Sunday, July 14, 2013

it was Friday September 23, 2011 and the peak of the rut in Pennsylvania Elk Country. The countryside was cloaked in mist and fog as dawn arrived and the air resounded with bugling as several bulls ranged the meadows competing for the attention of the cows. The camera of choice that morning was the Canon XL-H1 high definition camcorder with a full battery of lenses. It was an exciting morning and I captured a lot of good footage, but nothing exceptional happened. With such intense activity in that spot, it required little thought to decide where to go for the evening shoot.  I decided to leave the XL-H1 behind and instead carried the Canon Rebel T3i, and 7D cameras. Lenses were the 17-40mm and the 28-135 mm to handle scenic and close-up shots, while the 70-200mm F2.8 and the 300mm f2.8 were the lenses of choice for longer range work. Little did I know that I was about to experience on of the best evenings of filming Pennsylvania Elk of my career. I arrived on the scene at 5:20 p.m. to find several cows and smaller bulls already working the area. It never cleared that day and there was still light fog hanging against the distant mountains. In short order more and more elk appeared on the scene and I moved into position to get a good angle on the herd. By this time at least two dominant bulls were on the scene. On was an impressive 7x8 that wildlife artist and photographer David Anderson later named "Scratcher". This was one of the most beautiful, classic antler configuration bulls I have ever filmed.  The 7x8 was the dominant bull and activity was intense as he intimidated challengers and attempted to breed a receptive cow. In time he was successful in mating, and I captured my best footage ever of the courtship/mating process. In sorting through the footage; however, I found a brief clip that covered a 16.7 second time span. In my opinion 5 1/2 seconds ranked with the very best footage of elk that I have ever shot and I used it in the introduction to "Running Wild in Pennsylvania Elk Country", a 2-hr. documentary film, which was released in September 2012. The film actually begins with a short bit of scenery from the high mountain west and then dissolves into the clip of Scratcher, walking through a meadow of tall dead grass with the out of focus sky as a background. It then cuts to a close-up clip of him bugling and then dissolves back to stunning western scenery. At this point I encourage you to view the clip and I will continue the discussion below.

Some might ask why I used western scenery to begin a film on Pennsylvania elk. The long and short of the matter is that I have a modest amount of western footage, but have no plans to film enough in the western states to make a film based solely on western footage. Most think of the west when they think of elk and I used this approach to introduce the film. The opening segment is designed to showcase some of my better western clips, while at the same time explaining that elk are native to Pennsylvania as well and very shortly the focus shifts completely to Pennsylvania wildlife. I must also emphasize that the clip above is not an exact duplication of the introduction of the film, but is an abbreviated version. The actual segment in the film has many more clips, but this was done to keep the segment short enough for internet viewing.

The use of these clips raises the question of why I used a DSLR to film many of the clips used in the film, especially considering that I have a perfectly good XL-H1 with a nanoFlash recorder, which is capable of filming extremely high quality content.

To understand this, we need to look at some background information.  I began filming with a VHS camcorder in late 1990, and changed to a Panasonic AG-455 MUP S/VHS camcorder in 1994.  In 1997 I got the Canon L2, which recorded to Hi-8 tape.  This was my first interchangeable lens  camcorder.  I replaced it in 2002 with a Canon XL-1s, which in turn was retired for a Canon Xl-H1 in 2007.  All along the way it is been a story of rapidly increasing cost for the camcorders. The Panasonic  was considered a low end professional camcorder, or is perhaps more appropriately labeled a "prosumer" camcorder.  The fact is that most serious hobbyist or independent producers and film makers cannot afford the high end equipment.  Since the early days of video making there has been a level of equipment that offers more control to the user than consumer models and is capable in the right hands of producing work that approaches or equals the quality shot with the high end models that in most cases no one but  a production company or independently wealthy individual can afford to purchase and I use the term "afford" quite loosely.  Most of the models that I have used have been considered obscenely expensive by the general public at the particular point in time that they were on the market.  Unlike many products, camcorders usually go down in price after introduction and there is seldom if ever a price increase during the run of a model, but the company makes up for this when they introduce a new model.  We will start with the Canon L2 so that we are comparing cameras that have the same general purpose, with camcorders that replaced them to fill a similar slot, but with a more modern level of technology.  Actually the Canon L1 began this series concept that continued on in the XL line through two standard definition models and two HD models, but I never owned an L1 so we begin the discussion with the L2.

Canon L2 with Canon 35-350L still camera lens attached by EOS adapter
The L2 came with an 8-120mm f1.4--2.1 zoom lens that had a 35mm equivalent focal length of 43mm--648mm as the camera's sensor was small enough to give a 5.4 multiplier effect in focal lenght compared to the same lens on a 35mm camera.  This means that the 35-350mm shown above was capable of serious long range work as it had an effective focal length of about 189--1,890mm.  This is the camera and lens that I used to film the bull fight that is featured in the Elk Country Visitor Center theater presentation.  Pennsylvania Game Commission Maintenance Supervisor, Billie Cromwell who was my supervisor and I had identical rigs (he had his first and it inspired me to purchase similar equipment) and he used it to film substantial portions of the segment on the rut in the  Pennsylvania Game Commission elk video, "Pennsylvania Elk: Reclaiming The Alleghenies", a film that was produced and edited by Hal Korber, who also shot the vast majority of the rest of the video. This camera was discontinued in late 1996 or early1997 (I got mine used after the L2 was discontinued, but before its' replacement was announced) and was replaced by the XL-1 in late 1997.

The XL-1 camera continued the same general feature set, but it now recorded to mini-DV tape, which was capable of duplication without generation loss in copying as this was a digital based format rather than the analog system of the previous camcorders, which had significant generation loss with copying.  This was also coincidental with the time that video editing gradually switched from being a multiple VCR, mixer based system into a computer based one where the footage was downloaded to a hard drive and accessed at will rather than having to be physically located on a tape each time one needed to utilize a segment. This camera had an even smaller sensor (1/3') and the multiplier effect was now 7.2x, which made them even more effective at long range.

I missed out on the XL-1, but got its' replacement, the XL-1s in 2002.  This was much the same camcorder, but with improved electronics.  In 2004 Canon replaced the XL-1s, with the XL-2. The major change between  the XL-1s and XL-2 was the ability to shoot in native 16:9 (widescreen) format.  I passed on this upgrade and grew to regret this as with the advent of HD most content was shot in widescreen and widescreen SD content can look respectable in an HD production, while 4:3 footage is more problematic.

Canon XL-1s-Canon 500mmF4: A powerful long range tool for its' time
 Mini-DV was in its' glory as a prosumer format when I got the XL-1s.  At the time I was foolish enough to think that I had a camera that I could use well into my retirement years, but soon all of the talk was about HD.  In 2003 several companies formed the HDV consortium and began working on product development that utilized recording to mini-DV tape in the new HDV format, which has a definition of 1440x1080  vs. the 720x480 of SD and the 1920X1080 of  full HD, HDV quickly caught on with many amateur and professional videographers due to its low cost, and an image quality that was acceptable for professional uses in many cases.  Soon, it was the hot topic of discussion on DV Info Net, a video forum that I read each day.  It seemed as though all anyone could think about was "future proofing" their work as they called it.  Since most programs were still delivered in SD, the use of HD was not required in most cases, but most wanted the material they shot today to be competitive well into the future,  hence the phrase, "future proofing".  As for the XL-2--its' period of glory was short lived as by the time of its' introduction most were eagerly anticipating the introduction of a HD version of the XL line. This came to pass with the introduction of the XL-H1 in late 2005 which utilized the HDV cassette and came in at the shocking price point of nearly $10,000 with the standard zoom lens.

Canon XL-H1 With Kit Lens-Canon's First HDV Interchangeable Lens Camcorder
This was much too expensive for me, but I still wanted to try HD video, so in May of 2006, I purchased a Sony HVR-A1U HDV camcorder which was released in November of 2005.

Sony HVR A1-U: A Good Compact HDV camera, but not a great long range tool.
 This camera had the profile of a large professional unit and was classified as a pro-model by Sony, yet it was extremely small and compact.  It featured a 10X zoom, which unfortunately for wildlife filming had only a 35mm equivalent of 350mm on the high end.  While it was priced at a much more reasonable $2,500.00,  it was seriously lacking for much of the work that I do. A lot of my whitetail deer filming is at long range.  For  those of you with a hunting background, it was a lot like going deer hunting in open country with an open sighted 30/30 when one was used to the the long range potential of a magnum rifle fitted with a high powered scope sight. Add on tele-converters did not solve the problem as they softened the picture to SD quality.  The end result was that after much serious thought, I decided to get a XL-H1 in early 2007.  By that time the price was at a much more reasonable $8,300.00, but this was still a sickening price to pay.  To make a long story short, this camera served me well and in 2010, with tape based recording being on its' way out I fitted the camera with a nanoFlash recorder that records  full HD 1920X1080 specifications at extremely high bit-rates to Compact Flash cards.  By this time the camera had been replaced by the XL-H1s, but there was no incentive to upgrade as there was not a significant improvement in performance and even the H1s needed the nanoFlash to really shine.

On April 7, 2010 Canon announced the introduction of a new line of professional camcorders , the XF-300 and XF-305.  Their most attractive feature was that they recorded native 1920x1080 footage to Compact Flash Cards. Both cameras recorded to an MPEG-2 4:2:2  50Mbps Codec bit-rate, which is  a much more robust codec than  HDV.  The major draw back was that the model that was most comparable to the XL-H1, the XF-305, was in the same price range as the XL-H1, but it could not compete in long range performance as it was fitted with a 18x HD L Series Zoom 4.1-73.8mm (29-527mm, 35mm equivalent) with no ability to interchange lenses.  Most expected an interchangeable lens version would be introduced in short order , but in time it became clear that the XL-H1s was to be the end of the line for the small sensor, interchangeable lens camcorders from Canon. This effectively mean the end of extreme long rang filming with Canon camcorders once the XL models reached the end of their life span.

When Canon  introduced another interchangeable lens video camera in late 2011, it was targeted at those engaged in  high resolution motion picture production.  This was the C300, which featured a super 35mm CMOS sensor.  This gives effectively the same size image as a crop sensor camera such as the 7D, etc.  . It had a list price of $20,000, but has sold for $16,000 for most of the time it has been available.  This seems exorbitant unless one realizes that these are designed to attract users from the high end market who are used to paying $40,000.00 and up for cameras.  A Panasonic Vari-Cam 2700 P2 HD which sells for $39,950 or the Panasonic Vari-Cam 3700 P@ HD with a selling price of $59,950 (both without lenses)  are good examples, but these cameras are better for wildlife as they have a 2/3 sensor, which in turn means better long range performance.

Panasonic Vari-Cam in use at Elk Country Visitor Center-Not sure of exact model.
At  this point let's look at a trend using average prices for various camcorders as I remember them.  This is just off the top of my head, but it will be in the ball park.

L2 with Kit Lens. $2,500, XL-1s with Kit Lens-$3,800, XL-H1 with Kit Lens-$8,300, and C300 with no lens $16,000.

From this it is clear that there is often a quantum leap in prices when there is a significant increase in performance.  Price did not quite double between the L2 and the XL-1s, but the XL-H1 was about double the cost of a XL-1s and the C300 is double the price of the XL-H1 and this is without any lens.  This was the point at which I decided to drop out of the game so as to speak, as there is no way I was paying double the price of the H1 for a camera that would not deliver at long range.

In the meantime I had acquired a Canon 7D primarily for still photography in the fall of 2009.  It also was the first still camera I owned that could record video and I used it quite a bit for this purpose, but it had to go on the shelf when long range work was required.  This was still my front line still camera in the spring of 2011 and I was using a 40D and a 30D as backup cameras (when taking stills I often keep one on a tripod with one of the big primes, with another around my neck with a smaller lens such as a 70-200mm for subjects that appear suddenly at close range).  Eventually I decided that I should get another video capable DSLR to fill the backup camera slot and I was seriously considering the 60D, but before I got around to ordering it, I was amazed to find that the recently introduced Rebel T3i (600D) had a 3X crop mode, which is supposedly loss-less, in addition to a digital zoom that ranged to 10X.  I will not go into the mechanics of the 3x crop mode in detail, but suffice it to say that it did work very well, although it was not quite as sharp as the standard mode, while the digital zoom was pretty much useless for serious work.  The bottom line though was that there was now an affordable option to record wildlife at long range.  As an example we will look at the 500mm F4 which of course is a true 500mm on a full frame sensor, but has an equivalent field of view of 800mm on the aps-c crop sensor of the Rebel.  It gets real interesting though when the 3x crop mode is kicked in as this  gives an equivalent focal length of 2,400mm if my figures are correct. 

At any rate, the T3i and the 7D were the only video capable cameras with me on that memorable evening and once the footage was analyzed I was well pleased with my choice of cameras for the evening.  Lens quality does make a difference and while footage taken with the T3i and the 70-200mm was very usable, that taken with the 300mm 2.8 was superb.  The wide shot of the 7x8 walking in and bugling was taken with the 300mm f2.8 in normal mode, while the close-up of him bugling was with 3X Crop Mode engaged and there is very little difference in quality.  Both clips were taken at ISO 400 and 1/60 of a second.

I was certain that Canon would improve on this feature in future models and that a cost-effective method of filming at long range was assured, but I was to be disappointed as 3X crop mode was not included in the T4i, T5i, or the 5D MK III.

It was Canon's failure to expand on this feature that caused me to shift to Panasonic DSLR cameras for most of my filming. It seems that the feature is back on the 70D , but now is called digital movie zoom,  but that and more discussion of both the Canons and Panasonics for wildlife filming are for future posts.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.


Dina said...

Hi Willard. These photos of the cameras are almost as impressive as your shots of the animals!
And I've never seen a lens with camo!

Eko said...

Johan on 'vempeleet'...
Huhuu... Canonilla kuvailen EOS....
Näitä katselen ja ihailen...
Terveisin Eko

Willard said...

Thanks for visiting and commenting, Dina.

The camouflage lens jackets have become very popular in wildlife photography in recent years--especially with Canon owners as the white L lenses really stand out. The camouflage material stretches over the lens and is easily replaceable--it has the added benefit of helping protect the lens from damage.