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A Peak Behind the Curtain: Why HD-DSLR Video Part I

I have been meaning to put together this post for about a month or two, but occasionally you get so busy doing the work, you don’t have time to write about it. I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way now; I love HD-DSLR video…for some things. I realize there is a small but vocal war raging among those that have embraced the DSLR video capture technique and those who think it deserves to live in the realm of the amateur filmmaker. I’m willing to admit that DSLR video has its limitations and isn’t practical for every situation. So, rather than use this post to argue the merits one-way or the other, I figure I’ll tell you how it became the solution for a project I was working on for the “day job.”

A picture of me with some of our rig during our recent production shoot.

Simply put, we wanted something different. The production team and myself are working on completing a high level customer facing sales presentation. We wanted to find a video capturing method that would be visually unique as well as complement the technological sophistication of the new presentation method. Yes, I am being vague about the presentation details on purpose because it is still a work in process and sometimes I like being mysterious.

DSLR video offered us the ability to get in on the ground floor of an almost cinematic style of production at a minimal initial investment. I liked the idea of using a multi-lens system that would also allow us to shoot in 1080 progressive, which was going to be a necessity to future proof the content for the new presentation. At least until 3D takes over, but lets face it, don’t we all hope it’s just a fad? With the amazingly shallow depth-of-field and the ability to shoot at 24 frames, we were working towards creating a new visual style that had not been used by our in-house media department. Like I said, the goal was something different.

Our first purchase was a Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L – Series lens. At the time of our purchase the Canon 7D had just been released and we weighed the positives and negatives of both. Ultimately, the 5D won out because of its full frame sensor. A typical shoot for us was going to be in a warehouse environment, which meant that we were going to be dealing with less than ideal lighting situations, and in most cases tight surroundings. The 5D’s full sensor would mean that we could get the most out of our ambient light and the camera’s overall compact size would help us weave in and out of any cramped spots. We also were going to have the opportunity to utilize the oh-so-nice shallow depth-of-field offered by a full frame camera when shooting boxes of product moving up and down kit assembly lines.

Now at this point, I think I should point out that the production team and I had done a lot of research into the validity of using this shooting method. We had a vested interest in pulling this off because using a DSLR to capture video was going to a slight gamble in the fact that it would be a completely new production method for us. I myself had developed a strong interest in this method because of my work in still photography and I felt that video seemed a natural progression. We were charting new territory, which can be exciting and scary at the same time, but the payoff would definitely be worth it. Working with a DSLR camera was especially exciting to me in the fact that I could pick it up and use it to capture video with only a slight learning curve. Of course, this peaked my interest in learning everything there is to know about video production from cinematography to editing, but that is a story for another day.

One of the other major considerations taken into account when we researched DSLR video was that our production team was small. Very small. Like, 3 people small. We needed the be able to carry a smallish production kit because we would not have any extra hands, like one might have on a large scale commercial shoot with a crew of 30. So, no major lighting kit, no dedicated sound team, no director of photography, we warriors 3 were going to be it. A DSLR production kit was going to be a perfect fit.

Some people will say that HD-DSLR video mimics the visual look of film. And when you utilize the shallow depth-of-field and shooting at 24 frames/second then it does get pretty close. But, a DSLR is still producing a fairly compressed video format with H.264, that doesn’t give you as much latitude as film would. Plus you have to work around the potential for the jello-effect and moiré patterns that can pop up if you don’t plan ahead. Just Google “HD-DSLR Video” and you will find all the limitations of this medium. Especially on the RED camera forums. I’m not going to tell you it’s perfect, but with a good knowledge of the limitations you can really make some pretty video. I think that in reality, DSLR created video has an aesthetic all it’s own. Almost like a hyper-real film feel. It does a really good job of making you feel like you are really there, which is what we wanted.

One of the first videos we came across while researching Canon 5D footage was Reverie by Vincent Laforet. It really helped give us a glimpse of the possibilities with a DSLR production kit. You can check it our here:

Hopefully, Part 1 here explains a small bit about the process that got us to our most recent production shoot. I would estimate about 5 to 6 months of research and testing went in to figuring all the ins and outs of a DSLR video production style. In Part 2, I will be highlighting a little more about the specific equipment and shooting techniques that we have been using. So, stay tuned.

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