This is article #3 in the DSLR Video Weekly series. If you’d like the whole thing in one shot, check out the book Creating DSLR Video: From Snapshots to Great Shots.
It’s important to understand the role equipment plays in capturing great footage. If you put the right tools in the wrong hands, you’ll get subpar results. And if you put the wrong tools in the right hands, you’ll still get poor results. The magic really starts to happen when the right tools for the job are placed in the hands of someone who know how to use them.
Choosing a Camera for DSLR Video
If you haven’t bought a video-enabled DSLR yet, I’d like to offer some advice on which features matter most (if you’ve already bought your camera, be sure to look for these options or consider them when you upgrade to a new camera). Which camera you choose is largely a matter of personal preference. The most important detail to remember is to test the camera before purchasing it. This might mean borrowing a friend’s camera or heading down to the local camera/electronics store to give it a spin.
When buying a new camera, you should first think about any investment you’ve already made. If you’ve already invested in digital photography gear, you may already have lenses from a certain camera manufacturer. It’s not uncommon for good lenses to cost as much as a camera (some cost even more). If you’ve already bought into one type of system or manufacturer, you may want to build upon your existing investment.
If you read online websites or talk to salespeople in stores, it’s easy to believe that you need to buy the latest and greatest camera. But all those features don’t matter if the camera doesn’t feel right in your hands. The grip needs to feel comfortable and the body sized right. If it’s too big and heavy, you’ll fumble with the camera; too small and you’ll constantly feel like you’re about to drop it. Consider these factors:
- Size. The body you choose should fit your hands well. If the body is too small, your hands will get in the way of the controls. Conversely, if the body is too big, you’ll find the body difficult to hold.
- Weight. Entry-level DSLR cameras tend to be rather light, which is great for portability. However, if you use a large lens, the cameras can become front heavy and difficult to hold. Higher-end and pro cameras tend to be heavier and work well with bigger lenses. Be sure to choose a camera that you can afford and that feels comfortable.
On-camera LCD Screen
When you shoot video on a DSLR camera, you won’t be using the eyepiece or viewfinder. Instead, you’ll be using the camera’s LCD screen to compose the shot and check focus. Here are few simple criteria to use when choosing a camera body and LCD screen:
- Size. The larger the LCD screen, the better. A large screen makes it easier to see your footage. Most DSLR cameras have screen sizes of up to 3.5 inches diagonally.
- Resolution. A large LCD is useless if it doesn’t have a clear picture. Camera LCDs are measured in dots or pixels. A higher number indicates a higher resolution and therefore more clarity.
- Brightness. When you’re recording and reviewing video, you’ll be using the LCD screen. So, make sure you choose one that is bright enough to see (even in outdoor lighting).
- Flexibility. Some DSLRs offer viewfinders that you can angle for easier viewing because sometimes you’ll want to shoot from an angle other than eye level. Whether you want to get a low-angle, point-of-view shot or hold the camera above the crowd at a concert, a swivel LCD can help you achieve shots that would otherwise be impossible.
Different cameras record video to different formats. Typically, you won’t have a choice within the camera; rather, the format will vary between camera models and manufacturers. The trend has been that the newer the camera, the higher quality the video files are that are written to the memory card.
When capturing video, the original signal created by the camera sensor is heavily compressed. This process is typically handled by a codec (compressor/decompressor). The camera applies compression to make the files smaller; when the video is played back on the camera (or your computer), it is decompressed into a full signal. This process is not exclusive to DSLR cameras. All video cameras apply some form of compression.
Why is compression important? Well chances are that you’ll want to edit your video clips together into finished productions. To edit your footage, you can use entry-level software like iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements, or more professional tools like Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro. So, it’s important to make sure that your camera’s compressed file format is compatible with the editing software you want to use. Otherwise, you’ll likely need to perform time-consuming steps to convert all of your footage before you can use it.
The three most common formats used by video DSLR cameras include:
- H.264. The H.264 format is one of the most commonly used video formats on the market. It is used for capturing video and delivering it to the Web. The Canon 7D and the Nikon D7000 cameras (as well as many others) use this format.
- AVCHD. The AVCHD (Advanced Video Coding High Definition) format is owned jointly by Sony and Panasonic. It is used on a variety of cameras, such as the Panasonic Lumix GH2.
- Motion JPEG. The Motion JPEG or Photo JPEG format is an older format that was first adopted in early Nikon cameras that shot video. This format is not as broadly supported by video editing tools and has subsequently been dropped in favor of H.264. You should avoid this format if possible.
Record times will vary based on the camera manufacturer as well as the frame rate and recording quality chosen.
One way in which DSLR video cameras differ from traditional video cameras is their limits on recording time. Your camera can only record video for a finite amount of time before it needs to be stopped and restarted. This limitation can vary between camera models (often ranging from 5–20 minutes).
The primary reason for the recording length limit is the way that memory cards are formatted. Most DSLR cameras shoot to memory cards using the Windows FAT32 file system. This system can’t write files bigger than 4 GB, so recording time is capped to fit into smaller files.
If you plan to shoot events like sports or concerts, a longer file length can be useful. It is generally recommended that you don’t overshoot anyway (because it makes editing more difficult). But if you need long record times, make sure you consider this limit when choosing a camera.
How to Work Around Record Length Limitations
The limits on recording long files can really be a drag. This is especially true if you’re recording lengthy events like interviews or performances. Here are a few tips for when you do need to record long segments:
- Plan breaks. If you’re recording an interview, estimate how many questions you can ask during the record window. You can always start and stop the camera between questions or during a gap in the performance.
- Minimize downtime. If you reach a recording limit for either an individual recording or overall on a card, try to minimize downtime. Be sure to have another memory card erased and formatted so you can do a quick swap and just keep shooting.
- Stagger coverage. If you’re shooting an event like a concert or a performance, it is common to set up more than one camera (for multiple angles). But don’t start or stop them all at the same time. By making sure that at least one camera is rolling at all times, you’ll always have something to cut to.
When you shop for a DSLR camera, much of the discussion will focus on the sensor size and resolution. Talk to any salesperson, and it seems like the megapixel wars will never end. A few years ago, an 8-megapixel camera was considered high end; now you can find that resolution in cell phones.
Extra megapixels are great when it comes to printing large photos. But anytime you’re shooting video on a DSLR, you’ll only be using a fraction of the available pixels on the sensor. For example, the 18 megapixel Canon T3i has a max resolution of 5184 x 3456 pixels when taking still photos. But when shooting video at 1920 x 1080, your effective megapixel count is only 2.1 megapixels!
Because you’ll likely use the body you choose for both stills and video, choose a camera body that meets the megapixel requirements for your still images and don’t worry about sensor resolution for video.
Another area that is a dividing line when it comes to choosing a camera is the size of its sensor. Higher-end professional cameras often use a full-frame sensor, which matches the size of a 35mm film frame. But why does it matter what size the sensor is?
- Full frame — No crop factor
- APS-H — 1.3 crop factor
- APS-C — 1.5/1.6 crop factor
- Micro Four Thirds — 2.0 crop factor
As a general rule of thumb, the larger the sensor the more control you’ll have over depth of field (DOF). The depth of field defines the distance between the closest and farthest object in a shot that appear to be sharp. Often when shooting photos and video, people choose to create a very shallow depth of field. The shallow depth of field look is often equated with film-style shooting, and it can be used artistically when designing shots. Additionally, a DSLR camera when combined with a good lens can shoot significantly higher-quality video under poor lighting conditions because the larger sensor can capture more light.
So you’re thinking, just buy a big sensor right? Well, that’s easier said than done. Full-frame sensors tend to be found only on the most professional DSLR cameras. The lenses used on these cameras also tend to be more expensive. When choosing a camera body, purchase the best you can afford.
When the sensor is not full size, it is typically referred to as cropped. Cropped sensors are more common than full-frame sensors, and cropped factors can be useful for video. For example, you can get a much longer reach with your lenses without having to purchase extremely expensive telephoto and super telephoto lenses.
Crop Factors Multiply Magnification
Cropped (or smaller) sensors multiply the focal range of any given lens. When you look at a lens, its focal range is based on a 35mm frame. For example, if you purchase a 50mm lens, it will act as marked. But if you put that 50mm lens on a body with a cropped sensor, the effective focal range is multiplied due to the smaller sensor size. On many Nikon cameras, the crop factor of 1.5 will make the 50mm lens behave as if it is a 75mm lens.
Here are some common crop factors that are used in cameras today:
- 1.5. This crop factor is employed by Nikon for its entire DX lineup, like the D7200 and D3400.
- 1.6. This crop factor is used by Canon for its APS-C bodies, like the 7D and the Digital Rebel series.
- 2.0. This is a large crop factor ratio that’s used by Micro Four Thirds image sensors, like the one featured on the Panasonic Lumix GH5 DSLR.
Join us each Saturday for the next installment of this weekly series.
Rich has published over 100 courses on Lynda.com. Rich has authored several books including From Still to Motion, Understanding Photoshop, Professional Web Video, and Creating DSLR Video.
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