Shooting ‘mirrorless’ on an observational documentary

Shooting ‘mirrorless’ on an observational documentary

There are obviously key advantages and some pitfalls shooting video with a mirrorless camera on an observational documentary. The challenge was well worth it especially because it was my first documentary production opportunity for SBS, the Australian broadcaster. The film, entitled “Caged” and produced by In Films, will transmit in early 2016. It follows the life of six martial arts fighters as it attempts to open a lid into this subversive world.

I was in charge of the cinematography, covering a sequence in Jakarta, Indonesia. It focussed on Sydney West’s Martin Nguyen’s attempt to reach global stardom in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) at the expense of current interim world champion Marat Gafurov. The preparation, trials and tribulations of this particular event will be revealed in the documentary.

Capturing the content proved exciting and challenging: The Sony A7S cameras have revolutionised some of the broadcasting standards, as video equipment has become more compact year on year. Removing the mirror optical reflex viewfinder has made this camera less bulky and super lightweight. The shift to smaller cameras definitely started with the likes of Canon DSLRs, the GoPro, and the Blackmagic camera systems a few years ago. However, as opposed to the cameras mentioned, the Sony A7S offers the advantages of full-frame cinematography, with slow motion capacity and an incredible low-light sensor – all of this packed in a lightweight compact body.

Also, it is compatible with a wide range of professional lenses, whilst offering the possibility of picture profiles that match his bigger Sony broadcast cameras. The incredible dynamic range, and the possibility of easily matching the ‘visual look’ with more accustomed Sony broadcast cameras were an obvious choice on this production, as the bulk of the production was shot on Sony FS7s.

On the face of it, these are perfect features for inconspicuous and not “in your face” documentary filming. Some aspects were difficult to handle though. The manual focusing when using zoom lenses is one obvious challenge. The lenses are definitely heavier than the camera, and at times, it becomes slightly unstable to operate the camera smoothly and some camera movement is sometimes inevitable when pulling focus manually.

To keep the camera as streamlined as possible, we decided to just go with a small cage rig. This enabled us for better operation and to accommodate for sound. We also used a Metabones adapter to accommodate a selection of Canon EF lenses. However, no follow focus system or external monitor was added into the mix. The camera’s LCD screen has the aptitude for focus peaking assistance, but it is definitely not the best peaking system around. You need to take your time to make sure your subject is in focus, which is challenging when shooting documentaries on the fly.

In conclusion, the quality coming out of this camera is simply remarkable considering its price point. You can turn up your sensitivity or ISOs with very little noise visible, and therefore shoot at your desired aperture. Controlling your depth of field has never been easier. Provided you are using image stabilised lenses, you can get away with some tricky handheld operation. Finally, even though its color depth is only 8-bit, the results are pleasing and the footage grades well. It’s been great to work with this new camera, and I hope others will enjoy the benefits of a super lightweight camera system when shooting films.


Tilt-Shift Focus Technique

Tilt-Shift Focus Technique: The miniature effect used in videos


NaokiTricking your audience into representing reality as a miniature has been used by a few video producers with great effect. The idea is to photograph a scene as if it was seen from a magnifying glass or using a macro lens to investigate something extremely small. By blurring the foreground and background of a scene, and leaving elements of a scene in sharp focus in the middle of the frame, the audience is visually trumped. The optical illusion is simple: we’re looking at a normal scene with the visual attributes of a macro lens. Cars, buildings and persons look like toys from a model set. As a result it looks surreal, almost artificial.

This miniature scene created optically can be further enhanced if taking your shot from a high angle, looking down at a scene, i.e. the same way we would study ants at work by observing them from above. Most documentaries using macro photography undergo the same process; physically it is logical to see from a vantage point, but by looking and focusing at the very  small, we also take on the perspective of a giant. The relation between depth of field, detail, angle and scale induces the brain into miniature trickery.

Canon Tilt-Shift Lenses

Historically, video producers have taken inspiration from  photographers using proper tilt focusing glass, such as Naoki Hono’s photo (above), whereby the focusing plane can be physically titlted and shifted optically within the lens itself. Nowadays , blurring foreground and background, so often associated with shallow depth of field, can easily be achieved through a post-production process. In 2006, Thom Yorke’s Harrowdown Hill, directed by Chel White is often credited with being the first video using tilt-shift technique.

Finally, fast motion or timelapse photography used in conjunction with this creative focusing technique, will add to the sense of altered reality. The miniature scene now looks as if it was a stop-motion animation. Everything that’s associated with photographing a realistic scene or action, has been stripped away by modifying natural motion. This is particularly fascinating with City of Samba, an incredible tilt-shift film by Keith Loutit and Jarbas Agnelli. This is a clever, beautifully composed, and fascinating video loveletter to Rio de Janeiro (which you can view at your pleasure by pressing on the hyperlink).