the HD Camera
Creating a beautiful HD set, costume, or image is one thing. But operating an HD camera with precision is another. It can be quite a challenge since HD cameras come with lots of bells and whistles in the form of knobs, switches, and menus. These can easily be changed for better or worse. So it’s understandable that the person behind the lens of an HD camera can feel some pressure.
Mark Ritchie has been working with HD for almost five years. Although primarily a DP, Ritchie has worked on numerous projects, including commercials, films, and documentaries, where he was both DP and camera operator. His first experience with HD was on the Steven Speilberg NBC Special, Price of Peace, narrated by Tom Brokaw. The special, which provided Ritchie a trial-by-fire experience, took the form of a location documentary. Ritchie carried the Sony HDF900 camera everywhere to shoot interviews, B-roll, aerials, battleships, and even underground caves. Although Ritchie came from an extensive video background and has shot film as well, his first HD experience was challenging.
“It was difficult to acclimate to the HD camera at first. I couldn’t trust what I was seeing because in 24p, the HD camera viewfinder flickered all the time.” This is due to something called persistence of vision. Images have to change faster than 30 to 32 times a second in order to make the images appear seamless. A flickering viewfinder makes it harder to judge exposure as well as focus. “It took a while to get used to viewing the flickering image,” says Ritchie. It was also tough for Ritchie to get used to the black-and-white viewfinder. “I was used to seeing a color image on my other video cameras. When I work with an AC [assistant camera operator], I have them look at a separate color monitor.
HD cameras, like many other video cameras, come with an option that displays a zebra-stripe pattern in the viewfinder over portions of the Image. When the video level in the image is above 70 percent, one set of stripes appears. When it is 100 percent and above, a different set of stripes appears. For someone who is trying to get exposure just right, these references can be very helpful. Ritchie says, “The 70 percent and 100 percent zebra stripes were so similar, it was hard to tell the difference between them. This made it difficult to judge exposure.”
But while it may have taken a little time to get accustomed to these features, Ritchie now gets the precise exposure he wants every time. “If someone isn’t getting the right exposure, they’re not using the tools.” To better handle issues of exposure, Ritchie uses a waveform display of the image inside the viewfinder. This also took some getting used to but is now a comfortable process.
Lex du Pont is in his fifth year as director of photography for the dramatic film series NYPD. He recently tried his hand with an HD camera on Freedom Park, a 15 minute short. He was really impressed with the product, although nervous about the venture. “I found the electronics overwhelming.” Du Pont also had difficulties similar to Ritchie’s. “The viewfinders on HD cameras are terrible. The first problem is video lag. On a reflex camera, the operator sees action in real time. With video, the time delay to the viewfinder is a major problem when trying to follow rapidly moving action.”
There were general electronics problems on du Pont’s shoot. “I’m used to working with film where the camera works all the time. But with this HD experience, things took much longer to set up and sort out, and the cameras went down more frequently.”
Du Pont tested shooting NYPD with HD. “We light through the windows and the windows totally blew out in HD. The depth of field and increase in contrast of HD made the set walls look, well, like set walls. What we found was that it would not work for us unless we totally redesigned the lighting.”
Ritchie, who also teaches HD camera operations, says, “The best way to be successful using an HD camera is to take a good hands-on course and learn everything you can about the medium. Understand the entire philosophy behind HD and learn about the different formats.” When asked about using different HD cameras, Ritchie says, “Different cameras have similar menus, switches, and knobs but they are different enough to make mistakes if you cross over. This is your new tool. The more you know about the camera you are using, the easier it will be.”