Mirrorless, Around the World — Travel Filmmaking with Sony a7S II: Part 4. Shooting Tips for the Real World

Five months through 15 countries, here’s what I learned.

Part Four: Shooting Tips for the Real World

Stabilization

I shot this project 100% handheld, and with this decision came the constant fight against camera shake. We all love that Hollywood handheld feel — smooth, organic camera movements that breath life into a scene, but nothing says unprofessional like youtube-shaky-cam. Here’s how to find the balance.

Note *As an alternative to shooting handheld, there are some popular gimbal stabilizers for mirrorless cameras: Like the ikan Beholder, Neblua 4000 Lite, and the Gibbon GN1, also cages with handles will help. If you have the money, know you’ll have time for setup, have room in your bag, and don’t mind even more people staring at you and your now ‘rig’ of a camera, then go for it!*

Here are three tools to fight camera shake:

  1. Camera Strap+Flip out screen — Use the strap that’s already on your camera, such a simple solution, but it can really make a difference. Here’s how: While shooting, keep the camera at chest level with some downward tension on the strap around your neck. This will give you three points of contact, thus eliminating much of the rotation and vertical movement. Here’s a youtube video showing the technique that I used while filming 80–90% of my shots. The other advantage to this is that it makes shooting with your tiny camera even more inconspicuous. Waist-level finder cameras, like the one below, are famed for sneaky street photography — people don’t realize you’re filming or taking photos because your camera isn’t held up to your face or mounted on your shoulder. And with your camera on its strap and your LCD screen flipped out, this is exactly what you have.
Katt Janson using a waist-level viewfinder Rolleiflex.
  1. SteadyShot — aka, PureMagic. This is the internal, 5-axis image stabilization, that you’ve read all about. Just turn it on, input your lens focal length (using Custom Button 4) and start shooting. To save battery SteadyShot doesn’t kick on until you hit the record button. So when you start recording, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing your jitters and shakes disappear.
  2. Lens choice — Even with the first two items, if you’re filming from the back of a motorcycle or hanging out the side of an open train car while using a 50 or 85mm, it’s gonna be unusably shaky. There are times when lens choice must be dictated by the action of the scene. I found with a 28mm or 12mm, I could get away with just about anything, including shooting from a galloping camel.
Still frame from a camel ride in Jaisalmer, India.

S-Log3

TL;DR Higher ISO = Less Noise

You’ve watched the Vimeo videos. You know why shooting in Log color profile is so powerful. You’ve seen how beautifully it grades. Now what’s it like to shoot?

Firstly, shooting Slog-3, you now have a minimum ISO of 1600, or 3200 at 120fps. To compensate for that, your lenses will need ND filters, as I mentioned in Part Two.

The biggest difference between shooting an S-log color profile and a standard dynamic range profile is that you must overexpose the image. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Expose to the right” before? I read this and thought, “simple enough,” and started shooting. But it reality, it takes a big mental shift to break old habits.

Here was a challenging situation I encountered: It was 9pm, I was on the top of the Tokyo Sky View Tower shooting the cityscape below. Now, how to “expose to the right”? My shutter speed is locked at 1/60th, for a 180º shutter angle. My aperture is wide open. ISO is cranked up to 8,000 and I’m thinking, “looks pretty damn good!” The brights were bright enough, I could see some details in the shadows and all that under a pitch black sky!

Left: Image from the camera. Right: Image after color correction.

When I reviewed the footage the next day it turned out I was wrong. The shots were clearly not overexposed. That’s right, even in the darkness of the night you still have to overexpose your image, otherwise you’re gonna end up with the awful noise seen above. In future low light situations I wasn’t afraid to crank my ISO up to 40,000 to get that histogram moving.

It took me a while to realize the importance of overexposing. It boils down this: In order to get the 13 stops of latitude you were promised, you need to capture as much detail in the shadows as possible. Only then will you be able to grade your footage back down to the correct exposure and have a clean, relatively noise free shot.


Below are a few bonus quick-tips

Keeping Clean

Between the lenses and filters you’ve now got a bag full of glass collecting dust, sand, cookie crumbs, and sunscreen fingerprints. Either bring some kind of microfiber lens cloth, or disposable lens tissues and remember to use them. Also if you’ll be doing any lens whacking, and we’re all whacking now, right?! Then there’s a good chance you’ll be getting some dust on your sensor as well, keep something like this in your bag.

Air Dust Blower and Soft Brush, $3.99 Amazon.

Staying Charged

You can charge the camera battery on-the-go via USB and an external battery pack. If you want to shoot while charging, a USB battery charger is a great solution.

NP-FW50 Usb Charger, $7.99 Amazon

With a USB Charger, you can charge your Sony batteries via from a battery pack without tying up your camera in the process. I brought a total of three Sony batteries, and a 10,000Mah external battery pack, which was more than enough, I probably could have gotten away with just two batteries, but better safe than sorry.

Use Protection

It’s generally accepted that these new-fangled mirrorless cameras are less indestructible than DSLRs of yore. To my surprise, quite quickly I noticed the black coating wearing off the edges of the camera. For those of you who have the money and aren’t as concerned with being inconspicuous, there are some really cool camera cages out there. My solution, gaffers tape! The majority of that I put on more than 6 months ago, and it’s still holding up. This is not duct tape or electrical tape, this is gaffers tape, everybody loves it. Buy a roll and keep it in your bag.

Gaffers tape, covering all my sensitive parts.

Digital Storage

You’ll be shooting on SDXC U3 SD cards. 64GB or greater only for 4k, so go throw all your 32GB cards in the trash right now. Embarrassingly I only had one 64GB card with me. And this came back to bite me twice. Once when I didn’t download my footage for several days, and imagine that, the card filled up! The second time, the card had some kind of database issue and I was screwed for the day. So pull your head out of your ass, spend an extra $28 on another SD card. For more information about shopping for SD cards, read: BEST SD MEMORY CARD FOR THE SONY A7RII

Hauling Your Kit and Staying Safe

My goal when traveling with my camera gear is to be as inconspicuous as possible. I’m not walking around with a Lowepro branded backpack and a carbon fiber tripod strapped to the side or dragging a pelican case behind me. I bought a cheap looking daypack and used that as my camera bag. I also used a non-Sony camera strap and I blacked out the Sony logo on the camera with gaffers tape (see above). I’m not sure if it helped, but I didn’t get mugged filming at night on the streets of Manila.

Also, using a set of prime lenses, you’re gonna be swapping lenses quite often, and taking off your backpack every time you want to do so is not ideal. Consider a messenger bag, or even a fanny pack.

This could be you!, $10,99 and up Amazon

Next up: Part 5. File Handling

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