Japan is one of the most picturesque countries on earth. When I first traveled there 20 years ago, it was with a still camera shooting film. Now I have the ability to record what I see and experience in both high-quality digital stills and HD video with one camera. The hybrid revolution has made this possible.
In the professional arena, there’s an exponentially growing call for multimedia production from a single source, and even if you don’t make your living this way, you can add an extra dimension to your travel photography by including video in the mix. And though the latest HDSLRs make it convenient to capture both still and video, don’t expect to get great videos right out of the box. For the best-quality video, you’re going to want some additional tools to improve both picture and sound quality.
I picked up some valuable tips on shooting HDSLRs during a three-day EOS Moving Image Workshop put on by Createasphere, a company dedicated to presenting the state-of-the-art tools and people in the digital production and postproduction realm. The workshop, led by notable cinematographers, focused on ways to make the new breed of hybrid cameras cinema-friendly, and included a comprehensive overview of hybrid camera production and post workflow.
To demonstrate the capabilities of HDSLRs, we were shown a montage of work created primarily with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 7D, including a grandiose wedding shot in India, Christopher Morris’ black-and-white, selective-focus documentary on President Obama, a dramatic piece by Philip Bloom in Europe with stunning night shots, magnificent footage by Bruce Dorn of horses running through snow and a Saturday Night Live opening sequence.
Analyzing these impressive works, it becomes obvious that some video techniques are counterintuitive to our still photo sensibilities, such as not moving the camera and letting action go out of frame. Motion in the video world is often done by edit, not by moving the camera.
Get familiar with your camera and its video options. Experiment with different settings to see how they affect the look of the video beforehand, so you’ll be familiar with the controls and will know what to expect.
As an example, suggested camera settings for the 5D Mark II and 7D are 24 fps for the "film look" and sticking to Canon’s native ISOs of 160, 320, 640 and 1250. Picture Style should be set to Neutral rather than Standard, with the idea of adding more punch to the footage in post. When working with wide-angle lenses, it’s important to turn on Canon’s Peripheral Illumination Correction setting to eliminate vignetting.
For white balance, avoid automatic because it will make color matching and correcting in post a nightmare. The best way to match color between shots is to set the camera to an appropriate Kelvin temperature rather than camera settings such as daylight, tungsten and cloudy.
Here are some of the tools of the trade to turn hybrid cameras into powerful moviemakers and myself into a self-contained hybrid travel photographer.
At the top of the equipment list is a loupe like those made by Hoodman and Zacuto. These are put over the camera’s LCD screen, blocking out extraneous light and allowing the camera operator to finely tune focus. When pressed against the face, it also gives a sturdy point of stabilization.
STABILIZING RIGS, FLUID HEADS AND FOLLOW-FOCUS
To further aid in the capture of smooth and tack-sharp shots, companies such as Cotton Carrier, Redrock Micro and Zacuto are producing stabilization and focusing systems. For Steadicam-looking shots, the Jaybilizer HDSLR is an affordable camera stabilizer that’s optimized for cameras weighing between two and four pounds. At the high end is the Glidecam X-10, a body-mounted, professional camera-stabilization system. Small dolly systems such as the Kessler Pocket Dolly and the Cinevate Atlas FLT have been designed for the HDSLR market and can add high production values to a project for a relatively low cost.
When I’m not handholding a shot or using a dolly system, I mount my camera on a Manfrotto 128LP Micro Fluid Video Head on a carbon-fiber tripod for ultrasmooth pans (moving horizontally) and tilts (moving vertically). Ballheads can be an effective option, but care must be taken not to strip the head.
Unlike still photographers, cinematographers don’t have the option of going to faster and faster shutter speeds to reduce the exposure, allowing for wide apertures, which yield a more cinematic look because of the resulting shallow depth of field. When shooting at 24 fps, a 1?50 sec. shutter is considered normal. Shooting anything faster than 1?125 sec. increases the chances of strobing effects. Therefore, it’s important to have neutral-density filters. For all-in-one, high-quality ND filters, the Singh-Ray Vari-ND can yield up to eight stops of light blockage, and the Schneider Optics 77mm True-Match Vari-ND offers 11 stops of attenuation.
Because cinema lenses have larger turning radiuses and ultrasmooth focusing mechanisms—which is especially useful for follow-focus and rack-focus situations—some cinematographers are mounting ARRI, Panavision and Zeiss lenses to their HDSLR camera bodies. Of these, Zeiss is the most practical for a photographer like me who works on his own and doesn’t have a focus puller.
Regardless of the lens attached, I always use one that has a maximum aperture of at least ƒ/2.8 and is a nonvariable zoom (a lens that can retain its widest aperture regardless of its focal length). This allows me to get a shallow depth of field out of a given lens and therefore a more cinematic look.
The biggest difference between still photography and cinematic lighting is that strobes aren’t an option for the latter. As with still photography, the brightest element in a frame attracts the eye. Since we can’t overpower the brightness using strobes as we can shooting stills, silks and scrim
s—or waiting for the right time of day—play a bigger role in the moving-picture world.
A number of companies have produced small LED lights that are perfect for HDSLR shooting. They come with a ball and socket that can screw into the camera’s flash hot-shoe, as well as color temperature gels and diffusion. For exact color temperature balance, the Litepanels Croma has a dial to adjust Kelvin color temperatures between daylight (5600K) and tungsten (3200K). Proper color balance is one of the keys to producing professional-looking video. For example, when shooting outdoors in the late afternoon, a light source still at the midday color temperature will make the scene look artificial.
While the visual results from hybrid cameras can be stunning, all HDSLRs need external microphones or recorders for the audio to live up to the picture quality. A common statement from those in the movie industry is that people can tolerate a less-than-perfect picture, but not bad sound.
In his book, DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Kurt Lancaster divides sound recording setups into three basic categories: recording with a mic into the camera; recording into the camera using an XLR mic with an XLR adapter; and recording onto a high-quality external recorder such as the Zoom H4n or the Tascam DR-100 using the on-camera mic for reference and backup. Whichever method is used, he suggests turning off the camera’s AGC (Automatic Gain Control) if possible to avoid sound fluctuations.
High-quality on-camera mics that slip into the camera’s hot-shoe or a bracket with a cold-shoe (if a light is taking up the hot-shoe position) include the 9-volt, battery-powered RØDE VideoMic Pro and the AAA-battery-powered Sennheiser MKE 400 shotgun microphone. Both plug into the camera with a stereo mini-jack and make a huge difference when it comes to sound quality. For optimal dialogue quality, I keep people talking to the camera within five feet of the mic. To expand the recording range when needed, a boom pole or a wireless lavalier system can be useful, especially when someone is playing an on-camera host.
The RØDE VideoMic Pro has a selectable high-pass filter that can be turned on to reduce low-end noise such as air-conditioners and traffic. Along with that control are the level settings. The -10 dB level attenuation (or PAD) is ideal for recording loud sound sources such as live music. The +20 dB level boost is designed for use with DSLR cameras. This allows the user to reduce the camera’s mic-input level, effectively reducing the amount of noise generated by the camera’s audio circuitry.
When using XLR mics or a wireless mic setup, I mount the BeachTek DXA-SLR Adapter under the camera. The DXA-SLR has Good/Peak signal indicators and a headphone output, allowing me to monitor the recording. The AGC Disable feature works effectively at controlling the wild swings of the Auto Gain Control that can plague HDSLR camera recordings. BeachTek suggests using Sescom’s 25 dB padded output cable from the adapter when using any Nikon HDSLR camera to match the levels properly, since the DXA-SLR is primarily calibrated for Canon cameras. Sescom also makes a splitter cable that allows for both monitoring and recording from a single output jack.
OTHER HELPFUL GEAR
For bigger productions, external monitors made by companies such as ikan and Marshall are often used. In addition to seeing what the camera sees on a larger HD screen, the monitors can display color, gamma and histogram readings.
If you have a smartphone or tablet, there are apps to help you, too. For Apple iOS devices, check out MovieSlate, which contains a digital slate, clapper board and shot log, and Cinemek Hitchcock, a mobile storyboard and previsualization composer. These apps not only make you look cool, but they’re two of the most useful for our HDSLR pursuits.
Hauling all of this gear shouldn’t be an afterthought. When I hit the road as a self-contained mini-production company, I pack the equipment in the Lowepro DSLR Video Fastpack 350 AW, a bag specifically made for the multimedia photographer. I put my camera in the side-entry lower compartment, along with a couple of lenses and a small LED light, with my sound equipment and iDC rig going into the upper compartment. My 15-inch MacBook Pro goes into a separate and padded laptop compartment. A foldout holder and strap secures my tripod to the side of the bag.
Final Cut Pro X is the newest software from Apple, with Premiere Pro (professional) and Premiere Elements (consumer) being Adobe’s editing software offerings. Whichever software you use, a good rule of thumb is to stick to one or two types of transitions between scenes per project, and only use those that add to the story you’re trying to tell. Otherwise, the end result can look gimmicky.
When it comes to mixing sound, the key is to edit with your eyes on levels, not your ears on your computer’s speakers. A good starting point is to have dialogue between -6 and -12 dB, and background "wild sound" and music between -15 and -18 dB. If the audio was captured using an external recorder, PluralEyes is a popular utility for sound synchronization and is compatible with most editing software.
Once a project is edited, it needs to be output, the final stage in the HD video workflow. When choosing compression options to output a finished product, the most important question is "Where is it going?" Answers range from web streaming, YouTube, iPad and mobile phone to DVD, broadcast TV and digital cinema. Since noise is a consequence of compression, it’s important not to compress more than what’s needed.
Now, with all the tools at the ready to capture great-looking and great-sounding HDSLR projects, it’s up to us, the hybrid photographers, to create great content.
Mark Edward Harris is the author of several books, including The Way of the Japanese Bath. See more of his work at www.markedwardharris.com.