This is a position that I never thought I would be in as a camera operator. Directly talking about a type of camera that actively removes the need for an operator to be beside the camera at all times.
Yet here we are. These are strange times indeed.
In November, we ran a live stream for a local group of vocalists in London, where we had to take higher than normal COVID-19 safety measures. We needed to keep the personnel required down, our footprint small and our flexibility high. So I took on myself to hire in a three-camera PTZ kit from Broadcast services here in the UK to bring our cameras up to a total of four. (For the record, they weren’t the Birddog model sadly…)
The show went amazingly well, having an operator being able to control three cameras from a PTZ controller with a static Sony FS7 to have a safety camera to switch to in the event of chaos. We mounted a camera upside down OVER the band to catch the hidden drummer, bassist guitarist and keyboard player, an angle not possible before using these sorts of cameras.
I was sold from that moment on. I got in touch with Birddog and handed over my credit card details to 3D Broadcast Sales. Whilst it wasn’t the brand we had used, they have some more items in the pipeline that I was excited about, so I went with their “visually lossless” full NDI offering over the NDI-HX options out there.
Let’s get that point clear early on. If you get these and expect full 35mm large sensor camera quality, then these are not for you.
These cameras feature a 1/2.8 inch CMOS 2.13MP sensor, which puts it in a category smaller than an APS-C camera, and smaller than your more common 2/3″ sensor found in most broadcast cameras. To put it in perspective, this sensor size equates to roughly larger than an old 8mm film sensor, and marginally below the sensor size on the DJI Phantom 3 drone. Source: Wikipedia
So yes, your dreams of achieving stunning depth of field, soft backgrounds and outstanding bokeh have to take a back seat with this camera.
But that’s okay. That’s not what we’re here for.
If you want speed, agility, quick setup and decent images, then these are for you.
As cameras, they can shoot frame rates up to 1080p60. Meaning, they can be used not only for live streaming but also in full broadcast television productions. They feature a full 3G-SDI output on the camera to back this up, or HDMI if that is your flavour. I found using SDI as my input source rather than NDI made me more confident in the timing, than relying on NDI but this isn’t something to worry about. The NDI is lightning quick and more than reliable enough, I just can’t shake my SDI broadcast background. It also means running one extra cable.
Because yes, they are PoE+ capable. This means you can run one single ethernet cable from your power over ethernet (PoE) switch and have full PTZ control, full 120Mbps NDI, comms AND power over one lead. Definitely an advantage.
However, be sure you purchase the right switch. I had to return one that could only provide PoE “af”, not PoE “at”, which apparently is different enough to not be able to drive the P200. Check that your switch can handle a 14W output to the camera, or multiples of that if you have several P200’s on the same switch. I had good suceess with the Ubiquity 150W PoE Switch.
Once you plug them into your network, they just appear, as long as you haven’t previously changed their IP type to being Static, rather than DHCP. Be aware of this.
I was playing around with one of the three on a different network, on which we allocated it a 192.168.1.x static IP. When I returned it to a network that had a 192.168.0.x range, we couldn’t find it. Being on a different subnet matters big time. Also sadly you can’t easily access the camera then to change it back. I had to contact support to fix it for me remotely.
As a result, I highly recommend you never change it to static IP. Leave it on DHCP, especially if you have your own DHCP allocator. There’s too much risk of it not working if you are close to production time, and as far as I can tell so far it has no fallback to access it to change it. (There could be, I just haven’t found it)
The second thing I recommend you do is log in to the camera via the Birddog WebUI, and change the name from the default. I named the three cameras after three ships from the Star Trek universe, namely Enterprise, Voyager and Discovery. The reason why this is a good idea is due to the “Bonjour” sharing these cameras feature. It means you’ll be able to log into the camera on any network with the address of its name, followed by .local. Such as, http://enterprise.local – Not only looks cool, but is super simple and bookmarkable.
If you open your NDI receiver of choice (NDI Studio Monitor from Newtek is a good start) it should appear quickly, with your custom name, with full control available. It also appears as a valid NDI source in vMix, my live streaming software of choice. You can fully control it within vMix if you add it with “Sony VISCA over IP” control, and the correct IP address. This HAS to be the IP address, not the .local version. With this control, you can set virtual inputs for your camera in vMix, allowing you to have many many saved position presets callable as individual cameras. Be aware, that as of writing, there are some bugs with this feature in vMix, but Birddog and them are talking to resolve it.
You can have a multiple camera OB set up in minutes, just by running Cat6 ethernet. That’s impressive.
The part that matters to most.
Out of the box, in full-auto mode, the picture is grainy. Like, really grainy. Far more than I like to see from having used broadcast cameras over the last twenty years, where I have always regarded gain as a dirty word. (Though this is changing with modern cameras, and I sometimes use it to bring out backgrounds)
However, all is not lost. You can tweak the settings extensively to get a relatively clean image, the P200 just has a lot of enhancements on as a default setting.
I found once I put the camera in full manual, turned off the gain (and set the max gain amount to 10dB), turned off the other enhancement modules and turned off the wide dynamic range, it was quite clean. But I do notice that even at fully open f/1.6 aperture, you need a lot of light on your subject. More than you would think.
I wouldn’t be taking this camera out into the night to shoot moody streetscapes or have it operating in an ultra-dark environment. However, if that is your thing…
There is an IR-Cut option!
Yes, you can shoot infra-red pictures with this, meaning for fly-on-the-wall shooting that needs to be discreet in dark rooms, this works great. Your image is the stand IR black and white as you would expect, but looks great.
Not something I would use much, but others might.
I mentioned the aperture, which at f/1.6 is impressive. You can get a lot of light onto the tiny sensor which helps out a lot, but always factor in having lots of light.
Colour-wise, I had some trouble getting accurate colour reproduction from this camera, which was down to a firmware error that Birddog have acknowledged needs fixing. They have released patches to deal with it, and at the time of writing, they were working on a replacement firmware to get rid of this error. It was causing overly strong yellows when balancing especially under a mix of tungsten and daylight light.
For both the exposure and colour, I feel like I am never going to run these cameras in full-auto mode, and I don’t recommend anyone else does either for the following reasons:
- When it comes to white balancing in Auto or ATW modes, the camera doesn’t like changes in light. When I had a shot go quite dark, or I closed the iris manually, the white balance suddenly made everything purple. It must have interpreted the darkness as being purple rather than black. This might be a firmware issue though.
- When using any auto exposure mode other than manual, the camera was loathed to use the aperture/iris to increase the amount of light coming into the camera. It always preferred to use the gain instead. If you aren’t ready for manual, then I would use Shutter-Priority mode set to your native frame rate of your project, with a hard gain limit of 10.7dB. Anything higher than that is just a grainy mess.
Now, with the gain adding grain, they do have a Noise Suppression option available ranging from 0-5. I filmed using these settings, and I would never go above 2. Anything above this that has movement will become a ghostly, blurry mess. The noise suppression is great and works well but don’t use it for anything with movement.
With the recent firmware changes, they have added a colour matrix mode, which lets you tweak all sorts of individual colour gain and hue options. Me personally, I prefer the clean look so probably won’t play with this too much, but this certainly is a welcome feature for anyone with CCU experience looking to have more options available.
If you have a spare forty-five minutes, and would like more information about the picture settings of the P200 cameras, then please watch the YouTube video I made in early January 2021 about each of the settings.
(Note, that this was recorded when the beta firmware was the recommended firmware. They have had a release since that has fixed many bugs)
The BirdDog PTZ Keyboard is a pretty capable bit of kit, allowing you to control up to 255 PTZ cameras on your network. Where you can find a network that can sustain 255 NDI cameras, don’t look at me. As a result, I’ll put this in the unproven pile.
It’s a nice fit. It feels good in your hands as you’re controlling it. The joystick feels responsive as you move the camera around, and it goes from a slow push to a fast sweep with the least amount of resistance.
It can be powered by PoE (Power over Ethernet), so you can run it from an isolated PoE switch with your cameras, and send only one ethernet cable back to your production switcher. Not bad.
The rubberized buttons feel grippy, and there are six customizable function buttons, that you can program to be almost anything you like. From selecting the camera to control to cycling the power. Whatever you like really within a list of options they allow you to use.
The boot time is a little slow, and to be honest adding cameras is both easy, and painful. The sequence is “Search -> Choose Protocol -> Start Search”, so that part is easy. If you’ve configured your camera correctly, it should appear as an IP address. (For NDI at least)
But, from here, it’s slightly confusing, but I think I’ve finally figured it out.
You select the IP address for the camera you want to assign (With the L/R direction dial), then you need to assign the camera an ID. The keyboard will default to 001 for the first one it finds etc… You change this with the U/D Direction dial next to the L/R one, or punch in a number on the keypad. Here is why I STRONGLY recommend naming your cameras unique names, otherwise they are just birddog-ae7fs2 or something similar.
Then, you begin the exit party, as you click exit, exit, no & exit and exit one more time. I would really prefer a “Save and quit” option somewhere.
So now, you should have a camera loaded.
Now, is what I feel like is the single biggest downside of this keyboard.
You get no feedback on what the camera settings are on the display. None.
You turn up the shutter speed, it just does it and tells you nothing. Same with the iris, gain and black levels. There are critical functions that I need to know when tweaking them. I need to know if my Iris is already maxed out before I start adding gain. I need to know that I am already at my slowest acceptable shutter speed so I don’t accidentally knock it into slow shutter territory.
This needs fixing.
It is the same with the focus position. It would be great to know what distance the focus is currently set at, so we don’t throw it the wrong direction when it is slightly out.
White balancing, when in manual mode, you can see the red and blue gain levels being changed, so it seems like it could be possible. Toying with the API in the cameras myself this information is available, but from what I understand from the support team at BirdDog (who have been fantastic and very responsive even on weekends and holidays as I pound them with questions) is that the keyboard isn’t speaking the same language as the API, so the information isn’t changed on demand as quickly compared to the WebGUI and menu system/remote control.
I’ve confirmed this through an API query tool I built for the P200, available here: GitHub
Changes you make through the keyboard take around five seconds to be updated on the API, despite the camera updating on demand. However, when you make a change in the WebGUI or Menu, the API reflects it immediately.
I’ve been assured this will be worked on in a future update, and I look forward to it soon.
Otherwise, the OPW (One Push White Balance) is exactly like I’d use it on a professional broadcast camera, and that’ll be my go to default setting. I’m glad it is included on the keyboard.
When we used the other brand cameras on our job mentioned earlier, the focus dials were “stepped” if that makes sense? It was like the focus had a notched wheel it was bound to, and would only switch between notches and never in-between notches. We were using a third party keyboard which may have caused this so it may be up for debate as to what was to blame.
Comparatively, this focus dial and response from the camera is smooooooth. It reacts to your focus request like a manual lens would, able to be tweaked down to the millimetre. The one push AF function is responsive, as long as you’re not asking it to decide between something near and far in the same image. For a talking head, it will work. For a tree in front of a distant background as an open aperture, not so much. It seems to take in the whole frame when deciding, rather than a small section in the middle of the frame as I would have expected.
The zoom rocker is nice, and works like I would expect. However, it is replicated on the joystick. I can see how this would be useful for one handed operation, leaving your left hand free for other tasks, but me personally, I would like to change the joystick yoke control to actually adjust the focus instead of zoom, since it already has a dedicated rocker. Sadly, you can’t do this yet.
Nice bit of kit, with a good future ahead, but right now lacks some features that professionals will want to see.
For anyone looking for a plug and play, out of the box run on full-auto mode camera for video conferencing, live-streaming or simple shows then this kit would be perfect.
Anyone looking for absolute control over your exposure/shading settings like a broadcast camera would have, then I’d tell you to be patient. BirdDog are moving forwards and things are changing for the better, but they’re not quite there yet. A firmware update in late 2020 introduced the colour matrix, so if that is a sign of things to come then it is looking good.
As the first PTZ camera I have owned, and the second I have used in my lifetime, I would say that it is a great camera with a lot of potential. Some particular standout points:
- The API is great, though it would be better with more information. The manual they provide says that it allows for /POST commands to be sent to it, but this is not the case yet. You can only /GET information at the moment. I would LOVE to be able to get the camera position, zoom and focus positions at will. This is available via VISCA, but I haven’t played with that yet.
- The picture quality is good, but it’s not as tweakable as a professional broadcast camera yet. It is getting better, and with each firmware update I’m keen to see what they can enable. Example that I find is lacking, is a Kelvin colour temperature feature which apparently was available on the P100, but was skipped on this model. That is disappointing to me.
- The camera loses a lot of light on zooming. Anything beyond 1.0x seems to lose stops when not running any exposure compensation.
- The lack of camera feedback on the keyboard LCD is disappointing. Particularly with shutter speed, you can find yourself suddenly around 1/5000 speed with a black screen, and when you adjust it back you can end up in slow shutter territory all too easily. With a display showing the current speed, you’d be able to stop early.
All in all, these are great cameras to setup and leave on full-auto and look good with some minor tweaks. Perfect for static installations, video conferencing or fairly quiet events. Anything with action, drastically changing lighting conditions (concerts etc.) or other variable conditions you will need to run things manually, which isn’t easy to do quickly using the keyboard or interfaces. I do hope that improves.
Because I actually like these cameras a lot. I see a lot of potential.