If you happen to be like me, a total camera nerd (or at least an enthusiast), you’ve probably been following some of what’s been going on with new DSLR still cameras that are capable of shooting HD video. These cameras are now being referred to as HDSLRs. Some of you, however, may not be following this quite so closely, or may have heard of the concept but are wondering ... what’s so revolutionizing about DSLR cameras that can shoot video?
Allow me to briefly explain. I want to start with the most obvious--and yet most totally overlooked--aspect of a good camera. The lens. The glass you shoot your image through is really at least 70% of how good your image is. Forget about all the stuff behind the lens, and those great digital sensors that are amazingly light sensitive and have great resolution. All of that is naught if you’re lens is junk. Want proof of concept that lens really is so important? Go look up the price for the Red One camera. Then look up the price for a PL-mount professional grade cinema lens by, say, Carl Zeiss. A great prime in that category will easily cost as much as the $20,000 to $30,000 Red One set up (depending on how you customize it). Try buying a set of such prime lenses, and now you’re talking about the price of a house.
Now, we’re not dealing with those kinds of lenses. I just wanted to prove a point here. But the first revolutionary idea these new HDSLRs present to us is the option of shooting with some great still photography lenses. Depending on your budget, you can easily spend between $100 and $5,000 on a single lens for a DSLR. What’s more, renting still photography lenses is really quite affordable. I’ve done it for two projects (back when we were shooting with lens adaptors that allowed use of still photography lenses on a regular HD camcorder).
In fact, quite some time ago I wondered why no one was making a video camera like the HVX200 that could shoot HD video but simply had a mount for still photo lenses. What I didn’t realize at the time was the issue of sensor size. DSLR lenses just aren’t designed to work with a 1/3-inch chip that most prosumer cameras have. It’s just far too small!
And then lens adaptors came along. And I have worked closely with those, though I never bought one. And here’s what I have to say about lens adaptors. At the time, they were a gift from God. You could use still photo lenses and get great depth of field, achieving a wonderfully cinematic look for your project. However, they also were a total pain in the ass. They suck up light. The last project I DPed with a lens adaptor, I tested and rated the set up to be the equivalent of 50 ISO film speed. For those of you who understand ISO (or ASA) numbers ... you know that that’s about as slow as film stock comes. The lower the number, the more light you need. Most people shoot still photos around 400 or 800 ISO. My new DSLR doesn’t even drop bellow 100 ISO. So, when shooting with the adaptors, it always felt like we had to set our sets and actors on fire to get an image at minimum exposure. We also had to shoot with the DSLR prime lenses wide open, which didn’t allow for them to be at their peak performance (which is usually about one or two stops up).
The other problem with lens adaptors is that they were noisy--and I mean the image. The system works by allowing the DSLR lens to focus on a ground glass that has grain. That ground glass vibrates or spins. The video camera is focused on the ground glass. Thus, the ground glass stood in for the larger chip size needed to use DSLR lenses. But you definitely had grain. Now, it managed to look pretty organic, like film grain. But even shooting with a 1080p camera, I think you’d be lucky to have an image shot with a lens adaptor that looked no better than 16mm film once it was projected on a movie theatre screen.
But here we are, and DSLRs are shooting HD video. In fact, it’s been going on for more than a year now. Slumdog Millionaire effectively used the Canon 5D Mark II to shoot sequences of the film. Since then, other models have come, and there’s been a lot of good competition, though frankly Canon has lead the way, with Nikon lagging behind only managing to put out 720p capable cameras (aside form one that shoots 1080p but only 20 frames per second--what the heck is that?). In fact, Red was forced to re-evaluate their Scarlet camera and they went back to the drawing board to make a Scarlet that will compete not just with the prosumer video camera market, but the DSLR market as well. So far, however, I have this sinking feeling Red’s letting things get away from them by continuing to push back the release of the Scarlet. Meanwhile, more HDSLRs hit the market at lower and lower prices, making the prospect of buying a Scarlet for guys like me more of a ... “meh, we’ll wait and see what it does compared to what I have” kind of thing. Of course, it will be worth keeping in mind that having worked with the Red One I believe the Scarlet still stands a chance to really blow us away.
Now, I don’t want to get too drawn in to discussing the specifics of these HDSLR cameras. If you are interested, here’s a great rundown of features and what to look for in a camera: http://nofilmschool.com/dslr
But I do want to touch on the other features that make these cameras so fantastic. The CMOS chip inside the Canon 7D and the T2i (the latter of which I own), is in fact just a smidge bigger than the sensor inside the Red One. And if you spring for the Canon 5D Mark II, the chip is a full 35mm frame size, a good bit bigger than the Red One’s M sensor.
Now, I’ll speak from my experiences here. I own the Rebel T2i (aka EOS 550D). It just hit the market. In fact, Canon moved up the shipping date by a week, so I got it sooner than expected. In fact, just in time for it to be 2nd camera on a short film I DPed with the 7D. The guts of the 7D and the T2i are pretty much the same, and having spent last weekend shooting with both cameras side by side, I cannot honestly see a difference in picture quality. We shot in 1080p24, and I’m impressed with how clean the image looks and how effective these cameras are in lower light. Now, compare the 18 megapixel CMOS sensor of the T2i to my Sony FX1 prosumer camcorder with something like 2 megapixels, and you start to see that my new T2i, which cost a fraction of what my FX1 did when I first got it, is miles ahead in capturing a beautiful image.
And that's the final revolutionizing aspect of the DSLR cameras is their price. Compared to the prosumer HD cameras out there, most of these HDSLRs are cheap. So, for the filmmaker on a very tight budget, buying the T2i for $800 and getting a couple lenses for another two or $300 sounds a lot better than spending six, seven, or more grand on a video camera with a fixed zoom lens and a small sensor that makes getting shallow depth of field next to impossible.
Having said all of this, there are drawbacks to the DSLRS. They are tools like any other, and one needs to know their limitations. For the shooters wanting to cover long live events, ENG style shooting on the go, and hand-held documentary work, HDSLRs present more challenges than advantages. For that kind of work having a shallow DoF is actually kind of a pain, and potentially a hindrance. With my T2i, I cannot zoom while shooting video without having noticeable changes (as in jumps) in exposure due to the lens’s iris adjusts as I zoom (a personal note here: when it comes to narrative filmmaking ... I hate, hate, hate zooms anyway!). Takes are limited to a max of 12 minutes because the maximum file size the camera can create is 4 GB (or 12 minutes of 1080p HD). The cameras are also small and pickup micro-jitters when working hand-held. So you need some shoulder mount system or counter balance to smooth things out. And the video is quite compressed using the H.264 codec, which as of yet isn’t really supported natively by most editing systems. I transcode to Apple ProRes (regular or HQ depending on the project) before editing.
Now, all those drawbacks in mind ... if you are an indie filmmaker trying to make your next short film or low budget feature, I think you really need to take a look at the options and advantages an HDSLR can bring to your next project. The cinematic look one can achieve is spectacular.
But allow me a final caution. Again, these cameras are just tools like any other. They won’t do the work for you, or magically make you a great cinematographer or filmmaker. Yes, they will shoot a very nice image. But you still must know the cinematic language of shot composition and selection, good lighting, editing, and aesthetic style and storytelling craft.
I think there’s a temptation among many new filmmakers to look at tools like this and think, “That’s it, I can now make my movie and it will look amazing! People will love it! I’ll get into Sundance! I’m on my way!!!” This happens every time a new breakthrough in cameras happens. When HD first came into the prosumer market, it happened. I witnessed it personally and was even party to it. The truth is, these are just tools. Tools can be used well and they can be used poorly. These are also not perfect tools. They have definite limitations.
So I caution new filmmakers to keep these things in mind: A camera that can shoot beautiful footage is no excuse for not properly lighting a scene. A camera that can shoot beautiful footage doesn’t make up for not knowing how to shoot for your edit. And ultimately, nothing replaces or makes up for bad storytelling. Wanna see a great film shot on a less than fantastic camera ... watch Once! Always make your tools servants to the story you are telling, not the other way around.