Small Land, Big Country, Grand Images

Japan is a country of incredible contrasts. About 80% of the land is devoid of settlements due to topography. So the farmlands and urban areas cluster and compete to house and feed the nation’s 128 million people. Tokyo, the nation’s capital, is also the planet’s largest urban area, with more than 36 million people living and working on the coastal plain. The country is smaller than the state of California, yet it has the second largest economy and is among the top three exporting nations on the planet for manufactured goods. 

All of those goods and people need to move around, right? Japan answered the problem of transportation by building the most comprehensive and efficient rail network in the world. There is almost no inhabited area on the island that cannot be reached by train. And that led to the subject for this article.

I set out to document the ease of travel in and around Tokyo and to some of the region’s cultural sites on its varied trains, from suburban local trains to the world famous Shinkansen bullet trains, which inaugurated regular running at 320 kph on several lines in March of 2013. They are now the fastest scheduled passenger trains on the planet!

How does a one-man crew haul tripods, cameras and microphones and all of his other junk on such a trip, through the busiest and most crowded train stations anywhere? With planning and help from a few manufacturers. JVC, Miller Camera Support Equipment, and Pelican Products stepped up to make this documentary shoot easier.

JVC had a new compact HD camcorder wowing crowds at NAB in the spring. They sent me the GY-HM600 to field-test before the show and its compact size, light weight of only 5.3 lbs, extended recording time from low power consumption and large capacity SDHC cards, and full complement of broadcast grade features allowed me to pack light and get heavy results. (More on that camera later.) 

Pelican cases and a Miller tripod were key to making work in Japan’s crowded railway stations possible. Pelican cases are known worldwide as a standard for safely transporting gear, such as high-end electronics, cameras, laptops or firearms, scuba gear, or any equipment that must stay clean and dry. I own at least a half dozen Pelican cases, but I needed something special. I wanted a single box that would have durable wheels to roll out all of the gear for this trip — camera, batteries, tripod, DSLR and lenses, gaffer’s tape and tools, rain gear, microphones etc. Pelican hooked me up.

Will Holloway

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How to Carry the Gear
Their solution was the Storm Case im3220 — a deep, long rifle case with solid plates of foam inside that could be cut to fit. It has inline skate wheels recessed on one end and very rugged pull and lift handles. The whole unit will stack, lay flat, sit on its edge or stand on one end and is very stable in any of those positions, so it was easy to handle when carrying it in and out of airports and onto trains.

I wanted to be able to move over land as well, so I modified the case to attach it to an exposed-frame, freighter-style backpack I bought at Cabela’s. I drilled three pieces of flat aluminum bar stock to match the holes on three stainless steel gate pulls purchased at a hardware store, then drilled and bolted them to the lid of the Storm Case. I used the aluminum plate to back the nuts inside the lid and spread out the load on the case. This worked very well. I could easily attach the backpack frame to the gate handles using heavy wraps of gaffers tape. This was quick and very secure and could be cut free in a minute with a pocketknife.

Once mounted, I was able to move freely with the fully loaded case around Tokyo and to various countryside temples and cultural locations I visited. On several occasions, the only way I could have gotten some of my planned shots required running over land. Hauling the gear in my modified case allowed me to jog or run.

It should be noted however, that to be polite in Japan, it is very important to not wear a backpack onto a train or while waiting in a station. (I was glad that I knew this before arriving.) The case could stand on end, creating a very small footprint. That was a big part of my plan, as trains get more crowded than westerners who have never been to Japan can fathom. The concept of personal space goes away quickly at rush hour in Shinjuku Station!

The case held up beautifully through rain and rolling over miles of pavement, dirt roads and even a couple of cobblestone alleys. I set it on its side once and used it as a platform on which I stood so that I could shoot across the crowds of pedestrians at Shibuya, the world’s busiest intersection. It even beat the “throwers” at the airports! It cushioned all of the gear and kept it clean, which was something, considering the dust storms blowing across the Sea of Japan from China while I was there. That cold, block-out-the-sun dirt got into everything … except my Pelican Case!

What to Put the Camera On
I asked Miller Camera Support  to help me get the camera stable. I have used Miller tripods, among others, for the last 22 years and have been very happy, but mine is old, beat-up, and bulky. Moreover, it was too heavy for this trip.

Miller sent me a telescoping, two-stage, carbon-fiber tripod with a 75mm bowl called the Solo. It was very sturdy and light (5.5lbs). They sent it with one of the new Compass fluid heads. There are several available models in the Compass line. I found the Compass 12 head to be one of the smoothest pan-and-tilt heads I have ever used, which is saying a lot considering I have used far more expensive, heavy-duty heads in my studio career. That smooth movement can be found in a number of drag presets and counterbalanced tilt settings that can support up to 22 lbs. I found that I was trying out camera moves that I would never attempt with other tripods on the off chance that I might screw up the move and miss a one-take shot. 

Pan-and-tilt combinations, even while zoomed-in on a subject, were silky smooth. With a lit bubble level, it was easy to get the head leveled even on the dark Shinkansen platforms at Nasu-Shiobara one night. For attaching the camera, I would have liked a drop-in styled camera plate as opposed to a slide-in style, mostly because I am used to it. Once I got used to the Compass 12’s plate, I got pretty fast at attaching the camera to the head.

The Solo tripod sets up on just about any terrain or surface. It has stepped positions for each leg to provide varied angles and good friction to hold the legs in place in between the preset angles. It has permanently attached spike feet, which can be concealed under screw-down rubberized feet.

This design is very solid. However, if I were designing it, I would make one modification: I would design the spike tips so that they are pointed down toward a center point as opposed to in-line with the legs, as this latter arrangement becomes less effective to ‘dig in’ as the legs spread further apart. A tip offset to one edge of the threaded post and angled towards the center would maintain a digging point for far greater angles and still not interfere with the threading for the rubber foot. Or the whole foot and spike casting could be set at a centered angle from the bottom of each leg, instead of in-line.

The tripod legs lock securely with a twist of a barrel-shaped, rubberized lock on each stage. Because each one has to be done one at a time it is not as fast as some of the stylized lever systems out there, but it is very secure and hard to accidentally loosen. The tripod can be set very low to the ground or as tall as most operators might ever need. This worked well when I wanted to shoot over crowds of passengers on the station platforms. The tripod and head get the camera lens above six feet easily or below two feet if necessary. The total weight of this set up was less than 15 pounds, and with the very comfortable sling attached, I found it easy to tote around like a bandolier. 

The Main Course
Okay, now for the meat of this meal: the JVC GY-HM600, my image capturing magic machine. Unfortunately, my trip started out with no camera! A shipping department somewhere missed the fax, and in I flew to Japan in panic mode. The camera had to be couriered to my hotel in Narita City. JVC was great about getting things right to my location only a few days after I had intended to start the shoot. I immediately went out on some test recording, something I always try to do with a new camera before I leave for the actual job. Then, as my luck would have it, there was a rare defect between two elements in the lens that created a permanent gray spot on every shot, so I had to get a replacement camera. JVC got right on it and the next day I had a new camera arrive from Yokohama. The new one had a broken lens cover from some handling by the courier, so I swapped the good one off of the first camera before I sent it back, and I was off and running.

The other hitch was due to format choices and editing hardware. A buddy in the business recommended I shoot everything in AVCHD format, for its nice balance of compression quality versus data rate. Since shooting in a tapeless workflow is still new to me after decades of shooting to tape, I followed his advice. I wish I hadn’t. The camera can record in a number of formats, including XDCAM EX, which my edit system chews through quite well. My workstation, however, bogged down on the AVCHD clips. They look fantastic, but often times have playback issues when editing. Once output for delivery, they look great. But I had to update my software to improve performance with the AVCHD clips. But the images are spectacular. Thanks, Adobe and JVC!

Camera Nuts and Bolts
The GY-HM600 is a one-piece camcorder with dual slots for SDXC/SDHC memory cards, allowing for continuous recording or dual recording, creating cloned files. 

One of the real benefits in electronics nowadays is that firmware can be updated on existing units as upgrades and fixes get figured out. Since I had the camera out for my shoot, there have been a number of firmware updates improving performance on what I believe was an already solidly performing machine. Some of the recent updates have included more improvements to autofocus, focus-ring sensitivity on the wide end, and a one-push iris function, as well as improved recharging and new, lower bitrates for AVCHD formats. Details for other updates can be found through JVC’s website.

The GY-HM600U and GY-HM650U are both high-definition video cameras providing recording in multiple resolutions and formats. 1920×1080, 1440×1080 and 1280×720 frame sizes are available to record to MPEG-2 as MP4 or MOV files, and AVCHD, all in combinations of common progressive and interlaced frame rates (at this time, full 1920×1080 HD resolution is not supported in 60p.) Standard-definition frame sizes are also supported in H.264, and PAL frame rates are supported throughout. Three 2.2 megapixel 1/3-inch CMOS chips provide the horsepower, and it is impressive what such small imagers can produce today. The era of needing 2/3rd inch chips has been put on life support! With a low signal to noise ratio and a sensitivity of F11, this camera can be a workhorse for studio or field television work, as well as digital cinema acquisition. I found very little noise, even when using mild gain in low-light situations. 

It has a built-in stereo mic that produces surprisingly good sound indoors, but I mounted a Rode Video mic on the hot shoe. This was an adequate setup, but took getting used to, as I had to remember to turn the dang mic on each time I turned on the camera, which is not part of my usual order of operations. (I now have to dub a bunch of clips with natural sound that I failed to record thanks to forgetfulness!) I would have preferred an XLR-type stereo shotgun mic on phantom power, but at the time of my departure mine was in need of repair.

The 23x Fujinon lens is the best zoom lens I have used on a modestly priced camcorder. It has the closest zoom performance to a high-end servo zoom lens I have touched. I could start push-in or pull-out shots nearly without a visible change in framing. It is decently wide, as well, with a 35mm zoom equivalent of 29mm to 667mm. I would like to go as wide as 24mm, but this was good with little distortion, and nothing that would bother anyone viewing the footage I shot. As expected, there are several standard neutral density filters to aid in proper exposure while shooting in bright conditions.

The lens provides very nice low-light performance throughout the zoom range, dipping only a couple of f-stops into the telephoto range in real-world shooting conditions. The lens has reasonably fast auto-focus plus separate manual focus, zoom and iris rings. The steps of exposure from the iris ring are slightly visible when changed manually during recording, a problem I feel should be solved by now, as it has been on high-end lenses, but it is far and away better than what I have seen on Canon or Sony cameras in the price range. The camera has an optical image stabilizer, which was great for shooting tele-shots while on moving trains, and I used it with success on handheld footage while visiting several temples. The lens hood has a built-in leaf-shutter type lens cover, meaning there is no cap to lose or drop. This was great. It is a bit delicate, as the actuating lever works from only the left side, putting a bit more pressure on the edge of the leaves than seems ideal, but with care it should last for years. On subsequent designs, I hope JVC beefs it up a bit, but the feature has been way overdue for professional cameras. 

One of my big performance tests for a new camera and its chipset is bright lights in dark scenes, like headlights at dusk or a sunset. Most cameras in this class cannot handle these scenes without distortions like vertical smear or spots ghosting around the light source in checkerboard patterns. For the last six years, I have had to work very hard to get a good sunrise with my own cameras. The HM600 handled sunrises, sunsets, locomotive headlights aimed right at the lens, streetlights and the neon of Tokyo’s Ginza district like it was made for just those shots. A lot of shooters do not like the starburst lighting effect created by some CCDs or CMOS imagers in video. I happen to think they look good for most scenes. This camera does produce them, but there is no smear and no trails or ghosted spots. That alone would sell me on buying this camera.

The GY-HM600 and 650 produce superb images from their trio of next-generation 12-bit CMOS sensors. Images recorded were sharper and more colorful than I have gotten on my cameras or even some that I have tested from JVC and other manufacturers. Many custom settings can be chosen from the extensive menu system to tweak the camera performance or achieve a certain look. I did not get into much of this, as I was not shooting talent or in any studio situation. The camera processes image data through JVC’s new proprietary Large Scale Integration (LSI) chip, the Falconbrid. (Not “-bird”, although a lot of people seem to read it that way.) Very fast data processes allow multiple codecs to be recorded from a single camera, with the potential for far more data to be recorded to common, non-proprietary media. I, for one, would have liked 1920×1080 resolutions at 60 frames progressive. The camera only produced 60p in 720 line resolutions at this time.

The 650 model has all of the same specs and features as the 600, but it adds the ability to upload footage while still recording via FTP and Wi-Fi built into the unit, which would be a paradigm shift for ENG work and up-to-the-minute shooting for broadcast or web content. I opted to take the 600 for the test drive. It was a good experience.

Recording was done to eight SanDisk Extreme, 32 GB, 45 MB/s SDHC cards I bought at a Costco. Doing a bit budget before the shoot helped me estimate my storage requirements. I used seven and a half cards during the two weeks of shooting. Had it been on tapes, I would have used about 20 cassettes for the same footage that could literally fit into my wallet. And speaking of wallet, what would be the savings over tapes? Eight reusable cards versus years of cassettes or disks ads up to hundreds of dollars saved. Over a long enough timeline, it would pay for the camera, I suppose. My edit locker from the past 10 years is several hundreds of tapes deep.

The controls and switch layout returns to the organization one might find on a larger, and frankly, older style of camcorder. Good! Menu-driven controls should not be on an ENG-type rig. There are programmable fast-access buttons, as well as dedicated switches for commonly used features like zebra stripes, shutter speed, white balance and gain.

On the down side, the LCD screen, audio and menu functions are all built into the brain module on the front of the (very comfortable) handle, and the viewfinder is attached at the back. If these were part of the main camera body, the layout there would be far more crowded, or would lose some of the useful switches. However, it would allow the operator to give the camera a smaller profile if just a handle, microphone mount and hot shoe could be removed. That's just an idea I had while I was trying to pack and transport the gear. Audio connections include dual XLR plugs with phantom power as well as a compact stereo jack. These are also part of the handle rig, not the camera body.

The video and audio outputs include HD/SD SDI and HDMI jacks as well as 3.5mm standard video and audio outputs. USB connections for moving files to a computer are also standard. The menu system can be accessed with a user-friendly joystick on the LCD screen or a rocker pad system on the camera body. The menus were easy to navigate and thoughtfully laid out.

The 920k LCD screen is clear and bright, but because it was often hard to see in direct sunlight, I would use the viewfinder to focus. (An aftermarket hood would help with this.) The rear-mounted viewfinder is a new 1.22 megapixel Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) unit. It was sharp and clear and, considering its smaller-than-half-inch screen, very impressive. I found myself using it as much as the LCD screen.

The camera features JVC’s Focus Assist function, which highlights contrasting edges in the image to make finding focus easier. Auto-focus works great in general and then you can switch it off when you need to shoot manually. I did a few rack-focus shots on the spring cherry blossoms that Japan is so famous for, and barrel focusing was a breeze.

For the price, I found this camera to be the best I have test-driven in the past decade. It is lightweight, supports multiple recording formats and data rates, has a fantastic lens, sips electricity from digital IDX batteries. It can overcrank and undercrank for slow-motion and other creative work. It has a pre-record function to cache memory so that shots are never missed, along with a plethora of other industry-standard and JVC-innovated features. It is light, compact, and rugged.

Oh yeah — as I wrote earlier, the images I shot were stunning, too. There isn’t much else for me to say but, "Go buy one."

Will Holloway owns Iron Horse America – Video / Media. He is based out of the Seattle area and has been specializing in transportation industry and sports documentary work for 22 years.