HD DSLRs are incredible — they give you a video camera with interchangeable lenses, depth of field control and stellar low-light performance — but they’re not without drawbacks. Here’s how to work around them.
The initial crop of HD DSLRs (Nikon D90, Canon 5D Mark II) were never intended to be used primarily for video. It wasn’t until Canon introduced the 5D Mark II that HD DSLR video really took off, and that was without manual video and audio controls. Canon eventually provided manual control of video, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that they released manual audio controls (to an extent) and 24p recording. Ever since, the 5D2 has found its way onto film and TV sets. The entire finale of Fox’s House was shot with 5D2s. Canon’s now brought HD video to the majority of its DSLR line, Nikon got an even earlier start than Canon, and we’re seeing HD video finding its way into more compact micro four-thirds cameras and the Sony NEX-series of minimal APS-C type DSLRs.
In fact, HD video is becoming a standard in DSLRs, but no true hybrid has made it to market and many issues still exist. Fortunately, we have some solutions and workarounds.
Not every DSLR requires you to focus manually when recording video, but many of them do. Even DSLRs that offer automatic, continuous focus during video recording tend to be pretty bad. When you have a camera intended for photos and not for video, this is the sort of trouble you come across. So what do you do about it?
First, get better at manual focusing. It’s not simple to do on the fly, but there are a few things to be aware of that can help.
- The wider your aperture the more shallow your depth of field will be, making mistakes in focus far less forgiving. If you don’t want or need shallow depth of field for a particular occasion, stop down the lens to a higher, narrower aperture and you’ll have a little more room for error in your focusing.
- Pulling focus when your subject is far away is pretty easy, but as they grow closer you’ll find you have to turn the focus ring a lot farther to keep up. Keep this in mind so you don’t lose your subject in the bokeh.
- If your subject is approaching, it can be hard to follow them and keep them in focus. Often times there are other objects in the frame that are different distances from the lens. Pulling focus to those objects as your subject reaches them can often be more effective because those objects are (hopefully) stationary and you won’t have the additional distraction of pulling focus on a moving subject.
- Know which way your focus ring turns. This seems fairly obvious, but if you ever move between Canon and Nikon cameras (or share lenses using lens adapters), for example, this is very relevant. Turning a Canon lens’ focus ring to the right will rack focus to objects closer to the lens, whereas you’ll get the same result by turning left on a Nikon lens. Make sure you know the direction of the lens you’re using so you don’t waste any time adjusting.
- Lenses vary, so practice with each of your lenses to get a feel for how far you need to turn the focus ring to get the results you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for a more serious setup for manual focus, you’re going to want a follow focus. If you’re willing to spend the money, there are some amazing products being produced. You can even control focus remotely with an iPhone. If you don’t want to spend a bunch of money, however, you can make a focus knob for $US5 or take things a little further:
The Jello Effect
You’ll primarily find two types of imaging sensors in digital cameras: CCD and CMOS. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, but for our purposes we’re just going to take a look at how each exposes an image. CCD sensors use what’s called a global shutter, whereas CMOS sensors use a rolling shutter. (Although technically a CMOS camera could implement a global shutter, it has yet to make it into any common CMOS-based cameras.)
The difference between the two is pretty straightforward: global shutters expose the entire image simultaneously, and rolling shutters, well, don’t. A rolling shutter tells parts the sensor to become light-sensitive at different points in time, so you don’t get the full image instantly. Think of it like loading an image on a dial-up modem. This all happens fairly fast so it’s not always noticeable to the eye, but when the image changes drastically the “jello effect” shows up as a result of the rolling shutter. Here’s an example from the Canon 7D:
As you can see, quick panning causes the frame to wobble due to the rolling shutter. So what do you do about it? There are a few options, and the easiest is simply being mindful of how you’re operating the camera. If you avoid quick motion and use a lens with image stabilisation (when possible), the rolling shutter will be mostly imperceptible.
If you don’t have a lens with image stabilisation you can always use an external stabiliser. These are generally pretty expensive if you’re purchasing one pre-made, but we’ve posted many different DIY camera stabiliser options.
More aggressive rolling shutter fixes come in the forum of plug-ins for editing and effects software, such as The Foundry’s RollingShutter, but it’s also possible to do the work yourself:
No matter how your DSLR handles sound recording, it’s always going to be an issue at some level. Some cameras only have an internal mic and others have limited inputs and manual controls, leaving you with few options to capture truly great sound. In the case of the 5D2, you can install a third-party firmware called Magic Lantern to give you further controls, but if you want total control over your audio you’re going to want to look at dual-system sound.
As long as you keep track of which video files correspond to which audio files, you can match them up in your editor later. Finding the exact point of synchronisation can be a little difficult, so this is where you’d generally use a clapperboard slate to create a loud clap at the beginning of the scene to help you find a common point in both audio waveforms. Since you only need the clapperboard for the noise it makes, as the name might suggest you’ll do just fine by clapping your hands loudly in front of both the camera’s and your external microphone. If you don’t feel like manually synchronising your audio, Singular Software has created a neat application called DualEyes that handles this for you. Currently DualEyes is only available for Windows (with a Mac version forthcoming), but while in beta it is available for free.
Of course, if you don’t want to buy anything but want to try and improve the quality of your sound, you might be able to use a microphone you already have around the house. So long as the microphone is battery powered or simply doesn’t require phantom power, you can either hook it up directly or get a cheap adaptor. Most DSLRs with audio inputs have a 1/8″ TR(R)S port (more commonly identified as a headphone port). TR(R)S connectors of different sizes and even XLR plugs can be adapted for use on the cheap.
Editing with H.264, Motion JPEG and Other Fun DSLR Video Formats
When DV was the more common video codec, format issues were a bit more rare for some of us. With the introduction of HD video there are so many different formats and they all have their challenges when editing. Whether you’re dealing with H.264, Motion JPEG or something else entirely you’re going to need to figure out how best to edit it.
Some editors, such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere, can handle most types of footage directly on the timeline. Simple editors like iMovie will import the footage from the camera for you. If you want control over your footage — and you probably do — you’re going to want to convert it into a more editable format. First, you’re going to need to choose a format.
The codec you choose should be an intraframe codec, not an interframe codec. The important difference is that an interframe codec, like H.264, uses key frames, while an intraframe codec, like DV, doesn’t and encodes the entire image in each frame. When editing footage encoded with an interframe codec (meaning it has key frames), scrubbing and rendering can be slow because your computer has to calculate the frames between the keyframes. This doesn’t happen with intraframe codecs, because every frame has been encoded and can be displayed without much work. The extra speed this affords makes editing much easier.
If you’re not on a Mac or want an alternative, there are a few options — but they’re not free. Cineform Neoscene was designed to make editing HD camera footage easier. BitJazz’ SheerVideo is a lossless codec that is extremely fast. If you want to avoid paying for a codec, take a look at what your editing software can do. Often times your editing software will include codec support that you can take advantage of. For example, AVC-Intra is a format Panasonic designed to make us of some of the benefits of H.264 as well as the ease of editing provided by an intraframe codec. Your editing software may provide you with this and others, so be sure to take a look at what you already have before you go out and buy something you may not need.
There’s so much you can do with your video-capable DSLR. For example…
- Shoot Pinhole Videos
- Make a $US16 Fisheye Lens
- Create Your Own Bokeh Filter
- Build Your Own Camera Crane
Have your own tips and tricks for shooting video with an HD DSLR? Share ’em in the comments!