Sunday, October 31, 2010

Best ... Bargain ... Ever: Panasonic GH1 at $500

The Panasonic GH2 will be released soon. It will probably be a little tough to get at first, but it will be on camera store shelves soon enough.

So stores that still have the Panasonic DMC-GH1 available have dropped the price to an unbelievable bargain level. It's a heck of a camera for the price, especially if your interest is working with DSLR video. (I've shot several projects with the GH1, and find it a very capable camera and the most flexible for documentary-style work.)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Panasonic GH2 Tele Conversion: Bagful of Primes?

Panasonic GH1 1080p Camera Test from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

I have a hacked Panasonic GH1. It works great, and it's great to be able to work with a camera that's so small and light. The Panasonic GH2 is shipping soon, and it has a few key improvements -- it should be better for low light video, for example.

There's one advanced feature that's really intrigued me, though, that might end up a fantastic bonus for documentary shooters: the Tele Conversion feature.

The idea is that video on a DSLR is recorded at either 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels (1080p) or 1280 pixels by 720 pixels (720p) -- but the camera's sensor is really closer to 5000 pixels wide. So these type of cameras are reading the 5000 pixels and doing some number-crunching to downsize and output a frame 1920 wide or 1280 wide.

The Tele Conversion, however, seems to mean essentially cropping to a 1:1 ratio -- grabbing the center 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels rectangle -- and using that for the recorded frame. This results in a lens acting as if it were had a focal length 2.6 times longer (if you are recording 1080p) or 3.9 times longer (if you are recording 720p).

Well, this has been mentioned in the previews of the camera, and generally the reaction is "Great. That will provide amazing telephoto reach." That's true: the long end of the HD zoom is 140mm, and that would now act (in 1080p) as if it were a 364mm focal length. (The equivalent, on a fullframe 35mm camera would be a 728mm lens.) Or the Tele Conversion results in your 14-140mm now acting like a 546mm lens if you shoot at 720p/60 (typical for sports shooting), which is equivalent to a 35mm fullframe camera with a 1092mm lens. Hmm.

That's all well and good. But here's what I think is exciting:

You get your Panasonic GH2. Tiny, light, ready to travel. Now, buy the Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 Aspherical Pancake Lens and the Panasonic Lumix 14mm f/2.5 G Aspherical Lens for Micro Four Thirds Interchangeable Lens Cameras.

The 20mm goes for about $333 these days, the 14mm is about $400.

They are both tiny tiny tiny, light light light. The camera and these two lenses will fit in a very very small bag and will hardly weigh anything at all.

Here's what happens if you use the Tele Conversion feature, assuming it works well.

Put on the 14mm f/2.5 lens. This is great for wide shots -- equivalent to a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera. But if you turn on the Tele Conversion while you are shooting 1080p / 24, suddenly the lens acts like a 36.4 mm lens (72.8mm in 35mm equivalent).

Put on the 20mm f/1.7 lens. This is great for "standard" shots -- equivalent to a 40mm lens on a 35mm camera. But if you turn on the Tele Conversion while you are shooting 1080p / 24, suddenly the lens acts like a 52 mm lens (104mm 35mm equivalent).

So that means you could travel with a tiny camera and two pancake lenses, and have the equivalent of these prime lenses (considered in 35mm equivalent focal length).
  • 28mm f/2.5
  • 40mm f/1.7
  • 72.8mm f/2.5
  • 104 mm f/1.7
So: a bright wide, a very bright standard, a bright medium portrait, a very bright long portrait.

Check out Elliott Erwitt's Camera Case, Circa 1974 and you'll find out what he carried:
"Inside the case: two Canon F1s, a complete set of prime lenses (17mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 35mm tilt/shift, 50mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm and 300mm), a cable release, a Minolta light meter and an Eastman Kodak "Pocket Guide to Photography."
Hmm. Getting there, with just two tiny pancake lenses. (Erwitt's case must have weighed a ton, no?)

So add a Olympus 17mm f/2.8 Lens. These are going for about $260 right now, and again: tiny and light.

So the Olympus is 17mm, which acts on a Micro Four Thirds sensor about the same as a 34mm lens on a fullframe 35mm format camera. Hit the Tele Conversion button, and it acts 2.6 times longer, or as if it were a 88.4mm lens. This brings your range of primes to:
  • 28mm f/2.5
  • 34mm f/2.8
  • 40mm f/1.7
  • 72.8mm f/2.5
  • 88.4mm f/2.8
  • 104 mm f/1.7
So: with two Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2's and three tiny pancake lenses -- all extremely small and lightweight -- you can get a broad range of focal lengths in bright, high-quality prime lenses.

Now, Erwitt's got some longer lenses there as well, but so consider adding Panny's new Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 G Vario Aspherical MEGA OIS Lens for Micro Four Thirds Interchangeable Lens Cameras. That provides a range, including a 100mm / f/4 end (the 35mm equivalent is 200mm) that Tele Converts to 260mm / f/4 (in 35mm equivalent, that's 520mm).

Now, remember: this Tele Conversion feature is brand new. No one has reported on the quality yet, though in theory there's no reason it might not actually be better than "regular" video recording. And that's the key factor: it works on video, not stills.

Still, it's fairly amazing to think of what a documentarian today could pack into a small case or backpack. And when the new Voigtlander 25mm / f0.95 ships....

Thursday, October 28, 2010

When Life Gives You Kink, Make Kinkade

Yes, my Thomas Kinkade book is signed. Isn't yours?

Now, sure, it's not normally the type of "art" I go in for. Or, even recognize as art. But, c'mon, art museums are sticking Tim Burton drawings on the walls hoping to get people in the doors. People tell me Kanye West is an "artist." Sarah Palin is getting ready to run for the Presidency. (Have they told her it's four years?)

It's not that big a stretch to Kinkade as the presidential portraitist, is it?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Zoom H1 Lavalier Test with Audio Technica ATR-3350

I had to record a voiceover, so I dragged out three lavalier microphones for a quick test, plugging each into a Zoom H1 and recording a snippet of normal speaking. The results? While the audio quality won't match a high-end microphone, the recording is fine for use in documentary interviews on location.

(By the way, for those times when your wireless mic is likely to run into interference, this could be interesting: clip the lav on your subject, stick the Zoom H1 in their pocket. Hit record, then lock the buttons on the H1.)

Comparing the three microphones, I believe the Audio Technica ATR-3350 Lavalier Omnidirectional Condenser Microphone has a more pleasant, natural sound than the Audio Technica ATR-35s and is significantly higher in quality than a cheap Radio Shack 33-3013. (I'd post a sample, but Blogger is not exactly cooperative with my attempt to do that....)

That's not a surprise -- the 3350 is basically the updated replacement for the 35s. It's also essentially the same as the mic included in Audio Technica PRO88W-R35 Wireless Lavalier System with ATR3350mW Omnidirectional Mic, 170 MHz

So, the ATR-3350 works fine. And it's ultracheap now:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Eleventh Hour

I've made a blog post every day since moving to San Francisco.

Most have been simple iPhone snaps. A few were made with a more serious camera, but weren't necessarily serious photos.

But I haven't yet gone photographing, actually. Maybe soon.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Word on the Street, Missing Backstory Edition

I don't actually know what this means. Was there a place called "Randy's Tooth"? Or ... was there a tooth?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wordless on the Street

This was near Masonic and Geary. When future archeologists unearth this pictograph, they'll puzzle over its possible meanings, and they'll reflect on our mysterious, disappeared society.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

And You Shall Know Us By Our Fancy Signs

You can always tell the character of a protest by the quality of its graphic design.

First, great font choice. Some might say those fancy "O"s in "BOYCOTT" are a bit too fussy, but not me. Come on, this is a march held in between four-star hotels -- it's gonna need a little style to be taken seriously.

Second: good color choice. Goldenrod? Attention-grabbing, but not harsh. It's got the power of black-on-yellow without the harshness.

Third, putting together the words "Unite" and "Here" is a bold choice. But think it through: conceptually, it's about ... uniting. So push the two words together. Fine.

Good work, Anonymous Protest Sign designer!

But I think, to be perfectly honest, that the whole thing risks becoming a bit too postmodern when you include the graphic of people carrying signs and protesting. I mean, I see people carrying signs and protesting, I get closer to read their signs, and I wonder what the graphic is ... and it turns out to be an image of people carrying signs and protesting. It's like conceptual clip art, and that's not working for me.

Overall, though, it's a clean, protest-ready look that beats out hand painted signs by a mile. Unless, of course, you want the protest to seem authentic and grassroots and not like it was organized by a professional protest group with a budget for graphic design.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Inside, Looking Out (Sorta)

Technically, this is an Outside Looking In, but whatever.

Overheard behind me: "Mommy, what is that man doing?" "Taking pictures, darling."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Word on the Street, Part 3

I assume this was scratched into the concrete before there was a television show with this title. Then, it's cool. If not, then it's not cool. Context!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Grand Being Relative

In New York, it was always important to know the difference between a Terminal and a Station. If you didn't, you might as well just mispronounce Houston.

In San Francisco ... well, I don't know what the hell that is or why it's called that.

Food in San Francisco: Farmer's Market

Here's the recipe:

First, go to the Farmer's Market. (They're everywhere, but you'll actually have to go outside.)

Second: bring cash. Not a lot, because the entire point is to get really good food for a fairly cheap price.

Third: buy Heirlooms. They'll look funny, because you're used to those bright red, unbruiseable things that are bred for shipping. Ignore the ugly exterior, as these are for eating rather than display.

Fourth: get a Sourdough Round. Again, ugly is good.

Now: slice the tomatoes. Put them on the sourdough bread. Add something to it, like salt and pepper. Maybe, maybe: put mayo on the bread, or drizzle olive oil on the tomatoes. Improvise, just don't cover up the taste.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Seven by Seven, Plus Hills

Took a very long walk today. Fortunately, I had a low-flying military escort the entire way.

Above: noisy iPhone snapshot of the noisy, noisy jets.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Jets Came Back, The Very Next Day

See? I didn't imagine it.

Food in San Francisco: Gussie's

Sometimes, things should just be fried. Went to Gussie's Chicken and Waffles and tried catfish sliders and fried okra.

Both were good, but did not live up to fond memories formed in restaurants around 116th Street in NYC. Still, reasonable prices and good flavor, so a positive experience. Learned there's a type of drink called Soju. Will research this further....

Above: iPhone snapshot. The iPhone is not exactly good for macro work.

Thursday, October 07, 2010


A broader view from today's afternoon of noisy, noisy jets. This is the view that's a bit northwest of us.

Air Show Practice Over San Francisco

Seen today, out my window.

Backgrounder on 12th and 3rd

Ah, the Web is a funny place. Things come and go.

A while back our short documentary 12th and 3rd in Brooklyn screened at the ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival. This lead to an interview about the film with Arizona-based writer Cassandra Nicholson.

I was happy about the interview, as it gave a bit of background into how the film came to be and the process we followed to make it. Recently, however, the link I have for the interview stopped working -- so I assume it has gone to the Web Burial Ground and is no longer online anywhere.

On Monday, October 11th at 7 p.m. the film will screen once again, serving in support of the feature documentary Takedowns and Falls at the Film Courage Interactive Screening in Los Angeles. The format of the event sounds great -- they show two shorts, then a feature and put the emphasis on the filmmaking, interviewing the directors in Question and Answer sessions.

I can't attend, however, since I just moved to San Francisco. So, below I've rescued the text from the disappearing interview in hope that it will provide background on the film for anyone interested.

Cassandra Nicholson: Can you describe the extent of your role in the film? It appeared you had a small crew with you while you documented Brooklyn's Best. How big was your crew, and how did your crew members participate in the making of this film?

Ted Fisher: "12th and 3rd in Brooklyn" was made by a crew of three people. I had moved to New York only the year before, and in the fall of 2006 I went back to school at The New School to study documentary media. In the first few weeks of the program, I found myself very inspired and sent out an email inviting other students and a few friends to collaborate on a film about New York. I suggested looking for a stickball game -- I had heard it was a New York tradition, but I realized I had never seen it.

Maya Mumma, who was also in the program at The New School, and Iris Lee, a friend I had known from California, decided to participate. The three of us started in The Bronx. There's a street named "Stickball Avenue," and we arrived there and realized we'd come on the wrong day. We tried taping many different things, but didn't find what we needed. Later that day, a friend sent us a cellphone picture of a flyer announcing that "Brooklyn's Best" would play the very next day.

So the next morning the three of us went to the location in Brooklyn, and found a nearly abandoned street. We hung around a long time, and just about the time we were ready to give up, a car rolled up in front of us -- with some of the players. All three of us ran cameras, and we even got to play a little. Later, the players -- a great group of guys -- took us to their favorite bar.

CN: What is your education and experience, and how did it prepare you for taking on this project?

TF: I used to be a photography curator. My background is in photography and art -- I have an M.F.A. from Claremont Graduate University and a B.A. from Cal State San Bernardino. When I moved to New York, I discovered that the New School was starting a Graduate Certificate program in Documentary Media, and that seemed like the perfect way to get into documentary production. Much of my background in photography -- even the work that was aimed at "installation art" -- really came out of the documentary tradition. So our process on this film -- go and meet people and get a glimpse into their life -- seemed really natural.

CN: Your submission came from New York, New York. How did you find out about this quirky group of characters, and what inspired you to focus on their once-a-year reunion?

TF: Well, we arrived just hoping to see any signs that there was still stickball in New York. I had lived here one year and never run into it all. It was just a huge bonus that we accidently found great guys with roots in the community and history that went back decades. It was a very rich experience to get to hear their stories -- and see that they were hoping their kids would keep playing the game. We were lucky enough to find them on the day of their once-a-year reunion. Sometimes, that's how documentary goes -- you find something that is so much better than any fiction you might have imagined.

CN: If you ran into any problems or adversities while making your film, what were they, and how did you overcome them?

TF: Before we found "Brooklyn's Best" we had wandered around in both The Bronx and Brooklyn -- and found ourselves in a few places where cameras were not welcome. So when we found that location at 12th and 3rd, we had no idea if the guys playing there would accept us. Well, they took us right in -- even let us play -- and later took us to their favorite bar.

CN: "12th & 3rd in Brooklyn" has a rather unique, black-and-white style. How did filming and editing style play a part in your project?

TF: When we shot and edited the film, we were studying the history of documentary film. There's a whole tradition of gritty, New York docs that we had been looking at and that clearly had a big influence on our approach. Once we saw the site for the game, it seemed like a perfect match.

CN: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers, who are hoping to get over the first few creative or financial hurdles?

TF: Well, there does seem to be a lot of pressure put on aspiring filmmakers to feel they need top- of-the-line equipment, a huge crew and a big budget before shooting the first frame. But I've shown at a lot of film festivals and I've never had anyone who pulled me aside and wanted to talk production values. The thing that gets audiences excited is story -- and there's no reason you can't find a compelling story on a small budget. So my advice for any filmmaker is that there are times when it's most important to just go and do it and see what you can make out of whatever you manage to get. There's no perfect shoot in documentary, and that's actually a virture, in my opinion.

CN: I went to school for documentary filmmaking, so I have to say that your project was one of my favorites from the festival. Do you prefer producing documentaries over scripted films?

TF: Well, I love fiction film -- but I find that nothing matches real life for richness of material. That is, if you do a fantastic job imagining a world, writing characters into it, and finding a way to translate that vision onto the screen, you can make a terrific, nuanced and deep narrative film. But documentary always thrills me because if you just go out into the real world you'll find that there are profound and surprising stories already written there.

It's an intense challenge to find them and to work with them -- but the material that's there is already deep. Real characters have built-in mysteries, wants and needs and quirks -- and while one can write any ending you like for a fiction film, in documentary whatever happens, happens. I find myself more often surprised by documentaries than by fiction films, so that draws me to the field very strongly. I get the sense that while narrative cinema is very developed in our time, we are in some ways still early in the era of documentaries.

CN: Do you have any current projects in the works, or future projects you would like to get off the ground?

TF: Maya and I have worked together since this film on a few short documentaries. We also work separately on a lot of projects. The last time I saw Iris, she had gone back to school -- but I wouldn't be surprised if she makes some films in the future. I think the tougher goal in documentary production is to shift to making feature-length films. Making shorts has been fantastic practice for that -- but to me the future I'm hoping for is one of making full-length documentaries.

CN: Ultimately, where do you see yourself in five years?

TF: Well, I teach television production and editing, and I do a lot of freelance editing. I will probably continue all three types of work. But I'd like to be in a place where another channel in my life will be making documentaries, both short and feature length.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Food in San Francisco: Pride of the Mediterranean

Needed vegetarian chow, on a low low low budget.

Found Pride of the Mediterranean. Nice selection of dishes, several vegetarian, and Lebanese beer as well.

We weren't adventurous enough to try the hookahs, though.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Food in San Francisco: Frjtz

In the Hayes Valley, stumbled upon Frjtz. A lot of possiblities there, with a Belgian angle on things.

Above: The Matisse is a crepe with smoked salmon, crème fraiche, and chives. (Most items on the menu are named after artists. I guess that's a good idea, maybe.)

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Inside, Looking Out

Have been trying to get a sense of San Francisco by walking around aimlessly. So far, that seems like a good strategy.

Film Courage

It's Sunday. I'm in San Francisco. That doesn't mean I can't listen to a radio show in Los Angeles. In fact, I recommend that -- if you are interested in film -- you do exactly that:

Today at noon PST, check out Film Courage on LA Talk Radio. You can listen live, or check out the archived shows. Definitely look through the archive list -- there's some great stuff there, including a session with John Sayles.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that our short doc 12th and 3rd in Brooklyn is tentatively set to screen at an upcoming "Film Courage Interactive" on October 11. Details on that soon. No connection, really, it just reminded me to mention the radio show.)

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Uncanny Hayes Valley

So far, the thing I like about San Francisco is that you walk around a corner, and there's something there that you didn't expect. And not in a bad way, as sometimes happened in The Bronx.

How to be Certain You're in San Francisco

It's easy to get disoriented in a big city. You've got to look around for subtle signs that will let you know where you are.

If you don't see any, just stop inside whatever bar you find on the corner and ask.

Incidentally, I normally look at signs and think: "What terrible typography. Who made that?" Not in this case: there's a subtle reference to "Western" fonts here -- check out that "S" -- but without getting too scrolly and frilly. The Cowboy association is blended with just a hint of Varsity / College / Letterman's Jacket text -- look at the "U" -- creating a good balance that seems right on target.

Good work, Anonymous Sign Typographer.

(Now, that "D" could be kerned a bit closer to the "U" -- but that's just a personal preference.)

Friday, October 01, 2010

When is a Film Finished?

Watch more free documentaries
So here's one of the problems of the digital era: when is a film finished?

In 2009, my co-filmmakers and I shot and edited Hoop Springs Eternal in five days as part of the International Documentary Challenge. We were disappointed the film didn't make it to the finals (we made it to the finals in 2007 and 2008) but were basically happy with the film.

Apparently, the Doc Challenge folks liked it enough to distribute it via SnagFilms, which is great.

But after living with the film a little, I decided to give it a recut. I took out almost a minute, changed the order of a few sequences, and essentially fixed issues we just couldn't address in the short edit time of the Challenge. I liked the recut better, and started submitting it to film festivals.

The recut version then screened at Olympia Film Festival, All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival, and Coney Island Film Festival (just this past Sunday).

Still, there are a few things I'd change in the recut edit. So is this film really the version on Snag? The version that made it to festival audiences? Or, if I polished it a touch further, would that be the "final" version of the film? Could we go and re-interview the film's characters (Loren Bidner and Miss Saturn, Jenny McGowan) in 2012 to see what's changed -- and revise the cut further?

Since digital work is inherently changeable, can we revise and revise and call it the same film?

Defacing Public Property, Part Two

Look, it's wrong to go around marking up advertisements. But if you're going to do it, do it with some skill ... like this example found on Geary Boulevard yesterday.