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Using DSLR Cameras for Video: The Pros and Cons

How To Use DSLR Cameras For Video

DSLR Cameras have become extremely popular for video making. Why is that and are they a good idea for you? Video Production Tips is pleased to present this guest post from Greg Lam, a professional videographer in Vancouver about the pros and cons of using DSLR cameras to shoot video.

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DSLR What?

canon dslr 5d mark II cameraWhen DSLR cameras came onto the market, it was considered a revolution in video production. Now, there are many options when it comes to finding a DSLR camera. As this is the case, this may mean that anyone looking to purchase a camera of this level may want to check out sites like gearsurfer to help make the process easier. Soon, anyone who has thought about owning a DSLR camera could be the proud owner, in the hopes of creating high quality video content.

It all started with the Canon 5D Mark II, which was the first Digital SLR* to take 1080p video back in September 2008. While 1080p recording may not seem revolutionary, HD video camera were already doing this, the image quality was the revolutionary thing. The images were gorgeous and film-like and they could all be stored on the best sd card so are easy to edit into beautiful videos. The shallow depth of field and the dynamic contract you could get from the images were simply beyond anything even close to that price range in standard video cameras. (the 5D Mark II camera body was around $3,000).

  • (SLR = Single Lens Reflex, which means the lens that forms the image on the film also provides the image in the viewfinder, they are typically thought of as still cameras)

Shallow depth of field is referring to how much of the image is in focus. When you watch some scenes in films, you’ll notice that the subject is in focus but the background is nicely blurred out. This focuses your eyes on the subject. This shallow depth of field gives images that are much higher quality and is considered a pro look.

Dynamic contrast is a fancy sounding term that really means the range of brightness that will show up on your video recording. Cameras with better dynamic contrast can show all the colors from the very dark to the very bright. This is a great feature, because if you’re filming on a sunny day for example, you’ll still be able to see the blue sky as well as items in the shade. With a camera that is not so good with dynamic contract, you will only be able to get detail in one or the other, but not both.

BIGGER IS BETTER

The reason these DSLR still cameras can take such amazing video is that they have a massive image sensor in comparison to a regular video camera and this is a very big deal.

The image shows the different size of sensors on cameras. Video cameras had the tiny small boxes in the left hand corner. DSLR image sensors are represented by the larger boxes. Now it’s easy to understand why the picture quality with DSLR cameras is so good!

Camera Sensor Sizes

NOTHING IS PERFECT

Along with the strong point of high quality images, there, of course, has to be a downside! There were, and are, many problems with DSLR cameras. Some of them are actually quite major.

  • Audio: They don’t have professional audio inputs (xlr or 1/4 inch) and most don’t have good manual controls
  • Record Time: Many have a 12 minute limitation, while other give you longer (you can press record again after it stops recording, but you can’t record long lengths continuously)
  • View Finder and LCD Screen: There is usually only a LCD screen, which you can’t often rotate. Video cameras usually have both a rotating LCD screen and a viewfinder
  • Zoom Control: DSLR’s don’t have the zoom rockers, that make it easy to zoom in and out. Instead, you need to rely on interchangeable lenses.
  • Interchangeable Lens: Many people who own video cameras under $10,000 have only one zoom lens. DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses, meaning you can swap out your lens. While this is generally a good thing for creative and professional people, since different lenses are better for different shots, extra lenses = extra money and makes you slower to react to changes when you have to switch from one lens to another.
  • Focus: The only practical way to focus is manually. There is some auto-focus, but they are not good like on a video camera. This would really only hurt you in fast moving situations since manual control is actually what many pros prefer.
  • Depth of Field: This is generally an advantage, but the shallow depth of field makes it harder to keep images in focus, especially during live events where your subjects might move around a lot.
  • Editing: The most popular DSLRs, Canons, encode using the h.264 codec. This codec was not meant to be an editing codec, and thus it is harder to edit as it takes more processing power from your editing system (thus things take longer and may not be real-time like your video camera footage)
  • Peaking and Zebras: Peaking sharpens an image, allowing you to focus easier while zebra stripes highlight parts of the image that are overexposed (too bright). This features is not generally available on DSLR’s
  • ND Filter: Many prosumer / professional video cameras have a ND (neutral density) filter that shades the lens for bright shooting, like on a sunny day. DSLR’s do not have this built-in so you would have to screw one on to the front of the lens. This can be time consuming.

Despite that lengthy list, the image quality couldn’t be beat… until now. I say the DSLR revolution is over because certain video cameras now come equipped with DSLR sized sensors, such as the Panasonic AG-AF100 and the Sony NEX-FS100. Now, these cameras still have some of the same issues, but they also allowed for some fixes:

  • Audio: Professional XLR inputs and manual audio controls
  • Record Time: With the digital cards, you can record for many hours continuously
  • View Finder and LCD Screen: The AG-AF100 has both, the NEX-FS100 only has a LCD, but it comes with a viewfinder add-on.
  • Interchangeable Lens: They have the kit lens with auto-focus that you are used to, as well as the ability to put on different lenses
  • Editing: They use the AVCHD codec, which work better with editing systems
  • Peaking and Zebras: The cameras have them
  • ND Filter: The AG-AF100 has one, the NEX-FS100 doesn’t

So, for anyone who is used to shooting with a regular video camera, switching to a large sensor video camera such as the AF100 or FS100 will be easier than switching to a DSLR camera. It should be noted, that a large reason for the popularity of DSLR video cameras is also their price points. You can literally purchase a DSLR body and lens for $1,000 and shoot amazing quality video. Something you can’t do with a regular video camera. The large sensor cameras are in the $5,000 price range, so are more expensive. Of course, but if you are shooting video for a living, it may be a necessary extra expense.

If you weren’t aware of these developments in the video camera world, you better get educated fast, as you will begin to see more and more video productions being done on these large sensor cameras with interchangeable lenses. The quality and creativity will ensure this.

Greg Lam operates a Vancouver Video Production studio called Small Biz Doer Videos and is an executive member of the BC Professional Videographers Association, the largest association of its kind in Canada. He also operates a small business website called the Small Business Doer that provides insight and advice to small business owners, with many of the articles being video articles of course!

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Lorraine Grula


Lorraine Grula enjoyed a fast-paced, multifaceted career in the television and video business, producing, shooting, writing, and editing documentary-style videos in both news and corporate settings. Later, she got to teach media and video production in two high schools, which then morphed into instructional design and corporate training. Lorraine is now dedicated to sharing her vast knowledge with others who wish to learn the art of video making, with an emphasis on storytelling and creating professional-quality videos for the internet as simply, yet creatively as possible.

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  1. This is a really well thought through guide, great for beginners and more experienced people alike – we love it! Well done 🙂

    Zut

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