DSLR video: a beginner’s guide to shooting HD

Shooting HD video with a DSLR? Don’t know where to begin? Here, we answer all your questions – from choosing resolution to editing software options

Canon, Nikon, Sony and other camera manufacturers are increasingly putting high-def video recording tools at the top of their digital SLR feature sets – and with good reason. The large sensors. awesome low-light performance and massive lens ranges offered by current DSLRs makes them appealing to a whole new breed of filmmakers, as well as photographers. If you’re a newcomer to ‘HDSLRs’, then this is for you: a guide that cuts through the jargon and explains how to get started with high-definition movie-making…

DSLR HD video: what do I need to know?

Shooting high-definition video 
with a DSLR is a relatively new concept. Some people love it, not just because it adds another string to your camera’s bow, but because the video that some of these new cameras can produce is of broadcast quality. In fact, DSLRs – or HDSLRs – are being used more and more by professional film and television makers because the bodies, lenses and add-ons are much cheaper than traditional broadcast video equipment. In particular, DSLRs provide a far greater range of affordable lens options compared with the top-end movie cameras.

Sounds good. So who are the people who aren’t convinced about HD video on DSLRs?

Traditional photographers have been rather suspicious about it. Video has been a gizmo on pocket cameras and mobile phones for some time – and some people think it’s out of place on a serious stills camera. They think they’re paying for a feature they won’t use.

Do they have a point?

Put it this way: having HD video facilities on a top-end DSLR may make it cheaper because it increases the number of people who might buy it. Furthermore, it became a relatively easy feature to include once manufacturers started adding live view to their cameras – a feature that few stills photographers who’ve used it would want to do without.

What’s the connection 
between HD video and live view?

DSLRs have a mirror and prism system that enables you to see the scene through the lens. When you take a picture, the mirror rises, the viewfinder goes dark and the image is captured by the sensor. Live view feeds the picture from the sensor directly to the LCD – the mirror is kept raised, and the viewfinder can no longer be used. HD video recording is simply saving the live view feed to the memory card instead of just displaying it.

What level of video quality can be expected from a DSLR?

The best DSLRs can record full HD – which has a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels – at 24 to 30fps. This is the same resolution as video on a Blu-ray disc. Some SLRs are capable only of the lower resolution of 720p HD, which has a resolution of 1280×720 pixels. This is still twice the resolution of the DVD format, however. Lower resolutions, such as VGA which is 640×480 pixels, are often provided as an option for longer clips or for web use.

But surely my DSLR has more pixels available than this?

True, but only for stills. The amount of data that would need to be recorded every second would make higher resolutions impractical. Besides, there would be no televisions capable of playing such footage – the best ones are capable of displaying only 1080p full HD video.

What sort of file formats do these DSLRs record video in?

If you think the choice between RAW and JPEG for stills is complicated, you’ll be baffled by the formats used by modern video devices. There are two parts to a video format. First, there’s the container – the way that data is packaged as it’s recorded. And then there’s the codec – the algorithm used for coding and decoding the data. 
It isn’t necessary to worry about this too much because the container and codec are decided by the camera you use – and videos can be translated from one format to another at the editing and output stage. Nikon and Olympus DSLRs use the AVI format, Canon DSLRs use a variation of MOV, and Panasonic and Sony work with a new format called AVCHD.

Can I still record if I use specialist lenses – like a macro or super-telephoto?

Absolutely! One of the main reasons that serious moviemakers are currently swapping their standard camcorders for DSLRs is the huge choice of lenses that you can get for them. Most video cameras have a built-in superzoom, with an often-substantial zoom ratio. However, they don’t offer a decent wide-angle view. Ultra-wide lenses and even fisheyes are widely available for most DSLRs. And you can use other lenses too – such as macro and ultra-telephoto settings.

Just as important to the moviemaker are the wide-apertured lenses that can be bought (or hired) for DSLRs. The narrow depth of field that you can get using even a low-cost 50mm f/1.8 prime lens is almost impossible to achieve on affordably priced camcorder gear. And such ‘fast’ lenses are available in practically every focal length – from the wide-apertured wide-angles used by professional documentary photographers to the ‘long-tom’ telephotos used by pro sports shooters.

Can I still use autofocus on my DSLR while shooting video?

Shooting video requires a DSLR’s reflex mirror to be fixed in the ‘up’ position as long as you continue to shoot, so that light entering through the lens reaches the image sensor continuously. You can still see what you’re shooting using the LCD on the back of the camera, but the viewfinder goes completely dark. The focusing systems used by SLRs also use the mirror, so different focusing methods are needed to ensure you have sharp footage. Autofocus systems can’t be guaranteed to work with all subjects, and it’s often best to set up the focus manually before you start recording,  and then ensure the subject doesn’t move out of the plane of focus.

Why do I need to record audio with an external mic when my camera can record all the sound?

Most cameras have a single built-in microphone that only records a monaural (non-stereo) track. The fact that they record in mono, rather than stereo, isn’t the real issue. Many professional add-on microphones are non-stereo affairs, because this is perfectly adequate for recording ambient sound and speech. However, the fact that the microphone is built in is a disadvantage. The proximity of the audio pick-up to camera and the user means that it can record the sound of your breathing, the autofocus motor (if used), and every slight touch of the camera that you make. Sound does not travel as well as light, and it is therefore important to get the microphone as close to the sound source as possible.

Any good DSLR should provide a stereo microphone socket, which enables you to connect a wired or wireless microphone. Many professionals, however, prefer to use a separate audio recording device instead. The video and audio are then combined during the editing process. Popular add-on microphones include the Sennheisser MKE400 and the Rode VideoMic

Can I record everything in Auto mode or should I adjust exposure manually, as with still images?

The amount of control you have over the exposure when shooting video varies from camera to camera. Some enable you to change the ISO, shutter speed, aperture and so on, in much the same way as you can when shooting stills. Realistically, however, you’ll have a narrower range of options.

A video is a succession of stills. You’re typically shooting 25 pictures every second – so this means that shutter speeds of 1/8 sec aren’t feasible. But fast shutter speeds aren’t always viable either, because this will create a flick-book effect on video of any moving subject. Keep shutter speeds to below 1/100 sec (unless you’re looking for super-sharp freeze-frame effects).

It’s because of this shutter speed limitation that your camera’s ISO control is often your most potent exposure weapon, allowing you to use the aperture that you really want. As people are attracted to D-SLRs for the wide aperture, narrow depth of field effects, one of the most useful accessories you can own is an ND (neutral density) filter. This cuts down the amount of light reaching the sensor, so you can use the widest apertures even in the brightest of light.

How long do memory cards 
last while recording?

The maximum length of a clip is limited to less than 30 minutes. But the way memory cards are formatted means clips can’t exceed 4GB in size, which will limit them to around 12 minutes. This should be long enough for film-making projects, where each shot is usually a few seconds or minutes long. It isn’t sufficient, though, for recording a play or a football match.

Should I use a tripod when shooting video?

We’ve all seen and suffered handheld home videos taken on a camcorder – and remember how sick they can make you feel! A tripod, therefore, is almost always essential for good quality footage.

This is particularly the case because (unlike camcorders) most DSLRs are not particularly well designed for moviemaking – you need to use Live View, forcing you to use the rear LCD as the viewfinder. You can see the screen at the back more clearly if you haven’t got to support the weight of the camera. A monopod is obviously a lot better than nothing.

When you really do need to shoot untethered to the ground, you’ll also find some interesting ‘rigs’ being sold that are designed to address the ergonomic issues of shooting video with your DSLR. Check out the Red Rock range at www. redrockmicro.com, the Zacuto rigs at www.zacuto.com and the range of supports at www.cameragrip.co.uk to see the shoulder-mounted systems that are becoming popular with pros.

What’s the simplest video editing program? And will it work with my camera?

There’s a huge range of video-editing software available, from free downloads to pricey professional packages. Most work in a very similar way, however, enabling you to import clips and arrange your different video shots and audio tracks on a ‘timeline’ – a kind of visual spreadsheet that allows you to cut and paste your movie together. Not all packages will work with all types of raw video footage. However, it’s almost always possible to convert your footage into a format that will work with a particular program using an additional piece of software.

A good all-round choice for those starting out is Adobe’s Premiere Elements – the video-editing equivalent of Photoshop Elements. This has more than enough power and tools for all but the most professional user.


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