Production Primer: Digital cameras or digital hype?

The Canon 5d MkII DSLR

Digital still cameras, aka DSLRs are all the rage for shooting commercials, music videos, and even feature films. The excitement surrounding these cameras comes from a good place. They are capable of making beautiful images, and their relatively low cost and small size makes them attractive in an environment that keeps pushing production budgets lower and lower.

Sold! Let’s go get us a Canon 5d and start shooting!

AMAZING IMAGES

And why not? The sensors in these DSLRs are huge… which means DP’s can create those beautiful soft defocused backgrounds that were only possible with expensive 35mm film just a few short years ago. And you can make good use of those leftover still camera lenses you have sitting in your closet.

 

A commercial I shot for Mercy Hospital with a Canon 7d

 

 

But there are a few concerns that should give you pause before you trust your next shoot to a still camera.

First, it’s a still camera. Even though it can shoot beautiful high-def movies, Canon never designed the thing as a cinema production tool, and because of that it comes with compromises that can impact your shoot.

FLYING BLIND

Canon DSLRs lack some important features that shooters take for granted on other cameras. One is a real viewfinder. When you shoot video on a digital SLR, you can’t look through the normal viewfinder… you can only see what you are shooting on the camera’s tiny LCD screen. This can make focusing a hit-or-miss proposition in some situations. Additionally, unlike other video cameras, there are no on-screen exposure indicators to guide you to the right f/stop. You’re limited to having a look at the LCD screen and taking your best guess.

What could be worse than getting into post-production and discovering that your best take is either out of focus or poorly exposed?

OUT OF CONTROL

This may not be a big deal in perfectly lit situations, but there is no way to adjust exposure during a shot. Same goes for audio levels. But then, you shouldn’t be using this camera to record audio anyway. It has unreliable mini plug microphone inputs, with no metering and no level adjustment options.

JELLO-CAM

The type of sensor used in DSLRs have what’s known as a rolling-shutter, which can create some trippy distortions on objects that move across the screen. When panning or shooting something that is moving across the frame, vertical lines will suddenly become diagonal during the motion and return to vertical when the motion stops. This can really be a big problem on hand-held shots.

HIGH COMPRESSION

DSLR’s record in a heavily compressed file format, which means that you’re losing detail and color information and may see some digital artifacts in scenes with complex motion. The compression also limits your ability to color-correct the image without creating a digital mess.

Canon 5d Frankenstein Monster

ACCESSORIZE

Out of the box, DSLRs are at best cumbersome to use as cinema cameras. The LCD screen is small, difficult to see and is placed poorly. Still lenses are not designed to be focused manually, and input and output connectors are not built ruggedly for the abuses of professional production. Fortunately, there are a host of accessories designed to make these cameras more cinema-friendly. External monitors, LCD magnifiers, follow-focuses, matte-boxes, hand-held rigs, audio adaptors and myriad other add-on gizmos help make DSLRs work better for production… but can turn the camera into an unwieldy Frankenstein monster.  By the time you’ve piled on all this hardware, you’ve at least partially negated the size, cost, convenience and ease of use advantages that made the DSLR attractive in the first place.

THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION
Still wondering if you should use a DSLR on your next production? I’ll tell you how I’d decide:

The answer is yes… If I’ve got a small budget and want beautiful, softly composed images. If I can control lighting, and don’t have to react quickly to moving action… If I can afford a camera assistant and the necessary accessories to pull focus… If I can afford outboard monitors with waveform displays to assure proper exposure.

The answer is no… If I need to record sound. If I’m shooting scenes with lots of action moving across the frame, dolly moves, or jerky handheld stuff, the rolling shutter would be a deal breaker for me. If I’m shooting uncontrolled action, and don’t have time to carefully focus or if I don’t have time or crew to assemble the rat’s nest of accessories needed to make a DSLR usable as a cinema camera, I’d take a pass.