Motion Pictures

In the past year, video-DSLR cameras have turned the HD-video industry on its head with hype not seen since the announcement of the RED ONE back in 2006. So what’s all the buzz about? Simply put, it’s all about the sensor. Because of the video-DSLR’s monster-sized sensor, shooters at all levels can now achieve “film-like” shallow depth of field, capturing stunning images never before seen, except from footage shot with film or digital camera systems costing in the tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

Most of the current video DSLRs on the market contain APS-C sensors (approximately 22.2×14.8mm), which can compare to the size of a 35mm motion-picture negative or RED’s Mysterium sensor. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II contains a full-frame sensor (24x36mm), which is closer to the size of 65mm movie film. (Imagine wrapping a VistaVision camera around your neck.) The average price for a video DSLR ranges anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000, making it the cost of a consumer or entry-level prosumer camcorder. So, is the Holy Grail of achieving a “film” look with digital video finally within reach?

Not so fast. Before we all put our video camcorders up on eBay, shooting your next pet project on a DSLR might not be your best solution. Although there are many advantages, the following is a short list of the video DSLRs’ weaknesses in terms of moviemaking.

The video DSLR shoots a weaker, more compressed codec than professional or prosumer video camcorders. The format is closer to that of consumer video cameras, which typically use MPEG-4 or H.264 codecs at low bit rates.
Although these video-DSLR cameras are light—two to three pounds—ergonomically, they aren’t designed to shoot continuous handheld for very long periods of time.
Lengths of shots are limited at anywhere from five to 12 minutes. (This wouldn’t work for a lengthy interview, such as a documentary.)
The 2.5- to 3.0-inch screen on the camera makes it difficult to judge critical focus. It also makes it difficult to frame shots at unusual angles.
Since the cameras are primarily designed for still photographers, camera engineers didn’t factor in professional sound capability. All of the video DSLRs offer built-in rudimentary audio recording, but none offer XLR inputs for professional audio microphones or manual audio control for monitoring. (Revisit Dan Brockett’s Audio Assist columns on “Sound And The Video DSLR” in the October and December HDVP issues for more information.)

Because of the video DSLR’s monster-sized sensor, shooters at all levels can now achieve “film-like” shallow depth of field…

But even with all of the negatives in mind, a shooter still can produce some breathtaking images that’ll look great on nearly all viewing platforms. To help counteract some of the deficiencies, here are a few valuable tips and tools to help you create your cinematic masterpiece with a video DSLR.