Produce Your Best Ever DSLR Video—6 key areas to consider


“The use of DSLR cameras for professional movie and film capture has taken off like wild fire. Almost every videography professional with whom I have worked either uses a DSLR for filming or has tried it,” shares Skyler Proctor, an Idaho Falls, Idaho, based director of photography. “I personally like the smaller format DSLR because the FX sensor is so large and gives a look no other ‘typical’ video camera format really can. I prefer it for short films, commercials, music videos and documentaries.”

A longtime video devotee with experience using all ranges of traditional studio cameras, his first brush with a DSLR came through a film industry peer five years ago. This peer was sharing personal reasons for shifting to the smaller format because he required a more portable camera for his next project. Skyler recalls thinking, “He’s crazy! He can’t be serious. The DSLR camera is so small. It’s not professional. It just cannot produce good video.”

Since that conversation, Skyler has worked on more than 100 films, documentaries, music videos, and commercials. For some projects he used only Nikon gear (D800, D600 and/or D7000) plus favored lenses (24-70mm f/2.8G, 70-200mm VR II f/2.8G, 24mm f/1.4G, 28mm f/1.8G, 35mm f/1.4G, 60mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.4G, 180mm f/2.8 AF, 300mm f/2.8 VR). For other projects he combined Nikon footage with footage that had been captured on more ‘traditional’ cameras such as the Arri Alexa, Red Epic and/or Sony F3.

Cinematic and Breathtaking

“After a fellow director of photography showed me his first project shot on a DSLR I was surprised,” notes Skyler. “The FX DSLR offers a sensor that’s 40 percent larger than Hollywood’s standard super 35mm—and it really showed. The look produced by that FX sensor was just so cinematic, so breathtaking. I knew I had to get an HDSLR.”

Going from a broadcast news style video camera (the standard at the time) to a DSLR was a huge difference for Skyler. Before working an assignment he’d generally perform detailed video camera tests to determine whether or not a specific model would work for a project. “The nice thing with HD-SLRs is that you rarely need to test. Now I just go into the field and start shooting.”

Continuing, he adds, “My first projects using the smaller format camera were all music videos; work with that camera was a real eye opener! It was so light and portable, the depth of field and high ISO were insane. At the time almost no video cameras—professional or otherwise—were as sensitive as DSLRs were.” Skyler adds that using an HDSLR opened up all kinds of creative possibilities and allowed the team to do things not possible before.

Tapping Motion

Despite the widespread use of DSLR cameras on professional sets, most photographers still have yet to tap the motion-making potential housed within their advanced Nikon cameras that have HD video capabilities. Opinions such as, “It’s a DSLR—the video quality can’t be that good.” Or “I’ll need to invest in more special gear.” Even, “I’d like to try video, but really have no idea how to start” abound.

Speaking from experience, Skyler shares several tips for producing better video on your DSLR. Below, he outlines six key areas to consider, plus need-to-know pointers.

1. Settings

2. Resolution/Frame Rate

3. Frame Shutter Speed + Frame Rate

4. Manual Focus

5. Stabilization

6. Audio

Pointers: In The Field

The first thing to understand is that motion capture (video) technology operates very differently than traditional still photography, DSLRs included. To illustrate, imagine for a moment that your D-SLRs can capture only 2 Megapixel stills in a format far more compressed than JPEG Basic. Also imagine that all settings, such as White Balance and Picture Control profile, are baked-in. Finally, know that very little post-processing can be done later in the editing room. Sounds rather limiting, doesn’t it?

The above description parallels how work in 1080p—the highest video resolution rate on a Nikon DSLR video mode—operates. Despite the perceived limitations, not to mention challenges, the majority of the video world produces in 1080p and employs some variant of heavy compression.

1. Settings

The first thing to keep in mind is video mode is not the same as still photography. For video, you should pay far more attention to determining appropriate settings, then applying these to your shoot.

Let’s look first at the Picture Control profile and White Balance settings to be sure the desired “look” can be achieved in-camera. Remember that with video, settings such as these are baked-in so very little can be done to correct flaws post-capture. By baked-in, the camera is applying the Picture Control profile and White Balance settings in a non-raw format so neither can be changed later. This means that for a shot with a high contrast picture control profile there is likely little to no detail in underexposed blacks or overexposed whites. And shots where white balance renders very blue, little if any other color information will be recorded. What you see is what you get.

Remedy challenges like this using a powerful in-camera tool: the live Histogram (access by cycling through displays via the Info button on select Nikon DSLRs). The histogram displays exposure levels. Check frequently to be sure your highlights aren’t blowing out and your blacks aren’t being crushed.

2. Resolution/Frame Rate

For best results, use the highest resolution possible. On most Nikon DSLRs it’s 1920×1080. Some cameras may only have a 1280×720 option, which is still a decent quality level. The lower 1280×720 setting (with appropriate frame rate) may also be employed to produce slow motion footage. This resolution results in a smaller file size, which of course means less storage space will be needed.

Along with resolution choice, you have options for frame rate. The cinema standard in the U.S. is 24 FPS (frames per second); in Europe it’s 25 FPS.

The higher the frame rate, the sharper any motion will appear during playback. However, sharper does not necessarily mean more natural looking. Humans see things that are in motion in a slightly blurry manner. Try holding your hand in front of your face and quickly wave it back and forth. You see your hand blur. 24 FPS is the video standard closest to the way our eyes perceive things.

Some Nikon DSLRs offer 720p resolution frame rates of 50 FPS and 60 FPS. These higher frame rates are generally not used for normal speed playback, but instead are tapped to produce slow motion.

3. Frame Shutter Speed + Frame Rate

In order to capture what we perceive to be natural looking motion, there is a correct shutter speed for each specific frame rate. The rule is:

The shutter speed should be double the frame rate.

For example, if you are shooting at 24 FPS the correct shutter speed would be 1/50th (rounded up from 1/48th). For 25 FPS the shutter speed should be 1/50th. For 30 FPS the correct shutter speed is 1/60th and so forth.

Of course you can shoot video at other shutter speeds, from 1/25th -1/30th up to 1/8000th depending on the DSLR model. Keep in mind that as the shutter speed changes, so will the look of the video.

The slower the shutter speed, the more motion blur will be visible in moving subjects.

The higher the shutter speed, the less motion blur will be visible in moving subjects (making video appear choppy).

Video is easier to watch and is more smooth and natural when the right amount of motion blur in moving subjects is presented.

Due to this shutter speed/frame rate limitation, the settings combination cannot change during capture. This means that videographers face a challenge of having only ISO, aperture and filters as tools to obtain a desired exposure. This can be most challenging when shooting in bright environments.

4. Manual Focus

Another big difference between shooting photographic stills versus video is focus. With video, manual focus is the norm. Even the most expensive Hollywood cameras do not have autofocus; a dedicated crew member called a focus puller handles this.

Gaining familiarity and expertise with manual focus is imperative. Meet this learning challenge by selecting an easily-focused lens. Lenses that have a broad focus ring and long throw (how far the focus ring must rotate to go from close focus to infinity; the longer the distance between close focus and infinity, the easier focus pulling will be) plus a damp/smooth focus ring are best.

Macro lenses are another good choice for manual focus since they were designed to be manually focused—even AF models. The good news is that Nikon has a heritage of producing numerous manual focus lenses with superior optical and focusing qualities. Manual focus NIKKOR lenses have the added bonus of working with most Nikon DSLR bodies and allowing you to see your aperture in real time on a viewfinder.

As with photography, recording with the lens wide open makes it more difficult to achieve sharp focus. Consider stopping down the lens to sharpen and increase depth of field. Be sure focus is spot-on by using an external monitor. On-camera and off-camera monitors can be plugged directly into the camera’s HDMI port using an HDMI-mini to HDMI-standard cable/adapter. One option to consider is a small HDTV with HDMI-in. On most Nikon DSLR cameras the LCD monitor remains active even when an external viewing device is attached, which is extremely handy when more than one person needs to see the monitor.

For the most automated route with the least monitoring, the latest Nikon DSLR cameras include full time autofocus mode for video—yielding expert subject tracking and face-detection. This means the camera follows the subject through a scene, keeping it sharp without the need for constantly pulling focus.

5. Stabilization

J.W. von Goethe said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

This is very much true when shooting video; the gentler and more smooth your video, the stronger it will be—unless you are going for that shaky effect! Invest in a quality video tripod. Unlike a photo tripod, a video tripod has built-in gears designed to gently pan and tilt. If you’ve already invested in a photography tripod and are just testing the video waters, your photo tripod will work fine for shots that don’t require movement.

For work where using a tripod is not possible or desired, VR (Vibration Reduction) in your NIKKOR lens can lessen or eliminate shake. Remember to turn off VR once the camera is again mounted on a tripod because it will conflict with the tripod’s panning/tilting motions.

6. Audio

Working in video introduces yet another medium to carefully monitor: audio. Capturing good audio is a key component to producing a quality end product. Instructions for capturing optimal audio are well beyond the scope of this article, but here are few tips.

First and foremost–pay attention to your surroundings. Even the camera’s own small microphone will pick up audio you did not consider while filming. Freeways, airplanes, the TV in the next room, the refrigerator, central air all make noise and may muddy sound. The microphone built-in to the camera is good for general purposes, but if you wish to elevate overall quality, consider the Nikon ME-1 stereo microphone. It renders good clean audio.

As a further check, see if the camera supports Audio Out. If so, attach a pair of headphones or even simple ear buds to monitor sound while you shoot; catch and remedy undesired noise before it’s too late. Also remember that the closer the camera is to the audio source, the better the quality will be.

Pointers: In The Field

Once the appropriate settings, lenses and support have been selected it’s time to go into the field. Here are a few additional tips:

Carry Extra Batteries and Media Cards:

DSLRs go through batteries much faster when shooting video than when shooting stills. Carry ample recording media, and know that video memory cards tend to have a slower read/write speed as the card fills. If possible, don’t fill a card completely. Skyler suggests replacing it at the 90 percent capacity level.

Avoid Overheating:

If shooting video with your DSLR for a long period of time, it’s important to keep the camera cool. Some DSLRs have a warning timer to alert you when the camera is getting too hot to operate. Timer or not, adopt best practices that let you work in ways to reduce the chance of overheating: use an umbrella, cloth or other object to shield the camera from heat sources such as direct sun or big lights. When it comes to protecting your camera, little things like a shade can go a long way to prevent overheating.

Cut the Crop:

Nikon FX DSLRs have a handy feature known as DX Crop Mode. For most cameras this means you can shoot video using the full FX sensor, and crop-in to work with an area equivalent to DX-size sensor. It’s like a digital zoom but with no loss of quality. You still shoot the same 1080p specs, whether in FX or DX Crop Mode.

Another advantage to shooting on a smaller sensor area, besides the obvious telephoto benefit, is greater depth of field. For shots where increased depth of field is desired, or where moving or pulling focus is proving to be difficult, going to a smaller sensor area puts more things into focus.

Some Nikon cameras even have the option to shoot in 2.7x Crop Mode, which offers extreme telephoto with even short telephoto lenses.

Go Configure:

Configure the front FN/Preview button so that when you hold the camera you can use the rear rotating wheel to easily change between FX, DX and 2.7x Crop Mode frame sizes (if these are offered on your model).

“Capturing video on a DSLR may seem far out. But once you start shooting, you can begin working with and experiencing all the settings,” shares Skyler. “It may also seem a daunting task to produce video with this type of camera. New challenges in the form of focus pulling and dealing with audio may seem formidable. Keep in mind though that shooting video isn’t about the technical; it’s about the creative. And the creative power within your Nikon DSLR is limitless! Unlock all that potential and put your creative forces in motion. Don’t let technical details bog you down. Get out there and get shooting!”

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