HDSLR: My new mistress

Hot on the heels of the intense post about multi-skilling comes this little gem about geeky new technology. Some would say I’ve changed, others would claim that I always had it in me. Yes I might earn more hits blogging about Richard Keys and Andy Gray, but an old boss once advised me to keep my opinions about people in the industry close to my chest and on this occasion I’m going to follow his advice.

So I have a confession to make: since last summer I’ve been having an affair. With a hard piece of black plastic. It may sound like a Channel 5 documentary but this goes somewhat deeper and I’m hoping it’ll last the course. It has certainly cost me a lot of money, there’s an argument that it may have taken its toll on my marriage (I can’t go anywhere now without bringing it along…the plastic, not the wife) and on many occasions I’ve felt inadequate right after getting it out.

The object of my affection is called HDSLR, and more specifically to me, Canon 7D. If you’re in a relationship with one, especially if you make your own videos, you’ll know what I’m about to say, and frankly there are many who say it better, but if this is news to you, it may be worth reading on.

If you read the last blog or indeed my biography you’ll know that over the last few years I’ve picked up cameras. At Channelbee we used the Sony EX1 or 3

Sony PMW EX1

which was a great starter as it’s really user-friendly and you get decent results for minimum effort. When I started out on my own last year I was always going to buy kit and I was heading the same way, but I wouldn’t have got much change out of £10k once I’d bought camera, tripod, mics and lights. And perhaps most importantly I probably wouldn’t have learned anything new. Then early last summer my brother, who’s a news documentary maker at the BBC, told me about a new trend for film-makers using stills cameras…and I was off on a new journey. I saw the beautiful footage people were shooting, read the blogs (links below) and took the plunge. Since then I’ve probably forked out a similar amount to what I would have done for an EX3 kit, but I think I’ve got a lot more to show for it and I believe that my skills have improved because of it, which has to be good for business in the long run.

I’ll keep the geekiness to a minimum because again others do it better and this isn’t about that, but yes, the gist of it is that some stills cameras now shoot superb video. Apparently they were originally designed to cater for news journalists who wanted to be able to grab quick video clips in the field, but since then the boundaries really have been pushed. House shot an entire episode on one (5D Mark II), a 7D-shot film has just been bought from Sundance by Paramount, and if you know what to look for you’ll see music videos, commercials and just about anything else shot on them.

The 7D is a mid-range Canon

Canon 7D

and will set you back about £1200 without lens, but you can pick up a 60D for a lot less and your video quality will be the same. There are plenty of choices in terms of video DSLRs out there but the key to their appeal is the size of the sensor inside, which is larger than in most mid-range video cameras and therefore gives you more flexibility with light. Add to this the fact that you can pick and choose your lenses (which is the norm in the film world, and offers more creative flexibility in terms of depth of field)

Shallow depth of field in gnome terms

rather than being stuck with the lens you’re given, and you can start to see why they’re changing the game. Then think about their size, the fact that you can shoot without anyone noticing, and you’re probably sold. And for afters, something which has been a real revelation to me is the genuinely supportive community which has sprung up in the HDSLR world; I wouldn’t have known where to start without the likes of Philip Bloom, Vincent Laforet, Shane Hurlbut and El Skid who share their expertise and opinions freely, in some cases to an extent where they have become worldwide ambassadors for the movement. I can’t think of a similar community existing in tv and it has come as a truly welcome surprise.

For all their virtues, however, shooting with an HDSLR doesn’t come easy. They’re not designed to be held like a video camera so you need to stabilise them somehow, the sound recorded is practically useless so you have to record that separately, you are limited to clip lengths of around 10 minutes, and there are some more techy issues too which I won’t bore you with. By overcoming these hurdles, most serious HDSLR shooters end up with weird and wonderful Heath-Robinsonesque rigs surrounding the actual camera; this is what I’ve based mine on, for example:

HDSLR Cage Rig Breakdown from Phil Holland on Vimeo.

The other side issue of the limitations of HDSLR shooting is that you learn a lot more about how moving pictures (and stills, naturally), are put together. I mentioned earlier that it’s possible to pick up a modern video camera, even a prosumer one, push the red auto button and shoot away but with these it pays to learn the basics of aperture, ISO, shutter speed before you even attempt to master the rest. So it’s a steep learning curve, and as a perfectionist it’s an unsettling experience comparing yourself with very experienced cinematographers, but it’s certainly rewarding. I’m not using my 7D on every shoot, sometimes it’s just not practical, but I’m using it enough to warrant having bought it and I’m not looking back. Looking forwards, the big hitters have already cottoned on to the huge uptake in video DSLR and they’re now building the more attractive features of HDSLR cameras into their new video camera releases so where the future lies I don’t know.

So that’s my new mistress out in the open. I feel better now I’ve got that off my chest. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s an example of my 7D in action at the recent ‘No Trousers’ day. It’s a good example to choose because it showcases the positive in that I was able to film on the tube without attracting attention (or getting permission) and the negative because as I was forced to shoot without any support, some of the shots are a tad wobbly:

2011 London ‘No Trousers’ Underground Ride from Resolution Square (Neil Smythe) on Vimeo.

If this has piqued your interest in video DSLR, can I draw your attention to these superb blogs/sites from some of the Gods of the HDSLR world?

Philip Bloom – his word is King, especially when you’re starting out and need tips, plus what’s really interesting for me is that he was a Sky News cameraman for many years before going it alone

Vimeo Video School – a series of beginner DSLR tutorials featuring Philip

Shane Hurlbut – including particularly good behind the scenes vids and info from a Hollywood cinematographer

Vincent Laforet – photographer turned cinematographer – check out his pimped up rig…not for the shallow of pocket:

2010 HDDSLR Gear Video from Vincent Laforet on Vimeo.

El Skid – British all-rounder with big ideas, happy to share his vision, check out his Super Massive Raver series on YouTube for a trippy giggle:

Cinema 5D - good forum and resource

And if you’ve got an hour to spare and take the moderator with a pinch of salt, here’s a pretty good overview on the whole HDSLR thing featuring Philip and Vincent:

DSLR Cinema- The new dawn of filmmaking? from Vimeo Festival on Vimeo.

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