How to Use Your HDSLR System Optimally for Video

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Off the cuff, one might think there are few, if any, differences between packing a DSLR system and an HDSLR system, but once you look beyond the basics, i.e. the camera bodies, lenses and tripod (the legs, but not necessarily the head), the differences start adding up. While it’s true you can take any video-enabled DSLR and start shooting video right out of the box, your results will most likely look shaky—in every sense of the word.

The good news is that with the right tools, each of these issues can be easily resolved. Along with an appreciable bump in camera sales, the evolution of still cameras into the motion-picture arena has created a new category of third-party accessories, designed to address the shortcomings of video capture with cameras originally designed for capturing still images composed through an eye-level reflex viewing system. The result is a plethora of aftermarket items, many of which are designed as workaround solutions for shooting smooth, pro-quality video with gear never intended for this purpose.

Audio  Unlike still pictures in which audio is seldom, if ever, used for more than recording short annotations for captioning and reference purposes, audio is an intricate part of the video process. But because the built-in microphones found on HDSLRs record sound omnidirectionally, they pick up every iota of ambient sound—wanted and unwanted. As such, out of the box almost every HDSLR records sound indiscriminately, including the sound of your camera’s AF system, your breathing, and anybody walking in corduroy pants within 30 feet of your camera position.

As a result, if you’re serious about capturing clean, high-def audio, you have little choice other than to invest in an external recording system, most likely in the form of a shoe-mounted shotgun mic and/or wired or wireless lavalier microphones. With the exception of entry-level HDSLRs, almost all mid- and pro-level HDSLRs feature 3.5mm stereo mic inputs designed to accept external microphones. Until recently external mics were strictly third-party devices. Many manufacturers are now including directional mics in their respective accessory catalogs.

A commonly used mic is a directional or shotgun mic, which records sound emanating from the direction in which the camera is facing. For the most part these perform as advertised. If, however, your subject is beyond conversational range or if you find yourself shooting in noisy environs, wireless lavalier mics (those tiny clip-on mics worn by newscasters) are the preferable way to go.

Audio can also be recorded apart from the camera’s built-in recording system using a separate digital recording device, many of which are quite compact and add little in the way of bulk or weight to your overall shooting system. Portable digital devices are also handy for recording sound beds, for use as soundtracks for both video capture as well as slideshows.

Other audio-related items you may need, depending on the nature and sophistication of the video you plan on shooting, include an XLR adapter and any necessary cables to make it all work. Some of the more notable manufacturers of high-def microphones include Sennheiser, K-Tek, Røde and Zoom.

Viewfinders, Hoods and Field Monitors  With the exception of Sony’s Alpha a33 and Alpha a55, which feature a fixed, semi-transparent pellicle mirror that allows for conventional eye-level TTL viewing when shooting video, most HDSLRs rely on Live View as the sole means of viewing the action when shooting. While Live View does an adequate job of displaying the image area you are capturing, you’re forced to use your camera in an arm’s length, point-and-shoot manner that is less than optimal, especially under bright lighting conditions. Additionally, the LCDs currently used on HDSLRs are seldom larger than 3.0” across and are most often fixed in place, which can prove challenging when shooting at extreme angles. (Interestingly, swivel-and-tilt-based LCDs are only found on entry-level HDSLRs and never on the big boys.)

To facilitate easier image viewing under bright and/or awkward viewing conditions, a number of viewing enhancement tools have come to market including removable viewfinders and hoods with adjustable oculars that fit over the camera’s LCD for easier viewing under the brightest lighting conditions. These hoods and finders also enable you to hold the camera in a way it was intended to be held when in use.

Viewfinders and hoods are available from Hoodman, Cavision, Letus35, Zeikos, LCDVF and Zacuto.

Alternatively, you also have the option of plugging in an LCD field monitor, which offers a combination of a larger viewing area, color, contrast and brightness controls and other features originally developed for use with pro camcorders. Depending on the system you choose, multiple remote field monitors can be hooked up to the camera, making it possible for several individuals, i.e., the camera operator, the “focus-puller,” the client and others on the production end to view the action in real time, simultaneously, from different locations. Field monitors also help you determine the contrast range in your shot, fine-tune your color and are really handy for critical-focus applications.

Depending on the make and model, field monitors can be mounted on the camera’s hot shoe or as a component of a shooting “rig.” Field monitors are available in sizes ranging from 4” to 11” from Marshall, Transvideo, Tote Vision, Ikan, Delvcam, Manhattan LCD, Bon, Nebtek, Sony, VariZoom, Glidecam and other manufacturers.

Shooting rigs The tripod and tripod head you currently own may or may not be the best choice for shooting moving imagery, and even if the tripod itself is suited for the job, you will most certainly be substituting your tried-and-true ball head or pan-tilt head for a video-friendlier fluid head, which is far better suited for smooth, judder-free panning action. Similarly, many HDSLR shooters use gimbal heads for capturing smooth pan and tilt action, especially when shooting with longer focal length optics.

If you plan on shooting video handheld with an HDSLR, you’ll most certainly want to use an HDSLR shooting rig. Shooting rigs come in a variety of shapes and styles and were developed to better facilitate video capture with a DSLR form factor. Choosing the best one for your particular needs is best determined by your choice of camera and lens, the nature of what you plan on shooting (i.e. a family outing or a Nike advertising campaign) and the depth of your pockets.

If you are using a lighter-weight compact HDSLR with a kit or similar lightweight lens you can easily get away with one of the simpler balancing arm-style rigs or perhaps one of the many shoulder-braced rigs B&H has in its inventory. For more complex shooting needs, there are literally dozens of rig configurations from companies including Redrock Micro, Zacuto, Chrosziel, Cinevate, Custom Brackets, Glidecam, Genus, iDC and Letus35.

And don’t forget to include a follow-focus unit when configuring your rig, which enables you to make smooth focus transitions minus the jerkiness that invariably occurs when focusing the lens by hand.

If you’re looking into the more serious rigs, chances are you will also be purchasing a matte box to complement the system. Matte boxes serve dual purposes, the first of which is to block stray light from hitting the surface of the front lens element. Secondly, matte boxes often serve as filter holders. In these cases large, square, large-format filters slip into place in front of the lens, rather than screw into the front of the lens. The advantage of going this route is that the entire matte box/filter assembly can be swung or tilted in and out of position as a unit when changing lenses, which is far quicker than having to disassemble the entire assembly each time you need to change any of the components.

Lighting  In truth, lighting is a huge category that goes well beyond the confines of this posting. That said, on the smaller, travel-sized side of the story we have shoe-mounted LED lamps, which can best be described as the continuous-light equivalents of shoe-mounted speed lights. About the same size and weight as higher-output speed lights, shoe-mounted LED lamps also have about the same reach as their still-camera equivalents, and depending on the make and model, come in handy for lighting subjects up to 10-15 feet from the camera.

But unlike electronic flash, there’s no need to synchronize when using multiple units. And because LCD output is continuous, it’s also WYSIWYG, making LED lamps far easier to model compared to micro-second bursts of flash. Unlike tungsten lamps, which can become blisteringly hot, LED lamps run relatively cool, making them far more desirable for use in enclosed or poorly ventilated facilities. Cooler running temperatures also make LEDs the lamps of choice for photographing delicate documents, artwork and similar UV, heat and light-sensitive subject matter.

Depending on the make and model, shoe-mounted LED lamps are available with dimmers as well as color-temperature dials that allow you to balance the color temperature from 3200K to 5600K to match ambient lighting conditions.

In addition to smaller shoe-mounted LED light sources, LEDs are also available in larger lamp sizes containing higher concentrations of LEDs for higher output, in kit form as well as à la carte.

Manufacturers of larger studio light kits include Arri, Ikan, Pelican, DigiSlave, American-DJ, Lowel, LitePads, Litepanels, Bescor, Mole-Richardson and others.

If your shooting plans include capturing video of small, intricate subjects requiring the highest levels of precision, Dedolights should be included among your lighting choices. Though tungsten-based, the halogen lamps used in Dedolights are only 100W, and as such produce low levels of heat. The number of light-shaping tools offered by Dedolights makes it possible to create light that can best be described as theatrical.

Advances in fluorescent lamp technologies have made cool-running fluorescent lamps, both compact and traditional tubes—especially the daylight-balanced varieties—an increasingly popular avenue for videographers and still shooters alike. A growing selection of fluorescent-lighting solutions is available from companies including Kino Flo, Lowel, Impact, Bron Kobold, Interfit, Photoflex and other manufacturers.

It’s important to keep in mind when poring over the particulars of HDSLR shooting that the key advantage of shooting video with HDSLRs is that at the end of the day you’re dealing with equipment that takes up a far smaller—not to mention stealthier—footprint, compared to a comparably equipped pro camcorder system, and even more so, a 35mm film system.

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