Experimenting with a Video DSLR

When people start talking about “feature film” quality video for less than HDV prices, I pay attention. For a few years now some DSLR manufacturers have been making still cameras that shoot HD video. The combination of large sensors with great quality glass has put amazing video capability in the hands of single camera video producers. It may be hard to zoom smoothly, and you have to manually focus, but the video that comes off of these cameras is worth the extra effort.

I had seen some images and compressed videos online, but never actually seen any raw video until last year. I was amazed at the quality of the video. The shallow depth of field that can be achieved is stunning. The image just looks great.

Recently our Lighting Director added a Canon 5D Mark 2 to his cameras arsenal. He is an avid stock photographer, and this purchase will help him in that area. We had an interview shoot set up, so he readily agreed to us experimenting with his camera. We shot with a Sony Z1U, A1U and the 5D. We figured the 5D would look too different to actually use in the completed video, but wanted to see how it would work in a studio environment.

We used his 5D with an L series 24-70 f2.8. Since we were not using it specifically for the shoot, but just experimenting, it as a bit higher and off to one side. Here is a side by side still capture from the 5D (left, ) and the Z1U (right) Click for larger version:

That capture is from Final Cut Pro. The videos are each showing at about 50%. The Z1U image is great. Well lit, in focus, and completely usable. The 5D image is better. The shallow DOF makes the subject pop. Even in this very unscientific test, wow.

Now, there are drawbacks to the 5D (and any video DSLR). The 5D has a 12 minutes record limit. Not an issue if you plan for it, but one of our interviews went 15 minutes, and we were unaware of that limitation. The audio input on the 5D (and every other Video DSLR with external audio I know about) uses a 3.5mm mini plug. There are tons of after market solutions for getting an balanced XLR signal into the mini plug, but it’s an extra step. then there’s the rolling shutter issues that plague all single CMOS chip video cameras.

The 5D isn’t a cheap solution either. The set up I used for this experiment would be upwards of $4000. Still, that’s a grand under what the Z1U costs us back when we purchased it.

My new goal is to compare the Full Frame sensor of the 5D with the compact sensor of the 7D and the T2i. Just how different are these cameras in their video capability. I know the 5D will have less noise at lower light levels, and could do a shallow DOF if needed. But is that worth the extra cost for what we are doing?