“The Beekeeper” – A mini Documentary

While driving around country Victoria Australia, in early 2009, I stopped by an old Sawmill near Jubilee Lake in the township of Daylesford. Daylesford has an amazing history including playing a large role during the 1850’s – 1950’s Gold Rush era. Today it’s Melbourne’s weekend escape with many Spa & Massage Centres, thanks to the naturally occurring mineral springs, Restaurants and Art Galleries. However Daylesford has many hidden gems, including the subject of my mini documentary.

My family has a long history with the township of Daylesford, including my Grandmother who taught at the local High School. So I remember traveling to various peoples homes to get things like eggs, milk, bread and honey. For some reason, there are several families that make honey in the district. However I remembered one particular place that looked more like an industrial sawmill then a place to get honey. Having recently fallen in love with my Canon 5DMKII’s ability to record HD video, I thought to myself, why not go back to the mill and ask if I could walk around, take some videos and stills. So on a slightly wet and dreary day, I rocked up with nothing more then my camera.

Barry is the Beekeeper. He’s been working the property for ever, having built the place by hand from scrap. It’s difficult to find words that describe what exactly Barry has built other then I would like to describe it as a “Terry Gilliam” inspired work of art! In all fairness, Barry has built everything he needs to make Honey, including growing the Timber to make the Bee Boxes! Hence the Sawmill’s purpose. After logging the forrest, his small team then turn the raw timber into planks that make Bee Boxes. He makes the Wax inserts that will eventually house the honey, as well as obviously taking the Boxes out into the fields where the Bees do all their work. After the Bee Boxes are recovered, he produces Honey & Wax and sells it all over the world. There are people who travel from as far away as India to buy from him.

So I didn’t really arrive at his door step with a great plan. I just wanted to record some of the visuals before time took it all away and have some fun with my camera. Barry is a very kind and generous man. Not only did he allow me to film him and ask questions, he took me on a detailed and frank journey about his life’s work. With my handheld 5DMKII camera with no external microphone or any lighting, I followed him around the property as he explained a few things to me. In my haste, I forgot to switch off the Image Stabiliser on the 24-105mm lens I was using and the sound has a nasty rattle running through everything I shot. I don’t think it matters because the industrial setting does allow for such mechanical noises but I did also reduce it in Post Production. I used Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro to edit “The Beekeeper”. Using the noise removal tools in Soundtrack Pro greatly helped the audibility of the dialogue.

At the time of filming, I was using the 1.0.4 firmware so everything was 30fps only. I converted all the footage to Sony’s XDCAM 35mb/sec format because mostly I was cutting on a laptop and I didn’t want the files size to bog me down. It’s actually a really great codec that looks nice without getting silly on the file sizes. Because Canon hadn’t released it’s FCP plugin, the conversion was done in Mpeg Streamclip. Back in Final Cut Pro I did add some colour adjustments here and there but not on everything. I loved mostly how it looked as it came off the camera. Because the day was quite gloomy and dark, I was shooting wide open and the resulting depth of field is very pleasing. The tones in the scene were largely monotone browns and blacks, which helped give the images an amazing look. So not much was needed to enhance the overall look and feel.

In less then two hours, I had shot an interview, a good amount of cutaways that I could add as overlay and said goodbye to Barry. I can tell you as practicing filmmaker, that is very fast. To add to it, I was completely by myself. In the professional world I can’t do that! So the power of my 5DMKII is not lost on my at all. Some would argue, “Well hang on, I could do that before with my camcorder!” That’s true, but we could never do the job with such film style and aesthetics. At best we could approach Television style news gathering quality but not a rich Cinema experience. Armed with my laptop, I was also able to do most things on battery power and in the field with no other resources such as tape decks, edit suit, or sound studio! Does that change the ability to tell a great story? – I certainly think it helps.

Several months later I went back to see Barry but this time I took along good friend Tibor Hegedis, who lives in Daylesford as well. He’s an experienced filmmaker in his own right and he was gracious enough to come along and help me re-shoot the doco but this time with more gear, more time etc. We shot for most of the day and I used a Dolly, Lights and Pro level Sound Gear to record interviews etc. However, a really strange thing occurred later. As I was cutting the new footage, I felt it looked manufactured and fake. It looked setup! I actually felt crestfallen by it because I had worked so hard to make better the situation. So for the next few months I kind of left it and moved on to other work. Recently I looked at the original raw edit and was surprised that it was actually quite watchable. The rawness of the interview and the unplanned nature of the questions even seemed to be more honest and believable then the revised version. So after much indecision I decided to post it on Vimeo.com so the world at least could pass comment. Barry’s story is worth watching and he really is an engaging individual. Hopefully, with so many DSLR’s now out in the world shooting video, the lives of individuals, Societies and their hard work can be better recorded for the future. It’s exciting to see technology advance but when it has such a profound impact on our own lives and the lives of the next generation, I can truly appreciate the importance of such a technological change.

Feel free to comment yourself. Enjoy!

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Forest regrowth in Daylesford 7 months later!

GreenForrest

After 7 months of rest, recuperation and some heavy rainfalls, the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford Australia is slowly recovering from the effects of the recent bush fires. When ever I get the chance, I like to take trips into the forest and see how nature tries to rebuild what was lost. It’s pretty clear to me though, there are still sections that burnt so fiercely that nothing is left alive. The ground has beens so severely heat treated that not even weeds have sprouted. It’s as if all vegetation has been cleansed from the area! Yet other areas show promising signs of regrowth. The odd shape of trees, heavily blackened by the fire, sprouting small shoots in all directions immediately takes your attention. Yes they look green and alive but in a strange mutant looking way! One strange occurrence I came across was an area severely damaged by the fire. It’s near the entrance to the Wombat State Forest off Wombat Dam Road.  A huge pile of Sawdust, the former site of a Sawmill, had been left where it had been laid many years ago. During the fire, this Sawdust heap was set on fire and burnt for weeks later. In fact, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) had to blast high pressure water canons into the pile to put it out. Surrounding this burnt out heap is an area of bush that only now appears to be showing signs of returning to normal. However the regrowth is very unusual. Instead of the natural grasses and shrubs, the ground beneath the trees is growing almost exclusively a coating of Moss! While I stood there, I couldn’t help but marvel at the surreal beauty of the blackened trees, contrasted by the green carpet of moss below.

Another interesting side note is the sound of the forest. It’s very quite but you can now hear the sounds of birds calling. Something I didn’t hear the last time I was here. In a location not far from this spot, I came across a Koala having a snack from a young eucalyptus tree. It had entered the farmhouse which I was visiting, giving the family and kids a close up view of nature. Completely docile and at ease from the presence of so many, I think it was just happy to be eating healthy eucalyptus leaves, something it obviously was struggling with in the near by forrest. I suspect the charcoal covered trees, prone to branches snapping in the wind, are not fun to climb, so venturing onto farmland with healthy trees seems to be a big temptation?!

Here are a few shots from my recent trip into the forest during September 2009. Enjoy!

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Easter – New life in the forest!

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Almost three months later, I visited the Wombat State Forest again, having ridden on bikes through the area over the New Years break. More then a month later, the same beautiful section of forest was decimated by the recent Bush Fires that plagued Victoria. Together with Cinematographer Tibor hegedis, I spent a day photographing the burnt out sections. My brother in-law and I  also took a Helicopter survey of the region. It was obvious to me that massive damage had occurred and that it would take a great deal of time to heal the wounds inflicted by the fires.

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I should make this clear. I don’t intend to harp on this subject matter, it’s just I have found this event quite amazing. Daylesford or more precisely the Bullarto Hogen’s Rd Fire in the Wombat State Forest, did not effect people on a scale like the Kinglake Fires or those at Marysville. For me personally, Daylesford is my second home. I virtually grew up in the area, I got married in Daylesford and both my Grandparents are buried there. So for me it’s only natural to be involved in some way. This is now the third blog entry that I have written on the subject and I promise not to bore you with more.

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It’s Easter now, and I took the opportunity to revisit the same areas that were burnt out. While huge sections of the forest are clearly dead, there is some hope in small sections of the park. Life is springing from some of the trees although I do have to say that this is occurring only in maybe less then 10% of the areas I visited. Mostly I saw nothing but burnt out logs and dead ghostly looking trees in a field of brown leaves covering the ground like a carpet. It’s strangely beautiful in an apocalyptic way??! As I stood in the forest taking photos, I heard nothing but air movement between the trees. No birds and no animals at all. However at my feet, some grasses had broken through the blackened ground, providing at least some green colour to the scene. It’s eerily strange taking photos of a tiny fern, or a tree breaking out into what looks like some sort of strange disease as it sprouts new shoots. Life is coming back. However it is clear to me that this will be a very long time.

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At my brother in-laws farm, the charcoal colour of their fields had been completely replaced with green. Grass had sprouted in the rains that followed the fires and the place was awash with green! For me this was amazing because it had completely changed the way the farm looked. A total transformation is the best way to describe it. I once again took photos of the same subjects on the farm. The Sheep, the Donkey, the House and the large Sculpture nick named “Star Gate”.  I have included a mix of shots from before the fire, directly after the fire and photos I have taken this weekend to compare. I think you will agree its a pretty incredible change.

Riding in the forest

Riding in the forest

StarGate by Greg Johns

StarGate by Greg Johns

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The following photos were all taken over the Easter Weekend. Enjoy!

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Ground Survey of the Daylesford Fires.

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Nearly ten days after the Bush Fires broke out in the Wombat State Forest near Daylesford, a group of friends and family decided that it was time to go back to Daylesford and see if there was anything we could do to help clean up. The Farm at Daylesford had been fully burnt out by the fire but remarkably, it did not damage the buildings. The fencing will need to be replaced, however there is a government funded program that will provide assistance in the replacement. So in the end there was not much for us to do. I had been in contact with a good friend of mine Tibor Hegedis, who does work for the local animal shelter as a volunteer, and he had expressed an interest in taking a 4×4 tour of the burnt out section of the Wombat State Forest. He wanted to document the devastation photographically. All access to the State Forest had been cut off until the day before, so we were entering into the Forest at the earliest possible time. The day prior, a good amount of rain had fallen so the conditions were a little slippery but relatively safe. I certainly didn’t want to put myself or Tibor at risk so we acted very cautiously. We drove around the burnt out section of Jubilee Lake and headed up to Paddy’s Point. From there, we traveled down some of the fire trails to investigate some of the more remote sections of the park. This is the same area I drove through only recently in January. It looks utterly different now! In several places, we found stumps that were very much still burning and in the photos below, you can see Tibor extinguishing them. These photo’s represent my record of the event. Cheers.

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Daylesford Helicopter Fire Survey

Daylesford Fires Helicopter Survey rough Video

For the last couple of weeks, while I have been in Singapore, Victoria Australia has suffered the worst natural disaster in it’s modern history. Extremely high temperatures (reaching 50?C +) and strong winds, combined with a very long period of draught, has seen to the perfect conditions for this disaster to take place. By now the world has heard of Black Saturday, where 210 + people died at Bush fires around the State. Of a particularly sad note for me personally was the loss of a very fine Actor I had the pleasure of working with many years ago. His name was Reg Evans and he was a true gentleman. We had worked together on a Television Commercial for Landrover at a place called Narbethong. The irony of it all was that while he past away at Kinglake, Narbethong was also completely burnt out in the fires.

The day I returned back to Melbourne, the temperatures soared again and fires broke out near the township of Daylesford. I grew up here and I’m extremely attached to the district. My Grandmother taught music at the local high school and my Grandfather settled here for a while. Later my own parents continued to bring myself and my sisters to taste the naturally occurring mineral waters, swim at Lake Jubilee, and go hiking in the National Park. So when I heard about the report of fire in the Wombat State forrest, my heart sank.

I have been a Twitter user for some time but slowly had formed the opinion that it was another useless web 2.0 technology I really didn’t need. Well on this day I found out how amazing a technology like Twitter really can be. I had subscribed to the CFA (Country Fire Authority of Victoria) feed and was getting realtime updates on events. That night, while all other media was vague and sketchy, I was glued to the Twitter feed as the fire spread rapidly across the district. From what I was reading, I knew my Sister and her Husband’s farm was in serious danger. Having spent New Year there only recently, the Farms proximity to the huge Wombat State Forrest was ringing alarm bells for me. I contacted my good friend Tibor Hegedis, who lives in Hepburn Springs only minutes away, to see what he knew. The strain on his voice said it all. He had packed up all his most important possessions and thrown them into his car and was heading for the Daylesford Town Hall to spend the night there. An Emergency shelter was erected at the Town Hall. He was telling me that he was confused as to what was going on. An Ember storm had began on the outskirts of town and people were gathering on the top of Mt Wombat to get a view of the approaching fire storm. It was choking with smoke in the center of Town. Alert Messages were issued for Daylesford and the surrounding areas, warning of direct interaction with the fire. Then suddenly, the Twitter feed announced that the wind had changed and the town was no longer directly inline with the advancing flames. I quickly rang Tibor who wasn’t able to get much information before, to let him know. I slept not knowing what had happened to my Sister and Brother in-laws farm.

Simon, my Brother In-law, contacted me to see whether I would be interested in going up to Daylesford by Helicopter. Many of the roads were still cut by fire and given that there were probably dangers such as hot metal objects and other hazards, a Helicopter was a good choice. For a couple of days he tried to negotiate clearances to fly in, but the fires around Daylesford were huge and took much longer to quell. Eventually we were given clearance to fly up and today we conducted a survey of his farm. Simon is a very pragmatic person, who is extremely grounded and realistic when it comes to his outlook on life. I have seen him under all sorts of stresses related to his work and other matters. On the flight up, he told me of how he and his wife had their rather expensive bikes stolen outside Feds Square in Melbourne. So I knew that what ever had happened to his farm in Daylesford, he was prepared to handle it. When we arrived and overflew the house, I looked back at him. He was excited.

On landing and looking around, we could not believe how lucky the Farm house was. Fire had literarily licked the building but somehow left it be! Every building had survived miraculously. In some instances fire went right around them. The Sheep had some how skirted the flames also. Only two Rams had to be put down down for burns. A Donkey called Diego, which originated from the Northern Territory (along with another Donkey called Moses) had also survived. Moses was killed by lightning a couple of years ago leaving Diego on his own at the farm at Daylesford. Diego has lived through snow storms, draught, and now bushfire! All in all a very happy ending. The entire property was burnt out. So there is no feed for the animals. For the time being they will have to fed by hand. In places, fire was still smoldering and even at one point burst into flames in front of us! A CFA truck had to be called in to put out a fire in an old tree in the gully but overall, incredibly lucky. There are some photos of Sheds that have been burnt down. They belong to a Neightbour to the South of the Farm and another to the North. Both are also very lucky to still have a roof over their heads.

These photos are from this survey by Helicopter of the Daylesford Fires.

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The New Year ticks over!

 

Puppy Play

Puppy Play

As New Years Eve came and went, I took the opportunity to really test out my new Canon 5D MKII. I have to say, I love it. My earlier experience with it was somewhat limited in retrospect because I wasn’t trying to control the lighting or framing in anyway. I was simply pointing and shooting in Documentary style. However, the Christmas, New Year break provided plenty of photographic moments where I could truely test its performance.

 

Tourist Train

Tourist Train

 

Market

Market

 

At the Family Christmas dinner, I used my Canon Speedlite 580EX MKII. This unit is the best mobile flash I have ever used. It uses intelligent TTL metering and has a full range of manual settings as well. I used a Diffuser Cup over the flash to soften the light or simply bounced it into a white ceiling and with the 5D MKII’s Speedlite settings, I was able to shoot some fantastic pics! Being able to quickly dial up exposure compensation on the back of the speedlite was also incredible handy for adjusting the foreground exposure.

 

Driving Miss

Driving Miss

 

Later, We travelled to Daylesford Victoria for the annual New Years Eve parade and various family activities at the Farm and the Town House. Both these places have served as my testing location for many different camera systems over the years because they are a rich hunting ground for Texture, Antiques and incredible vistas. For any photographer, they provide real world conditions to many common photographic situations. The Australian Harsh Sun can truly test any camera for it’s dynamic range capabilities as an example.

 

Riding in the forest

Riding in the forest

 

It’s here I really found that the 5D MKII has some amazing attributes over the original 5D (which I also own). The shear resolution of the camera is impressive. Generally I use to leave my 24-105mm Canon zoom on the 5D. On the new 5D MKII, I found that the resolution of this lens has been superseded by the capabilities of the sensor. To the ordinary lay person, it’s probably not noticeable, however I found the images with this lens were softer in nature and the Vignetting I used to find attractive on the Original 5D now appears too much on the New version. To clarify, I’m subjectively comparing both the 24-105 zoom lens on both cameras as well as comparing the sharpness taken on my 100-400mm Canon L Series Zoom Lens. I also have a 15mm semi fisheye Canon fixed lens. This also appears to be softer in nature but that is to be expected from a really wide angle lens. My point is that both 24-104 and the 15mm lenses on the new 5D MKII show their respective flaws much quicker and in a more obvious way then they ever did on the lesser sensor of the original 5D camera.

 

StarGate by Greg Johns

StarGate by Greg Johns

For me, it points out the importance of choosing the best glass possible when buying lenses. Testing the quality of lenses is quite a science whether it’s on a Stills Camera or on Motion Picture Camera’s. However there are a few things you should always do before buying. Physically test the lens for yourself and Read as many reviews as you can – Most likely others have already performed all the scientific tests for you, however pay attention to any bias towards brand names etc. Not everyone has an agnostic opinion when it comes to choice of manufacturer. There does appear to be quite a war between Canon and Nikon users which is a shame. Both are great Camera Manufacturers however there are others rising fast in the background. Sony, RED and Panasonic are all new names entering into the market with some pretty interesting gear! Third party manufacturers of Lenses also exist and Sigma for instance have some pretty nice lenses with Canon mounts.

 

Dogs

Dogs

 

Puppy still wants to play

Puppy still wants to play

 

 

Lastly, when reading up on reviews from others about lenses, It pays to understand some of the science they used to test with. For me, this breaks down to 3 major factors – The lenses light gathering ability (T stop/ F stop), Resolving power (sharpness and detail), and Distortion amount (vignetting and lens aberration particularly at the edges). There are other factors but these are my main concern. Understanding how these three are tested is useful in decided the quality of the review. If a reviewer fails to explain his or her testing procedure, then you should treat the review as someone’s opinion only. I’m not going to go into the details of how to test a Lens here however googling around reveals plenty of great resources available on the Net. Here’s a good site on Lens Testing with some downloadable test targets.

http://www.normankoren.com/Tutorials/MTF5.html

 

StarGate

StarGate

As for my testing of the 5D MKII, I was particularly impressed with the camera’s ability when I had a very good lens onboard. The 100 – 400mm L series Canon Zoom I own is amazing. It’s very clean and sharp and although the lens is a f4.5-5.6, the 5D MKII’s higher ISO with no perceptible noise increase (up to ISO 1600) makes this point mute! When I controlled the light by using the sun as a backlight or using a scrim, the picture looks very natural and smooth in the colour transitions. I deliberately setup a few different scenarios that pushed the dynamic range of the camera. That is, the camera’s capability to record the detail in the Whitest and Blackest sections of the image. I photographed my sisters new puppy “Gypsy” with a roll of white toilet paper. The scene was shot at sunset with the sun heavily backlighting the scene. I was amazed at how well information in the shadows was recorded while still retaining a good amount in the highlights. The highlights did blow out and ultimately I would still like to see a firmware upgrade to the camera that provides even more latitude in the highlights sometime soon. However, overall the colour handling was impressive. The transition from one colour to the next was smooth despite whichever RAW processor I used (I used both Apples Aperture and Adobes Camera Raw to process the RAW images). Other scenarios placed subjects in fields of Lavender, Grass and in partly shaded forests where again both the Colour handling and dynamic range can be seen. As far as erganomics of the camera are concered. There aren’t too many physical differences between the Original 5D and the new version. Differences can be found however within the menu structure. Everything is much faster to get to know, and sensibly categorised.

 

Sheep

Sheep

 

Bean Bag

Bean Bag

To end my ramblings, I was glad I took the time to really play with the camera before the New Year jobs roll on in. One thing I didn’t fully test was the 5D’s video capabilities. I have recorded some clips, but I find the process of shooting video on the 5D MKII quite difficult. Ergonomically it’s awkward. I would almost prefer to be able to look down the viewfinder while shooting video and not have to always use the “Live-view” mode. I simply can’t see focus on such a small screen on the back of the 5D as well as crane myself into an uncomfortable position to be able to see it! The lack of 24/25P recording is also a major factor. As a result I think the best approach at the moment is to shoot video that is static (no panning and tilting) in nature. Those tests look great but can only be described as “Photographs in motion”! Here again I hope Canon will post a firmware upgrade for the Camera soon. The Ergonomic issues could be solved with the use of an external monitor.

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HDR, IR Imagery and Tone mapping!

This entry is more a summary of my experience using IR and HDR. My earlier entry in Singapore was only an initial experience. I am now back in Australia and travelled directly to Daylesford in central Victoria to my parents future home. The house is a very old “Grey Sisters” convent that has been in our family’s name for over 40 years now. It is to be completely redeveloped shortly but that’s another story – I want to talk about High Dynamic Imagery and Infra Red photography.

In Singapore I bought an IR filter (a seriously dark red filter that cost about $230). By simply screwing this filter to my 24-105mm zoom lens, I effectively filter the light to provide the sensor with shades of Red light. To compensate for such a heavy filter, I have had to set my ISO to 1000 and the exposure time roughly between 1/4 of a second and 5 seconds. Thats using my 5D mark1! So this is best done on a tripod. After setting the framing (by removing the filter for a moment so I could actually see something through the viewfinder) I shot several exposures above and below what I considered to be normal. Off-course all my images were shot in RAW, however I also shot a Black and White Jpeg in camera for reviewing on the camera’s LCD. The next stage after importing these images into my Mac, was to generate a HDR image. That’s a High Dynamic Range Image. This is done by combining all the bracketed exposures from each set of shots using Photoshop’s automated process. You could simply play with Brightness and Contrast etc and derive a pretty awesome image from this but there is another secret ingredient. Tonemapping!

I use a program called Photomatrix Pro. It’s a standalone and plugin based program that works with Photoshop. I find the standalone version best. With Photomatrix, you simply create the HDR image using it’s automated process. It’s pretty clever to adjust any differences in vertical and horizontal alignment for you, which is nice. After it has produced the HDR image, you click on the next step which is to adjust the HDR’s Tonal range – this is called Tonemapping. By playing with the White and Black point, desaturating the image and general Gamma settings, you can create some stunning Infra Red, Black and White photographs. I save these out as 16-bit Tifs and then open them up in Photoshop. Here I adjust the levels to be a bit more punchy and sometimes play with the Shadow/Highlight settings. After this, the image is saved and converted into an 8-Bit version before sizing down and exporting as a Jpeg to this website.

One thing to note while you are shooting this type of image – It looks best to me when there was some direct unfiltered sunlight. This created hard shadows on the ground which look fantastic. Also, having light green colours somewhere in the frame, preferably backlit helped to emphasis the Infra Red quality of the image. Light Green off-course renders as light grey in Black and White, but through the IR filter becomes almost pure white! My last tip is to shoot fast and try to stop all objects from moving in the scene. As the images are combined into one file, any movement between the frames creates artifacts that you might not want. Additionally, movement within an exposure (especially the long exposures) will appear as soft or blurry! This will further degrade the sharpness of your final image. The process is lengthy but the results I think are well worth the effort. Cheers!

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