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Making films with HD DSLR cameras: Highlights of a special LIVA panel discussion held on May 11, 2010 in Long Island, NY

By Judah S. Harris

HD DSLR cameras are an exciting new tool for photographers and videographers. As with so many technical or professional tools, there's usually some learning curve involved - not to mention a mental adjustment of our thinking and creative style. (Remember how we responded when digital photography first arrived on the scene? There were “yeas and nays,” and a range of opinions in the middle.)

I attended a LIVA event (that's the Long Island Videographers Association and they meet monthly at the LI Marriott in Uniondale) on a Tuesday evening in May that was completely devoted to HD DSLR cameras and decided that I'd share a brief, but hopefully helpful, summary with my videographer and photographer friends, so they can partake in some of what was covered. A lot of us want to know a lot more about these digital still cameras that can shoot video in addition to stills and that offer video footage that is different, and even more preferred in some ways, than traditional video camera footage. Even though I'm a writer, in addition to being a photographer and involved in film projects, I'm not a big note taker, but I did so at this event in order to remember names, products, and HD DSLR camera tips that were shared by the panelists and certain audience members. I hope to use this new information and am glad to pass it along to others. Photographers and videographers become better at their craft when they share information. The same is true with other fields. Let’s leave secretiveness for the cola manufactures or other products where ingredients and techniques need to be highly safeguarded and where competition is ruthless (but don't dare bid on a job I'm bidding on!).

LIVA meets monthly and this evening started with some networking time, a chance to buy raffle tickets for some nice door prizes (I didn't win, but the money - a modest $10 in my case - supports LIVA activities), and then the program began shortly before 8:00 with a panel discussion - three videographers and a Canon representative. Canon has a few models that offer serious HD video: 1D, 5D, and 7D, and the lower priced T2i.

This was a chance to hear from people who are actually using the gear and also to see their individual setups, plus a number of companies brought some of their products to show off to the 80 or so attendees. In addition to Canon, the other corporate sponsor of the evening was Switronix. They make a shoulder bracket that lets you support the HD DSLR and also see the viewing screen and viewfinder properly. Regular video camera brackets are more geared, it seems, for the video cameras that have a side flip-out LCD screen. The still cameras have their screens right in back, as you know, so the bracket has to allow proper viewing. This company also makes a bright 30-watt light that mounts on the camera or on the setup. It offers three hours of light, can be dimmed (diffused too) and takes two hours to charge. Switronix also makes batteries and an almost essential remote on/off switch that lets you power your camera closer to where your hands are, since your setup of brackets and supports used to shoot with HD DSLRs will require repositioning. You're not simply holding a camera in your hands as you would when shooting stills.

Canon's rep mentioned that videographers can now also be included in their CPS program (a professional program for purchasers of Canon equipment) and mentioned their Cinema Caravan tour which will offer "workshops for EOS storytellers" in multiple cities this July and August. NYC's turn is July 7th and 8th (www.usa.canon.com/cinemacaravan).

There were a number of nice phrases that were presented during the evening and I'll share some in this report. One presenter said that video and photo professionals should keep in mind that wedding couples "don't need a photographer, they need a storyteller." This attitude influences the coverage and the use of the HD DSLR or video cameras, tools that can be used deftly to tell the story of a special event.

Later in the evening, the term "event cinema" was mentioned by another presenter. It’s great to discover new ways to describe our services – more creatively and with more specificity, perhaps. A fellow in the printing and design business once told me, after looking at my work, "You're not a photographer." I said "Sure I am," but he responded again, "No, you're not" and went on to explain that regular photographers take pictures but that I don't just take regular pictures: "You're not a photographer, you're an artist," he maintained. In the event world, photographers and videographers are too often viewed as "hired help," an event necessity, owners of these big power tools, but not the artists we truly are when we do our craft properly, beautifully, and with full force. Some of the fault rests in our not properly educating our clients. But there's also a lot of mediocrity out there that dilutes the esteem that we as photographers and videographers should have attached to our work. During the three hour program, there were a number of impressive clips shown that conveyed effectively the capabilities of the HD DSLR cameras and related accessories and that impressed the audience with the "artistry" of the shooters. Event cinema is a nice term, but there’s yet room for others.    

One of those clips was by digital videographer Ray Roman, and showed an event promoting an author and her book. The clip captured scenes of the prep for the event - food, decorations, and the like - and also the author herself, pages from her book, with lots of detail shots and quick cuts, moving shots, and shallow focus, which is a leading trait (capability) of the HD DSLRs and their lenses. Ray will teach a workshop in NY and NJ, sponsored by LIVA  and NJVA respectively (7/13 and 7/14 - $99 members and $149 non-members). It will include a simulated wedding shoot followed by a live edit walk-through from the same footage shot in the morning. It's limited to 20 people and titled "A Day with Ray." If you have the right name, it's a whole lot easier to use these punchy workshop titles (A Week with Zeek? A Year with...?)

The panelists, as mentioned, shared their gear and their personal approach to using an HD DSLR. Ray Estrada of Timeless Films NY said that he uses Russian lenses on his Canon camera, the Helios brand that he finds affordably on eBay, and stressed that he always prefers stabilizing the camera with a tripod or monopod, but can use handheld when he must. He showed a clip of a Tribeca wedding: vimeo.com/6821781

Anthony Quintano from Hackensack NJ, another panelist, who does occasional weddings but has more interest these days in commercials and viral videos, with a social media emphasis, showed his Jag35 support that holds the camera, a focusing wheel, and lights or mic as needed. During the break I went up to ask him some questions, take a look, and hold the camera setup. He has coordinated multi-camera shoots. See his work at www.quintanomedia.com

One of the questions or concerns addressed by the panelists was the audio quality on these cameras. Most, including Paul from Canon, advised recording audio separately from the DSLR. John Hyland, another panelist, said the audio on the cameras he uses was OK, but agreed that external audio would be a better choice. He uses Roland's Edirol audio recording products (the Edirol R-09 digital recorder, for instance, retails at approximately $350), while some of the others use Zoom's H4n recorder. PluralEyes was mentioned as good software to use to sync audio and video clips. A lot of event films, have significant portions that are image with a music track, maybe ambient sounds, and in those portions syncing won't be needed. But at some point we do want to hear the people speak, so it's smart to be familiar with options that will make the editing easier. 

While the discussion of the evening was centered on how HD DSLR users shoot with these cameras, another interesting component mentioned was how the people being filmed might react to them. One panelist found people more relaxed with these cameras than with regular video cameras. The HD DSLRs look like a still camera, not a larger, more imposing video camera, so people tend to be less self conscious about the camera being pointed in their direction and won't turn away so readily or feel compelled to say something into the camera such as: "Renee... Ira and I are so thrilled we’re here… you look absolutely gorgeous! This has got ot be the most beautiful wedding we've been to (this evening, that is)." Another panelist related that guests sometimes think they’re being photographed with a still camera and start posing in groups.

LIVA President Joseph Palma read a monologue he wrote which reflected on the "mixed" feelings he has about this breed of cameras. He has found that the need for more precision at times forces him to slow down and be more "in tune" with his shots. The camera size also makes it a lot easier to walk around the dance floor. 

Usually, if you're going to be doing any walking or extensive movement, you'll want to consider various stabilization options. A Steadicam system for event videography can cost you a few thousands dollars, but renting is always an option. Or, try Glidecam products for some cheaper options ($400-$600 for cameras weighing 3 to 10 pounds) that will give your footage the smoothness it needs in certain moving shots. Keep the camera aperture set at F11, advised one Glidecam user in the room, to maintain good focus.

For tracking shots, try a slider that enables the camera, mounted on a wheeled or ball bearing base to ride along a strip of track of a few feet or longer length. The track can be placed horizontally or vertically, and online tutorials remind image-makers to place objects in the foreground to heighten the sense of movement and depth. One LIVA member present for the program had brought his DP Slider which was mounted to a tripod, and shared a quick tour of the product with the audience (a 28" strip runs about $650).

Additional facts and advice proffered during the program included:

  • The native ISO of the cameras are 100; other speeds are digitally enhanced
  • When shooting with these cameras, don't use compact flash cards with less than a 45 MB/s transfer speed
  • Cinevate is one manufacturer of follow focus gear rings and other products (HD DSLR use necessitates manual focusing)
  • Neutral Density Filters are helpful in bright sunlight shooting situations, especially since wide aperatures are preferred for the shallow DOF look 
  • Products such as Cineform NeoScene convert HDV, AVCHD files to more-easy-to-edit CineForm AVI or MOV files
  • Event videographers are hired to deliver a rendition of the event, but the length can be two hours, an hour, even 25 minutes (the overall message not the length is key - but don't deliver a 10-minute wedding video)
  • All Canon HD DSLR models record video at 12-minute intervals (don't leave the camera on a tripod and forget about it)
  • HD is sharp, so use soft focus lenses if you're concerned about how the skin of your bride or other subjects will look on screen. Alternatively, record footage with less contrast and less sharpness
  • You can shoot still images while recording video, but the recording and audio will be interrupted momentarily, as will Live View
  • Some people have experienced overheating, so it's best to shut the camera off occasionally (and perhaps consider a second camera to trade off with). Live View locks up the mirror which can also strain the camera

There are ample video clips shot with HD DSLR cameras online to watch. Canon has its own 7D channel on Vimeo, so check out the selection, including Ray Roman's "Short Wedding Film" which opens with a humorous moment, a human mistake (other people may get it wrong, but we photographers and videographers would never forget the bride’s name). Head on over to Roy’s blog to see some other clips that will inspire, or Canon's website to view cinematic shorts, with some behind-the-scenes clips that offer movie making know-how. But most importantly, stop at some point watching other people’s work and get out to try your own stuff. Buy - or at least rent - an HD DSLR and create something to impress your colleagues and your clients.

Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer. His photography has appeared in museum exhibits, on the Op-Ed Pages of the NY Times, on the covers of more than 40 novels, and in advertising all over the world. He offers email marketing consulting services for visual artists and other small businesses wanting to develop an email newsletter or program for online promotions. Sign up for his own email newsletter to stay up to date on new projects and marketing ideas.




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