I started my career before you could capture video on DSLRs.

Right out of business school, I started shooting local cable commercials first on a 1/3rd inch chip Sony PD150 at the tail end of the “DV revolution” before graduated to an HDV Sony Z100 and then making my way to full HD 1/2 inch chip Sony EX-1 camera. About the same time I took a deep dive into the 35mm adapter look – the idea was to simulate the look of a 35mm camera by projecting the light through a photography lens onto a spinning ground glass which you would then record with your small chip video camera..

Who the hell is that?

Then I made my first “serious” narrative short film with this 35mm contraption. What a major headache! First of all it was really long, heavy and clumsy. My first adapters shot everything upside down so I would have to use a magnet on my viewfinder to reorient the picture and fix every shot in post just to preview it (which in those days was more taxing for computers than it would be for today) But the real kicker was you lost about 2-3 stops of light in the adapter – so that means you have to shoot everything wide open and pump a ton of light into your scene to get a decent exposure . Finally it seemed like whatever you did, you could never get the footage very sharp – it was always a little soft (that’s partly having to shoot wide open constantly and partly due to design tolerances)

Everything is just painterly here – soft focus.

This was lit with a 2K

It took 3 days to shoot my my short. On the final night, a friend suggested this new camera he had gotten his hands on – the Canon 7D (This was just after the 5D MkII got the 24p upgrade – before it could only shoot 30 fps). He wanted to show me how good it was in low light:

This was lit by a campfire – the only light fixture is a backlight to simulate moonlight

Light with campfire – the light in the back is the pier

I was blown away – shallow depth of field, low light performance AND it was tack sharp!!! I eventually picked up a Canon 5D MkII for myself and set out to shoot my next serious short film with the 5D and a loaned Canon 1D MkIV. Freed from the 2-3 stop light loss of the 35mm adaption my next short film was a thriller that took place in the shadows: I even titled it “Pitch Black” as a snub to the 35mm adapter I had abandoned (no, I hadn’t heard of the Vin Diesel movie till after I started playing festivals with it)

One 250w for key, 250w for hair and a 500w to put some lumens on the background

One deeply geled 250w and of course the exploding light bulb

And so the “DSLR Revolution” had begun (like most tech, I was actually a little late to the game). More and more filmmakers turned to these little cameras – an episode of House M.D. was shot on the 5D, Shane Hurlbut lensed Act of Valor on the 5D. Everyone was putting these little cameras through their paces myself included.

One year I asked the Sony reps at NAB, “Why don’t you put a large sensor into a video camcorder body” – they hemmed and hawed about how accomplishing a zoom range that people were expecting from the camcorder being harder using a larger sensor (which is true) but the reality was they were working on it.

Slowly but surely the industry starting offering new video purposed cameras with super 35mm sensors and bigger. These were cameras that could swing the “look” of a DSLR without all the drawbacks like ergonomics, lack of proper audio hookups and record time limits.

A Sony FS7 package (no third part accessories needed)

Now it is 2017 and there are a plethora of camera bodies to chose from – from small baseball sized crash cams to full on cinema camera beasts. The choices for capturing motion picture are frankly a bit mind numbing. With all the available options today the DSLR is really no longer a viable candidate for upgrading in serious video production.

I can hear those pitchforks sharpening!

Let’s revisit one fact: that DSLR stands for: Digital Single Lens Reflex. The Single Lens Reflex was a special system built for photographers that allows you look down the lens of the camera and compose the image exactly as the film will capture it. This is different than the “rangefinder” style or “twin lens reflex” where the image that you compose through the viewfinder could be quite a bit different than what the film actually sees.

Rangefinder style camera

Twin Reflex Camera

This special ability to see down the lens is made possible a hinged mirror and a specially designed pentaprism. When you click the shutter – the mirror folds up into the house and the shutter opens to expose the film or sensor. During this exposure time you will not be able see anything through the viewfinder.

When operating in the video mode, the hinge mirror swings up and locks in place. So if you’re primarily a motion picture shooter why in the world are you paying for a complicated hinge and pentaprism that you will never ever use? It literally serves zero function to the motion picture maker, why should we be expecting any kind of video technical advancement from cameras labeled as “DSLRs”?

Of course there are mirror-less options – which on the surface make a lot more sense to the filmmaker such as cameras like the Sony A7S and A7R line for full frame and the Panasonic GH lines for micro four thirds. Those cameras skip the mirror and just show you what lands on the sensor through an electronic viewfinder. I rented the A7R II for a weekend once and while it is very nice, I found myself missing the instantaneous response of looking through actual optics rather than at a screen when taking still photos. And when shooting video, it was just like shooting with all the same limitations as Canon 5D MkII (awkward form function, no audio inputs).

But then more recently I rented a Sony FS5 with Super 35mm sized sensor for a shoot – what a difference in shooting experience!

Well one ought to shoot better – it costs almost twice as much as the other.

First of all it had a real robust on board sound hookups – recording synced sound is just so much easier (especially for the commercial documentary project I rented the camera for). Lots of buttons on the side meant I could easily find most of what I wanted to without hunting through menus (though it still has a lot of menus), SDI hookups for video monitoring, and the Sony FS5’s variable ND filter is a dream come true! Is it an ideal camera? No, the internal 4K recording codec is a bit hard on my computer for editing wise, but the image held up pretty good (pulled a greenscreen perfectly). Still the FS5 is a seriously nice package.

Now I’m not price-deaf – I realize that the Sony FS5 and even C100 from Canon are more expensive than the entry level DSLRs – that’s because they are the next step up in terms of video production. DSLRs are STILLS cameras first and video cameras second. Does this mean you can’t shoot a film on one? Of course not. DSLRs are a great starting point for learning photography (that’s what the P in D.P. stands for)- although to get everything else you need for a film, you’re going to need a lot more than a body and lens.

Moving forward, if you want to focus on motion picture you need to start thinking beyond DSLRs. If all you have is a DSLR – use it! But you’re not going see big leaps in bounds in this form factor – the industry has moved on. You’re better off either investing in a dedicated video camera or if all you can afford is a DSLR, looking at it not as an upgrade but as a second camera for additional angles.

Filmmaking is hard – always use the best tools you can get your hands on to make the job easier. And that tool, may not be the stills photography camera.

  1. Chris Hackett Phantoscope

    I’d only add that owning the gear shouldn’t be the paramount idea for gear. If you can rent then you should. Best Buy is even considering rolling out rentals for their products. Then services like Sharegrid and KitSplit are emerging making the cost of entry even lower. Not many people can make large chunks of money appear over and over, better to budget out your rentals with your productions costs than trying to refill the coffers after a big gear purchase.

    If you buy DSLR buy older, a T2i can be had for less than $200 and is still a solid starter that will grow you into bigger systems with how nicely limiting the cam is.

    1. John P. Hess Founder OP

      This is very true – I’ve been actually making a habit of renting cameras on some of my other jobs – but I do think you should own at least one camera – but that doesn’t need to be the latest and most expensive one.

  2. Profile photo of Reverend Ron Gunn
    Reverend Ron Gunn IMAX

    Nice article John!

    The relationship between still and cine cameras has always been somewhat blurred from Oscar Barnack’s first Leica using 35mm cine film in 1913 to camera phones shooting both video and still digital pictures today (and making the occasional phone call).

    The situation nowadays is that there are many solutions to suit many budgets, all equally valid. The tool that you use depends on your expectation of the finished product. For most normal people the output from their phone is fine – it’s a record of what has happened and needs no editing, just the addition of stickers and filters.

    For those weird peole that want to learn the visual language the choice of technology becomes more important. To express themselves fully there are considerations of image quality, both measured and subjective. Lens qualities, bokeh, low-light capability …

    The image matters but it is not the only thing needed to hold the audience’s interest, audio plays a very important part but the most important of all is the story.A great story will capture the audience’s attention, it’s down to the filmmaker to tell that great story to the best of their ability with the tools available.

    For most of us I think there has to be a trade-off between cost and complexity. I work on my own cars and have a selection of tools to help me do so. If I worked as a professional mechanic those tools would work but their limitations would frustrate me, I would also be in a position to justify the expense of a full set of Snap-on or similar tools.

    It’s the same with cameras, I have a mixed art and engineering background so I love shiny new toys, the latest technology. I would L~OVE a top of the range Red or Blackmagic camera and a full set of Cooke or Zeiss primes – but such a gift would be wasted on me. I’ll make do with what I have got, still a lot to learn about my existing kit and there’s still a lot of mileage in what I have. For most purposes the new, shiny kit won’t necessarily make better films, that is down to the individuals making up the cast and crew. What the technology does is to make the task of film making easier. And, if a camera is designed primarily to make films it is easier to use for that purpose than one designed as a stills camera first and foremost. It’s like using a hammer, great for driving nails, useful for driving screws but not as good as the screwdriver designed for purpose.


    Use the kit you can afford, shoot within its limitations but use it to tell a great story!

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