The rise of the still camera for film making


Despite both using light to record images, until recently the worlds of video-making and photography were distinct entities, requiring separate equipment and facilities. If you wanted to take professional-looking photographs, you’d buy a SLR camera with a couple of good lenses. If you wanted to make quality videos, you’d buy a video camera: one with a decent flip out screen and professional microphone inputs. With the transition to digital over the past 15 years, the two worlds have become entwined and still cameras have become so proficient at recording video, the term ‘still’ is now a little misleading. We’re heading to the age of the hybrid – a camera that can shoot both photos and videos in superb quality.

Until recently, the only digital still cameras that would shoot video were small compacts. The video mode was a bit of a novelty; if you were out and about and wanted to grab a bit of video, then you’ll turn the dial, point and shoot. The quality wasn’t particularly inspiring but it was good enough. The big change came when Nikon decided to place high definition video onto one of its digital SLR cameras – the D90. With its large sensor and the ability to take a range of lenses, a whole assortment of creative possibilities were unleashed. HD video meant crisp, detailed visuals. A large sensor meant video could now be shot at night or in low light with great results. Zoom and wide angle lenses would lead to interesting shots and angles. And most importantly, the large sensor and flexible aperture could give a very narrow depth of field, enabling blurred backgrounds for truly cinematic shots. The man on the street now had a camera that was capable of true cinema.

Blurred backgrounds resulting from a large sensor and open iris on the lens

Canon soon released their version and pretty soon every camera manufacturer followed suit. We now have a range of dSLR cameras that can shoot stunning video and the quality is improving all the time. Canon recently released the EOS-1D, a camera capable of shooting 4K (ultra high def) video – the quality we see projected at the cinema. And something not to forgot – these are predominately still cameras, designed for taking beautiful photos.

It sounds like a winning combination – a still camera that can take great video. But it isn’t all positive: there are several limitations.

Firstly, despite being small and easy to carry, the shape of a dSLR isn’t always practical for shooting videos, especially over several hours. In response, some manufactures have produced rigs for carrying dSLRs on your shoulder or in more comfort. They also produce monitors, focusing systems and a range of other ingenious accessories.

A dSLR camera rig

Secondly, although they can record sound, many have poor setups for external microphones meaning the sound has to be recorded on a separate unit and later matched to the recorded footage. This is how it’s done in the movies, but it makes editing a little more time consuming. And, it’s very easy to forget to press record on the audio recorder!

Thirdly, the exclusions of important assist functions – like zebra lines indicating overly bright areas – make setting up a little trickier.

Most dSLRs also have slow & noisy autofocusing, can only record short clips at a time and suffer from moiré (distracting patterns on areas of small detail). One would think these limitations would be a huge burden and get in the way. They do, but if you work around them, the quality of the footage is so good it more than makes up for the pain.

As cameras develop, these limitations (especially the length of clip and quality of autofocus) are successfully being addressed. Some cameras have even been ‘hacked’ – users have written their own computer software that give them extra features and functions. One of the most popular is the Magic Lantern software for Canon cameras. Video quality can be vastly improved together with enhanced features for audio recording onto the camera itself. A hack for the Panasonic GH2 – the dSLR owned by The MILL – can raise its video quality so high, it can match the footage from a movie camera costing ten times as much.

So, if still cameras are becoming so good at taking video, what about the dedicated video camera? These still exist of course and many are great at what they do. They do have fast, silent autofocus and better setups for sound. And some even take stills photos! But most have built-in lenses and small sensors, which in my opinion will ultimately lead to their downfall. We are heading towards the hybrid super camera capable of all things visual: photos; video – maybe even ultra slow motion. The Panasonic AF-100 is probably the closest thing to it – a reasonably small video camera which takes dSLR camera lenses, and is capable of stunning results. It’s expensive at £5,000 but the size, weight and price of these cameras will come down over time.

Panasonic AF-100

This is a very exciting time for digital movie making and cameras in general. We now have cameras that can send their images and footage wirelessly to a laptop, cameras with such good shake reduction that they can iron out any wobble or jolts by the user. The new Apple iPhone has a fantastic camera for shooting hi-def video. Not only that, you can edit the video on the phone and upload it to a hosting site without the need for a separate PC. I’m looking forward to a camera that can do that to. Maybe the future of the camera is a pair of spectacles you wear on your head that records exactly what you see!

We’ve shot a couple of videos with a dSLR in the MILL with great results and have some exciting projects in the pipeline where good visuals are a must. Many amateur and independent film makers use dSLRs to make their films and many are showcased on Vimeo, which is always worth a visit. As an example, below is a short video I shot in July 2012 for a competition. It was filmed in a darkened room with my dSLR, the Canon 550D. A normal video camera would have had great difficulty bringing out the level of detail in such low light or providing the depth of field I ultimately achieved. Enjoy.

Recommended dSLR cameras: Canon EOS 5D Mk II or Mk III (expensive but industry standard), Panasonic GH2 (cheaper camera but capable of equal or better results)

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4 Responses

  1. Will Moindrot

    April 10, 2013 3:19 pm

    Hi Steven, good blog post. I am just staring out with a DSLR a Canon 600D, and have been trying out Magic Lantern although not for video yet just things like HDR bracketing for still shots (a hobby is making 360degree panoramics). Do you have any recommendation for good rigs/follow focus? Will


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