Saturday, December 13, 2008

Test-driving the Nikon D90 video with 10-20mm lens through Madison's Holiday Fantasy in Lights

The D90 is the first SLR also to shoot video -- including HD video (followed soon after by a Canon DSLR for more than twice the price). Many photographers see it as a cool camera with great features for the money, in a package that happens to include an interesting toy -- one that they may or may not ever use. The camera's HD video is probably a bigger deal in the media and filmmaking worlds.

Print media that are under increasing pressure to put video up on their websites are snapping up the cameras as a relatively inexpensive tool for journalists who are already shooting stills and might as well shoot some video while they are at it: still photos of local newsmakers along with talking heads, sports action clips along with stills, video clips of auto accidents or other disasters along with still photos. The D90 only records mono sound and there's no input for an auxiliary mike. But you don't always need stereo, and if you do, it's easy enough to sync with a digital recorder in post production.

Filmmakers who shoot HD are excited about the availability of a relatively low-cost platform for shooting pro-quality, 24fps footage with Nikon lenses instead of spending $30,000 for special equipment to do so. It won't replace high-end video cameras anytime soon -- there are way too many compromises and shortcomings -- but it's great little piece of equipment for shooting B-roll footage.

The thing about the Nikon lenses is that they allow journalists and HD videographers to easily create looks they can't get with conventional video cameras -- like the superwide effect you can get with Nikon's 12-24mm or Sigma's 10-20mm zooms. I was curious what that would look like, and so I decided to give my D90 with the Sigma superwide a test drive through the 2008 Holiday Fantasy in Lights in Olin Park Friday night. I assumed my position in the videographer's (passenger's) seat while T was the dolly operator, driving us through the park at a stately 2 or 3mph.

The result was a mixed bag. First of all, I didn't shoot HD. It generates enormous files (600 megs for 5 minutes) that I don't want to process or store until a time when I really need them. It's overkill for the web, since it will usually get downsampled so much anyhow. So I shot in the 640x424 mode, comparable to many point and shoots. The colors are still good, coming from the same sensor, and it illustrates the effect of the wide angle lens just as well. Since the camera doesn't autofocus while shooting video and is hard to focus in the best of circumstances, I preset the focus at about 20 feet and set the lens to the widest focal length -- 10mm. It was overkill for the most part. The wide angle spread things out too much and there was too much pitch black in most of the frames. I should have come in a lot tighter for the most part. But this setting did work for one part of the ride, the tunnel of lights shown here. The wide angle really did offer a unique, edge-to-edge exaggerated perspective.

As you enter the park, there's a sign telling you to turn your radio to AM 1610, so you can listen to the soundtrack. About the sound -- sorry, I should have turned up the radio and turned off the heater. But it does catch something that bothered me: The incessant droning of commercials for all the sponsors, with just a bit of holiday music underneath. It was sort of like listening to the worst of AM radio -- my only quibble with the otherwise delightful display, now celebrating its 20th anniverary.

The display runs through the weekend after New Year's, till Jan. 4. If you go, you may want to turn off the radio and bring your own mix tape of favorite holiday music. It took us about 6 minutes to drive through, and it takes somewhat longer when there's a line.

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