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February 5, 2014 — Leave a comment

We just had the pleasure of testing out some great products from Australian tripod manufacturer Miller. Here is the story in full. See below for a link to the story on their own website….

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I started out in the film business over twenty years ago, shooting wildlife documentaries for Oxford Scientific Films (OSF). From the 1960’s on, they had been at the forefront of developing specialist equipment to shoot stories that always pushed the limits of technical and creative innovation. This gave me exposure to the best and newest technology in the film and documentary business from around the world. One of the many talented people I had the pleasure of working with during this time was Australian filmmaker and lens designer Jim Frazier, who won many awards for his innovative inventions.

After four years working as a staff cameraman at OSF, I had the opportunity to move to Australia to work on a wildlife series that would see me taking adventures to shoot stories all over the continent. I soon realized what great contributions Australia had, and continues to make, to both creative and technical developments in filmmaking. It became obvious that from the Outback cattle stations that became the base for many of our shoots, to the highest levels of high-tech industry, this was a country where geographical isolation gave birth to a culture that demanded creative engineering skills. It didn’t matter whether it was using fencing wire to mend a broken down truck in the Outback or to have the imagination required for Jim Frazier to create his pioneering lens designs, this was a culture that values innovative solutions.

After selecting the appropriate camera and lens combination (at that time the Aaton LTR Super 16 film camera / Zeiss and Nikon glass), the next crucial part of the filmmakers kit is selecting a good tripod and fluid head system. This decision combines a need for smooth camera moves, a steady platform, but not so heavy that it restricts your ability to be mobile in the field.

Back at OSF I had been using solid Germany technology, an Arriflex camera and Sachtler tripod, both at the top of their field in terms of build quality, but to my mind, not designed for use in the extreme conditions that we often encounter shooting wildlife and adventure stories. When I went freelance and headed to Australia, this led me breaking the mould and to selecting the Aaton camera system. It was designed by a cameraman with an engineering skills, as opposed to a brilliant engineer, that had never spent long hours in the field with a camera in their shoulder.  I wanted a tripod built with similar design sensibilities.

Soon after arriving in Melbourne, I was quickly exposed to one of Australia’s greatest technical contributions to the film business, Miller tripod systems. Originally built with wooden legs and uncomplicated fluid heads, these products were ideal for the independent filmmaker requiring a reliable and mobile system. Twenty years later, they have stayed ahead of the times, trading wood for carbon fibre and fluid heads capable of carrying anything from a video enabled DSLR to the heaviest of digital cinema cameras. For the last two decades, when given a choice, I have hardly used any other tripod system. This has included working on flagship TV series including BBC’s “Life”, “Life in Cold Blood” (featuring Sir David Attenborough), “Frozen Planet” and recently Emmy Award winning National Geographic series, “Untamed Americas”.

Today, I combine shooting stories for networks that include the BBC, Discovery, and National Geographic, with teaching digital storytelling workshops for the world’s premiere expedition travel company Lindblad Expeditions, and their partner National Geographic Travel. My first adventure with Lindblad was in the Arctic outpost of Svalbard, a place I had called home for two years while shooting a story on polar bears. We sailed on the ship Explorer, along with other top National Geographic contributors that were invited to share their experiences of shooting films and magazine articles from all over the globe. I was lucky enough to travel husband and wife team, Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson. They have shot over forty magazine articles during their careers. With many common interests and a shared love of wild places, Cotton and I soon decided to collaborate on future projects, culminating in Expedition Workshops. Currently based onboard the Lindblad / National Geographic fleet of ships, we offer dedicated digital storytelling classes to a small group of guests in some of the world’s most remote wildlife and cultural locations. These cover everything from video shooting techniques to editing a finished film.

For my broadcast work I still use a 100mm bowl Miller DS25 with double stage carbon fibre legs and Cotton uses a Miller 20 tripod system. But we both needed a light solution for the small camera and DSLR shooting we do for the workshops. The ideal solution was the Miller Solo DV and DS10 head. Both Cotton and I have the same camera support systems which we have tested everywhere from the Tropics to the Antarctic. In addition, for shooting human interest stories (as well as when shooting stills), we also both employ Miller carbon fibre monopods.

The DS10 heads have withstood the rigors of every environment we have thrown at them, from the muddy banks of the Amazon to the sea ice of the Antarctic’s Weddel Sea. Recently while shooting the king penguins in South Georgia, Cotton and I both spent many hours on our stomachs shooting images of the molting adults and growing chicks, as well as the many elephant seals populating the beaches. To make this possible we each used one of our favorite features with the Miller Solo DV, its ability to spread the legs out quickly so we can shoot just above ground level.

Capturing images at just 12” from the ground, it places you at the eye level of the subject enables you to better convey the environment in which they live and better enter their world. At other times you can extend the Solo DV to almost 6’, enabling you to capture high angles when that is more appropriate. It is truly a very versatile set of legs.

The tripod always holds fast in the high winds that sweep down from the glacial ice. These catabolic winds can appear in minutes, raising wind speeds from zero to gale force without warning. We also walked many miles up and down the high mountain slopes and thick tussock grass, and weighing in at less than seven pounds, the light carbon legs and compact head made our treks much more manageable.

The head is equipped with a simple but very effective counterbalance control which neutralizes the effect of the camera’s weight when it is tilted. The pan and tilt provide smooth movements and are each easily locked, plus the quick release plate allows the camera to be removed instantly from the head, as well as positioned to make ensure the whole system is balanced. The DS10 head is ideally suited to cameras weighing in at between 5 and 11lbs, with smaller or larger heads available to suite other camera systems. All simple, but very effective designs that you would expect from an Australian engineer! One of the other features that immediately sold me on Miller tripods was the placement of the levers for adjusting the height on my larger DS25 / Sprinter combination. Unlike other popular European designs, the double set of leg extensions can all be controlled from the middle of legs, making it very easy to adjust height without having to bend down…. something that save valuable seconds when capturing a scene.

The monopod has many advantages for the kind of shooting we are doing, which includes everything from old style street shooting of people, to shooting wildlife from the deck of the ship, where there is often no room for a tripod or the vibration of the engines cancels out the steadiness of the Solo / DS10 system. The quick fix to stop the vibration while shooting from the deck is to place the base of the monopod on your foot. This absorbs the motion and allows you to capture a steady shot. I also use the monopod much as you would a Steadicam system. When walking with the camera to track with moving subjects, you keep a bent arm, the monopod hangs down and acts as a counterbalance making it easier to keep a level horizon and more effectively track you subject.

Our students often arrive on the ship with more economical tripod and fluid head systems, but after demoing our Solo / DS10 units, order a Miller system as soon as the get home. After years of field testing many Miller products, I would definitely recommend them to everyone from the beginning filmmaker to seasoned cinematographers working on features or television projects.

Biographies
David Wright is an award winning director of photography and producer, with recent accolades including an Emmy for cinematography. He works on high profile television series, features and commercials, also specializing in shooting high speed / slow motion imagery. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the BBC, Discovery and PBS

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Cotton Coulson is an award-winning photographer who began his career shooting for National Geographic at age 21. He was the Director of Photography at “The Baltimore Sun” and Associate Director of Photography at “U.S. News & World Report.” Cotton was Senior Vice-President at CNET Networks where he managed the Creative Design and Product Development teams. Cotton is also a Contributing Photographer for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Today his photographic and video work is focused on contemporary environmental issues.

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View the story as posted on the Miller website

Check out David’s blog post for Nikon on their Nikon Cinema site for advise on this and many other topics

Read below for a full reproduction of the piece

 

David Wright is a 20-year Nikon camera veteran and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. Working as a regular contributor in the roles of cameraman and producer for National Geographic television and the BBC, his work has taken him around the globe to film both wildlife and human interest stories. David employs the latest imaging technologies, including high-speed HD and ultra high-definition cameras, plus gyro-stabilized units for filming from helicopters.

David started out as a stills photographer but was soon well on his way as a cinematographer. At the age of 21, David was offered a job as an apprentice cameraman at world-renowned documentary production company Oxford Scientific Films. He was a regular contributor to their stock library. Through his work, David quickly mastered the craft of shooting television documentaries, and within two years become a cinematographer working for major broadcast clients.

“I learnt the trade using 16mm and 35mm film cameras,” he shares. “Today we shoot using the latest high definition (HD) cinema cameras that capture exclusively in video.” While the majority of his work is motion, David keeps a Nikon camera by his side to capture stills, time-lapses for his television productions, and for the camera’s video capabilities for which he applies to both personal and professional projects.

Adapting Cinematography Techniques
David recently led a workshop specifically for photojournalists that focused on best practices for HD-SLR video shoots. Preparation for this workshop made him consider the lessons he has learned as a cinematographer, and how best to adapt those techniques when shooting video with his latest camera, a Nikon D800.

Single lens reflex cameras (SLRs) have a long design history with a primary objective to capture still images, not motion work. David tactfully points out that shooting video with a D-SLR camera requires a different way of working the device, and that this process can be at odds with how a still photographer works. He further adds that producing video requires gear not likely found in a traditional photographer’s bag.

A Look Inside National Geographic Cinematographer/Producer David Wright’s Bag
In David’s own words, read more about his choice of gear, plus a few valuable lessons he’s picked up while on the job. These are all things you may wish to consider for your own video workflow.

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David Wright with D800 & ME-1 Microphone
Photo by: David Wright
Mic Check
The unsung hero of every video shoot is the sound-recordist. Whether shooting live action, an interview or other subjects in-between, I am often reminded that great capture with bad audio is unusable. On the other hand, good audio, even if accompanied by inferior imagery, is almost always useful; if your visual capture was not up to snuff you can usually shoot it again!

“Great capture with bad audio is unusable… on the other hand, good audio, even if accompanied by inferior imagery, is almost always useful”

Lesson number one for your HD-SLR shoot: use a good microphone. Compact and well designed for the job, I’m convinced the Nikon ME-1 is a great way to equip your camera for video work. The ME-1 has impressive specifications and is compact. It is powerful and will pick-up the smallest of sounds. Unfortunately even the sound of your hands operating the camera will be captured; this is known as “handling noise.” I like that the ME-1 has a built-in shock mount that assists in reducing this problem. Adding an ME-1 is an important component to consider as you start building-out your videography bag.

Also consider an add-on for improved sound—some sort of wind protection to shield the microphone. If you venture out into the wilds to shoot you’ll benefit from a windjammer (windscreen).

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Capture different crops in camera without compromising output quality by using the DX crop mode (or 2.7x crop mode if available) – this will give you flexibility in editing the video together.
Photo by: David Wright
Choices, Choices: Magnification and Camera Angle
Unlike shooting photo stills and the “decisive moment,” filmmaking requires you to capture a series of moving images that best narrate an unfolding story or sequence. Sounds obvious, but understanding this key concept—both in terms of obtaining the shots that best piece together the story plus incorporation of the best lens(es)—can make or break your effort.

“I recommend watching a small part of a favorite movie… turn down the sound and pay attention to how the shots were produced”

To better understand the concept of shooting a sequence, I recommend watching a small part of a favorite movie. When you watch, turn down the sound and pay attention to how the shots were produced, how the film flows from one frame to the next, and how long each frame runs. You’ll likely start noticing that the editor is using rather basic techniques.

The two most important techniques are: changing magnification or size of subject and camera angle. Shoot with these notions in mind and you’ll give yourself ample editing options once you’re prepping the footage. During the edit, cutting between shots will be easier and you can pace your finished sequence in any way you choose. If someone else is cutting for you, creating more choices by following these techniques will make you a popular cameraman!

Three Favorite Lenses
I rotate between three favorite NIKKOR lenses when shooting video:

AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF
This lens is ideal when hand holding the camera or using a monopod. The 17-35mm lens allows you to establish the scene with a great wide angle view. This lens is also more forgiving of camera shake—something far more noticeable than when taking stills. With stills you’re concerned about holding a camera steady for a brief moment in time. With video you may need to hold the camera still for several minutes.

For example, if you like shooting candid street shots and want to blend in with the background by not using a tripod, the wide angle is a great way to go. Plus, with a f/2.8 lens you’ll get great capture in low light.

AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR
One photographer at a recent workshop referred to this as the ‘Swiss army knife’ of his preferred lens selections when traveling. The 24-120mm f/4G is fast enough to work well in low light, and it has a range that enables the different shot size requirements mentioned above that go into constructing a solid sequence.

As a tip, I like to start a sequence with a wide establishing shot (24mm). I then move in for a medium shot (50mm). And finally, I go to close-up (120mm). Of course you can also achieve the three different focal lengths by moving the camera closer to the subject, but for ease and speed this lens handles all the footwork.

AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR
When I need to travel light, this is the lens I tend to use most. Its compact size and amazing zoom range permit me to quickly capture a wide range of shot sizes; I don’t miss any action by relocating the camera. At the long end of its zoom capability this lens is best paired with a tripod. The results are astounding.

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The larger sensor in HD-SLR cameras paired with a fast lens enables shallow depth of field in your video, allowing a great cinematic look to be achieved.
Photo by: David Wright
Cinematic Sensor Size
Of course one of the big attractions for using an HD-SLR for video is the large sensor size—and the resulting shallow depth of field it yields. You bring a great look to your footage, and the technology allows improved separation of subject from background.

As a tip, for occasions where even more distinct separation of subject from the background is desired, I suggest a prime lens with fast aperture. The AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G is great for recording interviews or when you wish to shoot a portrait photograph.

Techniques to Imitate a Filmic Look
Another joy of using an HD-SLR to shoot video, compared to cameras with smaller sensors, is the ability to recreate that filmic look I saw from my trusty old 16mm and 35mm film cameras. To achieve the look, I mimic some of the older camera settings, which means either using a frame rate of 24 fps or 25 fps (depending on whether you are in an NTSC or PAL country; the USA uses NTSC).

Want to make the most of this look? Calculate your exposure time as if it were the 180-degree spinning shutter in the film camera. In other words, a 1/50 sec. exposure should be used when shooting at 25 fps. This allows just the right amount of motion capture in the image to yield a smooth and pleasant playback because it mimics the way the human eye sees things in motion. In other words, with just enough blur.

To maintain that shallow depth of field in your video work, not only should you shoot at 1/50 sec., but also set a large aperture (set between f/1.4 and f/4 depending on the lens you are using). The challenge here is that, particularly in bright situations, you can’t help but be overexposed.

Combat overexposure by using a variable neutral density (ND) filter. The filter knocks back exposure by two stops, and you can dial it down by as much as nine stops. I recommend not pushing too far; the corners of the image will start to become dark and you may see a slight color shift. The variable ND also provides the ability to smoothly adjust the amount of light entering the lens while you shoot.

ND Filter Makes For a Smooth Operator
An interesting point about a “traditional” cinema lens is that the aperture ring does not have click stops. Most new photography lenses don’t have an aperture ring; all adjustments are made via a dial on the camera body.

The cinema lens aperture ring is great because you can make adjustments without the viewer becoming aware of the change. I frequently run into a situation where I am hand-holding the camera and walking behind a subject; for example, when filming the person as he or she moves from indoors to outdoors. For continuous footage in this scenario you’d have to reduce exposure on-the-fly by stopping down the lens.

The solution? Use that filter for easy on-the-fly exposure control. Practice with the variable ND filter and gain expertise in maintaining correct exposure by merely spinning the front element. With practice you can take the motion of your subject, combined with your own movement, to hide in-camera adjustments. No one will even be aware that changes have been made.

My second camera is a D600 – for this camera the aperture locks once I hit the record button in Video Mode. I’ve learned that by setting the lens and ND filter to the right combination I am more precise in adjusting exposure. I can let more light in or decrease the light during a shot—and I do not have to restart the camera.

External Monitor Gives a Second Look
One of the most important things I have to remember, after years of working with traditional movie cameras, is that HD-SLRs don’t have a viewfinder that can be oriented to different angles. For my work I often need to look down into a finder instead of the backside of a camera where the LCD screen is. My solution is to add an external electronic viewfinder. These monitors provide extra features such as focus assist modes, histograms for checking exposure and much more. These added tools will likely help boost your confidence in what you are capturing.

Two Last Best Bets
Two last items in my kit, that have not changed much since my film days, include a good fluid head and a sturdy set of tripod legs. The tripod is not only essential for steady telephoto shots, but the better the head, the smoother the movement during video pan or tilt. There are a lot of brands on the market, but my choice for best build quality, design and price is the Miller range of products. For times when I am on foot and/or need to keep a low profile, I’ll also carry a monopod to help steady the capture.

Ultimately, what you end up adding to your videography bag will be dictated by what you shoot and what you prefer. My work takes me all around the planet. I capture everything from animals to people to nature. I shoot in all ranges of light and environmental conditions. So for me, my personal favorites include:

Nikon D800 and D600 bodies (view)
NIKKOR 17-35mm zoom (view)
NIKKOR 28-300mm zoom (view)
NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4mm prime (view)
Plenty of spare batteries and memory cards (view)
A variable ND filter
External electronic viewfinder (EVF)
A good tripod and monopod
You have an amazing film-making tool in your hands. To ease into motion, consider the video-making capability of your Nikon HD-SLR combined with time-lapse image capture in stills mode. You can create some amazing looks. When you are ready to dive into 100 percent motion work, know that with a little camera practice the rest comes down to your imagination.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

David Wright
David Wright is an award winning filmmaker and photographer. Originally from the U.K., he has worked in more than 35 countries and now makes his home on the coast of Maine in the U.S.A. Upcoming travels will take him to South Africa, Brazil, South Georgia and the Antarctic. A long time Nikon user, David started out in the business at Oxford Scientific Films. He then went freelance and now shoots for clients including National Geographic, the BBC and Discovery Channel. Recent projects have included landmark series like Nat Geo’s “Untamed Americas,” which just earned him an Emmy nomination for cinematography. Previously he received an Emmy for achievement in documentary filmmaking, and a nomination for cinematography for his National Geographic special on polar bears. Throughout his career David has used Nikon photography equipment, as well as NIKKOR lenses, to shoot everything from television productions to commercials and feature films. Along with his work as a cinematographer and producer, David also runs workshops for the expedition company Lindblad, a National Geographic partner. David shoots with a Nikon D800 and will also be using the COOLPIX AW110 in his upcoming adventures.
To learn more about David’s work visit http://www.planetearthpictures.com/