7 DSLR Video Lessons
Although I’ve been doing professional video work (in one capacity for another) for the better part of a decade now, the world of DSLR video is relatively new to me. The bulk of my work has always been in post-production – editing, animation, motion graphics, etc. However, moving across the country has meant starting over in a new professional environment and a new client base – and, with it, a new need to handle more of the production process than I ever have in the past. All this means that I have spent most of the past year learning the ropes of video production on a DSLR: the necessary (and unnecessary) equipment, the unique workflow, and the benefits and shortcomings it carries. The following are the lessons I’ve picked up along the way, the things I wish I’d known when I started out. I’m still learning – in many ways, I still feel like I’m just starting out – but every shoot brings new experiences and better understanding. These are the lessons I’ve learned thus far.
1. A DSLR is not a camcorder.
This sounds obvious – and it should be – but it requires a real shift in thinking and has pretty major ramifications. At the studio where I last worked, almost everything was shot on dedicated video cameras – professional-level camcorders. When I first started working with DSLR video, I tried very hard to turn my DSLR into a camcorder. This involved things like investing in a shoulder-rig/rail system to approximate the form factor of a shoulder-mounted video camera and using a cheap matte box in an effort to make the camera look more “professional.” My biggest mistake involved my audio setup – I had always run XLR microphones directly into the video cameras I used, but DSLRs only have 1/8 inch (headphone-size) ports. So, I purchased a new XLR shotgun microphone and ran it into a portable audio recorder, then ran the recorder’s line out into the DSLR. The entire thing was a clumsy, confusing tangle of wires and components that looked absurd, weighed a ton, and performed poorly. During my first shoot with the rig, I tried to maneuver the setup while looking though a magnified eyepiece and immediately ran into a door frame.
No matter what accessories you add, a DSLR is simply not a camcorder. That is not to say that there isn’t a place for shoulder rigs and matte boxes in the world of DSLR video, because there is – but it’s vitally important that you accept the DSLR for what it is in order to make the best use of it. DSLRs are compact and adaptable – that is their greatest strength. Don’t fight their size; use it to your advantage. Don’t try to shoehorn features onto them that just don’t fit; instead, look for simple solutions. The sooner you come to terms with what a DSLR is and is not, the sooner you can start really getting good results out of it. This leads directly to my next point…
2. Keep it as light and simple as you possibly can.
You know what’s fun? Shopping for lots of equipment and accessories, then assembling it all into one big, imposing camera system. You know what’s not fun? Carrying said camera system around all day. If you want to add rails, a shoulder stabilizer, hand grips, counterweights, a matte box, follow focus, battery grip, shotgun mic, shock mount, audio recorder, and LCD viewfinder to your camera, go nuts. I’ve tried it – you’ll get a terrific workout. Now, each one of those accessories is a valuable addition to your arsenal as a filmmaker, but trying to use them all at once will make you hate yourself, your camera, and your client.
The really beautiful thing about filming on a DSLR is that you can change your setup on the fly – you can be totally modular. Filming outside? Maybe throw that matte box and viewfinder on. Doing a long shoot without much down time? A battery grip is a great idea. Capturing b-roll that doesn’t require audio? Lose the microphone. Filming on a tripod? For crying out loud, take off the shoulder rig. Before any shoot, take some time to think about what you’ll be capturing and what gear will facilitate that. Bring what you need – heck, bring more than what you need, but don’t try to use it all at once. You may think that using everything will make you more adaptable, but it will slow you down nine times out of ten.
3. Be thoughtful with what you buy.
Camera equipment is expensive, so choose what you invest in carefully. If you aren’t sure what to buy, do a practice shoot and review the footage. Really try to discern between what you need and what you just think would be cool to have. When in doubt, try to rent or borrow the equipment you’re thinking about getting before you buy it. Always, always consider what you shoot and how you shoot it. If you don’t find yourself doing rack focus shots, you probably don’t need a follow focus. If you do most of your filming with a tripod, you probably don’t need a shoulder rig. A steadicam is nice to have, but how often will you really use it? Enough to justify the expense? Even smaller equipment purchases can add up fast. Spending less than $50 on a budget rail system might seem like a bargain, but that’s $50 that you aren’t spending on things you know you’ll use, like batteries, media, or storage. Or, you know, food and rent.
Two things that definitely are worth investing in are audio and image quality – a decent mic and a decent lens, in other words. You can get great audio out of a portable recorder, like a Tascam DR-40, or a camera-mounted mic, like the RODE Videomic Pro – but you may not need both, at least when you’re first starting to invest in gear. Lens-wise, you should buy something boring that you’ll actually use before you ever invest in a super-zoom or a fisheye or a tilt-shift or whatever. A lens like the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 might be a little pedestrian, but it will give you nice images and will probably stay on your camera 85% of the time. If you need something more exotic, you can always rent it.
4. Understand how your camera works.
One thing that’s great about DSLRs is the level of manual control they offer, but that also means you need to have some knowledge of what it is that you’re controlling. Just because your camera lets you set your ISO super high doesn’t mean you should. When it comes to setting up my camera for filming, here are my basic rules: set the shutter speed to twice your frame rate (or as close as you can) and use a combination of ISO and aperture to control brightness. Keep in mind that as ISO goes up, graininess goes up with it, so try to keep it at as low as possible. Also keep in mind that as aperture gets larger, depth of field gets shallower, so you may need to either add light or an ND filter, depending on the results you’re looking for. Getting good images – really cinematic images – is something a balancing act between all of these factors.
If none of that makes sense, you probably aren’t ready to be filming with a DSLR yet, at least not seriously. Spend a few days learning about aperture, shutter speed, and other photography basics – it will make your life much easier. In some ways, DSLRs have a steeper learning curve than other cameras, but you can get stunning results out of them. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the camera’s settings, you should really spend some time learning the basics of compression and encoding in order to understand what your camera does with the images it captures and how to set up your scene for the best possible results. As with most things, practice is key. The more you film and the more you know, the more confident you’ll be.
5. Be prepared and bring extras.
How much recording media (SD cards, CF cards, SSDs, tape, whatever) should you bring to a six hour shoot? As much as you have. How about for a half-hour shoot? Same answer. Cards fill up, or fail, or glitch out, more often than you’d expect. The same goes for batteries – there is probably no quicker way to lose a client than to have to bail midway through a shoot because you’ve run out of power. You should always have – at minimum – twice as many batteries as your camera will hold, so that you can have a set of spares charging while you shoot. If you’re filming someplace where you can’t recharge, bring as many as you can and consider something like a portable charger or car adapter. You should also remember to bring extra batteries for any accessories you might be using (microphone, portable light, etc.).
There are a few other things you should never leave home without as well: always bring a few extension cords, always bring a power strip or surge protector, always bring microfiber lens wipes, always bring gaffer’s tape. I like to carry a Leatherman tool around on my belt on shoot days – most times I don’t need it, but I’m incredibly glad it’s there when I do. Finally – and I cannot stress this enough – always, always, always carry a quarter in your pocket. Most mounting plates still use slotted screws and the odds are good that you will encounter at least one throughout your shoot. If you have a quarter on you, this is no big deal – if not, you end up running around looking for a screwdriver or trying to borrow someone else’s quarter (and trying to explain why you need it) and it just doesn’t look good. This is the cheapest, most frequently used camera accessory you will ever find.
6. Carry your equipment properly.
This isn’t something I’ve actually been guilty of very often, but it’s definitely something I’ve observed: do not invest in equipment and then try to transport it without a proper case or storage solution. There are a huge variety of options out there, from backpacks to hard cases to satchels to suitcases with rolling wheels – and you can spend a lot or you can spend a little. Just get something that meets your needs and protects your gear.
A decent case is especially important for your camera and lens, but you really want to figure out a system for transporting all of your equipment. That’s usually pretty easy, since just about every piece of equipment you can possibly buy seems to include a case of one sort or another (actually, you will probably end up with more cases than you know what to do with). The more you shoot, the more you’ll begin to figure out how to carry things and what can be consolidated – for example, I keep extra extension cords and other electrical accessories in the roomy case that came with my light kit. I carry media in a small zip-up wallet (a small investment that makes life much easier) in my main camera bag for easy access. Depending on how much you need to carry, buying a small luggage cart might also be a good idea. Most of the serious camera operators I’ve met have fairly intricate systems of carrying their gear – systems that have been refined over years of production work to maximize space usage and protection. Figure out a system that works for you, so that you know where everything is (or should be) at a moment’s notice.
7. Protect your footage.
Shooting HD footage fills up media cards fast, so it’s tempting to immediately dump the footage, erase the card, and put it back into rotation. However, in the controlled chaos of a shoot, it becomes very easy to mix up cards and make mistakes – it really helps to have a predetermined system in place for transferring and backing up footage. I’ve started using an “inbox/outbox” system for transferring media: when a card is full, I drop it into the inbox, either a small cardboard box or envelope. When I have a spare minute, I take the card from the inbox, plug it into a laptop, and copy it twice – usually to both the computer’s internal storage and an external hard drive. Only after the footage has been successfully copied to two other locations does the card go into the outbox, to be erased. That way, even if one of the hard drives fails, the footage will remain intact. You should always have a backup, if at all possible.
I also label my media cards – A, B, C, D, etc. It’s a simple practice that doesn’t cost anything and can save you a huge amount of confusion when you’re switching cards on the fly. As I mentioned earlier, I carry my media in a small zippered wallet. During filming, I slip the wallet into my pocket, so that I can quickly switch to a new card if necessary. If I have to switch out a card unexpectedly and don’t have time to drop it into my “ready to transfer” inbox, I put it into the wallet backwards – that way, I can tell at a glance that the card shouldn’t be used for filming yet.
That system works for me and I try to stick to it religiously during shoots. While another system may work best for you, the important thing is to have a plan for how to transfer and back up your media before you start shooting. On set, the footage you capture is the most valuable thing you have – more than your camera, or sound rig, or other gear – because it’s the one thing that can’t be replaced. Take the time to protect it.
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So that’s where I’m at right now. Learning to shoot on DSLRs has been amazing so far and I’m sure there is a ton more for me to learn. If you have any tips you’d like to sure, be sure to leave a comment below or contact me directly!