The Solar Odyssey Camera Choice(s)

All television starts with a camera. In 2012, it’s impossible to buy a new camera that doesn’t produce good images, from tiny 1/4″ sensors up to 35mm size and beyond. So what to choose?

For me, it has to have a large sensor. Large sensor video cameras just produce nicer images (particularly if you know how to focus!).

DSLRs are definitely inexpensive compared with cameras of years gone by, but they become unwieldy if you want to make them function more like a video camera. An F3 would be very nice but out of my budget. Skipper Jim, the founder of the Solar Odyssey adventure, had selected a Sony NEX FS100 and I’ve had no reason to reconsider that decision. It shares the same sensor as the F3 but has a street price under $6,000 with kit lens.

Once I read Adam Wilt’s detailed review I decided that there was zero reason to rethink the decision. Choice of mounts will be that of the primary camera person on board, after all she’ll be the one using it. (And yes, we’ll need neutral density filters and a wide adapter at a minimum.)

So, that’s a nice primary camera, but one thing I’ve learnt is how much easier editing is when you have two angles to choose! Particularly with interviews. But budget precludes additional FS100’s making the compromise the NEX 7, just released at the start of April. A slightly smaller APS-C sensor (but still bigger than a RED 1 according to the second comparison chart at it’s in the same family and I feel confident that they’ll cut together. (Similarly, if I’d chosen the more expensive Canon C300, the DSLRs would have been Canon for the same reason.) At a kit price of $1350 with lens, I can add 3 additional NEX 7’s – for helicopter, b and c cameras. I got one in advance and shot both still and video at NAB 2012 and have been pleased with the results.

I fully recognize the compromise here: being 24Mbit AVCHD at 4:2:0 for both FS 100 and NEX 7 we’re not going to have a lot of headroom for color correction. On the other hand, I was unable to ‘break’ the compression on the camera despite testing it against rapidly flashing lights around various Las Vegas casinos. These were situations that I feel confident would have shown artifacting in HDV.

The relative affordability, and 1080P60 capability of the NEX 7 means I can mount one permanently on the Hoverfly helicopter throughout the journey, keeping setup times to a minimum.

Importantly, testing the NEX 7 I can be shooting video within 3 seconds of picking up the camera and turning it on. In reality TV that’s a huge plus. (By comparison the FS100 takes 12 seconds.) Kept available and ready to go any moment, these will likely get a lot of use.

The NEX 7’s will also be used for still photography – a long time hobby of mine and part of a deal we’re doing with Save the Manatees Club – so the 24 Mpixel sensor doesn’t hurt there either.

That’s the primary shooting kit – NEX FS100, three NEX 7 (one in helicopter). Then there will be at least two iPhones on board (my iPhone 4, Greg’s iPhone 4S) that shoot HD video (the 4S doing a much better job). Plus, another five 1080P cameras in the iPads on board (for our metadata entry app in development and to keep social media and casual browsing off the higher power-needy MacBook Pros). And likely two Go Pro Hero 2s for close and underwater work.

That’s six people on board and 12 accessible HD camcorders, plus the one in the helicopter. So, I think we should be able to “get the shot” regardless of what happens. By preference FS100 and NEX 7 as primary cameras, but if it’s a case of “getting the shot” I’ll take whatever camera is handiest.


10 replies on “The Solar Odyssey Camera Choice(s)”

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  1. Hi Philip, I’m a bit surprised there doesn’t appear to be one camera that is in continuous recording mode, ala Deadliest Catch (high wide-with deck and cabin mics recording). Other than that I think it’s a good plan. The interviews cutting between the Fs 100 and NEX7 should look okay, much closer than say a little 1/3 inch 2nd camera or something.

    1. I’ll probably use one of the Go Pro’s for that, although with 3-5 seconds to having a great image….

      Still, it would be a good standby when we’re on board.

  2. What are you doing for sound?

    1. Another blog post tomorrow 🙂 Sound is very important.

    1. Thanks Steve.

  3. Did you get Verizon LTE iPads? You can use them as hotspots as well, increasing your available bandwidth, perhaps.

    1. I have one Verizon iPad for the hotspot feature. A second will be on ATT’s network so we have a better chance of being able to log remote from the boat even if one network is weak. On board another ATT data USB modem into the server and a Virgin Mobile Mifi (T-Mobile network) will give us coverage on all major networks. Hopefully, most of the time we’ll have one signal.

      But more on that when I get to that part of the gear story.

  4. Missed this post,

    I own a FS100 and can say with no fear of contradiction it is a fine camera and the image it creates is astonishingly good for such a small and affordable package.

    My only issue with it is focussing with the onboard monitor, the peaking is fairly accurate but you can still miss focus. Firmware 2 has brought better expanded focus tools but when you’ve got one of those golden moments and you’re quickly trying to frame up and focus quickly it is possible to be slightly off. And you only need to be slightly off!

    Some people like the kit lens but I’m not one of them, optically it’s fine but IMHO the zoom ring is incredibly stiff and the focus ring is spongy and a combination that doesn’t work well, for me anyway.

    I much prefer my manual prime Nikon lenses, fast and with accurate focus but I can see swapping out lenses on the high seas an issue. I think I’d be tempted to get a reasonable manual fast wide zoom for the journey something like the 24-70 F2.8 Nikon (if it’s not too heavy). You might be able to get away with a couple of well chosen primes. The camera does reward you for putting the best glass on it for sure.

    The large sensor is both a great strength and an Achilles heel at the same time unless you go for an additional larger higher rez monitor. But that’s more kit more power requirements etc etc.

    For shooting dock stuff I still don’t think you can beat a small sensor camera as you’re guaranteed everything is in focus and it’ll have a parfocal lens.

    Maybe it’s just me having spent the vast majority of my career shooting in a certain way and being taken out of my comfort zone with the FS100. But there is no question it is a fabulous camera and you’ll get some drop dead gorgeous images.

    Presumably you’ll be attempting to tie up GPS metadata with the iPad logging app GPS tags too Philip?

    Personally I’d avoid the ND Faders just replicate the NDs in the FS700 and swap them over as needed. Much over 50mm and the faders soften the image and they make skin tones dead and take the life out of the sky. I have the Genus fader and I avoid shooting people with it. Again, swings and roundabouts!

    1. Really appreciate the FS 100 use and ND insight. That’s always valuable.

      Yes, GPS metadata is part of the logging app. Unfortunately the NEX 7 doesn’t do GPS – about the only downside I’ve found to that camera.

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