Shooting video with digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II, 7D and T2i
can produce some pretty fantastic results -- as a quick tour around Vimeo
, or a viewing of films by Vincent Laforet
or Philip Bloom
will illustrate. But high-quality video doesn't shoot itself, and achieving superb results with a DSLR isn't as simple as pressing "record." Not only do you need to master the art of manually focusing on your intended subjects (as do professional cinematographers), but you'll also need to think about other issues like audio recording (a separate recorder being ideal) and stabilization (since video tends to pick up even the slightest camera shake) to make your production really shine. We'll focus on the Canon line for the purposes of this feature, but many of the points apply to other DSLR cameras, as well.
It should come as no surprise that you'll want some nice glass to get the best possible video out of your DSLR. Essentially, faster lenses allow you to shoot cleaner, clearer video in lower light. For a versatile, all-around shooter, Canon's EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Zoom
lens works extremely well in most situations, by offering you some room to play around with your framing. If you're going to be shooting in low-light, prime lenses can be life savers. Depending on your budget, Canon's Wide Angle EF 35mm f/1.4L
and Sigma's Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM
are both excellent options. (Wes Anderson shot the entirety of his full-length film 'Bottle Rocket' using just a 27mm lens.) What kind of lens you'll want depends largely on your subject matter, of course. For sports or wildlife, a zoom lens like Canon's EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM
, or the faster (but prime) Telephoto EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM
should be on your wish list, as well. To figure out what kinds of lenses you need, it helps to spend some time with your camera, trying to shoot what you want to shoot; when you start running into limitations, you'll know what you need.
Shooting video chews up batteries like nobody's business, and there's nothing worse than not being able to get the shot you want because you're out of juice. You'll get about 1.5 hours of shooting from a single battery, so we'd recommend grabbing at least one extra. There are some third-party batteries out there, but quality remains a question. While the official Canon batteries are (painfully) overpriced, they do provide you with peace of mind. If you want to try out some of the cheaper options, you can find batteries on eBay and Amazon for as low as $5.
Video also chews up loads of memory, so having plenty of space to record is essential. A few fast, big memory cards
should serve you well. We recommend cards with speeds of at least 133x, and that are UDMA
-compliant. You'll need about a gigabyte of space for every three minutes of video you intend to shoot, so do the math. (And make sure to generously over-budget for space, because you always need more than you think you will.)
Recording audio on your DSLR presents some problems, as have been well-documented on Engadget
and elsewhere. The limitations of the Canon lineup -- small onboard microphone, 1/8-inch microphone input, automatic gain control -- mean that unless you're desperate, you'll want an external audio recorder. The consensus seems to be that the choice for sound recording is the Zoom H4N
, a $300, battery-powered audio recorder that can record four independent channels of 24-bit audio and a stereo mix from its built-in dual-microphone to an SD card. It has XLR inputs for connecting to lavalier or shotgun mics, and the headphone output lets you send your mixed signal back to the 7D as a reference -- allowing for easier syncing later. If you want something cheaper (and smaller), the combination of an iPhone (or iPod touch) and a Blue Mikey microphone
makes a pretty handy recording device, too. Finally, Singular Software's PluralEyes
is an excellent program that simplifies (and largely automates) the process of syncing your recorded audio and video.
As many a photographer is currently learning, shooting video is a different beast than shooting stills; simply getting a steady shot can often be a lot trickier than it seems. Even under perfect shooting conditions, you'll later notice every slight shake, shift, and shudder of the camera when you sit down to play back your video. Andrew Fraczak's simple test shows the huge
difference between handheld and steadicam.
To compensate for this, manufacturers have created a wide assortment of stabilization options for the latest breed of handheld DSLR cinematography. These range all the way from the DIY "Poor Man's Steadicam
," which you can order for $40 (or $14 for the parts to build yourself), all the way up to some impressive (and very expensive) high-end units from the likes of Vocas
and Zacuto. Zacuto's family of handheld stabilization products has proven popular, and ranges from the $475 Target Shooter
to the $1,627 Fast Draw
(and to a whole lot more, if you're looking to spend it).
For static shots or simple pans, or other times when you don't need to go handheld, a good video tripod makes all the difference. While there are hundreds of options out there (and many costing thousands of dollars), the Manfrotto 701HDV,547BK Video Tripod System Kit
is a great buy. For just $300, you get a high-quality setup with a fluid head that allows extremely smooth pans and tilts. While it's likely too heavy to carry around on your back all afternoon, it does fold up to an impressively small size for relatively easy portability.
Another versatile option is the Gorillapod Focus and Ballhead X
combination, which allows you to handle your DSLR (along with a hefty zoom lens) in a variety of ways. For $160, it works as a small tripod, a means to wrap your camera around a tree branch and even as a simple handheld stabilization kit that offers three points of contact with your body.
The last major area for aspiring cinematographers to consider is focus. Because auto-focus is ineffective while shooting video (and because you generally want to have control over how everything looks), you need to keep a free hand on your lens's focus wheel while you're shooting. Likewise, due to the relatively small LCD screen on the cameras, seeing what's in focus and what isn't can be a challenge. If you want to do something about this, you have two options: a viewfinder, or, if you're really serious, an external monitor.
Viewfinders essentially attach to the back of your camera and magnify the image, providing you with a much clearer view of your frame (and thereby making it much easier to see the subject of your focus). Zacuto's Z-Finder range
has been a hit, but it's also expensive. The Z-Finder Jr. is
the company's cheapest option, coming in at $265, while the Z-Finder Pro will set you back about four bills. Straight out of Estonia, the LCDVF provides a cheaper alternative ($160)
, with solid construction and quality -- the downside being its lack of a diopter
(making it hard for the near-sighted), which is also absent from the Z-Finder Jr. If you choose to get really serious with an external monitor, you'll be looking somewhere in the $1,000-plus range for something like SmallHD
or a Marshall display.
If you get home after a long day of shooting to find that your footage is too shaky, not all is lost; Lock and Load X does some pretty fancy math to smooth out motion in various types of footage. Likewise, if you find that you were relying a bit too much on high ISOs, and feel your footage is too grainy, Neat Video does a remarkable job of removing the grain in post-production. Lensbaby makes some cool, cheap, selective focus lenses for shooting stylized footage. Meanwhile, the Luma Loop is a very comfortable strap for lugging your camera around all day when you're trying to travel light, and PhotoJojo's White Balance Lens Cap puts your white balance card
where you'll never lose it.
Lead photo courtesy of Tim Fok