lavender

Using standard DSLR lenses with the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera

The Black Magic Pocket Camera is without doubt the best quality video camera for cheap (i.e. under $1000, or under $500 if you were lucky and bought during the summer price reduction). Anything else is either outside the price bracket of the BMPCC or simply not as good for video.

The BMPCC is designed to be disruptive: a cheap, small format camera with professional output. There is a problem with the BMPCC though: lenses! If you are not careful, you can end up spending a lot of cash trying to get around the BMPCC’s large crop factor (2.88).

Ideally, you should be re-purposing your existing DSLR lenses. After all, the BMPCC is designed to be cheap, and uses the micro43rds mount.  Almost any lens can fit that mount with a cheap and dumb adapter.

Here’s the list of inexpensive or already-owned lenses I use.

Ultra wide

The BMPCC has a small sensor, approximating the super 16 format. This is a 2.88 crop on full frame, so any DSLR lens you use will end up effectively having x2.88 the focal length.

This is generally very bad for the videographer because of the difficulty with a superwide field of view (less than 24mm on full frame). A lack of superwide is not a big problem for a stills photographer (especially when superwide is seen as niche and not mainstream), but for video it is much more essential. You need it for hand held and run-and-gun.

Wide view, Opteka 6.5mm (8mm)
Wide view, Opteka 6.5mm (8mm)

Superwide is often used in as the establishing scene in many film sequences, not least because in cinematic language, wide angle is the ‘first person view’: it places the viewer into the scene.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: to get a superwide field of view on a BMPCC, you have to have a 6-8mm lens, and such a short focal range doesn’t exist for DSLRs. There are several options: A modern ~6mm 1” c-mount TV camera lens (expensive), an old ~8mm 1” c-mount (not sharp and no longer cheap because of the demand), the Panasonic 7-14 micro43rds (slow and overpriced), the Sigma 8-16 (even slower, but a better price especially when you can also use it on APS-C and/or use a focal reducer to up the f-stop for low light) or a focal reducer plus a longer APS-C superwide such as the Tokina 11-16 (a reasonable option for Canon/Nikon users especially when the Tokina is a video friendly constant f2.8, but not a superwide option for Sony Alpha, as there is no Sony alpha to micro43rds focal reducer).

I chose an option that is cheaper than all the above: I used an APS-C fisheye lens that I already own. APS-C Fisheyes are typically ~8mm, so are wide even on the BMPCC. The fisheye effect is smaller on the BMPCC because you are cropping into the center of the lens, so you can ‘defish’ easily in post. The lens I use is the Opteka 6.5mm. Its actually 8mm, and you have to modify it to accept a ND filter for video use (black duck tape and a step-up filter ring works wonders). To make the Opteka mount on the BMPCC, I bought a Sony Alpha to micro43rds adapter with aperture control. It cost about $30 from Amazon. It has a big advantage over focal reducers in that it contains no glass so there is no drop in lens quality.

If I had no existing lens, I’d probably have considered the Sigma 8-16, as it covers both the wide and standard range in a single lens.

Standard range

The standard range, corresponding to 16-50 on APS-C is fairly easy to achieve on the BMPCC via an APS-C superwide lens. I use the Tokina 11-16. Again, to fit the Tokina to the BMPCC, I used the same no-brand, no-glass $30 adapter.

Normal view, Tokina 11-16mm at 16mm
Normal view, Tokina 11-16mm at 16mm

You might also consider the Panasonic 14mm f2.5, a much lighter and more portable lens that works well for mid-shots to close-up shots, and the ubiquitous ‘noddy-shot’.

Tele

Once you are beyond normal range, the BMPCC crop factor starts to work in your favor, since most of your existing APS-C and full frame lenses will work somewhere in this range. Long tele lenses such as the cheap Minolta Beercan become +600mm f4, perfect for the wildlife photographer wanting to try out video on the cheap. At the macro end, a macro such as the Tamron 90mm lets you get much further away from the subject when on the BMPCC, allowing easier setup than a traditional DSLR.

tele view, Minolta AF, 50mm f1.4
tele view, Minolta AF, 50mm f1.4

One thing you will need is an f1.4 or 1.7 lens in this range (your cheapest bet is a 50mm, which you will most likely already have) because you will need at least one lens faster than f2 to enable you to get a decent depth of field with the BMPCC, The crop factor means you have to move back from the subject to get a proper framing, and this larger distance from the subject of course reduces depth of field.

Conclusion

There is a lot of noise on the internet about how the x2.88 crop of the BMPCC makes it a difficult camera to work with, and ‘You need exotic c-mount lenses such as the KOWA LM6HC’, or ‘The camera is useless without a Metabones speed booster’.

Neither of these are true. You may initially struggle a little with superwide if you are thinking in stills photography terms (where superwide is almost a graphical style, with extreme urban edges or panoramic natural vistas), but once you realise superwide in video really only means ‘just wide enough to imply the viewer is there by capturing the entire scene in one frame’, you begin to see you really only need 20-24mm rather than 14-20mm. 20-24mm full frame corresponds to about 8mm on the BMPCC and a cheap APS-C fisheye or  Sigma 8-16 (and no focal reducer for either) is really all you need for this.

Without a focal reducer, you will not get massive depth of field because of the crop factor on the BMPCC. This has made certain famous web videographers (whose style relies on high depth of field) dismissive of the BMPCC but that particular style is not true to super 16. That said, its not difficult to get a high depth of field with the BMPCC: buy a cheap focal reducer (less than $100 on eBay), and/or make sure you have at least one fast lens.

For what its worth, to get a decent range of lenses for the BMPCC, given I already have an APS-C camera (Sony Alpha A77) plus a full set of lenses for it, cost me less than $200, and most of that was in buying a Panasonic 14mm f2.5. The rest went on a $30 Sony Alpha to micro43rds adapter. Easy! Similar options exist for Canon and Nikon users (in fact, with the prevalence of cheap focal reducers for those mounts, you are spoilt for choice!).

Notes

  1. All lenses were shot wide open.
  2. Minimal grading was performed on the footage as we’re more concerned about the field of view here.
Time slows

Time Slows: Black Magic Pocket Cinema camera

During the summer, Black Magic reduced the price of their Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera (BMPCC) by half price.

This was a limited offer, so I ordered straight away. Remorse started sinking in when I read the reviews whilst waiting for delivery: it’s a difficult camera to work with (it is, but it’s also very rewarding), there’s a massive x2.88 crop (there is, but focal reducers are now very cheap and decent), and worst of all, it’s very difficult to grade the video.

Ungraded BMPCC footage (ProresHQ using the 'film' or flat color setting. Click image to see a full size version (1920x1080).
Ungraded BMPCC footage, ProresHQ using the ‘film’ (log/flat color setting). Click image to see a full size version (1920×1080).

Well, there’s fixes for the first two, and for the third, that’s a blatant lie: grading log footage is not difficult as long as you get your white balance right before you do any other grading or color correction. This point is crucial.

Assuming good white balance, all you have to do is push the saturation, add a LUT (look up table) or even just use an auto-color correction to get you in the right ballpark.
Anyway, shown above is my very first attempt with the BMPCC. Notice the sky and ground are well exposed in every shot. That’s the power of a high dynamic range plus a good codec (CameraDNG or ProRes).

There are loads of tutorials and reviews on adapting Canon or Nikon lenses to the BMPCC, but I could find nothing for Sony Alpha. Well, that’s about to change. Watch this space!

Notes

  1. The video was shot hand held using only the Panasonic 14mm f2.5, shot wide open to get a de-sharpened, analog feel.
  2. The source footage is ProResHQ (2.45GB for about 2.5 minutes of footage) and this was edited using only Premiere Pro with the Colorista 2 and Tiffen Dfx plugins. No LUTs or presets were used.
  3. The slow motion effect was added in Premiere via Twixtor. The text motion graphics were created using  the standard Premiere animation, masking and blur tools (After Effects was not used).
  4. The Soundtrack is Clockwork by The Silk Demise.
Robin Hood Bay, England

Review: Cokin varicolor

A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real Photoshop filter that screws onto the front of your camera lens and just makes color look better? If landscapes, architecture, seascapes and vehicles are your thing, there is such a filter: the varicolor polarizer.

The varicolor used to make drab dirt and ordinary foliage more interesting
The varicolor used to make drab dirt and ordinary foliage more interesting

The varicolor consists of two tinted polarizers rotated 90 degrees from each other. Thus light is colored by one or other of the two tints depending on its phase… um, that means absolutely nothing to most people, so here’s a better description:

Most landscape scenes have two types of light: direct and reflected light, such as

  • Direct light from the sky vs light that has been reflected from water
  • Direct light from the sky vs reflected light coming from the ground.
  • Reflected light coming from two very different surfaces, typically shiny vs rough.
  • Highlights and reflections vs non-highlights from the same metallic object (typically vehicles).

The varicolor filter will separate the direct and reflected sources and tint them via two different colors. The amount of tint can be varied by simply rotating the filter.

Many photographers assume a varicolor is simply a variable warming and cooling filter, and the packaging on one of the main suppliers of varicolors, Cokin, does little to kill this miss-assumption.

Cokin Packaging, showing a varicolor being used as q variable warming/cooling filter. This is not how it is usually used!
Cokin Packaging, showing a varicolor being used as q variable warming/cooling filter. This is not how it is usually used!

It is true that a varicolor filter can be used just for global warming/cooling, and can totally change the lighting.

Blue/yellow varicolor, used to turn a blue sky (left) into a magenta, orange and violet sky.
Blue/yellow varicolor, used to turn a blue sky (left) into a magenta, orange and deep blue sky.

More usually though, you make slight changes to the ambient. You are more typically not trying to tint the scene so much as tint the direct and reflected light via two complementary colors ( typically, but not always, warming and cooling) to get a visual separation between the two.

In this series of shots, the sky light is rendered bluer, and the ground and foliage yellower
In this series of shots, the sky light is rendered bluer, and the ground and foliage yellower
The cool thing about these photos is that there is almost no color correction going on: the photos pretty much looked like this from the camera live-view when I took them!
The cool thing about these photos is that there is almost no color correction going on: the photos pretty much looked like this from the camera live-view when I took them!
In this scene, the small puddles could not be seen, the ground was a uniform grey, the sky an overexposed solid white and the foliage the same shade of green throughout. All this changed when the varicolor was used, and I saw the change directly through the camera viewfinder, rather than having to do it all in post.
In this scene, the small puddles could not be seen, the ground was a uniform grey, the sky an overexposed solid white and the foliage the same shade of green throughout. All this changed when the varicolor was used, and I saw the change directly through the camera viewfinder, rather than having to do it all in post.

Buying a varicolor filter

Varicolor is an effect most suitable for wide angle lenses. There are two companies that sell wide angle varicolor filters, Singh-Ray (‘gold-n-blue’) and Cokin (P173). Hoya also do them, but in smaller sizes (typically 58mm) that are not really useful as we are nowhere near wide angle diameters.

The Singh-Ray is priced too high for most people’s pockets. The Cokin is about 1/5 the cost and very affordable, but comes as a square cassette for the Cokin P Series holder rather than a standard 77mm filter thread (such as the one I need for my Tokina 11-16mm, a lens that suits a varicolor perfectly).

A Cokin P series filter cassette (l) and the standard 77mm circular filter format (r) most non-Cokin users would prefer.
A Cokin P series filter cassette (l) and the standard 77mm circular filter format (r) most non-Cokin users would prefer.

There is a third option: make your own standard varicolor filter, using a cheap Cokin P173 and an even cheaper no-brand circular polarizer filter.

Making a standard 77mm varicolor filter

The Cokin filter cartridge is easy to open (you just prise it open with a knife at one corner enough to get your fingernails in, then open it with fingers – it opens very easily as it isn’t glued down) to reveal a much more standard looking circular 75mm glass filter body. We next need a standard 77mm CPL (circular polarizing filter) to put the varicolor glass into. It has to be a CPL filter because like a varicolor, the CPL has to be rotatable on the lens for it to work. It also has to be a non-low profile CPL, for reasons we will see next.

The Cokin cassette opens easily. It is just held together by a series of plastic plugs, no clips/glue to overcome.
The Cokin cassette opens easily. It is just held together by a series of plastic plugs, no clips/glue to overcome.

When you take the varicolor filter glass out from the Cokin cassette, the first thing you will notice is how heavy and thick it is. A standard CPL is about 1.5mm thick glass. The varicolor is three times that: 4.5mm. In other words, it is half the thickness of a standard window pane!

That makes a kind of sense: the varicolor is two CPL filters, each with its own color filter added on, so we are talking x2 CPLs which takes us up to 3mm, and then x2 color filters on top of that. The upshot of this is that you cannot use a low profile CPL filter ring: it has to be full height.

Even with a full height filter, I had problems putting the varicolor into the CPL filter ring. The varicolor is just too thick! The only way to get it to fit was to reverse the filter retaining ring as shown below. The varicolor is about 2mm smaller in diameter than a standard 77mm CPL, and you can use that space by turning the retaining ring over so it goes down further into the filter, and just enough to become fully threaded into the filter body.

Top, the difference in thickness between a standard CPL and varicolor. Bottom, For a CPL, the retaining ring is screwed well into the filter. To get a varicolor into the same ring,  you typically have to reverse the retaining ring for it to screw in fully.
Top, the difference in thickness between a standard CPL and varicolor. Bottom, For a CPL, the retaining ring is screwed well into the filter. To get a varicolor into the same ring, you typically have to reverse the retaining ring for it to screw in fully.
My completed Cokin P173 Filter in a standard 77mm thread, ready to screw into my Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide.
My completed Cokin P173 Filter in a standard 77mm thread, ready to screw into my Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide.

Rotating the completed filter whilst looking through it at the sky, you will see the sky tint from bluish to yellow, going through a series of pinks and magentas at the midpoint. If you have any reflected light in the scene (coming from windows, water, or highlights on pretty much anything), they will take the opposite tint to the sky. This occurs because one CPL is tinting the direct (sky) light and the other one is tinting the reflected light.

Choosing the varicolor tint pair

The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.

As well as the P173 (blue-yellow), Cokin also do the P170 (red-green) P171 (red-blue) P172 (pink-orange) and P174 (blue-lime). The p173 varicolor is the most popular because its two colors match the white balance temperature range. I’d be tempted to start with a P173, and chances are that it’s the only one you will ever need.

The Lightroom color balance slider, showing that color temperature is a variation between cold (blue) to warm (yellow). This color range is replicated in the Cokin P173.
The Lightroom color balance slider, showing that color temperature is a variation between cold (blue) to warm (yellow). This color range is replicated in the Cokin P173.

So, using the P173, you can tint the two light transmission types (reflected, direct) in a scene so one is warmer and the other is cooler. In the photos of the wood above, the light coming from the sun is cooled via the varicolor, and the leaves and foliage are made warmer. This creates a nice contrast between the two, and the lighting and reflected light thus become more prominent than it was on the day.

Using a varicolor

Although a varicolor can be used to give a nice warm-cool color balance differential between the sky and ground, its standard textbook use is where there is water, reflecting metal, or glass.

Effects of blue-yellow varicolor on water: yellow (left), no filter (center) and blue (right). This is as shot, no photoshop. A pretty strong effect!
Effects of blue-yellow varicolor on water: yellow (left), no filter (center) and blue (right). This is as shot, no photoshop. A pretty strong effect!

The above three photos were all shot with the same P173 filter, rotated to get the leftmost and rightmost versions.

Most people don’t care for this effect. Not only is the water overly tinted, every other color is way off via an undesirable cast. The effect puts a lot of photographers off, until you realize the secret of using varicolors properly…

The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.

Setting the white balance (in this case by clicking the Lightroom white balance selector tool on the ground below the tree trunk to set it back to its original neutral grey) will also reduce the effect of the tint.

Yellow version pulled back via white balance correction. Much more subtle!
Yellow version pulled back via white balance correction. Much more subtle!

If you are shooting landscape, a bit of white cloud or grey ground will suffice to set white balance, but more generally, you need a grey card. If you don’t have one, an almost perfect stand-in is a square of card from an unwaxed, unbleached breakfast cereal box. The inner side makes a perfect grey card for the purpose of white balance. If you expect to be in direct sunlight, get a smooth stone or a bit of fine emery cloth and sand the grey side down for about a minute so it starts to lighten slightly. I’ve tested such a piece of sanded card against a calibrated X-Rite grey card, and the resulting color balance is consistently within 1% of the calibrated (and very expensive) X-Rite!

Varicolor filters and seascapes

A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.

The situation where a blue-yellow varicolor absolutely excels is when you need to take a photo of the sea on an overcast or very bright day. In this case, both the sky and sea will be the same grey (or blue-white). Grey on grey isn’t a very compelling color scheme. The grey light of the sky is at a different phase to the grey coming from the sea though, so using a varicolor we can save the day by creating a color separation where there was previously only grey. In fact, in this situation, the varicolor is a requirement to getting a decent shot unless you want to do some serious post processing!

In the shot below, I used the varicolor to turn the water blue, ignoring what was happening to the sky.

Out-of camera shot, initial varicolor
Out-of camera shot, initial varicolor. Lots of color separation, but also a pink cast

We now have some color separation between the sky and sea, but white balance has been totally destroyed and we need to reset it in post. We can either select the blue of the sea as our white balance point (which will warm the entire image towards sepia, and might have been appropriate if the sun was in the sky), or the grey of the sky (which will give us a blue sea and grey sky). Both will fix the issue, but will give us a totally different look. I want a blue sea, so have clicked the sky:

Changing white balance to tone down the varicolor: (l) making the sky grey or (r) making the sea grey.
Changing white balance to tone down the varicolor: (l) making the sky grey or (r) making the sea grey.

Tweaking the image further gives us our final photo…

Finished Seacape, with proper color separation between sky and sea.
Finished Seacape, with proper color separation between sky and sea.

In the actual scene, the sky and sea were the same color, and although this final version has been processed for exposure, I have hardly altered color at all apart from the initial white balance correction and lowering yellow from the foam. I left most of the color correction to my trusty real-life Photoshop filter – the Cokin P173.

Another cool use of the P173 is when you are using HDR photography. HDR will take the varicolor tints and overdrive them, giving you a dramatic effect.

Original Shots (top) and white balance corrected for grey sky and ready for HDR (bottom)
Original Shots (top) and white balance corrected for grey sky and ready for HDR (bottom)

When shooting HDR of fast moving water, it makes sense to use a fast shooting camera. The Sony A77 does 12 frames per second. That and its fast WYSIWYG live view make it perfect for landscape HDR, especially if like me you prefer to shoot hand held.

Final photograph: Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire, England.  5 exposure HDR, rendered via HDR Efex Pro. Final correction (exposure dodge/burn) via Lightroom.
Final photograph: Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire, England. 5 exposure HDR, rendered via HDR Efex Pro. Final correction (exposure dodge/burn) via Lightroom.

Disadvantages of the varicolor

As mentioned earlier, the varicolor is really two tinting CPL filters. It comes as no surprise then that the varicolor has such a strong color effect as it is really two filters, each with two elements (CPL+tint).

You will have the usual negative issues of stacking what is really two filters onto a lens, the biggest one being stop loss: you lose up to two stops of light. That’s enough to kill your autofocus even on a bright sunny day. Fast f2.8 glass is pretty much a must, otherwise its down to tripod and manual focus.

Vignette is another issue, so you may need to correct for that in post.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, a varicolor is seriously thick glass: 4.5mm, which is half the thickness of a standard window pane. On the bright side, such a filter is complex, so you simply can’t get cheap knock-off versions, and there are really only two brands available (Singh-Ray and Cokin).

Conclusion

Varicolors are typically only recommended for landscapes with water, and many photographers simply dismiss them as a variable tinting filter, but they can be used for so much more once you realise that the secret to their use is fixing white balance in post. After that, they become very useful, being able to make mundane color look dramatic (and often the focus of the shot).

  • They allow you to set the warmth of reflected light coming from windows in architectural and motor vehicle shots.
  • They allow you to crank up the contrast between the light coming from the sky and the light reflected from the ground, something that can make all landscape shots look different, bringing up color and enhancing lighting.
  • They create iridescence (think ‘body of a peacock’) when you shoot close-up foliage and car bodywork, especially when you have highlights.
  • They can act like an all-in-one warming-to-cooling filter when you have flat lighting

A blue-yellow varicolor is something to try out in all use cases where you would reach for your wide angle lens. It will be a firm favourite with anyone who has one of the affordable super-wide lenses (Tokina or Sigma) but you will need to do some DIY to move the filter glass from a Cokin P series cassette to a screw in filter, or you need to hold your breath and get a Singh-Ray.

Perhaps the best thing about the varicolor is that not many photographers use them. They don’t realise the white balance trick or are off put by the two stop light loss. That makes the varicolor a less used filter than it deserves and far from being an overused effect. In fact, if you pull back the effect with white balance, nobody will guess you created the effect optically!

Notes

  1. All forest photos shot with an Olympus Stylus 1 (the varicolor was hand-held in front of the lens).
  2. All seascapes shot with a Sony Alpha A77, Tokina 11-16mm, with the varicolor modded to screw onto the Tokina as a standard 77mm filter.

Adobe CC subscription: Telling the Man

If you open Adobe Photoshop in the next couple of days you will get a quick survey question as shown.

Adobe survey popup
Adobe survey popup

If you are also a small company or sole contractor, I suggest you make the same comment as mine;

Q: What would make you more likely to recommend Adobe Photoshop CC to others?

A: CC subscription that is based on time used rather than a straight monthly rent. this would prevent small contractors and other occasional users getting killed by the CC subscription model.

Adobe needs to know that occasional users of Adobe CC should have the option to buy seat hours in advance rather than paying for the same seat for the entire month. This would allow us to budget our software better (i.e. based on our actual monthly needs) rather than having to pay for unused months. Off season photographers, occasional users (or simply folks on holiday) would then have a fairer cost to foot.

It would probably also stop Adobe Photoshop being the second most pirated program after MS Office.

Pictures of nice things that grow.

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