So much has been said about the benefits and outstanding picture quality of using one of the new large image chip DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and others that we decided to do a test. It is unquestionable that the large image chips these cameras incorporate have raised the quality of the image produced to a level that was ony achievable with much more expensive video cameras in the past. So with this in mind people are jumping on the bandwagon and buying what are essentially still cameras with video recording features (DSLRs). However often other considerations are overlooked. For example, there are many comments about the wonderful look that a limited depth of field the large image sensors can provide. Depth of field is the area in front of and in back of the subject you are focusing on that is in focus. If only the subject is in focus, this small depth of field gives a look similar to what film has been providing forever. Depth of field is influenced by the telephoto setting of the lens and also the aperture set as well as the size of the image sensing chip. The larger the chip, the more telephoto and the more open the aperture, the less depth of field and the more areas in front and behind a focused subject will be blurred/out of focus. Now this really can look good but is it practical for the typical run and gun type shooting that we as videographers do mostly. The answer is yes and no.
To provide some experience and documentation on using a DSLR to shoot a typical event video production in Las Vegas where we have our studio, we did a test shoot with a Canon DSLR, a Panasonic GH1 DSLR and to provide a baseline for shooting video, Panasonic HMC 150 Camcorders
Beautiful picture quality when everything is perfect but not easy to use for run and gun shooting. In low light the depth of field is so limited with any kind of a telephoto shot and wide aperture that you can focus on a nose and a forehead is out of focus. Because the Canon has a mirror you can’t use the eyecup viewfinder when shooting video; you need to use the LCD screen. In bright light the LCD screen is useless and for people who need reading glasses you need to hold it at arms length which makes holding it steady very difficult. It doesn’t allow you to autofocus on a moving target and because it is difficult to see in the LCD viewfinder, hard to keep in focus. These are some of the reasons you need to buy expensive support systems and LCD viewfinder accessories to get some additional ease of use. Color balancing was cumbersome. Bottom line, very difficult to use for anything but static well lit shots. Audio also requires supplementary equipment such as a digital recorder that you can plug external mics into. If you are used to having smooth zooms in your shots, a DSLR needs a bit of practice or supplementary optional equipment because there is no servo control. The 12 minute limit built into Canon DSLRs isn’t much of a problem to us but for long form continuous recording, it is a issue. Canon lenses are expensive and those with a large zoom range are very slow and large. If you want better faster lenses it gets VERY expensive. It is best to rent lenses if you have a big job that needs them because you could easilly spend $10-$20K on lenses alone. We would use this in the future for static or moving on the same plane green screen and product video.
PANASONIC GH1 DSLR
The picture quality was very good. This had a lot of advantages over the Canons. Because the sensor is still large, much larger than 1/3 inch video camera chips but smaller than the Canons, it has excellent picture quality with a more usable depth of field range making it more usable for moving subjects. Because it doesn’t have a mirror, you can use the eyecup viewfinder while shooting video. This has a diopter adjustment so for people who need reading glasses it is perfect and while against your forehead provides more stability. It also has an autofocus which though sometimes does some hunting, is usable together with the ability to touch up focus by pressing the shutter 1/2 way plus the ability to also focus manually. There is no time limit on the length of time you can record a clip. You are only limited by the size of the SDHC stick and your battery. I would recommend you have several batteries. The 14-140 lense we used was adequate but very slow (3.5 to 5.6 maximum aperture based on wide angle/telephoto setting). I would say it doesn’t compare to the better Canon lenses but the actual shot video footage guality in comparison was better because of the ease of use and the ability to get successful well focused video. Audio here again requires separate equipment because though the onboard mic is decent, it can’t compare to a shot gun or wireless setup. What is great is that it gives you control of audio levels easily. Changing color balance was pretty simple with one button, an instant choice of presets and the ability to manually white balance. Because of our experience with this camera we bought the latest version GH2 which we are still trying to learn the features of.
Panasonic HMC 150s
These are regular AVCHD 1/3 inch 3chip HD camcorders and we of course found they are much easier to use on a run and gun shoot than any DSLR. If needed, autofocus is flawless, changing apertures, gain, color balance and all the other pro features we are used to are standard. Actually for well lit static shots and even some poorly lit shots both the GH1 and the Canons provided better image quality. However as indicated, that isn’t real life in tradeshow or event video.
We are easing our way into integrating DSLRs into our work operations because of the outstanding image quality. At present they are not going to take the place of our camcorders for most of our work. As we become more knowlegeable with the GH2 we hope to integrate it more and more.