Autofocus Frustrations Recording RC Airplanes in Flight

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    • #72008553
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      My passion is recording RC Airplanes in flight. I’m having issues with autofocus in flight.

      My current camera is a Sony FDR-AX53. It had rave reviews when I bought it. Unfortunately, it has been a total disappointment to me. It’s a good camera, but not for me. It likes scenery and large, slow moving objects. RC airplanes are not its friends. My camera hunts for focus so often that I have to discard most of my video. I am SO frustrated with that!

      Another issue I have is the tiny viewfinder. The screen is a paltry .24-inches and the eyecup is smaller than my glasses. The image I see is like looking through a toilet paper tube, or even the wrong end of a binocular. That’s not acceptable to me. Therefore, I’m going to buy a new video camera. I believe that I want professional quality. I could really use your help…

      My new video camera must have the following three features:
      1. Extremely fast and accurate autofocus.
      2. It must have a large viewfinder (preferably over half an inch).
      3. Finally, it must shoot in 4K at 60fps.

      Beyond that, I have few requirements. Professional video cameras do WAY more than I need, but if they provide my three requirements, then i’m onboard. My budget is comfortably at $3,000 USD. Maybe up to $5,000 for the right camera.

      For example, I have been interested in the Panasonic AG-UX180. It is currently on sale at BHPhotoVideo.com for $2,695 and I’m very tempted. A channel on YouTube called “Essential RC” (Essential RC) specializes in 4K video of RC flight. Dominic Mitchell, the owner, uses the UX180 and is very happy with it. His results look excellent to me. However, when I asked him about the autofocus, he was realistic in his answer:

      “Auto-focus is never going to work well for filming RC. On cloudy days, especially, the auto-focus can lose the subject necessitating clipping when editing back at home. The UX180 does have an amazing focus assist feature that makes manual focus much easier. It highlights the in-focus areas of the subject in red while viewing through the viewfinder. Makes it easy to correct while you are panning the cam.”

      Argh! I want a run-and-gun video camera with perfect autofocus. I know, that’s probably the unobtainable holy grail, but a nice cloned chalis would be nice.

      My ears are open to your advice and specific suggestions.

    • #72008568
      wsmith198729wsmith198729
      Participant

      You can find Sony A7RIII; I think you could be satisfied with it.

    • #72008571
      Avatarpaulears
      Participant

      You are 100% correct – your camera takes great pictures of stationary or slow moving things but it’s a camera designed for people who want auto operation, and it’s manual facilities in the focus and exposure department are pretty terrible. Aircraft against a light sky means very precise focus and exposure are needed, and frankly – nobody would attempt autofocus for ground to air shots. Autofocus is a reactive process. The camera needs to be out of focus to correct it and produce sharp edges. A fast moving object means the camera first has to detect it in the frame, then decides if it’s soft – if it is, it guesses if it’s close or far away, and inevitably 50% of the time it gets it wrong – making the image softer before it refocusses and then your object is in a different position in the frame and the process got off again and again!

      This morning had ground to air shots from the BBC, and not an autofocus lens in sight – that’s the cameraman’s responsibility. The other thing is that for autofocus to even work the image has to be stable and cheap bend leg twisting tripods and average fluid heads are simply not up to smooth movement with the lens on a long focal length. With a proper decent zoom lens, focus is not an issue – and the focus point will be a gnats whisker from the infinity position, and with practice pretty easy to manage. Your autofocus goes from the minimum focus point to infinity. 95% of this is NOT going to be in use at all, so searching for sharpness there is pointless.

      Forgive me, but DSLRs are also a poor choice for aviation shooting UNLESS you pair them with a parfocal lens. Zooming out as the plane comes towards you to keep it full frame needs to stay sharp, as does zooming in as they go away from you. Stills lenses are terrible for this. You need a proper video lens and a proper video support system. Handicam style cameras have so poorly managed manual features they’re just rubbish for some kinds of shooting. Grey sky, dark aircraft going fast, and with models, making crazy turns makes some perfectly good cameras simply look terrible, when they’re not – they’re just the wrong tool for the job.

      • #72008573
        mailmanxmailmanx
        Participant

        wsmith198729 – Thank you for the suggestion. I will check it out!

        Paulears – Thank you for the great information. I am ready and willing to learn manual focus. I tried it on my camera, but it is extremely difficult for 2 reasons. One is that the focus ring is actually a “multi-purpose” ring and it is not great at focus. It tends to be either too fast or too slow. It is very inconsistent and very frustrating. The second reason is the tiny .24-in viewfinder. When I try to use that to adjust my autofocus, the small size works against me.

        I am ready to buy a great quality video camera with a dedicated manual focus ring and a larger viewfinder! That should give me the tools I need to learn proper manual focus. Do you have any specific suggestions. I’d love a video camera with a parfocal lense, but I have not found one in the $3,000 to $5,000 USD price range. Do you know of any?

        Just FYI – I had looked at several mirrorless cameras that had great reviews for their video quality. Unfortunately, the tiny viewfinder on those cameras just does not work for me.

        • This reply was modified 12 months ago by mailmanxmailmanx.
        • This reply was modified 12 months ago by mailmanxmailmanx.
        • This reply was modified 12 months ago by mailmanxmailmanx. Reason: Clarifications and additions
    • #72008657
      Avatarpaulears
      Participant

      First question then. Why 4K? There are some very nice HD cameras in your price range, or of course a second hand used professional camera would work really well for you. Frankly, 4K in a cheap camera is really rather pointless – the lenses rarely have the definition required for real 4K – having 4K pixels, tells you little of the quality you will get.

      What you need is a lens with mechanical focus, not a rotating servo coupled type – they’re all pretty hopeless really, and some of the pro cameras have small eyepiece VFs, and a side hinge out one. You can also buy used pro tripods and heads – these last forever and are sooooooo much better than the usual Manfrotto types people think are good. Vinten, Stachler, Miller – that kind of thing. Something with a B4 lens would be my preference – and if you keep an eye on Ebay there are some gems from time to time. I’ve been a JVC user for years and have a look at something like GY-HM750, 790, 850, 890 cameras – really nice to use, excellent picture, proper exposure, proper focus – usually with Fuji or Canon lenses (I like the Canons), and a suitable tripod and legs would come between 500-1000 or so – you could get one of these with low hours (not that that really matters) for your budget – or at least you can in the UK. I suspect the US would be even better, being a bigger market.

      Given the choice of a 4K handicam or an HD real camera, I’d never go for the handicam. They win on size and convenience, and simplicity – they are a compromise for everything else.

    • #72008669
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      You sure have a lot of knowledge about photography! I appreciate you sharing with me. It is, however, a lot more than I will ever use. I do this strictly for my own pleasure and do not have to worry about making the video perfect for a certain client. I only ever upload to Youtube, so, when their video compression does a number on the uploaded video, it would not have been worth it to me to obtain a camera with absolutely perfect optics. I will just be happy to learn manual focus so that I can capture airplanes in the sky without the camera unsuccessfully hunting for focus.

      Even so, I did go look at some of the used shoulder mount cameras. I love that their EVF is off to the side and seemingly larger than then ones on lower level cameras. However, I was surprised to find that they only record up to 60p in 1080 HD. I’d be more interested if they could do 120p. That’s because I quite regularly capture crashes of RC airplanes. Those can be pretty fascinating when slowed way down. The airplanes are also the reason that I like to record in 4K. They are hard to always keep perfectly in the frame or close enough to see well. By recording in 4K, I can crop for center or crop for zoom, then render in 1080p.

      Your shared knowledge will not go completely unused. I like the idea of buying good quality used support gear like monopods, tripods and fluid heads. I was recently looking at a Sirui monopod that I thought was pretty good. I’ll see what the used market has to offer in better quality equipment.

      THANKS!

    • #72008670
      Avatarpaulears
      Participant

      It’s fine – totally understand. Wobbly cam, even for youtube is something else. Nothing ruins your shots so much as wobble. I’m not sure how common these ever were in the US, but look at this picture.
      Vinten Cygnet post head.
      I have one of these I bought twenty plus years ago from one of our broadcasters. I use them for airshow stuff because they have the camera pivot point at the centre of gravity, and can actually tilt up past vertical if you want. You can follow an aircraft up, up up, and then go in any direction – something a normal tripod and head combo can’t do. They don’t use fluid or anything clever as balance is perfect and fingertip pressure is all you need.

      Broadcasters rarely use cameras that go over 60 fps, and most stuff is not even shot at that rate, sticking to 30. We tend to use something else for slo-mo stuff.

      The 4K handicam you were looking at? If it has manual focus, but it’s tricky to use, then have you just tried setting it on a static object say 500m away, then using this focus position and not moving it? With your high speed frame rate, you are losing quite a lot of light, but in day time, the depth of sharp focus should easily let you cover from 200m to infinity on a zoomed in shot, and on wider ones, probably down to a few metres? Autofocus might be producing a problem that isn’t actually there? I’ve not used a 4K handicam so don’t know what kind of lattitude it has for DoF?

    • #72008680
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      I’ve never seen a post head before. That’s a great design! The Vinten brand is hard to find in the US. I did find just this one. Would you take a look and see if the condition is acceptable? The price seems OK based on being similar to the one you showed me from the UK website:
      https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vinten-Post-Head/253223159176?hash=item3af546c588:g:H5MAAOSwWflZ7jM6:rk:2:pf:1

    • #72008924
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      Paulears – Do you have any opinion regarding the Vinten post head that I found on Ebay in the US? I tried finding video of how a “post head” works compared to a regular fluid head and didn’t have any luck. If you know of any, I’d love to get the links. I can’t really fathom the differences.

    • #72008943
      Avatarpaulears
      Participant

      The head is absolutely brilliant – BUT – way overpriced. That one is actually a Vinten Swan, which is the heavy duty one that was used for cameras weighing a ton! Dates from the 70s – and if I was buying it, maximum price would be maybe 400-500 UKP, so what? 500-600 USD?

      Search for Vinten cygnet. Ideal for modern cameras.

      You can buy modern post heads for use mainly on jibs and cranes.

    • #72008962
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      Hi Paulears – Thanks for the quick response! I was just about to put an offer on the Swan head and it would have been too much. I don’t want a beastly heavy head anyway. Unfortunately, the Cygnet heads are scarce in the states. In fact, they may even be extinct here! I haven’t found any. I’ll keep looking.

      As an option, would you be willing to suggest a close second in quality and price? Used does not bother me at all – especially on such high quality products. I’d like to keep the price under $1,000. In fact, considering that I do not currently have a tripod, I’d like to keep both head and tripod under or close to $1,000 TOGETHER! Sorry about that! It’s probably asking the impossible. I’ve seen some of the prices for top products. They are WAY out of my league! I just want something that I can rely on and enjoy using. I do know, however, that with good quality equipment, I could sell it later if I wanted to upgrade.

      THANKS AGAIN!

    • #72009083
      Avatarpaulears
      Participant

      If you want a ‘normal’ head then as I’m a Brit – I’d go for Vinten again. I’ve had a model 5 head for a long time now – bought when I did some wildlife stuff for a broadcaster (same one from when I bought the other kit – including a Dolphin jib) in the 90s.
      In fairness, all the big name makes that the broadcasters use are designed by real engineers. I do have a couple of pro-super heads Manfrottos that are very popular and people like them. Vinten even rebadge one of these in their name – but they are not a patch on the ones the broadcasters select. They use clever mechanics to have the forces under control. Starting and stopping a pan then works without the lag. In the typical prosumer/budget professional ranges, they tend to use gelatinous gunge – that feels like vaseline, and it does make the pans smoother, but there’s start up resistance that suddenly gives and you still get a jerk. The pro heads simply have very low friction and the CoG under control so with the frictions backed right off the head pans and tilts with fingertip pressure, and stops as you stop. The force remains constant. with the fluid head approach, most need higher torque to start then once moving you have to quickly lower the pressure or they overshoot. One VERY important thing for aircraft is the ability to move diagonally and this means the pan friction and tilt friction have to be identical – most aren’t.

      If your camera is light, a Vinten 3. My cameras are happy on the Vinten 5. Vinten have more modern/current ranges that have the same feel, but are making used of newer materials, and on the second hand market fetch very good money. The cream coloured 3,5,10,20 models are elderly now and go for more sensible prices. Beware of the legs though – they’re aluminium (oops, aluminium in US spelling) and are not as light as they look. Mine are aluminium and carrying them can be a bit sapping on a hike!

    • #72009084
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      Excellent reply! Thanks! I’ll try to hold out for a Cygnet, but I if get impatient, I will look at the other Vintens that you recommend.

    • #72010170
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      Paulears – Would you be willing to give me your opinion of these two Vintens on the US Ebay site? My camcorder weighs 2Kg (4.4Lb)

      Vinten Vision 3 with tripod and case, $400 USD:
      https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vinten-Vision-3-fluid-head-tripod-and-soft-case/292972443161?hash=item443684b619:g:EIsAAOSwndBcbUs4

      Vinten Vision 5 Head with telescoping pan bar and (2) quick release plates, $310 USD (This one looks a little rough to me):
      https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vinten-Vision-5-Head-with-telescoping-Pan-Bar-2-quick-release-plates/273732703211?hash=item3fbbbd93eb:g:VcwAAOSwohFcTigq

      OTHER CONTENDERS FOR MORE MONEY

      Vinten Vision 5 Fluid Head Tripod Aluminum Single Stage Legs 5, $899 USD:
      https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vinten-Vision-5-Fluid-Head-Tripod-Aluminum-Single-Stage-Legs-5-100mm/372620442834?hash=item56c1e8bcd2:g:ZW4AAOSwmDBb6LgH

      Vinten Vision BLUE 3 Head & Blue 3 Tripod 75mm w/ Mid Level Spreader, $1150 USD:
      https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vinten-Vision-Blue-3-Head-Blue3-Tripod-75mm-w-Mid-Level-Spreader/333084452981?hash=item4d8d616875:g:VWkAAOSwXedZwvq5

      THANK YOU!

      • This reply was modified 11 months, 1 week ago by mailmanxmailmanx.
    • #72010222
      Avatarpaulears
      Participant

      OK – I looked at it as if it was my money and your weight camera.

      Vinten Vision 3 with tripod and case, $400 USD: I’d happily buy this – lovely head. Used one myself in the past. Feels really good and unlike cheap fluid heads, the feel is variable and the centre of gravity should be compensated on you camera, so it stays where it is when you take the pressure off. Decent price.

      Vinten Vision 5 Head with telescoping pan bar and (2) quick release plates, $310 USD (This one looks a little rough to me): It has had rough use, but they rarely play up and are made so well the finish isn’t important – price for it is OK. I have one of these I use regularly. Assuming it’s not actually damaged, it’s again a decent price. Beware though – the heads is quite heavy so needs a decent set of legs.

      Vinten Vision 5 Fluid Head Tripod Aluminum Single Stage Legs 5, $899 USD:
      Price wise, it works out as good value if it’s in very good condition, about right for used condition. If you have the money – this is exactly the combination I use in theatre work. Simple to set up and level, and silky smooth with adjustable damping in Both planes and the big knob to wind out centre of balance.

      Vinten Vision BLUE 3 Head & Blue 3 Tripod 75mm w/ Mid Level Spreader, $1150 USD:
      If it was my money, I would choose the Vinten 5 and legs second hand against this virtually new (and current) model. It’s very good of course, but so is the price!

      So – if it was for me, I’d buy the $899 package. I’d consider it as a decent price for an excellent product.If I needed an extra setup, I’d probably go for it myself. I really love the cygnet post head, but have to admit that the extra weight and height on the legs mean, the 5 in it’s tube storage is the first one I go for. When I go into the store I look at them, and the post head is easily a foot longer making it harder to transport. I only choose it for things where up angle is important. air stuff of course as I have the choice available, but I also use it in theatres when it has to go in the orchestra pit, looking up sharply all the time. As a general tripod and head the 5 is nicer to use, carry and store, and it tips up quite a long way anyway – just not up to vertical!
      Hope this helps

    • #72011109
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      Hi Paulears – I want to give you the feedback that you deserve for all of the help that you provided to me. As much as I wanted to get the $899 package, I decided to get the $400 Vinten 3 with tripod and bag. I am such an amateur that I decided it a wiser choice to get the cheaper set for now. I will, however, continue to shop for a Vinten Cygnet head. THANK YOU!

      • This reply was modified 11 months, 1 week ago by mailmanxmailmanx.
    • #72011119
      Avatarpaulears
      Participant

      I don’t think you’ll regret it. When you get it – level it up, put the camera onto full zoom and spend ten minutes adjusting the feel. With the sliding top plate and the balance knob, you will be able to tilt down, and up at quite an angle and when you let go, it will stay there. If you find you run out of ‘up’ it’s a fairly simply job to make a vertical wedge plate. this is just a wedge that attaches to the head, and when the head is level, tilts the camera up by 30 degrees or so – you can then tilt down to get the horizon, but not much below, but you’ve increased how far you can go up. Depends how good you are with DIY, but quite simple to build and good for stuff high up!

    • #72011146
      mailmanxmailmanx
      Participant

      Thank you for the great tip on the vertical wedge plate! I am a manufacturing engineer in the aerospace industry and am quite good at DIY. I believe it is a project that I will want to do quite soon. Thank you, too, for the tip on level-up, set-up and practice. I will definitely do that!

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