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Video for a Still Photographer

Posted by Tom Benedict on 26/11/2010


I’m a still photographer.  I’ve known this myself for years, but I’ve also had this pointed out to me by others.  The first time someone made a point of mentioning it to me was right after I’d finished a short course on broadcast video production. I think their exact words were, “You’re terrible at video.”  Yeah.  Thanks.

My class partner and I actually did make a video that year, and oddly enough it was shown on TV far too many times.  It’s not because of its stellar production or camera work.  I’m certain it’s because they were short on material and this one took up a full thirty minute slot.  We’d shot video of a Physics Circus, an extravaganza of physics lecture demos all jammed together into one extremely entertaining event.  Anyone who thinks physics is boring has never seen a pencil blown through a sheet of 3/4″ plywood by a fire extinguisher, or seen the kind of damage you can do with a giant Tesla coil.  Physics is FUN!  It’s also highly photogenic.

It could have been a lot more photogenic.  Unfortunately one of the two people throwing the show was an uptight dweeb who didn’t want cameras in his face.  So we were forced to keep our cameras firmly attached to tripods at the back of the room.  Of course this didn’t stop someone else from using their camcorder handheld at the front, and getting all kinds of good footage of the event.  When they reviewed it, their comment was, “There’s no motion to the cameras.  You’re terrible at this.”  Yeah.  Thanks.  That’s because you made us not move.  The irony was lost on them.  And as awkward as our video was, it still got more screen time than anyone else’s.  Go figure.  I honestly think it’s because ours was edited to length.

I’ve made some videos since then, but comparing those to my still photography, it’s still achingly apparent that I’m not good at video.  I look at a really well produced sequence and see they have these sweeping crane shots or these dramatic focus pulls, so I try the same effects and it’s invariably bad.  Comically bad.  But that’s ok.  Everyone who cares knows I’m a still photographer.  When I make a video, it’s ok for the audience to laugh or groan at inappropriate moments.  It’s all good.

Until now, that is.  The final product of the PUSH N8 project is a video.  A video.  In the infamous words of Charlie Brown, “AAAAAAAAUGH!”

So I’ve been doing some homework.  I went on a bunch of review sites to find out what the favorite, least expensive video production software was for Windows.  Turns out I already had it installed as part of the software package that came on my computer.  Score! Now all I have to do is learn it.  No small thing, but at least I have a plan:  In addition to being a still photographer, I’m also a masochist.  And for a masochist, the best way to learn a thing is to do it badly, realize I’ve done it badly, reflect on that, and do it again less badly.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  So instead of doing one video, I’m planning on doing one video per week for the duration.  The hope is that by the time I get to the final video product, I’ll at least be familiar with the software.  Ideally I’ll also be a little better at video production, but I’m not holding my breath.  At least by then I’ll be more intimately aware of my shortcomings, so I’ll be more practiced at feeling bad about them.  But I hope I get more out of it than that.

To pull off the first video I want to do, I need to make a time lapse sequence.  60 seconds of screen time is 900 frames at 15fps, or 1800 frames at 30fps.  Just about perfect for what I have in mind.  I’ve done time lapse sequences in the past, typically at 60-120x speedup, and have bracketed them with a title card and credits and tossed them up online as being only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry.  (Hey!  Now there’s a time lapse idea!) So I know I can do time lapse videos.  But a couple of things make this one different:  First, it’s faster.  The thing I want to video will be moving at human-perceptible speeds already.  Past about 15x speedup, it would be just nonsense images crammed together.  Second, I finally have video editing software that will do full 1920×1080 HD video!  So instead of editing my frames down to 640×480 or even smaller for NTSC, I get to edit them to 1920×1080 pixels.

Obviously this presents several opportunities to screw things up.  And since the action I want to make the video of is more or less a one-off (think: dropping a glass and watching it shatter, whoops no more glass!) I can’t afford to screw up.  So I’m making a test video first: a glass of ice water melting.  Ok, fine, so I’m back in the category of watching paint dry.  But at 30x normal speed, that might actually be interesting!  And even if this is boring as sin, it’ll at least let me prove all the steps necessary to get from point A (no video, no technique, no nothing) to point B (a working video and the knowledge that I can make this work).  You get the idea.

I started by writing a CHDK script for my Canon A650IS that simulates holding down the shutter button.  This generates a stream of 4000×3000 JPG files taken at a rate of about one per second.  Next, I got a glass, filled it with ice and water, and got busy.  No sweat!

As it turns out it wasn’t that simple.  It took me four sets of images before I got one that didn’t have insurmountable technical issues, and even the fourth had bad white balance.  See why I try to test these ideas offline before I try them on the real deal?  R&D is great and all, but I like to use tried and true techniques when my ass is on the line.  (Note to self:  Camera loses some settings when power-cycled.)  But I persevered and came up with a good set of images to work from.

Next I used Imagemagick to re-size them to 1920×1080 using the following command:

for i in *.JPG; do echo $i; convert $i -resize 1920×1440 -gravity Center -crop 1920×1080 HD/$i; done

These were then run through Adobe Photoshop 7 in batch mode to correct for the bad white balance.  The bad white balance was due to operator error, and now the operator has learned better.  Since I don’t plan to do this in the future,  no documentation for this step.  Besides, this was just plain embarassing.

Next I ran them through VirtualDub, which I’ve used in the past to do video de-shaking.  Turns out VirtualDub will also do time lapse:  Using VirtualDub for Time Lapse The codecs I have in VirtualDub don’t support compressed 1920×1080 video, but since these sequences are short there’s no real penalty.  I saved it as uncompressed video and ate up several gigs of disk space in the process.

Title cards were added to the first and last images in the sequence and saved as 1920×1080 JPG images using Photoshop 7.  In this case I used the Batik font, but I’m not sure what my plans will be for future videos.  This part, at least, is old hat since I did something similar for my SPIE 2010 poster.

Finally, I ran all this through CyberLink Power Director to make the final film, which I then posted to Vimeo.  Watch it if you dare.  Dare to be bored, that is.

– Tom

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Nokia N8 PUSH

Posted by Tom Benedict on 24/11/2010

Some months ago Nokia put out a call for proposals for how to use a KAP rig based around a pair of N8 phones.  At the time I’d been doing some KAP with a photographer in Kona with the goal of photographing whales in the ocean.  So I had whales at the front of my mind.  It wasn’t too much of a stretch to come up with an idea that involved doing KAP of whales.  I sent the idea in, but didn’t really expect to move forward with it.

Turns out I was wrong.  My idea was selected, and not long ago I was contacted by the N8 PUSH team to let me know.

??!  !!!  COOL!

There were some questions to answer and some details to be worked out, but everything came out ok and in the end I was given the timeline and was told to expect a package in the mail.  There’s no curbside delivery where I live, so I’ve been swinging by the post office to check out my PO box ever since.  Nothing yet, but it’s getting clooose!

The package should contain two Nokia N8 cameras, each sporting a 12MP camera with a fixed focal length Carl Zeiss lens, along with a KAP rig designed specifically for the N8, and a kite.  The two phones come loaded with the N8 KAP application, which allows the KAP rig to be controlled from the phone on the ground, and for the aerial phone to stream its video signal to the ground phone.  All in all a seriously cool setup!  I was a little skeptical of the camera at first, but hearing the Zeiss name and seeing a video clip of the camera focusing (yes, it actually focuses) went a long way toward laying those concerns to rest.  What finally did my concerns in was seeing a set of KAP images made by Ricardo Ferreira with the N8 phone.  The image quality was better than most point and shoot cameras, and worlds better than any phone camera I’d ever seen.  (For anyone who’s not familiar with KAP and with the KAP-Nokia connection in particular, Ricardo is an excellent KAPer, and developed the first Nokia KAP rig, based around the N900 phones.)

Operationally, this will be a significant change from the way I’m used to working in the field.  I don’t have a video downlink on my current rig.  The N8 rig does.  I can do movies with my current rig, but I tend not to.  In any case 640×480 is as good as I can get with my current camera.  The N8 does 720p HD video. Right now I don’t have any way to get GPS information for where my camera is in space.  Yeah, I can add a GPS photo tracker to my rig, and probably will in the not so distant future.  But the N8 phone has GPS built in, of course.  I just hope the EXIF headers on the files include the GPS information.  Even the rig itself is different.  I’m used to plugging in cables, screwing down cameras, attaching safety lanyards, and the like.  To use the N8 rig, you snap the phone into the rig and you’re done.  From what I’ve gathered, the aerial phone controls the rig via a Bluetooth connection.  No wires, no screws, no nothing.  And no legs!  The rig has no legs.  But the way it’s shaped, it really doesn’t need them.

So in addition to the PUSH project itself, I’m interested in seeing how the N8 rig behaves in the field.  I’m planning to give it a thorough shake-down and post a review here and on the KAP forums.  Luckily, there’s still some time before the whales come through the Hawaiian Islands.  So I’ve been picking out some likely flying spots where I can put it through its paces and see what it’s got under the hood.  High on the list are Kiholo Bay and Puako.  I’d love to give it a try at the summit of Mauna Kea, but cell phone signals really do mess with the radio telescopes up there.  So it’s a no-no.  Waipio Valley and Pololu Valley are also high on the list since they offer some of the more challenging wind conditions for doing KAP on the Big Island.  (Besides, on the drive back from Pololu there’s a fantastic deli in Hawi called Lighthouse Delicatessen.  Can’t beat a KAP session that ends with a great lunch!)

By the end of the land-based sessions, I should have a better feel for how the rig handles, I’ll have some seat time with it on a couple of different kites, and I’ll be ready to trust myself to launch it off the back of a boat.

Now all we need is whales!

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Kite Aerial Photography, N8 Push, Photography | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »