A lack of knowledge can cost you and I know this from experience. Getting into film and photography can be expensive and I’m going to discuss the pitfalls of buying and using camera gear, what to avoid, and what to look for.
I’ve been a photographer since 2002. I started shooting on 35mm film with a Pentax SLR camera. I started with a kit zoom, and later was gifted a telephoto lens. Relying on the in camera light meter, I learnt how to control exposure very quickly and understood the aperture, shutter speed, ISO triangle. It was great and I quickly learned how to make the most of 36 exposures in a roll of film and how to control the camera to get the types of images I wanted.
While I knew low apertures could get shallower and shallower depth of field, the barrier for entry was always cost of lenses. As it was, I was pleased with the images was capturing and was unconcerned about buying more and more equipment. People around me would be so involved with the latest cameras or lenses and would only want to take pictures if they could have the latest gear. I still reinforce that if you want to take pictures, you’ll go take them. As they say, the best camera is the one you have on you.
When I decided I wanted to become a fulltime filmmaker in 2016 I sought out information on what gear I should be getting. My last Pentax digital camera didn’t shoot video in 1080p or at 24fps, nor did it have manual control for the video it did shoot. The only other thing I had access to was a phone. I know 2016 doesn’t seem that long ago, but in terms of information available concerning equipment it was fractional in comparison to today, and what was available was either extremely expensive or just limited in terms of choice.
I knew this was going to be an investment but I didn’t want to lay out 5-6 figures for a RED. That meant that I really had two choices of camera, a Sony A7Sii or a Panasonic Lumix GH4. All I knew was that the GH4 could shoot 4K resolution at 24fps natively and it was cheaper than the Sony. The scant test footage I found online looked good so I made my $1800 decision. That decision was unquestionably the best one I made even though it came from a place of naïve ignorance in and of itself.
Simultaneously though I made two bad ones, even though I had no idea at the time. Like I had done with the Pentax cameras I previously owned, I bought a 12-60mm kit lens to go with it at around $650. I also got a 45-175mm telephoto zoom for $450. I wanted flexibility with a low price tag, and I didn’t really think about the implication of what I was buying, I wasn’t educated enough about aperture sizes available, nor did I fully understand the camera that those lenses were going to land on.
The GH4 is a micro 4/3rds sensor. It is considered “small” but is really about the size of a 16mm piece of film. This, in and of itself isn’t an actual problem if understood. Modern movies have been shot on 16mm such as Fruitvale Station or The Old Man and the Gun. Also the 4k resolution of the GH4 gave the clarity of 35mm film but without immediate depth of field of it (this is a semi complicated issue but one that needs to be understood). I didn’t understand though that the size of the sensor also determines how much light is let in. I understand that a larger sensor typically is more light sensitive even at equivalent ISO settings. What a smaller sensor like this gives you, and I understood and thought of as a positive, is that the lenses double in their mm size. A 35mm becomes a 70mm, a 175mm is a 350mm and as someone who loves long lens photography I was excited about it not realizing the negatives.
The problem with both lenses I bought was that the most open aperture you can attain is around f3.5 at widest angle and f5.6 at the most zoom. Outside in natural light neither of these are particularly problematic. Inside or on a set, neither of those particularly let in enough light to film confidently. Because the aperture closes down the more zoom you apply, it means that the lighting you eventually set up has to be brighter the more zoom you want to shoot with.
The second problem, and with all of the native Panasonic Micro 4/3rds lenses is that they are focus by wire. This means that they focus electronically and the speed of focus changes depending how slowly or quickly they turn. They also do not have hard stops. They turn and turn and turn even when they are at their maximum or minimum focus ranges. This means that it is impossible to set up a normal focus pull from one place in the frame to another, consistently. What might one time be a quarter turn of the focus may then become a half turn, or later an eighth. No one online had directly warned of this.
When I went ahead and shot my first short film called “Jetlag” I had plans to do focus pulls and these shots, with these lenses, could not be achieved confidently. As a result, not even understanding what was going on at that point, I changed shots on the day to be different and abandoned the plans I had. The lens didn’t do what I needed it to.
To add insult to injury I bought a mounting plate with 15mm rails for the camera and a Cavision follow focus wheel, with Fuji gearing, for around $250 to help build out the camera. Both of these purchases were useless. The lenses are not geared and to get around it I used a thick elastic band around the lens. The mounting plate is only useful with something to rig it to and that follow focus was not actually useful with those lenses.
Before the last few days of filming on my short film, and knowing I had some very tight shots coming up, I ran out to the local camera store and put down $1000 for the Lumix 12-35mm f2.8 lens. This cut my zoom ability almost in half but the consistent f2.8 made everything easier in terms of lighting and the extra depth of field it gave looked fantastic. It is also a superior lens in terms of clarity compared to the other one I was using. However that lens was still focus by wire and the zoom was not “parfocal” which is a term I only learned about later. So I’m $2350 down on lenses and gear that are not really what I needed.
I naively also believed that the “fluid head” tripod I had from years ago would be ok as it had worked previously for photography. However smoothly tracking a person moving just a few feet was impossible. It kept overshooting or being jerky. I messaged a friend and asked to borrow their tripod and proper fluid head which immediately improved everything during production.
In terms of lighting I made an ok choice. I had watched a Youtube video on cinematography and in the absences of studio lights they recommended a typical hardware worklight. The rationale being that a light is a light and a bright light is better than a dim one. Hearing this I immediately drove out to Home Depot and bought two as well as a mini version of them for around $375. I also bought two plug-in LED tubes that I could place on countertops so they could under light the talent for another $120. What I didn’t really understand was that the color temperature of these lights were about 4000 kelvin. That isn’t tungsten’s orange at 3600 and it isn’t white daylight at 5600. They were between. They also couldn’t be dimmed at all other than wrapping them with ND gels which at that point I hadn’t even thought about. However the work lights had their own stands, could be raised, and angled. I knew I wanted to bounce them off reflector boards to soften the harshness of them and really the extra light they pounded out overcame some of the limitations of the GH4’s sensor and the initial poor lens choices. While technically “wrong” the lights were at least consistent and the GH4’s footage was very flexible in post so as to not highlight the purchase mistake. That was $495 in lights that worked and were useful.
WHAT I NEEDED TO KNOW
Knowing what I know now, I should never have gone down some of these roads. The camera itself was and is great. I still shoot on my GH4 even though I own a GH5 now, and I even use that 12-35mm lens frequently. I’m going to say it though, that lens or any of the native lenses Panasonic make are NOT professional even though I’ve shot professional projects using them. Their flexibility is extremely limited and they are not reliable on set.
I wish someone was there to give me real, proper advice. That advice is that you should be thinking about your needs, and desires. Also a camera rig, even if it is just a camera, battery, memory card, and a lens it needs to be holistic and built around your needs. You also must understand the ways it excels and the ways it may let you down. I didn’t understand sensors, bit rates, memory card speeds, and all. I certainly didn’t understand the engineering around Panasonic’s lenses.
After years now of working with camera gear on multiple shoots my conclusion is that one good lens, with an established lens mount should more dictate the camera or the build out you are aiming for. The common saying is that you date the camera but you marry the lenses.
I personally have settled on Rokinon Cine DS lenses with an EF mount, which is a Canon standard and the standard for cameras such as the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera 6k, Panasonic EVA 1, Z Cam E2 S and F series, among others.
The reasoning is that these lenses are fully manual and geared so a follow focus of almost any kind will interact with them properly. They have declicked apertures so you can smoothly change the aperture on the fly when moving from dark to light or to create certain effects. These lenses also have consistent gear positions across the different lens focal lengths which means when you do want to change lenses you don’t need to reposition the follow focus wheel. This makes a lens change simply a lens change, not another part to re-align.
Another bonus to this lens lineup is that the main ones feature a nearly consistent t1.5 so switching lenses doesn’t necessitate a change in lighting power. They also have mostly the same 77mm filter thread at the front depending on the coverage of the lens. This means that your collection of filters are mostly interchangeable from lens to lens. The only negative is that they come in different lengths which is an edge case problem if you have a matte box on rails or a follow focus too thick in combination with that matte box. I’ll talk about this another time.
Now because the GH4 or GH5 does not have a native EF lens mount I needed to buy an adapter. There are many direct adapters to go from Micro 4/3rds to EF, but I wanted to have a focal reducer, as the glass within it reduces the image on the smaller GH4/GH5 sensor, to the equivalent of a super 35mm or APSC size sensor. This gives you a more shallow depth of field at equivalent aperture sizes. You also get an extra stop of light due to the light physics inherent in the magnification. I settled for the Viltrox M2 mostly because it was hundreds of dollars cheaper than a Metabones Speedbooster at $300. That said, the Metabones is a much better engineered piece of glass with higher quality optics.
A 3 lens Rokinon set costs around $2500cdn and if you look above you’ll see I pretty much spent that amount of money on lenses that didn’t suit my needs. Really I find that I most often shoot on the 35mm or the 50mm versions which converts to 50mm and 70mm respectively when using the Viltrox. Now this isn’t an ad for Rokinon, but an example of why a choice was made. I love manual lens control and near every live action movie you’ve ever seen has used manual lenses. Meike is another company that makes or is making a cine lens series with equivalent features. DZO makes the Pictor cine zoom line as well. If ever I move to another camera body, the cine lenses I own will follow with me.
The question comes up all the time whether a cinematographer or filmmaker should own gear. Yes they should. It should just be the right camera, lenses, and the base level of rigging they are comfortable investing in. If I had to rent an Arri or Sony Venice kit every time a client wanted me to film something the budgets would escalate beyond what they are able to pay. I’d also never be able to film something on short notice. I find having equipment frees you creatively, and simultaneously the equipment drives creativity.
In the next post I’ll discuss the purchase advice I received about rigging a camera and how almost all of it was terrible and a massive waste of money.