The Slippery Slope of DSLR Video

I make no bones about it – I am primarily a still photographer. When SLR’s began to incorporate video, I was excited about the idea, and would play with the feature on shoots here and there. I figured it would be a cool way to capture some behind-the-scenes footage at different shoots. While that is still a cool idea, what I found as I started to play with it is that this is not messing-around-with-a-camcorder kind of video. This is the real deal. And the more I got into it, the more I realized there was more to get into. Here is some of what I have learned:

1) Forget autofocus: Manual focus rules. You have to remember that your audio is going to pick up every sound imaginable, and as you move the camera you don’t want to record the sounds of the camera focusing. In addition the ability to pull-focus (follow-focus), where you manually vary what is in focus during a scene, is an essential element in story-telling, and is one reason why a lot of film-makers are excited about DSLR video.

2) Forget on-camera audio: well, if you have to run and gun you can get by with it, but consider what you need to film. Actors speaking? The sounds of a waterfall 100 yards away? A subject being interviewed? On-camera audio can serve as a reference track when you are editing, but you have to plan ahead for the audio piece if you want to properly record it. I have a Zoom H4N recorder now, which allows me to record 4 separate tracks, and has 2 XLR jack inputs. More importantly, I have recruited a friend who loves audio work and wants to handle that piece during shoots. We are ready to record some serious audio.

3) Forget about zoom lenses. In still you often start in one position and use zoom lenses to vary the focal length when composing a shot. In film work zooming during filming went away with 60′s action tv shows. In film, you move the camera, not the lens. Prime lenses, fast prime lenses, rule. I have a bunch of Nikon primes in my closet that are suddenly relevant again, and will look at renting faster Carl Zeiss or Nikon primes if the shoot demands it.

4) Forget about auto-white balance: In still photography I get lazy with auto-white balance, as I figure if the white balance is off in the image it is an easy fix in post. But in film you have 24 or 30 or even 60 frames per second where you have to do the correction, and post processing (which can still be done) becomes a much greater challenge. So nail the white balance, and watch for changes in light temperature as much as possible throughout the shoot.

5) The holy trinity of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture is your friend: Again, go all manual here. The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed is 1 over double your frame rate. So if you are shooting at 24 frames per second, your shutter speed should roughly be 1/50 of a second. With 60 fps your shutter speed is 1/120 of second, and so on. That means that the wider your aperture and the darker your scene, the higher your ISO. Film guys love to shoot wide open, so cameras that have great high ISO capabilities and wide-angle lenses with very wide maximum apertures are critical.

6) Get to know an editor (like Premiere Pro CS6 or Final Cut Pro) as much as you know Photoshop or Lightroom: I am a Premiere Pro CS6 user, mostly because I like the way CS6 integrates across the Adobe CS6 apps, like Photoshop and After-Effects, and I am a Creative Suite subscriber. In fact Premiere Pro is so good now, I actually enjoy editing. I have always found it to be rather tedious until now. I have nothing against Final Cut Pro, Avid, or any other editor. I just settled on this suite because of my background in using Photoshop. You may wish to do otherwise, depending on where you want to go with your videography. I have been told that people in the film community are strictly Final Cut Pro users, so you may want to go there. But regardless of what you choose, spend some time doing some editing work. Just like Photoshop or Lightroom can make you a better photographer, an editing suite can make you a better videographer (or cinematographer).

7) Understand the advantages of different frame rates and resolutions. High end digital SLR’s right now can deliver video with 1080p resolution at 24 frames per second. This gives a delightful “film look” to the footage which is really the breakthrough into the film world, and one of the reasons why kids out of film school are using DSLR’s for film production. Higher frame rates will give more of a video look, but can be useful if you want to slow down the display of the footage. Video shot at 60 fps slowed down to 30 fps in post will give you very smooth slow motion. Just make sure your camera is stable, as in:

8) Tripods are essential, as is a video tripod head. A video tripod head is different from a ballhead that we often use in still photography. The video head lets you do pans and tilts very easily. That is much more difficult to navigate with a ballhead. Why do you want to do pans and tilts? Read on.

9) Motion rules: Start watching vids on Vimeo, or go a movie or watch a tv show and pay attention to how it is filmed. If the cameraman is capturing action, the frame will follow the action. If the subject is stationary, the camera moves, often in a silky, smooth kind of way. This is where pans and tilts become so important. It is also why the terms sliders and dollies and cranes and jibs will start to become more frequent in your reading. This leads to the next point.

10) Welcome to the bazaar: If you thought there were lots of ways to spend money in still photography, multiply that by about a factor of 10 in video work. You can go as elaborate or as simple as you want. There is a bit of a gold rush going on right now. A lot of very experienced people in the field of cinematography are partnering with small equipment manufacturers and creating new kinds of gear based on their knowledge and experience. It is reminiscent of the early days of the computer and Internet booms. A lot of this will shake out over the next 3 years and clear winners will emerge. In the meantime there is always eBay, or you can do it yourself. There are lots of videos on YouTube about creating your own gear using materials you can get very cheaply at Home Depot. I saw one video where people had lit the background of a scene using a string of Christmas lights and kept the background out of focus during the shoot. Looked great. Which brings up the next point.

11) Principles of studio lighting for photography are directly transferrable to lighting a scene for video. In fact it is even more basic in video lighting. There are 4 main sources of studio lighting, which I will list oldest to newest: tungsten (or incandescent), fluorescent, halogen, and LED. The oldest are the cheapest but they run hot and you want to put a screen in front of them as they have this annoying habit of exploding from time-to-time. LED’s are by far the easiest to work with and currently the most expensive. That will change as more competition enters the field. Lighting ratios are pretty similar. Start with a primary key light on the subject, fill at 1 stop under the key, and use background or hair lights to create separation. These are basic standards you can work off of. I have yet to explore green screen technology. That is later this year. And this brings me to my last point:

12) This is fun. Big fun. Whether you are pulling focus to emphasize a story point, using time-lapse, or playing with After-Effects in post, it is, simply put, a blast and a half. With social networking and sites like Vimeo and YouTube, you have the opportunity to have your creations seen by a lot of people. This has never happened in our history and we have no idea where this is all going. Personally I find this thrilling. Our tools are so good, and our means of showing our work are wide-spread and growing every day. We are only held back by the limits of our imagination.

I will keep blogging about my journey through this new landscape. I am still learning, which is still a lot of fun at the age of 58, and I will share what I learn and develop here on the blog. See you in the movies!

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Posted in DSLR Video, Photography, Web/Tech
2 comments on “The Slippery Slope of DSLR Video
  1. Michaela says:

    This is a topic that is close to my heart… Thank you!

    Where are your contact details though?

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