Following up his "first impressions" article, Phil Rhodes reports on his actual use of this most unusual of cameras
The last time I was specifically asked to shoot something in black and white, it was on DVCAM. I am, as you can probably imagine, a little rusty.
First, the artistic considerations. Subjects that look good in black and white are generally those with quite a bit of built-in contrast, or at least those which can be lit to create contrast or layering. In southeastern England, in December, where the sky is grey, the trees are brown and everything else is a somewhere in-between, that’s not particularly easy, especially when the sun doesn’t shine much.
Therefore, I waited for a blue skied sunny morning before taking the Epic out into a deliberately unforgiving available-light scenario with the very low sun of a British winter glancing off the water. Nobody expects any camera to hold every bit of detail in a water reflection and simultaneously photograph the shadow side of the trees, but I think the Epic did pretty well. Theoretically, the increased sensitivity offered by a sensor lacking a bayer colour matrix should offer lower noise and therefore greater usable dynamic range, probably a stop or so depending on the colour of the light. Given the massive oversampling inherent to a monochrome 5,000 pixel wide sensor scaled down to HD as I edited it, I wasn’t surprised to note that noise is well controlled, certainly manageable enough to shoot 240 2K frames per second in stark, midwinter sunlight and catch plenty of shadow detail. In these extremely high contrast situations, the 17-50 zoom produces a small-radius and reasonably controlled glow, as well as neat little stars on small highlights, in this situation. There is a not-unattractive edge flare as bright light sources enter or leave the lens’s field of view.
Filtration is something I’d have liked to test more. Polarisation, grads (less essential to hold skies on modern cameras, but still useful) and diffusion all work as normal, of course, although the blue sky might have offered a better contrast behind a yellow filter. In my video, there’s a shot of leafless tree branches against sky which, lacking the brown on blue colour contrast, needed a bit of extra contrast added (which I did in the REDCine software, but would more usually be done in the grade). Based on this, my main observation was that the default gamma made the image a little flatter than I would generally prefer monochrome to be, but of course that’s a choice and a sensible default. The purist, of course, would have read Ansel Adams and done it with lighting; there’s something quite satisfying about comparing the notes of early photographers, working in mono, with the experience currently offered by the Epic. RED tell us that the inbuilt infra-red filtration is different on the mono Epic, and it would be as well to double check how its behaviour differs from the colour version as I didn’t have the two side by side to test.
Once the material had been copied off the cards and moved into the REDCine software, things operate much as usual, although with certain options regarding colour balance understandably greyed out. The fluidity of shuttling around clips in REDCine is about the same as the colour version. You’d have maybe expected it to be faster, given that there’s no debayer to do. Offloads from the cards, at least via eSATA, are reasonably prompt, although I’d probably go for the USB3-capable card reader for preference as the driver situation may be slightly easier. In the interests of trying all the common approaches, I also recorded the live output of the camera. RED is already talking about an HD output module for Epic, recording to flash cards in direct-to-edit formats. Alexa is used in that mode very commonly and it avoids a production being locked into a proprietary workflow, so it’s as well that the issue is being addressed.