After a really bad experience shooting video on a Canon 7D camera on a paid shoot in Africa and SE Asia, I vowed I would never again take the risk of shooting video on a still camera! That was four years ago. DSLR cameras have improved, editing systems have improved, CODECs have improved, new workflows have been developed, and some camera people have grown older, wiser and mellowed out with age, ready to try again!
At the prompting of my daughter, who has been shooting video with a DSLR camera now for the past three years, I have decided to give it another look. I have been cautious, but increasingly optimistic. As I have begun to review the test footage that I have shot I have been actually blown away by the quality, look and feel of the shots. After doing days of research and watching an excellent tutorial series on the Canon 6D by Dave Dugdale, I am stepping out with confidence, actually filming my current documentary, primarily on the 6D. (Check out Dave's tutorials here.)
At this point in my journey, here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of shooting video on a DSLR.
The Big Advantages
Depth of Field – In my opinion the number one reason for filming with the DSLR Camera is the amazing creative control that you will have over depth of field. For those new to photography, that is the range or section of your shot that will be in focus. Because the DSLR cameras, especially the full frame DSLR cameras, have much larger sensors, you are given the ability to create video with a much shallower or narrow depth of field over regualr video cameras. Why does this help? When the most important aspect of your shot, like a person that you are interviewing, is in focus but the rest of the shot is out of focus, the attention of your viewing audience is naturally and peacefully drawn to the person you are interviewing. I also doesn’t hurt that Hollywood productions look this way. While the docs that are shot with a regular video camera are going to look more like a daytime soap opera, your documentary will look more like film. People watching may not know why, but they will consciously or unconsciously be impressed that your documentary looks more like a feature film. Some people claim that this has more to do with shooting at 24 frames per second, but I am not convinced of that yet. I believe that it has more to do with lighting, larger sensors and more control over "depth of focus", (as Dave likes to call it)
Low Light Filming – There have been many times over the last several years when I have missed shots because the video camera that I was working with was not able to get good shots in the low light setting I was working in. This is no longer a problem as most DSLR cameras are now able to virtually shoot in the dark, and still give amazing results with virtually no video noise! In the video tutorials to come I will post some examples of the difference between my Canon video camera and my much cheaper Canon 6D still camera! I will let you be the judge of what looks better!
One Camera shoots in both PAL and NTSC – If you have clients in different parts of the world, it is important to have a camera that shoots in both TV standards. My Canon XF 300 has the ability to do that but Canon charged me a hefty little premium to add the extra TV Standard. A five minute firmware upgrade cost me $500! The Canon 6D, a full frame camera, with much larger sensors that shoots in both PAL and NTSC, is selling now for about $1600. (I want my $500 back Canon! What was the deal anyways!)
An added benefit is that I can switch back and forth between NTSC and PAL, and continue shooting with the same card. The XF 300 wanted me to format the card or use a different card after switching from NTSC to PAL. When I was out in Africa shooting for a client in the UK, I would often see stuff that I wanted to double-shoot, so that I would have stock in both standards. That will be a whole lot easier now!
Sutter Speed of 50/sec even when filming in NTSC - If you have ever tried filming under lights in a country where the electrical system is set to 50 cycles per second, you will know how important this is! The Canon video cameras that I have owned have never let me choose 50/sec when shooting in NTSC. It is one of the reasons that I shelled out the $500 for the firmware upgrade so that I could switch to PAL, to give me access to 50/sec. Now, the flicker of the lights were gone, but I was stuck with PAL footage. If I was shooting for a NTSC client, having PAL footage could sometimes be problematic.
The Canon 6D allows me to select a shutter speed of 50, even when shooting in NTSC. I am actually sometimes using this shutter speed, even in out in the daylight. I find that if there is a lot of action going on in my shot, having a shutter speed of 50/sec actually smoothes out the nasty strobing effect that progressive video can give you.
Various Frame Rates – Film students love the fact that these cameras do such a great job of filming at the same rate that film cameras shoot at, 24 frames per second. In addition, you can change the camera to 25 frames per second for PAL broadcast systems, 30 frames per second for NTSC broadcast systems and 60 frames per second. This last option is nice if you are shooting something that you know you will want to turn into slow motion in post-production. We will discuss the pros and cons of using these different frame rates, and how to best work with them in Edius, even if they do not match the project settings of your current project.
Audio - The built-in audio system of most DSLR cameras leave a lot to be desired. The Canon 6D does not even have a headphone jack to be able to monitor audio. The built in mic can really only be used for reference purposes only. You can use it to sync a clapboard sound, to some other recording device. Is this a deal breaker? I used to think so. At least it was a good argument to keep shooting with my video camera where I could monitor audio, and plug in XLR cables to quality mics. However, with high quality digital audio recorders now selling for about $200, I will now once again have access to all of my mics, as I shoot with my DSLR.
Keeping a Focus - OK, so now I understand why there is a whole industry in Hollywood of stand-ins. People working for a union hourly wage can stand in place while the cameraman gets his shots lined up. The stars can be relaxing in the shade sipping on their lemonade! There is probably a good reason that the actors don’t move much when they are being filmed close up. If you are getting one of those nice shallow depth of field shots that these cameras can offer, and your interviewee should lean forward to make a point, there is a good chance that she will go out of focus! As I have migrated from the video camera to the DSLR, this has been one of my most difficult adjustments to make. Getting a focus and then keeping things in focus, especially if they are moving has been a challenge! We will cover all of the tricks and tips of how to keep your shots focused.
Going Hand Held – You will find that this is much more difficult to do with your DSLR than what you are used to with your video camera., and still end up with usable shots. The slightest nudge or even a small breeze hitting your lens can make the shot unusable. You can get lenses that have built in optical stabilization, but you need to think more in terms of getting most of your shots with a tripod. I am thinking of carrying with me on my shoots, my Panasonic TM900 “palmcorder” that I use to shoot family video with. It has amazing mechanical stability built into the system. If I ever find myself in a situation where I need to jump into some dramatic action, that just calls for hand held, I can switch to this and try and match up the look in post.
Slow Push In or Pull Out - Are you a fan of the beautiful slow push in to a shot? When shooting with non-mechanical lenses you can pretty much forget about it! In the film industry, which you are kind of now entering, you need to think more in terms of pushing the whole camera in or out, or across. Think in terms of sliders. All fine and nice when shooting on a sound-stage, not so easy when traveling to Africa!
Progressive Video – I know that many people prefer to shoot progressive video, even on their video cameras, even if they are shooting for broadcast! If you have done a survey of posts on the internet you will see that there is a great debate going on about what is best, interlaced or progressive.
I have never seen the attraction to progressive video footage. Yeah if you freeze-frame a shot of interlaced video, it can have some nasty jagged edges, but how often does a video get paused, and who expects it to look good when it does? This has actually been one of my biggest objections to switching to DSLR. The DSLR cameras do not give you the option to shoot in interlaced. Most of my programs are broadcast or delivered on DVD. Both of these systems require that the video be interlaced. A general rule of thumb in video is that you should shoot, edit and deliver in the same format, whenever possible. Put another way, if you know that your video needs to be delivered on DVD or Broadcast TV, which needs to be interlaced, you should be shooting interlaced.
But apart from following standard shooting practices, I have just never really liked the strobing look that you can get with progressive video, if there is any kind of action in the scene. When we were kids, we used to think that it was great to wave a flashlight back and forth at someone in the dark, while they waved their arms and moved about. (We used to think that it made them look like they were in an old film …. Hmmmm) Nice clean fun and games, but why would I want that kind of look in my documentary? OK, so I exaggerate. But when there is action in a scene or you pan your camera too fast when shooting progressive video, you will not have fluid motion. Arms, legs, animals or vehicles will move faster than 30 still frames can give a smooth fluid motion and your video will look jerky. Some say, your eyes just need to get used to the "progressive look". Well, I have been looking for a while and my eyes have not gotten used to this. My guess is that there will be some in my viewing audience who have not gotten used to this "look" as well. Do you think they will say, "Oh this is the new look of progressive video that I need to learn to appreciate" ... or are they more likely to say, "Who shot this crappy video"? I prefer to follow the production rule of shoot for your final destination. If you know your production will only ever be seen in the theater, by all means shoot 24P If I know that my production need to go to NTSC broadcast, I would always prefer to shoot for that, meaning -interlaced video. Film students will never get this, and that is fine. Most of their productions are destined for internet and they will be fine. But I believe that it does need to be pointed out that interlaced video can always be transcoded to progressive for computer or internet playback and still look wonderful. Video footage shot in progressive may not make the trip as well! In our series of tutorials, we will show you some ways that you can minimize this strobing and jerky problem with DSLR progressive footage.
If you are thinking of making the move yourself this year, or your school or station is asking you to make the move, be sure to check back as we develop our series of tutorials on shooting and editing with the DSLR. Even if you do not edit on an Edius system, I think that you will find this series to be helpful!