Using DSLR for video – practical notes and observations of a non-visual filmmaker

During the last year, I’ve been involved in numerous video shoots, most of which included filming on a DSLR camera. I was usually the Sound Operator, which means I haven’t had a proper chance to film much. So I will base my observations on what I’ve noticed in those projects, plus my general Photography and Video experience.

DOWNSIDES

For me, the most obvious downside of using a DSLR for video is the fact it doesn’t allow for much control of the audio. If we look at the Nikon D90 which I have used previously, the audio stream was of really low quality (low bitrate and even lower audio sampling), there was no way to monitor or control the levels, and the only available way to record audio was with an internal microphone.

When looking at the Canon 5D Mark II that was used in most of my recent shoots, it does offer a slightly better audio quality from its built-in microphone, plus there is the option to connect an external microphone via a 3.5 mm Jack input. However, a lot of problems remain unresolved, such as the lack of levels monitoring and levels control. What is more, because of the camera’s primary Photography focus, the way the video stream is recorded (using a rolling shutter), means the camera is extra loud, and you can hear the mechanism if you’re recording audio in-camera, which often makes your audio almost unusable. Not to mention the fact the microphone itself is situated ON the camera body, which means it generally records more action AROUND the camera and not where the action tends to be – on set.

I would always use an external audio recorder when I need to film on a DSLR – first, because I am a Sound focused person and I always insist on good audio; second, because that will give me the option to choose the best microphone I have access to, better suited for the needs of the shoot, and will be able to have full control over the sound stream.

In case we’ve sorted out the audio problem, another problem remains – the length of the video clips the camera can record. Since it is a primarily a Photography camera, a DSLR will have additional file size and clip length limits, as opposed to a video camera where you are only limited by the capacity of your battery and / or storage medium, and they are generally designed to last longer. So for recording longer takes or interviews, we have this to worry about too.

Another downside to using a DSLR for video, especially when recording audio separately, is the media management. We need to synchronise the footage before any other editing work can happen. This is especially painful if, during filming on set, there wasn’t much consideration for media management (e.g. clearly shouting takes, SOUND, CAMERA, ACTION, CUT, knowing who is recording when, keeping a log of all recorded clips, etc.). Multi-camera and multi-microphone shoots make this even worse. I have been on numerous shoots where, if any direction was given, it was mostly focused on the camera / visual side of things, resulting in takes where no sound was recorded, no clear STARTS and ENDS of takes… My heart goes out to all those patient editors who had to deal with the clips. I have been actively avoiding editing work on any DSLR projects, because if I know I was confused as a Sound operator ON SET, the confusion and frustration in post-production, having to deal with all those files, would have been dozens of times higher.

When using a DSLR for video, we also need to consider the Rolling Shutter effect / defect when there is movement, and the Anti-Aliasing problem that sometimes occurs when there are straight lines in shot.

Another downside to filming video on a DSLR is that it is quite uncomfortable to use as a handheld camera, especially if the shot needs zooming in / out, focus pulling, working with aperture, etc. It was designed with photographers in mind, and they use a camera in a very different way. It is very awkward to do anything more than holding the camera between pressing Record and Stop, and often attempts to make the shot more interesting result in ruining it altogether.

ADVANTAGES

For me, the most obvious advantage of the DSLR is its size. It is easy to carry around, requires a smaller tripod, can work well with a monopod, and on the logistical side of things makes the crew more mobile and flexible. Another advantage is the camera’s price – it is a few TIMES cheaper than video cameras of comparable picture quality which results in a more clear and crisp image in the final product, for a lower investment. What is more, there is a wide range of lenses, most of which quite cheap and offering very good image quality. Again, because of the camera’s size, the added expenses such as camera rigs, jibs, cranes, tripods, will be less since it is smaller, lighter, and more mobile.

CONCLUSION

I definitely need to spend some time filming with a DSLR, testing what it can and can’t do, what I can and can’t do with it, in order to make a decision. I have always been a bit suspicious about DSLR cinematography, and I remain on that position. Of course, if a production needs it, I wouldn’t say no – I would film on a DSLR for someone else.

But thinking about my own projects, if I am filming locally I still prefer using the JVC cameras we have available, especially for things like interviews and pieces to camera. If I need a smaller camera, I usually use the Sony VG10, which has a usable built-in microphone, it has been designed as a video camera, it has an HD capability, records digital on an SD card, and offers the mobility that a DSLR offers too, minus the Rolling Shutter and File size limit problems. When using the Sony VG10, I would still use an external audio recorder for interviews and pieces to camera, but I feel much more comfortable when using it handheld / on a shoulder mount / monopod / tripod.

What is more, thinking about the PAID video projects I’ve had to do in the last two years, a DSLR would usually make things more difficult, resulting in more time spent managing media files and workflow, vs. actually planning, filming and editing the project.

There comes a time in a filmmaker’s development that they start making practical decisions. For me, as a person who is not heavily focused on the visual side of filmmaking and is more interested in the story (thus, audio first, then visuals), I don’t see a huge benefit to using a DSLR.

In fact, based on my current filmmaking needs, if I don’t have access to a free to use Media Loan Shop – which I have now but won’t have in 9 months’ time – my ideal kit would include aVG10 or similar video camera, a small tripod that I can use as a monopod if needed, a shoulder mount, an external audio recorder such as the Zoom H4n – with good built-in microphones and XLR inputs, a couple of tie-clip microphones, a cardioid microphone and a shotgun microphone. I think that, for my own needs, this would provide the best value for money, good compromise for mobility / quality / ease of use. I would definitely leave it to others to play with the DSLRs, and make a practical decision that suits MY needs.

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