Saturday, April 16, 2011

F550EXR – Bruce Cockburn and Jenny Scheinman – Finally a Concert!! — Review Part 36

I’ve been anticipating this concert for a while now, as Bruce is one of the greatest guitarists you will ever hear live. He often sounds like two or even three guitars and his playing has a sparkle that you just don’t hear all that often. Then you couple that with his unbelievable lyrics and you get some real magic.

This time round, he brought jenny Scheinman, an accomplished violinist (I was thinking fiddler when her entire opening set but one song was played with the violin plucked like a Ukulele …) She is also in his trio along with an excellent drummer named (does anyone know?)

Jenny walked out and introduced herself as a member of the band, saying that playing with Bruce was her dream. Opening was apparently Bruce’s idea, and from my perspective a damned good one. She can sing. I almost bought her new self-titled album, but I found the arrangements on it not to my taste. She should seriously consider a singer-songwriter album with just her own playing as we saw live.

Now … to the photography. The National Arts Center presents a number of challenges:

  • Cameras are usually strictly forbidden
  • Lighting is not always the strongest, it is a somewhat subdued venue as you might imagine
  • I screwed up and got a seat that was blocked by two heads at my chest level, where I had to hold the camera to keep it mostly inside my coat
  • It is very dark so the magnificent LCD on the F550 lit me up like a Christmas tree
  • They had a spotlight directly above the performers which created a nightmare with Bruce’s bright white hair.

To meet these challenges, I had to keep the camera tucked in close, which means that the videos are shaky (I had to breathe, which constantly pushed the camera back and forth) and made experimenting with exposures very difficult.

Here is where I was sitting:

The X marks the spot. A nice place from which to watch, less that 100 feet from the performers and slightly above. The arrow shows where the stage box actually hangs, which is near the stage when set up for the Symphony (first 6 rows are removed.) But this depiction does not show you that the boxes are slightly overlapping, with the inside seat looking over top of several heads in the box in front. I had that problem.

So please understand that this is a sub-standard effort.

That said, the F550 was pretty magnificent on stills and very decent on video when I could find a crack between the heads through which I could get focus lock.

A note on auto focus: This debate continues to rage on the Fuji Talk Forum. What people do not seem to realize is that Fuji has a weak Center Focus AF in both stills and in video. I presume that it is essentially the same mechanism. What I mean by weak is that the camera requires a fairly large detail area in order to find focus lock. If you are trying to focus on something small, like Bruce’s brightly lit head through the space between heads, the camera will usually fail to lock. The fix for stills is to switch to multi AF which will look for the highest contrast detail and focus on that. There is some risk with that, but the depth of field on sensors the size of two freckles on your face is deep enough to cover you most of the time. For video, you must zoom to max and shoot an image of something fairly detailed and contrasty before the real action starts, else the cam will simply not achieve focus. I lost a couple of songs because I could not find anything to focus on between the heads. *sigh*

The experimentation for the evening revolved around my recent discovery that SN mode can give cleaner shadows than P mode DR400 (first EXR camera where I can really say that) so I wanted to try to take advantage of that. But using auto modes at concerts is very difficult. The camera rarely does what you want and usually blows highlights. The second mode I wanted to try is the one I have settled on as the best overall, but it does not really bin. It blends, which leaves shadows weaker. Still … you can’t have everything, so I thought I’d try both.

When Jenny walked out, I snuck the camera out and almost had a heart attack when I lit up like a candle. I shot one image and then put the cam back in my pocket (I wore a heavy black pea jacket all night … and it was hot in there :-) I took it back out a few minutes later and tucked it close while dropping the LCD to the lowest setting. Much better, and those of you who have asked how good the LCD is will be very pleased to note that I could still see it at an effective viewing angle of about 15 degrees at best. Very good LCD.

So, my one shot of Jenny in JPEG and then RAW (oh yeah … I shot JPEG+RAW all night and at concert pace I was never inconvenienced by the 6s write times.) I had my new 8GB class 10 SDHC card from A-Data (best reviewed card I have seen and very cheap) and a spare in my pocket. I also had a spare battery and never needed either, despite recording quite a few songs on video – but I always shoot 720p. 1080p is a silly waste of space and AF is far more twitchy says my tests.

M mode, M4:3, DR400, f/5.3, 1/50s, 1600iso (strong crop)

The raw image has more tones in it, and although the color balance is much warmer, it just has more of a dimensional feel. But make no mistake, for my first shot at a concert with this camera, that jpeg is pretty good for a heavy crop.

After Jenny played, there was an early intermission with the house lights coming back on and people sitting a little stunned before finally getting up and walking around or slamming back another outrageously priced drink. I paid ten bucks for a Bacardi and Coke before the concert … never again … I prefer Appleton Estates Select run anyway :-)

Bruce wears a really nice suit and an array of guitars and straps that I am somewhat familiar with from the Ottawa Folk Festival in the summer of 2009, as shot here with the Nikon D300 and the 70-300VR in RAW, effective focal length being 450mm.

So that’s more or less our target for image quality. If we can get within a sniff of that we should be ecstatic.

So on to the F550’s shots of Bruce. I struggled a bit with settings as his white hair was being blown out left and right. Here, I struck gold with SN mode set at –1EV. I used Spot meter here and metered his head to get a good exposure.

EXR SN mode, DR100, M4:3, f/5.3, 1/45s, –1EV, 1600iso, Spot Metering

The Silkypix image has more open shadows on the suit and amp and yet slightly brighter hair. When you click through you can see that I left a slight blue cast in the background, something that happens when you reduce contrast in Silkypix. The blue channel goes a bit wacko. I left it in here to illustrate the danger. It will be visible on some monitors and not others … it is very near the threshold of invisibility. The fix I found for it later was to use a curve on the blue channel in Silkypix and drop that park of the curve. No problems.

It should also be noted that, although I prefer the tones in this image, there really isn’t any more visible detail. The jpegs are shockingly good on this camera.

And speaking of shocking jpegs … how does this look for 3200 ISO?

M mode, M4:3, DR400, f/5.3, 1/125s, 3200iso

Here, the RAW conversion has brought out a lot more detail. Mainly from more open tones, but still … very nice. The hair is amazing for 3200 ISO … I find it hard to believe.

And another shot at the same settings … this is straight from the camera with no adjustment in jpeg. The RAW is, of course, highly processed.

At blog sizes, they look almost identical, but click through to the 800 pixel versions and you will see that the RAW image pulls out more detail and again better tones. Here are some crops to show how simply amazing this sensor can be at 3200 ISO.

Obviously you will want to click through on that one …

Here’s a nice shot of Jenny Scheinman and the great unknown drummer, again at 3200 ISO and again unprocessed at all in jpeg. Wow …

For the RAW shot, I cropped more closely to emphasize the incredible detail in her hair. Pretty lady and a heck of a violinist. Try to remember that this is a compact with a 1/2” sensor at 3200 ISO …

I switched at some point to using SN mode at 1600 ISO again, but this time with exposure compensation at –1.67EV … trying again to protect highlights, truth and justice in the American Way. Spot metering don’t forget.

For this shot, I decided to crop and then pull extra detail with Topaz Denoise from the jpeg. I quite like this and looks at how much hair detail is held at 1600 ISO … not bad at all.

And here is one at 1600 ISO from RAW that pretty much blew my mind. The clarity is amazing … also a moderate crop because of yet another head intruding in the shot …

For those whose knickers are in a permanent twist about the flare issue with the F550 … have a look at that light in the top right. No problems …

Ok … the concert was great, the stills are amazing …

So how is the video?

Well … I am going to master several videos from both the F550EXR and the ZS3 (which I had in my other pocket for comparison purposes) but I can say that the F550ERXR did not disappoint in either video or audio quality.

Not, to put that statement in perspective you must remember that I shot everything in stealth mode and had a lot of trouble handling the moving heads right in front of the lens. Plus I could not get a decent grip on the camera. All this adds up to a lot of movement of the image and more than normal shake. Still, I am extremely pleased with having captured “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” with the F550EXR. This is one of my favorite songs by Bruce and is a real showcase for his guitar mastery. He is seriously incredible …

And remember that I had the camera set up for stills, which means that there was –1EV to –1.67EV compensation dialed in at all times. That affects the brightness of the video. Fuji should seriously consider a firmware change that allows separate video and still image compensation amounts. Easy and extremely useful.

I find the video quality excellent. Crisp and clear. But attaining the necessary sharp focus is difficult at times, as I discussed early on in this article. Still, this one pleases me and I have others that are better. I just love this song :-)

So, is the F550EXR my concert cam of choice?


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