It started in earnest last year and has no sign of abating. Videographers are clearly in the midst of two revolutions: tapeless recording and the use of the hybrid still/video camera (HDSLR). The tapeless future started with P2 and XDCAM, but these storage devices have been joined by other options, including Compact Flash, SD and SDHC memory cards. The acceptance of small cameras in professional operations first took off with DV cameras from Sony and Panasonic, especially the AG-DVX100. These solutions have evolved into cameras like the Sony HVRZ7U and PMWEX3 and Panasonic’s AG-HPX170 and AVCCAM product line. Modern compressed codecs have made it possible to record high-quality 1080 and 720 HD footage using smaller form factors than ever before.
This evolution has sparked the revolution of the HDSLR cameras, like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, the new Canon EOS 7D and 1D Mark IV and the Nikon D90, D300s and D3s, to name a few. Although veteran videographers might have initially scoffed at such cameras, it’s important to note that Canon developed the 5D at the urging of Reuters and the Associated Press, so its photographers could deliver both stills and motion video with the least hassle. Numerous small films, starting with photographer Vincent Laforet’s Reverie, have more than proven that HDSLRs are up to the task of challenging their video cousins. From the standpoint of a news or sports department, we have entered an era where every reporter can become a video journalist, simply by having a small camera at the ready. That’s not unlike the days when reporters carried a Canon Scoopic 16mm, in case something newsworthy happened.
These cameras come with challenges, so here is some advice that will make your experience more successful:
1. Ergonomics / stability – Both small video camcorders and HDSLRs are designed for handheld, not shoulder-mounted, operation. This isn’t a great design for stability while recording motion. In order to get the best image out of these cameras, invest in an appropriate tripod and fluid head. For more advanced operations, check out the various camera mounting accessories from companies like Zacuto and Red Rock Micro.
2. Rolling shutter – This phenomenon affects all CMOS cameras to varying degrees. It is caused by horizontal movement and results in an image that is skewed. This distortion is caused by the time differential between information at the top and the bottom of the sensor. The HDSLRs have been criticized for these defects, but others like the EX or the RED One have also displayed the same artifacts to a lesser degree. This defect can be minimized by using a tripod and slow (or no) camera movement.
3. Focus – One of the reasons that shooters like HDSLRs is the large image sensor (compared to video cameras) and film lenses, which provide a shallow depth-of-field. This is a mixed blessing when you are covering a one-time event. Still photo zoom lenses aren’t mechanically designed to be zoomed and focused during the shot like film or video zoom lenses. This makes it harder to nail the shot on-the-fly. Since the depth-of-field is shallow, the focus is also less forgiving. Lastly, the focus is often done using an LCD viewer instead of a high-quality viewfinder. Many shooters using both small video cameras and HDSLRs have added an externally-mounted LCD monitor, as a better device for judging shots.
4. Audio – The issue of audio depends on whether we are talking about a Canon 5D or a Panasonic 170. Professional and even prosumer camcorders have been designed to have mics connected. To date, HDSLRs have not. If you are shooting extensive sync-sound projects with a hybrid camera, then you will want to consider using double-system sound with a separate recorder and mixer (human). At the very least, you’ll want to add an XLR mic adapter/mixer, like the BeachTek DXA-5D.
5. Movie files – Each of these cameras records its own specific format, codec and file wrapper. Production and post personnel have become comfortable with P2 and XDCAM, but the NLE manufacturers are still catching up to the best way of integrating consumer AVCHD content or files from these HDSLRs. Regardless of the camera system you plan to use, make sure that the file format is compatible with (or easily transcoded to) your NLE of choice.
6. Capacity – Most of the cameras use a recording medium that is formatted as FAT32. This limits a single file to 4GB, which in the case of the Canon 5D means the longest recording cannot exceed 12 minutes of HD (1920x1080p at 30fps). Unlike P2, there is no spanning provision to extend the length of a single recording. Make sure to plan your shot list to stay within the file limit. Come with enough media. In the case of P2, many productions bring along a “data wrangler” and a laptop. This person will offload the P2 cards to drives and then reformat (erase) the cards so that the crew can continue recording throughout the day with a limited number of P2 cards.
7. Back-up – Always back-up your camera media onto at least two devices in the original file format. I’ve known producers who merely transferred the files to the edit system’s local array and then trashed the camera media, believing the files were safe. Unfortunately, I’ve seen Avids quarantine files, making them inaccessible. On rare occasion, I’ve also seen Final Cut Pro media files simply disappear. The moral of the story is to treat your original camera media like film negative. Make two, verified back-ups and store them in a safe place should you ever need them again.
The new generation of small video camcorders and Hybrid DSLRs offers the tantalizing combination of lower operating cost and stunning imagery. That’s only possible with some care and planning. These tools aren’t right for every application, but the choices will continue to grow in the coming years. Those who embrace the trend will find new and exciting production options.
© 2009 Oliver Peters
Written for NewBay Media and TV Technology magazine