By David Speranza
Intruders have entered the world of video. They’re small, they’re stealthy, and they offer the biggest bang for the buck since the Alaska Purchase. We’re talking, of course, about digital SLRs–specifically those that shoot high-definition, progressive video.
These hybrid interlopers, known by some as “VSLRs,” are wielding their swollen sensors and 35mm optics like digital clubs over the head of prosumer video–each new model prying yet another finger loose from the once-secure grip of affordable HD camcorders.
The Nikon D90, with its 720p video, was the first to cross the high-definition threshold, followed quickly by the even more impressive Canon 5D Mark II, which upped the ante (and price) by offering full-frame 1080p, plus mic input, for under $3,000. Soon Panasonic weighed in with its micro 4/3 DMC-GH1–not technically an SLR, but notable for bringing full manual control and autofocus to the large-sensor party. The latest chapter is being written by the Canon 7D, which, with its variable frame rates (24p/25p, 50p/60p) and sub-$2K price, has shooters anointing it with “Chosen One” status before a single piece has sold.
The appeal of these cameras is obvious: interchangeable 35mm lenses, a rich, varied color palette, deep blacks and detailed whites, and a controllable depth of field that allows razor-thin focusing–all at a previously unimagined price point. Given that the least expensive video camera to offer a VSLR’s most basic feature–interchangeable lenses–is the $4,000 JVC GY-HD200UB (body only), it’s easy to do the math. At over twice the 7D’s cost, the JVC’s 1/3″ sensor is also a fraction of its size.
Of course what prosumer gear can offer is a degree of control over picture and sound that’s taken for granted by most videographers. Equally important is form factor: prosumer and ENG camcorders are designed for moving pictures, not stills, and are thus maximized for handheld movement and stabilized imagery. VSLRs, by comparison, come out of the box like a clumsy teen with a sudden growth spurt, accustomed to their photo-dedicated bodies without fully grasping how their new powers might affect their ability to function.
Not that that’s stopped filmmakers from embracing them. To get such big image quality for such a small price, they’re willing to overlook the shortcomings. And there are shortcomings–enough that third-party manufacturers are scrambling to answer the frustrated cries of users who only a year ago were rhapsodizing over 35mm adapters. Most of the criticism has focused on four main areas: image monitoring, stability, focus, and audio.
Seeing What You Shoot
Cameras like the Canon 7D, 5D and Nikon’s D5000 are equipped with large, sharp, bright LCD screens for viewing both photos and video. The D5000 even offers an articulated screen to help frame shots from above or below. But as impressive as these displays are, they’re not ideal for shooting video. Since the design of an SLR prohibits viewing video through the optical viewfinder, the LCD is a videographer’s only option. That’s fine for casual shooting, but for more critical focus and image analysis–especially in bright sunlight or shooting handheld–the image needs to be as sharp and detailed as possible.
If you’ve got the budget, then Zacuto’s Z-Finder DSLR Viewfinder (Version 2) is the way to go. Designed to fit cameras with 3″ LCDs, it mounts to the view screen via a fitted adhesive frame or the optional rubber “Z-Bands.” Providing 3x magnification, a -1.5 – +0.4 diopter, and a large lightproof eyecup that’s great if you wear glasses, this handy device not only gives you a clear image to focus by, it snaps on and off easily to dangle conveniently on a lanyard around your neck.
|Zacuto’s Z-Finder DSLR Viewfinder (V2)||Hoodman HoodLoupe||Cavision’s DSLR LCD Viewfinder|
At a quarter the cost but without the Z-Finder’s optics and magnification is the Hoodman HoodLoupe for 3″ LCD displays. The HoodLoupe attaches to the camera with an optional Cinema Strap, and is a great low-budget option for checking focus and viewing video under bright light.
Cavision offers a different approach with its DSLR LCD Viewfinder. Originally designed for the Canon 5D but usable on most 3″ screens, this viewfinder mounts on a swing-away plate that attaches beneath the camera or on a tripod. It then swivels on or off the LCD, while a rubber adapter seals out the light, and can be adjusted forwards or back.
Another option is to remove the display from the camera entirely, via an external monitor–as is done on most professional productions. You can plug into your VSLR’s A/V jack for the video feed, then mount the monitor on the camera’s hotshoe. The Ikan V5600 5.6″ LCD monitor has become a popular choice for DSLR video, not only for its price (less than $700) but for its high-resolution image, low weight (under a pound) and feature set. Currently the only disadvantage of an external monitor is that the DSLR’s A/V port disables the camera’s display in the process–so you won’t be able to run a set monitor and still see through the camera while operating.
Points of Contact
One of the major pluses of using a viewfinder like the Z-Finder or HoodLoupe is the stability it adds from pressing an eyecup to your face–an essential point of contact that’s lost when holding a camera out in front to view the LCD.
Not that image stabilization doesn’t exist in the SLR world. Every manufacturer touts its own version–VR, IS, OIS, etc.–both lens- and camera-based. But when it comes to holding an image steady, photographers have it relatively easy: frame the shot, half-press the shutter, hold your breath and…click!…1/60 of a second later and it’s over.
Filmmakers, on the other hand, not only have to remain steady for a more sustained period, they may need to do so while walking, running or climbing stairs. VSLRs, little more than wide bricks with a handgrip (ergonomically speaking), are not especially good at this. They simply don’t provide enough points of contact with the operator’s body, which can absorb much of the distracting jitter.
|Zacuto Rapid Fire|
Zacuto addresses this need directly, emphasizing the added contact points on its various support products. For instance, its DSLR Rapid Fire and Quick Draw kits each add a different point of contact, depending on your shooting situation. For handheld shots with limited movement–simple tilts and pans–the Rapid Fire may work best. Its gunstock support rests against your chest or shoulder, absorbing excess motion while freeing up both hands to make any in-shot camera adjustments.
|Zacuto Quick Draw w/ Canon 5D Mk II|
The Quick Draw, meanwhile, shifts the new point of contact further down, into the right hand. At first this may seem like a trade-off in both comfort and stabilizing ability, but if your shot requires lots of run-and-gun movement with minimal lens adjustments (say, chasing after someone while using a wide angle lens with fixed focus), then this rig gives you more leeway to compensate for extreme moves. Combine either of these kits with the Z-Finder or HoodLoupe, and your points of contact are doubled, making for an even smoother shot.
If you need to add a third point of contact, the shoulder is the next obvious choice–and Cavision’s DSLR shoulder mount kits are a good place to start. Using a dual rod system that includes LCD viewfinder, two hand grips, a quick-release plate, shoulder pad, and matte box capability, the inelegantly named RS5DM2SET-S will, as the brochure says, “virtually transform your DSLR into a professional HD camcorder.” At under $500 for the entire rig it’s definitely worth considering, especially if you’re shooting for long periods of time or doing lots of handheld interviews or news gathering.
If you’re staging dramatic material, however, you may need to take another step up. The above items are certainly helpful in getting more precise focus, but given that the autofocus on VSLRs is balky at best (when it’s even available), a way needs to be found to keep people and objects in focus as their distance from the lens changes. Or as the big boys call it: follow focus.
On professional film and video cameras, a large geared knob with distance markings is used, adjusted by a focus-puller or assistant cameraman. In the run-and-gun and news-gathering worlds, a smooth on-camera focus ring often does the trick. But still-camera lenses aren’t designed for such in-shot adjustments, and are often too stiff or imprecise for video.
For an extra $300 or so, Cavision adds an aluminum follow-focus knob to its shoulder mount package, which it dubs the RS5DM2SET-F. Using a series of different-sized gear rings–depending on your lens size–and a removable marking plate, this setup attaches to the shoulder mount and brings professional precision to VSLRs and even camcorders (which, on the lower end of the prosumer spectrum, often sport unmarked focus rings with infinite rotation).
Zacuto Z-DSLR-SNP DSLR Sniper
Zacuto loads up on the bells and whistles with its DSLR Sniper. Resembling a modernist sculpture as much as a camera rig, this impressive beast pulls out nearly all the stops in both features and price (a bit over $3,000). Z-Finder? Check. Gunstock? Check. Handgrip? Naturally. Shoulder pad? Mini-baseplate? Quick release? Check, check, check. Add a focus knob to the remaining assemblage of rods, mounts and clamps, and you’re ready for bear–or to shoot someone being chased by one, at any rate.
What you’re probably not ready to do, though, is record the bear’s growls or the frantic crunch of leaves underfoot. For all the beauty and polish of their imagery, VSLRs remain aural midgets in the audio department. That’s not entirely their fault, given that video on a still camera has yet to shake its talking-dog status. To many professional photographers, sound is incidental at best (except when it scares away wildlife). So it’s not surprising that camera manufacturers are hesitant to fully embrace this latest bell (or is it a whistle?) on their historically mute machines.
But if you want to record direct sound using more than the camera’s limited internal microphone, then you’ll need to get one of the few VSLRs that offers external mic input. Right now that means either the 7D, 5D, Nikon D300s or Panasonic’s 4/3 GH1 (and upcoming GF1). There are any number of decent mics that plug directly into these cameras’ 3.5mm mini-jacks. But if you’re looking for more professional audio–which means balanced XLR inputs and moving the microphone off the camera–then you’ll need something to match camera to mic.
On prosumer camcorders this is most often done using an XLR adapter, such as Beachtek’s popular DXA-2S or upstart juicedLink’s CX211 mixer/preamp, both of which attach beneath the camera and convert XLR signals to mini. On VSLRs it’s not so simple, since current models lack manual audio controls, employing automatic gain control, or AGC, instead. This means that the volume at which you record something is determined not by you but by a circuit in the camera that thinks it knows what’s best. It doesn’t. This will become crystal clear during low or quiet passages when the AGC blooms like a hothouse flower, indiscriminately magnifying every sound it can find, in the process boosting signal and camera noise to hiss-filled extremes. It’s the aural equivalent of blowing out birthday candles with a wind machine, and sonically just as messy.
So, what to do? One solution is to disable the AGC. That’s what Beachtek attempts with its new DXA-5D, a powered XLR adapter that shoots an inaudible 20kHz signal down one audio channel in order to trick the gain into dormancy. This does a fairly effective job, though some have found the resulting audio a bit noisy. For optimal performance the DXA-5D should be used with more sensitive condenser (i.e, powered) mics, like the ME66 short shotgun with K6 module or Audio-Technica’s BP4073 shotgun. If you need to go wireless, then Sennheiser’s EW112-p G3 system also makes a good fit for the Beachtek, letting you record from greater distances without worrying about getting a mic in the shot.
For adventurous filmmakers, there’s third-party firmware out there that will completely override your camera’s AGC and, combined with the juicedLink CX211 adapter, can produce top notch audio. Note, however, that using such firmware could void the warranty on your camera, so use only after thorough study and at your own risk.
The other option is to avoid the camera’s internal audio entirely and record like the pros–that is, by sending your audio into a standalone recorder. Known as double-system sound, this is actually your only option if your camera is the Nikon D90, D5000 or Canon’s T1i, none of which offers microphone input. Recording this way means the hassle of syncing up picture and sound later, in post (hint: use a slate); but you now have a high-quality device with headphone output, metered levels and filters that let you adjust audio at will. It also untethers your mic from the camera, giving you increased mobility. Zoom’s H4n Field Recorder is a top choice for many VSLR shooters, both for its sensitivity and sub-$300 price. Offering dual XLR jacks (which double as line-level phono inputs), digital pre-amp, built-in speaker, and 3.5mm headphone jack, it captures up to 24-bit/96kHz audio onto SD/SDHC cards, which can be output to your computer via USB. It also provides a large backlit LCD for you to adjust levels, and runs on simple AA batteries.
As compact as the H4n is, you’ll need to find someplace to put it while you shoot. It’s equipped for mounting on either a tripod or mic stand, but if you’re a one-man operation on the move, you’ll need it closer at hand. That’s where Zacuto provides yet another piece to its erector set, the 15mm Zound Rod arm, which can be attached to any of the above mentioned stabilizer kits. You could also mount a general purpose rod or clamp to the camera’s hotshoe, assuming it isn’t already being used by a mic or monitor.
War of the Machines
The history of VSLRs is only about a year old, but the accessibility they’ve brought to high-end video imagery has already challenged the industry. What this means for the big camcorder manufacturers remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that the HD genie is out of the bottle. After all, high-end, professional-looking video can now be recorded on last year’s graduation present. Digital appetites have been whetted. Can Sony or Panasonic or even Canon continue to justify current pricing on their small-sensor, fixed-lens cameras? It would be surprising if there wasn’t already some new, innovative product in the pipeline: maybe a Canon 7D wrapped in an AGC-HMC150 shell?
One can dream. But in the meantime, there are plenty of affordable ways to achieve that professional 35mm look on video. You may need to nip a little here, tuck a little there, but the support industry that’s emerging, Venus-like, to embrace the potential of the VSLR, means that the right tools are readily available. So don’t be intimidated by their unaccommodating shells: these tough little hybrids are friendlier than they look.
A graduate of Temple University’s film program, David Speranza has been a filmmaker and photographer since the long-ago days of Super-8.