In the last few years, there has been a plethora of DSLR’s being sold with video capabilities. As well as being photographers, my wife and I also produce short travel films so in 2010 after shooting for several years on a Sony FX1 camcorder, we decided to try out shooting video on DSLR. Our choice of camera was the Canon 7D and a 17-40mm lens. We also bought a Nikon to Canon adapter that allowed us to mount an 80-200 2.8 Nikon lens.
So what are the reasons for shooting video on a DSLR? Well the primary reason, and the reason so many professional filmmakers are using them now, is getting the shallow depth of field most often associated with 35mm cinematography. This is achievable because of the large sensor size of DLSR’s compared with most camcorders in the sub $15000 range.
So what are the pros and cons?
Lets Start With the Pros of Using a DSLR for Video
Firstly as mentioned above, the large sensors give a film, cinematic quality to the video. This has been the Holy Grail of independent filmmakers for many years and allows many low budget films to be produced with out the expense of hiring film cameras and the costs of the film itself.
Secondly, until the advent of the DSLR, the possibility of a large format sensor with interchangeable lenses was beyond the dreams of the average indie filmmaker. Now, if shooting APS sized sensors, you can get a cinematic look using a sub $1000 camera and lens combination. For less than $10000 you can set up an entire full frame system with multiple lenses, steadycams and auxiliary mics.
Most prosumer level camcorders come with a fairly limited range, fixed focus lens usually in the region of 28-300mm equivalent. With a full frame DSLR you can mount a super-wide 14mm or a ultra telephoto 600mm, achieving results that a few years ago would be out of the reach of all but the biggest studios.
Another advantage of the DSLR is their size and portability. This is a distinct advantage in shooting documentaries or other video shot on the streets on in crowded locations.
What About the Cons of Using DSLR for Video?
The first and for me killer con is ergonomics. Whilst this has got better with the latest cameras, there are still some major issues. The primary one is that using video modes requires the mirror to lock up. This means your only viewfinder is the LCD screen, which can be very tricky not only in having to position yourself behind it but in bright sunshine it can be difficult to see the screen.
Secondly, a lot of the auto functions are limited or removed entirely when shooting video. Depending on your camera you may find you have to manually focus or set the exposure. This can be very limiting if you are trying to cover many shots very quickly.
Another, often unexpected issue is moire patterns. This is an unsightly jagged edge that can show in straight lines and ironically in the case of the DSLR is caused by the higher resolution sensors. The issue is that in producing HD video the sensor only needs a maximum of 1080 pixels of vertical resolution and so has to discard excess pixels that a 16-18mp camera will have.
Another issue is rolling shutter. This is an issue where the footage appears to have a wobble in it. It is often caused by handholding the camera whilst shooting video or poor panning and tilting techniques on tripod.. It is actually common to all CMOS type sensors but because of the larger size of DSLR sensors it is exaggerated.
So in summary, DSLR video shooting can give a superb cinematic result but you have to be aware of the ergonomics and limitations of the camera.