Ben Canales of Oregon-based Uncage the Soul video production company has a few nice things to say about the Canon ME20F-SH. ‘It’s pretty much borderline dark magic,’ he tells DPR over email. I’ve gotten in touch with him to ask about the video you see above, a short film following 20 high schoolers studying the Perseids Meteor Shower as part of a summer astronomy camp. He used the camera and a Sigma 20mm F1.4 DG Art to record the kids as they joined the annual Oregon Star Party, a camp of more than 600 astronomers.
Canales has been on a quest for several years to find the ultimate low-light tool: something that would allow him to capture video of the night sky without using stop motion or time-lapse. ‘A couple years ago I got fixated on the question of “When will we be able to record video of the stars?” I saw the continual progress of sensor quality in my long exposures, and figured it wasonly a matter of time before ISO performance gets so good the shutter speed can be taken down to video frame rates.’
Naturally, he took interest in Sony’s a7S and a7S II, using them for a few low light projects. He calls the A7S series a game changer, ‘but its usable ISO ceiling was somewhere between 50k and 100k… We were close, but not yet close enough to shooting video of the stars. We were past the stop motion look, but the video just looked… kinda crappy.’
Then came the Canon ME20F-SH in late July 2015. It boasts pixels measuring 19μm – 5.5X larger than what’s found on high-end DSLRs and is capable of recording video at 75 Db – equivalent to more than ISO 4 million. Canales got ahold of one and found headed away from the city lights to test it out. His review? ‘Hands down – nothing can currently touch this camera’s ability to shoot in low light. Trust me. I’ve obsessively tried them all.’
In recording the video above, Canales found he could work with up to what equates to a 350-400k equivalent ISO. He hopes that with more experimentation he can push it even further.
So what are some of the challenges of filming in almost total darkness? For one… well, the darkness. ‘Focus is tough,’ Canales says. ‘You need the lens completely wide open to get enough light, so operating in the dark with night vision continually being destroyed by the monitor, and then trying not to fall on the things around me while moving around… it gets comical.’
You’ve also got to work against your natural sleep rhythms. ‘The sleep deprivation and working in time of day we’re normally asleep is the biggest challenge. I made many stupid mistakes simply from exhaustion. But… that’s also the part of this pursuit I enjoy.’
And then there’s an all-too-familiar problem: curious and excited fellow photographers who want to know just what the heck you’re working with. ‘This thing begs for attention around people,’ Canales learned quickly.
‘Anyone who looks over my shoulder and sees the screen has no choice but to be stunned. We’ve seen this image before, but only in green night vision. To see these scenes resolved in color boggles the mind. We don’t have a baselines for this being possible. I actually had a hard time keeping the Q&A informal interviews with the video subjects not be interrupted by “Dude! How are you doing that!?” ‘
What do you think? Does this technology open up new possibilities for astro-videography? Tell us in the comments below. You can also see more of Uncage the Soul’s work on Vimeo.