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Getting Started with DSLR Video: Part One

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This post is part of a series called The Beginner's Guide to DSLR Video.
The DSLR Revolution: No Longer Just About the Camera
New Course: Lean Video Production

With HD video included in nearly every new DSLR, it's no mystery why consumer cameras are quickly finding their way onto major Hollywood productions. With the right technique and tricks, you can get incredible video results from a DSLR. Today, we're taking a look at what you need to know to get started.

My experience with DSLR video is mostly rooted in the tutorials I produce for PhotoTuts+ Premium. My results were pretty rocky at first, but have improved thanks to suggestions from readers and feedback from my editor, Cameron Knight. Today, I want to share some of the tricks and techniques I've picked up while developing video content.

Why DSLR Video?

If you've purchased a DSLR within the last few years, chances are that it includes the option to shoot video along with still images. Unfortunately, many photographers are hesitant to get started with video, and it's usually because they don't know how to get good results.

If you have video built into your DSLR and any interest in shooting video, it's definitely worth exploring. You probably already have the lenses to create lots of different types of video. DSLR's also have good high ISO options to capture video at night, and the shallow depth of field creates a cinematic look.

The availability and flexibility of DSLR's with video support makes it a no-brainer to experiment with. Photo by Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg

If you're working in a professional environment, talk around the industry seems to be that many types of clients are requesting video alongside images on jobs. If you're interested in doing commercial work and bidding against the big fish of the industry, now is the time to start working with and understanding DSLR video. Being ahead of the curb is one more reason you can give a client to choose you over the competition. Let's talk about a few of the things that you'll need to know to get started.

Frame Rate & Resolution

Video is technical by nature, and there are a number of things that photographers will have to familiarize themselves with before achieving success in video. One of the first things that comes to mind is the consideration of the video's frame rate. This is the number of "frames" or images captured, and it's measured on a per second basis, and you'll see them sometimes expressed with a "p" attached to a number, such as 30p.

  • 24FPS gives your video a cinematic look
  • 30FPS is a little more fluid, this is a pretty common setting
  • 60FPS is for high speed, high action recordings
  • The truth of the matter is that framerate has a huge effect on the look of the final video. A feature length film might look kind of odd when shot at 60 frames a second, and sports would look out of place at 24 frames per second. This is one of the technical considerations to bear in mind and make the decision according to what you are shooting.

    One of the advantages of 60 frames per second video is that it can be basically "split up" and slowed down. You can take those 60 frames captured in one second and stretch it across two seconds to create a really appealing slow motion video. Cameras that shoot 60 frames per second, such as Canon's 7D, are popular choices for this reason.

    The impact of DSLR video has reached every part of the photo and video world, including reporters who grab clips for their outlets. Photo by Flickr user niXerKG.

    Another technical aspect of video is the resolution. This is basically the pixel dimensions of video, and that's how "quality" of video is often measured. 1080p video in widescreen is 1920x1080 pixels. The larger the resolution, the larger the file size. Much like megapixels, not all 1080p high definition video is not created equally, but it's a decent barometer for gauging the quality of your video.

    A final file consideration is the format or aspect ratio of the scene being shot. The most common thing that you'll find is that the camera shoots in 16:9 widescreen, but many cameras have other shooting options. Some cameras features 4:3 aspect ratios for traditional non-widescreen television broadcasts. Keep in mind the device and target what you are producing when choosing the resolution and ratio of your project.

    Camera Settings

    Metering and choosing other camera's settings is mostly similar to normal photography, but a number of differences exist in shutter speed choices. There is a rule of thumb to follow when selecting our shutter speed. Remember talking about frame rate above? The selected frame rate is going to play into selecting our shutter speed. We are going for a shutter speed double that of the frame rate. I typically shoot 24p cinematic style video, so I go for the closest thing to twice that - 1/50th of a second. Venturing outside of this might make the video jagged or jumpy.

    Each camera will feature different recording settings and options. Some cameras feature 60 frames per second recording, but my 5D Mark II is limited to 30 or 24 frames per second at 1080p, or a smaller web sized video format.

    One of the advantages of shooting DSLR video is the limited depth of field options. Personally, I enjoy the look that an f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens provides. However, if we're at a shutter speed of 1/50th, we may have too much light to shoot at f/1.4, even at a low ISO setting. This is where neutral density filters really come in handy - attaching them to the front of the camera to knock light out of the equation is really handy. Shooting in broad day sunlight really requires an ND filter if you're going to use a wide aperture and stick to the shutter speed doubling rule.


    I've found focusing my DSLR during video to be one of the biggest challenges in producing high quality results, particularly when shooting at wide apertures where the depth of field is really limited.

    My camera features the option to zoom in 10x on the LCD to confirm focus. If you can apply precision and aren't working quickly, this is pretty much the most accurate way of focusing.

    When shooting video, you're going to be in live view, (viewing the scene on the camera's LCD) so using the LCD is a must. One of the best parts about live view focussing is extremely precise, but unfortunately it requires moving slowly and being deliberate. When setting up, I will zoom in on the part of the scene that I want to focus, and then manually focus precisely. Zooming all the way in gives the ability to really nail focus and achieve it perfectly.

    When not using this manual focus approach, the mirror has to flip down, exit live view and focus each time autofocus is engaged. Because of this, lenses with focus override - the ones that you can just grab and turn without changing the focus switch - are really valuable for video usage.

    Stabilization & Accessories

    If there's one place that I see DSLR video going wrong, it's in the lack of usage of stabilization. Handheld video shots don't achieve the professional look you might be going for, and no matter how steady your hand it isn't steady enough, I promise. If you already have a tripod or monopod, then that's a great way to get started in keeping the camera steady and stabilized. A fluid type head for a tripod is also good for panning the camera without jerking the frame around.

    Another choice is what's commonly called a video rig. These can be a little more costly, but are great for handholding the camera and keeping the video stable. Many of these rigs also include a gear type system to help with turning the focus smoothly.

    A shoulder rig such as this one can provide the stabilization for using video effectively while still keeping the camera portable.

    Having a bag full of memory cards and batteries is a must. Keeping the camera in live view mode is going to burn through batteries, while high definition clips will fill your memory cards exponentially faster than still imagery. For full days of shooting, I'll usually walk out the door with two or three extra batteries and 30 to 40 gigabytes of memory cards. Being diligent about deleting video outtakes is another great way to conserve card space.

    Finally, I want to recommend picking up a microphone if you are going to produce anything with audio. The microphones that are built into DSLR's are not going to get high quality audio. In my opinion, there's a subconscious perception about video quality that is directly tied to the quality of the audio attached.

    The Rode VideoMic is an omnidirectional microphone that will help you tremendously in shooting high quality video. This microphone will give you superior quality over the camera's built in microphone hole. If you're looking to get audio from one subject, consider a lapel microphone that attaches to the subject.

    When it comes to microphones, you have a number of choices. You can use an omnidirectional microphone like a Rode in the hot shoe to get better audio all around. The quality and depth of audio is significantly improved, but you're still going to get all audio around the camera.

    Using lapel microphones that clip to your subject's shirt are going to get really good audio from a smaller area.

    The final choice is a shotgun microphone. This mount to your camera, but pick up audio from a narrow path in front of the camera. These are also called super cardioid microphones or unidirectional microphones. Think of them as telephoto lenses.

    All of these microphone options are going to be a big upgrade over the built in holes on the camera, and you should choose the microphone that best fits what you'll be shooting.

    Limitations & Challenges

    Before getting all fired up to shoot a backyard feature film, you have to be conscious of the shortcomings of DSLR video. Although DSLR's are capable of producing really high quality video, there are a few shortcomings that have to be considered to have rational expectations.

    One of the greatest drawbacks that many cameras face is a limitation on clip length. If you are trying to film your kid's football game, you're going to be disappointed when your camera cuts you off after five minutes of action. If you are looking to pick up a DSLR to replace the family camcorder and capture long runs of video, you're going to be frustrated with the results. The 5 minute clip length is getting better. It was actually just a way to skirt around importation taxes, not a limit of the technology.

    Furthermore, the large sensor size can create issues because smaller apertures are required to keep more of the subject in focus. Razor thin depth of field is intriguing and visually pleasing, until you find yourself searching for light while needing f/11 to get all of the scene in focus. Many other video cameras feature smaller sensors and the aperture doesn't have to be set so small to achieve similar depths of field.

    Finally, many cameras experience the rolling shutter effect. If the camera is panned sharply or quickly while capturing video, the video will go "jagged" for lack of better term and result in a less than desirable outcome. In all, DSLR's are capable of creating amazing video. They are not, however, ideal for capturing video in every situation imaginable.

    Wrapping Up

    With so many cameras gaining the ability to grab high quality video, it's easy to see why so many photographers are becoming interested in utilizing this feature. Keeping in mind the shortcomings and using proper techniques can make for some great video results, so make sure to stick to it and put as much into practice as possible. Shooting short films or experimental projects is the best way to find yourself making big improvements, and as always, experiment to find what works best for you.

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