DSLR Nation

By Roberto Quezada-Dardon | June 9, 2009
Philip Bloom Filmmaker Philip Bloom shooting using the Panasonic GH1

Photographer Roberto Quezada-Dardon reports on how a new generation of digital still cameras have given low-budget filmmakers new options.

When it comes to the manufacture of filmmaking equipment, "if you build it, they will come" seems to be a solid business model. When Canon and Nikon improved the video option on their digital still cameras (DSLR for digital single lens reflex camera), it didn't take long before some filmmakers began to use them to make independent digital movies.  In the process, these filmmakers have found that, in some ways, the results from high end DSLRs are better (translation: more film-like) than what larger and more expensive video cameras deliver. That means that everyone — from amateurs who want to make a short film or capture a son’s birthday party to top-tier directors looking for another portable lensing option — have a new and affordable tool for high-quality image production.

But let’s start with what exactly high definition (HD) video is. This is from Wikipedia (a gold mine of technical information translated into English): “High-definition video or HD video refers to any video system of higher resolution than standard-definition (SD) video, and most commonly involves display resolutions of 1280×720 pixels (720p) or 1920×1080 pixels (1080p).” 

That said, the DSLR leaders in HD image quality are the Canon D5 Mark II, which shoots 1080p HD, and the Nikon D90 that produces a 720p HD image. The film-like quality both these cameras achieve results from their large image sensors and the exceptional optics of their lenses. Typical professional and consumer HD video cameras have much smaller image sensors (the size of the sensor relates to a camera’s ability to get the shallow depth of field we associate with film camera projects).

Canon D5 Mark II

Canon D5 Mark II

There are a few professional video cameras whose image sensors are of a comparable size to the ones in these DSLRs but they are outside of the ballpark of the casual purchaser — they cost anywhere from $17,000 to $170,000 and up.  Although it matches the image quality of these cameras, the Canon D5 Mark II costs only around $3,800 with a superior lens and the option to interchange lenses. The sensor on the Nikon D90 is slightly smaller but still much larger than those of most traditional HD video cameras. It sells for less than $1,500 with a Nikon zoom lens that is interchangeable with any Nikon film or digital lens.

The newest player to enter the field of DSLR/HD Video is the Panasonic GH1. Smaller in sensor size than either the Canon or the Nikon but also more compact and user-friendly, it delivers a 1080p HD image and costs around $1,500 with a Lumix lens. Like the Canon and the Nikon, the sensor on the Panasonic captures larger recorded pixels. This reduces the amount of “noise” in the image and increases the amount of light each pixel is able to capture. The result: sharper images and the ability to shoot in lower light than more expensive professional video cameras.

Panasonic’s emphasis on low price, convenience, and compactness seems to target a non-professional audience. It does not easily oblige a variety of proprietary lenses, as its competitors do, but with its smaller sensor and F4 Lumix lens the Panasonic GH1 still manages to create a more film-like image than most HD video cameras. It does so, however, with a much broader depth of field than the Nikon and Canon cameras. The GH1 makes up for this, however, by being the only DSLR video camera with auto-focus – apparently quite an oversight on the part of its predecessors.

Nikon D90

Nikon D90

People accustomed to working with film cameras will probably not want to trade a superior image for auto focus because, in their world, focusing is always done manually and continuously by an assistant. Professional videographers and documentary filmmakers flip off the auto focus on their video cameras as well. Nevertheless, the auto-focus issue remains a common complaint in online tests of the cameras and in the professional blogosphere.

Speaking of online tests, there are some entertaining ones available from British filmmaker Phil Bloom. The tests are actually fully scored digital films he’s made with various cameras so his site is fun to visit. Down along the right column of this particular page you’ll get a sense of what the Canon D5 Mark II can do as well as learn tricks with other lenses and cameras in cars and on dark streets. Bloom is a talented and prolific digital filmmaker, and he keeps careful notes. To see what is possible with the Nikon D90, check out Radar, a weekly online documentary series produced by Lance Weiler, directed by Alex Johnson, and shot mostly by Tom Quinn. All episodes of Radar are created with the Nikon.

Practically speaking, this is how the three DSLRs might differ. It’s probably overly simplified, but here goes: For low or medium budget digital filmmakers who want an extra camera that will match the image quality of a high-end professional video camera, the Canon D5 Mark II is best.  It is the most expensive of the three cameras: $3,800.

For a no-budget film with enough of a crew to cover all the basic camera crew positions and that needs a superior image and film look bolstered with a full battery of fully functional proprietary lenses (i.e. can switch lenses without using adaptors), the Nikon D90 is superb: $1,500.

Low-budget documentary digital filmmakers working solo or with minimal crews, and people planning to shoot their cousins’ weddings or their kids’ first haircut in glorious high-definition video cannot go wrong with the Panasonic GH1: $1,500.

(By the way, all these cameras will plug right in to your HD TV at home for instant viewing.)

When all is said and done, all three DSLRs are permanent fixtures of the motion picture landscape of this decade and are proving to be much more than modern day equivalents of Super 8 film cameras used in the last century.

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