Case study: Exploring Planets with Canon technology

Canon lenses climbed the Andes to record a new NASA project

When members of a top USA-UK production team were commissioned by NASA for an assignment high in the Chilean Andes, Canon Broadcast UK was there to help. The team consisted of Director and Cameraman, Gavin Saville of Wild Indie Ltd and the USA-UK partnership, XenoQuest Media. He was joined by his XenoQuest co-founder, acclaimed producer Sandra R. Curtis and Emmy Award winning Dop, Gordon Brown. The team were tasked by NASA to document the first field work and initial launch of the ASTEP* Planetary Lake Lander project in the Central Andes in Chile. This was to take the form of some short education videos (SEVs). Though pleased as punch about the commission, Gavin, Sandra and Gordon all had concerns that the budget available at such short notice was going to make it tough to get visuals of the quality they wanted and the subject deserved.

Canon UK to the rescue

Over to the team. “Hearing about our project, Canon UK kindly loaned us a couple of very nice 2/3-inch lenses, the HJ22 IASE and HJ14 IASE to use with our lead camera, along with control units ZSD 300D and FPD400D. On top of that they also provided a Canon XF305 as a run and gun unit.

Quality optics made portable

The first thing that struck us when in the field was that the kit, whilst not light in weight, was OK to pack into a large padded backpack and carry the “A” camera body, the two lenses, a couple of spare batteries, media-cards, and a microphone and still be able to hike up the mountains. The “B” camera (XF305) was equally portable and carried with remaining kit and tripod by other crew to make for an expansive range of optics available on various shoots. Now that may sound like superfluous information here but when we’re talking about working at altitude in the Central Andes, it’s nice to have good optics that are not so heavy that they have you either stopping every 5 minutes to get your breath back or requiring a mule train to get everything around.

We were shooting a number of on location interviews, scenics, and action sequences of the scientists performing their various roles during the project. In truth, both lenses have enough flexibility that they could almost have done the job on their own. The longer focal length of the HJ22 gave a nice soft background and compressed depth of field for the talent in a number of interviews, whilst the HJ14 was useful when we wanted to show something of the epic scale of the environment in the backgrounds. However, both had a focal length range that was more than adequate to shoot well planned interviews.

A versatile combination

But the combination of lenses definitely gave us more latitude in what we could shoot. The
HJ22 was very useful for long shots of people working at a distance from our location. Laguna Negras is a glacial melt lake with limited boat access so long shots were a must. However, this shoot was in the Andes and we wanted those epic scenic shots. When it came to the wide angle images, the HJ14 was great. At fully wide it’s angle of view is 90 degrees and the lens is very capable of knocking your socks off. A shot we’ve dubbed the 3 systems shoot (a geologists dream) was possible because of the wide ability of the HJ14. The HJ22 just couldn’t go as wide, making its pans a little busy for the viewer, from a director’s perspective. Both lenses gave an image that was crisp from side to side and, in use, we noticed only a little focus breathing on the HJ22. With the HJ14 there was none at all, allowing the confidence to perform reveal shots, something that seemed very appropriate given the setting.

Light transmission is excellent in both lenses, right to the outside of frame, but if you asked us to choose, the slightly newer technology in the HJ14 gave it the edge. The aperture range is also pretty good for both lenses; although at full zoom on the HJ22 with the extender on (over 330mm) there is a clear reduction in the aperture range and less light. In truth, for us, it hardly affected our work because the light at over 2700m altitude on our location was very strong. However, at sunset it was noticeable when searching for shots but generally we would switch to the HJ14 for the flexibility to go to wide angles at that time of day. For those sunset conditions, the HJ14 aperture was better. But then the HJ14 didn’t have the ability to do quite the same long shots that the HJ22 could.

Really useful and easy to use

The HJ22 is a very nice lens but it was the HJ14 that we really didn’t want to give back to Canon at the end of the project. There was nothing massively different in how they functioned just a combination of little things. The minimum focus was just under a foot which for Gavin was really useful as it was about a full hand span for him, a nice easy rule of thumb to help him set up quickly for close ups of field kit when the scientists were working.

The zoom and focus seemed just a tiny bit more controllable too. Ergonomically, we found both lenses very similar and easy to use without the additional remote control units but FPD 400D was very smooth on the occasion we had to use it and the zoom demand unit (ZSD 300D) gave excellent remote control of the lens.

The lens that saves the day

As for the XF305. For a broadcast 4.2.2. 50mbps run and gun camera, we can’t sing its praises enough. It’s so quick to just grab and shoot with that it’ll save your day – numerous times a day. It gives you a great deal of confidence in your output too. It’s very easy to get some nice looking imagery with this camera. The lens is great, with an equivalent range of 29-527mm. You might say “too much of a range” but it gives fine results. It’ll go right down to f1.6 so at a push you could run the shot of this camera; interviews, scenics, long shots, the lot. We had a couple of DSLRs floating around too so the ability to swap out Compact Flash cards became priceless. We lost count of the times we found ourselves rock hopping down to the laguna edge or running to a vantage point to grab a shot of something interesting happening with the XF305. It was also very useful for quietly standing in camp using a smaller less obvious camera for a few candid shoots or just handing over to the other crew to shoot some extras.

We can’t thank Canon Broadcast UK enough for the kit loans. It’s just a shame we had to give it
all back.”

* NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) Planetary Lake Lander project led by Principal Investigator Nathalie Cabrol of the NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute.

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