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Way back—five years ago—if you shot video, you used a video camera, and if you shot photographs, you used a still camera. Today, that distinction is all but meaningless. Almost every video camera today captures stills, and virtually every still camera now shoots video. That latter application, which quickly became a phenomenon with the advent of popular professional cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II and the Nikon D3, became known as HDSLR videography.
If you’re at all into photography or shooting video, you’ve no doubt heard the term. “HDSLR” is a simple portmanteau of “HD” for high-definition video, and “DSLR” for “digital single lens reflex.” The meaning of HDSLR should then be clear: Shooting HD video with a DSLR camera. This article will take you through the basics of HDSLR, component by component, starting with the concept, moving through specific cameras and lenses, and then concluding with a comprehensive tour through the world of HDSLR accessories such as lights, rigs, microphones and much more.
Released in late 2008, the Canon 5D Mark II captured the imaginations of so many videographers and cinematographers for three main reasons: a huge sensor, a relatively low price and surprisingly good 1080p video. The 5D Mark II’s 1080p format represented a first for a DSLR. Before the advent of viable HD video as a DSLR feature, videographers looked to the RED ONE camera for large-sensor power at a price point within the average producer’s grasp, but the RED was about $20K for a sensor roughly the size of a frame of 3-perf Super 35mm film.
The 5D Mark II offered an even larger sensor for much less money. All that was missing was… well, let’s just say that any inconveniences were trumped by the promise of that large sensor being employed to capture gorgeous HD video. The camera enabled a good deal of dynamic range, which means dark black areas, bright white areas, and smooth gradations between the two extremes. Cinematic, shallow depth of field—a tack-sharp subject with a pleasingly blurry background—was suddenly possible. With a fast lens, you could shoot in low light and keep the image-noise level low.
Compared to traditional digital cinema cameras, DSLR cameras are tiny: the 2-lb Canon 5D Mark II is lilliputian compared to the full-sized Sony F950, which tips scales at more than 11 lb without a lens. HDSLR cinematography takes advantage of small bodies that can be mounted easily without heavy-duty support, and those bodies can fit into tight spaces to capture shots that preclude the use of a large camera. Automobile-interior videography is a perfect application for HDSLRs. On major film sets, HDSLRs make a great “crash-cam” candidate. While you probably wouldn’t want to risk it on your own budget, a DSLR that’s thrust into peril can capture some amazing action footage before meeting its demise—and its replacement is waiting in the wings as just another line on a $100 million budget. Captain America and Iron Man II both used Canon 5D Mark II bodies for car-chase scenes. For Act of Valor, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut relied on the camera exclusively at locations all around the world—even attaching it to soldier’s helmets with 18mm Zeiss lenses.
Now, not every camera that is lumped into the HDSLR category has the single-lens reflex that’s suggested by the term. For example, Sony now offers digital SLT (single-lens translucent) cameras with a semi-transparent mirror that sends an image to a phase-detection autofocus sensor, which aids in quicker autofocus. One example is the affordable Sony Alpha SLT-A57. Its quick autofocus gives it a great edge when shooting video while moving the camera, or if the subject moves within the frame. Most mirrorless cameras can also capture HD video, and many do so at full 1080p.
What follows is a rundown of many popular DSLR cameras that are used for HD videography.
The Nikon D5100, for instance, is a very affordable DSLR camera that captures 1080p video as AVC, an MPEG-4 variant that uses H.264, which is the standard format for in-camera capture to a memory card, in this case SD/SDHC/SDXC. The format can be edited by all popular nonlinear editing software programs, such as Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro CS6. The D5100 is a DX-format camera, which means its sensor is APS-C-sized for a 1.5x crop factor, compared to a full-frame camera like the Canon 5D Mark II or the newer 5D Mark III.
The Nikon D800 is a full-frame, FX-format camera, at the high end of the spectrum for HDSLR cameras. The D800 offers many improvements over the D5100, such as the larger sensor, as mentioned above. That’s going to lead to better low-light performance and an easier time of rendering shallow depth of field at common maximum lens apertures.
But beyond that, with the D800 you also get the option of recording a “clean” signal on an external recorder via the camera’s HDMI port. Bypassing the camera’s internal recorder enables the capture of less-compressed 1080p video in expanded 4:2:2 color space on an outboard video recording device— essentially a hard drive with a built-in codec and some controls, such as the Atomos Ninja. An advanced option for sure, but just know that this type of solution records higher-quality video with more color information than the cards on your camera can capture. The D800 also offers both a stereo microphone jack and a headphone jack for the crucial task of monitoring the audio you’re capturing in-camera.
Upon its initial release, the 5D Mark III did not offer “clean” HDMI output, but that feature will be unlocked by new firmware that Canon will release in 2013. Regardless, the 5D Mark III does offer a few video-related improvements such as embedded timecode (useful on multi-camera shoots) and an all I-frame recording mode that captures individual frames that are not dependent on the preceding or following frames for the composition of their data. Audio levels can be adjusted while shooting, and you get both a microphone jack and a headphone jack. Perhaps most important is that during manual shooting, you can now adjust settings such as aperture and exposure while you’re recording, a feature that many DSLRs do not offer.
The Canon Rebel T4i represents an affordable alternative to the 5D and features an APS-C-sized sensor. The T4i offers continuous autofocus during filming, and when you use one of Canon’s STM lenses, you get quiet servo operation.
As mentioned earlier, it is not just true DSLR cameras that are tempting cinematographers to leave behind their trusty old camcorders. Even mirrorless cameras like the Panasonic GH3 have become desirable for capturing gorgeous full-HD video. With a Micro Four Thirds sensor that’s smaller than APS-C, the GH3 is the successor to the wildly popular GH2, a hacked version of which faired very well in the 2012 Zacuto shootout when compared to high end digital cinema cameras from Sony, Canon and RED. Without reading too much into this blind taste test, the shootout did illustrate a significant point: all other things being equal—lens quality, lighting, audio, directorial skill, etc.—the images from a DSLR and mirrorless cameras can hold their own against professional video cameras.
The camera is but one component in the HDSLR ecosystem. Your lens collection is arguably more important than which camera body you use. Good glass is typically expensive, but perhaps you’ve got an arsenal of FX or EF mount lenses ready for battle.
Every major DSLR manufacturer has a host of compatible lenses for each type of lens mount it offers, and third-party manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron have stepped in to fill needs or to present affordable alternatives. Mount converters are available, but these typically take out key lens functions such as image stabilization and autofocus. So unless you’ve got a detailed game plan for conversion, your lens choices are going to be limited by your mount type. There’s not the room here to explicate individual choices from the major mount types, so here are a few principles to keep in mind as you make your choices.
First, let’s look at the benefits of fast glass. That means choosing a lens with a large maximum aperture, i.e., a low f/ number, such as f/2.8 and lower. A large aperture does two major things: It allows you to shoot with less available light, so you can work with fewer expensive, cumbersome lights. A wide aperture also lets you achieve shallower depth of field, all other things (sensor size, focal length, framing) being equal.
One aspect to consider when you’re looking for a zoom lens is whether it offers a continuous aperture. This means that the maximum aperture—which is what you’ll probably want to use for a good portion of your shooting—stays constant throughout the telephoto range of the lens. This way, you can zoom while recording without compromising your exposure values.
Image stabilization is another lens feature to consider, as it can help at the margins if you’re working handheld. But if you’re working handheld with a DSLR camera, you’ll want to be using some sort of rig for support. See below for more.
The CP.2 line of compact prime lenses from Zeiss offers HDSLR shooters lenses that have been optimized for video production. These lenses are available with a range of mounts, including PL, Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E and Micro Four Thirds. Glass this dear might be overkill for a beginner, but it never hurts to consider your future aims.
While professional video cameras often feature XLR connectors for shotgun mics or wireless audio transmitters, many DSLRs do not even have a 1/8” microphone jack, and the typical onboard microphone (usually visible as a paltry handful of pinholes on the camera body) is barely useful once you take it outside to shoot.
For capturing great audio with your DSLR camera, you’ll need to upgrade that mic. Most recent HDSLR cameras feature a 1/8” stereo microphone jack, and there are several compatible on-camera microphones that use that input and mount to the camera’s hot shoe. This is a great step up for run-and-gun-style shooting, for situations where you’re not able to capture audio onto a separate recording device or convert the 1/8” input to XLR inputs.
In this video, B&H presents many of your current run-and-gun options, including the Rode Stereo VideoMic Pro and VideoMic. (Coming soon at the time of this writing is the Rode VideoMic HD, a shotgun mic that integrates an audio recorder and also hooks up to your camera’s microphone jack, for simultaneous on-camera and dual-system capture.) Another option is the Que Audio DSLR Video Microphone Kit Lite, which features a shotgun mic, a cable, a windscreen, a cold-shoe adapter and a shock mount. Also from Que Audio is the standard DSLR Video Microphone Kit, a similar kit that includes a hypercardioid shotgun mic with a back-electret transducer, and adds a Wombat muffler for superior wind canceling.
Now, to upgrade to an audio-capture scheme that resembles the ones used on just about every film, episodic TV and commercial production, you’ll want to adopt a dual-system solution. That means using your camera for video capture and a separate recording device for audio capture. Using an audio recorder such as the popular Zoom H4n opens up the possibility of hooking up professional XLR microphones, whether on a boom pole or clipped to a shirt. They also typically feature built-in mics for on-the-fly recording.
But putting a good microphone directly in front of the lips of talent and interview subjects is a must for capturing high-quality audio, and separate recorders let you do just that. You also get high-quality WAV encoding and much better monitoring and metering than DSLRs offer, which have only just started including rudimentary-level displays. Other field recorders with XLR inputs include the Marantz PMD661, the Tascam DR-40, and the Tascam HD-P2, which offers SMPTE timecode input—a great companion feature for the 5D Mark III.
To step up to surround sound (5.1 channel) recording, look into the Roland R-26, a 6-channel recorder that captures three stereo pairs to two XLR inputs and an 1/8” jack. For field-mixing capabilities, consider the Fostex DC-R302, a 3-channel recorder.
For those who want to spend less time in post production dealing with separate files and synching sound to video, but who still want to capture audio with high-quality XLR mics, Beachtek offers a solution. The DXA-SLR PRO HDSLR Audio Adapter provides XLR inputs to your HDSLR so you can record onboard, and it overrides a DSLR’s auto gain control function, a troublesome feature that plagues many older DSLRs. With AGC, your camera is constantly “adjusting” audio levels to make everything uniform; this often results in loud hissing in quiet parts. Beachtek’s DXA-SLR MINI PRO HDSLR Audio Adapter and the juicedLink DS214 both provide the AGC override, but they offer only 1/8” stereo inputs for microphones.
Stabilization is another unique aspect of shooting with DSLR cameras. The large sensor that you get with DSLRs and even mirrorless camera models opens up some pretty intriguing creative opportunities. With the right lens, you can achieve a very cinematic-looking, shallow depth of field. However, the smaller form factor of HDSLR cameras can make it difficult to keep the camera steady and maintain focus with shallow depth of field. To fulfill those cinematic aspirations, you’ll need to stabilize your DSLR with either a tripod or with a "rig" designed for handheld work.
Rigs come in a variety of sizes, shapes and prices, but what’s the basic idea? Stable handheld camera work relies on the operator’s ability to keep his or her camera from moving at unwanted times, and a key to that is establishing points of contact between the camera and something stable.
A tripod uses three legs and the ground for three points of rock-solid contact. An HDSLR rig might place a pad against the operator’s shoulder and grips for both hands, for three slightly less solid points of contact. The Redrock Micro DSLR Field Cinema Standard Bundle v2 fits this mold. A rig might offer a single handgrip and a “gunstock” component to press against the chest. Several other configurations also exist. The most popular configurations share a (conceptually) similar base: There’s a baseplate for the camera, which typically accepts industry standard 15mm rods, usually carbon fiber or aluminum. These rods extend forward and/or back and allow you, for example, to attach a typical follow focus device to your lens by mounting it to the 15mm rods. Rigs based on 15mm rods are highly customizable; you can always add or subtract functions based on your specific needs for the day.
You might also attach a shoulder pad to distribute the weight to sturdier parts of your body. A high-end rig like the Zacuto Scorpion DSLR rig offers this form, and there’s even a counterweight on the rear to balance out a heavy lens. As strong as your arms might be, your shoulders and core are going to be able to bear much more weight for much longer periods of time. As anyone who’s ever worked on a film set knows, production is not a fast process. Besides, DSLR cameras and long lenses are simply not weight-balanced like professional camcorders are. They’re designed to snap a shot in a fraction of a second, not to be held steady for long periods.
Adjustability is key: you want a rig that can fit to your specific body, and a baseplate that can correctly position your camera body. The Manfrotto SYMPLA Shoulder Support System is an example of a highly adjustable HDSLR rig, with three axes of camera adjustment and a handle with a ball joint. Like many other shoulder-mount rigs, the SHAPE Composite Stabilizer includes an “offset” rod block that centers the camera and keeps your shoulder pad off to the side, to increase operator comfort.
A third function of a rig is to create a platform for mounting accessories that perform functions that the camera can’t. So what might you mount to a rig?
A high-quality viewfinder or monitor is often a necessity. Most DSLR cameras offer an LCD screen that’s about 3” on the diagonal. That’s nice for checking framing and maybe even exposure, but for critical focus, most folks are going to want a larger off-board monitor, or perhaps an optical viewfinder for magnification and for blocking out unwanted sunlight.
You can, for instance, attach a 5” or 7” professional monitor to something called an Israeli arm or articulating arm, and then secure that to a mounting point on the rig. (Aritculating arms include the Noga Cinematic Arm and the Pearstone 4.2” Israeli Arm.) Most rigs offer an array of standard threaded holes, both 1/4”-20 and 3/8”-16, so you can attach accessories at convenient points. For the monitor, you probably want to push it forward on the rig, depending on where your camera sits; its LCD screen might be too close to your body for you to view it comfortably.
A 7” monitor might be perfect for a tripod rig but too heavy for a shoulder-mount rig. In that case try a Sony CLM-V55 5” monitor, a basic model with peaking, a focus-assist feature that highlights the hard edges of objects that are in focus. The Marshall Electronics V-LCDMD56, Manhattan LCD HD5, and Ikan D5w 5.6” LCD monitors might fit the bill; all provide peaking and a high 1280 x 800 native resolution. The Ikan D5w, however, adds 3G-SDI input for compatibility with pro video cameras, and also offers waveform and vectorscope displays for advanced monitoring of level and chrominance. On a tripod rig, or if you’re feeling ambitious with your shoulder’s carrying capacity, the Ikan D7w might be the best choice. It’s just like the D5w but a bit larger and brighter.
Some operators really prefer looking through a viewfinder to assess their images critically. There are two main types of viewfinders for HDSLR use: Optical devices that attach directly to the rear LCD screen on the camera, and small HDMI monitors that feature an eyepiece. The Alphatron EVF-035-3G Electronic Viewfinder is an example of the latter. It's got an HDMI input and a loop-through output, so it can feed a larger monitor or external recorder as well. The screen itself is about 3.5”, and the eyepiece features a diopter. The Kinotehnik LCDVFe shares this basic concept, and runs on four AA batteries for easy operation. You can also run it via DC power. The 3” LCD screen has a flip-up eyepiece, and the screen offers peaking and other advanced critical-focus features.
Also similar is the Zacuto Z-Finder EVF Pro, based around a 3.2” LCD screen. There's peaking and zebra lines for exposure, and the optical device offers 2.5x zoom and an anti-fog shield. Other options include the Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 3x and the Varavon Pro Finder.
Now, let’s say you’re shooting that cinematic, shallow-depth-of-field style but your subject is moving. How do you keep her in focus (assuming, of course that you’re using manual focus: shooting in manual is a must if you want to avoid the phenomenon known as “focus hunting,” which occurs when the frame changes and the lens or camera’s autofocus system momentarily loses track of your subject)? You’ll have to “pull focus” manually, manipulate the lens smoothly so you can accurately move from one focal point to the next, following your subject through their movements. You can also use this technique to shift focus from an object in the foreground to one in the background.
If you’re looking through the viewfinder or standing behind the camera and monitoring the shot, you’re in an awkward position to turn the barrel of the lens smoothly and accurately. That’s where a follow focus device comes in—it puts the control at an ergonomically advantageous angle for smooth operation and offers markers and/or stops so you can accurately hit your spots. The iDC Photo Video SYSTEM ONE FF/VF adds both a follow focus and a viewfinder to a tripod-based Canon 5D support rig. This follow focus is friction-based, which takes away the complication of gearing. Another gearless follow focus is iDC’s SYSTEM ZERO Follow-Focus Standard, a stand-alone device with a camera plate for a Panasonic GH2. The IndiPRO Tools Baseplate & Follow Focus Combo is yet another gear-free design, with a baseplate and 15mm rods that hold the focus wheel.
For a rock-solid connection between the focus wheel and the lens, though, gearing eliminates all uncertainty about grip. Zacuto’s Single Action Tripod Kit provides a height-adjustable focus wheel that’s mounted on 15mm rods; there’s no shoulder rig attached, but as with most 15mm systems, you can attach one at your discretion. The kit also includes Universal Zip Gears that fit any lens. Also employing zip-style gears is the rod-mountable Ikan ELE-FGK Follow Focus Cine Kit, which provides a whip that adds reach—it allows a camera assistant to pull focus while the operator attends to other tasks.
For remote control over focusing, look into the Okii Systems FC1 USB Focus Controller, which works with various Canon cameras (1D, 5D, T2i, T3i, and more) and autofocus lenses from Canon, Tamron, Tokina and Sigma. Via USB, this device controls your camera's image capture, ISO, shutter and your lens's focusing and aperture via its handy knob and buttons.
Similar to the Okii FC1 is the company’s MC1 USB Mini Controller, designed for Canon DSLRs. While it doesn’t have a knob for focus control, it does offer control over video start/stop, zoom, aperture, shutter speed and more. Simpler still, the Switronix FLEX DSLR Remote is an optical solution for triggering record start/stop of the Canon 5D/7D. The device can sit up to 3.2’ feet (line of sight) from the camera for control. Meanwhile, the Vello IR-C1 Infrared Remote Control works with Canon DSLRs to trigger both still and video capture from up to 15’ away.
Lighting for HDSLR is essentially the same as lighting for any other type of professional video. Of course, with many large-sensor DSLRs, your low-light performance will be better, so your needs will be smaller. As for on-camera illumination, LED lights are the de facto standard for mounting to HDSLR rigs or a camera’s hot shoe, and for good reason(s). They’re lightweight, draw little power, boast a long lamp life, they’re cool to the touch and some even feature adjustable color temperature.
The ikan Multi-K LED light is a variable-color light for mounting to your camera. That means it’s got color temperature settings to match both daylight (outdoor, blue-ish, about 5600K, “cool” light) and tungsten (indoor, orange-ish, about 3200K, “warm” light). The Switronix TorchLED Bolt is a similar on-camera LED, with a continuous color temperature range from daylight to tungsten that mixes two different light sources. While set at daylight, the compact Switronix TL-50 Dimmable 5600K LED light comes with a pop-on filter for tungsten. The Litepanels Croma is another option—like many lights in this category, it comes with a mini-ball head for mounting and positioning on a shoe.
For the more economy-minded, there are several LED options available from companies like Bescor and Vidpro. The Vidpro K-120 On-Camera Video Light Kit and the Vidpro Professional Photo & Video LED Light Kit both come with a ball-head mount, a diffuser and a tungsten filter, a Li-ion battery and recharger, a hard carry case and more. The Bescor LED-70 is equivalent to a 70W incandescent bulb, and, likewise, the LED-125 is equivalent to a 125W incandescent.
For a unique approach to on-camera illumination, the Rotolight RL48 Creative Color Kit offers a doughnut-shaped LED light that’s designed to mount around your shotgun mic. The kit includes 10 filters of various colors, as well as a stand for the light and a pouch.
For the most part, keeping your camera powered while you shoot HDSLR video is a matter of keeping enough batteries on hand. However, professionals and aspiring pros might want to check out a power solution such as the Switronix Powerbase-70 DSLR V-Mount battery, designed for the Canon 5D and 7D to eliminate frequent battery changes.
For LCD monitors, most professional models offer the option of attaching a battery plate and compatible rechargeable battery from Panasonic, Sony or Canon.
Another lens accessory with which filmmakers sometimes outfit HDSLR cameras is a matte box. Matte boxes can either fit directly onto a lens or mount to a pair of 15mm rods and hold filters in front of the camera’s lens. They also have “flags” and side wings to block excess glare. Of course, lenses designed for still photography usually have a threaded front for attaching a filter, but for high-end, professional video productions, efficiency is essential.
A matte box that flips out of the way allows for quick lens changes, without having to unscrew and swap out the filter as well. Crucial to outfitting your HDSLR rig with a matte box is picking filter tray sizes that match those of your filters, and ensuring the front diameter of your lens matches the diameter of the matte box’s opening; this Movcam MM3 Mattebox accepts 4 x 4” filters and has a 104mm-diameter rear clamp adapter.
Now, the filters in this section aren’t appropriate for matte boxes—they’re circular photo filters, not rectangular cine filters—but they do perform a crucial function for DSLR videography. When you’re shooting in bright sunlight, typically you have to stop down the aperture to avoid washing out the image. Shooting with a narrower aperture makes it impossible to achieve shallow depth of field effects. What variable neutral density filters allow is shooting wider apertures in bright conditions without compromising optimal exposure settings. Several options exist, and they tend to be adjustable from 2-8 stops: There’s the Singh-Ray 77mm Vari-ND, the Tiffen 77mm Variable Neutral Density filter, and the Genustech 77mm ND Fader Filter.
Now, amid all these highly technical accessories, let’s not forget an indispensible, low-tech piece of gear: a good bag. The Lowepro DSLR Video Fastpack 350 AW carries a DSLR with lens, two additional lenses and your choice of other gear such as a microphone, a light, a laptop, etc. The rigid Porta Brace Large Matte Box / Follow Focus – HDSLR Camera Organizer bag accommodates more cinematic setups, offering room for an assembled rig with a matte box and follow focus as well as whatever you can fit into its 11 pockets. Even larger, the Kata Pro-Light Resource-61 PL shoulder bag fits all your gear, plus a laptop.
We can help you build your own HDSLR solution at http://www.bhphotovideo.com/find/hdslr.jsp. Select a product and start exploring!