This story, written by Martha Blanchfield, was originally published on Nikon USA's Focus On Cinema blog.
High Resolution Stills and Video in One Lightweight, Rugged Package
Photojournalists, DOPs, documentary producers and photographers are producing significantly more multimedia assets as part of client deliverables. What’s needed is a rugged, versatile camera that can go the mile, whether at a beachside wedding or high atop a mountain in extreme freezing cold.
Mike Rogers and Scott Woodward, a Singapore-based filmmaker and photographer team, were tasked with testing the new Nikon D4S DSLR and pushing the camera to its limits. Over the span of 17 days, the team created three short films and thousands of photographs that showcase the features and capabilities of Nikon’s latest tool for creative storytelling.
Nikon in Bhutan
Each pro had specific and exacting challenges for the camera. Woodward sought to demonstrate how the D4S is an optimal tool for working in extreme conditions, while
being a must-have camera that produces flawless still images. Rogers wanted to capture the beautiful and enigmatic Kingdom of Bhutan, one of the world’s most
Untouched and unforgiving landscapes through three short films: (1) “Taking Aim” - A film about a young female archer in Bhutan, (2) “A Journey to Perfection” - The team’s story recorded during the Bhutan trek and (3) Behind the scenes for a “A Journey to Perfection”.
Nikon wanted us to reach to extremes for both our creativity and this new camera, so we envisioned a trek up the slopes of Bhutan’s Himalayan Mountains—with a plan to work at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,300 meters (10,000 and 14,000 feet), temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit), and in environments of snow, dust and wind,” says Woodward. “Our goal: push the new EXPEED 4 image processor day and night. Task every new feature and invent ways to tell our story through both motion and still art.”
Capture in Bhutan hinged on the team’s ability to get equipment to each shoot site. While not a typical commercial production, a large crew and plenty of gear was nonetheless required. A team of 10 Bhutanese guides led
the group of eight; their 21 pack horses carried supplies and gear (totaling 300kg or 661 pounds). The team traversed rough terrain and ascension to altitudes where work in freezing weather—day and night—was on the agenda.
During the journey, Woodward fired off more than 5,000 frames and Rogers produced 15 hours of footage. To task the operating strength of the camera, a decision was made to run all video processing internally. In other words, all footage acquisition went straight to the memory card, minus external recorder and HDMI uncompressed-out. The objectives being to not only prove that the camera alone could deliver tremendous output, but to max-out processing muscle.
“We shot with the decision to perform post-processing and color grading direct from compressed H.264 .MOV files right out of the camera,” notes Rogers. Working that way did create a risky situation in that he did not have immediate large-view feedback. “Nonetheless, our first impression regarding quality of footage was remarkable. Direct-to-camera permitted us to move more efficiently through the final stages of post-production since
capture was already pretty well-balanced in terms of color.”
A View to a Hill
When viewing the films, try to visualize how capture was achieved. The team mixed things with a variety of POV (point of view) acquired using tripod, handheld and glide cam systems. They varied frame rate speed and pushed ISO into the deep end.
Fast lenses were used; a NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4 was the mainstay. For longer distances, a NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8 provided depth of field that yielded desired bokeh-ish mood. The NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8—the widest lens on-hand, was tapped when working 60p with a glide cam and jib. “We also heavily relied on a 16-35mm f/1.4 (most of the behind the scenes film was shot on this lens), a 24-70mm f/2.8 (Woodward’s favorite), plus a pair of 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lenses (often used for the long scene-setting shots),” notes Rogers.
Aside from swapping a lens to vary DOF, Rogers eased between FX and DX modes. For instance, his 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lens became an effective 105-300mm which served as a quick and effective option to get closer to a subject.
Slowing Down the Ascent
Rogers says, “Let’s start by talking about the 1080p slow-motion capability with the Nikon D4S. Capped at 60p when running NTSC (50p on PAL), this new speed feature turns the D4S from a regular DSLR into a creative power house. Once we saw how 60p looked, we filmed many scenes at this higher frame rate with the intent to create a bed of footage that could be later slowed down to accentuate a key moment in a scene.”
He continues, “A lot of cameras offer capture at 60p, but it’s important to bear in mind that this setting alters how the sensor reads the light. Done poorly, the record process can seriously increase artifacts and noise in dark areas of the image. In our motion scenes—many of which were staged in darkness and illuminated only by a single small studio light and/or purely a table of candles—the blacks stayed smooth with very minute artifacting.”
Rogers jumps back to comment on Nikon D4S versatility at 1080p, specifically when footage is to be cropped down. The camera’s excellent capture gave him more options to vary focal lengths (digital retouch in post-process) using that original take. He could also work this crop functionality into slow motion edit work. And finally, 720p Web delivery was possible.
Black Made Better with White
Calling out a specific span of capture at 60p, Rogers references the candle scene. Here, he wanted to keep the presentation very natural, so illumination cast by the candles was the only light permitted. “I focused the camera, adjusted the Nikon Spot White Balance setting to the skin tone of my subject, then commenced capture.”
Working in this manner did require him to increase ISO to 1600 (to preserve some exposure for background and environment). “This ISO boost, with almost all other cameras, would have rendered blacks in the scene to be grainy and horrible. I’d be spending more time in post-production color to correct things,” he says. “In the past, when using other brands of DSLR as a main camera, I’ve noticed a less than stellar track record properly rendering colors. The Nikon D4S did an amazing job of keeping the blacks nice and smooth, even with capture direct-to-camera.”
Accurate white balance in a final product is highly influenced by the processor’s ability to capture, then accurately display on the LCD monitor, what the camera has acquired. With the Nikon D4S’s new Spot White Balance function, that challenge has been solved. In “Journey To Perfection,” Spot White Balance in Live View was tapped
to accurately set white balance. “In that production there were a lot of different light sources with various color temperatures. Spot White Balance is an amazing feature that we both continue to frequently use on sets and locations. We both witness highly accurate tonal range and interpretation,” says Rogers.
The white balance feature was also called up by Woodward when creating stills during that dark scene. “This spot control allowed us to immediately set control in each and every scene. We could make quick decisions about the look of a scene, which then permitted us to move immediately to creative decisions without wasting time messing around with gelling lights or windows,” he adds. “This feature quickly became one of our favorite functions while on set.”
New Sounds for the Nikon D4S
Just one more aspect put through the tech wringer was the new audio system. “Minus a standalone mic, would our two Nikon D4S cameras be able to satisfactorily record a documentary shoot via solely directional boom mics?” Assets Rogers, “The objective—test the D4S paired with as little extra gear as possible.” What would it be like to take the camera straight out of the box and begin producing?
Rogers affirms that while not one of the sexiest new
additions, the D4S has notable audio functionalities that saved production several times while on location in Bhutan. Monitoring and adjusting-on-the-fly sound sensitivity levels for the attached mics was a breeze. “We could gauge audio levels at any moment of filming. Having that live read-out permitted us to shoot continuously in a variety of locales. If a change in audio occurred, we did not have to interrupt capture to adjust placement of a sound record device.”
This audio oomph came in handy on more than one occasion. Rogers recalls a shoot series where the main characters descend a steep hill then come into the frame aside a noisy river. The Nikon D4S was positioned on a tripod adjacent to the water; the audio setting initially dialed low to tame the sound of the rushing stream. As the characters enter the frame and come close enough for him to hear them, Rogers easily adjusted the dial to a more sensitive level to capture the conversation. “Audio for that progression would have been too low had I not been able to adjust to a significantly different level of sound.”
Woodward sums up, “We believe the Nikon D4S is a tool that digital filmmakers and multimedia producers should take a serious look at.” From a photography perspective,
his favorite feature is the Group Area Auto-Focus. The improved AF accuracy achieved by a 5-point focus grouping helps reduce back/front focus challenges for a subject that has erratic and/or unpredictable movement. He was able to more accurately track subjects with greater certainty and less distraction or shift of focus.
From a filmmaking point-of-view, a favorite feature of Rogers is the 1080/60p functionality. “To be able to capture slow motion footage at a resolution of 1080p with such a small form factor is a game changer,” he asserts. “I can quickly capture various options for editors without the need to switch between cameras. As a result, I saved time using just one capture device, and kept all files stored on the same memory card. That’s a big time saver in post-production.”
As a multimedia capture tool that enables high resolution stills and video capture in one lightweight rugged package, the Nikon D4S is a suitable fit that passed all marks set by Rogers and Woodward.