Sure, they aren't perfect, but HD video-capable DSLR still cameras shoot full raster 1920 x 1080p video in a range of frame rates at incredible price points. An up-close look at workflow concerns, feature sets and production pros and cons.
I, along with many other people I know or followed in the industry, were blown away by Laforet’s film, not just for its aesthetic value but for what it meant: It had many of the qualities we associate with high-end cinema but was shot on a camera that cost less than most 35mm lens adapters on the market. A $2,700 camera that has a GINORMOUS image sensor (roughly double the size of a Super 35mm imager). A $2,700 camera that, as you might expect from a company known for its optics, has an interchangeable lens system that supports Canon’s full line of EF lenses. This $2,700 camera that is also, arguably, one of the best DSLR still cameras on the market.
Notice that I refer to the 5DMKII as a camera, not a video camera. That’s what we must all keep in mind when considering DSLR for our video projects. The current crop of DSLR-style cameras that shoot HD video are just that: still cameras that have the ability to shoot video. HD SLRs, HD DSLRs, VDSLRs-these are just some of the names the industry has come up with for these cameras that shoot HD video. How we love acronyms! I could go on at length about all of the above. Instead, I’ll focus on DSLR for this article, comparing feature sets among the various models and giving you a hit list of must-have gear if you want to build your kit around one of these cameras.
What’s Out There
There are a number of DSLR-style cameras on the market from Nikon, Canon and Panasonic, although Panasonic’s cameras are not technically DSLRs as they don’t contain mirrors. At the time of this writing, Canon is clearly leading the way. The company currently has three true DSLR cameras that are serious contenders; the Canon EOS 5DMKII, the EOS 7D and the recently announced EOS 1D Mark IV. Each camera has pluses and minuses. One thing they share, however, is manual control over aperture, shutter speed and ISO, or film sensitivity. This was not the case with 5DMKII when it first came to market (and hats off to Vincent Laforet for pulling off Reverie without that control). But that changed this past June when Canon released the 5DMKII 1.1 firmware update.
The 5DMKII has a full-frame, 35mm sensor. Put a 50mm lens on the camera and it is a 50mm lens. The 1DMKIV has an APS-H sensor with a 1.3x crop factor and the 7D has a APC-S sensor with a 1.6x crop factor (roughly the same size as a super 35mm imager). If you put a 50mm lens on the 7D, you’ve got, effectively, an 80mm lens.
Canon stayed true to its original EOS customer base and designed each of its DSLR cameras as a still camera first. Clearly video was not just an afterthought. Each camera has features that different video users will want. The full-frame 5D is probably the best “traditional” still camera. This also means it is excellent in low light, though the new 1DMKIV, with it’s new ISO “tuning,” will be the clear leader in that category. The 5DMKII currently only shoots at a true 30fps, but a firmware update is coming that will add 24p and 25p to the camera. The 7D is the price point leader and has something the 5D doesn’t currently have: frame rates. At 1920 x 1080p, the 7D (and the 1DMKIV), can shoot 24 (23.976), 25, and 30 (29.97). At 1280 x 720p they can shoot 50p and 60p. Shoot at 60p and drop into a 30 or 24 timeline and you have over-cranked footage that will play in slo-mo.
Panasonic has a different approach. The company’s Lumix GH1 has a micro four-thirds sensor approximately four times the size of a 2/3-inch sensor. Not as large as the Canon DSLR cameras, but still ginormous. The camera itself, as I said above, has no mirror. This is a MAJOR advantage. No mirror means that virtually any mount can be used with the camera. You can use, among others, a PL mount adapter on the camera, something that can’t be done without some serious modifications to a standard DSLR. This means you can use lenses like Zeiss’s Compact Primes on the GH1.
The GH1 shoots in a number of frame rates and does shoot 60 and 24. This is a great first camera for this market from Panasonic and it even has a custom-designed lens that, though not fast, is definitely the most video-based lens of all the shipping DSLRs. The data rate used is quite low, but the camera is capable of producing remarkable images.
Some of Nikon’s players are the D90, D300s and the D3s. Again, there are trade-offs with each. Just like the Canon cameras, each has it’s advantages in terms of sensor size, features and cost. Based on user experience, the biggest thing that the Nikon cameras are having issues with are rolling shutter. Lots of “jello-cam”. This, though, is reportedly much better in the D3s. All CMOS sensors suffer from rolling shutter. Some cameras more than others.
The D90 also doesn’t have manual control over aperture and ISO-a major disadvantage when shooting video under varying conditions (think outside). As with all of these cameras, it’s important to really dig and see what you aren’t getting before you buy. I am not as familiar with Nikon’s offerings, but have seen some really beautiful stuff shot with them.
In the Real World
There are currently lots of things being shot on DSLR cameras. Independent features, music videos, industrials and even show opens and parts of TV shows. I just shot my first real DSLR job for a client on two 5DMKIIs. Real client, real crew, real locations. Here’s an excerpt. To watch it in its full aspect ratio and find out more about the project, visit theC47.com.
While each DSLR camera uses a different codec, the most common is some flavor of the H.264 codec. All three Canon cameras, for instance, shoot 8-bit, 4:2:0 footage in the H.264 codec (in a QuickTime wrapper). H.264 is a fantastic distribution codec, but just as MPEG-2 posed its post-production challenges (nightmares), with the advent of HDV, so does H.264. While our systems have caught up to MPEG-2 and can comfortably edit HDV, XDCAM HD and XDCAM EX footage natively, most flavors of H.264 are a different story. Our systems can’t comfortably recreate all of those partial frames in realtime (at full frame rate). H.264 is very efficient but it can use frame reordering during compression, which can make it even harder for out NLEs to keep up.
What does this mean? Well, it generally means that when working with the current crop of DSLRs, you will probably want to transcode you footage to a more NLE-friendly codec. I am based on a Final Cut Studio workflow, so my codec family of choice is ProRes. I have a preset set-up in Compressor that automatically takes my 5DMKII footage and transcodes it to ProRes for easy editing. XDCAM EX is another option.
And then, there’s the audio issue, or lack thereof. I recently wrote a full article for Abel Cine Tech on this subject. While each of these DSLR cameras can produce remarkable images, they are terrible, simply terrible, at audio. Each has built-in audio capabilities but none of them give the user any real manual control over what’s being recorded. Most important, all of the cameras use Automatic Gain Control (AGC) when recording. And, it can’t be disabled, except without workarounds.
AGC works on the equality system. If Jane is talking to the camera and suddenly someone makes a sound in the background, the AGC will kick in. It will adjust (increase), the mic’s gain and try to make them as loud as Jane. The audio levels will be all over the place and unwanted white noise can be introduced into the recording.
There are a number of current solutions that you can use to get around this and ensure that you’re getting the best out of your audio on your DSLR-based projects. The most common and sane is recording double-system sound: recording your audio to a separate device and syncing the good audio with picture in post.
The most popular, cost-effective, recording solution being used for DSLR recording is the Samson Zoom H4n. It’s a portable flash-based recording device that has a built-in stereo microphone and also has two XLR inputs. The only real disadvantage I have run into with the H4n is that you can only set one recording level for both of the XLR mic inputs (which are recorded as stereo to two discreet channels). If you’re serious about your audio, you may want to consider adding a field mixer such as the Sound Devices 302. This will let you control the individual levels for up to three mics and run them as two outputs into the H4n. It’s what we used for my first DSLR project for The Cooper Union and the results were great.
Putting It All Together
Once you have recorded double-system sound, what do you do in post? If you’re using Final Cut Studio for post, Singular Software makes a product called PluralEyes, initially designed for Final Cut Pro, that works wonders. It has saved me days and days of work.
PluralEyes lets you drag your good audio (recorded to an external device, such as the Zoom H4n), and the picture and reference audio from the DSLR cameras into a Final Cut Pro sequence. You then fire up PluralEyes, press Sync, and it lines it all up in one click (it even creates new sequences with the synced versions). Amazing!
If you are using another NLE for post-production, slating each take during acquisition is essential (it should still be done if you have and are using PluralEyes). The current gang of DSLRs don’t record timecode, so slating will give you a definite visual and auditory reference to make syncing in post much easier.
Shooting Style Considerations
A lot of people have very strong opinions about frame rates. Ever since the DVX100 came out, there has been almost a religious viewpoint about shooting 24p. For good reason: it’s the de facto frame rate for feature films, hence the cinematic aesthetic we associate with anything 24p.
That said, the 5DMKII proved once and for all something to me. With a large sensor, great glass and a competent shooter, the frame rate may actually be the least important part of the equation in creating a film look.
I have watched tons of stuff shot on the 5DMKII at 30fps that unless I was told, I would have had a hard time telling if it was 24 or 30. There are so many other factors that contribute to the film look and if you’ve got the mongo sensor, great glass and your shutter set to approximate a 180 degree shutter (1/60th on the 5DMKII), your footage will look fantastic. That doesn’t mean that if you treat the camera right when shooting that you shouldn’t shoot 24 if it’s available. But I have seen many things online that were shot at 24p that look bad (stuttery), which could be attributed to the compression being used. More than likely it is due to how the footage was shot. Just remember that 30p is more forgiving than 24 and that it’s still progressive.
In fact, I’m going to come out and say it: I LOVE 30p!
That said, I have been on shoots that now mix RED footage with DSLRs. Shooting with the 5DMKII in that situation was less than ideal. The 7D is a much better fit, as it can match frame rates and also has a sensor that is very similar in size to the RED ONE.
I have been shooting, almost daily, with the 5DMKII for about three months now. The camera definitely inspired me. In our less than stellar economy I found myself with some (read lots of) time on my hands. So, I decided to start a daily video blog (5x a week), focused primarily on production. When the 5DMKII gained manual controls, I knew it was the camera for me. After that, I set up and launched theC47.com.
Currently I find myself using a variety of different configurations. My standard set-up is a 5DMKII on sticks (Miller DS-20 tripod system), a large daylight balanced softbox for a key, a large reflector for fill and a CTB-gelled Arri Fresnel as a backlight (broken up with camo-netting used as a cookie).
Handheld gets a little tricky without any support system. Image stabilized lenses are recommended if you have zero support except your hands. My current favorite is Red Rock Micro’s The Event. Couple with Hoodman USA’s HoodLoupe 3, you can create a handheld rig that has four points of contact. Much better for smooth shots.
Are DSLRs Here to Stay?
While DSLRs are not camcorders in the traditional sense, they have their place in acquisition. As long as you are aware of their shortcomings and are willing to deal with the trade-offs, they can be used to create some amazing imagery. The ability to throw a 1080p camera and a half dozen lenses in a small backpack is in itself simply amazing.
What is even more exciting, though, is that we can now look into our crystal balls and pray, hope and beg that these large sensors and a flexible interchangeable lens system move upstream and we see some innovative products come to market. I, for one, am extremely excited about what’s to come.
Eventually, my hope is that we will all be able to pick the form factor that best suits our needs with little to no compromise in image quality. We may not get away from double-system sound in a DSLR camera form factor any time soon, but I do believe that many of the other issues that plague CMOS sensors will get sorted out in the future. Even the just-released Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, reportedly has far less of an issue with rolling shutter artifacting than the 5DMKII and the 7D. It still, however, has issues with aliasing.
I’m not up to 3D acquisition yet, but I am very ready for the next crop of video cameras that incorporate these ridonkulous sensors and still retain what we love about “real” video cameras: uncompressed monitoring of picture, XLR inputs, built-in ND, OIS, manual audio control, real codecs, etc.
The lines are blurred and I love it!
Jem Schofield is a producer, creative director and author who consults on and teaches production and post-production solutions throughout the United States. His company, Buttons Productions, produces commercial video, print, motion graphics and DVD based projects. He is also the founder of theC47 and theC47.com, an online and offline resource for production based training, information and services. Clients include Apple, Inc., Verizon, The New York Times, Vision Research, Manhattan Records, Abel Cine Tech, BlogTalkRadio and The Cooper Union. He is an Apple Master Trainer and author of the upcoming Apple Pro Training Series book entitled Motion 4 Quick-Reference Guide. He is also the co-author of the Apple Pro Training Series book entitled Motion Graphics and Effects in Final Cut Studio 2 and a contributing author of the Apple Pro Training Series book: DVD Studio Pro 4, 2nd Edition. For more about the production and post workflow used on The Cooper Union project, visit theC47.com.
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