HD-SLRs: Video Digital SLRs
In 2008 Canon and Nikon brought out the EOS 5D Mk II and D90 respectively, both products being met with mixed reviews, not because they didn't meet the requirements of photographers but because they had one feature in particular that was unlike anything on the market.
Those from a less photographic background sat up and took notice. Rumours of devices like these had been circulating for years, products and technologies converging and blurring long-established boundaries. With compact cameras and mobile phones already offering both stills and movie it was expected by some that the device to end the ‘era of photography’ would be a camcorder.
These new video DSLR’s have shaken things up although it is mainly the video industry which has seen the real potential of video output, creating new products and allowing many new creative outlets. For many within the photographic community however, there has mixed feelings. Some reacted negatively stating that they didn’t want to pay for a feature they didn’t use (see below). Some were indifferent over them; just another feature in a camera that already does more than most need.
In fact the reality was that even the manufacturers were taken aback by the surge in demand for these new cameras.
We are all now so used to video-based products that many of us can’t imagine life without them. It seems that everything from your mobile phone to your computer has the ability to record movies, edit and upload video's in some way. With sites like YouTube and Vimeo especially prevalent to independent film makers, these new DLSR’s, sometimes branded as HD SLR’s are a real gift.
So why did it take so long?
In part it is down to processing power. It is very different having to process three frames a second at 12 million pixel compared to 30 frames at 2 million pixels within that same time for a longer period. It is this continuous streaming which has posed the biggest problem to overcome. The other side of the coin is demand for a device like this; compact cameras have always typically had very poor image quality video providing SVGA resolution on most models (800x640) up until recently and in many cases giving the option for either zoom or sound. It has only been in recent years that the compacts have aspired to better things with higher resolutions and, now, HD as standard across many brand ranges. Most share the same basic technology as a camcorder, in fact during the early years most digital cameras took heavy influence from camcorder technology but due to the different demands required for still and movie's they have since developed quite independently of one another. This in real world terms means that when shooting movies the sensors themselves begin to get quite hot which could result in very noisy, poor quality footage which is next to useless.
These new cameras offer cinematic quality in device that are a fraction of the cost of cinema-quality camcorders. For instance, something like a Red One camcorder is likely to cost over £20,000 in order to get a similiar shallow depth of field, whereas a Canon EOS 500D is available with lens for under £600! From this I'm sure you can obviously understand why videographers are interested in Digital SLR's. DSLRs aren’t getting things all their own way however, to add to the mix some companies have already started using camcorders to capture stills just by pulling the frame from 4K capture; Esquire shot Megan Fox for a cover shoot with the RED One camcorder in 2010, though this as mentioned before maybe beyond what most can realistically afford.
There are, however, still some significant differences between the traditional ‘camcorder’ and the new video DSLR.
Firstly, and most importantly, for some is that the video DSLRs struggle with auto focus in Live View, relying heavily on contrast focusing limiting there ability to keep up with fast moving objects, this means many resort to using follow focus devices (see below). As a result HDSLRs can require longer production and post production times than ‘traditional’ camcorders, but for short clips of friends or family this will make little difference to you.
The other advantage (other than cost) is that they offer a fairly compact unit thats lighter than a traditional camcorder allowing you to get into more compact spaces, see the season finale of House as a greate example or Iron Man 2 where they mounted the camera on the sports car.
This opens up the world more removing the need to special sets to be built and (from a video perspective) opens up the world.
Although HD-SLRs offer excellent image quality, due to the positioning of the microphone they can suffer from poor sound quality in challenging situations. Some of these first generation only have the ability for mono recording in-camera, resulting in a rather flat sound which although fine for Youtube isn't going to win you any Oscar's. This is why most will either use a shot gun microphone, like the Sennheiser MKE 400, and feed the audio in through the 3.5mm audio jack on the side of most cameras or in some cases record the sound separately with a device like the Zoom H4a sound recorder which will then need to be synced in post production forcing you to spend a little more time working on the audio, but with this gives you much higher quality audio available to you.
For those that need higher quality still and have the ability to connect to XLR inputs, Beachtech offer an adapter to feed professional audio quality into your HDSLR gear. This converts down the large professional audio XLR jack's to be compatible with SLR's. As you can see in a relatively short time period there is already a whole industry emerging around these cameras.
All the current range of DSLRs have a maximum recording time of 29 minute's, due to a software limitation, though this tends to be a little irrelevant as the hardware unfortunately limits them, in some cases, to 12 minutes at full resolution . The 29 minutes is a combination of hardware and software (as shown by a recent firmware hack on the Panasonic DMC-GH1). Most manufactures place a hardware limitation due to EU rules where video devices recording beyond the 29 minute mark are classed in a separate, higher VAT banding.
Though, as mentioned, the limit is in fact that of the file type, and what it can support over a much shorter period (see below)
One aspect which many overlook is the usability of the DLSRs against a camcorder, it's here that the two show their real differences. DSLRs lack the speed and versatility which will inevitably increase the production time of any filming. It is in fact the very strength of DSLRs that is also their greatest weakness. Due to how the autofocus is designed specifically around the mirror, DSLRs have to use a basic contrast focus system which is rather limited in movie mode. This is where follow focus devices become essential, although there is nothing stopping you using the normal method on a DSLR to focus by turning the focus ring on the lens. This creates a lot of unwanted shake causing a rather uncomfortable user experience when watching any footage recorded like this.
This is where video with DSLRs get a little messy, with the contrast autofocus doing an awful job in Live View - if you are planning on doing any serious video work its essential that you get yourself a follow focus. These have been around for years on cine cameras but are a relative unknown within the DSLR market. Follow focus essentially gives you a larger ring to turn thereby allowing you to have a smoother focus onto your subject, in conjunction with a loupe such as the Hoodman Hoodloupe or Zacuto Z-Finder this will give you smooth and accurate focus despite the extremely shallow depth of field from these DSLRs.
Although exposure can be adjusted automatically it is worth using the camera like a high end cine camera, setting the exposure yourself and adjusting accordingly.
Depth of FieldLinked closely to the focusing and exposure is the aperture. This is also what gives these cameras there cinematic look. The shallow depth of field (or DOF) really emphasises your subject(s), however, a word of warning. Whilst many will want to use the depth of field to its full advantage, I would caution you from shooting ‘wide open’ i.e. at wide apertures like F/1.2, this is due to the DOF being so shallow that its almost unusable! It is best to work with apertures like F/4-5.6 as although these are still shallow they have a far better usability. The other option is to use a longer lens, the longer the focal length the more exaggerated the depth of field becomes.
This is rather niche tool but can be quite useful for control rather than fiddling with the setting on the camera which are obviously designed around stills use. Using the OnOne Camera Control software you can control either a Nikon or Canon through either an Eye-Fi card wireless SD card or a USB connect to a PC, this gives you the ability to change camera settings and the point of focus without worry about knocking or shaking the camera or can be used to control a camera wirelessly and although we can't offer this to you directly it is worth checking out if you own an iPhone.
Resolution Terms: P or I?
High definition can come in two resolution 1080 or 720. These are the resolution (pixels) either 1920x1080 or 1280x720. Like megapixels in still images the more the better but to complicate matters there is also Interlaced and Progressive for both resolutions. To put it simply Interlaced is like interpolation where the camera uses software to add-in the extra resolution, Progressive does a greater scan resulting in a better quality image.
Codecs and Format's
The real problem that people now have to contend with is dozens of codecs. On many low end camcorders this is a real issue, most manufacturers are starting to see sense and only use existing codecs. These Codecs in laymans terms are the way the file is written and not all software can speak this language. The easiest option is to make sure you use the latest version of your preferred software, such as Adobe Premier or Apple Final Cut, these will support all the current codecs at the time of release (but obvious since then others may have been introduced).
Broadcast and Frame Rate
There are two television standards which I am sure you will have come across at one time or another, NTSC and PAL. The former is the standard in America and PAL is what we use in Europe. Due to their design these HD-SLRs have the advantage of being able to shoot both making them very versatile! The other thing to bear in mind is the frame rate for your output here in the UK TV’s will typically use 25 frames per second whereas in the US they use 29.97, the knock-on, unless you adjust the frame rate (or your output device adjusts the frame rate), can look either slightly slow or slightly too fast. Some cameras, like the Canon range of DSLRs, can be pushed to shoot at 60fps, this slows down motion primarily for effect, and although it does not off high speed slow motion, it can be a very useful creative feature.
Whilat there is still no perfect solution, the DSLRs have become a catalyst with more and more film makers now considering them as a viable alternative to traditional methods. Offering lightweight, high quality cameras with unprecedented image quality, the dawn of the video HD-SLR is now upon us and like convergence in any other device it is unlikely to be removed.
HD-SLRs in truth are much more of a compliment to existing set ups, offering a wide range of accessories with a large online fan base keen to exploit the advantages and high quality movie available from them. With even big budget studio's now considering them a viable option never before has the video industry been as excited about new technology.