How To Guide for Shooting HD Video With A DSLR Camera

How To Guide for Shooting HD Video With A DSLR Camera

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Ever since Nikon introduced the D90 in August 2008 as the first DSLR camera that shoots High Definition (HD) video, a silent revolution is taking place in media production. At a fraction of the budget creative camera people are able to produce remarkable high quality footage – all with a built-out stills camera for a total investment of $7,500. This is good news for online video.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Look at the following video (preferably full screen):

This short was done by director of photography Philip Bloom, who, after a career of twenty years in video, has embraced shooting with Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras. And with good reason. Unlike video camcorders, professional stills cameras are full-frame (35mm) or cropped sensor — both way bigger than the largest 2/3inch professional broadcast camera sensor. A huge sensor is one thing, having the ability to put very fast (i.e. low F-Stop number) 35mm stills lenses in front of the camera, is quite another. This results in an unbelievable shallow depth of field (DoF), a very common practice in the world of professional cinema.

The Visual Beauty of Depth-of-Field

A shallow DoF allows you to focus on the subject, leaving the rest out of focus. This isolates the subject from the background and allows you as a film maker to control where you want the audience to put the attention. If everything were sharp, the viewer could easily be distracted by details that do not matter to the story line. And it simply looks amazing.

However, working with a shallow DoF is not easy: subjects that move around imply that you have to keep turning the focus ring to keep them in focus (a.k.a. pulling focus). This is paramount in the movie above. However, if you know that Philip Bloom created this movie with equipment of about $7,500, you start to realize that a new form of content production is born:

  • Camera: Canon 7D body
    (not full-frame but cropped sensor, but with native 24/25/30/50/60p recording format support)
  • Glass: various lenses
  • Filters: Vari-ND & Fader ND
  • Sound: Rode Video-mic
  • Stabilization: Zacuto DSLR Marksmen Kit with Zacuto Z-Finder
  • Stabilization: Baby CineSaddle
Philip Bloom in action

In order to shoot such a movie, until now, you had to work with professional cinema equipment worth half or a full house, with a minimal crew of four (director, camera operator, camera assistant, sound engineer), but probably more. Not to discount the value of a good production crew (life does get a lot easier), but fact of the matter is that you can do everything yourself. All it takes is a built-out camera set and a creative mind.

Admittedly, the short above does not have a real story to it, other than that it is a random collection of weird people on Venice Beach, California. This short, however, is the fourth in a sequence since Bloom discovered the possibilities of working with DSLRs while in Sofia for a training session to film makers. As Bloom and his friends were on their way to get some food, he decided to shoot some video with his Canon 5D-Mark II and the first version of the Zacuto Z-Finder (a critical device when shooting handheld). This resulted in Sofia’s People, followed up by other jewels such as Dublin’s People, San Francisco’s People and Venice’s People (embedded above). This way, Bloom has managed to create a format, which now serves as source of inspiration for a fast growing group of DSLR shooters.

The movement that Bloom has partially started has translated into various training videos, presentations and training sessions all over the world. Together with his business partner Dennis Lennie he has started F-Stop Academy which intends on training people how to work with DSLRs. But the buck does not stop at training. Renowned brands including Greenpeace hire Bloom to create short feature films, such as a recent one recorded in Dehli. Even more recently, Bloom has managed to gain traction from DoPs such as George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino, as a recent post on his website indicates. Tarantino was quoted as saying that the quality from these DSLRs to be “Epic”. Indeed.

Top 10 DSLR Disadvantages & How to Overcome Them

Is there no bad news at all when it comes to this way of video production? You betcha! However, there are also a growing number of ways to overcome them. Let’s review them:

  1. Stability
    First of all, a stills camera is built to maintain steady for about 1/60th of a second, not to record 24 frames or more per second (i.e. shooting movies). Enter Zacuto. This Chicago-based corporation, founded by people with a history in camera work, cranks out one after the other innovation that helps DSLR-shooters to stabilize their shots. Also: enter CineKinetic (or Visual Departures). Using the Mini- or BabySaddle (or the much cheaper SteadyBag) allows you to create stable shots even while in moving objects such as a car, train, tram, bike or air plane. For those who like to walk: enter Glidecam. And for those who are ready for more professional dolly shots: enter GlideTrack and WallyDolly. However, be careful with too fast movement as the CMOS sensor chips do provide some jello effects (see below).
  2. Sound
    Second, DSLR cameras suck at sound recording. The built-in mic is miserable and the camera does not feature a professional XLR input. Above and beyond they should fix the Automatic Gain Control (AGC) in the next firmware upgrade and allow at least for on screen manual control of dB levels. Also, there is no way to monitor the audio by headphones as the LCD is turned off when you attach your head-set to the AV Out on the Canon 5D (the 7D has a different plug).  But, then again, sound recording was never a topic by design. Enter Zoom. The portable H4N recorder provides the DSLR-shooter a simple device that excels in sound recording, allowing for up to four independent channels at the same time (1x crossed stereo at the front and 2 XLR inputs for external mics). Synchronization is done in post with a reference signal, such as clap of hands or clapper board in front of the camera. It is therefore key to keep recording sound on the DSLR for reference audio purposes. And, if you are editing on Final Cut or Sony Vegas, enter PluralEyes (too bad I’m on Adobe Premiere Pro). If you do want to have manual control of audio on the camera itself then the Magic Lantern firmware hack may be an option.
  3. Light
    DSLR cameras do beat any video camera when it comes to low level light situations, fair and square. Nonetheless, and this applies to any type of camera, having enough and right amount of light is crucial to the end result. Various suppliers have entered this arena, offering useful equipment at interesting prices. Enter the Dedo Ledzilla and Litepanel Micro.
  4. Filters
    If you want to go for that shallow depth of field, you have to open up the iris on the camera. In a stills camera this may easily result in over exposure. Most photographers would be tempted to start changing the ISO setting or shutter speed. Shutter should be kept at twice the frame rate you are shooting (e.g. 30p –> shutter at 1/60th, 24/25p –> shutter at 1/50th as 1/48th is not supported) to adhere to the 180 degree shutter rule in cinema. A better way to reduce the incoming light: enter the Neutral Density filters from Singh-Ray (effectively two circular polarization filters combined into one). This gradually reduces incoming light from 2 to a full 8 stops.
  5. Viewfinder
    In order to be able to judge sharpness, you do need a proper viewfinder. Since the viewfinder on the DSLR is blocked when entering live mode (i.e. required when shooting video), you need to see detail without being distracted from incoming light falling on the LCD screen. Enter (again) Zacuto with the Z-Finder. Is looking through the lens not an option due to the position of the camera? There are alternatives like the 720p native resolution LCD-screen from SmallHD.
  6. Rolling shutter or Jello effect
    This is indeed a problem on most DSLRs. The effect occurs most when you quickly pan the camera or when fast moving objects enter the frame. Solution: don’t whip pan – record more slowly and speed up in post.
  7. Editing AVCHD
    The DSLR cameras record in AVCHD format using the H.264 codec. Ever since CS4, Adobe has invented a way to efficiently cope with delivery codecs for editing by using the GPU through CUDA or OpenCL technology.
  8. Compression versus color
    Although DSLR cameras are capable of registering HD video with a full frame (35mm) sensor, a lot of compression is used upon recording it to a compact flash card. This means that component video (4:2:2 or 4:4:4) is typically not available and that color grading is done on a composite signal. This makes heavy color grading, matte painting, chroma keying or rotoscoping in post more of a pain. However, for basic post-production color grading: enter RedGiantSoftware. Using Magic Bullet Looks allows for fast and efficient (or slow and extensively) grading those shots.
  9. 30p versus 24/25p
    In order to realize that cinema or film look, the video should be recorded the way film is traditionally made. Meaning 24p or 24 full frames per second. In planet NTSC the framerate is 29,97, while 25 in PAL markets. Initially, the stills guys thought they could change the world by going for 30p (dead-on, not drop-frame) as the new standard for video. Wrong idea. Since there are still way more televisions than cameras on the planet, this has turned out to be lost battle from the start. When conforming 30p to 24p you are actually shooting in slight slow motion, or you ask your computer to take out or combine frames. This gives a slightly noticeable visual effect and easily introduces audio sync problems as well. Canon has realized their mistake and is starting to correct it. The Canon 7D now supports various frame rates (24/25/50 in PAL and 24/30/60 in NTSC), while a much-anticipated firmware upgrade for the 5D mark II is (hopefully?) due for release in January 2010. Come on Canon, make us even more happy!
  10. Recording limit
    The recording limit on most DSLRs is about twelve to fifteen minutes for a single take. For what it is worth, from what I heard this has something to do with import restrictions. If they go beyond, these products are no longer regarded as stills cameras and fall in a different tax category. Another story says that it has something to with the 4GB file size limit (support for 720p would partially solve that). Either way, is it a problem? In my opinion, no. Unless you are recording a live event, most shots are likely to be way shorter than that. Most important thing for continuity’s sake is to record the audio properly — you can fill in the blanks in post afterwards with extra material you shot before or after the event (or stills from slides if you’re recording a live presentation).
Shooting from the hip with Zacuto Kit and SmallHD screen
Shooting from the hip with Zacuto Kit and SmallHD screen

Okay. Enough about the pit-falls. Time to see some more examples of what you can do with these cameras. Here is a wedding recorded with a 7D, and do check out this short titled Perya as well. Also, see the amazing effect of using tilt-shift lenses in this short movie which was recorded in Switzerland, although it appears to be shot in a miniature toy park. To the right is a visual of Michael Robertson (aka Velodramatic, a photographer with 20 years of experience in cycling photography) who shot his first video production with a 5D-Mark II and borrowed Zacuto gear. Finally, here is my very own first video shot with the 5D. Topic is Christmas in London 2009, shot over a period of two days. I used the following gear:

  • 5D-Mark II
  • Canon F1.2 50mm USM II
  • Canon F2.8 24-70mm USM
  • Zacuto Z-Finder
  • Zacuto Tactical Shooter
  • Rode Videomic
  • Singh-Ray VariND 77mm
    (not usable on 50mm lens – 72mm ring (!) – therefore some shots have blown out skies)
  • 6 Canon Batteries
  • Graded with Magic Bullet Looks

Convergence in Video Production

The image above of Robertson may appear to some professional camera people as an attempt to mimic a pro broadcast camera rig.  However, given the budget and the astounding end results, I believe this will be more common in the years ahead. I, for one, have decided to go DSLR all the way, foregoing the option to purchase a Sony EX-3 (a 1/2 inch sensor) and trying to trick that into a believing it to be a film camera using a Letus Relay lens and Letus 35mm adapter (total budget required: $15k+). And that’s even without any 35mm lenses! In my opinion, working with such a set up effectively reduces the EX-3 to a recording unit (albeit one with HD SDI component video out – nice to register on a Nanoflash device at 280mbps). Instead, I have decided to invest in two (!) camera bodies (Canon EOS 5D + 7D) and some of this budget in proper 35mm glass to put in front of them.

DSLR cameras fill the void left behind by the market leaders in broadcast. Eat your heart out, Sony and JVC. Canon beat you to it. For now. Come 2010, the new kid on the block may turn out to be RED with their 3k-images-for-3k-Scarlet camera, although that is rumored to have a “mere” 2/3 inch sensor. Indeed, as Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, my friend, they are a-changin”. True convergence in video production is now finally looming.


Should you go DLSR or stay with (semi-)professional video equipment? My answer to that is that it all depends on what you are making. The key is comparing time versus budget. I do admit that working with DSLRs, much like digital cinema, is probably better suited for those who have the time to set things up properly, if only for making sure the disadvantages are met (read: check subject sound and record sufficient ambient or set noise!). Without any stabilisation equipment and manual sound recording, DSLR may not the best camera to have and hold when Obama comes out to meet the press for a quick interview. You probably want shoulder-mounted ENG cameras for that. The typical price points of those, however, are not within most people’s budget. So if time is not of the essence, going with souped-up DSLRs is a very, very attractive alternative.

Does going for DSLRs make you an on-the-fly film maker? No, because it takes knowledge, talent, a lot of practice and learning from others. As WIRED recently correctly concluded, “DSLRs may be cheap, but talent is priceless”. However, with more people at least having the ability to start shooting beautiful images, you can expect an exponential growth in high quality content made for the web (even at 1080p) that looks like it was created using professional cinema equipment. And that is exactly the business I am in.


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