Why DSLR Cameras Are LAME

Posted by Anthony - December 6, 2011 - Cameras, Film Books - 12 Comments

The following post is excerpted from the Image Control chapter of my brand-new book, The Shut Up and Shoot Freelance Video Guide which is now shipping.


I think there are equally compelling arguments both for and against shooting video on DSLR cameras. (DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex) I’ll try to share both arguments and let you decide whether it’s a good choice for you. DSLR video cameras are essentially high-quality still photo cameras that now have added HD video functionality. As such, DSLR cameras are designed first and foremost with still photo shooting in mind—NOT video. This means they have some major limitations and require you to jump through a few more hoops than if you were to just shoot with a traditional video camera.

Here are some of the biggest DSLR issues as I see them….


1. Major Audio Limitations

One of the biggest drawbacks of DSLR cameras right out of the box is that they do not have XLR audio inputs. Instead, they come with a single mini-stereo audio input. This means you can’t plug in any of your professional-quality mics if you only have a camera. Instead, you will need some type of audio adapter to feed sound into the camera, or you will need to record sound on a separate device. Not only that, but many popular DSLR models, such as the Canon 7D do not allow you to manually control the audio. They have autogain audio only, which is simply unacceptable (i.e., whack) for professional-quality work. Also, if you go the route of a separate audio recorder, you will also need to sync the sound with the picture in postproduction—film style, which is an extra step you don’t have to take when shooting with a dedicated video camera. Most DSLRs do have a tiny built-in onboard mic, but it’s not good enough for professional-quality audio capture. It’s primarily useful for a “dirty track” for syncing or just recording personal home video. And to top it all off, as of the time I’m writing this, there are no on-screen audio meters to show you your audio levels. Lame!

2. You Need to Assemble a Franken-Camera

Because these are still cameras first and foremost, they are shaped and held like still cameras, which are normally way too shaky for motion-picture photography, so you need to assemble what my fellow author Kurt Lancaster refers to as a “Franken-Camera” in his book DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video. This means shooting with some type of third- party support system that usually involves some combination of a shoulder mount, grip handles, support rods, mounting rods, and often a counter weight. If you’ve only been shooting video with traditional prosumer video cameras, this is a whole other way of holding and operating a camera that will take some practice and getting used to. (It’s actually much more like shooting with a film camera.)

3. Great Danger of Soft-Focused Shots

All the DSLR cameras have one chief asset that makes them extremely attractive: a big, beautiful video imaging chip. The size of the video chip is to a video camera what the size of a negative is to a film camera—so the bigger the chip, the better and more high resolution the image, also the greater the natural shallow depth of field (DOF). However, what comes along with high resolution and extremely shallow depth of field is hypercritical focus, meaning you’ve gotta get it right every time all the time, baby, or your clients will definitely notice. And unfortunately, the built-in LCD screens on the backs of these cameras are even smaller than those found on most prosumer video cameras, so you have no accurate way to judge this very critical element of focus on these super high-res HD images. Not to mention that on one of the most popular models, the Canon 7D, the focus assist, which magnifies the LCD screen image to help you focus, is disabled during recording…. Like I said, whack.

4. Overheating and 12-Minute Clip Limit

Another limitation of DSLR shooting is that you are limited to a maximum shot length of 12 minutes. The problem is that the camera automatically cuts itself off and stops recording after 12 minutes to avoid overheating that giant imaging chip. This probably isn’t a big deal for narrative and scripted projects where the average take will probably run well below 12 minutes. However, in the world of freelance video where some of our easiest and lucrative gigs are event videos, a chief requirement is that we must shoot continuously for a long time, such as in the case of concerts, speeches, wedding ceremonies, etc. I don’t care how dope it looks— your client is not gonna be happy if you missed part of the wedding vows or 10 seconds in the middle of their encore performance of their signature song, so this issue has to be carefully considered in the context of what you’ll be shooting, especially when dealing with live events.

5. It’s Really Not That Much Cheaper

I suspect that the biggest reason DSLR cameras have exploded onto the indie, student, and freelance scene is the price. At $1800—$2500 each, they are considerably cheaper than the average HD prosumer video cameras, which are more in the $3,000 to $7,000 range and don’t offer nearly as much raw image quality as popular DSLR models such as Canon’s 5D Mark II. However, here’s the catch…if you want to routinely shoot with a DSLR camera in any professional capacity at all, you will ultimately want to add on a bunch of accessories to just to make it fully functional and more practical for video shooting, most typically:

a.    Audio Recorder or Adapter ($300–$500)
b.    Support Rig ($500–$1,800)
c.    External Monitor ($200–$600)
d.    Follow Focus ($200–$1,800)
e.    Matte Box ($500–$1,100)

So by the time you complete your Franken-Camera rig, you’ve laid out about as much
money or very possibly more than if you just had purchased a dedicated video camera to begin with.

6. Rolling Shutter Issues

The first few generations of prosumer video cameras were powered by CCD imaging chips. The new crop of DSLRs are powered by cheaper CMOS imaging chips that allow manufacturers to pack a lot more bang for the buck in chip size. However, like anything else that does the same thing for less, there’s a drawback. In this case the drawback to CMOS technology is that it’s more prone to an issue called rolling shutter. What this means in practical terms is that if you tilt, pan, or otherwise move the camera swiftly, there’s a good chance that the resulting image will blur, distort, and/or appear “stuttery.” So camera moves with DSLR cameras are best limited only to those that are slow and steady.

7. The Depth of Field Is Too Shallow

Sure, shallow depth of field looks more cinematic and film-like, but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing in my opinion. There are plenty of times when it works well for the genre and the story, but there are also plenty of times when it doesn’t. A bride standing at the altar or a close-up of an ice-cold beverage on a table looks great in the super-shallow depth of field of DSLRs. However, seeing only one skier clearly out of a pack of 12 racing down a slope or watching a motivational speaker giving a speech at a podium are situations in which super-shallow depth of field can be awkward and impractical for the content. Not only that, but heavy use of shallow DOF is essentially an aesthetic style, and like all aesthetic preferences, it can also go out of style. (Remember the frenetic handheld style popular in indie films in the ‘90s like Laws of Gravity, Clerks, El Mariachi? Don’t see so much of that style anymore, do you?) Any stylistic choice such as shallow depth of field, should be motivated by the content and story on screen and not done just because you could. Shallow depth of field is a powerful visual storytelling device that can be used to great effect to shift the audience’s attention, give meaning to props and characters or visually create certain emotional states. So if you can’t answer the crucial question as to why a given shot has extreme shallow depth of field in terms of the story you are telling, you are probably overusing it and diluting the real impact of the technique. As these cameras find their way into the hands of more and more clueless amateur shooters, heavy use of shallow depth of field may become real old real quick and ruin it for us all, that’s all I’m saying.


…So those are all the main reasons I think DSLRs are whack. However, there are two sides to every issue. So in the interest of being fair and balanced, let’s look at the flip side of shooting with DSLRs as I lay out all the reasons Why DSLR Cameras Are Da Bomb in my next post.

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  • Point 1 is valid. I’ve just gotten so used to shooting with a Zoom h4n recorder, which has superior audio to anything else anyway, though, that this has become a non-issue for me. Syncing has become part of my process.

    Point 2 is less valid for me. If I need a hand-held shot, I’ll just grab a tripod head and use that extra weight to keep it steady, though often I can get pretty smooth shots (as long as I’m not walking) going bare. Generally, though, I favor the tripod/jib/crane/dolly shots. Hand-held is the thing I rail against, much more so than abuse of shallow DOF. I *hate* over-done handheld (and it’s all over TV).

    Point 3 is true if you’re shooting with full frame DSLRs. A nice middle ground (and the one I shoot with) is the little Lumix GH2. For one thing, it has a better video process, so no moire (virtually, they say; I’ve never seen it). Two, the picture is sharp as a tack compared to the Canons. Third, because of its smaller sensor, the DOF is still shallow, but not near the absurdity of, say, the 5DmkII.

    Point 4 has been true with the Canon cameras. My GH2, though, hasn’t shown any signs of overheating, and (when you don’t hack the camera for insanely high bitrates, as I have… hehe) the clips span indefinitely.

    Point 5 is only valid if you don’t care about shallow DOF. Otherwise, you’re looking at $5,000+ for anything with a larger sensor on the video side of things. I haven’t spent that much on my 7D and GH2 combined. No follow focus… I just wing it and get pretty good results.

    Point 6 is VERY VALID. This one sucks for action sequences. Blech.

    Point 7… I both agree and disagree. I don’t think shallow DOF has to be obviously explained by the shot. It is very aesthetically pleasing. However, nice big wide and deep DOF shots are also frickin’ epic. And I use them as well (so glad to have a moire-free DSLR now, so I can do those shots without worrying about brick buildings). Again, though, I’m much more vocal against shaky camera work. Which… ironically… REALLY doesn’t work with a DSLR, because of the “jello” effect. :)

    • Anthony says:

      Thanks for weighing in on the debate Brandon. I’ll actually be arguing both sides before it’s all said and done when I post part 2. I don’t really disagree with any of your points. One thing I will say though is that yes DSLR’s have great shallow DOF, but ppl forget that you can get a great shallow DOF effect from just about any camera if you put it on telephoto, open the iris and back it up far enough to get your desired frame…been doing it for years with much much lesser cameras.

      If DOF is not important to you for every shot this technique works great as long as you have the space. Part 2 tomorrow.

  • Steve Noble says:

    Hey Ant, great review, Excellent points, I’d rather have the full meal deal when it comes to a Real HD Cam.
    I have been on a couple shoots, shots looked great, but the overheating, audio, 12mins, etc…. and it seems everyone and his dog has one and thinks they are next Cecil B…..

    Many thanks for being a great friend Ant.
    Congrats on all your hard work & success :o ) Cheers

    • Anthony says:

      I think they can be a real pain in the ass to shoot with…but also think for some shoots/situations they can be worth it for the image quality and a few more pluses…On your second point – nothing but hustle for me, man. Thanx for the support!

  • Øystein says:

    The reason for the 12 minute clip limit is the FAT32 formatting of the storage device. FAT32 can’t handle files larger than 4 gigabytes, which is around 12 minutes of H.264 footage.

    They might also cut it at 12 minutes to get a rounded number, so that users won’t experience the camera cutting the recording at 11 minutes 30 because of the content in the frame that might increase or decrease the data rate per frame or second over the recording period

  • Brychan Roberts says:

    Can anyone advice please. I am thinking of buying a Sony Nex 5n for filming ballroom style dance in low light. I tend to follow the dancers on the dance floor alternating between close up and wide or angles as I go whilst shooting continuously. How much of a problem is the rolling shutter issue likely to be in that situation. I tried out the nex in the street one day and noticed a jittery element even before I knew this problem existed so now have my doubts as I am not sure what other small camera with high quality that I could consider.

    • Anthony says:

      Don’t know much about that camera, but sifted through the reviews on B&H. Seems like more of a souped up P&S with a very nice image chip, but much less suitable for serious video. I couldn’t find any mention of audio inputs of any type, which means you’re gonna need a separate audio recorder if audio is important to your projects. If you will be shooting mostly video and you want to stay at the lower end of the price scale, something more like the Canon T3i may be more suitable to your needs. But perhaps someone else is more familiar with the Nex and it’s video capabilities. Unfortunately, I think rolling shutter will probably be an issue with any lower end DSLR video camera. I’d comb camera reviews with specific regard to rolling shutter issues for your particular subject matter, which would involve fast movement.

  • [...] kaayo nimo i-google. Nag-google ko para nimo. Mao ni nanggawas: (1) Video DSLRs vs Camcorders (2) Down & Dirty DV | Why DSLR Cameras Are LAME (3) Camcorders vs. Cameras: Guide to the Difference Between Camcorder and Camera Video Ikaw nalang [...]

  • This reminds me of what I went through with electric guitars. I think some folks like to build their own rig. For me it was about getting a cheap guitar and replacing the pickups, tuners, whatever. It made it a one-of-a-kind axe. I think if the cam does what you need it do, great. But for sure, DSLRs do have weaknesses.

    They shore do make them purrty pitchers, though…

  • [...] yesterday, I just told you how  whack and impractical DSLR cameras are in my post entitled Why DSLR Camera’s Are LAME, but now I’m gonna share all the genuine reasons I also think DSLR cameras are the [...]

  • [...] a provocateur when it comes to debating the filmmaking issues of the day and apart from the lively discussion of  DSLR cameras we had earlier this week, I can’t think of too many other filmmaking topics that stir up more [...]

  • [...] most of you know from many previous posts, I’m not the biggest fan of DSLR shooting, but I’m not a DSLR hater either.  I just prefer all video equipment to be to be as [...]

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