Today’s DSLRs have video capabilities that can make them a close rival to dedicated video cameras. Even Hollywood agrees - Tim Burton shot his smash-hit animation The Corpse Bride using a commercially available Canon DSLR, as did an episode of Hugh Laurie’s popular TV series House. With the cutting edge cameras now offering full HD video, a little effort and you can end up with some seriously impressive results. But getting used to shooting video on a camera primarily designed for still images can take some time. We’ve put together a guide to get you started.

The Knowhow

There are a number of positives and negatives to shooting video with a DSLR. Video and stills photography are similar in many ways, but both require slightly different skills and tools that their dedicated cameras are designed to provide. Your DSLR is set up primarily to be a stills camera, so you’ll find that some settings and functions need to be adjusted once you start shooting video. Some of these things are very easy and can be done in camera, just requiring a little practice to get used to the different shooting style.

First, let’s talk about some of the advantages of filming with your DSLR.

  • Depth of field: The sensors in DSLR cameras, particularly "full-frame" models such as the Canon 5d Mk II, are much bigger than those found in most commercial video cameras. This doesn’t mean that you can shoot in a higher definition, as 1080p or 720p will be the same resolution no matter whether the sensor is the size of a lorry or a postage stamp. The sensor is like the part of the eye that sees light. Because of this, your camera is able to produce images even when using very large aperture sizes - something most commercial video cameras can’t do. This enables you to focus clearly on one particular subject while leaving the background more blurry. When you shoot like this, the key people or objects in your compositions really stand out from the rest of the frame - a very cinematic effect you’ll often see in movies. Doing this isolates your subject so the viewer doesn’t get distracted by anything going on in the background.
  • Adaptability: Your DSLR is able to utilise a huge range of high-quality photographic lenses, filters and other equipment even when shooting video. This gives you a massive number of creative options over commercial camcorders, most of which have standard, unchangeable, lenses. In fact, it’s likely you’d have to invest in a professional video camera to get the same sensor size or array of lenses as your DSLR - and that would cost you much, much more.

If you’re serious about making your videos look as good as your photos, these are excellent plus points. It’s not all sweetness and roses, though. There are some things to consider when shooting video with your camera.

  • Ergonomics: Your camera’s design is optimised for stills photography. The body shape and lens weight are perfect to fit in the hand while you use the viewfinder. Camcorders, however, are shaped to be held at a variety of angles and are often much lighter, which make them more comfortable and manoeuvrable when filming. Many feature pivoting LCD screens that let you shoot video while held well away from the eye and still let you see the results. Not many DSLRs can do that yet. It’s likely that your DSLR shuts down the viewfinder when you enter video mode, only letting you use the LCD screen, and this can be a problem when it comes to judging focus, especially outside when sunlight and glare obscures the screen. Luckily, there are solutions to both the shape and screen problems, and there are a number of products you can purchase, such as stability kits and rear-mounted viewfinders, specifically designed to help you shoot video with your DSLR. These vary in price, and some are designed with the serious filmmaker in mind.
  • Sound quality: Let’s face it, your camera was designed to record images, not sound. Using the built-in mic can result in a very weedy level of sound that’s a pain in the ear. Even worse, the sound of zoom and autofocus can really drown out everything else due to the placement of the microphone near their mechanisms. Luckily, there are a number of recording devices and external microphones that can be used with DSLRs, although some will need post-processing with video editing software. Your camera’s manual will let you know if you can use an external mic, and a camera specialist will be able to guide you to the best kit for you.
  • Focus: Camera lenses are not designed as video lenses. A camcorder is designed to smoothly focus in on moving subjects and quickly adapts to change. Your DSLR’s autofocus is designed for still shots, focusing on a single image and holding that position. When you start shooting in video, the lens can get quite confused and start trying to lock onto objects all over the frame or even focus in small, jerky, steps that look terrible when played back. It’s best to switch to manual focus when you’re filming. It may take some practice and getting used to, but soon you’ll be able to produce silky smooth images with a tiny twist of the wrist.

Using the manual option also lets you try creative options like "pulling focus" - switching the focal point from one image to another, or a "dolly zoom" - a technique where you zoom in or out on an object while moving the camerain the opposite direction. This produces the strange effect where the background appears to "trombone" behind the subject, most famously used in Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, or Scorsese’s Goodfellas. By using manual focus you can keep the subject sharp while moving the camera.

If you’re serious about video photography, your DSLR can be a great creative tool. It’ll take some time to adjust to the slightly different skillset, but the end results will be amazing when you get there.

Always refer to the manufacturer’s manual for specific details.

Updated On:

May 23, 2011

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