A love hate relationship with DSLR Video

 The low light and cinematic depth of field capabilities from the 5D's full frame sensor certainly made it very appealing.

The low light and cinematic depth of field capabilities from the 5D's full frame sensor certainly made it very appealing.

Canon 5Dmkii - the 'game changer'

I left film school in 2011, right in the middle of the 'DSLR Video Revolution'. We had a 5Dmkii in the equipment store and like many other film students I was incredibly excited at the prospect of using the camera that supposedly rewrote the rules for indie film making. What was there not to love about this camera? With a full frame sensor for incredible low light HD video capture, cinematic depth of field, the ability to use a huge variety of lenses, a lightweight body, the ability to film covertly when required (the general public are much less interested in a DSLR than a camcorder) and a very affordable price tag, this camera was perfect for anyone starting out in film making or video production. Hell, it was even used on professional film and TV shoots. Everyone was talking about this camera.

Now as with any product, no camera is perfect and this camera had a few problems. Nothing that seemed to bother myself or many of my contemporaries though. Rolling shutter. Lack of audio features. An LCD screen that cut out when a monitor was plugged in. I and I believe many others, brushed these problems under the carpet as if they weren't there. Which was fine. There were just so many positive things about this camera that we couldn't let a few drawbacks get in the way of our quest to create cinematic content on a low budget.

So much of my work up until now has been on that camera:

 The 5D processes skin tones very nicely indeed. ( Tim Cook |  United Magic Film Studios  )

The 5D processes skin tones very nicely indeed. (Tim Cook | United Magic Film Studios)

I shot 'Noose' on the 5D with a set of Zeiss ZF primes. The combination of this setup and a colour grade in the style of the bleach bypass process created an image that looked hauntingly beautiful. With a shallow depth of field and shooting with a fairly flat picture profile for greater dynamic range we were able to create a chilling horror film on a relatively low budget. As our shoot was almost entirely on location in an abandoned hotel the 5D's low light abilities really shone here.

 14mm lens and a full frame sensor - a killer combination for interiors. ( Andrew Kinsler | '2024 ')

14mm lens and a full frame sensor - a killer combination for interiors. (Andrew Kinsler | '2024')

I spent a good part of the last couple of years camera operating on '2024', a feature film that really capitalized on the 5D's unique qualities - low light performance, large sensor and ergonomics. Shooting in some very challenging interiors, there really was no other camera for this project.

 This was actually on the mark iii, but nevertheless quite similar to the mark ii in it's low light abilities and color processing. (  Cats Protection Manifesto    |    325 productions UK  )

This was actually on the mark iii, but nevertheless quite similar to the mark ii in it's low light abilities and color processing. (Cats Protection Manifesto | 325 productions UK)

The 5D also made a great camera for corporate shoots. They just made people look so great and that large sensor was perfect for capturing interiors. Many businesses investing in video content would also require stills photography as part of their package and having a camera that could do both well would make for a highly efficient setup.

 

 

 

 

However, as I've developed as a shooter  I've come to realise that I actually hate filming on DSLRs.

Hate. Seems like an extreme word. Why would I hate a camera that is capable of producing such beautiful images? OK maybe I don't hate them. They just annoy me. A LOT.

I'll explain.

The DSLR video revolution was an accident. Canon never realised how popular and iconic the video feature on the 5D was going to be. It was an after thought. The following features show why this was the case:

 5D batteries - you're gonna need some spares.

5D batteries - you're gonna need some spares.

  • You couldn't turn off the Automatic Gain Control without hacking the camera.
  • Its video codec was H.264 which is fine for playback but not good for editing.
  • The bit rate couldn't be changed resulting in unavoidable large files.
  • There was no headphone jack or audio meters until the mark iii.
  • The signal to noise ratio even on the mark iii was appalling, resulting in lots of hiss when recording in quiet environments.
  • No focus peaking, false colour or flip screen.
  • Batteries were OK, but not great. Not ideal for events.
  • You could only record for 12 minutes at a time on the mark ii.
  • Aliasing and moire were bad. Very bad.
  • For cameras that were meant to be very good in low light, there was a terrible amount of noise in the shadows.
  • Higher frame rates meant a reduction in resolution.
  • Overheating was a common problem.

Of course there were ways around some of these issues, including hacking the camera and purchasing various accessories to make video operation much easier, but really what these issues show is that the camera was never really meant for video. We have to remember though that the 5D mkii was released in 2008 and now that it is 2015 the competition has intensified with new offerings from the likes of Panasonic and Sony, some of which have been designed more so with video in mind. But they are still DSLRs - cameras that are intended for stills, not video. It begs the question, 'Are DSLRs really the future of film making or are they just a fad?' Whatever your opinion, it is certainly an interesting debate.

I was very nearly tempted to get the Sony A7S as it offered 4K capabilities, a full frame mount and incredible low light performance at an AMAZING price. But once I added up the cost of getting the accessories to make it somewhat usable on a professional job I realised that it would cost more than buying a half decent camcorder. This was the deal breaker for me.

 The logical step up from DSLR filming.

The logical step up from DSLR filming.

Finding the middle ground

As a cameraman and filmmaker I wanted a camera that was diverse - something that could easily go run and gun whilst having some dynamic range and flexibility to meet my creative needs. The answer for me was the Canon EOS C100. I got the best of both worlds: a camcorder and cinema camera. With fully interchangeable lenses (using the very popular EF mount like the 5D), a Super 35mm sensor for low light and depth of field when I needed it as well as dual memory card recording and an amazing battery life amongst other things this seemed like a logical step up. Even though this camera is a couple of years old now (and the much dearer mark ii has since been released) it still is an excellent performer and provider of sharp High Definition images.

High definition? But isn't 4K the future?

Well yes, it is. And with every costly purchase as a freelancer you do have to consider how future proof your investment is. 4K isn't the be all and end all though (well not yet). In my opinion 4K cameras at prosumer level are still in their infancy and as most of my output is for web delivery it seems irrelevant investing in this technology right now. Anyone got a fast enough internet connection to watch Youtube in 4K? Well I certainly haven't. I don't even know a single person who owns a 4K TV. This doesn't mean to say that 4K isn't round the corner, but for the time being HD is still very much going to do me and many others just fine. There are more important investments to be made that are so often overlooked:

Lenses

All good cameramen know that what's more important than having the latest camera is having a good bit of glass in front of it. The right lens(es) could last you over 20 years whereas your camera is obsolete probably before you even bought it. Glass doesn't go out of date.

Lighting

You could have the most amazing camera in the world but if the light is simply not there, or has not been used appropriately you will still end up with poorer quality images. All it takes is to turn on a light to realise what your image was missing. Lighting also doesn't go out of date.

Sound

What ultimately separates amateurs from professionals is the quality of the sound. The type and position of microphone, where you record and what you record into will all determine how clean your recordings are. The poor signal to noise ratio on the 5D was one of the biggest reasons for my departure from DSLR video. 

With all of these considerations in mind I know that I will get very good use out of my C100.

 

Why I don't regret shooting DSLR

I said I had come to hate shooting on DSLRs but now that I think about it maybe I still have a soft spot for them. As I look back on the last few years at the start of my career, I must say that using a camera for a purpose it wasn't originally intended for has taught me a lot about the film making process. DSLRs in ways made an already difficult job much harder and I have proven that I can rise to the challenge.

 5Dmkii and a questionable raincover attached to a motorcycle on   Backtrack/Nazi Vengeance  |  Substantial Films

5Dmkii and a questionable raincover attached to a motorcycle on Backtrack/Nazi Vengeance | Substantial Films

They have also introduced me to photography (which to learn the fundamentals of is surely essential for an aspiring DOP) and I have come to love it. I have developed my knowledge on exposure, lenses, perspectives and lighting. I actually learned the fundamentals on a Canon 550D (significantly cheaper than the 5D) and provided good enough results that I started to make a living from it.

DSLRs acted as a stepping stone for me to the more industry standard formats. They are no longer my first choice but for the right project I would certainly film on them again. Ultimately these cameras enabled me to learn and experiment at home - something previous generations would not have had the luxury of. Because of these cameras anyone can now go out and make a cinematic movie and that's pretty amazing!

I would like to think that in this industry the real value is not in the camera but in the person behind it.

Matt