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

August 18th, 2010 by Juan Pons

I am amazed that there is a debate still going on about why anyone would want to use a DSLR for shooting serious video. The arguments remind me of the early days of digital photography, where many out there would argue that images NOT taken on film were not real photos. Today we know differently.

To this end I want to share with you why I shoot video with a DSLR, what I find the be the advantages and disadvantages of using what many are now referring to HDDSLRs (I personally prefer the term Video DSLR).

In this first installment I will talk about what is great about shooting video with DSLRs. Tomorrow I will follow-up with what I consider to be the shortcomings of such systems.

Multiple lenses

This is by far the most important reason for me to use a DSLR to shoot videos. I can use my entire arsenal of still lenses. I can use my macro lenses, my wide angle 10mm, my Super-telephoto 500mm, even tilt-shift lenses. This flexibility is completely unprecedented, that is, unless you had a large personal fortune you did not mind spending it on lenses and cameras. I grew increasingly frustrated with my previous video camera because I could not capture the macro images I wanted to film due to the lens limitations of my camera. The Yellowstone video above I would not have been to capture if I had not been able to shoot with my 500mm lens. Yes there are video camera systems with even greater reach and incredible zooms, but some of these can cost more than $100,000, and at those prices these are out of reach for most people; including myself.

Low Light Capabilities

Because of the large sensors DSLRs have, these cameras have what could be considered nothing short of spectacular low light capabilities. Art Howard, on a recent assignment, was able to shoot video of sleeping bats inside a cave using nothing more than the headlamps they were wearing. Last year I was able to capture some great footage of Pine Barrens Tree Frogs using nothing more than a small battery powered lamp, as you can see the in the video below. Neither of these shoots would be been possible under the circumstances with traditional video equipment as these shoots would have required significant lights, which would have been impossible to use in either of these two situations.

Film Like DOF

In photography we control the depth of field in our images by adjusting the aperture on our cameras. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. But did you know that your cameras sensor size also affects the depth of field? True! All other things being equal such as lens and aperture, two cameras with different sensor sizes will produce different depths-of-field. For example, a Canon 5D MarkII will produce a shallower depth of field than a Canon 7D, as the 5DII has a larger sensor than the 7D.

You may now be asking, why does that matter? It matters a lot, as most video cameras have TINY sensors, typically 1/3″ or 1/4″ or 1/5″, compared to a full frame still camera sensor, which is about 1.4″. What this means is that video cameras have a very deep depth of field. Think about this for a minute.  As a still photographer, if I took away from you the following apertures (2.8, 5.6, 8) how would you feel? I know I would feel severely limited creatively. That's how I felt when using a video camera. True, I’ll take as much DOF as I can get when shooting macro, but everywhere else, I rather have my entire DOF range at my disposal, to use as I please.

This DOF issue is one of the primary reasons why most movies are still shot using film. Film is a LOT more expensive to shoot with, you can’t see the results immediately, and it’s a hassle to deal with. Independent filmmakers have been embracing the DSLR for movie making in droves, because the DOF control these systems offer allows them the tell their stories better without the expense of using film.

If you want to see a great comparison on sensor sizes check out this wikipedia article.

One System

This is my last point, but by no means the least important. ONE SYSTEM. What I mean by this is that I have one type of battery, one type of charger, one type of memory cards, one type of lenses, one type of tripods and camera plates, etc. I don’t have to carry multiple formats of the same thing as my photo equipment serves multiple purposes. But MOST important, I only need to learn and know how to operate ONE type of camera. No need to learn multiple switches, dials, controls, menus, capabilities, limitations, etc. These are the same properties of my still camera, because IT IS my still camera. I know the controls of my camera to the point I don’t need to think about them or look at the camera to make any changes, I just “know” how to make these changes without even thinking about it. This is hugely important, because when you need to make a quick adjustment, you just make it, no thinking about it, no need to try and remember where the controls are on this camera, it just happens, and consequently I get the shots I am looking for, more often than not.

The video landscape is not all rosy–there are certain limitations and issues. I'll cover those issues tomorrow, and what I do to overcome them.

However, in my opinion, the positives FAR outweigh the negatives, but you need to decide that for yourself. Hopefully these articles will help you make your own decision.




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