Why DSLR Cameras Are LAME
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.