Tips For Recording Better DSLR Video – Part 1

DSLR rigged for video
A DSLR rigged for video - photo by Bill Pryor

Back when Nikon and Canon engineers first started getting requests from field reporters to add video to their high end still cameras, I’m sure the top two manufacturers were doing it so they didn’t lose business to the other.  It wasn’t an unreasonable request at the time because video capability was turning up in all kinds of appliances.  If your toaster had a camera, someone would have added video recording.

Even though they were reluctant participants at first, that all changed when the first video from the Canon 5Ds hit the internets machine.  The film world experienced a collective jaw drop as video from a full frame 35mm sensor behind quality glass hit home.  I remember there was a great disturbance in the Film Force that went through the normal stages of grief:  Denial, anger, bargaining and, ultimately, depression.  Hard to believe that was just 2008.

Today Canon DSLRs, particularly the Canon 5D and Canon 7D are as common on movie sets as Assistant Directors.  The film world recovered from their initial shock and life went on.

For still photographers, the transition to video isn’t always easy because the rules are different.  Instead of framing a shot and pushing the button, you’re scripting a scene that might feature multiple angles.  The normal rules for exposure and composition go right out the window when you flip the selector switch from the little still camera over to the little video camera and DSLRs have some quirks that you need to aware of when shooting video.

There’s so much information about what goes into quality video, I’ve divided this into two separate features.

Frame Rate

I’m continually amazed at camera reviewers who take the position that 30 fps is “better” than 24 fps.  It’s not a question of better or worse, when it comes to quality the two are almost indistinguishable.

A frame rate of 24 progressive frames per second is a hold-over from film days.  When the film vs video worlds first collided, there was 24p on the film side and 30i (okay, 29.97) on the video side and neither was about to budge.  DSLRs changed all that.  Video from a 5D was good enough to be inter-cut with film, only the frame rates didn’t match.  So some techno-wizards came up with the Magic Lantern firmware update which gave the Canon 5D the ability to output 24p video and, shazam, film and DSLRs were suddenly BFFs.

Today, most high end DSLRs support 24p, 30i and sometimes 60i.  As movie theaters move away from film projection and production switches to video over film, the 24p/30i argument is less critical in production. Still, if you are thinking about shooting a video feature on a DSLR, you’ll want to stick with a 24p timeline.  Mixing 24p and 30i on the same video timeline does not work.  Sure, there is expensive software, like Twixtor, available that changes the frame rate and it looks decent, but the motion is still always a little off.

Unless it’s a quick cut-away shot, when you start a project in 24p or 30i, you’re stuck there for the entire project.  Choose wisely.  If you’re just grabbing some quick video at the beach, it doesn’t matter.  If it’s a feature length documentary or film, you’ll want to shoot 24p.  I shoot exclusively in 24p.

Shutter Speed

This one trips up a lot of photographers new to the video world.  They think they have have the same exposure control they do over a static image.  If you want a smaller f-stop, just bump up the shutter speed to compensate.  Easy, right?

Wrong answer in video, where your shutter speed options are dictated by the frame rate:

24 fps → 1/48 (or closest, usually 1/50th)
30 fps → 1/60
60 fps → 1/120

Ignore those rules and your video with either look smeary at slower shutter speed or the motion will look choppy at higher shutter speeds.

If you want to change to lower f-stop for a shallow depth of field and the light isn’t right, you’ll need to use ND filters.  To get a wider depth of field at a higher f-stop, you may need supplemental lighting.

In Part Two we’ll talk about color space, presets, audio, moire, and camera settings.

Canon T3i Review

Canon T3i
The T3i packs high end video capability in a consumer point-and-shoot - photo Canon

I realize a review of the Canon EOS Rebel T3i is a bit belated, but it’s only been out since February and wanted to see what kind of market buzz it would generate.  So far, the buzz meter over the summer has been near zero.  The T3i is a camera that can best be described as “odd” in a number of ways.

In spite of the lack of enthusiasm and a few design quirks, the camera gets good reviews from owners.  Canon seems to be trying to hide the fact it comes with an 18-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor.  They’re all about mentioning the megapixel rating and the fact the T3i is packing the Digic 4 image processor, but I had to dig through the detailed comparison specs to get Canon to admit to the APS-C chip dimension.  A strange oversight considering how many fine cameras in the Canon line use that particular chip.

Outside that the T3i is a consumerized version of the 60D, with more features for people who spend most of their time shooting on auto.

Another surprise in the T3i are the video specs, which are similar to their higher end models.  1080p HD at 24, 25 and 30 fps.  Maybe Canon envisioned the T3i as a “B” camera for an independent filmmaker using a Canon 7D with a PL mount so they can drag out their cine glass. Odd that Canon would put so much video capability into a mid-range DSLR.

At $700 for the body only, I’d be tempted to lock one for a wide coverage shot on a video shoot and keep in the bag as a spare body for weddings.

Here’s a hands-on review:

For more info check our the T3i on Snapsort, or check out these comparisons.

Fujifilm HS20EXR Super Zoom

The Fujifilm FinPix HS20EXR has been out for a few months now but still is a powerhouse of a camera. Replacing the HS10, which was a successful model for the company, the HS20 features an 16-megapixel EXR CMOS sensor that’s a significant step up from the HS10’s 10-megapixel sensor.

Fujifilm HS20
Fujifilm's HS20EXR - Perfect for your kid's soccer games

Fujifilm built the HS20 around a 30x zoom Super EBC Fujinon lens, which yields an effective focal length of 24mm to 720mm, offering an affordable alternative for consumers who want big glass features without the big glass price tag.

To keep the extreme end of the zoom stable, the HS20 includes three image stabilization features: One that actually shifts the sensor to eradicate shake, backed up by Pixel Fusion technology to increase sensitivity and boost shutter speed. Finally there’s EXR Auto, which takes four pictures in rapid succession and combines them into a single, blur-free image.

The BSI-CMOS sensor in the camera delivers good quality low-light results and the camera software includes features to push the dynamic range in tricky lighting situations and can deliver 11 frames per second at 8-megapixel resolution in burst mode.

For video the HS20 can shoot 1080 HD with stereo sound, but limited to 30fps.  The camera also has a high speed movie mode that shoots at 320 fps.

On the downside, some testers have reported some minor focusing issues and dinged it for using 4 AA batteries instead of a rechargeable lithium-ion option.

With a price tag in the $400 range, those are workable annoyances.  With the zoom and fast action capability, this would be the go-to consumer camera for people wanting to take pictures at their kid’s sporting events.

Sony Announces SLT-A77 and SLT-A65

Sony A77
The Sony SLT-A77 takes aim at Nikon and Canon

Sony announced new entries to compete with Nikon and Canon, demonstrating they’re serious about trying to carve out a foothold in the digital camera space.

Sony SLT-A77

The A77 comes packed with features aimed at the Canon 7D and Nikon D5100 and could be compelling enough to wrestle some business away from the market leaders.

Built with a magnesium-alloy shell, the A77 provides clear testimony to the success of Sony’s push to improve the fit and finish of their cameras.

Inside Sony has fitted the A77 with an APS-C chip behind a translucent mirror.  Instead of a flip-up mirror, the A77’s translucent mirror remains fixed and allows continuous auto-focus both in burst mode and movie mode.  This feature was first introduced in the A55 and improved for this generation.

Several features are aimed at sports photography, including the ability to shoot 12 full-resolution images in burst mode with a shutter delay as low as 0.05 seconds.

The video capabilities have been enhanced, with the introduction of the AVCHD Progressive codec.  The A77 can deliver 1080p in either 60 fps or 24 fps and boasts a continuous shooting time of 29 minutes.

The LCD screen has dual-hinge, three-way tilt shift capability, something Canon users will envy when shooting outside on sunny days.

For audio the A77 has stereo mics, but strangely didn’t include any manual audio controls.

The Sony A65 has very similar capabilities in a plastic shell and the burst mode only handles 10 pictures instead of 12.

The A77 will have a $2,000 kit price and the A65 will weigh in at $999 with the 18-55mm kit lens.

Instead of a lower price point, Sony opted for the “more for your money” approach.  It will be interesting to see if it works.

Attack of The Mirrorless Cameras

Olympus Pen E-P3
Olympus Pen E-P3 one of the new breed of mirrorless cameras

For as long as most photographers have been taking pictures with SLR cameras the process has been familiar, whether they were shooting film or the newer all digital cameras:  Push the button and the mirror would flip up out of the way, the shutter would fire, then the mirror would drop back into place allowing you to once again see through the viewfinder.  That second of blackness after pushing the button has been there as long as most of have been in the business.That’s about to change with the advent of a new breed of mirrorless cameras.  Not long ago “mirrorless” meant either a small sight lens on one side of the camera or using the LCD screen on the back to frame the shot.  Now comes the trend of TTL electronic viewfinders that may someday do away with flip-up mirrors all together.The missing mirror assembly gives manufacturers the ability to make smaller cameras that still sport a big chip behind good glass without a complicated mechanical mechanism for moving the mirror.  The new mirrorless cameras are smaller, lighter, faster and still take amazing pictures.

One of the new upstarts is the Olympus Pen E-P3, sporting one of the new micro 4/3’s chips that Olympus jointly developed with Panasonic.  The E-P3 is smaller, lighter and faster than its big brother DSLR cousins, but is handicapped by the $899 price point, which puts in the same price range as the Canon T3i.

The Sony Alpha NEX-C3 sports an APS-C chip behind interchangeable glass on a small frame camera.  At $600, the Sony hits the sweets spot between portability and price.  You get all the advantages of the smaller frame, electronic viewfinder, at price point that’s below the intro level DSLRs from Canon and Nikon.