DSLRs for Video our Experience

We’ve been listening to all the hype about using DSLRs for video for quite some time and finally decided to try using these on a real life video assignment. We booked a wedding and had an opportunity to not only shoot with HD video cameras as the main cameras but to shoot with DSLRs at the same time. The experience really put the advantages and disadvantages in perspective. Let me first say that the quality that a DSLR produces shooting HD video with their large imaging chip is outstanding. Let me also say that from the experience they are nowhere near as easy to use for shooting video as a real video camera.

We used 3 Panasonic HMC 150 HD video cameras, 2 Canon T2i DSLRs and a Panasonic Lumix GH1 DSLR.

People talk about the great effects with the depth of field of a DSLR. What they are really talking about is the shallow depth of field. This means that only the subject focused on is in focus and the background and foreground blur. This is great for static images but for a moving target, maintaining focus with the Canons is a chore. The Lumix has an auto tracking autofocus which works much better. We also had problems with the Canons because I require glasses for closeup and the only way to see and focus video is on the LCD screen which must be held far enough away to see. When you do this, the camera is hard to keep steady. After this experience we went out and bought a Cinevate Cyclops which is a viewfinder which mounts and enlarges the Canon LCD to almost the size of a small monitor. This is a better option but with no diopter adjustment still not perfect for people with vision such as mine. The Panasonic Lumix was much easier to use not only because of the autofocus feature but also because you can use not only the LCD screen but because there is no mirror, the eyepiece also which has a diopter adjustment like most video cameras.

In a rapidly changing environment we found the range of the Lumix stock lens 14mm to 140mm effective for just about all shots. For the Canons we had to change lenses. Also good lenses are expensive typically around $1000 each so to shoot effectively you need to invest or rent an expensive stable of glass and most of the lenses have a maximum aperture of around F3.5 so you don’t really have great low light capability. There are prime lenses available at F1.2, F1.4, F1.8, etc. but you lose the flexibility of a zoom lens.

Audio on the Canon DSLRs had no manual adjustment but did have a jack for inserting an external mic. On this assignment we relied on the real video cameras as the main audio recorder. For DSLRs it is recommended to use an external audio recorder such as ones from Zoom to get good quality audio.

To use autofocus on the Canons you set the setting to autofocus and then press the shutter 1/2 way. If your subject moves with the shallow depth of field you are quickly out of focus. Because of my vision issue, it was nearly impossible to manually focus.

The chip in the Canon is larger than the 4/3 chip in the Lumix. This is a mixed blessing. A larger chip provides higher quality but narrower depth of field which to me limited the video recording usability. The slightly smaller Lumix chip has a larger depth of field meaning more is in focus foreground and background. This to me was much more practical.

For run and gun shooting, a real video camera with autofocus and easy manual controls is still my choice for now.  Now in comparing the Panasonic Lumix to the Canon, I really have to lean towards the Lumix for video work.

In summary the DSLRs provide outstanding quality if you can deal with the operating (focusing, adjusting) difficulties. The Panasonic Lumix GH1 is much better suited for shooting video than the Canons and we are looking to buy the new Panasonic Lumix GH2 when it comes out in December.  This seems to offer more usable depth of field with other features that make shooting video easier.  Additionally the micro 4/3 lenses for this camera will be compatible with the new Panasonic AF100 video camera which uses the 4/3 chip but is a real video camera.

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