Digital single lens reflex cameras began as a way for wire service photogs to shoot video with the same camera they were using for still photos. Then TV stations began to use the small, lightweight and inexpensive units to produce on-air promos. Now, manufacturers including Canon, Blackmagic Design and Red are making DSLRs that are truly professional video cameras with bells and whistles that shooters love. KNSD's Erik Naso (pictured) shoots with a Canon C100 and says he loves its depth of field: "It's a film look to the extreme."
DSLRs Go From Curiosities To Pro Tools
Erik Naso, director of photography at KNSD San Diego, remembers when his station bought him the Panasonic HPX 370 camera to shoot news promos in the mid-2000s.
It’s not one of his fondest memories.
“That camera just really frustrated me,” says Naso, who has worked at the NBC O&O for more than a decade. “I couldn’t get the look I wanted. It was great for news, but not for production work. The image looked too tough, the depth of field wasn’t shallow enough. I was digging for reasons not to use that camera.”
Then, in late 2008, he had an aha moment when his friend lent him Canon’s new Mark II 5D to shoot a news promo. The 5D was a top-shelf, state-of-the-art digital single lens reflex (DSLR) still camera compatible with Canon’s strong lineup of attachable lenses. And for the first time in the emerging DSLR market, the camera included the ability to shoot video.
After shooting a promo with it, Naso quickly uploaded it to his computer to check out his footage. “I was absolutely blown away,” he says. “It was the look I dreamed about.
“The 5D Mark II changed everything. If you didn’t have that camera then, you were just shooting video…. That camera made everyone a cinematographer.”
Today, DSLRs continue to make inroads with creative services professionals because of low costs and the ability to achieve a cinematic, film look. Recognizing the market, manufacturers including Canon, Red and Blackmagic Design are developing video-specific cameras with similar DSLR form factors and price tags.
A Canon executive says the decision to add video to its pro-level DSLR still camera in 2008 came from wire service photojournalists at the Associated Press and Reuters who wanted to shoot short video clips at the same time they were shooting stills.
“It was that time when journalism was in a changing environment and news organizations wanted more video,” says Chuck Westfall, Canon spokesman. “That was really the only incentive we had in developing video into the 5D Mark II.”
Cinematographer Vincent Laforet showed what the camera could do in a three-minute video called Reverie. It went viral, gathering more than two million views in the first week of its release.
“It showed Hollywood that here was a new piece of equipment that’s an absolute game-changer,” says Westfall. “And it only cost $2,700.”
One the biggest advantages of DSLRs is the control over the picture’s depth of field — the distance between the subject and the background, says Naso. A shallow depth of field keeps the subject in focus in front of a creamy, blurred background. It can also help colors pop more on screen. “It’s a film look to the extreme,” Naso says.
To achieve that look, a photographer needs the right piece of glass in front of the camera, Naso explains.
“The lens makes all the difference,” he says . “On an ENG camera, you have a large zoom range, maybe 20X. You give that up on a DSLR, but you can get away with it because you have the time and freedom to reframe the shot.”
Naso tends to use a Canon 24mm-105mm (about a 4X range) f/4 (aperture) zoom lens with built-in image stabilization for a majority of his promo shoots. He says the lens gives him enough flexibility to shoot all day with it, and it’s light enough to shoot handheld.
But he also carries a few prime lenses with fixed focal lengths, such as a Zeiss 85mm f/1.4, for certain shots. “[Primes] are sharper and tend to have certain qualities designed for that focal length, such as edge-to-edge sharpening and less vignette,” he says.
“With zooms, there are so many more optics inside, sometimes up to seven different optics, that when you turn the dial, they all start to move around into focus.”
Joe Curry, president and owner of Dallas-based The Creative Spin, produces promos for Fox Sports Southwest. Since 2009, he’s used Canon’s 5D and updated 7D for his promos.
In addition to the depth of field control, Curry says the camera’s small size helps him shoot creative B-roll in public places.
“Sometimes we shoot in public places where we don’t want to create a big scene, like people walking into a subway, or heading to the ballpark,” he says. “The camera is the size of a tourist camera, which helps us get more access to places.”
KPIX San Francisco recently used a Canon 7D to shoot a promo about how its news team uses bonded cellular technology to go live from anywhere in the Bay Area. The size of the camera allowed the photographer to provide tight shots with a shallow depth of field, says Rob Genolio, brand manager for the CBS O&O.
DSLRs are also being used at Journal Broadcast Group stations for news promos, says Jim Thomas, Journal’s VP of marketing. “Ten years ago, we’d have to rent equipment to get that film-like look,” he says. “Today, these cameras are so accessible from the budgetary standpoint that we can let our people experiment and stretch these tools to find new ways to shoot creative pieces.”
Canon’s Westfall says the evolution of the 5D and 7D into a video-specific DSLR-type camera wasn’t difficult.
With a conventional DSLR, the photographer looks through an eyepiece and sees the subject through a mirror that’s reflecting the image from the lens. When the photographer clicks the shutter button, the mirror flips open and records the image to the sensor.
With the new video-capable cameras, the mirror actually stays open and the image records directly onto the sensor. The photographer then sees a live, virtual copy of what the sensor receives.
Today, Canon sells three cinematic cameras — the EOS C100, C300 and C500 — which range from $5,500 to $26,0000. Those cameras don’t include a mirror for still-photography like the 5D Mark II, but can record a digital still image while recording a video.
“The features we added to these cameras truly makes them a professional video cameras,” says Westfall.
Some of those features include the addition of XLR audio inputs and built-in neutral density filters. The cameras can use the same lineup of Canon lenses that videographers and photographers used on the 5D, 7D and other DSLRs, in addition to a new suite of cinema lenses optimized for video.
Naso recently won an Emmy Award for a series of promo shots about KNSD’s winter weather coverage that was shot entirely with the EOS C100.
Naso says one of the advantages of the C100 is its ergonomics. In the video above, Naso shot talent handheld while walking with the camera.
“The hand grip actually functions like a hand grip, making it really easy to hold,” he says, noting that the C100 weighs just two pounds.
It also includes some control features that made his shooting easier. “The f-stop dial, magnification control and a mini joystick navigator are right on the pistol grip, which puts them — including the record button — right at my fingertips,” he says.
Red and Blackmagic Design are other players in the market. Both accommodate a range of lenses, including Canon’s collection.
The Creative Spin’s Curry says he has rented Red cameras for more specialized shoots that required high frame rates to achieve a super slow-motion look.
“Red is really designed for more advanced type of shoots,” he says. “When we’re looking to do some cool special effects, we tend to go with the Red Epic.”
Ted Schilowitz, a Red spokesman, said Red cameras are being used for TV promos, mainly in bigger markets.
“Photographers are going to get that specialized film-like look with our cameras, but they’re also going to be able to get that slow motion effect,” he says. “Maybe they have a reporter popping out of a van in slow motion to go and catch the story.”
The Red Epic and Scarlet camera bodies sell for between $8,000 and $17,000.
Blackmagic is set to release its new Pocket Cinema Camera next month and company executives say preorders have been strong for the flagship Cinema Camera, which was announced nearly two years ago.
At the 2012 NAB Show, Blackmagic introduced the Cinema Camera, but failed to deliver on a release date because of a sensor issue, says Bob Caniglia, senior regional manager for Blackmagic on the East Coast.
Blackmagic doesn’t manufacture the sensor inside the camera. “There was a lot of drama where the problem was arising from and it took a long time for them to admit and reveal the actual problem.” says Caniglia. “Unfortunately, that was all part of an area that we had no control over.”
Caniglia anticipates seeing the camera roll out into market this summer.
Next month, Blackmagic is releasing its Pocket Cinema Camera for $1,000. The camera is 5-inches long, about 1-inch thick and weighs less than 1 pound without a lens. It’ll be marketed to documentary makers and others who are looking to get a high-quality image in tight spaces or on the go.
“It’s something you could easily use if you’re in a small space, like a car,” says Caniglia. “You can get this camera anywhere — it’s about as small as you’re going to get. But at the same time, you’re going to be recording high-quality, pro-resolution images.”
The pocket camera will take advantage of Blackmagic’s 13-stop dynamic range technology, which gives the videographer more data in the picture to edit in post.
For example, if a videographer is shooting inside a building through a window, there is enough dynamic range — or data — in the camera to perfectly expose the subject inside and what’s going on outside. With minimal dynamic range, if a videographer exposed for a subject inside the building, everything outside the window would be over-exposed and perhaps unusable.
“And using software, you can get the image to where you want it exactly,” says Caniglia. “You couldn’t do that without big dynamic range.”