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Bye bye birdie

I’ve moved all my blogs and websites into one new site that bears my name: henceforth, this blog is deader than an ex-parrot. Thanks for stopping by.



HDSLR tripods on a budget – carbon fibre stills tripods

Happy New Year!

May it be a productive one 🙂

I wish I could claim that I’ve been very productive but hey, it was the holidays and holidays are for resting. I took hundreds of photos and in fact have generally been focussing more on stills than video in the last month or so. As a result, this blog has been fairly quiet. However, watch my Flickr side bar to your right, as I’ll be uploading some Christmas pics. The 60D is a terrific camera and I’m slowly learning how to take better photos with it. It’s quite amazing what these cameras are capable of…unthinkable only a few years ago really!

a fancy video tripod for DSLRs


Anyways, the topic of this post is tripods. Anyone who has attempted to shoot hand-held video on a DSLR has probably been shocked at the sheer amount of camera shake that sneaks into our otherwise gorgeous footage. Tripods are probably the most underestimated piece of gear from a beginner’s point of view. They’re stationary, cumbersome and unexciting, plus there are millions of them! They start at $20 bucks or so and go up to the thousands really quite quickly.  Very quickly! What’s the deal?

Gah! More hours of research!

Yep, hours. I started with the idea that I could find a hybrid tripod, one that I could use for both photography and video, as that’s what my DSLR can do. It also had to be light enough for me to take on my big Europe trip this year, strong and cheap. Then I woke up.

As far as I can tell, I’m dreaming. At least partly, as my dream tripod doesn’t exist. I was thinking that I could buy a photography tripod like a Manfrotto 055XPRO or the very cool Benro Travel Angel and whack a video head on top, done! Unfortunately, that won’t work as well as I’d hoped due to a problem people on call helicoptering: when you pan with your fluid head in one direction you’re OK, but try the other side and you’re unscrewing your head (or something along those lines, I still don’t fully understand what helicoptering is or does, but apparently it’s a spanner in the works. Engineering solutions apparently exist but my engineering skills don’t so I was back to the drawing board.

I had to wake up to the reality that I will eventually have to buy two tripods, one for my photos and one for video. The problem is that I want both, now, and that I only have about $250 to spend. While it’s possible to go ultra-cheap, I think I’d ultimately be disappointed with flimsy gear that breaks if you look at it the wrong way.

Also, in Australia, we pay a heavy premium on pretty much everything, especially heavy bulky things like tripods. This leaves eBay and similar online offerings that peddle goods straight from China or go retail and pay through the nose.

I’ll split this post into two parts, nice light strong and cheap stills tripods and cheap-as-chips, heavy-duty video offerings.

Stills tripods

Pretty early on, I decided that I wanted a carbon fibre tripod. They’re light and strong and particularly good at absorbing vibration while maintaining rigidity. The first brand that I found was a Chinese knock-off of the much more pricey Gitzo brand. The legend goes that Gitzo went to China to look for a place to manufacture tripods and soon after, Benro started pumping out cheap clones 😉

Anyway, the model range that I’m most interested in is called Travel Angel. The cool thing about them is that you can detach one of the legs and turn it into a monopod! Also, the reports/reviews around the web on Benro stuff has been very positive, with only a few negative points (not as strong as the much more expensive Gitzo, both the carbon fibre tubes and the magnesium plate that legs are attached to) Models to look out for in particular are the C-2681TB and the almost-identical C-2691TB.

The Benro C-2691-8

Detachable monopod - ingenious!

The difference between the two models is that the 81 has four leg sections whereas the 91 has 5. The advantage of 4 sections is rigidity (the fewer sections, the stronger the tripod) but it’s longer when folded up and doesn’t extend as far the 5-sectioned 91 model. I’m sure both would be awesome either way. I’m leaning towards the cheaper, longer and more compact 2691 personally and it will probably the be the next thing on my gear list. Not bad at all at ~$350 delivered, compare with Gitzos that cost at least 2x as much!

This model comes with the B-1 ballhead which is rated for 12kg! Even if it only holds 4kg, it’s a strong enough for me…alas, ball heads are less than suitable for video and therefore this will have to be restricted to stills work or non-moving videos.

Since the Benros have come out, there have also been a few copies of the copies flooding the market. In particular, I’m referring to Triopo and Fotopro. has some of both on offer. People tend to praise them less and apparently parts just randomly fall off if you’re not careful! $100 cheaper but personally, I’d rather go with Benro.

Alright, tomorrow or so I’ll tackle video tripods. I know a lot less about them but I’ll give it a shot anyways.


The Canon 60D for beginner film-making (vs. the 7D, D7000 and the 550D/T2i)

I often see people on forums asking which camera they should get to shoot video with. I’ve also asked myself this question a few times and it’s quite difficult to say which camera is most suitable for someone starting out in HDSLR film-making. They are all great cameras and will do the job well, each with its own strengths and limitations.

HDSLR video is something I’m very excited about. If I hadn’t been interested in video and simply wanted to take pictures, the D7000 would have been the natural choice, seeing that I already own a couple of Nikon lenses. It sits between the 60D and 7D in terms of pretty much anything. It’s possibly even the better stills camera than the 7D if you’re not into sports/wildlife photography. I’m not. I mostly do portraits, plants/fungi, food, the odd landscape and am interested in getting into macro work as well. Obviously, general travel photography will be one of the main priorities as well.

If Nikon updated the firmware of the D7K to include 25p/30p@1080p and 50/60p@720p like the Canons then this would again be a no-brainer. Alas, I’m not too hopeful there. Also, pricing in Australia looks also fairly ridiculous at the moment (but those prices are expected to fall after the holidays). Although some of the test footage that I’ve seen looks very impressive, especially the low-light stuff, frame-rates other than 24p are pretty important. It does have AF, but from what I can gather, a lot of work is needed in the implementation there and that anyone who is serious about their shooting is doing it manually anyway.

Which brings me to the Canons.

The 550D, 60D and the 7D all essentially have the same sensor (18MP APS-C sensor, with some very minor differences) and pretty much the same settings when it comes to video: the same frame rates, resolutions and video quality. So why not just get the cheapest?

Well, I was pretty much set on the 550D until I actually picked one up in a shop. It felt really plasticky and toy-like, even though it is a serious camera, capable of producing amazing results. I was used to a Nikon D70, a nice, heavy camera that feels right in the hand and has a top LCD that always displays the settings you have dialled in. The 550D doesn’t have one, though, and also it lacks the important wheel at the back that lets you dial in exposure compensation and other useful goodies. These may seem like small complaints (weight, LCD and back dial) but they were crucial to me, YMMV.

The 7D has things all those things and more, like 8fps, a super-sturdy magnesium-alloy body and micro AF adjust which I doubt I’ll ever need, but it’s built like a tank and will probably suffer any kind of abuse I’d throw at it. It’s rather exxy though (A$1.4K grey, A$1.9K local), plus it doesn’t let you adjust the gain of the (abysmal) internal or even the external mic.

The 60D, on the other hand, does pretty much everything I need in a HDSLR (except FF, but that’s out of the question financially anyways) and appeals because of its still relatively low price (less than A$1K grey, and about A$1.4K local) and some nice video features like the swivel screen and adjustable audio gain. It also feels nice, although not as nice as the 7D and the D7K probably will feel.

So for all these reasons, I think that 60D is an excellent camera. It feels great in your hand and is nicely balanced with a slightly heavier lens (like the Sigma 30mm/f1.4), has some very nifty features, such as the swivel screen, top LCD, back dial and adjustable audio gain and it’s still affordable. Personally, I think you can’t go wrong with it.



and he learns how to fade!

Well, waddayaknow? I finally taught myself how to fade in and out rather than just making brutal jumpy cuts! Naturally, I completely overdid it and there is now no clip that doesn’t fade around somehow. I’ve also figured out how to add titles. I’ve added more than I should have too, of course.

Yes, it’s been a revelatory day.

The actual footage is not very interesting, I’m afraid…I’ll get to that later. The AV guy at work asked me to shoot some test footage with the 60D, so I obliged and dutifully managed to capture some mundane scenes around the house, sans stabilisation and as shaky as ever. I’m starting to get a wee bit better though.

Editing this took about 3 hours, the first 1-2 of which I spent trying to figure out how to fade in and out, etc.

The music is a beautiful piece by Kaki King called Neanderthal.

Let me know what you think!



Thoughts on the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM for video work

Sigma 30mm on a Canon 60D

The kids

Following the lens recommendations of both my HDSLR patron saints, Messrs Leitner and Bloom, I went a head and purchased a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 for a few reasons:

  1. It’s fast. And I mean really fast, at least of paupers like myself who can’t afford red-ringed pieces of glass like other luminaries. At f/1.4, you can comfortably shoot indoors, often without special lighting if you bump up the ISO a bit. Great!
  2. It’s affordable. Well, compared to L glass and Zeiss primes’s not as cheap as old MF glass off eBay, which can be had for less than $100, but I still think it delivers excellent image quality for the price tag.
  3. It’s a standard lens, at least on a crop sensor camera like the 60D. For some reason, I like the fact that you can’t zoom with this lens, as it makes you think more about composition (unless you’re so lazy that you’ll just snap it anyway and hope for the best). The field of view is similar to that of the human eye in that it more or less shows what you see. Photographers have only had this kind of lens (the 35mm film equivalent of a 50mm lens) available for decades last century and I’m planning on following in their footsteps, no matter how clumsily!

However, it’s not without its drawbacks. The biggest one for video would have to be that it is an AF lens. Drawback, you say? Yes, it is for video on cameras like the 60D, on which you have to rely on manual focus most of the time.

Manual focus lenses have a lot more leeway between focus distances (sometimes called ‘ long focus throw’ I think but don’t quote me on that!). These days, few people rely on MF and therefore only few manufacturers still build lenses without AF (a few notable exceptions are German lens makers extraordinaires Carl Zeiss and the Korean Samyang (which also sells as Opteka, Rokinon, Bower and half a dozen other names).

So what about the Sigma?

Well, it’s a great stills lens. AF is fast and, at least on my copy, accurate. However, when I try to manually focus during video I often ‘jump’ past the focus point. It takes only the smallest adjustment to (a millimetre turn sometimes) to completely render your subject OOF (out-of-focus), especially wide open (at f/1.4). At the lens’ MFD (minimum focus distance) of 40cm, this equates to a tiny depth of field of 9mm! Doesn’t give you much room to play with…

PS: I have a handy little iPhone app called the Simple DoF Calculator which does the same as any other web-based DoF calculator, except quickly and on my phone. 🙂

Also, it’s an APS-C lens only. If I ever decide to move to full-frame in the very, very distant future, I won’t be able to use the Sigma on the 5DMk3.

All things considered, though, I think that this lens will remain permanently attached to my camera for a long time to come. Well, at least until I get my hands on the Tokina 11-16mm ;P

Update: I just had a play with a Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 today (the non-VC version) which was my alternative to the Sigma. While it’s a nice lens, I’m glad I went with the Sigma instead. It’s quieter and a full two stops faster, which in my book is worth a lot. The focusing ring had basically no resistance which was a huge change from the Sigma…strange at first but actually quite pleasant. It was also a huge contrast from the zoom ring which almost refused to budge. Nice lens and a good alternative to Canon’s super-expensive 17-55mm f/2.8 but yeah, go the Sigma instead 🙂


fumbling with editing software

As if getting the exposure settings and focus right as well avoiding amphetamine-like camera shake wasn’t hard enough! Even if I managed to get the pretty raw footage I’ve been lusting after for so long, I still wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Enter the wide wild world of video editing software.

iMovie, Final Cut Pro/Express, Premiere Pro/Elements…there are quite a few to choose from and I’m sure there are tons more. I bought myself a copy of FCE off eBay for the bargain basement price of $49, only to find out that Apple decided to not support 1080p and a few other things I really would have liked as well. As a consequence, my playtime with Final Cut Express has been shorter than how long it takes you to say ‘consumer iProducts make more money than professional software’.

My first ‘short’, if you could even call it that, was therefore made by adding three clips to iMovie and clicking ‘export’.

The simplicity of it amazed me but the final product was also no editing masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination.  However, I got a good idea of what is possible and even a tiny bit of colour-grading didn’t seem to hard to achieve.

Final Cut Pro would obviously be a nice choice, despite the lack of x64 support and a few other niggly bits, but at $700 minimum it’s also out of my reach for now so it’s just going to remain a distant dream.

premiere pro logo

I love trials

Likewise, Adobe Premiere Pro CS5, which demands a similarly prohibitive price tag, is also out of the picture. However, it also comes with a nice free trial option, which lets you install it on your machine and run unrestrictedly for 30 days…per email address! My  temporary ghetto solution for now is to just run on empty with PP until I run of email addresses to run trials with. So far so good! I’ve been watching a few how-to vids over at which have been enormously helpful. Chad Perkins is a fast-talking yank who manages to succinctly bring his points across in a way I like. Highly recommended!

I’ve shot a few more bits and pieces over the last couple of weeks, including a wedding which I’ve been using as my trial project for cutting together something resembling a coherent wedding vid. So far, I haven’t had much luck but I’ll post it as soon as I’m more or less happy with what I’ve assembled.

Stay tuned,