The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.

Supercell-panoramaWell I’ve just returned home from NAB and a week of Tornado Chasing in the USA. For the Tornado chasing I was shooting in 4K using my Sony F5. I’ve shot run and gun with my F3 and FS700 in the past when shooting air-shows and similar events. But this was very different. Tornado chasing is potentially dangerous. You often only have seconds  to grab a shot which involves leaping out of a car, quickly setting up a tripod and camera and then framing and exposing the shot. You often only have time for one 30 second shot before you have to jump back into the car and move on out ahead of the storm. All of this my be happening in very strong winds and rain. The storms I chased last week had inflow winds rushing into them at 50+ MPH.

The key to shooting any thing fast moving, like this, is having whatever camera kit your using well configured. You need to be able to find the crucial controls for exposure and focus quickly and easily. You need to have a way of measuring and judging exposure and focus accurately. In addition you need a zoom lens that will allow you to get the kinds of shots you need, there’s no time to swap lenses!

For my storm chasing shoot I used the Sony F5 with R5 recorder. This was fitted with a Micron bridge plate as well as a Micron top cheese plate and “Manhandle”. Instead of the Sony viewfinder I used an Alphatron viewfinder as this has a waveform display for exposure. My general purpose lens was a Sigma 18-200mm f3.5-f6.5 stabilised lens with a Canon mount. To control the iris I used a MTF Effect iris control box. For weather protection a CamRade F5/F55 Wetsuit. The tripod I used for this shoot was a Miller 15 head with a set of Carbon Fibre Solo legs.

Storm chasing with a PMW-F5
Storm chasing with a PMW-F5

Overall I was pleased with the way this setup worked. The F5’s ergonomics really help as the logical layout makes it simple to use. The 18-200mm lens is OK. I wish it was faster for shooting in low light but for the daytime and dusk shots, f3.5 (at the wide end) is OK. The F5 is so sensitive that it copes well even with this slow lens. The CamRade wetsuit is excellent. Plenty of clear windows so you can see the camera controls and a well tailored yet loose fit that allows you to get easy access to the camera controls. I’ve used Miller Solo legs before and when you need portability they can’t be beaten. The are not quite as stable as twin tube legged tripods, but for this role they are an excellent fit. The Miller 15 head was also just right. Not too big and bulky, not too small. The fluid motion of the head is really smooth.

Storm Chasing in the USA with the PMW-F5
Storm Chasing in the USA with the PMW-F5

So what didn’t work? Well I used the Element Technica Micron bridge plate. I really like the Micron bridge plate as it allows you to re-balance the camera on the tripod very quickly. But it’s not really designed for quick release, it’s a little tricky to line up the bridge plate with the dovetail so I ended up removing and re-fitting the camera via the tripod plate which again is not ideal. The Micron Bridge plate is not really designed for this type of application, when I go back storm chasing in May I’ll be using a  baseplate that locks into a VCT-14 quick release plate, not sure which one yet, so I have some investigating to do.  The VCT-14 is not nearly as stable or as solid as the Micron, but for this application speed is of the essence and I’m prepared to sacrifice a little bit of stability. The Micron bridge plate is better suited to film style shooting and in that role is fantastic, it’s just not the right tool for this job.

Rainbow under a severe thunderstorm.
Rainbow under a severe thunderstorm.

The MTF-Effect unit is needed to control the aperture of the Canon mount lens, it also powers the optical image stabiliser. But it’s a large square box. I had it mounted on the top of the camera, not in the best place. I need to look at where to mount the box. I’m actually considering re-housing the unit in a custom made hand grip so I can use it to hold the camera with my left hand and have iris control via a thumbwheel. I also want to power it from one of the camera’s auxiliary outputs rather than using the AA batteries internally. The other option is the more expensive Optitek lens mount which I’m hoping to try out soon.  I’m also getting a different lens. The Sigma was fine, but I’m going to get a Sigma 18-250mm (15x) f3.5-f6.5 for a bit more telephoto reach. The other option I could have used is my MTF B4 adapter and a 2/3″ broadcast zoom, but for 4K the Tamron will have better resolution than an HD lens. If I was just shooting HD then the broadcast lens would probably be the best option. After dark I swapped to my Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 for general purpose shooting and this worked well in low light but with the loss of telephoto reach, I need to look into a fast long lens but these tend to be expensive. If you have deep enough pockets the lens to get would probably be the Fujinon Cabrio 19-90 T2.9, but sadly at the moment my budget is blown and my pockets are just not that deep. The Cabrio is very similar to an ENG broadcast lens in that it has a servo zoom, but it’s PL mount and very high resolution. Another lens option would be the Canon CN-E30-105mm T2.8, but overall there isn’t a great deal of choice when it comes down to getting a big zoom range and large aperture at the same time, in a hand-held package. If I was working with a full crew then I would consider using a much larger lens like the Arri Alura 18-80 or Angenieux Optimo 24-290, but then this is no longer what I would consider run and gun and would require an assistant to set up the tripod while I bring out the camera.

A Supercell thunderstorm looking like a flying saucer.
A Supercell thunderstorm looking like a flying saucer.

From an operating point of view one thing I had to do was to keep reminding myself to double check focus. If you think focus is critical in HD, then it’s super critical for 4K. Thunderstorms are horrid things to try and focus on as they are low contrast and soft looking. I had to use a lot of peaking as well as the 1:1 pixel function of the Alphatron viewfinder, one of the neat things about the Alphatron is that peaking continues to work even in the 1:1 zoom mode. As I was shooting raw and using the cameras Cine EI mode to make exposure simpler I turned on the Look Up Tables on the HDSDI outputs and used the P1 LUT. I then exposed using the waveform monitor keeping my highlights (for example the brighter clouds) at or lower than 100%. On checking the raw footage back this looks to have worked well. Quite a few shots needed grading down by 1 to 1.5 stops, but this is not an issue as there is so much dynamic range that the highlights are still fine and you get a cleaner, less noisy image. When shooting raw with the F5 and F55 cameras I’d rather grade down than up. These cameras behave much more like  film cameras due to the massive dynamic range and raw recording, so a little bit of overexposure doesn’t hurt the images as it would when shooting with standard gammas or even log. Grading down (bringing levels down) results in lower noise and a cleaner image.

Frame grab from the F5 of a Supercell storm with a grey funnel cloud beneath.
Frame grab from the F5 of a Supercell storm with a grey funnel cloud beneath.

So you can run and gun in an intense fast moving environment with a large sensor camera. It’s not as easy as with a 2/3″ or 1/2″ camera. You have to take a little more time double checking your focus. The F5 is so sensitive that using a F3.5-F6.5 lens is not a huge  problem. A typical 1/2″ camera (EX1, PMW-200) is rated at about 300 ISO and has an f1.8 lens. The F5 in Cine EI mode is 2000 ISO, almost 3 stops more sensitive. So when you put an f3.5 lens on, the F5 ends up performing better in low light, even at f6.5 it’s only effectively one stop less sensitive. For this kind of subject matter you don’t want to be at f1.8 – f2.8 with a super 35mm sensor anyway as the storm scenes and shots involved work better with a deep focus range rather than a shallow one.

Having watched the footage from the shoot back in HD on a large screen monitor I am delighted with the quality of the footage. Even in HD it has better clarity than I have seen in any of my previous storm footage. This is I believe down to the use of a 4K sensor and the very low noise levels. I’d love to see the 4K material on a 4K monitor. It certainly looks good on my Mac’s retina display. Hopefully I’ll get back out on the plains and prairies of Tornado Alley later in May for some more storm chasing. Anyone want to join me?


8 thoughts on “The practicalities of fast run and gun shooting with a large sensor camera.”

  1. Just get the Sony SCL-Z18x140 lens and 90% of the run and gun issues with F3/F5 large sensors disappear. It’s a very misunderstood lens, but perfect for many types of jobs where time is the issue.

    1. Yes indeed Paul. Very good point. This is exactly where the SCL-Z18x140 works. My only reservation is it’s a lot of money to pay for a re-engineered DSLR lens (possibly based on the Sigma 18-250 which costs approx $600/£400). If it was in the $2K to $4K area I would be highly tempted but at $10k it’s a bit too expensive for what it is IMHO.

  2. What about using a Nikon 18-300mm DX lens f3.5.
    Then you don’t need to mess with an external aperture control
    or changing your stop when you change your focal length.
    It not an ideal lens, but any lens with that focal length range is going to have issues…Like scoping.

    When using a dovetail system and I am in a hurry,
    I leave the dovetail on and just snap it into the tripod with the tripod plate only.

    Also I am curious. Is your Tornado shoot going to be shown in theaters?
    Why not shoot in 2K or Quad and Slog?

    Im all for a better Image, (you get more color space with the F55 in 4k),
    but I don’t understand how shooting in 4k with the F5 for TV is needed or useful unless you plan on zooming in on what you have already shot. After all it will be shown in 2k…for TV.

    How did you deal with all that Media data in the field?
    512 GB for per hour of footage!
    How is your client dealing with it?

    I’m not trying to be argumentative.
    Im just not sold on 4k yet…for TV.
    It’s not being broadcast anywhere in the world….according to Sony.

    Keep up writing great articles!

    1. All valid points.

      Using Nikon lenses is certainly an option. It’s one I tried, but I just found the reversed focus direction of Nikon lenses too confusing. I’ve been using lenses that focus to infinity anti-clockwise that I’m programmed to work a lens that way instinctively. You could use a reversing follow focus to sort that out, but I just want all my lenses to work the same way and I want to standardise on one mount. As a result of this shoot I have developed a small handgrip that contains the electronics to control an EF lenses iris via a thumb wheel and connects to a second handgrip with a thumbwheel for focus. This gives me a nice pair of handgrips with which I can control the lens.

      Managing the 4k raw data in the field was not an issue. I have enough media to shoot for 2 hours, for this shoot I did not shoot more than 90 mins in a single day. At the end of the day I just copied the files to a pair of 1TB usb3 hard drives. Each drive costing approx $100. Yes, it is more expensive than more highly compressed codecs, but the post production flexibility is incredible.

      If you shoot 2K bayer raw you will not achieve full HD resolution. You need to shoot at about 2.5k – 3k raw to get full HD. Shooting in 4k raw results in a really beautiful HD image. The footage from this trip, even when “only” viewed in HD is sharper and contains more detail than I have seen before from similar HD shoots.

      4K tests are being broadcast in Europe, but no-one has the decoders to watch it. 4K may not be driven by traditional broadcasting but by online viewing, streaming and downloads. The way we watch content is changing, more and more content is watch via laptops, tablets etc. Many laptops and tablet have screens that are higher than HD resolution (retina displays etc). When you sit with one of these devices just 50cm/20″ from your eyes you can clearly see the difference between HD and 4K.

      I sell my footage as stock footage to many people. I’ve had many shots in feature films and movies as well as BBC, Nat Geo and Discovery productions. I’m already starting to see enquiries from some of these clients for 4K as they are starting work on productions today that A: Will take a year or more to complete and B: Will have a shelf life of many years, sometimes as much as 10 years. It only took about 4 years to go from discussing HD on forums etc to HD becoming the standard for mid and high quality TV production, even if it wasn’t actually being broadcast in HD.

  3. Hi Alister,

    have you ever tried working with older Canon FD-Lenses?
    Because the scl-zoom-lens doesn´t work until now on the F5/55 I´m thinking to use my old FD-Lenses (and hope, the quality is good enough for 4K). In this setting you don´t need any control-box.

    Best regards,


    1. Optically older FD lenses should be fine, but there is not so much choice these days.

  4. Thanks, Alister, for a very informative summary of your experience in the field. A lot of it sounds relevant for shooting in the field even with the F3. I also use the MTF EF mount, and will be interested in hearing about your adaptations. I use a flexible arm mount and position the box at the back side of the camera, for easier access. I also plan to use the new Odessy from CD, and I’m wondering what camera rain cover would work with the F3 or F5 and a monitor/recorder on the back that would let me see the monitor clearly.

    One other question, do you use a specific service for selling your stock footage, or directly to clients? Wondering how and where to sell nature stock footage.

    Thanks again for sharing your valuable experience!

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