Hacked Consumer Cam Challenges $60,000 Pro Rigs

“When you taste wines, you never do blind tastings. You’d be terrified.” Francis Ford Coppola
Our Russ Johnson must be the only travel editor to carry a hacked camera, which Francis Ford Coppola chose, in a blind shootout, over one costing 100 times as much.

When you taste wines, you never do blind tastings. You’d be terrified.
Vintner/director Francis Ford Coppola

Photo credit: Russ Johnson, Strasbourg Cathedral taken with Panasonic GH2 hacked, 1080p frame resized for web

What happens when you put a bunch of top-flight directors and cinematographers, including Francis Ford Coppola, in a screening room for a blind camera tasting featuring appellations including a 2011 vintage Apple iPhone and a Sony F65 CineAlta (worth $60,000+)? Let’s put it this way:  As with wines, camera tastes are subjective. Camera snobs may ululate about their Canons, as everyone knows, and man, cinematographers drool over their RED Epics, Arris and Sonys.

But Coppola lays claim to the humble $750 Panasonic GH2. Affordable and capable, it’s my tool, too. Check out the results of Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout 2012. In a blind test, researchers pitted smartphones to top drawer pro cameras to a blind taste test. Check this out.

Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout 2012 – Part One: Starting With Darkness from Steve Weiss on Vimeo.

As you can see from the video, the line isn’t just blurring. It’s gone practically. Apple iPhone smartphones — with the right cinematographer — take film quality pics. So now it’s all about the photographer. How good is he or she?

Picasso obviously beats the chimp with the paintbrush hands down.

The blind tasting happened in Chicago recently at what sponsor Zacuto USA, the film equipment supplier, called the Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout 2012.

They professionally lit an extremely difficult scene with a combination of outdoor and indoor light. The actors’ faces were mostly in shadow.

They shot the scene over, and over again with eight different cameras and an iPhone. It wasn’t entirely objective as there were nine different directors of photography involved, each adding their own touch. The results, however, looked surprisingly similar. The videos were professionally timed, which means color corrected to standards. The term “timed” comes from film when lab technicians notched the edges of film to determine the time when color printers changed their filters. Today, of course, that is done in software.

The technical quality of digital video often depends on the video capture rate, how many megabits per second are captured to storage, plus the quality of the lens. Interestingly the iPhone shoots at 24mbps, which is in line with many pro and semi-pro cameras such as the Sony FS100. Its sensor and lens focal length, however, are tiny. Every shot is wide angle so you can’t use selective focus to blur out the background.

Panasonic GH2 Camera Hack

Panasonic GH2 Camera Firmware Hack can be found at http://www.personal-view.com

Coppola’s and my chosen camera, the Panasonic GH2, captured video at an astounding 150 mbps for the test and was mated with a motion picture lens, not the lens that came with the camera. It, just as mine, was hacked with a piece of open source firmware that blows its performance far beyond that set by the manufacturer (There is also a hack available for the Panny GF2). And don’t let the interface scare you. Each of the variables has recommended settings.

There are lens adapters available for the GH2 for several systems including Nikon and Canon and motion picture prime lenses. I use a hacked GH2 and a 50 mm F1.4 Nikkor prime lens for razor sharp low-light photography.

The GH2 is mirrorless, very light and has a smaller sensor than a standard DSLR. It also serves as a 16-megapixel still camera but doesn’t need all of those pixels for 1080p HD video. So Panasonic has thoughtfully added a switch that allows the camera to use only a portion of the sensor, in effect doubling the focal length of the lens. In other words, my 14-140 zoom, fully extended, becomes the equivalent of a 560mm birder’s lens, with stabilization to boot. That is one of the reasons I have used this camera for everything from travel videos in exotic places to studio commercials. Its successor, the GH3 is coming and Panasonic has dropped the price of a GH2 body to $750, less than a day’s rental of a pro video camera a few years ago.

To be honest, my favorite, viewing on my computer screen, was the Sony CineAlta F65. Colors were natural and the image really popped. But the difference was subtle and as it costs as much as a Lexus sport model, maybe I’ll stick with my Panasonic, not to mention my old Nissan truck.


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