Underwater cameramen Dan Beecham and Charles Maxwell, based in Cape Town, South Africa, recently acquired Sony’s PMW-F55 4K digital cinema camera, along with a Gates underwater housing. They put the rig to the test in their explorations of the Atlantic depths just off the coast of the mother city. Screen Africa asked them to assess their experience with the camera.
Screen Africa: Firstly, some background on the work you do. What were
you planning to do and what needs did you have as far as your camera equipment
Beecham: Charles and I decided to partner up a year or so ago and invest in a 4K camera system together. Our work is all based in, on and around the water but for a variety of different projects – from shooting and managing our own stock footage library, to shooting for features, commercials and high-end natural history productions for the BBC, Nat Geo, Discovery and other networks internationally.
We needed a camera that would suit all of these purposes. At the time, the F55 was the new kid on the block and we liked the look of the system as well as the ability to get after-sales service locally should there be any issues with the camera.
What made the F55 your choice? What features and functionalities does it
have that made it the right camera for the job?
Beecham: There were a number of reasons that we decided the F55 was the camera for us. Simple things such as ND filters, XLR inputs and a global shutter are fantastic features on the F55. They are things we are used to take for granted on video cameras, but have been lost from many camera models over recent years.
The F55 is also a highly modular camera, but retaining some of the important hardware traditionally found on video cameras was a good move by Sony. When you do need things like ND filters and you are using a camera that does not have them built in, it can mean a lot of extra expense, gear and hassle – it also means more items that can be lost, forgotten or broken.
Also, having the option to shoot 4K internally using the XAVC codec, or externally with the RAW recorder gives us huge flexibility. We can shoot 4K externally and 2K internally simultaneously – the 2K files are used to start viewing rushes immediately and doing rough assemblies, the 4K RAW is kept for the final assembly/on-line.
All of this, as well as the 14-stop dynamic range, the wide colour gamut of the camera and how well it performs in low-light were what helped make it so attractive to us for underwater work.
Obviously underwater use comes with its share of unique handling and operation needs and challenges. How did your rig enable you to cope with these?
Beecham: This is really down to engineering work of the guys at Gates Underwater products in San Diego, who design and build the underwater housings that we use.
People are often shocked by the cost of underwater housings, but engineering a product that allows full access to the camera controls (including full menu access, ND filters etc) as well as being reliable and having high quality optics, does not come cheap. There’s no point having such a fantastic camera and lens stuck behind sub-standard optics, degrading the image. Our housing can accommodate a range of lenses, from DSLR glass such as the Tokina 11-16mm (our workhorse lens) to Zeiss or Arri primes.
The Gates housing is built so that you can trim the buoyancy underwater by adding or removing small lead weights to different points on the housing (depending on how you have the camera set up). We have our housing set to be ever so slightly negatively buoyant, so moving the camera around underwater and keeping it steady is very easy. The housing has a seal-check system; we pull a vacuum on the housing before taking it in the water, so we know there is no way that water can enter the housing.
We’ve also got our system set up with a surface feed cable – important for live broadcast work or set work where a director needs to be able to see what the underwater camera is getting.
Can you describe a particular shot or set-up that really allowed the F55 to
show its mettle?
Beecham: Charles was on a shoot earlier in the year diving some slightly deeper reefs than we had previously used the camera in. The conditions meant low light (because of the depth) and the visibility was poor and the water green. Often when you film in very dirty, green water you normally end up with very unattractive pictures because in underwater filming, as you go deeper, water filters out the red end of the natural light spectrum. By shooting in RAW, we are able to get corrected colours into the footage, which are true to life. Had we been shooting with traditional video, we never would have been able to recover these colours in post-production.
What would you describe as the pros of this camera?
Beecham: A combination of the F55’s low light capabilities, wide colour gamut and dynamic range are really what makes it a winner for us. Also, the fact that we are able to shoot in HD (or 2K) and we do not worry about the image being cropped or “windowed’, is fantastic. Wide-angle lenses are important in underwater work – we use them all the time as underwater you have to remain close to your subject, if you back away you shoot through more water, degrading the image. One of the golden rules in underwater work is “get as close as you can, then get closer’. Much of our work is with large animals, so again, wide angles are really important for us. Not having to worry about the sensor cropping if we shoot at lower resolutions is a real bonus, we can swap between resolutions with no impact on the coverage of our lenses.
What are the cons of this camera in your experience?
Beecham: I admit to feeling a little limited when it comes to being able to shoot at higher frame rates in 4K – the F55 shoots up to 60fps @ 4K and 240FPS @ 2K. It would be nice to see an upgrade in the future that will allow us to shoot higher frame rates, ideally 120fps at 4K. For natural history work sometimes producers want everything shot in slow motion just so they have the option to use it if they need it.
The addition of a proper record cache would also be very welcome.
All things considered, how did the F55 shape up in terms of meeting your
Beecham: Overall we’ve been really impressed with both the functionality and the results from the F55. The camera produces really stunning underwater images. I have used other 4K camera systems underwater and as much as the footage looked great, it lacked “a certain something’ that the F55 produces.
The footage we are shooting on our local dives around Cape Town has an ethereal, otherworldly quality, which I think simply comes from the amount of detail it captures and its wide colour gamut. It really feels like now we are showing people the things we get to see on our dives and that we are getting much closer to them actually experiencing it themselves because of the immersive characteristics of the footage…and we all thought HD pictures looked good!