A DSLR won’t make you a video professional

Due to advancements in CMOS sensor technology, DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) cameras developed video capabilities with the release of Nikon’s D90 and Canon’s 5D Mark II in 2008. These cameras created a tidal wave in the video industry because they gave users the ability to film 1080p HD video on large image sensors—something only capable with infinitely more expensive, pro-grade equipment. DSLRs also opened up videographers and filmmakers to decades of SLR-mount lenses previously only available for photography.

Filming with a large image sensor allows for a shallower DOF (depth of field) and better low-light sensitivity; features primarily limited to motion-picture cameras and not possible with consumer grade and prosumer camcorders. With Nikon’s D90 and Canon’s 5D Mark II hitting the sub-$3000 market, video professionals and amateurs alike could suddenly afford film-like imagery for their production at nearly any budget. Inexpensive, high-quality gear is always welcome news, as it creates fewer barriers to entry in the video production market. However, a DSLR is simply a tool. And like any tool, it’s only as good as its operator.

The market is already starting to “get over it”

The average viewer has little understanding of camera technology, but a viewer can associate aesthetics with different levels of production. For some, the difference in the aesthetics of consumer / prosumer camcorders versus film / high-end digital camcorders is night and day. A consumer / prosumer camcorder’s image quality is generally associated with home video, corporate video and low-end television production due to its small sensor and “video look”. By contrast, the shallow depth-of-field and color saturation achieved with film cameras and high-end digital cameras are associated with television dramas, commercials and feature films. Because of this distinction, audiences have a certain expectation of image quality depending on the production-type.

Since a DSLR’s image quality looks as though it comes from a much more expensive camera, use of a DSLR in low-budget productions is challenging those viewer expectations. Already five years since their debut, DSLRs still elicit a “wow” response from some viewers. Because of this, videographers, freelancers and indie filmmakers bank on impressing their clients and audiences with cinematic image quality for productions normally unable to afford it. But as image sensor technology continues to improve, and the DSLR “look” is becoming more commonplace, audiences are less impressed by image quality alone. Even so, more and more video “professionals” are saturating the market armed with only a low-end DSLR in their holster. This pick-up & go mentality lends itself to less disciplined videographers and filmmakers.

Most DSLRs cannot film continuously for more than 12 – 30 minutes

Know the limitations of your gear. While a DSLR’s image quality may resemble that of a more expensive camera, a DSLR is NOT a film camera or high-end digital camera—it’s a photo camera with video features. If you’re new to the business, you’ll want to take any job you can. But if your first video camera is a DSLR, you’re immediately limiting the kind of work you can take on. DSLRs are only capable of filming continuously for 12 minutes – 30 minutes (the exception being the Panasonic GH1 / GH2). There are a few reasons for this limitation. In some cases, it’s because the manufacturer doesn’t want the camera categorized as a video camera. In other cases, it’s a limitation of the recording media. Either way, this means filming events is almost entirely out of the question. Events, like speeches, conferences, weddings or parties require continuous recording for multiple-hour sessions. Sure, DSLRs have opened up the wedding market to cinematic weddings films, but video production isn’t the same as event coverage.

If you’re a professional, you need professional audio

DSLRs also lack a professional audio XLR board, which is common with most pro and prosumer camcorders and essential for capturing clean audio from professional sources. In order to capture professional audio sources using a DSLR, you must use an external audio recorder and sync the sound in post. This makes your workflow both impractical and cumbersome. The most recent generation of DSLRs have the ability to override the AGC (Automatic Gain Control), which allows you to feed an external recorder signal (using a 3.5 mm stereo cable) into your DSLR via it’s mic input. While this eliminates syncing in post, you still must purchase a separate audio recorder, power it and operate it separately from your camera. To get an acceptable quality audio recorder, it will cost you an extra $300 or more. Even with this extra expense, it still might be cheaper to purchase a DSLR / recorder combo over a professional camcorder, but you’ll have to face the DSLRs other limitations as well.

Rolling shutter makes it difficult to go handheld or record fast motion

Everybody has different tastes, and I find handheld footage on the DSLR to be atrocious. Due to rolling shutter, which means every frame is created by scanning horizontally, some unnatural and ugly artifacts occur. Fast motion becomes skewed, like when filming in a moving vehicle. Objects flying by in the foreground tend to skew horizontally because the sensor can’t write the data fast enough with each frame. But this isn’t even the worst of it.

Firstly, image stabilization is different than lens stabilization. Camcorders have image stabilization, which means, when activated, the camera is compensating for the jerkiness of the moment when the camera is handheld. It helps to create smoother, less jerky video. DSLRs, on the other hand, do not have image stabilization, but they support lenses with built-in stabilization, known as lens stabilization. And although lens stabilization will help with handheld work (although not as well), many videographers either turn it off or use lenses without built-in stabilization. Un-stabilized lenses, paired with the rolling shutter, can create really nasty “wobbly” effects. It doesn’t look like handheld footage, it just looks gross: and it’s a dead giveaway of an inexperienced videographer. So you have to either primarily shoot with a tripod or buy a handheld rig for your DSLR, which will cost you $500 or more. You can see how the expenses are adding up.

Managing depth of field can be very challenging

Everybody’s still salivating over barely-in-focus, shallow depth of field for their videos. Granted, it looks really nice. It can look very professional and photographic. Shallow depth of field is achieved through the combination of a large image sensor and a fast lens. When a lens is “fast”, it means it has a wide aperture, which allows light in “faster” than a lens with a smaller aperture. A fast lens not only allows for shallower depth of field, but it also makes low-lit environments easier to film (that’s just common sense, right?).

When the depth of field is shallow, it means that only a shallow field of view is in focus and everything in the foreground and background is out of focus. A deeper depth of field means that more or all of the environment is in focus. And although shallow DOF can create a really great cinematic look, being just an inch or so off will result in a soft image. This makes DSLRs great for planned production but not-so-great for events. Events are unpredictable, which means you’ll have to constantly rack focus to keep everything sharp if you’re using a fast lens; and racking focus in the moment can be very difficult. This is why so many videographers’ work is constantly going in and out of focus. Most play it off as a stylistic choice, when, in reality, they’re just poor at managing focus or choosing the right DOF for a given situation.

Sometimes, you want objects and backgrounds in focus…

More importantly, while every videographer / indie filmmaker is salivating over shallow DOF, they’re not stopping to consider if shallow DOF is appropriate for their shot. Depth of field is a tool. And, like any tool, should only be used when it’s appropriate, not gratuitously. If you’re struggling the keep your subjects in focus, then you’re depth of field is probably too shallow. Rather than film everything in shallow DOF just to make it pop, try analyzing your shot. What’s the camera focused on? What should the audience be focused on? What’s important to the shot? How is the shot important to the piece? Answering these questions will help you determine what of the shot should or shouldn’t be in focus. Using a DSLR simply to “sex up” every shot with shallow depth of field is, well… shallow.

Experience, skill and storytelling are king, not gear

Whenever something revolutionary hits the market, people need some time to get over it. Right now, DSLRs are still the hot new thing because they’re powerful, inexpensive cameras with capabilities for image quality thought only exist in the most professional-grade equipment. But things will inevitably cool down. And out of the over-saturated market of video “professionals”, the real professionals will stand tall and true on the foundations they’ve learned with experience and more creatively-limiting equipment

Contrary to popular belief, buying a DSLR doesn’t make you a video professional. Not only will you require lots of accessories to outfit it appropriately, but it’s best features are those which require a greater level of skill. A DSLR is an easy way for those who’ve dabbled with the idea of videography or indie filmmaking to enter the marketplace, but you can only impress people for so long with footage alone. In this over-saturated market of filmmaker-wannabes, you’ll need more than a DSLR to set yourself apart.