HDSLR Guide Chapter 1: Introduction

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Overview

In the summer of 2008, Nikon released the D90, a DSLR with an extra feature: HD video recording. It rocked the digital photography and video worlds. Suddenly photographers could shoot dynamite video and videographers could get the look and feel of a cinema camera without the cinema camera price tag. HD video quickly became the feature to look for in a DSLR. A new category of camera was born: the HDSLR.

HDSLRs are truly revolutionary. Their large sensors capture light better than any prosumer camcorder. SLR lenses are sharper and more versatile than any video-camera lens. HDSLRs produce clear, high contrast, super-saturated footage with an undeniable silver-screen feel. But they're not perfect.

Video capture for DSLRs was initially an afterthought. Cameras like the D90 and Canon 5D Mark II were not designed specifically for video capture. They were built as still-image cameras. HDSLRs lacked fast, reliable autofocus, built-in image stabilization, high-quality audio processors, and the ability to record uncompressed or low-compression footage. Still, HDSLRs shot stunning footage and many pro cinematographers, videographers and documentary makers used them on a daily basis.

In this guide, we'll see how the pros are using HDSLRs today. Then we'll review HDSLR technology, discuss the different HDSLRs on the market and review HDSLR accessories.

HDSLRs in Action

HDSLRs promise the ultimate fusion of photography and videography, creating new possibilities for a host of applications and users.

It takes a lot of gear, expertise, and patience to get fantastic footage out of a tool that wasn't exactly designed for this purpose. Still, that hasn't stopped professionals and amateurs alike from getting truly amazing results. Keep reading to find out what they've been up to—and how to get the most out of an HDSLR.

HDSLR for Photographers

An HDSLR can open up new creative avenues and business opportunities for someone who’s already shooting stills. Skills that have been honed by a photographer can be used to dive right into video production. Many of the basics—such as lighting, composition and color—can be translated to video. And there's an array of super sharp, fast lenses that will provide tremendous flexibility. In fact, someone who uses continuous lighting will already have much of the gear needed for professional video production.

There is, of course, a learning curve. Shooting video with HDSLRs takes a specific set of techniques. Unlike video cameras, HDSLRs (except for cameras like the Panasonic GH2 and a few others) lack reliable autofocus, so the user will need to hone follow-focusing skills. (Most professional camera operators wouldn’t even use autofocus anyway.)

The skills for recording quality audio and creating a sense of motion and sequence will also have to be developed. A nonlinear editing application such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, or Sony Vegas, and perhaps an effects program such as Adobe After Effects, will need to be mastered. Luckily, online and classroom courses abound and the Internet provides a wealth of information for fledgling videogrpahers who are learning the ropes.

HDSLRs were designed to shoot stills, so to get the most out of its video capabilities, the camera will need to be augmented to enable video capture. That could mean the addition of rod supports, shoulder mounts, follow-focus setups and more. The right gear can double or even triple the cost of an HDSLR system. It may sound like a lot, but when compared to a prosumer level video camera costing anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000, the HDSLR offers unique features no video camera in its price range can match.

Learning the ins and outs of video editing and stocking up on gear will allow a still photographer to offer clients HD video. Shooting a fashion show? Offer an HD video production for the Web. Shooting a wedding? An HDSLR on a tripod can capture the vows and ceremony while another DSLR is used to shoot stills. Photojournalists can use HDSLRs to capture riveting "on-location" footage or conduct video interviews, saving time and effectively doubling the number of video crews in the field. Fine art photographers can use HDSLRs to create fascinating new video productions.

How are the pros using HDSLRs? Most famously, photographer Vincent Laforet used a Canon 5D Mark II to shoot the Internet sensation Reverie and a short documentary about surfer Jamie O'Brien. To get his footage, Laforet employs a focus puller to handle manual focusing while he composes shots. Sports Illustrated photographer Bill Frakes has used a whole array of Nikon HDSLRs to grab footage at sports events like the Kentucky Derby. Now he offers video in addition to dazzling stills.

Despite the new skills and equipment required, it's easier than ever for photographers to get into video. HDSLRs look and feel the same as the SLRs that have been in use for years. The visual skills are similar—if not the same—and the technology is more accessible than ever.

HDSLRs for Indie Filmmakers

There's nothing like the rich, engaging look of high-grade cinema lenses and cameras. There's not much that costs more, either.

In comparison to most video cameras, HDSLRs have massive, ultra-sensitive sensors that soak up light better than most video cameras. That means high quality low-light footage, greater flexibility when shooting and a smaller budget for lighting gear. Then there's the staggering array of new lenses HDSLRs bring to the table: from fisheye to tilt-shift to telephoto. And with the right adapter, older lenses from virtually any still camera are useable! HDSLRs are also small, which means they can be mounted to almost anything to get extreme shots and innovative angles. All these features give indie filmmakers more flexibility than they've ever had before. Now factor in the fact that the gear can be purchased on a relatively small budget. The Canon Rebel T2i, for example, shoots 1080p HD at 24  frames per second (fps) and costs roughly $800. Even with a full complement of rod support, matte box and other shooting accessories, it's an outright bargain.

Astute indie filmmakers may ask, "why not use a 35mm adapter for a video camera?" The answer is simple: Adapters add weight and complexity to already bulky camera systems. They also steal light—up two or three f-stops in some cases—and can add noise. Of course, they can also deliver fantastic results, particularly when mounted directly to cameras with removable lenses. Even unaugmented HD cameras are sometimes criticized for being overly long, though, and if a groundglass adapter is added they're miles from being as small and handy as HDSLRs.

There are some hurdles to shooting with HDSLRs. Autofocus systems aren't quite up to snuff when it comes to shooting fast-moving subjects. To get sharp, consistent focusing, a follow-focus unit is practically a must. And an external LCD screen may be helpful for composition and precise focusing, or at least for getting focus marks. A shoulder-mount system will also be a good idea. Then there's the problem of sound. HDSLRs have puny built-in microphones and have low quality, noisy preamps. To grab accurate sound on location or in the studio with HDSLRs, indie filmmakers will need to augment the camera's sound or use an external sound system. Check out the Audio chapter later in the guide to get an idea of what might be needed and how it can be used.

Despite the many advantages of HDSLRs for indie filmmaking, they can't do it all. A 4GB limit on file size restricts most HDSLRs to recording just 12 minutes of full HD footage. Only the Panasonic GH2 can do better. And if the filmmaker is shooting wide and deep with lots of detail, things start to fall apart. HDSLRs have trouble resolving certain patterns with fine detail. Sometimes, the only way around these problems is avoidance. For others, a pro video camera may be the only way to capture a particular project or scene.

Still, HDSLRs are revolutionary for indie filmmakers. Never before have they had such easy access to flexible, inexpensive camera systems with such unique abilities. The producers of indie zombie flick Dead Season attracted a lot of press when they announced they'd shoot the entire movie with a Canon 7D. Another indie filmmaker, Andrew Disney, shot his debut film Searching for Sonny with a 5D Mark II and a Panasonic GH1. Producer and videographer Jon Weiman has shot a documentary about Rwanda with a Canon 5D Mark II. Videographer Philip Bloom has also been using HDSLRs since the first D90 was released. His short, Venice's People, was shot entirely with a 7D. The list of indie productions using HDSLRs is growing fast.

HDSLR for Cinematographers

Cinematographers already have access to cinema cameras and lenses. Why would they need HDSLRs? Well, for one thing, HDSLRs can be used as cheap, effective B cameras, crash cams, helmet cams and more. With HDSLRs, the number of cameras a cinematographer can have at a shoot has grown exponentially. A whole pack of Canon 1D Mark IVs, 5D Mark IIs or 7Ds can be purchased for the price of just a few cinema lenses! That means cinematographers can take more risks with their cameras—wrecking a cinema camera to get the perfect action shot is strictly forbidden and would be horrendously expensive. A 7D, on the other hand, could be risked for the sake of the film.

Additionally, new HDSLRs like the Canon 1D Mark IV can practically see in the dark. With ISO ratings in the thousands, they can handily beat prosumer video cameras and even some cinema film cameras in low-light conditions.

PL mounts can be used to mount cinema lenses on some HDSLRs. It's also possible to adapt matte boxes and other cinema accessories to HDSLRs, further extending their usefulness for cinematographers.

With HDSLRs, cinematographers can employ more cameras, take more risks and ultimately make better movies. Lucasfilm was looking into using Canon 5D Mark II and 7D cameras to shoot parts of the upcoming World War II film Red Tails and even the much-anticipated live-action Star Wars TV series. The studio also shot a short sci-fi film, called 36 Stairs, exclusively on the 5D Mark II. As time progresses, we see some HDSLR footage showing up on the silver screen.

HDSLR for Documentarians

Anyone who shoots documentaries will immediately appreciate the diminutive size of HDSLRs. Not only can documentarians squeeze HDSLRs into tight spots to get never-before-seen shots, the relatively tiny cameras are far less intimidating to interviewees than big high-grade video and film cameras. Their small size also keeps them lightweight. Toting a high-end video camera and its various components up a mountain can take a whole village of Sherpas. A good HDSLR kit can fit in a few backpacks.

There are some limitations. As noted earlier, HDSLRs are usually limited to about 12 minutes of recording time per take. Only the Panasonic GH2 can top that with no hard limit (except for battery power and SD card capacity) on recording time. That makes recording live events or long interviews tricky. Pausing an interview to press the record button every 12 minutes means running the risk of losing the “moment” or missing the action. And the onboard HDSLR sound isn't going to cut it for documentary work, so additional sound gear will be necessary. The lack of lenses designed for continuous manual operation can also be a problem.

Despite these limitations, documentarians can get a lot of use out of HDSLRs. The sheer beauty of the apparent video quality is enough to make some documentarians jump through the necessary hoops to make it work. Freelance photojournalist Danfung Dennis filmed his documentary, Obama's War, with a Canon 5D Mark II while embedded with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Company in Afghanistan. To capture "run-and-gun" footage, the journalist built a shoulder-mounted stabilizing system. The results are stunning: full HD combat footage of Marines in action. With more photojournalists equipped with HDSLRs, documentaries like Obama's War should become more coomon.

HDSLR for Broadcast

HDSLRs hold the same benefits for broadcast TV as they do for cinematography. They're affordable, compact and flexible. They also deliver the much-sought-after narrow depth of field that can be used for more creative shots. Again, they can be used as cheap B cameras, car cams, crash cams, helmet cams and more. Because they're relatively inexpensive when compared with broadcast cameras, they can be risked to get great shots, like epic explosions or car crashes.

To be sure, there are serious concerns with the use of HDSLRs for broadcast or theatrical release. Short recording times can hamper long-form interviews or other shots. The lack of autofocus or focus assist can hinder some users. Onboard audio isn't good enough for broadcast applications, so television crews will need additional sound gear. In fact, some networks won't even accept video from HDSLRs. They argue that even though video coming out of the cameras looks fantastic, it doesn't stand up to post processing and broadcast standards well enough to be used over the air.

Still, many other networks will take video shot with HDSLRs. For example, the opening sequence for the 2009/2010 season of Saturday Night Live was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and 7D. In the end, it's up to the individual network to decide whether footage from HDSLRs will be acceptable for broadcast. In cases where their abilities are put to appropriate use, HDSLRs may well be more than good enough.

HDSLR for Event Videographers

In the right hands, an HDSLR can produce nostalgic wedding footage that tugs all the right heartstrings. Shallow depth of field combined with super-sharp lenses and cinema frame rates can make nuptials and the ensuing festivities seem timeless. And the cameras are small, which makes it easy to reposition them or follow the action. Supreme low-light performance means clear footage of the best man giving his speech by candlelight or the couple's first dance under a sparkling chandelier. A huge range of available lenses will allow getting the right shot, whether the ceremony takes place in a small gazebo or a huge hall.

The same stunning visuals can also give mediocre corporate videos an edge. An HDSLR, a wide-angle lens and some creative color correction can turn a factory tour into a YouTube hit, or turn a lifeless training video into a vivid, riveting piece. In short, HDSLRs can unlock the potential for creativity and breathe fresh life into corporate videography.

HDSLR for Visual FX

HDSLRs can deliver superb-looking video. Still, the compression, color subsampling and aliasing can cause real problems with chromakeying and tracking. By contrast, an EX3 camera has the ability to output an uncompressed 4:2:2 image through an SDI output that can be recorded by an external device like a nanoFlash.

And HDSLRs pose more challenges for visual FX masters. CMOS sensors use rolling shutters when recording video, which means they record strips of video in sequence from top to bottom. Move the camera too quickly and the top part of the frame gets out of sync with the bottom. The resulting "squiggly" effect can make placing 3D objects into HDSLR video difficult or impossible. Essentially, 3D software can't match this so-called "Jello effect" and 3D objects remain solid while the rest of the shot squirms.

Plug-ins such as The Foundry’s Rolling Shutter can greatly help to alleviate this, but avoidance is still key.