January 05, 2011

DSLR v Video: Why not both?

A matter of choice: Gollner and Davis (and Canon 550D DSLR)

HD DSLRs are now widely used for video production, even for prominent TV series and movie making. Users love the shallow depth of field and low cost of entry. But just how useful are they for professional production, how do they compare to low-end video cameras, and can they withstand the introduction of large sensor video cameras that give the same look but without the operational problems?

"The tones of the images, the look, the range of lenses, the animation capability – they make these cameras a dream for independent filmmakers, but they're not good for everything. For the videographer who gets paid to shoot, run around, be quick, gather audio, videos, interviews. Quick turnaround. Guaranteed results, meaning its not going to screw up; the DSLRs have proved far from ideal," said Rick Young, editor/director/cameraman, MacVideo.TV.

For him it's not a matter of choosing one over the other, "they're both fantastic," but of choosing the right one for a particular shoot.

Producer/director, Matt Davis, MDMA, has a Sony EX1, and wanted to do wider shots. So, he bought expensive wide-angle adapters, but then worked out that a Canon 550D costs less than the adapter, even including the wide angle lens (he bought a Tokina 11-17mm zoom, which he praises for its sharpness). "The wide angle experience has been absolutely monumental. It does everything that an EX1 can't. There is no droop at the sides. It's got this wonderful panoramic feel. It is a smaller camera that can get into smaller places." He is only now investing in longer lenses.

"It had to work with an EX1. It couldn't just stand on its own looking beautiful and arty. It had to play fair with the rest of the video family." He makes sure that both the DSLR and the EX1 are shooting within similar contrast ranges "It's close, but it's not exact. It still needs a little bit of finishing off in Final Cut," to match the two pictures, but that is now quick and straightforward.

When he cuts the two together, it is difficult to spot the difference. The blacks can give the DSLR footage away. The EX1 can use Cine Gamma to give soft ramping in the blacks, and the DSLRs don't necessarily have that exposure range. "They're pretty and they're good, but they have limits, and you really can't push beyond those limits like you can with a decent broadcast camera," said Davis.

"If you look at DSLRs in isolation they look fantastic," said Young. "But when you put it together [with video], that's when you can really see the difference."

Young has augmented his two Sony EX1Rs and two JVC HM100s with two Canon 5D Mark IIs with Canon 16-35mm and Sigma 12-24mm lenses, "and it's staggering what you can get out of it. And even if I only use the DSLR for nothing but those wide shots, it would suit a fantastic purpose. The cost of buying a serious wide-angle lens for conventional video technology would be more than probably buying the whole DSLR package," he told the recent MacVideo Expo in London.

"We need this technology. It doesn't mean that it is everything; it complements what we've got, but it doesn't necessarily take over," although it has become "an integral part" of the kit he needs.

RAW deal: Young in a still from a demo sequence

Overcoming limitations

"It's just another tool, and it's a very exciting tool," said Den Lennie, founder, F.Stop Academy, who shoots with a wide range of cameras from Digital Betacam to XDCAM EX and DSLRs. He has produced four training DVDs dealing with HD DSLRs, but they have not all been shot using DSLRs. The 5D Mark II training videos were shot on a Sony XDCAM 350, while the Canon 7D DVD was shot on an EX1 and 5D Mark II.

"The limitations of DSLRs particularly lie in the audio," and when he was shooting in Malaysia with Dan Chung it was essentially a two hour documentary, which would have been much more difficult to do if he had to use a separate audio recorder (see some clips from it at www.dslrvideoonassignment.com). However, the training video uses both EX1 and DSLR footage cut together, which works very well. "You really don't have to do a lot of work [in post] if you match your cameras up beforehand," he added.

He tends to roll the sharpness, contrast and saturation down on the 5D Mark II, and bring a little back in post if necessary, and also roll down the detail settings on the EX1. The fundamentals of the craft of filmmaking remain the same whichever you use.

Alex Gollner, producer/director/editor, Alex4D.com (who has created a wide range of free Final Cut plug ins), now uses a Canon EOS 7D and 5D Mark II as his primary cameras, only occasionally using video cameras.

He likes to use a DSLR because he so often has to interview people in small rooms where the background would be distracting if he didn't have shallow depth of field. It also allows him use a very small lighting kit, enabling him to set up more quickly. He doesn't do news style material with it, where he would choose his HDV camcorders.

DSLRs give "blurred backgrounds behind my interviewee" and a "touch of class" to the result, he feels.

He uses a Zoom H4n recorder for audio and gets his subject to clap. "Synching only takes a few moments, as long as I don't stop and start the camera too often, and make sure they answer in less than 12 minutes," due to the file length restrictions.

He generally uses the camera locked off and just zooms in in post for close ups, as 720p is what most clients want the video delivered in.

When shooting on the EX1, Lennie uses a Tiffen low contrast filter to help smooth out some of the contrast so it matches better with the DSLR. "It is much easier to shoot on video where it's necessary to shoot in difficult conditions or where you are working as a one man band rather than using the Zoom recorder." If he has to synch DSLR audio in post, he uses PluralEyes (www.singularsoftware.com).

He filmed a concert recently for The Skids on five 7Ds, where the 12 minute recording limit was an issue (similar to shooting on film), so they staggered the recording on each camera by about 30 seconds and stopped/started recording one by one at the end of each track, for a two hour shoot. "You make a decision on what's right for the project," he said.

Davis feels that there is space for both proper video cameras and DSLRs at the moment, until the large sensor video cameras establish themselves. "I definitely do need both because there is no such thing as a single perfect camera." He finds that people react differently to stills and video cameras. Sometimes, if they see a DSLR, they may pose as if for stills, so you can get less posed reaction shots with a video camera.

Lennie doesn't worry about rolling shutter effects, as it's not an issue for most of what he shoots, while problems with moiré can be countered by using filters or defocusing. "It's just a limitation of the technology." He feels that DSLRs are particularly good for shooting in the back of a cab or other confined space.

Even with the Panasonic AF101 and Sony F3 coming along, Young feels that DSLRs still have some advantages, such as their compact size. He finds all of his cameras equally useful and they are used for different things.

Reflecting on glass

One problem, said Davis, is that a 50mm lens is not really a 50mm lens on cameras that use APS-C (which has a 1.5x or 1.6x crop factor) or Micro Four Thirds (2x) sensors. "The standard lens on a full frame camera is quite a long telephoto on a Four Thirds camera."

However, he feels that investing in glass will hold its value. "Glass can be a long term investment. The back end doesn't matter. Think about the front end."

"My clients are not going to see too much of a distinction in between video quality" on these cameras, said Gollner. It's more his own pride that makes the difference.

"If the client's images look better and they are paying less or the same for a higher quality product, that makes you look good," added Lennie.

Gollner believes that he could possibly achieve the same with DV or HDV, but it would take some extra work. "I'm just getting better quality pictures for a little less work than I used to a few years ago."

"It's all about the pictures […] who cares about what the camera is," added Lennie, "It doesn't really matter what you shoot on if you know how to shoot well."

"For extreme wides and extreme beauty shots," DSLRs "can't be beat," concluded Young, but for most other things, especially long record times and having all the right controls in the right place, he turns to his video cameras.

This article first appeared in the December issue of TVB Europe magazine - the full issue is available to view online and download any pages as pdf files.

By David Fox

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