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The DSLR Revolution: No Longer Just About the Camera

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This post is part of a series called The Beginner's Guide to DSLR Video.
Quick Tip: Should I Buy a DSLR with Video Capabilities?
Getting Started with DSLR Video: Part One
This post is part of a series called Video Jumpstart Guide.
How To Find and Choose a Documentary Subject
How To Choose Video Recording Formats

Camera gear including DSLR video camera

Every day, somewhere on the internet, on a public forum, across the blogosphere, or in the comments section of an article, the following conversation takes place:

"Hey everybody, I'm new to DSLR filmmaking. What camera would you recommend I get?"

Inevitably, someone responds with an audible groan. "Right tool for the right job, bro," they utter, almost mechanically.

That ubiquitous line, meaning there are many cameras and one ought to use the right one for the particular job, is just about the last thing the budding filmmaker wants to hear. Come on, isn't there one camera that is recommended for a hobbyist getting into filmmaking?

The answer is both yes and no.

In the Beginning, There Was the Camera

For a professional cinematographer or camera operator, it most certainly makes sense to rent or own a variety of cameras for whatever job comes along. On a professional film set, there are most likely considerations and expenses that are far more costly and complex than deciding on a camera package. So, the "right tool for the right job" is on point.

The tiny Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera rigged out for a professional shoot
The tiny Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, rigged out for a professional shoot.

However, if you're getting started as a hobbyist, part-time, or weekend filmmaker, purchasing a DSLR camera is probably the most natural beginning to a long journey in digital video. Before you can know what the right tool is for the right job, you have to first learn how to use one tool, on many jobs. Until you gain more experience, that one camera will have to suit you for any and all types of projects you'll stumble into. In this case, buying the right camera that will do a lot of things, for the least amount of money, is crucial.

And if that hobby turns serious, you'll likely go on to spend all your disposable income on renting or purchasing more tools to augment the camera, like lenses, lights, and tripods or support rigs. (Or on the other hand, if you find digital cinema is not for you, you can simply sell the camera and move on to other hobbies, like flying drones.)

Therefore, for folks getting into weekend filmmaking, zeroing in on the right camera to start with is a perfectly fine thing to do as the first step. And even professionals who own cameras already are always on the lookout for the right camera to add to their arsenal. 

So why does the camera question irritate some, while make perfect sense for others? Likewise, why is gear so important for some filmmakers, while others urge us to move past the purchasing decisions and "just go shoot"?

Here's the short answer: not too long ago, in its infancy, DSLR filmmaking was most certainly all about the camera. "Which camera should I get?" was the question to ask. The DSLR revolution has opened many doors and launched legitimate careers for people who purchased the right camera at the right time (and went on to use it). 

But now there are many cameras, and filmmakers who believe in the "right tool for the right job" motto no longer want to obsess over the camera. There continue to be thousands of forums, articles, gear reviews, and unboxing videos of new and amazing cameras, with legions upon legions of gear heads debating the merits of this or that feature and speculating on the next product release. Day in, day out, they're reviewing specs, trading opinions, purchasing, selling, testing and retesting features. Everything you can do with a camera that doesn't involve filmmaking.

So you can guess what happens when a newcomer jumps onto a camera blog for the first time and asks, "Hey everybody, I'm new to DSLR filmmaking, what camera would you recommend I get?"

Huge selection of Canon cameras

Before the DSLR Revolution

Here's a short summary of why the DSLR video revolution was a significant leap in filmmaking, and why it no longer is entirely about the camera. 

Hobbyist video producers have existed as long as video camcorders have existed, recording things like family videos, travelogues, and school recitals. Small-time filmmakers have also had to live with the camcorder look, which, for lack of a better term, looks like "real life". Sadly, that real-life video look just makes it harder to enjoy a suspension of disbelief—for the audience to forget that they're watching a video and simply sit back and enjoy the story. 

Whereas the video look is perfectly natural in documentary filmmaking, the video aesthetic made even the strongest narrative films look unprofessional. And while some dedicated filmmakers continued to work at their craft until they could afford film, I think many creative people would end up abandoning the dream of filmmaking and move on to other more accessible arts (like photography).

Film was simply too expensive to dabble in. Today just about anyone can make a short ten-minute film to submit to film festivals. Before the DSLR revolution, that world tended to be reserved for people who dedicated their careers to making films. You would go to film school, make the contacts, borrow the school's equipment, spend two to four years in the books, and then finally make the ten-minute short for your senior project. Even with borrowed gear, it could still easily cost $10,000 to $15,000 to make the film.

Poster for FilmSchool TV series
A decade ago, this ten-part TV series followed NYU graduate film students as they struggled to produce, direct, and finance a short film.

And that was with a volunteer crew, stealing shots without film permits, and a very limited number of takes per shot. If you wanted to play by the rules and make a film with a paid crew, you would have to raise a heck of a lot of money before you could begin shooting. A few years ago I read a book on making an independent feature film, geared towards first-time directors (most likely just out of film school). The estimated budget was $250,000. 

Needless to say, shooting film was not for hobbyists or weekend filmmakers.

Mimicking Film

The dream of making the "film look" affordable and accessible to the masses soon took a giant leap.

In the most basic sense, the "film look" relies on these components:

  • shallow depth of field, where parts of the image can be out of focus, bringing more attention to the in focus subject
  • 24 frames per second, with elegant motion blur
  • cinematic lighting, color grading, and dynamic range
  • film grain

Although camcorders struggle to achieve a shallow depth of field, the other components were still in reach. For a fee, movies shot on video camcorders, ideally with good lighting in controlled conditions, could be sent to professional facilities that would color grade (and possibly add film grain) for a look that came close to film. It was still relatively expensive, but this is how TV shows could look more like film than our home videos. 

Panasonic AG-DVX100 video camcorder

Eventually video cameras came out with the ability to record 24 progressive frames per second. The Panasonic DVX100 was a game-changing camera that allowed budding filmmakers the chance to own, operate, and, most importantly, practice and learn to shoot on their own time. Still, it had image limitations, and it recorded to Standard Definition.

And then lens adapters came along. Now, photo lenses could be attached to the front of consumer camcorders, and a shallow depth of field was finally achievable. The problem was, with all the extra glass elements combined with the small sensors of camcorders, the light sensitivity was very low, and shooting was limited to very bright scenes. But boy did we all fawn over the backyard dandelion shots that looked incredibly filmic.

The Canon 5D Mark II

And then this camera happened. The image quality and colors were astounding, it could take a huge variety of photo lenses that could see in the dark (including affordable vintage lenses), it had amazing shallow depth of field, recorded to HD, and (eventually in an upgrade) recorded to 24p. It cost less than $3,000. The digital media was cheap, allowing filmmakers to record near unlimited amounts of something that looked a lot like film. 

Canon 5D Mark II camera

Of course there were limitations. Audio had to be recorded separately, movie clips were limited to about 12 minutes, and accessories like viewfinders were necessary to keep the camera stable handheld, and to enlarge the screen for easier focusing. 

So yeah, there were some challenges. You had to learn workarounds, and you had to learn how to pull focus. Unlike camcorders, the 5D Mark II was not designed for video producers. Shooting with this camera was more akin to shooting with a film camera—everything was manual. But for anybody who had ever dreamt of shooting film affordably, these were welcome challenges. 

Then came the accessories, and a giant industry was built around one camera: matte boxes, shoulder rigs, stabilizers, audio recorders, follow focuses, slider dollies. Other cameras were released with similar features, though the 5D continued to reign, thanks to a firmware add-on that a group of programmers made available free. "Magic Lantern" added audio solutions, focus assist, clip limit workarounds, and a whole slew of other features that made the camera even more attractive.

Canon 5D Mark II with Magic Lantern installed

The DSLR industry grew at an incredible pace, in part because the desire for affordable filmmaking had been brewing for a long time, but also because it attracted many newcomers who had never considered filmmaking before it became so accessible. For many people, the magic of being able to dabble in film now, without dedicating years of school and personal credit-card debt, made it an incredibly alluring reason to buy a camera.

So began the first of many posts on filmmaking forums, articles, and gear reviews, all of which started with, "Hi I'm new to DSLR filmmaking. What camera do you recommend I get?" 

Fast-Forward to Today

It probably sounds as if we're talking about ancient history here, but it wasn't until September 2008 that the 5D Mark II came out, launching the DSLR revolution. That's it, six years ago. 

In some ways, it makes sense that we're still obsessed with the camera. It wasn't long ago that a particular camera made all of this possible, and now there are even more choices. For anybody who's been following along since the beginning of the DSLR video era, you might be still be using the 5D Mark II, or maybe you're moving on to your second camera. For others, you might be looking to buy your first camera, and now the choice is not so easy.

Canon T2i camera
Canon T2i - Christian Fischer (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

But the industry is way, way bigger than the camera now. And that's why the question of "which camera?" seems so irritating to the established early adopters. Today you can buy a Canon T2i, which is a little brother to the 5D Mark II and can achieve a very similar look, for less than $300. 

And so, if a person is actually, legitimately interested in filmmaking, the camera is no longer the primary concern. This is why when a newcomer first asks for help in buying a camera, a throng of filmmakers will gather together in a chorus and scream, "It's not about the camera! If you want to make a film, there are other considerations. You pick the right tool for the right job."

The DSLR Revolution Today: More Than a Camera

If the DSLR revolution is no longer just about the camera, then what is it about? Well for one, there's the industry built around the DSLR user. There are so many new camera rigs, lights, stabilizers, jibs, sliders, and all kinds of gadgets that target the DSLR shooter. Not the film shooter, not the camcorder crowd, but precisely the group of professionals and hobbyists that have risen around digital cinema in the last six years.

This industry can be both exciting and stressful. Because DSLR video has been adopted by both pros and hobbyists, the gear is sometimes priced at a point that is relatively cheap for professionals, but uncomfortable for weekend dabblers. 

Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut at NAB
Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut at NAB, an annual broadcasting trade show once meant for TV industry professionals, but now geared towards video and photo enthusiasts at all levels.

In the world of photography, even professional photography, accessories are relatively affordable. And it's tempting, if you are coming from photography, to think about video gear in the same way you would think about photo gear. They use the same camera now, right? But capturing motion and sound requires a much higher level of control, coordination, and dependability than photographic equipment. The cameras might look the same, might even be the same, but they do not operate in the same way. DSLRs have lowered the bar, but making video requires another level of production. Exponentially more can go wrong. Hence the need for more, and more expensive, equipment.

Person shooting video with a lot of complicated equipment

This puts the question of "which gear to buy?" in the same boat as the camera search: oceans of opinions, discussions, reviews, tests and retests. Trying to decide on your next purchase can easily fill up your free time, which could be spent on practicing filmmaking.

It's easy to get caught up in the gear universe, or to conveniently use the lack of gear as an excuse to avoid the hard work of filmmaking. Before the DSLR revolution, it was natural to use the high cost of film as a rationale for delaying your film. And there was nothing wrong with that justification—film really was exorbitantly expensive to shoot with. 

Nowadays, the common refrain is that we just need a better camera, or a particular lens or piece of gear, before going out and finally making that film. But if we're really honest with ourselves, these excuses are no longer as justifiable as they were a few years ago. Today the barriers are not nearly as rigid as they were in the film era. 

Now that it's no longer about the camera, or about the gear, it is finally about the creation of movies. There is no longer a requirement to be a "professional", or to have contacts in film distribution, or to screen at a film festival. Now anyone can make beautiful, cinematic videos. It now takes determination, creativity, and skill, more than it does a particular piece of gear. 

The part of the DSLR revolution that embraces this creative outpouring is the part that is so much bigger than the camera now. There are communities built around helping each other make films, providing advice, sharing work, and critiquing scripts. There are websites dedicated to free music for your movies. Friendly competitions and film challenges are launched regularly. Outside of the internet, there are local film showcases where you'll get to watch your movie on a huge screen. And there are gigs, jobs, and careers for anyone who wants them.

For the hobbyist, the DSLR revolution has finally enabled you to make films without barriers, this weekend, and the next weekend. It's a great time to be getting into filmmaking.

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