In June 2009, Canon unveiled the first legitimate HD DSLR for video when they released the manual control firmware update for the Canon 5D Mark II. This manual exposure, manual control video camera had a sensor that was larger than 35mm film, recorded at a 35+ mb/s bit rate, and used some of the best lenses ever made. It promised to open a new world for professional video capture.
Since then, the major manufacturers have been racing to develop video integrations. Chances are, the camera you have now or the one you will buy next will have a video function.
More Than a Gimmick
As a filmmaker, the Canon 5D Mark II has been transformational for me. I am now able to bring a level of production quality and portability for a price that has never before been available.
My production costs have been slashed. More importantly, I now possess a high-end imaging system that allows me to explore creatively material that before I would have avoided — because I couldn’t have pulled off the look I wanted at the budget provided.
For professional photographers, the impact is not yet as clear. Is it a revolutionary change or just a flash in the pan?
The good news for photographers is that video doesn’t have to be gimmick. With just a few concepts and pieces of equipment, you can turn your camera’s video capabilities into an extra stream of income for your business.
“Building” Your Camera
One of the first things you might have noticed if you have played around with video on a HD DSLR is that you don’t get high level results out of the box.
Everyone is talking about how great the video looks — but when you fire up the camera, the dreaded jello effect, shaky video, or poor composition can reduce your video to a YouTube monstrosity. This is because to get professional results with this camera, you must treat it as an image-capturing component and begin to think about your process in a few new dimensions.
In the film world, we always “build” the camera around the central imager, adding things like viewfinders, tripods, follow focus, or a mattebox. On a HD DSLR, building a rig around it could be as easy as using a fluid-head tripod or as complex as a rail-based camera support system such as the ones shown at left or in the brief video below.
New Ways of Shooting
As a photographer, you already know composition, iris, and focal length — but now you must re-learn things like shutter speed and manual focus, and learn for the first time frame rate and sound.
Shutter speed in the video world means the amount of time per second each frame is exposed. Consequently, as with stills, the longer each frame is exposed the more light is let in. This is not to be confused with the frame rate, which is the number of times per second the image is recorded onto your card.
For the best results, the shutter should be set at multiples of the frame rate and obviously cannot be any lower than the actual frame rate. For the most pleasing results, a number that is twice the speed of the shutter is ideal.
For example, in the 5D Mark II the frame rate is set at 30FPS, so for best results the shutter should be set at 60 or at most 125. Any lower than 60 and the image will tend to blur when in motion; any higher than 125 and the moving image will resemble a hyper-realistic action movie, capturing any action in a high level of sharpness. (This complex concept is explained in better detail here.)
Sound, the Final Frontier
Sound is the final frontier for most photographers learning video, because it is not comparable to anything they’ve done before.
Currently, only Nikon gives HD DSLR owners a reasonable choice in sound recording in the camera. Most Nikon models allow users to select three different input level settings, which must be set before recording. This is far superior to Canon’s poorly thought out automatic volume AGC input, which determines the level it deems acceptable and adjusts it in real time.
The best professional sound option is a portable sound recorder such as the Zoom H4n, which can be mounted onto the camera hot shoe, or a second video camera that records sounds in a more traditional manner. (Gary S. Chapman’s image below shows a 5D Mark II rigged for sound.)
Added Value for Clients
Even with these basic tools and concepts, you should be able to shoot acceptable video that a client can use. So, how can you capitalize on your new potential as a photographer/videographer?
My recommendation is to look at what you already do and begin to think about how video could apply.
If you are a stock photographer, next time you shoot a package try recording some of the action live; in most cases you can sell these videos in the same place you already sell your photos. If you are a travel photographer, tell your clients about your new ability to record quick videos for their Web site or blog.
Whatever the specific opportunities may be for you, a professional who can do double duty with an HD DSLR can deliver more value to clients. And in today’s economy, that’s more important than ever.