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Frustration with Autofocus Recording RC Airplanes

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Michael Preyer
Frustration with Autofocus Recording RC Airplanes
on Feb 21, 2019 at 8:53:22 pm

My passion is recording RC Airplanes in flight. I'm having issues with autofocus in flight.

My current camera is a Sony FDR-AX53. It had rave reviews when I bought it. Unfortunately, it has been a total disappointment to me. It's a good camera, but not for me. It likes scenery and large, slow moving objects. RC airplanes are not its friends. My camera hunts for focus so often that I have to discard most of my video. I am SO frustrated with that!

Another issue I have is the tiny viewfinder. The screen is a paltry .24-inches and the eyecup is smaller than my glasses. The image I see is like looking through a toilet paper tube, or even the wrong end of a binocular. That's not acceptable to me. Therefore, I'm going to buy a new video camera. I believe that I want professional quality. I could really use your help...

My new video camera must have the following three features:
1. Extremely fast and accurate autofocus.
2. It must have a large viewfinder (preferably over half an inch).
3. Finally, it must shoot in 4K at 60fps.

Beyond that, I have few requirements. Professional video cameras do WAY more than I need, but if they provide my three requirements, then i'm onboard. My budget is comfortably at $3,000 USD. Maybe up to $5,000 for the right camera.

For example, I have been interested in the Panasonic AG-UX180. It is currently on sale at for $2,695 and I'm very tempted. A channel on YouTube called "Essential RC" (Essential RC) specializes in 4K video of RC flight. Dominic Mitchell, the owner, uses the UX180 and is very happy with it. His results look excellent to me. However, when I asked him about the autofocus, he was realistic in his answer:

"Auto-focus is never going to work well for filming RC. On cloudy days, especially, the auto-focus can lose the subject necessitating clipping when editing back at home. The UX180 does have an amazing focus assist feature that makes manual focus much easier. It highlights the in-focus areas of the subject in red while viewing through the viewfinder. Makes it easy to correct while you are panning the cam."

Argh! I want a run-and-gun video camera with perfect autofocus. I know, that's probably the unobtainable holy grail, but a nice cloned chalis would be nice.

My ears are open to your advice and specific suggestions.

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Mark Suszko
Re: Frustration with Autofocus Recording RC Airplanes
on Feb 25, 2019 at 8:03:15 pm
Last Edited By Mark Suszko on Feb 25, 2019 at 8:44:20 pm

First, I'd suggest the planes are likely being flown too high for good photography. Anything over 100-150 feet and if it's not Quarter-scale or a big 2-meter or Open class sailplane, it's either a mosquito, or you're forced to zoom in so far, you get degraded picture and difficult framing/tracking. If you're shooting Pattern competition, you're kind of limited in the camera position but for scale and the like, your choice of camera position has a big effect on the ease of shooting.

Second, IMO, most of the time your focus could be set manually at infinity. A momentary autofocus button is nice, but for most of the time, you want manual focus, and auto-iris, *maybe*.

IMO when shooting RC planes, a motion-stabilized lens is the most important feature on the camera. Second is a steady tripod with an excellent fluid head. Put on a *little" shutter if you want it crisper, but not too much or you create motion artifacts.

It may be that a short DOF is at the heart of your issues with the current camera; how are you using shutter and ND filters?

As to your eyecup problems, have you tried a larger external monitor, especially with a Hoodman? I find that's helpful. A "field expedient" I used while shooting some America's Cup in full sun on a smaller hd camcorder with a flip-out monitor was, I had a small black paper bag, I cut a slit in one side of the bottom, slid it onto the viewfinder, dab of gaffer tape and bam, instant sunshade. Made a huge difference. Small bags like that can be found in the greeting card/gift wrapping section of a Walgreens or CVS or Dollar Store. Any dark bag will do, navy blue or black, even brown sandwich bags could work. You want the inside color dark, doesn't matter so much what the outside color is. Hoods can also be formed out of black-wrap cinefoil, or bent out of black poster stock or foam core sheet.

The other thing I've learned to do over the years is, keep the left eye open while the right's in the eye cup, and use the wider view as a reticle or ring sight, to help keep the plane framed-up, and locate it faster. Another way you might do that is to make a sighting device, bolted to the light post, that gets you "in the box" quicker.

Best of luck. It's a fun hobby, for sure.

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Michael Preyer
Re: Frustration with Autofocus Recording RC Airplanes
on Feb 25, 2019 at 11:50:10 pm

Hi Mark, What an AWESOME post! I asked this same question on a couple of other forums and got belittled by several "better than thou" posters wondering what the F is wrong with me! If I needed to know that, I'd just ask my wife! 🙉

The number one thing that I was told to do, and I agree, is learn to focus manually like a REAL photographer. I've actually tried to do that with my current camera, but it was not designed to be friendly to real photographers! The focus ring is actually a "multi-purpose" ring that can be assigned to several things. When used for focus, it is really glitchy. My camera has been documented on several forums as having miserable manual focus capability. It really is just a consumer camera that is expensive enough to make a consumer think that he is purchasing photographic magic. I was wrong.

It was recommended that I look at some used shoulder mount broadcast cameras that were originally $7,000 but closer to my price range when used. I loved the fact that they use a large EVF off to one side, but they were limited to HD-1080 at 60fps. I probably would have given them more consideration if they could do 120fps. That's because I capture a lot of "wrecks" and they can be pretty interesting in super slow motion.

Someone asked me why the hell I needed 4K - it is just so pretentious! I have found that I can pull really nice stills from 4K. Also, I can crop and zoom my video in post to help keep the airplanes in the FOV, then render in 1080. Other than the focus issue, I've gotten some pretty decent footage.

I went ahead and ordered the Panasonic AG-UX180 since it is on a really good sale right now at BHPhotoVideo. It has separate rings for focus, zoom and aperture. It has an "instant focus" button. It also has a couple of good manual focus assists. The screen is no good in sunlight, but the EVF is twice as large as the one on my current camera.

On my current camera, I once put a hood on the swing-out screen, but the screen kept drooping from the weight. I taped it in place and that helped but looked pretty hokey. What worked the best was one time when I threw my jacket over my head and over the back of the camera. I was like one of those original B&W photographers from the early years of cameras hiding under my black hood. It worked pretty well except that it kept sliding off. It also was not conducive to recapturing the image if I lost track of an airplane. Your suggestion of having both eyes open while using the EVF is the first that "eye've" heard of that. It makes perfect sense, but I bet it takes some practice. I'm gonna check it out.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Dominic Mitchell in the UK, uses this camera exclusively for all of his content. He has given me some excellent tips on how to get the most from this camera.

Although the UX180 has both physical and electronic stabilization, I still like to use other support just so I don't have to manhandle the camera all day. I'd end up with forearms like Popeye. I've been using a Sirui monopod with a Manfroto fluid head and it's been working out well. I can tip the rig any way I want to follow an RC through the sky. However, a fellow from the UK suggested on another forum that I buy some used REAL broadcast quality equipment such as Vinten, Stachler or Miller. He specifically mentioned a Vinten Post Head tripod that he said was just amazing in its smoothness and ability to track in nearly any direction. It turns out that Vinten is a UK company. It's hard to find in the US. However, I did find one example in the US on Ebay: It never would have occurred to me to look in that price range, but I'm not against it if it is amazing and lasts forever. I could always sell it later if necessary. What are your thoughts on this Vinten Post Head or other used broadcast quality support equipment?

Thanks for your time!


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Mark Suszko
Re: Frustration with Autofocus Recording RC Airplanes
on Feb 27, 2019 at 4:28:28 pm

I agree with your 4k philosophy; I shoot our band at gigs with a couple of unattended 4K gopro knock-offs, then zoom and pan and re-frame with them in post, because I don't have a live camera op. If the output is 2k, a 4k camera can give you that margin without too much noticeable degradation when you blow up the shot.

We've used Vinten, O'Connor, and Sachlter. Vinten heads are fine, I don't care for Vinten legs. Fragile and fiddly in my experience, but the pan heads are fine. I like everything about O'Connor's. Sachtler however is my current favorite, light because it's carbon fiber-based, with a central elevating pedestal that can really get high. That's not something you need to shoot up at the sky, though. You would have liked the old O'Connor, which had a cable-based spreader that could let you get the head and camera down super-low like a hi-hat pan head combination, perfect for beauty shots of a plane on the runway spooling up.

What I'd suggest is you get a pan head and tripod that's rated for something rather larger and heavier than your planned camera. Be sure it comes with a pan handle, and look for an aftermarket remote zoom or focus control that works with your new camera, mounted to that handle. The added mass and a really good fluid head on the bigger set of "sticks" will make for very smooth shots following the planes in flight.

Try your current camera with focus pre-set to infinity. Anything you shoot from more than say ten yards away may as well be set to infinity focus.

Try the paper bag-based hood for a lark; it's very light. So is black foil. I've even made temporary sun shields out of layered pieces of black gaffer tape. To keep the flip-out monitor from swiveling down, tape a counterweight on the back of it, if needed.

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