Flying the flag
Slower drive rates like 2.5fps, 3fps or 4fps do have real uses. Here is a sequence taken of a flag fluttering in the wind – I wanted to get a single still frame with the flag well-disposed, not covering the weathervane, spread out and visible but still clearly frozen when flying. To do so, I partly timed the shots, but also took two or three at time – a brief burst:
You can see from this that the second frame gave me the result I wanted. Here, the sequence shooting serves to simplify a process. You might decide that this can also work with people and expressions. Just before writing this, I had the chance to talk to Callie Shell, TIME photographer on the Barack Obama campaign and winner of the First Prize for Story, People in the News category World Press Photographer of the Year 2009. Callie does not shoot sequences, she works with just a couple of prime lenses (50mm and what she called 30mm – from the look of the pictures, I think she meant 20mm) on two Canon 5D bodies. “Sometimes I think I have taken plenty of shots and I find I have only taken three frames”, she said.
I asked Callie about the machine-gun shooting tactics of the press crew. “I think they are very nervous – they all have mortgages to pay, and they are all worried that someone else will catch a shot and they won’t.” Apparently Obama didn’t like the rattle of dozens of 1D MkIIs (perhaps a reason why Callie gained his confidence and was able to accompany him everywhere, then spend three months documenting his early days in the White House). He would tell them to slow down, they wouldn’t be ejected, they had time to get good pictures.
Callie came away with some classic images (TIME did a souvenir book, President Obama: The Path to the White House, published by David & Charles, ISBN-13 is 978-0-7153-3341-9 – it’s worth getting hold of a copy to look at). Motordrive tactics just were not needed.
Video freeze frame
I have a solution to the action problem. It’s my Nikon D5000. Unlike the consumer level Canon video-DSLRs, the Nikon can be forced to do something very un-cinematic and use really fast shutter speeds for video. Just by setting a a wide aperture in A mode, you can get 1/1000th or whatever you need. Combined with Nikon’s highly detailed video encoding (larger files, but SO much more detail than Canon – like a Fine Res JPEG compared to Basic Res) you can actually get 24fps 1280 x 720 pixel still photos from the D5000.
This is a three-frame clip at 24fps from the D5000 set up to expose at 1/640th (something the Canon EOS 500D can’t do, but the EOS 5D MkII has been fixed via firmware to enable). You can click it to open the full size version and see the level of detail achieved in each frozen movie frame. It’s good enough for magazine reproduction and indeed, we have done it – I’ve had successful half page repros from D5000 video frames. That is also enough to make a good 5 x 7″ photo print or run to half a page in a newspaper.
Now that is why I would like Sony to put video – preferably 1080p to the same compression standard as Nikon’s 720p! – in an Alpha. 30fps or 60fps would be even better. When you analyse motion at video frame rates, you see that many more stages in any action are clearly visible. At these frame rates, unlike 5fps or 7fps, you really can shoot a burst or a movie clip and be fairly sure of getting exactly the critical moment you want.
I believe that Sony will release a DSLR capable of exactly this function within the next 12 months. I am told it may achieve not 5fps, but 50fps – and the resolution will be higher than video, and the images will be still captures. It was half-expected for this current round of new products, but it’s destined to come in an A700 replacement, not something less. I don’t have any information on the likely burst count at such high capture speeds and it may be only a few frames, something like 1/5th of a second window producing 10 shots. This future is the reason why so many Sony insiders are saying ‘just you wait and see!’ and not worrying too much about the knocks they are taking for the 2009 new DSLR release programme.
Anyone reading this who uses a camera with 8fps, 9fps, 11fps or whatever will say ‘nonsense, my sequence shooting rate is perfect for action’. In a way they will be right, since whatever is the fastest rate you can get is clearly also your best choice if that’s how you prefer to shoot. The same people will often say they don’t need video, without noticing that HD video is very much like the old UHS mode of the Konica Minolta Dimage 7Hi – or similar new burst capture modes on consumer digitals. We could shoot 320 x 240 JPEGs at 15 frames per second seven or eight years ago. 1920 x 1080 JPEGs at 20 or 30 frames a second gets called video, but if the in-camera processing and the file format are properly handled (as Nikon have done) it becomes as good as a motordrive sequence for newspaper and web reporting purposes.
Click this to open another single screen-captured still from the D5000. Try printing it out around 6 x 4″, 7 x 5″ or maybe larger. DSLR HD video is not just about shooting movies. Sony needs to come to this party very soon.