Shooting 5D mk3 in Bahrain for Channel 4.
Why the mk3 might prove to be the invaluable stealth companion to an intrepid cameraman and why it trumps the mk2…
It’s been an exciting couple of weeks. After a few days exfoliating my lungs with tear gas, I got to spend a night being entertained by Bahrain’s cops, offered a chance to practise my Arabic flirting skills with a pretty police lady and was then offered a complimentary one-way ticket back to the UK (but surprisingly not business class). Sometimes life doesn’t get much better; except I had been shooting all week with a new camera as part of a Channel 4 news crew in Bahrain, which always makes me giddy.
I don’t normally write about gear online and so I’m sorry if I bore anyone; there are enough people online who seem to have enough spare time to analyse, study, argue and critique every aspect of the way every camera behaves in the dark, light, wet, dry and then spend more time insulting each other about their findings.
The problem with many of the excellent web forums, blogs and scientists who offer camera eulogy on the web is that they often don’t offer a particularly real life perspective on the gear they review and often modify. The result of their collective work and cunning is often stunning, but for a news cameraman, using hacked software, homemade cables and relying on little Chinese adaptors throws up a whole host of problems, which would result in you getting a P45 in the post.
Shooting on DSLR cameras on a news job already throws up enough workflow headaches, without having to spend any more time worrying about the reliability of a home soldered cable for your audio or a piece of tofu which you’ve been advised makes an excellent microphone. News equipment has to be quick, simple and most importantly offer reliable results, especially when operating under difficult and sometimes stressful circumstances like the ones we were working under in Bahrain.
Our team arrived in Bahrain on tourist visas in order to cover the protests around the Grand Prix after Channel 4’s previous attempts at obtaining journo visas had fallen flat and so the decision was made for me to shoot DSLR in order to remain discreet.
In addition to the camera, I arrived in Bahrain with a skeleton kit including a zoom recording device, a fast 50mm lens, my 24-105mm standard zoom, a Zacuto Z-Finder, a couple of ND filters, a MKE400 microphone and a gorilla pod to offer me some support and act as a guerrilla shoulder mount. I really felt this was the minimum I needed to do the job well, but even looking at this meagre collection before leaving for Bahrain I felt that it was starting to look like a professional set up.
Before Bahrain I had written off the 5Dmk3 as an unnecessary addition to my arsenal; at the moment it is horribly expensive and on paper doesn’t seem to offer an additional £2000 worth of bang to a journalist who already owns a couple of mk2’s. There are now a wealth of new cameras which shoot both interlaced and progressive HD footage, which arguably make even Canon’s new generation of DSLR cameras look expensive and out of date, but when our producer David rocked up on the third day of shooting with a new mk3 I was eager to give it a go.
During the first two days of shooting with my mk2 I had really struggled with light in Manama’s back streets where most of the clashes between the country’s Shia youths and police happen. The revolution in Bahrain has been played out for the last year on dimly lit streets, which are often completely blacked out before the police arrive which makes shooting the clashes a massive challenge. Conventional DV cameras would have been left completely in the dark and LED flood lights or torches would have been an open invitation for the cops to practise their shotgun skills.
Under these circumstances the new mk3 was a lifesaver. It offered a pretty faultless solution to reliably shoot at night up to 12800 iso, which up to a couple of years ago would almost have been considered night vision. When I compare footage shot at night from the mk2 from our first couple of days in Bahrain, it is lousy in comparison to our later work with the mk3. It’s noisy and grainy to the point of sometimes being unusable at full resolution; particularly in areas of high contrast and in shots with large areas of black. With a fast prime attached, the new mk3 offers journalists a compact and most importantly reliable low light solution.
The second advance in Canon’s mk3 for news work is the option to change the way the camera compresses its footage in camera, before going back to the hotel to edit. The mk3 offers the chance to choose between shooting in either “All-I” or “IPB” modes in 1080p; both of which offer a variation of the H264 codec used on the mk2.
I’ll leave it to the internet bores to explain the difference between the two, but to cut a long story short shooting in “All-I” seems to cost you around 25% more memory-card space, but considerably improve ingestion times on both my I7 Macbook and Channel 4’s Avid equipped Dell laptop (It’s important to note that I still had to transcode my footage to prores 422 to edit the All-I footage in FCP7, despite the fact the footage appeared initially to be behaving normally under normal editing. On both Apple laptops I have tried to edit anything more than 2/3 All-I clips on, I receive a general error/out of memory message from FCP despite having large amounts of RAM and Scratch space free and allocated to the program – at the moment I can’t seem to find a solution to prevent this happening, but this might be due to my impatience/incompetence with my system settings! Trying to edit raw IPB footage presents the same problems as trying to edit native mk2 footage. As far as the footage itself, for broadcast/news use I could see no real difference in picture quality between the two new compression methods, although other people on the internet are particularly keen to argue with each other on this point.)
I can’t begin to reiterate how important this was in Bahrain, when we were producing a 5-minute package every day, which had to be ready for broadcast in London by early evening. It’s also interesting to note that regardless of the compression type you choose to shoot, the mk3’s files seem to be on the whole at least 25% smaller than those captured on the mk2.
Even so, while the mk3’s compression is a big improvement on the mk2’s, there still doesn’t seem to be a really rapid, mobile workflow/editing solutions for DSLR news shooters. It is a camera which still makes me bite my nails when I have to make a same day turn around, albeit a little less than the mk2; and that’s invaluable. A huge amount of the day still seems to be spend waiting for files to ingest onto laptops.
The final real bonus of the mk3 is the headphone jack on the side of this camera, which is a real lifesaver. Normally I use a Juiced Link DT454 for my DSLR audio needs; it gives me headphone monitoring on my mk2, a proper set of XLR inputs and proper levels meters but it is also not without risks. The build quality of the unit is questionable; it takes 9v batteries that are a pain to get hold of in the Middle East, it adds bulk to your camera and it adds another 3.5mm cable to your setup, which of course adds another potential fault line to your setup. It also looks like a professional piece of equipment. How many tourists do you know who wonder around with little field mixer in their bags? For working in a country that requires discretion, the DT454 needed to stay at home, which means working without headphone monitoring when shooting with the mk2.
As far as audio went the team used a little Sennheisser MKE400 microphone for the majority of our sound work. The quality of the audio it produces remains as crap as ever; it’s a horrible little microphone by all accounts but its also tiny and in loud environments it does exactly what it needs to do, which is record some of the atmosphere. For run and gun news it does a fine job of offering an uncomplicated sound set up without any of the nightmares of syncing audio in postproduction. For interviews, pieces to camera and anything else we could be bothered with we used a Zoom audio recorder with a sennheisser lav mic which I’d brought along and synced the footage using plural eyes.
This may well be one of my most boring blog posts that I’ve ever had the misfortune to write, so excuse me, but the 5D mk3 does offer the news shooter a whole lot more than any other Canon DSLR to date, particularly those who are already heavily invested in EOS glass.
Canon’s C300 might well be a wonderful video camera, but at £10,000 is a pretty risky piece of kit to be dragging about on stealth missions (the Bahraini authorities ceased all of our equipment when we were arrested…it has subsequently been returned to us; but if we had been operating in any more of a banana republic, it would have been camera shopping time). It’s also a blaringly obvious piece of professional equipment which doesn’t lend itself to pretending to be a snap happy tourist with a midrange DSLR – every third tourist at the Grand Prix in Bahrain seemed to be wearing a 5D as some sort of expensive pendant.
There’s a lot of hype at the moment about cameras like the Panasonic GH2; and there’s no doubt for commercial or features work that the camera is fantastically priced and some of the results online are stunning, but at the moment nobody can offer any real solution for a general purpose wide, fast zoom lens for the camera, making covering a running news story too much hassle for me. For the time being at least the 5D mk3 is a far more practical solution for fast news for me and the changes Canon have made to the 5D mk3 make it a far more attractive, and financially sensible option for me than jumping on whatever the current camera bandwagon is now.