The first digital SLR cameras that could shoot high definition video emerged in 2008. In just two short years these cameras have revolutionised independent film making with their ability to deliver stunning professional-looking video in a cheap and compact package. They are fast becoming the camera of choice for indie cinematographers around the world, even Robert Rodriguez has been spotted shooting with this new technology.
1. Super shallow depth of field
Due to limitations in technology and hefty price tags, most camcorders in the independent filmmaker’s price range would have built-in lenses that limited creative choices with regards to depth of field. If the filmmaker really wanted the softer focus afforded by shallow depth of field he or she would have to consider using a 35mm lens adapter at the expense of light, colour and the ability to auto focus.
The move from tape to solid state (memory card) recording combined with improved censors has allowed for video to be squeezed into the standard SLR camera body. This means that with the HD DSLR you can shoot your video directly through a selection 35 mm lenses. This allows the user to get that shallow depth of field you see in professional film cameras and high end HD cameras such as the RED ONE.
2. Get the coveted ‘film look’
The latest range of DSLRs are starting to offer high definition video recording at a native 24 frames per second, this matches the frame rate of recording used in film cameras. You will get the same subtle motion blur that is characteristic of film, this combined with the shallow depth of field and a little bit of colour correction in post gives you that lush, soft film look.
3. You can shoot at nighttime
The light sensors in camcorders have typically been tiny, smaller than a 1 penny coin in most cases. High end digital SLRs however are equipped with full frame 35mm sensors allowing more light for their still photographs. Using a sensor of this size to record HD video, you get stunning bright and vivid images that put the smaller sensors to shame. Most importantly, with these large sensors you can shoot in low light situations and still get great results.
4. They’re small…
Two years ago if you wanted to get DSLR quality video, you would probably have had to use a large camcorder and attach an equally large and clumsy lens adapter, then mount this monster upon a massive tripod. To move all this gear around you would probably also need a dedicated car or van. With a DSLR you can simply toss it in your backpack with a travel tripod and hit the road.
5. … and they’re relatively cheap.
And this is surely why it is becoming the independent filmmaker’s tool of choice; even splashing out on the higher end digital SLRs works out significantly cheaper than getting a camcorder and a depth of field adapter. You can now get gorgeous video shot on a micro budget just by renting one of these mini marvels and this is why DSLR filmmaking is already revolutionising independent film. The video capabilities of digital SLRs are still in their infancy, but with more manufacturers getting on the wagon the technology is continually improving whilst price tags fall. It won’t be long before we start to see even entry level DSLRs that are able to shoot stunning HD video.
Its not the move to solid state recording or the cost of sensors that has made the difference in modern cameras. The really BIG change has been the reduction in power consumption of both sensors and PROCESSING chips. The heart of every camera, be it still or video is a digital signal processing unit (DSP). These jump through hoops with incoming sensor data and give us the images and compression we all want. Each two years this processing power for a given power consumption has increased by 50% and made Mpeg on a chip and the newer (more processor intensive) H264 algorithms possible.
For example my ageing A1E has one of the first generations of cmos (low power , wide dynamic range sensor) and high power DSP. It still gets very hot in continuous use and uses a lot of batteries. The more modern EX3 is cool running and much longer battery life…even though it does more things.
This trend has been driven by vast improvements in power consumption, and computing power from cmos technology. All of which was driven in the consumer market for portable mobile devices. These huge markets have given rise to expertise which is benefiting us as videographers.
The technology is now being applied to still camera sensors and DSPs and video has become possible, at least in terms of processing power. There is quite a lot to be solved optically but it is getting there.
These high res chips on still cameras generate complex interference patterns which are a disaster for moving images and modern compression algorithms. Most of the problem is that the optical path has to high a bandwidth…you can fix this with softening filters to some degree but it really depends on many factors, like focal length ectc. It is interesting though!
There is already an entry level HDSLR. The Canon 550D/Rebel T2i is around about£600 with a lens (although not very good one) slightly cheaper for body only and shoots pretty much the same quality video as it’s pro DLSR brothers the 7D & 5D and it also shoots on SD cards as opposed to the more expensive and fragile compact flash used by the bigger cameras. The 550 is capable of using the same interchangeable canon 35mm SLR lenses which can be rented separately.
I directed this http://www.virginmediashorts.co.uk/films/entry/346193/time-at-the-bar-3 for the virgin media shorts comp, it was shot on a 7D and graded to give it a real cinematic look.
Nice article Jamie, but I think the negatives of shooting with a DSLR should also be noted, like rolling shutter, audio gain, file/recording limits and how one would go about compensating for this. I’m shooting a short film next week using the 550D, looking forward to using the camera but I’ve had to learn alot about it’s strengths and weaknesses beforehand.
Yes, the DSLRs take beautiful pictures with sumptuous colour, even in low light, are portable and allow you to get shots in confined spaces that something like a Red would never fit in. I’ve done a couple of shoots with DSLRs and they really are super cameras.
They also really do not have any kind of useable audio recording so Sound will have to be recorded on a separate device.
The upside is that we sound recordists should be getting a bit more work, the downside is that as well as all the other thousands of pounds worth of mics, radio mics, boom poles and mixers we already own we now need to find the spare wedge to buy the latest audio file recorder.
What you’re saving we now have to spend. Please don’t be surprised if we expect to be paid.
Great article. I bought a 550d and it’s great but I must mention the inability to zoom during filming. I have to focus manually which isnt very smooth.Potential buyers note this as no article on the canon 550d mentions this.
Nice résumé – DSLRs have, sometimes in spite of their point-and-shoot
features, restored a valuable degree of technical control to budget
moviemaking and are a great motivator for gearing up on cinematography &
actor-direction skills. Another is the challenge of designing/knocking together
rigging to work around their current functional clunkiness for movies … and
avoiding the branded kit, much of which by many accounts can’t deliver the
significant performance quality that vastly inflated price tags demand. But
maybe next generation models will sweep these issues away anyhow before too long
About The Author
Jamie recently graduated from Leeds University with a degree in Philosophy.
Having spent most of his first summer as an unemployed graduate harassing post-production houses for work he was about to give up and flee for the hills in India to work on a short documentary.
Then the opportunity to intern at Raindance came along and of course it was too good to refuse. India and the post-production houses will have to wait till the film festival is over!
You can look at his website.
Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter