Filming with an HD DSLR…”The things they don’t tell you”

Categories: Miscellaneous 73 Comments

RED Digital Cinema are in the process of producing the worlds first Digital Stills Motion Camera dedicated to firstly filming and secondly stills. So how does this differ from the HD DSLRs like the Canon 7D…simple…as yet no one at Canon or any other stills camera manufacturer has grasped some simple but important design concepts when producing a hybrid camera that records video.

Everything that has come out of the HD DSLR stable has two major faults…

1. Not one manufacturer has payed any attention to sound. (No sound metering or manual volume control).

2. The ergonomics of the DSLR don’t lend themselves to filming especially the static LCD.

Some people argue it’s “early days”…..SORRY…….What a load of tosh, those who think it’s early days must be stuck in the last century, we have had professional video camcorders for over 20 years with all but none having important design features like hi-rez re-positionable viewfinders, sound inputs, audio metering and control…..need I say more.

That’s why I don’t take this technology seriously because neither have the people who design them !  It’s budget video making at it’s worst…why because every Tom, Dick and Harry can afford this craze but sadly less than 5% are making serious video productions and most of them are ZERO budget pretty pictures anyone could produce.


Glass is important

Don’t kid yourself it’s not film…it’s film like !  The good old depth of field (DoF)… something photographers have been playing with for years in fact contrary to some leading HD DSLR pioneer teachings only the best glass like the Canon “L” series can give you sharp pictures at f2.8 or wider apertures, that’s why they all have a Canon 50mm f1.2 “L” lens and not the far cheaper 50mm f1.4 Canon lens !  I have yet to see any lens review that outstrips a Canon “L” or Nikon “ED” lens.

I have just spent my last week in December with a 30 man crew on a BBC Drama using ARRI prime lenses on a Sony 750 with a 35mm adapter to get the film like DoF. All films are made with very expensive prime lenses, a prime lens has one focal length eg. f=50mm…why…because zoom lenses are not as sharp as prime lenses. Movement in film usually involves a dolly or a jib…not a zoom lens.

The Problems with Shallow Depth of Field (SDoF)

OK so now you have the ability to produce that coveted SDoF at f.2.8…”what do you focus on”…strange question till you look at a subject with a SDoF, your focusing becomes hyper critical, way beyond the abilities of most people even with the coveted “Zacuto” LCD loupe. The reason most of you have not seen this major problem is that you are not viewing a true 1920 x 1080 full resolution screen. Most of you have only seen ‘pretty pictures’ produced on a 640 x 380 72dpi on a computer screen. By the law of physics as you reduce the size of a picture you also reduce the magnification by which you are viewing it…so for example you could film an interview in HD with a wall 4 feet away in focus and the interviewee out of focus…in HD it looks bad in fact unusable but if you squeeze the same HD picture down for the web you can get away with it as so much detail is removed the picture looks fine !

Back to my original question “what do you focus on” if you are filming someones face with a SDoF of f2.8 you have one choice…the eyes, always focus on the eyes but remember you will need to drop down to f5.6 if you want to include the nose.

Getting that all beloved SDoF brings more problems than it solves and remember people being interviewed tend not to stay still making that critical focusing a nightmare. Photographers have always used SDoF but at a cost…for every sharp picture of a moving animal or runner 10 frames either side are out of focus but thats now an easy sacrifice in the digital age of large memory cards.

Removing the lens

During my time with the BBC at the end of last year I was amazed at the number of times the prime lens was changed, we had about 7-9 scenes a day so that would be a minimum of 14 lens changes mainly from wide to tight, strangely enough it made me appreciate my zoom lens as these lens changes were eating into valuable production time.

If you have any knowledge of DSLRs you will know that the more times you remove the lens the more likely you are to introduce dust onto the mirror or worse the filter that covers the sensor itself, this will indeed happen if you are frequently removing the lens to change a shot, try getting a speck of dirt off your sensors filter in the middle of a shoot outdoors !  If you don’t spot the dirt which is highly unlikely if all you are using is the colour LCD you will continue to shoot with dark specks spoiling your unusable footage.

Recording Time

Now let’s see page 123 of my Canon 5D2 manual “After you start shooting a movie, the movie shooting will stop automatically if the file size reaches 4GB”. If you film events like weddings and the ceremony is 25 minutes that good old 4GB limit or 12 minutes could compromise a very important part of your video.

Audio nightmares

Ever wondered why their is so much pretty pictures with no lip sync interviews on 98% of HD DSLR footage…sound…sound is the DSLRs Achilles heal. What you get in the camera is a micky mouse mic or a 3.5mm jack input allowing you to record with a better quality mic plugged in but no control of the gain and no metering leading to very poor amateur sound.

To overcome this you need to record lip sync sound externally with a decent digital audio recorder like a Marantz PMD661. This introduces many more problems as you are not in control of your sound as you would be using a professional video camcorder. I will assume a one man crew as many of you will be…

1. You have a directional mic on top of your HD DSLR…is it switched on, are the batteries fine because you have NO indication that you are recording sound on the DSLR, you need this sound all be it crap to sync your PCM sound being recorded on your Marantz.

2. Is the Marantz set up correctly, are you recording external sound or with the in-built mics, have you chosen Mic or line inputs…have you pressed the record button correctly.

3. You need to make sure the audio CF or SD card is correctly labeled and stays with the CF card out of the DSLR all adding to a logistical nightmare.


Because your HD DSLR does not record the same usable codec as your Sony EX-3 you have to transfer then encode the footage to a usable editing format and that takes time, then for every interview re-sync the sound with the PCM sound further adding time to your edit…possibly time you don’t have.

All for what

A shallow DoF and better low light filming, remember you only get the shallow DoF at the wider apertures and wider apertures means expensive glass…don’t let anyone kid you otherwise.

Yes put in a nutshell all that effort and who is going to notice …a few people on You Tube…you are not making a Hollywood blockbuster…99.9% of you never will or even want to !

Filming with what effectively is a photographic camera does nothing for me, it’s cumbersome, finicky and more bother than it’s worth. These cameras are not built with video as their primary use, as soon as we get a film like camcorder with a SDoF you can bet there will be a glutt of HD DSLRs on ebay.

There is no doubt about it 35mm adapters are on their way out thanks to the HD DSLR and they give bloggers like me something to write about but for now I will stick to my video camcorder and as for my Canon 5D2…that only appears for stills photography as it was primarily designed for.

UPDATE I do wish people would read this article for what it is… I am not anti-VSLR as some people think… I own a Canon 5D2 and will re-assess it’s usefulness when we get the new firmware update in February. Lastly, I do not pretend to make movies for the film industry so as yet have little use for a shallow depth of field, I do take photographs and find the SDoF very useful in the right place.


For all your video production needs in Scotland, get in touch with Small Video Productions

73 comments on this post

  1. HD Warrior says:

    Not misguided…educated…I think as a young person looking to “break” into video/films I would like to know the pitfalls first…I am not saying “DON’T ENTER THE VIDEO OR FILM INDUSTRY” anywhere in the above article I am pointing out serious pitfalls if you are thinking of buying into the HD DSLR club.
    Personally I don’t adhere to your philosophy of having to buy a 7D to impress anyone in this industry and lets be honest here there are far more jobs in video than ever will be in film…it always has been and always will be for the forceable future.
    A semi pro video camera is far closer to the design and ergonomics of a film camera than a 7D. The 7D is not an officially recognised tool within the film industry, granted people are experimenting with them including the BBC but not for Hi end Drama.
    Why don’t you write an article for HD Warrior all about the 7D with some pics or You Tube examples.

  2. Ron Adair says:

    It sounds like you’ve got a vendetta against VSLRs, and that this is seriously clouding your judgement. No one wise will say that VSLR’s are better than the RED or film. But to try to argue that the VSLR revolution hasn’t brought with it tremendous tools is foolish, in my opinion. I can’t afford the RED right now, but when I can, I’ll be all the better for having shot with the Nikon VSLRs right now. New and exciting tools are now at the fingertips of highly creative people. This is transforming the entire cinematic landscape as we speak.

    Likewise, your argument that the dilemma of shallow DOF is actually a barrier to success using the new tools is laughable at best. How many people are really shooting a scene when they need 5 inches of DOF to include a dogs full face? I know it’s just an illustration, but it’s a poor choice, and a major stretch for the context you put it in. If I need more DOF, I stop down. Simple. How about with the HD Camcorders? You don’t have these basic options. And stating that we need better, more expensive glass in order to get GREAT sDOF is kind of stating the obvious. And yet, in the context you’ve put it in, it’s misleading—even cheap lenses can provide better DOF than most HD camcorders.

    Audio Nightmares? Only if A) you need audio, and B) you are too stupid to realize that good audio doesn’t happen in camera. Didn’t happen with film. Doesn’t happen with digital. Duh.

    Claiming that the best results someone can expect from the current crop of VSLR cameras is only good enough to become youtube fodder is highly biased and short-sighted. People are shooting real things in the real world with VSLRs. Of course, because the barrier of entry has been all but eliminated we will continue to see an influx of crap. That’s only to be expected. But to claim that this is an indictment against the technology itself is like saying that using a computer to write is for amateurs because there are so many crappy bloggers. This perspective is backward thinking.

    Embrace the pros of the new technologies, and make do with or avoid the cons. Otherwise, I think you’ll find yourself slipping slowly into obsolescence.

  3. Sheldon Norton says:

    An education for the corporate shooter interested in getting a job and avoiding the hard long road of cinematography? Absolutely. But as you point out that’s not who the 7D is for but the why write it off or pay it any mind at all?

    Also I’m personally only concerned with the end product not matching the ergonomics of even a Panaflex OR needing a falic symbol on my shoulder to impress a client. If a client has so little faith in your abilities that the size of your camera is an issue for them and not your end product then I think there’s some reconsideration of priorities in order. The people I shoot for don’t give a crap if I have a toilet plunger, LOL, attached to my crappy mini-dv, which I’ve done (see above) because they know what they’re paying for and don’t care how I do it.

    That said if a certain client seems only impressed by a news camera look and you’re simply trying to feed your family, by all means cater.

    My philosophy concerns only results. I don’t care if you shot it on a cell phone as long as you’ve captured my imagination and expressed something fresh or genuine. BUT if you want the surest way (if movies, commercials or dramatic TV are your goal) of ensuring that a director is confident in your creativity and skills, make it easy on yourself by avoiding formats that make it extremely difficult to express yourself cinematically. And in my own opinion the 7D is the surest way of doing that economically.

    If you have access to a pro35 and a 2/3″ camera with a set of cine-primes – then shut my mouth.

    Oh… if you haven’t already you may also want to write about the high compression aliasing and moiré issues of HD DSLRs as well. If you’re shooting a lot of shingles, tiny patterned table cloths and test patterns they’re a nightmare. I’ve yet to throw away a shot based on this issue but I will eventually find one I’m sure within a few years or so.

    P.S. Thanks for the offer to post on your incredibly resourceful website but I can hardly find the time to update my own reel. However I have felt very compelled to spend time on this topic. You won’t find my name on many threads or blogs but you really struck a nerve with me regarding the pitfalls of HD DSLRs in light of their power.

  4. Martin Weiss says:

    1.) If you have a smaller sensor, then focus becomes less critical. Most HD cameras are 1/3″ or 2/3″, R1 is S35mm, while the new Canons are full frame 35mm.
    2.)The RED has made a smart move by moving the protective filter away from the sensor. That way dust is likely to be invisible.
    3.) Not true for TV production. All the ones I worked on were capturing directly to camera – mainly for ease of use, and to speed up the editing.
    4.) R3D has become a standard by now. I edit on a laptop, no need for RAID unless you need 4k realtime.
    5.) But only as B-cameras or crash cameras – or because of special circumstances. No DP of name would use a SLR as the main image capturing device.

  5. Martin Weiss says:

    A lens change should not take more than 20 seconds with a well-oiled camera team. Usually it should not even be noticeable, as it should happen during camera move, re-lighting, wardrobe check, make-up touch up and the like.

    Heck, I can change my primes on our R1 in about 10 seconds without an assistant.

  6. Jfantucc says:

    Ron that was a great response.
    Here’s my deal: I come from a photo background and have wanted to get into motion and film for quite some time. My barrier has been money/mulah/dinero. After a year of looking and watching my roommate work with his HVX200 I decided to get an hvx200 myself a few months ago for close to $5000.

    I was following the 5DmkII but no 24p at the time. As soon as the 7d came out it was a no brainer!

    The best part was I already had lenses!
    The Scarlet introduced what i wanted, a digital still motion camera. I do not want a camcorder. After working with the DVX and HVX I am done. Another partner got an EX1 with a letus adapter, there is no way I would buy that thing. It’s a price to performance ratio.
    I want basically what the scarlet and HDSLRS offer: a chip in a box. I can build my rig around it depending on my needs and use all my old lenses! As for audio, I got my H4N zoom for $250 and it serves many other uses. My whole kit cost around $2500, including another lens.
    What camcorder for less than $5k gives me shallow DOF and looks as good as the 7D/GH1/5DmkII

    Yeah the HMC40 resolves a little better, but not that much better, and its got no good stills, and no shallow DOF.

    My 7D spanks my buddies HVX.
    We could talk about the EX1 but were getting into 5k territory.

    I shoot like a photographer and know canon DSLR’s very well, so it was easy for me to get into.
    This is about convergence. The 7D’s faults have been beaten to death already. What you are not giving in the piece is the big picture. Things are changing though. This should be a crazy year…

  7. HD Warrior says:

    A vendetta is it now…I think you will have more of a choice than RED when your time comes. I do like your choice of VSLR that is a lot slicker than HD DSLR. I thought the whole point in shooting with a VSLR was to achieve a SDoF and yes I do point out if you care to read my blog carefully that in order to include the dogs nose you would need to stop down to something like f5. If you work in a professional environment you must always reach for the best and Canon “L” glass is as good as you get though Mr Bloom has used Leica glass, slightly better again but expensive. Agree, if you don’t need audio then the VSLR will possibly do the job. When you have been a professional in the video world for as long as I have you get jaded with a large influx of “Wannabees” and “Cowboys” people who pretend to be professional who turn out substandard work. I have no problem with people who genuinely want to film and learn with a VSLR but at the low entry pricing we are going to introduce a large number of people who will charge good money for very poor work and that tar’s all of us with the same brush ! I prefer not to “make do with” when it comes to my profession…would you be saying the same to a surgeon who is about to operate on your brain !!!

  8. Alex Carr says:

    The best results come from ANY camera in the hands of an Artist, Lighting is what matters. It always has and always will, from Caravaggio to Vittorio Storaro.

    You have to be able to tell the story in the first place, then you can learn what you can get away with, the Knowledge is more valuable than the equipment.

  9. Jfantucc says:

    “if you work in a professional environment you must always reach for the best and Canon “L” glass is as good as you get though Mr Bloom has used Leica glass, slightly better again but expensive.”- It’s a price to performance ratio again for the newjacks. I feel my old Nikkor primes can really perform well on the 7D without dropping loot on zeiss and L glass. I lovem!

    The thing that bugs me about your article is this

    Some things your saying (like the shallow DOF for instance) is great info for beginners to learn.
    Other things like about switching lenses is nonsensical and borderline comical.
    Some things like editing audio, and the recording time limit(JUST PRESS THE BUTTON AGAIN AFTER 12MINS IS THAT SO HARD?)is misinforming.

    My question to you is what are the other alternatives right now to the 5d/7d?

  10. HD Warrior says:

    I have no problem with Nikon ED or equivalent glass and good for you if they work on the 7D. What is you problem with switching lenses you are not telling me that on a days filming you are going to use the same lens all day ! If you have a very interesting interview and the person tells you something that he or you weren’t expecting to hear and this happens in between stopping and starting you have just lost what might have been the most important part of the interview and you think that’s not limiting !
    Nikon 300s…Nikon 3Ds…Canon 1D MkIV…Panasonic GH1

  11. Ron Adair says:

    HD Warrior, that is a valid point RE: time limits on interviews. You need to film with two cameras with alternating start times, (and an external high-capacity audio recording device such as the microtrack II) or you will miss out on potentially critical stuff. That much I completely agree with you on.

    Also, I appreciate your logical tone in your response to me. It shows you are not a whack job as is so often the case with the rest of the internet. I believe my arguments are strong, and you have acknowledged that.

    And to re-iterate, I myself am not a seasoned professional in the film/video world. I am a pro photographer of almost 20 years, and believe I can bring a lot to the table when it comes to film. And that’s why I look at the glass as half full rather than half empty. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities the VSLR shakeup has afforded me. If I still had to consider getting an hd cam with a DOF adapter, I’d be doing just that: considering it. Instead, I’m actually shooting—and making waves. Case in point: I’m one of Nikon’s top 50 finalists and a potential candidate to win their $100,000 contest.

    Again, I’m not the best filmmaker, but I’m on my way, and much thanks to the incredible Nikon VSLR cameras and the look they afford.

    (in case you’re curious: )

  12. HD Warrior says:

    Very interesting your film work is almost the direct opposite from your stills work, very refreshing and a lot of thought gone into the making of your film. Be careful that you don’t use the jerky film technique in all your jobs it’s very appropriate for that one film but I have seen so many people adopt what they think is their style not realising they are becoming stale and boring.

  13. HD Warrior says:

    Could not agree more…the BBC job I was involved with would not have been the same job without the excellent work of the lighting director.

  14. HD Warrior says:

    In reality it took no more than 30s to a minute to change lenses and it was done at the end of each scene, lighting was changed etc. it just felt like it was eating into production time although in reality it wasn’t.

  15. Obviously a very hot subject if the number of comments is anything to go by. I just made my first feature on an old DVX100… it looks good and no body has asked for their money back yet…so i’m guessing it’s not all about how the picture looks…story is key with drama.

    I must admit to be about to jump on the DSLR bandwagon..bang for buck the 7D does some great things in the right hands which i can’t do with a video camera…even with a 35mm adapter. But..i totally agree – it’s got some serious flaws. I think as long as we all go into DSLR production well informed, we’ll get the best out of them. They are not what you need as your main cam, but as an extra tool to get those ‘special’ shots…they are great.

    HD Warrior is a great keeps me well informed of the latest news in the video production world and the video reviews are very informative. Just because there’s a few differences of opinion over gear, i’m not going to stop dropping by every day to see what’s new.


  16. Jon Connor II says:

    Yea the Dark Knight had serious issues shooting on 1000ft mags that give 11 min of 4 perf 35mm…

    BTW, I’m not a fan at all of the VDSLR fad occurring at the moment, but you really have to realize that you come off as argumentative and ranting, not informative and unbiased. Most of your complaints have solutions, but since you only tell one side of the story, you conveniently dont mention them.

  17. HD Warrior says:

    Very good article thanks for linking it for us.

  18. Augusto says:

    That is the truth…I think that Philip is talking like the evolution has stopped on the HDSLRS. It has just started, I own a FILM/TV production company and a few years back we produced around 300 TV commercials a year. We worked 24/7 and no budget limit to buy cameras or any other equipment. So we had the best money could buy. We still have 17 HD cameras that after we bought the first 5D/7D/GH1 have been “resting”. Why? Because as referred above the DSLRS can be simple light cameras to shoot handheld or can become huge BEASTS when geared up with the i.e. fabulous Movitube PR by Kinomatic. It is actually featured on the Zeiss website. In many people´s opinion it is a work of art. I don´t use RED ONE anymore. I did side by side comparisons and couldn´t justify keeping spending money on RED. We work everyday with DSLRS…obviously there are some things that we have to work around but still everyday things are working better. The worst part of the investment namely lenses is done. I will not have the need to buy anymore for a few years. All our lenses are full frame and we will be receiving the Zeiss compact primes2 as soon as they come out. So the chip in a box is the right way to go. Forget the pompous crews that have their brains filled with Brands and names and start doing proper work with these new tools. The future is here and this is the way to go. Some take the train and some keep complaining…I made my choice….

  19. Augusto says:

    Do you have sound of 35mm film?

  20. HD Warrior says:

    You must be producing your footage outside the UK as most broadcasters won’t accept HDSLR material in the UK. Alister Chapman has some very sobering thoughts on HDSLRs you might care to read.
    I don’t envy your extended workflows and extra editing but then as you say you made your choice.

  21. Howard Keith says:

    Absolutely fantastic! At long last someone has had the bloody balls to say what many REAL film makers have been thinking for ages. The old story of the Emperor’s clothes comes to mind! I spent my first ten years of my career as a young photographer, then worked as a TV cameraman for the next twenty, and then returned to digital photograpjy in 2003. I could not believe what I was reading when I first saw some of the articles and pictures associated with cameras like the 5D Mk 2, which incidentally I purchased five months ago. It was like the this is the best thing since sliced bread. Absolute tosh. The real reason behind this nonsense was because most people raving about this technology were, and still are, photographers, with no real experience of producing videos. Sure, Phil Bloom has an excellent pedigree, but I can’t help thinking somewhere along the line he may have some arrangement with Canon(?) It all seems like re-inventing the wheel! For goodness sake, if people want to make proper video productions then use a dedicated video camera, not a stills camera which has pieces of plastic stuck onto it trying to make it into something it’s not. Yes, I know, as I hear everyone jumping up and down shouting…”But it’s HD.” We all get sucked into the whole digital thing, when most of the time it is completely superfluous. I could continue to write about the negative aspects of HD, but I think HD warrior has made more than enough valid points in my opinion. At the end of the day, these HD cameras, and in particular the 5D Mk2, ARE STILLS CAMERAS THAT CAN BE USED TO RECORD MOVING IMAGES and that’s all! They have a place, and a useful one, but let’s all keep it in perspective. Well done HD Warrior, you have my 100% support.

  22. HD Warrior says:

    Thanks Howard, I think Alister Chapman from has put a lot of these so called budding Spielbergs in their place with his technical findings. Phil Bloom has embraced the technology, seems to have a relationship with Canon but as far as I am aware not a financial one. Phil does however make money from 2 teaching DVDs all about Canon HDSLRs though as far as I am aware that is not a crime, just envious I never thought of it myself 🙂

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