When you're a kid getting in over your head is exciting. We all remember that first plunge into the deep end of a swimming pool. The cool shock of hitting the water and the exhilaration when your toes don't touch bottom. As we get older it's easy to forget that rush.
I've been shooting stills for over 30 years. The son of one newspaper photo editor, the nephew of another and the brother of a national newspaper award winning photojournalist I didn't really have the option not to take pictures. My visual sense translated into a graphic design career and a thriving Toronto studio before I moved to California in 2000 to join an internet high flier. All along the way I shot for clients and friends.
These days I'm building a business shooting cycling, road when I can get it, but any kind of cycling. I love bicycles and I love the sport. Morgan Hill based Specialized Bicycles is a client. The little company that Mike Sinyard started after a serendipitous bike tour of Europe, has become a major industry player without losing the passion that got Mike pedaling down the road in the first place. Everyone there rides and the place is filled with super fit racers and enthusiasts. They'll happily rip your legs off any given day during their ritual lunch time ride.
Come the fall the bicycle industry gears up for trade shows in Europe and North America, and once again Las Vegas played host to the US extravaganza. Specialized had a major presence at the show, but for many staff and dealers it wasn't enough to hop on a plane to McCarran and cab it to the Sands Convention center. Thirty five intrepid riders opted to get on their bikes and ride the 650 miles from Morgan Hill to Las Vegas. I got the assignment to photograph the ride. Given they'd be in the epic landscapes of Yosemite and Death Valley and pushing themselves over 40,000 feet of climbing in six days, I thought I should get out the saddle, to use cycling parlance, and test myself creatively by doing something different.
Enter the Canon 5D MKII. It's been my second stills camera for the past 11 months as I've watched the explosion of creativity the camera has ignited from the safety of the sidelines. Until the firmware update addressed some of the camera's manual shortcomings I could rationalize that it was foolish to shoot any video with it, even though I've been mesmerized by the work others had done. Recently I dipped my toes in the water with a couple of tests and resolved I was going to jump in at the first good opportunity.
Well the Specialized ride to Vegas was that opportunity and I decided to go for it.
There I was, not knowing quite what to expect. I'd never shot a video of any kind, hadn't owned a camcorder and never given serious consideration to publishing a video on this blog. That was about to change.
Those first few test videos made it clear that the DSLR is not ergonomically suited to shooting video. Holding it steady, at arms length where you can see the LCD, manually focus AND start/stop recording require at least three hands. The balance is bad, the LCD is difficult to see in bright sunlight and to make matters worse cinematically desirable shallow depth-of-field makes focusing even more critical. The camera alone wouldn't work for me.
I played around with bits of my Really Right Stuff (RRS) kit... various rails and clamps designed for panoramic photography but it was clear almost immediately that I couldn't rig anything that would solve the basic ergonomic problems of the camera and I wasn't about to start building something amateurish from lego or coat hangers. Sure there are plenty of DIY contraptions capable of producing good video, but that's not the behind-the-scenes image I want to present to clients.
I needed a well-thought out platform for the camera. Enter Zacuto. Among the cottage industry of companies building or adapting rigs for the 5D MKII, Zacuto stood out. I'd been frequenting their web site for weeks, watching informative videos on the DSLR video space and enjoying features like the 'Critics' where Zacuto founder/director Steve Weiss and U.K. filmmaker Philip Bloom critique web-based video content. Their line-up of DSLR Shooters, light-weight, rail-based systems for stabilizing the camera and most importantly, their Z-Finder focusing/viewing loupe appeared to be the best options to get the job done.
So I wrote to Steve Weiss, explained the Specialized project and asked if he and his partner Jens Bogehegn might loan me a Zacuto rig for a couple of weeks in return for a thorough account of the experience when the camera had stopped rolling. To my delight Steve agreed and after a brief back and forth with Jens they decided to send me a DSLR Marksman plus an extra rail and Z-Lite Double counterweight. Now, I don't imagine for a minute that Steve makes a habit of this sort of thing, but for whatever reason he bought into this idea and decided to help. I hope all of this will justify his faith.
The Zacuto Marksman arrived in a surprisingly light box, which minus the 7lb counterweight would have been considerably lighter still. The modular aluminum pieces fit together easily and with all joints loosely tightened with the signature machined, red levers I set about adapting the fit to my body. I'll admit this took a couple of hours as I experimented with many different angles and positions for the Marksman's four points of contact (shoulder pad, gunstock, handle and Z-finder eyepiece). With help from my wife Juli (you need help doing all these adjustments) I reversed the conventional placement of the Marksman's gunstock and handle.
The counterweight provided good balance for the camera fore and aft but I found that with the camera cantilevered out to the left of the shoulder mount, the handle in my left hand had to resist the significant turning weight of the rig. I got better results when I moved the gunstock to wedge into the left side of my chest (working with, rather than against the turning action), I put the long handle comfortably in my right hand, freeing my left hand to focus the camera without any load bearing responsibility. I think this worked quite well but ideally, I'd add a second long handle to the left side so I could always have at least one hand stabilizing the camera when focusing (LH) or starting/stopping recording (RH).
I'd been eager to get the Marksman early for testing, so I asked Zacuto to ship it to me without their own temporarily back-ordered quick release mount. I was confident after a little research that I could use a Really Right Stuff quick release in its place, reasoning this would work out well with the way I had the 5D MKII configured. Here are a few details about that setup.
My 5D MKII is normally attached to the BG-E6 battery grip and an RRS L-Bracket (BGE6-L). This makes it easy to mate the camera with my arca-clamped Gitzo tripod and monopod. I considered eliminating the battery grip to save weight but decided I wanted the extra security of 2 batteries.
Canon 5D MKII with RRS L-Bracket, Rail clamp and Zacuto Z-Finder
I mounted the substantial RRS B2 LLR II Quick Release (80mm) to the Zacuto Base Plate on the Marksman. To do this I removed Zacuto's anti-spin pin and substituted a piece of industrial 2-sided tape to prevent the QR from spinning. If this were my permanent configuration I'd obviously tap the base plate for another anti-spin fastener through the RRS QR. I then attached an RRS rail&clamp (MPR-CL) to the L-Bracket and clamped the rail in the RRS Quick Release on the Zacuto Base Plate. So why all the extra aluminum?
RRS B2 LLR II Quick Release mounted to Zacuto base plate
By using the RRS components I had a considerable amount of positioning flexibility for the Z-finder both left and right and fore and aft. In addition the front of the rail allowed me to clamp a mini articulating arm to hold a SmallHD DP1 field monitor when shooting with the Zacuto rig at waist level, or sans Zacuto rig on a tripod.
The RRS rail allowed me to fasten the smallHD DP1 field monitor with another RRS quick release clamp
With everything balanced, all levers on the Zacuto were firmly tightened. Having worked hard to achieve the best possible fit I'm happy to report the Marksman was rock solid, nothing moved during the entire 6 days of shooting as the rig was lifted in and out of the photo van countless times, and unavoidably bumped about in the process.
As sports photography goes, cycling is a tough sport to cover. It may be even tougher to film. Staying with, and focusing on cyclists moving at 20-30 mph over variable road surfaces is far from easy. I planned on shooting in three modes: with the Marksman rig on my shoulder where I could utilize the Zacuto Z-finder to get focus; with the rig at waist level using the smallHD monitor to focus; and decoupling the camera from the rig and mounting it on a tripod using either the Z-finder or monitor for focusing depending on the situation.
Both the Z-Finder and monitor were essential to have any chance at finding focus with the 5D MKII, particularly with my increasingly presbyopic vision. Diopter adjustment is standard on Canon Viewfinders of course, but there's no native compensation on the LCD. That would explain why you often see photographers chimping at arms length. The Z-Finder has a diopter range from -1.5 to 0.4 which compensated nicely for my deficient eyesight plus it magnifies the LCD by a factor of three. Finally its large eyecup keeps light from intruding while you focus. A mating 'frame' attaches to the camera with a strong peel-and-stick adhesive. Ultimately it was easy to remove this frame when I had to send Zacuto back the kit.
The Zacuto Z-Finder features a fine-pitched diopter adjustment (red wheel) and large eyecup
With the mating frame attached to the camera, the main body of the Z-Finder just snaps on. By design, decoupling the Z-Finder body from the frame requires minimal pressure, so its important to use the supplied lanyard whenever you're moving about a lot. In the event of an accidental decoupling it keeps the Z-Finder from hitting the ground. At least once each day the lanyard did its job.
I'll admit I thought I'd use this mode more than I did. I found the DSLR's poorly placed start/stop (SET) button awkward and either operation invariably destabilized the composition as I released the Marksman's right handle to reach it. In retrospect I shouldn't have worried about these unavoidably shaky openings and closings, and just left the camera running. Initially I tried shooting off-the-bike closeups with my 85mm/1.2 this way. Going ultra shallow at f2.0 or wider, I just couldn't find and hold focus unless the subjects were extremely still. The Z-finder certainly made it easy to see when I had focus, but I couldn't coordinate which way to pull focus as the subject moved subtly closer or further from me. Often my initial move was in the wrong direction. I should have controlled focus by shifting my position relative to the subject rather than trying to do this through the lens I think. I'm sure experienced videographers know this dance well.
Splitting my time between video and stills during this first experience meant that I didn't have time to refine how I was working. If I wasn't having much luck immediately, I switched shooting modes. Looking back I should have tried with shorter and lighter lenses, my 50mm 1.4 and 20-35 2.8 wide angle from my shoulder AND I would configure the Marksman with that second handle on the left side the next time out.
Last comment on this mode. With the camera's battery pack, various bits of RRS kit, the Z-Double counterweight etc. I would have liked a softer pad on the Marksman than the resilient rubber one that was stock.
The Z-Finder was ideal for quickly reviewing clips in camera, but I also wanted to have a field monitor along for its larger, higher-fidelity image. I purchased a SmallHD DP1 which is capable of 1080i from the 5D MKII, during playback and pre-focusing. Unfortunately I couldn't find a useful (viewable and balanced) position for the monitor attached to the Marksman on my shoulder. Again the main problem was my eyesight, I just couldn't view the monitor clearly with it less than a foot from my face.
With an improvised harness I could shoot with the Zacuto Marksman and field monitor at waist level
So instead I improvised a three-point sling for the Marksman that allowed me to shoot from the hip. The re-purposed shoulder harness from a Nike golf bag took the weight and put the camera in a good position to focus with my left hand while my right hand pushed down on the rear counterweight for balance. I found it easy to keep the camera stable like this and the field monitor was in perfect position. It wasn't necessarily easier to pull focus but I had good luck the first time I tried it out.
The real test came when I used this mode to shoot out the back of the photo van with the riders behind us. The sling wasn't much good while I was seated, but I achieved a good shooting position with the Zacuto balanced across one leg. The hardest thing about filming like this is staying steady in the moving vehicle and a great deal depends on the road. Smooth pavement definitely helps. On the first day I got a good clip of the riders speeding down Del Puerto Canyon Road and then one rider sprinting out the peloton to cruise at 40mph directly behind the van. As you can see from this clip, focus got a little soft with the rider 2' off the back bumper.
Day one I shot with the Zacuto on my shoulder and hip. Day two I called in the heavy artillery... a studio Gitzo with an Manfrotto 136 head. Since we were working out the photo van I brought the monster along. I put it to use with the DP1 field monitor filming the camp at breakfast. (These scenes have yet to surface). Super stable and the old fluid head has life in it yet.
That setup worked for stationary subjects but I preferred using the Z-Finder to capture the riders on the road. I'd grab the tripod out the car, mount the camera and snap on the Z-finder for quick and accurate focus. With the eyecup sealing out extraneous light you get a perfect, bright view of the scene in the LCD. I used this to get both the opening and closing shots with my 200 f2.
In the course of the six days I discovered one more shooting mode that worked well. With the 5D MKII attached to a monopod I'd 'fly' the camera upside down a few inches off the deck. Using my 20-35 at its wide end with manual focus we could drift past the peloton and get a very smooth moving shot of the group. The monopod and camera acted like a natural pendulum with the added benefit that the riders enjoyed making bets about when the camera would hit the pavement.
The one thing I never managed to pull off was good audio. I'd wanted to capture some ambient stuff (riders clipping in, derailleurs changing gears etc.) but despite having the consensus best kit for the job (a JuicedLinked CX231 preamp and Sennheiser wireless mic setup) combined with the magic lantern firmware patch, I didn't record anything worthwhile. I'd planned to record some rider interviews at the end of each day, but this just wasn't very practical re: rider recovery and wiring folks up with a lav mic. On the final day I recorded one good rider interview... at least that's what I thought I'd done. Instead I discovered I had no audio at all. During the week, while Kathryn and I had been watching the dailies, we'd both been annoyed by the sound of our own voices on the clips. I muted the audio and consequently forgot to turn it back on.
Of course I'd have known I had no sound during the interview if I'd been able to monitor the audio with headphones as planned, but the night before we were leaving (and far too late to do anything about it) the HDMI port on the 5D MKII failed. That meant I had to use the AV port on the camera to get a video signal on the SmallHD monitor. Lesson. When it comes to shooting stills I wouldn't dream of going out on assignment without backup equipment... this first video experience made it clear the same rule applies the next time I try this. More than one VDSLR I'm afraid.
I had a great time shooting my first video. I knew going in that it would be hard, and it was. The 5D MKII is an amazing device, but it requires a lot from its operator, particularly a novice without a foundation in video technique to work from. Nevertheless, I'm happy with the result. Thanks to Dave Christenson's benevolent editing, we got 2½ minutes that hint at the incredible journey the riders took.
The Zacuto Marksman made a big ergonomic difference to the stability of my shots and the Z-Finder was absolutely essential, particularly for the rapid setups we found as we leapfrogged the riders and found a good stretch of road or vantage point. Without it, I'd have had to shoot everything with my wide angle at a medium aperture. It's a must-have bit of kit..
If you're a still photographer contemplating the plunge like I was, I'd encourage you to have a go. The tools are going to get better, and client expections about our ability to shoot both types of media are only going to grow. These are exciting times behind the camera and we've got a lot to learn. Just don't forget to turn the sound back on, the audience expects talking pictures these days.