Friday, December 14, 2007

One Cool Camera

Sony announced the PMW-EX1 HD video camera months ago, but it’s only in the past month that articles about it have started to appear, and it still seems to be in pre-order status.

And first things first, this is an expensive toy; $6,699 is the price at the moment, putting it out of reach of the video hobbyist.

But what a camera. Sony sells a variety of HD camera’s, and this one bridges a gap between their semi-pro cameras and their true pro cameras. On the semi-pro side, existing cameras like the HDR-FX1 and HVR-Z1U feature three chips, a fixed lens, record to tape (MPEG-2) and cost about $3,000. In size and shape they are very similar to the PMW-EX1.

Then you jump to the professional cameras like the PDWF330, which feature interchangeable lenses and record to optical discs using Sony’s XDCAM format. But it’s a big jump; $15,000 is at the low end for these cameras.

For me, the intriguing thing about the professional XDCAM cameras is the move away from tape based recording. Except for the PMW-EX1, all XDCAM cameras record to optical discs that provide random access; connect the camera to your computer and immediately see thumb nails representing all the clips on the disc.

The PMW-EX1 uses the XDCAM file format, and also supports random access; but records to flash cards rather than optical discs. And it costs half of what the PDWF330 costs (but twice what a HDR-FX1 would cost you.)

The PMW-EX1 does provide a lot of features that the HDR-FX1 lacks; XLR inputs and the ability to record slow and quick motion (from 1 fps (frame per second) to 60 fps in 720P mode) are appealing, as are it’s full manual (absolute focus position) and semi-manual focusing. When they announced it, I was hoping it would be around $4,000. The extra $3,000 is hard to swallow “just” to record to flash memory; even with the many additional features.

And when it comes down to it, it’s the movement away from tape that’s the most interesting – and the most worrying – feature of this camera. I’m excited by the idea of getting rid of tape; but I honestly don’t know how I’m going to manage archiving when I go to a tapeless system. I’m terrible at doing backups and archives, and tape provides at least an emergency backup.

In the B&H article First Look at the Sony PMW-EX1; An Interview with Doug Jensen there’s a reference to “an archiving method that actually gives me two backups of everything I shoot” but he cannily doesn’t explain what that method is (or what it will cost.) I’m afraid that if I ever ponied up the $7,000 for this camera, I’d need to spend another $2,000 or more to really set up some kind of archive system. For example, Sony’s PDW-U1 XDCAM Drive Unit costs $2,800. Of course, I could buy a Blu-ray burner for about $600.

I guess it’s just as well I can’t afford this camera.

Sony PMW-EX1 overview

PDW-EX1 brochure (PDF Format)

Digital Content Producer: First Look: XDCAM EX

First Look at the Sony PMW-EX1; An Interview with Doug Jensen

DV User: Sony XDCAM EX – PMW-EX1 Solid-State First Look

Friday, October 05, 2007

High Dynamic Range Images

I've just spent some time playing with Photomatix an interesting little tool for creating High Dynamic Range images.

If you have a digital camera, you probably know that they have a very limited dynamic range. Imagine you are taking a picture of a person sitting under a sun umbrella. If you set the exposure for the person, the surroundings will be over exposed. Set exposure for the surroundings, and the person will be underexposed. No matter how you adjust the settings, the camera doesn't have enough dynamic range to capture detail across the scene.

HDR photography is kind of a trick. Put the camera on a tripod and take three (or more) photographs; one correctly exposed, one under exposed and one over exposed. Then merge the three images to create a single image with a higher dynamic range.

That's the basic theory.

Well, pretty simple really; get a camera and a tripod. Many digital cameras have an auto exposure bracket function; turn the feature on by setting how many stops you want to over and under expose the image, then push the shutter and it takes three images in succession.

Then you transfer the images to a computer (Mac or Windows) and load them into the software. The merge process has only a few options and is basically automatic, but it creates a preview image that won't look right, You then have to "Tone Map" it, and then you have options to adjust settings and the output format.

The Results
The short answer is: mixed, but promising.

The Details
For the test, I put the camera on a tripod and literally walked around snapping some scenes I thought were interesting. I used a Canon PowerShot S-5 set to +-2 in Program mode, and didn't try adjusting exposure options.

The software does an interesting job. Of the seven or so tests I tried, two were definitely an improvement, but the rest were a mixed bag. I still have to play with the software options; for the moment I found it easier to bring the results into Photoshop and adjust the Contrast to create something I found pleasing. But I still had problems with the contrast across some images looking completely wrong, and an 'artifical' color feeling in others. There was noticeable color fringing in two, and a patterning in one set that I can't figure out.

And a big problem is that you really have to use a tripod, and don't want to have things moving in the scene.

I was using the trial version, and I'm still not sure if I want to shell out the $99 for the non-watermarked version. But I'm not giving up just yet. I want to do a few more experiments because for those two pictures that did work, it was quite impressive.

The example below shows a final image, and the standard exposure image (insert.) Note how much of the detail in the bench is blown out, and how dark the trees in the bakground are in the single exposure image.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sony XDCAM EX update

The good news; an hour of video may only be 8GB (as opposed to 13GB for an hour of HD video saved to DV tape.)

The bad news; someone at Sony quoted the 'less than $8,000' price tag, which is not encouraging!

Big Red One and other digital cameras

If you follow HD video production, or film production, then you have probably heard of the RED ONE cameras. These are low cost (if you consider under $20,000 low cost), 4K resolution digital video cameras. There's been a lot of excitement about these cameras over the last year or so. I've always been a little skeptical - not that it matters a wit; I'm not spending $17k on a camera in the near future - but it seemed that the sites that were always getting excited about these cameras were always posting 3D rendering's of the camera. I mean, come on, a 3D picture does not mean your boat has come in!

Anyway, it's looking more and more real now that Peter Jackson has shot a short feature using a couple of the Red prototype cameras. Crossing the Line is set in World War I, though it was shot in Masterton New Zealand (which was not a location of the original festivities.)

The camera fan boys seem to think this camera is going to turn the industry on it's head. Sony will soon be driven from the industry (or maybe they'll just cut prices.) In a few months, we may know for sure... the mean time (and probably within my budget) it's rumored that Sony will be coming out with a tiny HD camcorder that will use Memory Sticks as it's recording medium. The announcement could come this week.

It will be interesting to see what this camera is and how it stacks up; Sanyo and Canon both have 'HD' cameras that record to solid state memory. The Canon TX-1 was only recently announced/started shipping, and while it's tiny and cool (in a retro-styled sort of way) it's not been enthusiastically received due to lots of noise in low light, and the large size of the files it creates.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Blu-ray Next Year for Apple?

A report on MacNN suggests that Apple won't ship any iMac that supports Blu-ray until 2008. Whether the same holds true for the desktop line is unclear.

I've been eagerly awaiting Apple shipping hardware and software that supports Blu-ray (or HD DVD even!) so it's a little dissappointing; though it does mean I don't have to worry about finding the money to actually buy the hardware for a while!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Back Stage at The Colbert Report

TalkingPointsMemo has an interview with John Kerry about his new book. Whether that's your thing or not, watch to the end of the clip to see a bit of back stage at The Colbert Report. It's particularly interesting to see Colbert checking to see that Kerry understands the show, and explaining a 'bit' that they might do.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

YouTube Filtering system is reporting that Google is close to releasing a filtering system that would prevent copyright content from being uploaded to YouTube. The system, called Claim Your Content, will automatically identify copyright material - though how it does this was not explained.

Xbox Live Originals contest.

Always wanted to put together your own television series? Well, here's your chance:
The “Xbox LIVE Originals” contest will invite a wide range of artists and Xbox users to create a 5 to 15-minute pilot episode introducing an original television series. The pilots may be live-action, animated or both. All entries must be submitted before June 29th, 2007. A selection of standout finalists will be featured exclusively on Xbox LIVE Marketplace starting in July. The winner of the contest will receive a $100,000 deal with Xbox LIVE to create a six-episode series based on the short pilot as well as an exclusive screening event at the 2007 New York Television Festival.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Big Video News

Well, it's NAB, so that's hardly surprising, but there's a bunch of interesting things that caught my eye:

a) Apple announced Final Cut Studio 2. Another upgrade expense, but as always they seem to throw in some cool new features that you feel like you just have to have. I haven't looked too closely, but the feature that is supposed to remove camera shake sounds very neat.

b) Microsoft wants everyone to stop using that pesky Flash format for streaming video. So they have come up with Silverlight, which is cross platform (for the moment; I'm sure once they put Flash out of business they'll dump that pesky Apple support.) The big plus for this one is it's support for HD, but if it just fixes the many synch problems that Flash has, then people will probably jump at it..

c) Meanwhile, Adobe wants to bring Flash video to the desktop. The Adobe Media Player (hmmm...interesting name) will "let users subscribe to and play video podcasts published with RSS (Really Simple Syndication). The application also allows users to comment on and share videos." Currently, I use a site that lets me save Flash FLV movies to my desktop, and then use a media player which does an okay job of playing the movie; except that it keeps generating error messages when it loads and finishes the movie. Getting rid of those messages would be nice.

d) Finally, and most exciting, for me, is the new XDCAM prosumer camera - the XDCAM EX - which Sony is showing:

I wrote some time back about how cool XDCAM is (mainly because it's not tape based) but that the cameras are very expensive. This camera looks interesting; though it really depends what the price is. No official was announced, but if it's about $3,000 (which is what the current HDV tape based consumer cam from Sony sells at) then that's pretty cool. If it's more like $8,000 - as one news site has a Sony rep suggesting - then I guess I'll be waiting a few more years.