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Video on a DSLR camera

Call it integration converging or merging, High Definition Digital Video continues to power on a DSLR camera.

There are many good reason to like the Canon 5D Mk3. One is that it answers the question as to why digital video cameras have not shared sensors of similar specs to those in digital SLR's. There is no reason now, and with the Canon 5D and 7D along with Sony's A7s, they do. Specialised training in the use of Digital Single-Lens Reflex cameras is now available through PDV Digital Cinema Workshops.

The Canon 5D Mk3

I wonder if Canon’s engineers knew what they were starting with the 5D M11 back in 2008? The video feature has all the hallmarks of being a something that was added on simply because it could be easlity done.

DSLR's are not designed to shoot a lot of handheld video, however it is an amazing engineering achievement and people have gone nuts over it – with good reason. You have the ability to record 1920 X 1080 full HD resolution onto a full frame sensor in a compact stills camera.

I’d like to take a look at some of the more practical aspects of this integration that may get lost in the excitement. If you plan to shoot HD video with this camera, there are a number of things that have to be considered.

Stay focussed

Video displays are larger than ever with resolution that has never been higher. Digital cameras continue to capture even crisper and cleaner images and essentially you have in your hands a lightweight and compact device with the potential to capture near 35mm cinema quality movie footage.

Even with today’s pace of development that is quite an achievement however there are a number of important technical considerations. The difference between shooting stills and recording video images is considerable. Some differences are technical, others creative, but each has some influence on the other. What does this mean if you plan to use a camera similar to the 5D MkII for serious video work'

Full frame sensors

The primary difference and the one that will impact the most on you, is the resulting shallow Depth of Field (DoF) characteristics in the recorded images – characteristics similar to those shot on 35mm film by motion picture cameras such as those designed and manufactured by Sony, Arriflex, RED and Panavision.

Razor thin Depth-Of-Field is one of the reasons why large format images look cinematic and movie-like and having that capability in a small still camera marks a turning point for cameras like the Canon 5D Mk3. Stills cameras have included some basic option for video capture for a few years so why this full frame stuff is different.

Different because the Canon 5D Mk3 uses a CMOS sensor approximately 36mm x 24mm in size, larger in size than the image area exposed on double perorated 35mm motion picture film.

If you happen to set focus just a tiny bit off the mark, the image will look out of focus on one of these big screens – these soft shots will not make the cut .

It means that precise focussing has inched it’s way up and become one of the more essential technical skills you will need to master if you are to get the most from a DSLR camera. Focus, and the selective use or it, can now be used as an effective mood-generator in your video work.

Photographers have always had a fondness for the artistic benefits and the pitfalls of shallow DoF as defined by the aperture setting (as determined by shutter speed) in concert with lens focal length and image format size. This awareness, carried over to shooting video on the 5D MkII, will most likely come as second nature.

Videographers on the other hand who have come through the “Mini-DV Revolution” will be right at home shooting scenes where everything, from the those irritating specs of dust on the front element to the mountains on the horizon is in sharp focus.

Keeping an eye on things

Remember that you will be recording action that may be constantly changing its distance from the camera. With the Canon, the Live-View screen at the back of the camera is the only way to monitor the video recording without going to an external display (which I recommend).

It’s fine for framing and to some extent setting exposure, but it is not a that accurate or convenient way to deal with critical things like focus. Firstly, it’s hard to pick correct focus on the wide angle shots and I suggest that you use the feet/meter distance markings on the lens to set focus to the right distance.

Nothing is worse than covering action a few meters from your shooting position only to find the lens focus distance was set to infinity. If it’s fast and furious action, you may not pick it. Stay on a telephoto shot and let soft focussed objects to pass through the foreground. They can reveal a perfect moment and you’ll be amazed how good this can look in HD.

When you use the telephoto end of the zoom, focussing becomes more challenging. Telephoto lenses compress the frame – drawing the foreground and the background in together resulting in a composition that has multiple focus planes.

Use shallow depth of field to:
  • direct audience attention 
  • follow focus with moving subjects/objects
  • shift focus to reveal
  • soften distracting backgrounds

DSLR cameras are not great cameras for continuous handheld video shooting. As a stills camera the Canon 5D Mk3 feels perfect with everything in just the right place. Put a long lens on like a 70-200mm f2.8 and it still feels right.

Video mode calls for a different approach however it will soon be clear that you can not last very long holding it in your hands – no shoulders to help out.

The size and weight of DSLR cameras make them perfect for covering spontaneous and unpredictable situations, however the fact that they *are so lightweight guarantees that there’ll be shaky movement and see-sawing horizons.

The best advice to offer about handheld shooting is to always record using the wide angle lens and engage closely with your subject. The wide lens gives you minimum camera shake and working closely with the action, hides much of the annoying camera shake and wobbles.

There are many situations not to use a tripod but with a DSLR, but save the handheld shots for those scenes where it suits the scene.

Video vs stills

There is a tendency to limit the duration of camera takes and record in small bite-sized clips with no real start or end points. You will need to get into a different frame of mind when you switch to video mode.

It’s vital to shoot in such a way that you give you options in the edit. By this I mean choices to pace up or pace down the sequence or to lengthen or shorten a sequence. Shooting in a way that doesn’t allow these choices, limits your final result.

There are times when you might decide on a particular shooting style – one that you want to carry through the whole production. It’s good to have that vision but on the other hand, there can be other factors that influence the end result and not all of these factors are know at the time of shooting.

They could be factors like, narration, a decision to shorten or lengthen the piece or a desire to slow the whole pace down to allow for a music track. Good reasons to have choices. Allowing subjects to enter and leave frame is an elementary rule of film making. Just by doing this, you can add instant class to your shooting.

Panning to reveal

If you have set up to record a scenic landscape, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Firstly, check to see if there’s a part of the landscape that you could pan from – ie another part of the scene that could reveal the landscape with a nice slow camera move. Pans like this will give you a valuable option in the edit room
  • You don’t have to use this pan in the edit, but you will have a choice to gain extended screen time for narration.
It's in the detail

Detail, and lots of it is what we usually think of when we shoot HD video. Is it a good thing? Not always, because there is a lot to see in a wide screen 16:9 frame and sequences can loose impact, cluttered with too much unwanted information – in this case, more is not always better.

If you have an awareness of these things then I believe that you can work around them – most people are doing just that. The results from the 5D Mk3and the Nikon D800 are just too good.

Other things will never change regardless of the format, camera brand or recording format used. Just try to keep tabs on what you have here. Some trade-offs will have to be made – that’s the way it is has been for some time.

© 2014 Pieter de Vries ACS