camera.” That means there’s no optical prism at the top of the body, to bend light through-the-lens, for delivery to an optical viewfinder. We’ve gone all-digital, and smaller, and there’s no turning back. Even for my highest-quality video work, I still find myself stuck in the miniature mirrorless world (something I complained about recently), since the relatively tiny Sony a7S II remains the only attainable and credible full-frame video image capture device.
This article is the result of thinking hard about how our traditional way to keep shots steady — using a tripod (“sticks”) and an attached video head — has been slow to keep up with these new realities, especially with so much of the load being carried by ubiquitous ultra-portable 3-axis gimbal stabilizers. So I’ve spent a lot of time evaluating gear, and shooting numerous pictures here, to draw some conclusions. Hope they’re helpful.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
Good video tripod systems have always been oriented “long-wise” because camcorders are longer than they are wide. Of course, the so-called “digital SLR” is just the opposite: wider than long (and much smaller). Everything starts from what you screw into your camera, and since we all go back-and-forth between staying locked down on sticks, and moving around (or packing up), the “quick-release” plate is everything. For video, there’s a leader in the field: Manfrotto’s 501 and 701 standard. As seen here, clearly it’s designed for that old paradigm of longer-than-wide camcorders, and when you screw it into a typical digital camera, it’s doing everything wrong. It’s hanging out the back and it’s bumping up against the lens out front. That front overhang often interferes badly with the ability to make manual lens adjustments (iris, focus) and sometimes even totally prevents the attachment of any lens with a large diameter. There’s got to be a better way.
Arca Swiss has managed to become a better-suited runner-up, but it’s still just a little too big, less firm — and there are too many off-spec variants to make it ideal and reliable. That’s why I found the below surprise from the photography world to be so promising: here’s a picture of a plate that really does fit within the dimensions of a mirrorless camera’s underbelly.
KPS makes ball heads that mostly service the needs of high-end still photographers, who want durability and precision, while adding a “GimBall” feature that’s easily confused with “Steadicam” gimbal stabilizers. This use of the term gimbal refers to the multi-axis ability to freely orient a camera on a heavy-duty ball with adjustable, smooth tension, while also being able to lock down an axis so that the motion only happens along one axis.
To accomplish this, there are pins removable from in-housing storage as seen in the pictures below which insert through the ball, along an axis, and into the other side of the housing, thumb-screwed in. Although it’s not physically a true fluid head, for video movement it’s surprisingly smooth — and despite being a ball head, it becomes a way to simulate a typical video tripod head that lets you tilt up-and-down without losing your level horizon, while also giving you a reasonably fluid left-and-right panning capability (note the measurements at the base of the head, and the smaller knob that controls tension). This is something that a typical photography ball head can’t do.
And while it qualifies as a competent smooth video head (and even has available an optional video panning extension arm), the big appeal to me is that tiny mounting plate, which keeps a small profile suited for my mirrorless cameras like the a7S II and GH4. Size isn’t everything when it comes to strength: as seen in the further pictures below, its grip from both sides is extremely solid, as its clever design pinches using the very solid large lever you see, with a half-twist pin that locks the “vice grip” into position. You can also see that the grip tension is fully adjustable, while I found that it thankfully didn’t drift over time and the strength stayed calibrated.
In this last set of pictures, you can see how there are handy bubble levels for X- and Y-axis precision. Having them next to each other, located central to the mounting point itself, is an essential tool that surprisingly doesn’t show up on most tripod heads, even though it becomes critically important as soon as you start panning around, trying to keep your horizon level. This also becomes important for video moves beyond a typical static set of tripod sticks, where tripod heads are lately also used for other kinds of stabilizers like sliders and jibs. It’s far from ideal to put a typical (and large) video tripod head onto a slider — or onto a Glidearm as pictured here, which is the next evolution in slider technology (my review coming soon) — and although the KPS isn’t the lightest and smallest you can mount, it strikes a right balance, and importantly doesn’t have a big affixed extension arm sticking out, getting in the way of moves and throwing-off balance.
As a specialty item, the KPS GimBall heads aren’t cheap — this version, the G5, costs $300 — but like home audio speakers, a solid bicycle, and stuff like that, this is not a technology that changes every week, so investing in a good solution that lasts many years is part of the long game. KPS products are sold exclusively in the United States through LegioPhoto.com, a veteran-owned family business with great customer service.
BUT THERE’S ALWAYS MANFROTTO
The goal is to keep everything as portable as possible, staying true to the nature of mirrorless cameras (and hoping to be able to throw everything into a single backpack). The evolution of ball heads for video use, like the KPS GimBalls, has become a new favorite, but there are still applications where I need a video-purposed tripod system, with interchangeability of those misshaped universal Manfrotto plates, and traditional panning/tilting capability with a long extension arms to make the smoothest moves. In that case, it’s come down to two options for me.
What I’ve been using for years still holds the crown: Manfrotto’s reigning best video head is by far is their MVH500AH, pictured up top attached to a four-segment carbon fiber tripod (that Vanguard sadly stopped making and never replaced). The whole thing just barely fits inside a photography backpack, without having to be strapped onto the outside like anything else on the market, yet it behaves like a truly high-end professional tripod system. I also really love its innovative quick-release solution of flipping a latch, as pictured below, to tilt in and lock down the plate. Strangely, Manfrotto stopped including that feature on newer models, but it’s a huge time-saver (and avoids the curse of protrusions getting in the way of slide-in-plate heads). Three further pictures below show how my a7S II is a good match for the Manfrotto, and can slide forward and backward to adjust the center of gravity — with a long lens, that’s admittedly something a ball head can’t do.
But what about that other tripod seen above, just a little smaller than the Vanguard/Manfrotto combo? That’s Manfrotto’s newest “travel” tripod, in their BeFree product line (that never used to contend with serious work). This new BeFree Live Fluid Video Kit comes closest to balancing all these compromises. It’s got aluminum legs that are less rigid, and heavier, than carbon fiber sticks, but it incorporates the very rare feature of a different kind of “ball head,” seen at left, which is really just a way to slightly adjust the plane of the platform for the principal screw-in head. This is a common feature on gigantically heavy and high-priced tripods (e.g., Sachtler’s bowls), and avoids the awful practice of having to repeatedly adjust the length of each tripod leg until you think you’ve got it level on the horizon.
Speaking of legs, my one big complaint about the BeFree Live is the way that its protracted legs — normally folded up against the head — get locked into position after folding out below. Those gray twist-knobs you see at right are cheap-plastic, light-feeling and very loose: they are meant to solidly put the legs into three states — protracted up into storage, normally spread out below, or widely spread out below for low shots. In each position, the knobs struggle to find their respective notches, and the way that they’re molded for human hands is even worse than primitive screw wingnuts from a hardware store — hard to grip and keep a hold on. What were they thinking?
As for the head, as seen below it uses the standard 501/701 Manfrotto plate, which looks comically outsized on such a petite product, but it holds tight. The fluid action is mediocre, but an adequate trade-off for its size. Ultimately it performs poorer than my above preferred kit that’s only a little bigger, but the BeFree Live is also economical at just over $200, so there’s that.
MINI LIGHT STAND: SERIOUSLY?
But what if you need to go even smaller, and pack even lighter? For those emergency situations (or vacationing at peace without any argument about lugging around too much gear!), consider the further size difference between the petite BeFree Live kit, and this tiny Manfrotto stand that’s actually designed for small lights.
There’s less hope mounting a traditional video pan head onto that little thing; but as seen at right, this circles back to the KPS which locates all of its weight close to the center of gravity, making it reasonable paired with the tiny light stand to suffice for an ultra-portable quick setup (taking care not to let it knock over with such a small footprint). I also use this configuration to lock down a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera or GH4 that won’t be attended anyway during multi-camera shoots, and just needs to sit still pointing at something.
MANIC PIXI EVO DREAM GIRL
Finally, for something literally pocketable, there’s this little thing with the quirky name Pixi Evo. It hits all the right notes, with a quick-thumbscrew mounting platform attached to a ball head, and legs that not only telescope out into a further segment, but also have two spread settings for versatility (and heavier cameras). Naturally, you can’t pull off any motion with this thing, but something’s better than nothing. An extra bonus use for the Manic Pixi Evo Dream Girl is to be a single-grip handle when you don’t have a Steadicam-type device handy, and are — heaven forbid — walking around vlogging yourself. But please don’t.
Sony proclaims that they are all-in for full-frame cinematography (e.g., the video heading up this post). But what Sony needs to do first (and should have done last year), couldn’t be simpler. They almost nailed it with their NEX-VG900, putting a full-frame sensor in the proven/award-winning/ergonomically fantastic VG-series camcorder body. But the VG900 was barely too early for the market, and it aliased like a 5D Mark II. The sensor wasn’t purpose-built for video. Yet, how easily folks have forgotten that the NEX-VG10 was absolutely revolutionary when it arrived! Just speaking for myself, it was my entry point into filmmaking, and around it, I built my first camera user group that eventually became this community.
Sony’s auto-pilot, pernicious behavior is to fiercely defend its professional camcorders that are at the highest profit margins, amounting to impossible options for independent filmmakers, and what they’re cooking up next will be no exception to that corporate universe. Yet their debacle of overheating in the a7 series, and obvious dissatisfaction from creatives who want bare-minimum-quality audio inputs, manual controls, etc., is easily and quickly addressed by simply putting the a7S II sensor into the VG form factor. They can (and need to) do this without charging much more than a grand as a premium, on top of what the a7S II costs. Even that is a largely artificial expense. Sony doesn’t know how to read supply-and-demand curves. An a7S II sensor in an affordable VG camcorder body would sell extremely well.
It will take some thinking outside the box, ruffling old-world hierarchical feathers overseas, but it needs to be done. Think of how Blackmagic upended the camcorder world, with the aim to democratize technology instead of penny-pinching that’s practiced by protectionist mid-level accountants from Ivy League schools of theory. The best technology evolutions are always bottom-up, not top-down. Time for Sony to wake up.