Aputure Amaran vs Light Storm LED Lights – Review and Comparison

aputure-amaran-vs-lightstorm

In a very short amount of time, Aputure has changed the game for LED lighting solutions for video producers. In addition to the assortment of lights they already offer, Aputure is also coming out with new lights all the time. And the crazy thing is, they’re all incredibly affordable. So then, how do you choose which light or lights to buy?

In this post I’m going to break down the Amaran and Light Storm options and make recommendations based on various factors. At a basic level, I’m only talking about using these lights for interview setups or for lighting simple B-roll scenes. For anything more complicated that requires more light intensity, consider the Light Storm COB-120t, which is a super bright and highly modifiable tungsten light, or the COB-120d, the daylight version that is in preproduction at the time of writing.

Light Storm in a D-Fuse Softbox, with an Amaran light in the background.

Light Storm LS1C in a D-Fuse Softbox, with an Amaran 672W in the background.

In the above photo, we were shooting an interview at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle. It’s a typical interview setup, where you would use your most powerful light as your primary or key light, ideally with a diffuser of some sort (here we’re using the very convenient D-Fuse Softbox). And then you use your smaller less powerful lights as a rim or hair light, or to fill the background a little.

You might also want to use a fill light on the subject, to soften the shadows created by your key, but truthfully in most cases we don’t setup a traditional 3-point lighting scenario for interviews in the field, where often there is some kind of ambient light anyway. It would be a different story if you were interviewing in a pitch black studio space where you control all the light.

Light Storm LS1C bouncing off the ceiling, with Amaran 672W in the back and over the table.

Here’s another setup that we typically use for training or demonstration videos, where we position our most powerful light on the subject or bouncing up on the ceiling, and our less powerful but nimble lights to create dimension in the background, and to point light down on the table from an overhead position.

So in these two situations, all things being equal, we would use our Light Storm as our key, and a couple Amaran lights for other duties as assigned. But is that the case every time? And which Light Storm and Amaran variety do you choose? More on that in a moment.

lightstorm-narrative

Here is a situation completely different from an interview or tabletop setup, but hey, when you’re a video producer, often you get called on to produce all kinds of videos. And you need to be flexible. Will it be inside or outside? How many people are we lighting? What does the blocking look like?

When you are tasked to go into an unfamiliar situation, you want to come prepared with the most powerful, portable lights you have. Because you just never know. And unless you carry a lot of gels, bi-color is often a life saver in these kinds of mystery shoots. This is where the Light Storm LS1C is incredibly useful to have around.

Ok so let’s break down the numbers first, and then we’ll talk recommendations.

Aputure Amaran 528 series

amaran-528-528c-528w-528s

Amaran AL-528W – W standing for its 75-degree Wide beam angle. 528 LEDs, 1220 lux at 1 meter. Daylight but comes with a Tungsten filter. Weighs 1.2 lbs, powered by AC or 2 Sony NP-batteries, completely dimmable.

Amaran AL-528S – S standing for its 25-degree Spot beam angle. 528 LEDs, 4380 lux at 1 meter. Same weight and power.

Amaran AL-528C – C standing for bi-color. 528 LEDs split between tungsten and daylight, so you can dial it in between 3200K to 5500K. Same weight and power. But because there are now 264 Tungsten and 264 Daylight bulbs with the same beam angle as the 528W, the max brightness is 725 lux at 1 meter, and that’s with the color dial set somewhere in the middle at about 4300K with all the LEDs engaged equally. At full daylight, you can expect half the output of the 528W, so about 610 lux at 1 meter.

All the Amaran 528 lights come with a bag, a diffusion filter, a very handy tilt-able light stand adapter, and an AC adapter.

aputure-amaran-672-672s-672w-672c

Amaran 672 series

Amaran AL-HR672W – W standing for its 75-degree Wide beam angle. 672 LEDs, 2080 lux at 1 meter. Daylight but comes with a Tungsten filter. Weighs 1.3 lbs, powered by AC or 2 Sony NP-batteries, completely dimmable.

Amaran AL-HR672S – S standing for its 25-degree Spot beam angle. 672 LEDs, 6040 lux at 1 meter. Also daylight, and has the same weight and power.

Amaran AL-HR672C – C standing for bi-color. 672 LEDs split between tungsten and daylight, so you can dial it in between 3200K to 5500K. Same weight and power. But because there are now 336 Tungsten and 336 Daylight bulbs with the same beam angle as the 672W, the max brightness is now half the 672W at daylight, or about 1040 lux at 1 meter. Aputure specs say the max brightness when both sets of bulbs are engaged, with the dial set to about 4300K, is 1920 lux at 1 meter.

All the Amaran 672 lights come with a bag, a diffusion filter, a very handy tilt-able light stand adapter, two large Sony NP batteries, and an AC adapter that can actually charge the Sony batteries when they’re inserted, which is so clever in that it saves you from carrying a separate Sony battery charger.

The 672 lights also come with a remote control, and you can setup multiple lights to run off one remote, allowing you full control of brightness and color while you’re standing behind the camera, watching the image. The remote is also handy when you want to setup all the lights, and then turn them off to conserve battery during the breaks when you’re not shooting.

aputure-light-storm-ls1s-ls1c-ls12w

Light Storm LS1 series

Light Storm LS 1S – the daylight version, with a 25 degree beam angle. 1536 LEDs, producing 10,500 lux at 1 meter. It comes with a controller box that is physically separate from the light, so that you can place it on the ground or around the light stand rather than adding more weight to the light. However, the light itself is 5.5 pounds. All together with the controller it’s about 11.5 pounds. The controller box can accept a battery (which of course adds even more weight), and you can get it in either the Sony V-mount version, or the Anton Bauer version.

Light Storm LS 1C – the bicolor version, with a 45 degree beam angle. 1536 LEDs, with a max brightness of 7500 lux at 1 meter, but that’s with the color dial in the center at about 4300K. At full daylight the brightness is half the output of the LS1S, and adjusting for a slightly wider beam angle, it’s more likely around 5000 lux at 1 meter, but I can’t say for certain what the actual spec is. The point is, there are only 768 Daylight bulbs, so expect about half the brightness of the LS1S at Daylight.

Light Storm LS 1/2W – this is a daylight-only version that is half the size of the other Light Storms, and with a wide beam angle of 120 degrees. It has 264 LEDs with an output of 1100 lux at 1 meter. The controller box and battery and build quality is all the same, but the LS1/2W doesn’t have barn doors, as it’s meant to be a powerful flood light. Together with everything (except batteries) it weighs 6.7 pounds.

All the Light Storm lights have built in yokes, so you don’t need a tilt-able adapter for a light stand.

UPDATE: Recently Aputure announced an upcoming series of Amaran lights called Tri-8, that will not only have 888 LEDs, but will feature the heavy-duty aluminum build quality that the Light Storm series have. But they’ll still be light weight, portable, and run off Sony NP batteries. So when these lights come out, you’ll have an even more difficult decision to make!

aputure-amaran-tri-8-888

So, as a basic comparison between the two series, the Amaran lights are incredibly light and take up very little space or weight, but they’re still powerful enough to use as key lights for interviews. They are so light, even with batteries, that you can attach them to anything with a Gorillapod little tripod or Dinkum clamps. The plastic build quality, however, is not meant to take a lot of abuse, so you can’t expect the same level of build as similarly spec’d lights that cost 10x as much.

The Light Storm lights, on the other hand, have the build quality of other 1×1 lights that are priced 3-4x as high. And because the LEDs are arranged in a honeycomb pattern, the Light Storm packs a ton of light output in a small package. And having the controller box separate from the light means the LEDs can stay cool with the rear vents, and you can still use very portable light stands (we use the Manfrotto Nano Stand 5001B) and place the controller on the floor or around one of the light stand knobs.

The disadvantage with the Light Storms is they are so much bigger and heavier than the Amaran lights, with a lot more parts and pieces. So unlike the Amarans (which are easy to bring around everywhere, even if you don’t plan to use them), you’ll have to think more seriously about whether you want to bring along the Light Storm or leave it at home.

Essentially, the Light Storm looks and feels like a Porsche, whereas the Amaran is like a Honda. For clients who are curious about your gear, the Light Storm will definitely impress. But for clients who don’t know the difference, it’s a more difficult decision to make, since the Amaran lights can output nearly as much light as the LS 1C, for example, at 1/10th the weight.

Which Aputure light should I buy?

So here are some of my recommendations for what lights to get based on how you intend to use them.

Do you plan to shoot outdoor interviews, with 2-3 crew members and time to setup? With AC power or with V-Lock or Anton Bauer batteries?

Get the Light Storm LS 1S – it’s a ton of light in a small package. But still features the build and quality expected of production companies with a couple crew members on set.

Do you plan to shoot outdoor interviews, as a solo shooter in a hurry?

Get the Amaran 672S. Two of them will get you more light than one Light Storm LS 1S, at 1/5th the weight. And the Sony NP-batteries are a lot smaller, cheaper, and easier to manage and travel with than the larger V-mount or Anton Bauer batteries.

In fact, for the same price as a Light Storm LS 1S plus battery, you can buy 3 Amaran 672S lights (which come with batteries), for a whopping 18,120 lux at 1 meter.

Do you mostly do indoor interviews, that you drive to, with a 2-3 crew members?

The Light Storm LS 1C is more than enough light for indoor scenarios, but with a lot more versatility in terms of fine tuning the color on your subject’s skin tone. Add a D-Fuse softbox to it and you’re good to go for 99% of indoor interviews.

Do you mostly do indoor interviews, that you drive to, but shoot alone and need to be able to move around quickly?

The Light Storm LS 1C is still plenty easy to manage alone, in an indoor controlled environment. But for super quick setups, the Amaran 672W at Daylight is nearly the same output as the LS 1C at Daylight, (compare 672 LED bulbs in the Amaran, to 768 Daylight bulbs in the Light Storm).

While the Amaran 672 Spot is brighter than the Wide version, you almost certainly have to use some kind of diffusion before pointing it on an interview subject indoors. And in my experience, at full brightness the 672W has more than enough output to light a subject from a few feet away. So, I think the Spot version is a must for outdoor interviewers (where you probably wouldn’t use a diffuser anyway), but for indoor interviewers it’s just not as easy and simple to use as the Wide version.

Do you want a hair light or background light for pops or fill?

Definitely the Amaran 672W. The beam angle is nice and wide, and you can place this light anywhere even without a light stand. I actually just set it down on the batteries, which tilts the light up and is ready to go with no effort. It’s also light enough to hang from ceiling fixtures, or book shelves, with just a little clamp.

As for color, even if your key light is set to 4000K, it’s not essential for your background or hair light to be exactly matched to your key light color. A little more yellow or blue in the background isn’t a big deal.

Do you travel by air to a shoot, with 2-3 crew members as a production company, for indoor interviews or general filming setups?

Often when you’re flying to shoots, you probably have little idea what the scenario will look like. And that’s where bringing a super bright and versatile light like the Light Storm LS 1C is key. And it has the expected quality, output, and dependability of typical 1×1 lights that many national producers use, at a fraction of the cost.

As for portability, the Light Storm LS 1C is slim enough to fit in with the rest of your gear, without requiring a separate bag. In fact I’ve put one in a Tom Bihn hard laptop case, placed it in a normal suitcase with other gear, and checked it safely.

Do you travel by air to a shoot, by yourself, for a variety of run and gun scenarios as well as interview setups?

The Amaran 672W is your best friend. We’ve carried a couple with us everywhere for over a year, and even when we didn’t plan to use them, they almost always come out. In a pinch, they’re bright enough for outdoor interviews (if placed very close to your subject). Indoors, you can use it as your key light and place one in a softbox or use the included diffuser. The batteries last for hours, but if you can plug it in, even better, since the Amaran charges your Sony batteries while it’s in operation.

In fact, for the price of 1 Light Storm and battery, you can buy 3 Amaran 672 lights – 1 spot, 1 wide, and 1 bi-color– for easily the most versatile and portable kit out there today. Together they’re only 3 pounds, compared to 11.5 pounds for one Light Storm. And all 3 lights can be operated with one remote.

Would I recommend the Amaran 528 lights?

They are indeed super cheap, but you might as well stretch just a little bit more and go for the 672, for the remote and AC charging features alone, in addition to them being brighter all around.

What about the Amaran 672C on its own?

I think the Amaran 672C would be great to have in an incredibly portable kit, alongside the 672W and 672S. But if you’re only getting one light, I don’t think the bicolor Amaran provides enough output for the occasional benefit of dialing in a color temperature. It’s more important that your key subject light overpowers the rest of the lights in the room, rather than matching their temperature. So as long as your key light is the brightest light, it can be either Daylight or Tungsten (pick the closest to the rest of the lights), change your camera’s white balance to match the key light, and adjust output to make sure skin tones look good, worrying less about the ambient or background lights and their colors.

Of course this are only my personal recommendations for interview lighting setups, so your needs, desires, or budgets may lead you to other decisions. But the good news is with Aputure, no matter what light you buy, you’re guaranteed to get amazing output, build quality, and CRI color rendition for a fraction of what many other LEDs in the market cost. Enjoy your shoots and feel free to email me with any questions!

 


Bright and Portable LED Lights on a Budget

amaranonhead (1)

The most portable light is one you can mount on top of your head.

If you’ve read any of my posts before, you’ll know that I love the Westcott Ice Light (version 2 as well as version 1). Last year my Video Dads partner Travis and I have shot over 170 interviews in people’s kitchens, offices, and (often, for some reason) basements, and we used the Ice Light as the primary key light each time.

But as much as the Ice Light is great for very close and intimate interviews, there are many other scenarios where we need more powerful lights, while still being super lightweight and portable. And lights that don’t cost more than our cars.

At NAB 2016 we used two Aputure Amaran 672W lights for our interviews.

At NAB 2016 we used two Aputure Amaran 672W lights for our interviews.

So we’ve have been using the Aputure Amaran lights quite a bit. In interviews we use them as fill lights, as well as lighting the backgrounds behind the subject, often entire rooms. We’ve used them indoors for two person interviews and shots. And outdoors, well, they’re pretty much the only lights we take outdoors.

One Amaran lights up Rayland Baxter at SXSW 2016, for a music video shoot on a canoe.

One Amaran lights up Rayland Baxter at SXSW 2016, for a music video shoot on a canoe.

The Amaran lights come in several different flavors. There are the HR672W, which are daylight rated and have a wide angle of light, there are the HR672S which have a narrow spot angle, making it brighter for day use but might need diffusion for lighting a wide room, and there’s the HR672C which is a convenient Bi-color.

All the Amarans are about the size of an iPad, they weigh practically nothing, and they run off the very popular Sony NPF batteries. What’s really nice is when the lights are plugged in, they charge the Sony batteries. At the end of a shoot when we have dozens of Sony batteries to charge, we can save room in our bag by leaving several chargers at home and only use the Amaran lights as chargers. The lights also come with a remote that can turn on/off and control brightness, and one remote can be used on several lights. This is super convenient when we hang an Amaran using a simple Joby Gorillapod, and then control its settings while looking through the camera.

We hung a couple Amaran lights at Hotel Saint Cecilia at SXSW Austin, for a shoot with the Wild Feathers.

We hung a couple Amaran lights at Hotel Saint Cecilia at SXSW Austin, for a shoot with the Wild Feathers.

There are definitely brighter and more powerful lights out there, but many of them are made of heavier metal and require more complex battery solutions, and of course they’re more expensive. Aputure Amaran HR672 lights are about $275 each, which comes with two batteries, a carrying case, a tungsten filter and diffusion gel, plus a light stand adapter that allows you to tilt the light angle – this piece alone can be pretty spendy. For the price, the Amaran lights are a no brainer, they’re great quality (high CRI) and bright, and best of all, they’re very portable.

For a week at NAB we carried two Amaran lights connected to stands and ready to go.

For a week at NAB we carried two Amaran lights connected to stands and ready to go.

If you’re not sure which of the 3 Amaran lights to get, I’d say get one of each! The spot offers the most amount of brightness if you plan to use it mostly outdoors, the bicolor is naturally the least bright (because the LEDs are split between tungsten/daylight to offer variable color), but they’re also very convenient if you want to use it indoors as a fill or background/room light. And the daylight wide, I think, is a great mix of both, and since it comes with a custom tungsten filter, I think it’s a great one-light-fits-all. Happy shooting!…

Upworthy shares our videos

There’s been a ton going on for us in the past few weeks/months, but this takes the cake. Upworthy started sharing our Day One videos about Alaskans who have recovered from alcohol addiction. With their 9 million fans. !

 …

The Best Documentary Filmmaking Kit for Budget Air Travel

documentary_filmmaking_kit_luggage_bags_1

Are you looking to travel with your filmmaking gear but don’t want to spend your entire budget on checked baggage every time you fly? Or maybe you’re trying to put together a documentary video production kit that is flexible enough for all kinds of shooting scenarios, while maintaining the highest of broadcast and aesthetic standards?

Two years ago I wrote a post about a complete documentary filmmaking kit that fits in just one backpack. Amazingly, over 20,000 filmmakers have used that kit as a guide for putting together their own traveling video production kit. And although that post is still very useful today, I think it’s time for an update.

Also since that post two years ago, my productions for PBS and corporate films with Video Dads have become much more sophisticated, my Video Dads partner and I have experimented with loads more gear, we have produced over a hundred new documentary videos around the country, and through it all, we’ve honed in on a kit that is much more comprehensive than a bare bones backpacking kit. In fact we both carry the exact same kit.

In the past two years I’ve personally traveled nearly 100,000 air miles with this kit. I’ve brought every piece of gear I need for a complex production in any corner of the country. And I’ve never checked more than one bag.

Please trust me when I say this, the gear and approach in this post is not just a random collection of equipment – I’ve had the unique experience of trying tons of gear on all kinds of shoots, and this is the system that I believe is the best documentary filmmaking kit for traveling producers today. 

documentary_filmmaking_kit_luggage_bags_2

Essentially, this packing approach boils down to a few simple guidelines:

1. Pack the most expensive items like your camera, lenses, and laptop into a backpack that stays on your back at all times. On the plane, it can go under the seat in front of you.

2. Pack less fragile accessories in your official carry-on, but pack your gear in a way that you can safely gate check it on smaller flights that have tiny overhead space.

3. Pack the least fragile and heaviest items in your checked suitcase, along with clothes.

4. Instead of buying photography or video bags with built-in dividers, use neoprene wraps and small pouches to protect and organize your equipment.

5. When possible, choose the lightest equipment you can, but don’t leave anything behind you might need. It’s better to have slightly more gear than necessary, than be stuck without something because you wanted to pack really light. You’ll regret leaving something that could help tell the story, more often than you’ll curse carrying heavy bags through the airport.

documentary_filmmaking_kit_suitcase_1

In my suitcase I use Tom Bihn packing cubes for clothes in one half of the bag, and in the other half I pack my tripod and fluid head, my monopod and fluid head, two light stands, a boom microphone kit, a Westcott Ice Light 2, batteries for my C100, Sony batteries for other lights, a small slider, and a few clamps and other knick knacks. On flights that have tight battery restrictions, you can take these out of the checked bag and bring them along in your carry-on.

I have about 20 Domke 19″ neoprene wraps I use to protect just about all my gear. For other accessories I use Domke F-945 pouches in various colors, as well as Porta Brace pouches. This system is way more flexible than buying into photo or video bags with pre-built dividers, and you can use luggage and bags that don’t scream “expensive equipment inside!” I wrap the tripod and light stands in the Tom Bihn 520mm Quivers, which attach to the side of the backpack upon landing.

My hardshell suitcase is a standard medium size spinner, but I recommend going for a larger 28″ or 30″ suitcase, so you can fit a more standard length tripod and monopod (more on that below). That’ll be my next purchase. I got my Samsonite hard suitcase from Kohl’s for about $100 – it doesn’t have to be fancy or offer intense protection (that’s what the Domke neoprene wraps are for), but it should be lightweight. Mine is about 8 lbs empty, and full it’s usually right at the 50 lb cutoff. On the other hand, the very durable Pelican hard cases that video professionals use worldwide can start at over 30 lbs empty, which means you’ll have to pack a handful of them and that add up quickly in luggage fees.

documentary_filmmaking_kit_suitcase_2

Here’s everything that’s in the suitcase, in addition to clothes:

  • Smartsystem Reflex S 410 slider – if $750 is too steep or you can’t find this slider in your region (they’re made in Italy), the Cinevate Duzi is still a great slider. Anything over two feet is too long for portable documentary filmmaking. But if you can swing it, the Smartsystem Reflex is awesome for a 2lb slider. There’s a distributer list here: www.smartsystem.it/retailers/
  • C100 batteries – don’t skimp and get the older BP-970G batteries without the intelligent meter. Use the Canon BP-975 or a backup of the small BP-955 battery that comes with the C100.

There’s also Sony NP-style batteries for lights and the Ninja Blade external recorder, Letus Helix batteries and accessories, Aputure Amaran LED AC adapter and light stand mount, a Tom Bihn snake charmer with various stuff like a SOG knife, allen wrenches, extra Manfrotto 494 quick release plates, tape and audio connectors. And because I only bring one light stand for my key light (the Ice Light) and one light stand for the boom microphone setup, the other lights go on clamps such as the Nasty Clamp, Dinkum ActionPod, and Gorillapod.

documentary_filmmaking_kit_accessory_bag_1

For my carry-on bag, I love the Sachtler Dr. Bag-3 (mine is the older Petrol version, which is identical to Sachtler before they merged brands). It’s particularly great because when it’s unzipped the hard sides make it an extra tall bag, which means on location I can fill it with gear to the brim, and leave it unzipped while I carry it around. The only downside is the little feet on the bottom sometimes get caught when I’m placing it in the overhead compartment, an annoyance that makes my partner Travis prefer the trusty Porta Brace DV4 bag instead. Both are superb.

In this carry-on bag I keep everything that is expensive and kind of fragile and want to keep by my side, except the camera, lenses, and laptop that goes in my backpack. The beauty of this setup is for smaller flights where the carry-on space is limited, you can gate check this bag and be comfortable that all your stuff is still padded and safe.

By the way, I highly recommend replacing the strap in all your bags with a Tom Bihn Absolute Shoulder Strap – it’s amazing and comfortable even when carrying 40 pounds of gear.

documentary_filmmakingkit_accessory_bag_2
Here’s everything in this bag:

  • Aputure Amaran HR672W daylight rated LED – we have another one that is lighting this scene from above. There’s also a spot version for a more powerful interview key light, and a bicolor version. These lights are a super good deal and have become popular with documentary video shooters.
  • Westcott Ice Light – the original version, which can’t go in checked baggage like the Ice Light 2 because of its battery.
  • Canare 25 foot XLR cable (try to get this in a color other than black, so you can color coordinate different lav/boom mic coming into the camera),

documentary_filmmaking_kit_backpack_1

Countless full time travelers swear by the Tom Bihn Brain Bag, but I believe it’s also the best kept secret for photography and video production people too. The Canon C100 can get quite bulky when it’s assembled, which makes it hard to fit into many bags. But the Brain Bag has a front and back compartment, and the assembled C100 fits perfectly in the front section, while all the lenses go in the back section, housed in the Tom Bihn Camera I-O. The I-O is its own little lens/camera carrier that you can take out and wear when you want to just carry around your camera, lenses, and nothing else.

When I’m using it for air travel, the Brain Bag is my “personal item” that never leaves my back, and I store it under my seat while my carry-on goes in the overheard compartment or is gate checked. Camera body and lenses go in the back part, and my Macbook Pro goes in a Tom Bihn Brain Cell laptop protector, which fits into the front part of the bag. I have the Horizontal Brain Cell, but I recommend the Vertical one instead, so you can easily reach in and remove your laptop when going through TSA scanners.

documentary_filmmaking_kit_backpack_2

In this backpack go the essentials:

  • I also carry a few spare lenses for other uses. The Canon 18-135mm STM lens is an all-purpose kit lens that has great autofocus on the C100 and I keep it on when I can’t bring along other lenses with me, since its zoom range goes from wide to telephoto. But its build quality, manual focusing, and low light ability is not very good.
  • And finally I always bring the Canon 35mm f2 IS along, because it’s the smallest, most light sensitive lens out there for the C100 that still has Image Stabilization (IS). You can get a cheaper lens that’s more light sensitive, but I believe IS is essential to shooting run ‘n’ gun documentary video. Also the 35mm f2 IS is just a damn good lens.
  • Not pictured: Canon 10-18mm STM lens, which is being used to take this photo. It’s a very lightweight lens that is suitable as a replacement for the Tokina 11-16mm, but its build quality is inferior and its not very low light. However, it’s 1mm wider, lighter, and I use it on the Letus Helix gimbal pretty much full time.
  • On the C100 handle I keep an Audio-Technica 875R shotgun mic on at all times. Anything longer and you’ll end up seeing your mic in the frame with the ultrawide lenses. I also put a C-Cup eyecup on it and it stays on.
  • And of course the unbeatable Apple Macbook 15″ Retina with 16gb ram. Mine is an old one, but still running as good as it did the day I got it (used), several years ago.
  • I bring a few extra phone batteries, a set of earbuds in case I don’t have my big headphones nearby, and a clipboard with our personal appearance release form. Also don’t forget to bring some Tums, because heart burn.

 

documentary_filmmaking_kit_extras_1

As I mentioned, my partner in crime Travis brings the same exact kit as I do on all of our trips. But because he has a larger suitcase, he gets to fit a larger, more heavy duty tripod and a more sturdy monopod. He also brings some alternative gear than I have in my kit, partially because we train a lot of PBS staff around the country in video production, so we want to show them different kinds of gear we use.

Here’s what’s in the above photo:

  • Petrol tripod bag – Travis stuffs this in his suitcase, so when we land we can place our tripods, monopods, light stands, boom pole, and slider in this bag. This is the Petrol PEPT703 model which has been discontinued.
  • Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens – some people prefer this lens over the 24-105mm lens, as the bread and butter lens for documentary production. There’s a valid argument for each lens, I think.
  • Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens – also a popular choice for shooters, since it’s incredibly light sensitive in a pretty good zoom range, with constant aperture. But, no Image Stabilization kills it for the majority of non-tripod work.
  • Manfrotto 561BHDV-1 – the original video monopod that started the trend towards monopod shooting over shoulder rigs (or handheld, or tripod). Now discontinued, the replacement model is Manfrotto MVM500A.
  • Gitzo GT2531LVL – I believe this is the best video tripod out there, period. For traveling video shooters. If you never get on a flight, you can get away with a more standard video tripod that’s bigger, wider, and heavier. But, then you still have to lug it around on foot.
  • Manfrotto 701HDV fluid head – now discontinued, but practically every video shooter has at least one around. It’s still the smallest, most lightweight fluid head you could get, when it was available. Not as smooth as others, but gets the job done.
  • Manfrotto MVH500AH fluid head – the current replacement for the 701HDV, and unfortunately bigger. But a great all purpose fluid head. I personally still prefer the Varavon 815 as the best deal in video heads for flat-base tripods out there.
  • ASUS MB168B+ – this is a 15-inch LCD screen that is powered via USB 3 to the Macbook, which we use as a second monitor for editing on the road. Very handy and takes up no room. The newer version is the MB169B+.
  • Vpedal – for transcribing interviews when we’re editing.
  • Not pictured: we also bring a Westcott 42-inch reflector for both indoor and outdoor use, mostly for interviews but sometimes one of us will hold it during B-roll shooting.

Alternative Cameras to the Canon C100 – Canon XC10

Although I still believe the C100 is the best large format video camera for traveling documentary filmmakers, there are other cameras out there that I think fit the same type of shooter, but with slightly different needs. The good news is they all work with the above travel system.

Canon-XC10-with-rode-videomic-pro

The Canon XC10 is a great little camera that can shoot 4K (if needed), it matches the other Canon colors well with its C-log picture profile, but most of all, it has a huge zoom range while maintaining amazing image stabilization. You can shoot this camera handheld while zoomed in to 240mm, with the 2x teleconverter on, for a 480mm shot that is definitely usable. It doesn’t have XLR inputs, but you can always add a Juicedlink RM333 preamp for a super compact package.

DSCF7441

So in this tiny form factor, you have a camera that has the power and range of the C100 with two big lenses on it. That’s quite a difference in size, for much the same range. For shooters who value a compact camera above all other considerations, theCanon XC10 might be worth looking into.

DSCF7493

Sony RX10 II

DSCF7509

A cheaper alternative to the Canon XC10 is the Sony RX10 II, which can also shoot in 4k, also has a built in lens with a long range, but it beats the XC10 in that you can get an XLR adapter that gives you full audio control. The Sony XLR-K2M is also powered via the camera’s hot shoe, so you don’t need to worry about batteries. The above pic also shows a wireless lav receiver mounted to the top of the XLR adapter.

Sony FS5

DSCF7637

And finally, there’s Sony’s answer to the Canon C100, the Sony FS5. It can do everything the C100 can do but more (except autofocus reliably), and with the Metabones Speedbooster EF to E-mount, you can use your Canon lenses and gain a stop of light, and a slightly wider Field of View. There are lots the FS5 has going for it – I own one and have tested it with the above travel system, and the good news is it works just as well as the C100 does. Cheers to that!

Here’s the two cameras side by side.

DSCF7653

 

I hope this post helps you on your documentary filmmaking journey. Thanks and take care!…

Canon C100 and Letus Helix Jr – Photos

helix-front

I’ve written about the amazing combination of the Letus Helix Jr. brushless gimbal with the Canon C100 before – both on this blog and also on Newsshooter.com. It continues to be a workhorse for me and I’ve used this simple rig on dozens of production trips around the country. It’s a no brainer now that Letus has released an aluminum version at a huge discount to the original Helix Jr.

Anyway, for those of you who have the C100 and Helix Jr. and want to fast forward the balancing and initial rigging, here are photos of my setup – all photos are clickable for larger resolutions. Your balancing may be different depending on your quick release plate, lens, battery, etc – but this may be a good starting point for you.

I use a Zacuto Grip Extender (modified, see below), as the counterweight and also because it’s so convenient to control exposure/WB without having to put down the Helix. For scratch audio I connect a Rode VideoMic Pro on a cold shoe adapter on the right handle. Please note: I’ve been using the Rode VideoMic Pro for all my C100/Helix shoots but just got a Rode VideoMicro and used it for these photos. Unfortunately it turns out the C100 isn’t compatible with the VideoMicro, so disregard that mic in these photos and plan to use a mic such as the VideoMic Pro. Thanks and sorry about the confusion!

I use the C100’s screen to monitor (so an external monitor is not necessary), and I have autofocus on using both the Canon 10-18mm and the Canon 18-135mm lens. I like to use the bigger C100 battery, I keep my C-Cup eyecup on at all times, and I put a Manfrotto 394 Quick Release on the Helix camera plate. My PID settings are at the bottom of the post. Okay here goes.

helix-top-1 helix-front-top

helix-back-1

Briefcase mode is fully accessible with this setup, even using the C-Cup eyecup. You have to modify the Zacuto Grip Extender slightly so it doesn’t hit the Helix as it rotates, and I’ll show how below.

helix-briefcase-2 helix-briefcase-1

helix-right-side-1

It helps to route the Zacuto Grip Extender cable through the Canon hand grip to keep everything nice and tidy.

helix-right-side-2

 

I put some white gaffer’s tape on all the balancing points, so that when I travel I can quickly assemble the Helix Jr without having to re-balance.

helix-right-side-3

Both handles have to be at the same handle level.

helix-handle

helix-left-side-1 helix-camera-plate-1

Even with the hand grip as a counterweight, I achieved a more perfect balance by using one of the Helix’s counterweight holders on the camera plate rod, but without putting any weight in it. It’s slight, but works.

helix-camera-plate-counterweight

In my setup, I don’t use an external monitor, and instead rely on the C100’s LCD screen. It’s good enough, especially since I can depend on the autofocus. It is a tight fit, however, so I have to make sure the LCD is in the open position before placing it in the quick release.

helix-c100-screen

The most important part of this rig is the Zacuto Grip Extender, which allows you to use the C100 hand grip for quick exposure changes (and other settings), while also functioning as a counterweight. However, you have to unscrew the extender from the rod holder and rotate it 90 degrees. I hope these pics can explain how to do that.

zacuto-grip-1

Here are the two screws that hold the extender to the rod holder. There are two positions you use, which you can see with the third thread that is unused here. Out of the box, the grip extender comes rotated using the other position.

zacuto-grip-2

Here’s a picture of the grip extender as it ships, in its default position.

z-egrc

z-egrc-1

And here it is rotated into the new position.

zacuto-grip-3 zacuto-grip-4

And finally, here are the PID settings I use on this setup. I turned up the power to 200 on each motor, and I slowed down the pan in the follow mode, so that it stays straight as I walk forward or backward. You can adjust the pan to be quicker to follow for certain kinds of shots.

Pan: P 50  I .06  D 50   Power 200

Roll: P 42  I .65  D 54  Power 200

Tilt:  P 40  I .02  D 50  Power 200

Follow Mode Speed: Pan 30   Roll 32   Tilt 30

Hope that helps! Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this setup.…

Canon Lens Rebate Deals

Throughout this month there are some really good discounts on Canon lenses. If you’re eyeing one of these lenses to add to your video gear (or wish list of future equipment), now’s a good time to consider.

canon video lens discount

I use a number of Canon lenses for various kinds of video production, from documentary to commercials, and they really do hold up their value over the years after first buying them.

Lens

Reg. Price

Rebate Amount

Sale Price

Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM

$539

$50

$489

Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM

$599

$50

$549

Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

$509

$50

$459

Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 IS USM

$549

$80

$469

Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM

$599

$50

$549

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM

$199

$50

$149

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

$1449

$50

$1399

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

$399

$50

$349

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II

$125

$15

$110

Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM

$469

$50

$419

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM

$1999

$50

$1949

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

$419

$50

$369

Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM

$499

$50

$449

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

$899

$50

$849

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM

$599

$50

$549

Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM

$1349

$50

$1299

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM

$1249

$50

$1199

Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

$649

$50

$599

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM

$799

$100

$699

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

$1599

$100

$1499

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM

$1099

$50

$1049

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

$699

$100

$799

Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM

$879

$50

$829

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

$1899

$100

$1799

Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM

$999

$100

$899

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

$2099

$100

$1999

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM

$1349

$100

$1249

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM

$1199

$50

$1149

 

Best Brushless Gimbal for Your Documentary Filmmaking Kit – Letus Helix Jr

I go through a lot of new and exciting gear, but only once in a while something comes along that completely changes my entire approach to documentary filmmaking.

letus-helix-gimbal-documentary-steadicam

The Canon 5D mark II disrupted the filmmaking industry. Aerial video with DJI Phantom quadcopters continues to be a game changer. Brushless gimbals were slated to be the next huge thing, but none of the dozens of manufacturers have got it quite right for it to be a mass hit. Until now.

Enter the Letus Helix Jr.

letus-helix-jr-with-sony-a7s

My Video Dads partner and I travel to shoots every other week – across Alaska and all over the lower 48 states. We have a very structured system of packing, so we don’t have to use hard cases that add up in luggage cost. And once we arrive at the location, we have a very fine tuned system of shooting everything we need for a short documentary in under 4 hours.

We’ve done this hundreds of time, so believe me, uprooting our system to add one more piece of gear is like pulling teeth. That’s where the Letus Helix Jr. shines – we don’t have to change anything. It’s so small, simple, and just works – that it’s as much additional headache as adding another lens to our kit.

letus-helix-gimbal-helicopter-alaska

But the kind of footage you can get with this gimbal – in all kinds of remote documentary settings – is simply astounding. After receiving it only a few months ago, we have used it on every shoot, in cars and busses, on a helicopter and planes, on a boat, on remote miles-long hikes and up a mountain, to many simple walking shots indoors and outdoors in just about any weather.

Most gimbals are heavy and need additional support rigs to keep you from getting tired

Most gimbals are heavy and need additional support rigs to keep you from getting tired

Here’s a video we shot for Princess Cruises – 2 days of running around capturing the start of commercial salmon fishing season in Cordova, Alaska, and on a journey up to Denali National Park. The Helix Jr came with us everywhere, ready to go at anytime.

 Okay so you’ve probably seen gimbal or steadicam footage before. Why is the Letus Helix Jr. the gimbal that stands out as a game changer? There are lots of great 3-axis gimbal models out there, including Freefly Cinema Movi (correctly spelled “MōVI”) M5 and M10, Defy G2, G5, G12 (and now the G2X), BeSteady One, several Came-TV gimbals, the DJI Ronin and now the Ronin M. There are also lightweight gimbals made particularly for tiny cameras, like the Nebula 4000. And of course before brushless gimbals there were plenty of non-electronic stabilizers or steadicams.

Here’s why the Letus Helix Jr. rises above the crowd to become something truly game changing:

  • First and foremost, balancing the camera is a breeze. That’s because you don’t need an accessory stand – this is a huge deal – so you can balance the camera on any flat surface. You also don’t need any additional tools.
  • Because you balance the camera body, you can now change lenses and zoom in and out without having to rebalance. If the lenses weigh significantly different, then a quick shift of the bottom z-axis (to move the camera forward or backward) is all it takes.
  • You hold the rig close to your body, in a comfortable position, unlike most gimbals that wear you out within minutes of use. I can carry and shoot with the gimbal for hours a time without any additional support system (and I’m a pretty small/weak guy).
  • The Letus Helix Junior can use both lightweight cameras as well as heavier ones. The fact that I can use my A-cam (the Canon C100), which has autofocus, makes this a lot more attractive than having to carry a separate small B-camera just for gimbal shots.

documentary-brushless-gimbal-letus-helix

Those are the big differences between the Helix Jr and other gimbals or stabilizers. Mostly it’s just easy and simple to use, and I’ve used lots of gimbals. Many of them require you to put aside everything else you’re doing and just focus on gimbal shooting for hours, even with secondary operators focusing for you with expensive remote monitor systems.

Some gimbal rigs you would just never use on a documentary shoot

Some gimbal rigs you would just never use on a documentary shoot

Here’s a few other stand out benefits:

  • The Letus Helix Jr is durable yet small. It folds into the size of a large book for travel, rigged up and ready to use at a moment’s notice. Most other gimbals you have to take apart to pack them in large hard cases, along with their accessory stands.
  • You can hold the camera low to the ground with one hand (in what they call “briefcase” mode), follow someone’s feet as they’re walking, and then lift up and rotate to two-handed operation – while keeping a steady shot.
  • Modifying the speed of the pan/tilt is easy with the included software. You can use a computer, Android smartphone or tablet, and now an iOs app on your iPhone or iPad (or iPod, if you still have one of those). Sometimes you want slow and graceful movement, and sometimes you want faster, more reactive pans and tilts.
  • You can tilt up and down just by rotating the right handle. Much more natural and eaiser than having secondary operators or using a throttle.
  • All gimbals get out of whack and go crazy if they’re touched or mishandled. At the least you would lose your shot and have to start over, at the most you would have to stop and rebalance for 20 minutes (using the accessory stand…sigh). The Helix Jr recovers from going out of whack in a second or two – even as I’m moving inside a bumpy car.
Me holding the Letus Helix Jr with a RED camera at NAB 2015.

Me holding the Letus Helix Jr with a RED camera at NAB 2015.

Basically it just works. It’s the gimbal for the masses. It does cost $3000, so it’s a stretch for most video producers. But it’s also something that changes your game completely.

Especially if you’re a documentary shooter who doesn’t have time to deal with the heavy, complex gimbal systems that need a dedicated operator on set. If you just want a few steady shots when you’re in a car, walking around, moving from place to place – then the Letus Helix Jr. is your solution!

Letus Helix Jr and C100 on two Alaska shoots from Video Dads on Vimeo.…

New Video for Princess Cruises

We got the call about a week ago – could we do a 2-day shoot and turn the edit around in a day? We’d be following the journey of the first salmon of the season, from ocean to table . . . via helicopter.

Uh, yeah.

The Best Video Fluid Head for Flat Base Tripods is only $190

varavon-815

Good, dependable fluid heads are easy to find for video tripods that use a ball mount. For flat head tripods, they’re nearly impossible.

In this previous post I wrote about my two favorite tripods for run and gun video production – the Gitzo 2531LVL and the very compact Gitzo 1542T – both of which are flat base tripods, intended primarily for photographers over videographers.

The only tripods I've ever loved - Gitzo GT1542T and Gitzo GT2531LVL

The only tripods I’ve ever loved – Gitzo GT1542T and Gitzo GT2531LVL

Video producers don’t like to admit to shooting on photo tripods. Most shooters advise others to get heavy, dependable video tripods – which are great for studio work and light car travel, but in my opinion are way too much tripod for the typical run and gun shooter using DSLR or similar sized cameras.

But funny enough, at NAB I saw more Gitzo tripods being used by video reporters than any video tripod. Especially the older version of the Gitzo GT2531LVL, which has a built in leveler.

gitzoGT2531LVL

 

(By the way if you’re looking to get a light weight traditional video tripod with a fluid head, I recommend the Miller Air Carbon System over the cheaper, more popular Sachtler Ace M, which in my opinion is too complicated for quick use in the field).

But the question of fluid heads continues to be a big problem for us video producers who like flat base tripods. There are simply no obvious solutions. I own and use a variety of flat fluid heads, including the Manfrotto MVH500AH, several Manfrotto 701HDV heads (which are now discontinued, so you have to find them used), several Benro S4 heads, and a variety of other heads I’ve tried over the years.

While small and very easy to travel with, the 701HDV and the Benro S4 are not that smooth. Neither is the Manfrotto 500AH. They’re fine for wide to medium shots, but with a telephoto like the Canon 70-200mm, I have to do several tries to pan and tilt until I get a usable shot.

varavon 815 fh

But then I heard about the Varavon 815 FH. It’s small, it’s cheap, it’s very simple to use, and it’s very, very smooth. The weight limit isn’t very high, but I use my C100 on it, even with the Canon 70-200mm, and it’s fine. Not perfect like a head weighing and costing 10 times more than the Varavon, but better than the Manfrotto heads.

But they’re hard to find, keep running out of stock, and nobody else talks about them. I wondered if anyone else was using these heads? Then at NAB, I started seeing them everywhere, including the photo at the top of this post. At the Blackmagic booth, all their cameras were mounted on the Varavon 815 FH. Crazy.

So there you go, apparently other people have discovered the Varavon 815 FH. I hope this post helps you discover it too.

 …

Think Tank Photo Airport Helipak Review on Newsshooter: The Perfect Way to Carry Your DJI Phantom?

thinktank_open_bag

I’ve got a new review up on newsshooter.com today – check it out: http://www.newsshooter.com/2015/05/11/think-tank-photo-airport-helipak-review-the-perfect-way-to-carry-your-dji-phantom/

The Think Tank Airport Helipak is a really great deal! You get not only a carry bag for your Phantom drones, but it’s usable as a general bag for just about any of your gear.