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The Basics of DSLR Video

DSLR video has made a tremendous impact in the video industry. From simple wedding videographers all the way to the team at Fox using them on an episode of House, DSLR’s are being taken seriously. While there are many limitations using these still cameras, the benefits of the images they produce far outweigh the negatives. In this article, we’ll go over the basics of how to get started shooting productions with Canon DSLR’s all the way to the final product.

1. CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT VIDEO CAMERAS

If you go into this thinking about nothing except the limitations you’ll never get to experience how much further these cameras can take your productions. Here are just a few of the negatives to deal with while shooting video with a DSLR.

  • There is not a good way to record professional or even acceptable audio on the camera.

There are many great solutions to this serious issue and I’ll get into that further down this article.

  • The lenses are NOT traditional ENG style video lenses.

This issue really is one of the beauties of DSLR video shooting. Photography lenses are part of what creates that tremendous film look we all love (depth of field) where your object is in focus and the foreground/background have that soft look. The negative is you lose that long zoom that comes on a traditional video camera.

2. EXPOSURE

Overexposed Footage

Exposure is one of the most important things about getting great video footage. If you bring back footage that is not exposed properly, you could add hours to your edit time just by having to color correct all your footage. There are two ways of getting the wrong exposure and one is definitely worse than the other.

  • Overexposed

When you overexpose your video footage, you lose all the image data because it becomes pure white.  When you try to color correct that footage to the correct exposure, you’ll never be able to get the white of your image to look good. If you’re going to err on one side of bad, it’s definitely better to be on the other end.

  • Underexposed

When you underexpose your footage, you haven’t given the camera enough light to properly capture the image. Unlike overexposing, when your footage comes back underexposed, colors are still there so you can just bring it all up with color correction. Of course this is still not preferable to just getting it correct the first time. Thankfully, every DSLR has a light meter built in the camera that lets you know if you’re properly exposing your image.

Correct exposure is when the line is directly in the center between the -3 and the +3. The further to the negative the less exposed your video will be. The further to the positive the more exposed you’ll be. The center “0” is the camera’s guess at what is perfect exposure. You may need to go a notch or two higher or lower than suggested.

How to Control Exposure

There are three main ways to control the exposure of your video footage. All three have different effects yet all work together to control exposure.

1. Aperture

Wide open lens.

When you change the aperture on your camera, you’re actually changing what’s happening in your lens. A camera lens is just like the lens that our eye is,  To keep things basic, the lower the number the more open your lens is. The more open your lens is, the more light you are letting in, therefore your image becomes more exposed.

2. Shutter Speed

In photography, shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter stays open (the amount of time you are letting light in). This principle is the same in video but different. To keep things very simple, as a general rule in video production, it’s best to keep your shutter speed as close to twice the frame rate you’re shooting. For shoots at the standard 29.97fps, a good shutter speed would be 1/60. You can go below this of course, but the effects would be too much motion blur on objects that are moving. You could also go for a much faster shutter speed such as 1/1000, however the results would be an unnatural amount of sharpness on moving objects. This unnatural effect has been used in movies such as battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan and battle sequences in Gladiator. Generally, it really is best just to keep it simple and stick with doubling your frame rate.

29.97fps – 1/60

23.97fps  – 1/50 (Canon cameras do not have a 1/48)

6op – 1/125 (Canon cameras do not have a 1/120)

3. ISO

The ISO setting on your DSLR is similar to a DB Gain on a traditional video camera. It basically tells your camera how sensitive it should be to the light coming in. The more sensitive (higher your ISO is) you tell your camera to be, the more digital artifacting you’ll see in your video footage. On the newer Canon DSLR’s that shoot video, you can push your ISO to about 1600 before you can really see any noticeable grain. At 3200, you’re really taking it as far as you’d ever want to go, but in some situations it’s better than having unusable dark footage.

Using these three controls in combination with each other will help you control your exposure and help you get great footage without having spend lots of time correcting exposure in post production.

3. WHITE BALANCE

Shooting your footage with the proper white balance is another way to save you lots of time in the color correction process of editing. Shooting with the wrong white balance settings could leave your subjects with a sickly blue look on their face or screaming orange like in the image below.

The Canon DSLRs really have a great selection of white balance presets that will work great for people just getting started in video production. The settings include, Indoor (3200k), Sunny (5200k), Shade (7000k), White Light (4000k), Auto and a Custom White Balance. Traditional video camera users should be familiar with the process of a custom white balance. You simply place a white card in front of your camera, hit the white balance button, then you’re done. The Custom white balance setting on the DSLRs work very similar. Below is a short video showing you exactly how to use the Custom setting.

Taking a few seconds to make sure your white balance is correct could save you many hours of color correcting in post production. Don’t let this tiny thing become a huge headache later!

4. RECORDING AUDIO

This is probably the largest limitation of the DSLR in terms of professional video production. Interestingly though, the process for resolving it is very close to what Hollywood does when recording on film: you record your audio to an entirely separate device. Currently the most popular device to record to is the Zoom H4n. It’s what I personally use and I have been very happy with it.

The H4n records in a high quality .wav or .mp3 format. It has two XLR inputs which allow you to plug in your favorite microphone(s) for your recording. The H4n also has a nice on-board microphone that works great in many situations. As you go to push record on your camera, you also push record on the H4n, allowing both devices to record simultaneously to allow for a sync process in editing which with the correct software is a very easy thing to do.

If you can get past having to push record twice, one on camera and once on the H4n, then you’ll be good to go. Remember, it’s worth all this trouble for the great video quality the DSLR produces!

5. CONVERTING YOUR VIDEO FOOTAGE

The Canon DSLRs record as a .mov file, encoded in the h.264 compression. In layman’s terms, the camera records the video in the smallest file size possible to provide a full 1080p video file. The problem is that your editing software will not like this small size. Editing suites like Final Cut Pro like a more professional format like ProRes or DVCPRO much better than h.264. Think of h.264 as a final presentation format and ProRes or DVCPRO as your editing format.

Once you offload your Canon video files onto your hard drive you’ll need to convert them into one of these more professional formats. One great piece of software to do this is called MPEG Streamclip and the best thing about it is that it’s absolutely free! When you open MPEG Streamclip, the first thing you’ll do is press COMMAND+B. This will open up a batch list.

This is where you’ll tell MPEG Streamclip what files on your hard drive that you’d like to convert. Select the files and press OK. Then you’ll need to tell MPEG Streamclip where you’d like it to place the new converted files. After this you’ll need to let MPEG Streamclip know exactly what you’d like to convert the file to. Settings like Compression Type, Frame Rate, and size will need to be selected. Below is a good example of a 1080p clip at 29.97fps converted into ProRes.

Once you’ve got all your options selected, click “To Batch” and then “Go”. Go get yourself a cup of coffee and wait for MPEG Streamclip to do its thing. In fact, let’s all go get some coffee because this post is really long!

5. SYNCING YOUR AUDIO

After you imported your audio and have your video files converted, you’ll need to sync your ProRes video files and the audio you recorded to the H4n. To do this, we’ll use a handy piece of software called Pluraleyes. Make sure you only have one project open and name a sequence “pluraleyes”.

Place your camera files on V1/A1/A2. Then place your H4n files on A3/A4 (or directly beneath your video files). When you have your clips ready to be sync’d, open up Pluraleyes and click “Sync”. The video below shows you what this process looks like.

MAKING THE MOST OUT OF DSLR VIDEO

Now that we’ve gone over the essentials of making videos with DSLRs, we’ll go over the cherry on top items.

6. GETTING TO KNOW LENSES

One of the main advantages of shooting video on DSLRs is being able to use all kinds of lenses. You may think that these lenses are all the same as a traditional video lens except with more limitations, and to a degree you’d be right, however, when using them in the right way, a photography lens opens up doors for shooting that you’d never get with a traditional video lens.

PRIMES

A prime lens is simply a lens that has a fix focal length (no zoom). Prime lenses are usually much faster than their telephoto counterparts. A good prime lens is far cheaper than a good zoom lens. The standard, basic lens that everyone should own is a 50mm prime. This lens basically sees what your own eyes see. It’s good, it’s cheap, and it’s extremely versatile. I use the 50mm on just about every interview shoot I ever do. $100 will get you the Canon 50mm f/1.8 with the bigger brother f/1.4 coming in around $350. There are prime lenses that span the entire spectrum for focal lengths and you’ll love to have lots of them in your lens bag.

TELEPHOTOS

Zoom lenses are very convenient. It’s nice to be able to zoom in to your focal length rather than move the camera or have to change lenses, but with this convenience comes a large sacrifice. Telephotos are heavy… they’re large… and they cost a LOT more for quality ones. Good zoom lenses usually only have apertures down to f/2.8, which in a really low light situation may not be enough. One of the great telephotos is the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8. It costs about $1300. To put that in perspective, for that same price tag you could buy a 50mm f/1.4, an 85mm f/1.8, and a 28mm f/1.8 and still have a little bit left over. Three primes that are all much faster, for less cash… but you lose the convenience of the zoom. In outdoor situations, I love the Canon 24-105mm f/4. The aperture really isn’t an issue outside and the lens has a nice range that reminds me of a traditional video lens.

To be continued…

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