DSLR Video Recording: HD movies and what you absolutely have to know

HD Movies: essential DSLR video techniques

We take it for granted that new cameras these days come with the capability of recording HD movies. Once scoffed at, DSLR video recording has come into its own, and this feature is now one of the first things people check on the specification list when new cameras are announced. In fact, advances in DSLR video capability have created legions of dedicated HDSLR users, who find the versatility of being able to record HD movies on your camera a wonderful creative freedom.

In this tutorial we’ll start by answering some of photographers’ common questions about DSLR video, then explore some of the finer points of making HD movies, such as how to pace your film, understanding frame rates and what direct controls on your camera can make the DSLR video process easier for you.

DSLR Video Recording: HD movies and what you absolutely have to know

Common questions about DSLR video recording


Video cameras have been around for years, and I can even shoot decent movies on my phone,  so why is there such a buzz about filming with an SLR?

You can shoot high-definition (HD) movies with camcorders, compact cameras, and increasingly phones and tablets. However, despite these devices being convenient and offering simple point-and-record handling, DSLRs have two distinct advantages when it comes to capturing video.

Firstly, they have interchangeable lenses, enabling you to give successive clips very different looks. Secondly, the larger imaging sensors inside DSLRs make it easy to achieve a very shallow depth of field, which can help to give footage they’re capturing more of a cinematic look and feel.

This is one of the reasons professional filmmakers are shooting everything from wildlife documentaries to Oscar-nominated movies on DSLRs, often referred to as ‘HDSLRs’. They can get beautiful, sharp pictures for a fraction of the cost and size of their usual heavy-duty outfits.

Why can’t a camcorder – something that’s designed purely to shoot movies – get this ’film’ look?

It really is all down to the size of the sensor. A typical camcorder has a sensor size that measures a minute 2.4×1.8mm, or 4.3mm². In comparison, the sensor inside a typical SLR like the Canon EOS 650D is 22.3×14.9mm, or 333mm². This means that a 650D has a sensor size that’s almost 77 times larger.

The full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark III goes one step bigger, with a sensor that measures 36x24mm, or 864mm² – that makes it 200 times the size of the typical camcorder sensor. The larger the sensor, the more light it can capture and the shallower the depth of field it can record.

Fit a ‘fast’ lens (one with a very wide maximum aperture) to a full-frame camera and you can record footage with creamy-smooth blurred backgrounds and foreground detail that leaps off the screen.

It sounds too good to be true. There must be a catch?

It’s true to say that it’s still relatively early days for film-making with SLRs, with big steps forward being made in terms of video controls, features and picture (and audio) quality with successive new cameras.

There have been some teething troubles though. Take focusing, for instance. SLRs still aren’t great at it when they’re recording video. Because the sensor needs to be constantly exposed to light, the camera has to be in Live View mode with the mirror locked up.

This means that it can’t send light to the phase-detection autofocus system that provides such fast and accurate results in normal stills photography.

The camera can still focus while it’s filming, but it has to rely on a slower method that involves measuring the contrast in the image.

This can result in the picture dropping in and out of focus as you film, so it’s often more preferable to autofocus before you record each clip, then switch to manual focus to lock the focus distance in. When you’ve finished recording the segment, you can then refocus.

HD Movies: essential DSLR video techniques

If I have to use Live View, I won’t be able to see the scene through the camera viewfinder?

That’s right – with a traditional DSLR body, you’ll have to view the live feed on the DSLR’s rear screen instead. Although this is fine for stills photography, it can be a bit frustrating for film making.

Having to hold the camera for long periods in such a way that you can see the screen can be tiring, and it can also be tougher to track moving subjects than when you have your eye glued to the viewfinder.

DSLRs with flip-out LCD screens, such as Canon’s 60D, can make it more comfortable to shoot for long periods, as well as making it easier to record video at more interesting angles – such as a worm’s eye view at ground level, or at arm’s length overhead.

An entire cottage industry has built up on the back of HDSLRs, and there are many variations of shoulder rigs and Steadicam-style supports available that have been designed to help you get smooth handheld footage. We’d still go for a tripod most of the time though.

DSLR Video Tips: common questions about HD movies answered by experts

Is it easy to record sound as well?

Yes, all DSLRs that shoot video come with built-in microphones. These are quite small and underpowered, which means that you need to be close to the action to pick up sound.

You might be able to get frame-filling footage of a distant bird with a 500mm lens, but the only sound you’re likely to pick up will be your own heavy breathing! Not all mics record the audio track in stereo either.

In short, the sound quality of an DSLR doesn’t live up to the crisp high-definition picture it produces. Camera manufacturers recognise this, which is why the latest DSLRs feature external microphone jacks, and it’s worth investing in a decent hotshoe-mounted boom microphone for much clearer sound.

So, what’s the best way to piece all my clips together to make my own Hollywood blockbuster?

It’s the editing stage that can make or break a film, but first you’ll need the software to chop up your footage and rearrange it. Adobe Premiere Elements gives you all the basic controls that you need for under £100, although there are many good quality alternatives available.

When you come to start editing, be ruthless and ditch all the boring bits, and try to include plenty of cuts between shots to keep things interesting.

PAGE 1: Common questions about DSLR video recording
PAGE 2: A simple setup for shooting DSLR video
PAGE 3: What are they key DSLR video controls?
PAGE 4: How to pace your HD movies?
PAGE 5: What are frame rates?


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  • vdomkr

    DSLR shooting is and has always been a joke. I understand why one would want to as far as sensor size, etc, but the Canon C100 makes it possible to throw your DSLR in the trash and no longer have to worry about limited record times, audio, etc.