This option involves taking your video on a Digital SLR camera. This has become more and more popular over the last number of years as the video capabilities on the DSLRs have improved. Quite a number now have full HD capabilities. The reason why this has become so popular amongst indie film-makers, and even professionals, is because it provides an affordable means of using some really nice lenses without having to buy a ridiculously expensive film camera, like they use in the movies. It’s the same kind of idea as the camcorder with a lens adapter, only here the quality is going to be better because it’s only going through one lens rather than two. Further, you have much more control over your image settings due to the nature of the DSLR being optimised for still images.
The problem? It’s hard to use. They usually take a fair bit of practice to work out how to actually film so that you can see what you’re shooting and not be too shaky (like attaching a tripod to hold as a stabiliser). Also, it’s nowhere near as automated for the image settings – You need to get used to how to adjust the settings so that they film the image the way you want it, and you will have to focus manually during shooting. Then there’s the mic – on a DSLR it’s generally going to be pretty bad, especially in big open spaces. Some DSLRs come with a mic input, but you won’t be able to monitor or adjust the sound levels while filming. This is pretty risky.
But it’s such an amazing image!! So to work around the sound problem it means you need a way to monitor and adjust the sound input.
One way is to get a Audio Mixer that pre-mixes your sound. It sits between your camera and mic (mic plugs into mixer, then mixer into camera mic input), so the sound is still recorded onto the camera, but you are able to monitor it by plugging headphones into the mixer so you can listen to what the mixed sound is like and adjusting the mixer settings accordingly. These sell for around $50-200. The bonus is that you only have to do one import because the audio is still captured on your camera. The danger is that you still cannot monitor exactly what the camera is recording, and it is relying on the camera’s audio capture which is sometimes not as clean as it could be.
The second way is by some sort of digital recording device like the Zoom H4N. It can function in the same way as the mixer (it has a mixed output that you can plug in to the camera mic input), but also has the capability of recording four separate tracks on it, coming with two mics built in that work pretty well, and the ability to plug in two additional mics. This is the way to go if you want some great sound. The pain of this is that if you want to use the audio recorded onto an external device, you have to import the audio separately and sync up the audio and video in editing. But it will be worth it. The DSLR (and even camcorders) can only go so far in their audio capabilities. DSLR’s are built to create great images, not audio, and camcorders are more all rounders.
With this kind of set-up (DSLR, good lens, digital audio recorder), if you can get used to using it, you have the potential to create some really high-level video. Even top level commercials are made on this kind of set-up! But if you’re new to video, then you’re really going to struggle with this option at first. It’s like learning to surf – you’d start on a long floaty board to start off with that will help you get the hang of surfing, and then move onto a shorter board later on once you know what you’re looking for and have a better ability to work out how to use it. It might be a good idea to hire a set-up like this for a day for your next project, and see how you like it before you buy it.
Some of you will be budding photographers though and already have a DSLR, and maybe this is the first time you’ve realised that you could actually use it for video! Hopefully you’ve got enough of an idea of the image settings that it won’t be as difficult for you, so give it a go. But be prepared for it to be harder than you think it will be.
Another thing that is good to be aware of. Zooming is generally going to be harder and choppier, because you’re doing it on the lens which generally are not set-up for filming while in the process of zooming. It will probably be best to end up getting a couple of different lenses if this is the option you’re going to go for, including a couple of fixed lenses that will give you a really shallow depth of field, and a lens that covers a good range of zoom for when that is needed. To start off with though, I would recommend a 50mm 1.4f lens. It will give you a beautifully rich image, and forces you to frame your shots well (since you can’t zoom). So you’re probably looking at $1000 for the body and $400 for the lens, plus whatever else you want to spend for more lenses and accessories. So with this plus the H4N, you’re looking at up to $2000 for this set-up.
Just on a personal note, I have been using the Canon 60D as a body, and found it helpful for the practical nature of filming, mainly because of the flip-out rotating LCD screen. It just gives that bit more versatility for filming angles in a hurry. You can also adjust the audio recording level before recording which helps if you can’t get your hands on an external digital audio device. I also hear that it doesn’t overheat as much as some of the others do when filming for long periods.
Not for you?
Check out other setups in this series:
Cheapest setup: Camcorder and Mic
Cheapish setup: Camcorder with adapted lens
Necessories: tripod, mic, headphones, (audio recorder)