Step by Step : Shooting Video with the DSLR

Picture Profiles

This is the 2nd in a series of posts aimed to help still photographers produce better videos with their DSLRs.

The H.264 video files coming out of our DSLRs are very similar in many ways to the old Kodachrome 25 transparency film. The crisp, well saturated images look incredibly beautiful if your exposure was spot on. If not, it showed. You had to nail the exposure. The DSLR video files are similar.

Since there is no RAW shooting capability with DSLR video, we are stuck with a compressed image that needs a little help. That’s where picture profiles come into play. You need to set up your camera to record as much dynamic range as possible, giving you a low-contrast, low saturation “digital negative” that gives you flexibility for grading in your favorite editing application.

Here’s how you do it. Again, the following steps are for the Canon DSLRs, but look for similar controls in other cameras.

Go into you picture profiles menu and create a neutral profile. You want to turn the sharpness and contrast all the way down, the saturation dialed two notches down and leave the color tone in it’s default middle position.

Your settings should look like this (from a Canon 5D Mark II) :

What this does is give you more shadow detail and helps prevent blocked highlights. You now get 2 stops more latitude to play with. It’s closer to a raw image with a linear tone curve. And by dialing the sharpness all the way down, you eliminate that sometimes too sharp “video” look and, it helps reduce moire, one of the dreaded effects of DSLR video.

Now that you’ve done these adjustments to your video clips, you’re not finished. In post production, you will bring the contrast, saturation and sharpness back, but with much more control.

Just to show you what the adjusted picture profile will look like, here are 2 screen grabs of video shot with the standard (default) picture profile on top and the adjusted profile on the bottom. Click on the image for a better look. As you can see, the contrast, saturation and sharpness is down and it looks pretty horrible however with this adjustment, you now have the dynamic range to produce a beautiful image. Do not however use this profile for still photos. Instead, set your camera to raw.

BTW, I thought I’d share this funny somewhat related post by Philip Bloom, a very talented filmmaker, prolific blogger and all around nice guy. Philip is one of the pioneers of DSLR video and has been blogging about them ever since.

As an April Fools Day joke to the readers of his popular blog, Philip wrote about a new firmware update Canon just released offering raw video for the 5D. This was huge news if it were only true and many of Philip’s readers fell for the joke, thinking the firmware update was for real. I know I did until I read : “Also it appears if you install the firmware on any of the Nikon DSLRs it runs a Canon emulation mode.” Anyway, for a great laugh, read it here, and check out his readers comments.

And while you’re at it, check out Philip’s tutorials and short films. You’ll learn and be amazed!

Step by Step : Shooting Video with a DSLR

Setting Up

This is the 1st in a series of posts aimed to help still photographers produce better videos with their DSLRs.

Coming from a still photography background into the more complex world of video can be intimidating, especially with the DSLR. I hope to change that with a series of short tutorials. We’ll start with the very basics of setting up your camera and then in future posts, delve into more detail and go into some of the accessories that make it easier to produce a video you can be proud of. You may want to do a search for some previous posts I’ve done on DSLR video. Just use the search button on this page and type in Michael Maloney. You’ll see a few posts that may be of help for background.

This series of tutorials will be based on the cameras I use, the Canon 5D Mark II and the 7D, as I’m most familiar with them. However, you can apply most if not all the tips I give to what ever system you use.

So let’s set the camera up!

First of all you need to go into your menus and set the video system to NTSC. NTSC is the video standard for the US and most other countries. If you are shooting in Europe, you need to be on PAL.

Next set your movie recording size and frame rate. Depending on your camera, you’ll see options similar to these : 1920X1080 24, 1920X1080 30, 1280X720 60, 640X480 30. The first two numbers refer to the frame dimensions, the other refers to the frame rate. Most film makers prefer the aesthetic look of 24p (24 progressive frames per second). Some will shoot at 30p, but slow it down to 24p in post for a very slight slow motion effect. And speaking of slow motion, using 60p and slowing that down to 24p gives you beautiful slowmo. The higher frame rate of 60p gives a nice smooth look. Of course with 60p on DSLRs, you are limited to the smaller 1280X720 frame size.

With video, it’s always best to set the exposure mode to manual. You don’t want the shutter speed to vary or the aperture as both of these will be noticed in your video and look very strange. You will notice that when in video mode, you cannot set the shutter speed below the frame rate. If you choose to shoot at 24p, you need to use a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second or faster, however to get the smoothest look, it is recommended that you always select a shutter speed that is twice the frame rate. With 24p,  you want to set your shutter at 1/50th as that is closest to 48 (2 X 24). If you don’t see 1/50 as an option, you need to go into your custom functions and set the exposure level increments to 1/3 stop. In other tutorials, I’ll go into how shutter speed affects the look of your video.

Now you are probably asking yourself how you can shoot video outdoors in the bright sun if you are not supposed to have the shutter speed higher than twice the frame rate. Even stopping the lens all the way down to f16 or 22 will still produce overexposure. What do you do? And how do you get those sweet out of focus backgrounds you see in some films? Neutral density filters are the answer. Since you are locked in with a set shutter speed, if you want to shoot wide open in the direct sunlight, you need a strong ND filter. We’ll go into your options with filters in another post.

You’ve probably noticed that with most DSLRs, when you use the video mode of your camera, you can no longer use the viewfinder.  Instead, you are seeing your image through the lcd. This is normal. The reason you can’t see through the viewfinder anymore, is because the mirror is now flipped up, blocking it. You’ll probably also notice that you no longer have auto focus – at least while you are recording. It’s back to the fine art of follow focusing which if you are like me, you are probably not very good at since we’ve all been spoiled by the great auto focusing of these cameras. In future tutorials, I’ll get into the various magnifying loupes that you can use to help you focus with the lcd. We’ll also look into another great option : a portable field monitor.

So, hopefully with this basic info, you can go out and play with video. I apologize to those of you who find this info way too basic but I wanted to start from the ground up for those shooters who are picking up their cameras and attempting video for the very first time.

With our next tutorial, we will go into picture profiles – allowing you to set up your camera to get that “film” look. Also, a great trick to squeeze two more stops of exposure latitude.

Viewing HDSLR Videos on Your Computer

For those of you who are brand new to DSLR video and are having difficulty viewing your work on your computer, I thought I’d offer you hopefully, a solution.

For some of you, it’s quite easy. Just offload the files from your camera or media card to your desktop, double click the .MOV or .AVI  file and hit play. Instant movies on your screen in HD! However, many are discovering that it’s not quite that simple. You may double click the file and nothing comes up, or you may get the dreaded ‘File Type Not Supported’, or most likely, your video may come up, but it’s playback is not smooth at all or there is no audio.

So what’s going on here? Why does it have to be so difficult? Those of you on the latest top-of-the-line computers are probably looking pretty smug right now, and that’s  the issue…your computer. If it’s old with a slow processor, you’ll have problems. Also, if you do not have the correct media player installed on your machine, that will prevent you from viewing your work. It has to be the right kind of player to run the native files coming out of your DSLR. They have to be compatible. And also to some extent, it could be a graphics card issue. You may need to upgrade your graphics card, although not likely.

The files that come out of your camera are high-resolution, highly compressed files – and while the compression does a good job of keeping file size down, it also means you need a sizable computer to decode them. If the files play more smoothly on your camera’s LCD than they do on your desktop, try downloading the latest version of VLC Media Player.

VLC is free and an open source cross-platform (PC and Mac) multimedia player that plays most multimedias files as well as DVD, Audio CD, VCD, and various streaming protocols. It is easy to use, yet very powerful.

One trick however : you have to change one setting in preferences:

Go to Tools > Preferences
In the lower left of the box click the checkbox “Show settings – All”
Then go to Input/Codecs > Video Codecs > FFmpeg and look for the option called “Skip the loop filter for H.264 decoding”
Change it from “none” to “all”
Save and restart VLC

Another must have player for your computer is Quicktime which is also free, comes from Apple, but works on both Windows and Macs.

Now grab some popcorn, your favorite beverage and sit back and relax and enjoy your videos.

A Camera, a Tripod and a Little Imagination

What I love most about the new HD video capable DSLRs is what they offer in one compact camera body. Not only can you produce beautiful 21 megapixel still images, but also stunning 1080p HD video. Add a time lapse sequence or two along with some music and you have a fun multimedia package – all coming from 1 small camera body.
I took a short trip last week to one of my favorite areas to photograph – the eastern Sierras and the White Mountain Range, flanking the sleepy town of Bishop, California. The late, world-renowned adventure photographer Galen Rowell called the area home for good reason. It’s a photographer’s paradise.
So much to see and do but on this particular trip, I visited the Ancient Bristlecone Forest, home to the oldest known living organism on earth, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva). The grove lies in the Inyo National Forest, between 10,000 – 11,000 feet above sea level. Btw, the oldest tree in the grove, nicknamed “Methuselah”, is more than 4,750 years old and is not marked to ensure added protection from vandals.
The bristlecones grow in alpine outcroppings of dolomite – a magnesia-rich sedimentary rock that resembles limestone. And interestingly, the bristlecones that reside in moister soil with greater nutrients grow fat and tall but have a life expectancy of only 1,000 years or so. The oldest bristlecones live in the least nutritious soils in the most exposed, bleak locations, and are deceptively small. It seems soil with a high dolomite content produces a denser, resinous wood that is resistant to bacteria, fungus and insects. Trunks can remain standing for more than 1,000 years after the tree has died.
Anyway, enough of the nature notes. Shooting these ancient trees will challenge your creativity. The smooth, tan wood, creased with dark lines, create wonderful, abstract patterns. The slender branches extend upward, contrasting against the pure blue sky.
Thought I’d share with you what I shot – to show what is possible with these new video DSLRs. This is just a simple multimedia package that I shot for fun while hiking with a friend. It’s mostly comprised of photos along with music and just a few video clips and time lapses, and all edited together in Final Cut Pro.
Just a camera, a tripod, and a little imagination.
Hope you enjoy it and it inspires you to go out and make your own.

Note : if the playback stalls due to a slow internet connection, give the video a minute or so to load.

A Very Cool but Imperfect Video Cam

When Canon produced the first video DSLR, the 5D Mark II it did so almost as an after-thought. Canon added the video capabilities because Reuters and Associated Press were requesting it. Canon had the technology and to add it did not change the look or the size of the camera. Compared to the original 5D, the two cameras are nearly identical in size and button layout.

That was just 20 months ago and since then, much to Canon’s surprise, indie film makers and even pros have pushed aside their technically superior, properly-designed HD camcorders for this imperfect, deeply flawed tool : a DSLR that happens to shoot great video. They were buying the camera not for it’s stills capability but for the video.

Why all the excitement about this camera? It’s mostly all about size…the size of the sensor. Bigger is better when it comes to sensors and the 36mm X 24mm CMOS sensor of the 5D makes all the difference in the world. Most HD camcorders record with tiny 1/3 or 2/3 inch chips. Even those costing tens of thousands of dollars. Chips that small means a lack of dynamic range, poor low light capabilities and an inability to produce shallow depth of field.

Now let’s look at the good and the bad. Looking at my list below, you’ll see that the disadvantages out-number the advantages but don’t let that discourage you. The advantages far out-weigh the frustrations of shooting video with these still cameras.

Advantages :

  • Price
  • Rich, filmic image quality, incredible dynamic range and low light capability
  • Small size
  • Wide range of lenses
  • Looks like a still camera which can be an advantage in some shooting situations
  • Oh yes…it takes great stills – even the frame grabs off the video look great

Disadvantages :

  • Ergonomics not suited for video
  • No auto focus while shooting
  • Difficult to manually focus
  • Poor audio : no balanced xlr, no visible audio meters, no headphone jack
  • No auto zoom
  • No image stabilization built into the body – need to rely on noisy lens stabilizers
  • No built in ND filter
  • Records only 12 minutes at a time
  • Can produce rolling shutter and moire
  • Overheating issues
  • Highly-compressed codec
  • No raw format

Next up, a look at how to make some of the above listed disadvantages a little more tolerable.