Converging Lines

You’d think that the convergence of still and motion photography has always been inevitable. Up until recently, though, even with the proliferation of digital still cameras and digital HD cameras, the lines between still and motion cameras were still drawn in the sand. Other than the relatively low-quality "movie modes" typically seen on small, inexpensive point-and-shoot still cameras, video recording had been conspicuously absent on higher-end digital single-lens-reflex (D-SLR) cameras. And up until recently, grabbing stills from a motion camera always has been fraught with compromise in detail, resolution and color space. Stills were from still cameras, and motion photography was shot on film or video. It was simple, right? Not anymore.

The 35mm-adapter market evolved out of user requests for shallow depth-of-field capability using interchangeable still-camera and motion-picture lenses when shooting with fixed-lens, 1?4-inch-, 1?3-inch- and 1?2-inch-sensor video cameras. The depth-of-field capability of small-sized-sensor cameras is an optical limitation of the small sensor size. The small sensor also limits the low-light capability of the cameras. While the 35mm adapters work well in achieving the shallow depth of field that’s a prominent component of the cinematic look, as a practical production tool, they leave a lot to be desired. All of the 35mm adapters on the market feature light loss of between a half and two stops or more. The 35mm adapters also add significant weight, bulk and length, effectively turning relatively unobtrusive handheld cameras into full-sized, shoulder-mount cameras. The market was primed for a different solution to achieving the elusive cinematic look and feel.


In August 2008, the entire video-camera market changed in one fell swoop with the introduction of the $999 Nikon D90. The D90 was the first midclass D-SLR camera to offer a video-recording function. The video and photography blogosphere and discussion boards were suddenly abuzz with enthusiastic discussion about the ramifications and implications of a high-quality, interchangeable-lens still camera with a fairly large sensor. The fact that the D90 also captured 720/24p HD video as AVI M-JPEG files to SD cards added to the intrigue. Compared to the average camcorder, the far larger image sensor on the D90 offered higher image quality, a shallow depth of field and exceptional low-light performance. Video clips of all different descriptions began to show up on YouTube, Vimeo and other web video sites, highlighting the work that creative risk-takers were achieving with the D90. Some of the work looked quite impressive. Some, not so great.


In the still-photography market, Canon and Nikon are considered the two major players worldwide. It wasn’t surprising that just a few months after Nikon introduced the first video D-SLR that Canon would also introduce a video-capable D-SLR. The $2,699 Canon EOS 5D Mark II was introduced in September 2008 as an update to the previous 5D model. It features a full-sized 24x36mm CMOS imager, unlike the smaller DX-sized sensor in the D90. The EOS 5D Mark II also records HD video at 1080/30p, giving users the increased resolution that they were requesting, but denying them the debatably more cinematic 24p frame rate that the Nikon features. With its larger sensor size, the EOS 5D Mark II has shallower depth-of-field capability and better low-light capability than the Nikon.

The Nikon D90 was the first D-SLR camera to offer a video-recording function.