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Video From Your DSLR Still Camera

Nikon D5000
Not your dad's SLR - Today's DSLR's are video and still cameras - photo by pauk

It all started innocently enough.  Pro photographers asked Nikon and Canon to add video capability to their high end models so they could grab a quick movie when out on photo assignment.  Seemed like a logical request and it came at a time video cameras were turning up in almost every conceivable consumer product with the possible exception of your toaster.  Nikon and Canon engineers set to work not realizing they were about to turn the video camera market upside down.

What happened next took everyone by surprise.  The video from Canon’s 5D MKII still camera wasn’t merely good, it was amazing.  Full frame 1920 x 1080 high definition.  The early models only delivered video at 30 frames per second (fps) but it wasn’t long before an enterprising group of hackers issued a substitute firmware called MagicLantern that allowed the 5D to deliver video at 24 progressive frames per second, the same as traditional film.

Canon soon followed the 5D with the 7D.  Though it had a slightly smaller APS-C chip, the 7D came native with 24p as a video option, no firmware tweaks required.  Filmmakers flocked to both models.  The 5D for its full frame 35mm sensor, the 7D because the APS-C chip yielded a perspective almost identical to high end film cameras, allowing DSLR filmmakers to use their beloved cine lens.  Companies making adapters sprang into being overnight, soon followed by rails, follow focus and external monitors for use in digital film.

After that, the challenge to video cameras, including high offerings like the Red One was on. Photographers found themselves bumping into people using their cameras for video more than shooting stills.  People like Phillip Bloom and Shane Hurlbut did more than shoot video, they turned their DSLR’s into movie making machines.

If you’ve been tempted to try out the video features of your high end Nikon or Canon, you may have simply thumbed the selector switch to video and been mildly disappointed at the results.  Here are a few tips for getting the best video from your DSLR camera.

Go Manual

First, turn off all the automatic features.  Most of those will do bad things to your video.  Auto-focus, auto-WB, auto-ISO, all off.  Shane Hurlbut goes as far as turning off a lot of the metering features and changing the color space, you don’t need to go that far unless you’re one of his camera operators.

Get The Style

Get the Technicolor CineStyle preset download. It’s free.  This was made specifically for the Canon 5D, but I’ve tried it with excellent results on all high end Canons.  You’ll be shooting most of your video in “M” Manual mode.  Program the M video settings to use the CineStyle preset.  I put mine in User Def 1.

Here are some sample color corrections done with the CineStyle preset on my Canon 7D.

Frame Rates

You can use either 24 fps or 30 fps but whichever one you start with is the one you’re stuck with the entire project.  Do not try to mix 24 and 30 fps footage on the same timeline, it will not yield a good result.  While you might be able to convert 24 fps to 30 fps and get passable results, the conversion from 30 fps to 24 will likely be a disaster.

Shutter Speed

Next understand that your shutter speed will need to be fixed to your frame rate.  If you’re shooting at 24 fps, then your frame rate is 1/50.  At 30 fps you might need to experiment a little.  I use 1/60, others have reported good results with 1/120.  Shoot some tests, figure out which one works best for you.

If you can’t always get the look you want at 1/50, this is where your Neutral Density filters will come in.  Instead of changing the shutter speed, you’ll need to cut down the light to the camera with ND filters.

A Word About ISO

Manually set the ISO to the scene.  For video stick to multiples of 160 or the ISO numbers as close as possible to an even multiple.  You really will get better video.

Alias and Moire

Any tight pattern or fine lines in your DSLR’s field of view have the potential to develop patterns or crawling called moire.  The insidious part is you won’t notice it until you download it into your computer for editing.  You won’t see it in the camera’s LCD screen.

Filmmaker and DP, Bill Pryor, has a good article on how to control moire.  Once again, it will be ND filters to the rescue.

The main thing is not to get frustrated if you’re not James Cameron the first time out with DSLR video.  Remember, he started out life as a truck driver.  He learned the business and so can you.

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