RED Epic GUI Mockup

Shooting with RED Epic #6: Know Your Camera’s Firmware and Its Limitations

While a steady stream of improvements on the software side is promising – and indeed the chosen course for digital cinema cameras today – it can sometimes mean an underdeveloped system being released with a camera, thus the beta-test complaints.

From our ongoing exploration of 10 Things You Should Know Before Shooting with RED Epic:

6. Know Your Camera’s Firmware and Its Limitations

When RED releases a new camera you can bet on three things:

  1. Half of the community will love it
  2. The other half will decry having to beta test it
  3. Everyone will have to deal with software bugs

That’s because RED is perpetually patching, upgrading, and releasing camera firmware updates.

While a steady stream of improvements on the software side is promising — and indeed the chosen course for digital cinema cameras today — it can sometimes mean an underdeveloped system being released with a camera, thus the beta-test complaints.

And while the Epic has grown leaps and bounds since its very first beta-release firmware, it still doesn’t come without the potential for software bugs.

It’s Your Job to Know the Capabilities of the Camera

As of right now, the RED Epic firmware is on version 3.0.

And while there are certainly limitations of that firmware, I would quickly date this post if I were to list them out for the purpose of you knowing what they are. It would be useful for a few weeks, but it would hardly prove to be useful in a few months.

(Just wait until the firmware is on 4.0 or 5.0 and you’ll re-read this amazed at my predictive abilities.)

Instead, I want to emphasize a much more important lesson — taking the initiative to know what firmware the camera has and what limitations that firmware carries with it.

What’s the old saying? “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

I want you to get in the habit of learning firmware limitations for yourself.

I want you to be fed for life.

Like the updates you receive to your iPhone apps, sometimes firmware upgrades contain small “bug fixes,” while other times they are full-featured updates adding brand new capabilities.

But no matter what the update entails, it changes some part of the camera’s technology.

As a camera assistant, you have to be aware of these changes and modify your previously established workflow with the camera. It’s your job to know the capabilities of the camera to the fullest extent and relay that information as its needed to various crew on set.

For instance, at one point the Epic didn’t support 3K resolution, so if a director of photography (DP) had asked me to shoot high-speed at a frame-rate not supported by 5K or 4K, I would’ve had to tell him 2K is our next option.

But when RED soon released a firmware upgrade that unlocked this feature, I was able to present that as an option lest I deprive the DP of the extra resolution at the framerate he had chosen.

There are countless instances where I’ve overheard someone say something like, “Oh but this camera can’t do that” when, in fact, it can — it’s just a recently added feature.

This happened to me not so long ago when I was asked if there were playback issues with the Epic because the DP I was talking to “heard something about that.”

I did my research and, while it’s true there had been playback issues previously, it was no longer an issue on the newer firmware. That helped quell some of his fears, some of the director’s fears, and some of the client’s fears about using the camera.

That’s the power of staying up-to-date: you enable yourself to confidently relay accurate information that allows the key creative crew to execute their vision correctly.

How to Stay Up-to-Date on Firmware Updates

The Easy Way

The easiest way to keep track of these changes isn’t to hound the REDUser forums or gear sites or anything like that. The easiest way is to wait until you have another job with the camera, re-read the manual (especially the parts that cover known-issues) and also read the changlog of the updates.

Not only will this be a great refresher for what hasn’t been patched, but you may find some cool feature has been added that you will want to use when you get your hands on the camera.

The Longer, Cover-Your-Ass Way

Manuals and changelogs, while informative most of the time, tend to only cover known issues (as in, known to RED) — they aren’t quite as agile with updating information as issues arise.

If you have heard of an issue (as I did the playback issue mentioned), but found no mention of it in the manual or the changelog, you should start Googling away, ask in forums, and poke around online.

At times, I turn to the Twitter braintrust and ask my followers (follow me @evanluzi) about their experience with a camera.

Be resourceful, but reasonable. If you can’t find anything on the topic, than it’s likely you’re safe.

As a final check for the software’s capabilities, give it a whirl yourself. The first thing I did when prepping the Epic on the shoot I mentioned above was shoot a quick clip and check playback.

It worked.

It’s not that I didn’t think it would, but a lot of camera assisting is simply covering your ass. It’s good practice to test out new features anyway or test fixes of previously non-working features. This will give you the confidence to proclaim the capabilities of the camera on set.

Ensure You’ll Be Working with the Newest Firmware

Lastly, you’ll want to confirm your rental house has upgraded the firmware on their Epic — especially if it’s been recently released — and, if they haven’t, ask what firmware is installed.

If there is a feature especially crucial to your shoot and it’s only available on the newest firmware, request ahead of time for the rental house to install it.

Don’t wait until the day of your camera prep to make the request or there may not be sufficient time for them to download, install, and troubleshoot the firmware update.

An Aggressive Update Schedule Keeps You on Your Toes

So why is this article only for RED Epic cameras?” you might ask

Well, it’s not. You’re right — you could apply this knowledge to any camera system.

But it’s umbrella’d under this series because of RED’s particular habit of having a more aggressive update schedule than other manufacturers. This makes it much harder to keep up with the changes and thus more important to acknowledge the need for that.

Especially because, at this point, Epic is still early in its firmware update cycle. Expect the updates to remain aggressive as the camera continues to proliferate deeper into the market.