Getting Started With DSLR Video

So, you want to make movies? You’re in luck, because most new digital cameras have HD video recording capabilities as well. But, just because you have a video-capable camera doesn’t make you a capable video shooter. So, here’s what you need to know—from camera setup to shooting tips—to get started in video.


The first step in shooting video is getting your camera set up correctly. Choose Movie mode, of course, which on compact cameras is often indicated by a movie camera icon. On many D-SLRs it’s enabled by entering the camera’s Live View mode, which raises the mirror and sends a live feed straight from the sensor to the LCD.

Before you’re really ready to roll, though, you’ve got to set up the particulars of your video mode. Assuming you want to shoot in high definition, you’ll ideally want to choose 1080 resolution (often indicated as 1920 or 1920×1080) for the highest quality possible. Many cameras offer 720 (1280×720) as well, which is fine for web video and doesn’t eat up as much storage space. (Moving forward, we could eventually see super-high-quality 2k and 4k resolutions—the stuff of professional cinema gear—available in even pocket digital cameras. Maybe.)

Along with the resolution, you’ll want to establish the frame rate at which your camera is recording. The frame rate affects how smooth the video will ultimately look. A higher frame rate is typically better for the highest quality, and that means choosing 30 frames per second. Start there if it’s available, and leave it there until you’re given an explicit reason to change it to something else—such as 24 frames per second.

Video cameras offer options such as progressive (P) or interlaced (I), which has to do with ultimately how compressed the video file will be. Progressive is ideal for best quality because each frame is a whole new picture. Interlaced video, which is an option on some cameras, makes for a smaller file size because the frames are interlaced, meaning that information is shared between frames. Some new Canon DSLRs offer an option for ALL-I or IPB compression; ALL-I treats every frame as a separate image, which technically makes for the highest quality and largest file sizes—but this might be overkill for a newbie. Start with IPB until you need to see the highest quality.

Now you’re ready to choose your exposure. I like to think like a still photographer when I’m setting up to shoot video, so I start with a good photographic exposure—because that will lead to a good video exposure as well. I prefer manual exposure mode, because this is the best way to ensure that your exposure won’t change automatically when brightness changes in the scene. (If you’re an automatic kind of person, start with auto to determine the right exposure, then translate that to a manually-selected ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Or, you may use auto exposure in conjunction with the exposure lock button to keep the scene from readjusting while you record.)

Let’s say you’ve established that the ideal exposure for a still photo of your scene at ISO 400 is 1/60th of a second at f/8. You’re well on your way to an ideal video exposure, and when you switch to video mode you’ll see that you’re still at ISO 400, you’re still at f/8 (although in video it’s called an iris, not an aperture) and you’ve got a shutter speed of 1/60th. This is as slow a shutter speed as you should use when shooting 30 frames per second: It’s double the frame rate, and that’s a good rule of thumb. If you have to go slower, just try to keep the shutter as fast as possible to keep from creating motion-blurred images—unless, of course, that’s the effect you’re after.

Lastly, you’ll want to think about recording audio. One of three situations is likely to be true. First, maybe you don’t need any audio at all because you’ll be backing your video with music or other pre-recorded sounds. This is great, as it means one less thing you have to worry about while shooting, but it’s also unfortunately rare. Option two is that you’ll simply take what you get in terms of camera audio. This might be fine for B-roll—the footage that is used to augment the primary action that unfolds on video—but if you’re outdoors on a windy day, or if the subject’s speaking voice is crucial to the project, you’re probably not going to be happy with camera-only audio. Which brings us to option three, the best choice for audio, which is to augment the recording with an external mic and/or a digital recorder. You can attach an external shotgun mic to the camera’s audio input, or perhaps record audio separately on another device, combining it with the video during editing. All of the above are acceptable, and it really comes down to your comfort level. Ultimately, the fact that you’re paying attention to the audio at all, will pay huge dividends in the more professional quality of your finished product.


Now, you’re ready to shoot. One of the first challenges you’re likely to run into is focusing—which can be a bit of a challenge with video. I prefer to focus first in manual mode, especially if I’m shooting a stationary subject, or at a small enough iris to create plenty of depth of field. If you need assistance in focusing and refocusing, however, you may want to consider the addition of an external monitor—like Sony’s hot-shoe mounted 5-inch LCD with an HDMI connection—to help you see what you’re doing while you shoot. Alternatively you can consider an eyepiece that will show you in detail what’s on the LCD, as the details of fine focus are tricky to see with the naked eye. Your camera may give you some acceptable autofocus options as well, but the best course is often going to be to rely on your own eyes to determine what’s sharp and what isn’t. Focusing—especially on a moving subject—is a challenge while shooting video, and these accessories that make it easier are very much worthwhile investments.

Are you planning to handhold your camera while you shoot? I won’t try to talk you out of it, but I will suggest that you also shoot some steadied tripod shots, as well. Handholding D-SLRs and compact cameras is very tricky, because every little motion turns into a nauseating shake in the video. If and when you do handhold, try to stop down the iris to increase your depth of field (if you’re recording a subject that’s close to you, especially) and zoom out to the widest end of your zoom len’s spectrum. The wider the scene, the more camera shake will be masked. With telephoto shots, you might as well avoid handholding altogether—those little hand movements will turn into seismic camera shakes in the finished video.

The best way to handhold a DSLR while shooting video is to invest in a unit to steady the camera, whether that’s the gyro effect of a true Steadicam, or simply a kit that turns that DSLR into something more akin to a shoulder-mounted digital video camera. Cages and rigs from companies like Redrock Micro are ideal for photographers who want to use their DSLRs for serious and extensive handheld video shooting.

If you are planning to use a tripod, remember that video tripods are a bit different from camera tripods. Sure, they hold the camera steady, but the best ones have a fluid tripod head that allows for smooth, continuous movements that make panning and tilting work well while rolling. Try using your usual photo tripod for video and you’ll quickly learn that its best results come from locking down the camera completely

When it comes to composition, the same basic rules come into play. The rule of thirds is still useful, and leading lines and s-curves are just as powerfully effective in video. Other rules are a little more video-specific, though, and they include allowing leading space within the frame in the direction a subject is moving, and allowing a scene’s action to unfold completely before cutting and moving on. Let a moving subject travel all the way through a still frame, rather than feeling the need to follow them constantly with the camera. If you’ve got to zoom within a scene, take it slow and steady; D-SLR lenses are not smoothly motorized as typical video zooms are, and they lend themselves to herky-jerky, stutter-step zooming. This—obviously—does not look great on video. (This is one benefit of cine-specific lenses for DSLRs; refocusing requires a wider turn of the ring, which makes the focus change appear a lot smoother.) The same goes for other motions as well, such as panning. Quick movements aren’t often ideal so, again, take it slowly. And, last but not least, don’t follow a move with a move and another quick move. It’s perhaps the most common affliction of still photographers getting into video—making too many constant movements and zooms. If you find yourself wanting to zoom and pan and tilt repeatedly, make sure you hold a shot steadily for at least five seconds before making another move. And with that, you should be well on your way to producing good-looking videos.

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