Using filters, lenses and macrophotography to skew, illume and improve your video.
The average person wanders through life looking at the world’s objects and colors as they really are. But as soon as a new television set enters the home, the controls are adjusted for colors and hues more saturated and vibrant than those in nature. It’s as though the real world isn’t good enough. We think we need to improve it.
This is nothing new. Before color TV and camcorders, film producers established the “gamma” system of measuring color saturation and contrast. Normal coloring was rated 1.0 gamma. On projection, audiences considered it wishy-washy, lacking in sparkle. Only when the gamma was increased by 50 percent to around 1.5 were viewers satisfied.
Film buffs will tell you film always looks better. What they really mean is film has a contrast ratio of around 100:1 while video’s lucky to manage a ratio of 25:1. Film colors should, therefore, always be more subtle.
As videomakers we often search for electronic equipment to help us out. It’s as though we’ve been brainwashed into thinking video can be only improved with a magic box of some kind.
But after the novelty of the box dims, I suspect we return to the simplest, cheapest and possibly the most effective way of manipulating colors-inexpensive photographic filters.
Most photographic dealers stock a wide range of filters and offer an illustrated catalogue displaying prices, styles and sizes.
Two types of filters are available: round filters that screw onto the front of the lens, and square filters that slide into a universal holder attached to the lens with an adaptor. Both systems hold more
than one filter and allow each filter to rotate independently. Square holders also allow filters to be moved up and down.
The universal holder is the most popular system, but before buying make sure the holder won’t obstruct your automatic focus. If the autofocus doesn’t work with converter lenses, it won’t function with filters either.
Externally fitted white balance sensors are unaffected by filters, but with through-the-lens (TTL) systems you need to use the manual presets or the colored filter will cause an incorrect reading.
Some filters are subtle, others artsy and flashy. Here’s a few I consider among the best.
Graduated Neutral Skylight
A screw-on round skylight filter is vital. This apparently clear piece of glass cuts down on haze and protects the lens from dust, grit, fingerprints and damage. Since a lens is very expensive to replace, a skylight filter should be purchased at once and fitted permanently.
Neutral density (ND) filters cut down the light by one to three f-stops. They’re useful for reducing depth of field or preventing underexposure in very bright conditions.
It’s preferable to use an ND filter rather than faster shutter speeds. The filter avoids the jerky moving images created by rapid shuttering. The 5x should be your first ND purchase.
Polarizers eliminate reflections from such shiny surfaces as glass and water. The filter is rotated until the reflections vanish. This can look stunning on still water: boats and other objects without reflections appear to float in the air. Polarizers also darken the sky slightly, making it bluer.
Graduated filters are transparent on the bottom and gradually change to a see-through pastel color on top. If the camcorder is mounted on a tripod and a graduated blue is carefully positioned so the join overlaps a horizon, a blotchy grey sky becomes as blue as the filter. Colors below the horizon will be unaffected. Try amber or tobacco filters for improving or faking sunsets.
Star Center Masks
Color correction filters change the overall hue of the whole frame. Orange adds warmth and produces a cast similar to a sunrise or sunset. Sepia lends an old-fashioned, historical look; blue, coupled with manual underexposure of three stops, simulates a moonlit night.
Star Filters convert points of light into star shapes. These filters are frequently used in pop music videos. The six-point star is most popular.
Diffraction filters are etched with tiny lines that turn shafts of sunlight streaming through trees into prism-style rainbow-colored rays. The image is otherwise unaltered. Very artsy if not overused.
Center spots create a clear center image surrounded by a soft, almost blurry, outer border in white, grey, clear, violet or orange. Good for romantic wedding shots or portrait-style closeups.
Pre-shaped masks produce vignetted shapes-binocular, heart, keyhole, circle and the like. These are suitable only if your camcorder features manual iris or aperture lock. Otherwise the auto exposure will read from the black of the mask and open the iris, causing the subject to become overexposed.
A soft-focus filter coupled with a pale orange filter for closeups will duplicate the soft fuzzy look granted Ingrid Bergman in Gasablanca.
Many filters suitable for still photography don’t always produce satisfactory moving images. Before buying a filter, check the catalogue picture. If you think it will confuse movement, forget it.
Always ensure the lens hood is fitted properly. It prevents light from striking the lens at oblique angles; such light reaches the CCD imaging chip in a diffuse way, causing blacks to appear grey. The result is loss of sharpness.
Sometimes you can achieve more creative, astonishing effects with macro shots. A macro shot magnifies something really small, like a strand of hair, into a screen, filling image the size of a California Redwood.
Viewers react to these shots with awe and excitement. It’s not that they haven’t seen the cratered skin of an orange before. The wonder comes from long association with wildlife and Disney films, where it is assumed such shots were achieved only with highly sophisticated and very expensive equipment. So when somebody with a camcorder shows macro, viewers assume this is no ordinary videomaker.
There’s some truth in this. The world of macro can be complex, but mastering the technique is worth the effort. Practically every production can benefit in some way from extreme closeups.
For instance, your vacation video might begin with closeups of a picture postcard, followed by macro shots of details within. Birthday party and wedding videos could show individual greeting cards, extreme closeups of schmaltzy rhymes, further closeups of individual signatures.
Documentaries might benefit from macro of the wording on documents and newspapers, or an isolated shot of someone in an old photograph.
In fiction the lead might lay something small upon a table; follow with extreme closeup of ring, coin, poison pill, or key. Or try the classic shot of a man looking through a keyhole, followed by a screen-filling red-veined eye, blinking, watering, opening and closing, apparently staring back. Not a pretty sight, but certain to create audience reaction.
On most camcorders, macro mode is entered by manually moving the zoom lever to the end, then pulling the lever past a locking point and into macro scale. Other models may feature a secondary button that must be pressed before the zoom enters macro. In this position the zoom is used for focusing.
Some cameras place the macro scale at the telephoto end of the zoom, but most are located at the wide-angle end. Newer units using inner focus systems can auto-focus from macro to infinity seamlessly and automatically without any special switching.
The advantage of wide-angle macro is that the camcorder lens can be positioned within a few millimeters of a subject while maintaining the depth of field from the front of the lens to infinity.
The closer the lens to the subject the larger the image; but the huge depth of field maintains clear focus. Shooting objects extremely close to the lens, though, may block light.
Macro on the telephoto end of the zoom allows for greater magnification. Unfortunately, every tiny movement or camera tremor is equally magnified. So unless a 8.1 earthquake effect is your goal, use a tripod and operate with remote control.
To focus and frame the subject with tele macro, the camcorder must be placed at the correct distance-usually only a few inches-from the subject.
The zoom lever is locked off and can’t be used to frame the shot. The depth of field is very small. Framing and focusing must be accomplished by positioning the camcorder on a tripod while trying to keep your shadow out of the shot. Sound easy?
Another method for achieving macro images is using one or more supplementary lenses. These are known as closeup lenses, or diopters, and are available in varying degrees of magnifying power.
The higher the figure, the greater the magnification. When two lenses are screwed together, the magnification factors are added. For example, fitting a +2 to a +4 is the same as using one lens rated +6.
My own preference is +2, which renders a wristwatch the size of the screen, and a +3, which does the same to a dime. Using the two together makes a monster of an ant.
To obtain maximum clarity and greatest depth of field, all tele macro and closeup lens shots require bright daylight or supplementary indoor lighting.
With closeup lenses the zoom lever isn’t locked off, so different focal lengths can be used to frame the shot precisely.
Handle with care, as increasing the focal length by increasing the zoom decreases the depth of field. Even in good light the trick is to frame the shot as close as possible to the wide-angle end.
Autofocus works well in conjunction with closeup lenses on some models and not so well on others. The variable is the way a particular auto system works, and whether, at this degree of magnification and proximity to the subject, the image provides “auto readable” information.
I’ll Get Up and Fly Away
Videotaping a flying insect settling on a flower seems to be a remarkable achievement to the uninitiated.
But try this old professional trick:
catch the insect and put it in a small container drilled with breathing holes. Then put the container in a refrigerator for 15 minutes.
This fools the insect into thinking it’s the ice age, and so it begins to hibernate.
Set the camcorder on a tripod and frame and focus a suitable flower. Tip the insect on the flower and start taping because-, after a few seconds, the insect will wake up and fly away.
Such shots can build proper macro-life documentaries. If the right commentary is used it can become comedy.
One word of warning: watching raw macro-nature is not to every viewer’s taste. The sight of a 12-inch-wide spider sucking dry an eight-inch-wide fly can make Jaws seem as scary as pet goldfish.
For indoor shots of title cards, newspapers or Christmas cards, regardless of whether camcorder macro or supplementary closeup lenses are used, additional lighting provides sparkling results. Flat material, such as paper, must be set on something rigid or pinned to the wall. Two photofloods can then be positioned on either side and slightly behind the tripod-mounted camcorder. To avoid reflections, angle the lamps 45 degrees from the card.
Having mastered macro, try making a beetle farm in a sandy-floored glass fishtank. Add some fancy lighting, a few props or miniature model buildings, then try out the colored filters for a sci-fi landscape populated with aliens.
Peter Davison is a professional writer and photographer from England.