Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Shooting Your DSLR Film

When it comes to 'how do I...' questions, the latest hot topic concerns shooting movies with DSLR cameras.  For those who are not still photographers, you may not even know what a DSLR camera is, much less how to shoot a movie with one.  I hope this article will answer a few of the questions concerning these cameras--and supply you with a quick primer on shooting a movie using such a camera.

DSLR stands for 'Digital Single Lens Reflex.'  All this really means to us as filmmakers is that it is a professional level camera that shoots digital images.  A short while back, photo/video journalists started clamoring for a DSLR camera that could shoot quality web-ready video.  The industry responded with several notable cameras:  The Canon 5D ($3299), 7D ($1799) and 1D Mark IV ($5399), as well as the Panasonic DMC-GH1 ($1399) and the Nikon D90 ($1000).  All of these cameras shoot various quality HD video--though not all of them shoot the same frame rates or use the same codex/compression.  In this lot, the Canon 7D and 5D are the clear winners, as well as the most popular--mostly due to their versatility in frame rates (the 1D Mark IV is so expensive it kind of priced itself out of popularity).

But now Canon has introduced the T2i Rebel camera ($999.00)--also known as the Canon 550D in some parts--bringing the realm of DSLR filmmaking to those with a limited budget.  With such a decrease in price from the 5D and 7D it begs the question, 'Does it shoot comparable footage to the other, higher priced, models?'  In short, yes it does.  In fact, the video footage from the T2i is almost indistinguishable from that of the other models.  The decrease in price is actually due to significantly less options for the STILL photographer--primarily the lack of a second sensor that allows the 7D/5D to shoot at faster frame rates.  But, again, this is for still photographers.  If you are a big still photographer, in addition to videographer, you may want to consider the higher end cameras.  But for us shooting HD video, the Canon T2i Rebel represents the best value (currently) on the market.  It even has a couple advantages to the higher end cameras...

First off, the T2i only has one sensor to deal with; the 7D is notorious for overheating during shooting--and this is because of two sensors that are operating concurrently.  The T2i also offers the most popular shooting rates for filmmakers right out of the box (24/25/30 fps at 1080p and 50/60 fps at 720p); the Canon 5D has only just updated their firmware to perform 24p shooting--and folks are complaining that this firmware is inherently buggy.  The T2i also has some great presets on the selector knob and offers an autofocus feature while shooting video (just press the shutter button halfway).

So, essentially, you are getting the first TRUE DSLR that's been aimed at filmmakers, rather than a DSLR that's for still photographers and happens to have great video.  Much like the 5D and 7D, the T2i still accepts the full range of Canon lenses and even sports a stereo mic input like the 7D (though this is only good, possibly, for interviews using an external boom/lav mic).  So what are the limitations to shooting your movie with a DSLR camera?

First off, though you may snag a camera with one lens for the prices quoted above (all gotten from Amazon.com, BTW), there will be the additional expenses of add-on lenses to get the sweet, shallow depth-of-field that makes our movies look so wonderfully film-like.  You may also want to buy an aftermarket camera mount with a pull focus knob/matte box to enhance your shooting as well, which can also be pricey.  But, perhaps, the most significant drawback to shooting with a DSLR is the sound issue.  You will have to shoot external sound using a quality audio recorder (such as the Zoom H2, Zoom H4 or Edirol R-09) and boom mic, then sync it up to your video footage.   Of course, this is nothing new to those shooting with film cameras and it gives you a great excuse to familiarize yourself with using a slate.

You are also limited in the length of time for a shot.  The file size for the T2i (as well as the 7D and 5D) is limited to 4GB.  This is about 12 minutes or so of footage.  Practically speaking, this is fine for most filmmakers, but if you're going to shoot long, one-take video (such as a wedding) you may want to go ahead and get a good video camera.  All in all, though, these are limitations that have been tackled by those shooting on film many years ago (and in the end, you are wanting your movie to look like it was shot on film, right?).

So I hope this answers a lot of the questions that you may have concerning the use of a DSLR camera for your movie.  Pick up a Canon T2i with a nice additional/shallow focus lens, a Zoom H2 and boom mic and you have a nice package for about $1500 that competes with high end HD cameras (compare that to the cost of even renting a Red camera package).  Here are some additional resources for you:

Here is a great article on B&H Photo about shooting sync sound with your DSLR camera.
Here and here are great places to pick up a mount/matte box/pull focus setup for your camera.
Cinema5D is a great forum for DSLR filmmakers and offers some great DIY tools for you.
Watch the video below to see some of the awesome footage shot using the Canon T2i Rebel.