Monday, January 2, 2017

Ships, Photos, Video and the curse of the Telephoto

Photo by Greta Shum
Welcome to my first post of the new year! Life on the boat is never dull, but after a couple of days being spoiled with incredible wildlife and scenery, we are back out to sea and everything is flat and blue again. It’s ironic that just 3-4 days ago the sea was so fascinating and yet now, it seems a bit mundane. (I am sure I would be singing a different tune if we had a big sea state)
So I would like to take this time to talk about something that is not readily obvious until you try to make a movie on a boat. That of coarse is the dreaded “Curse of the Telephoto” (Cue lightning flash, thunder crackling and some ominous organ music)
“What is the curse of the telephoto, Ted?” Wow, that’s crazy you just asked that, because I was just about to explain it.
When traveling at sea, there can be all sorts of things we want to take pictures of. It may be clouds, waves, wild life, friends and family or even beautiful mountainous islands in the distance.
Yes? Yes.
Well to photograph these things, one must have their trusty camera and some sort of lens. If you are like every single person on this ship, that means you have a DSLR and you my friend have got some options.
The most common type of lens I see down here is a zoom lens. In fact, I am traveling with a couple myself. Why? Because when space is limited and weight is an issue, a couple of lenses (Lensi?) that can cover a broad spectrum from wide angle to telephoto just makes sense. Would a handful of primes be great to have? Heck yea! Unfortunately it just isn’t practical for every situation. Beside, having to constantly switch out lenses while on deck poses multiple issues from getting water or grit on your sensor and glass to accidentally dropping a lens or camera because, well, it is a bit of a challenge doing these things on a rocking vessel.  

Pro Tip #1: Bring a lens cleaning kit. I picked up a Zeiss kit from B&H for around $5 and use it to clean my glass every few days. It is a spray with a lens cloth. It is great for fingerprints and sea spray alike. Also bring a number of clean lens clothes with you. A clean lens makes a happy photographer.

Pro Tip #2: Every lens needs a UV filter. Why? To protect that precious front glass element on your lens. Your lens has special coatings that can be easily damaged, even from just routine cleanings. Think of a UV as the sacrificial lamb of the lens world. It can be damaged so your lens remains safe. One caveat, don’t skimp on this. You may have just spent hundreds to thousands of dollars on your lens, so treat it to a proper, high quality UV filter. The $20 filter will protect your lens, but it may also be affecting your IQ (image quality)
Back on track. Now we have our lens and our camera, so now we can shoot pictures! Yay! Shooting photos on a Ship is just like shooting photos on land. Set your ISO, aperture and shutter speed and start shooting away. There are a few pointers to remember. First, to avoid motion blur, your shutter speed should equal or be faster than the MM setting of your lens with a minimum of 1/60th of a second. That means your long 1000mm birding lens needs at least an exposure time of 1/1000th of a second. Go below that, and your images will most likely look blurry. Consider a polarizing filter. This will help cut down on unwanted light reflections from either the sky or the sea from polluting your image. A circular polarizer is handy as you can rotate the filter to get the desired effect you are looking for.
Now that we have covered shooting photos at sea, it’s time to discuss shooting video. Many of the photography technique discussed apply to video, with some important differences.
Many video cameras have the ability to adjust ISO, aperture and shutter speed. BUT, it should be noted that we don’t have quite the same flexibility as with photography.
Let’s look at ISO. It is important to know what your camera’s native ISO is. This is the ISO that produces the best picture with low noise. When you go above the native ISO, you will start to introduce unwanted noise to your image, often most visible in the dark portions of your image. A quick search online should help you find the native ISO for your camera.
Random Sunset, because why not?
Next, we can use the aperture and shutter speed to further control our exposure. Here is where some interesting limitations start to occur. Sometimes in video we want to get a shallow depth of field. You know the look, our subject has razor sharp focus while the background falls away to silky smooth goodness. To do this we need to “open our lens up” and choose the widest aperture setting our lens offers.
The aperture range is generally listed on the lens. “Wide open” is the smaller number.
With a wide aperture, our image may be a bit overexposed, so we can try to lower our ISO or change our shutter speed. Here’s the catch though. To best simulate the film look, the desired shutter speed is usually half the length of your frame rate. Shooting 30fps? The standard shutter speed should be 1/60th of a second. You can deviate from this, but it will affect how your image looks. When you can’t change your shutter speed, how can you keep your image properly exposed?

Use neutral density filters! These can either be individual filters or a circular variable ND. I usually go for the variable ND as it can be dialed in for different lighting conditions. An ND filter is like sunglasses for your lens. They cut down the amount of light that can enter the camera. So you can set your lens to wide open and still shoot in full sunlight! Boom!
Holy sidetracked… Back to the curse!
Shooting on this ship documenting everything that is going on, I am usually using a lens between 18-50mm. I can do this on a tripod or handheld with good results. The problem begins when I want to get close to the action and I need to break out the 70-200mm telephoto lens. The most obvious problem is the rocking of the ship. Trying to shoot wildlife or even the coast from a rocking ship is virtually impossible with a telephoto lens. The movement is noticeable on a wide angle lens, but it is overly exaggerated with a telephoto. Trying to get close up video of the seals and penguins that are camped out 50-100 yards away from the boat just doesn’t look good handheld or on a tripod. Tracking with the rocking of the boat is just really hard to do with smooth results.
The next big issue is present even if the ship isn’t rocking, and that is vibration. No matter where you are on the ship, there is always vibration from the engine. I feel it right now as I write this. The vibration is subtle but present. With a wider lens, the vibration doesn’t really show up in the image. But again with the telephoto, the vibration is magnified and present in all of your footage. This is more pronounced with shots from a tripod, but it is rare that I shoot handheld with a 200mm+ lens on the camera.
The best fix I have found so far only works in certain situations. While shooting, try to weigh down your tripod. I do this with my hands placed around the base of the tripod head. This actually helps a lot. Once in the edit, playing around with your software’s stabilization effects can work wonders. In Adobe Premiere, Warp Stabilizer can work wonders with vibrations and small movement. Keep in mind, if there is very strong vibration, it may cause some motion blur in your footage. Even stabilized, you will see the motion blur coming off of the objects that have been stabilized. It is a peculiar look and will be familiar to anyone who was had to stabilize shaky footage. If you know this will be an issue, try shooting your footage with a faster shutter speed. This can eliminate the motion blur from your stabilized footage.

Wow. This post got out of hand quickly. If you made it this far, I hope you got something out of it. Stay tuned for more updates from the Southern Ocean, I’ll be back soon!

1 comment:

  1. You lost me at the filters, lol. However I continue to be entertained by your blog. Well time for bed. Look forward to reading more later.