Video with your DSLR: Why use a Digital SLR to shoot video, The Bad

August 19th, 2010 by Juan Pons

Yesterday I wrote about some of the advantages of shooting videos with DSLRs, which hopefully gave you an idea why they have become so popular.

There are two sides to every coin, and video on DSLRs is no different. Some major drawbacks exist as a result of where we are in the evolution of these new hybrid camera systems.

Video capable DSLRs are first and foremost designed and engineered for taking still images, with video being a secondary function.  As such, you can expect manufacturers to prioritize functionality and design accordingly. Also expect any compromises that inevitably need to be made, to be made in favor of still photography.

So here are some of the areas that I feel are most challenging when shooting video with your DSLR.

Audio Recording

Audio can make or break your video, and what I mean by this is that bad audio can ruin even the most spectacular video you've ever seen. Yet, good audio usually just goes completely unnoticed. Just like we control the amount of light we let into our camera with stills, we need to control the audio levels as well. Just like we have a viewfinder to see what it is that we are shooting, we need a way to monitor the audio we are recording to make sure we are capturing the right sound.

Unfortunately, most video capable DSLRs don’t have any audio controls.  They have something called AGC, or Auto Gain Control, which makes the audio sound terrible in any situation where the sound levels fluctuate.

But there are ways around this. I wrote a two part article here that shows you how to record good audio:

Recording audio with your video DSLR, Part I

Recording audio with your video DSLR, Part II

In the first part I show you some bad audio and some good audio so you can judge for yourself how important this is.

Rolling Shutter (Jello-Cam)

This is probably the biggest issue with DSLRs for which there is no solution. "Jello-Cam" is a phenomenon that is caused by the way the sensors in DSLRs capture the image: they use what is called a rolling shutter. For a good definition and examples check out this wikipedia page:

Jello-Cam really comes into play only when shooting fast moving subjects or when you are moving the camera very quickly. For me, personally, this is not a factor, but it may be for you.

No Articulated LCD Screen

Not having an articulated LCD screen can be a a pain, and sometimes quite literally a pain in the neck. In most cases I'm not holding my camera right at eye level.  Usually I am holding it lower, or to the side or sometimes up above. Having a fixed LCD on the back of the camera makes it difficult to see what you are shooting in these situations. Attaching an external monitor can remedy this, but they are usually expensive, and it’s just another piece of gear to carry around.

Limited Autofocus Functionality

This is one of the things people complain the most.  However most professional camera operators do not rely on autofocus, focus is almost exclusively done manually. In movie sets they have people whose SOLE responsibility is focus! For me this is not a big issue. Yes most AF systems are very good a focusing on what is in front of them, however most AF systems are not very good about reading your mind and knowing exactly what to focus on, and most often than not, the thing I want in focus is not in the middle of the frame.

No Power Zoom

This is another limitation that does have an effect on most folks. Butter smooth zooms and pulls, are often done by motorized power zooms. I don’t know of a single DSLR still lens that has a power zoom. However with practice you can get very good at zooming. I have seen people do it very very smoothly, as well if not better than the best power zooms. So this can be overcome with practice, also you can use a follow focus mechanism for this to make it a bit easier.

No Built-in ND Filters

In the first part of this article we talked about the awesome shallow depth of field that DSLRs provide us with and that this is quite possible the single biggest reason why these cameras are so revolutionary. Naturally, this is something we want to take advantage of, however in very sunny situations we may be forced to deal with smaller than desired apertures to keep our exposure in check. In very bright sunny situations, even at ISO 100 you may be forced to go as low as f16 to keep proper exposure (since you want to keep your shutter speed at around 1/60, this may be a topic for another article). So in a situation like this what do you do? You use a neutral density filter. An ND filter is nothing more than a dark piece of glass that is neutral in tonality so as not to introduce any color shifts, that simply cuts the amount of light entering the camera, thus allowing you to keep a wider aperture.

Why is this a limitation you ask? It’s not, this is something that affects every camera from the cheapest to the most expensive, BUT professional video cameras have built in ND filters in different strengths that you can turn on and off, with DSLRs you need to add ND filters in front of the lens either thru screw-in filters or thru a Matte Box.

Length of Shot limitations

Most video capable DSLRs have a limitation on how long a single shot can take, normally this limitation is time based, sometimes file sized based, or a combination of both. On the Canon cameras it’s a combination of both factors, but it effectively limits you to about 12 minute long shots. 12 minutes is a LONG time for a single shot, so for most of us this is a non issue. I personally never even come close to that, but again depending on what you are doing you might. If you are looking to record hour long interviews with people, this will certainly be an issue for you.

In Summary

Yes there are some serious issues and limitations when shooting video with these video capable DSLRs, specially when compared with dedicated video cameras. But by the same token these cameras provide capabilities and conveniences unmatched by traditional video cameras. As with everything else in life, the choice here is a matter of compromises, so you need to determine what is most important to you and make your choice.

In the end for me the benefits offered FAR FAR outweigh the limitations and inconveniences, so now I shoot video exclusively with my pair of Canon 7Ds!


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One Response to “Video with your DSLR: Why use a Digital SLR to shoot video, The Bad”

  1. Ernesto Fuser says:

    One feature that I find very inconvenient is that the chip overheats. After 10 or 12 minutes you get a red dot in the viewfinder and you have to shot down the camera. which make the 7D an impossible camera to shoot interviews that are often part of documentaries.

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