How to Shoot Great Video With a DSLR

Matt Brown is an award-winning producer with nine years of experience in professional video production. He has used a Canon EOS 7D DSLR for many of his recent video projects, and he has shot and produced TV programs for the BBC, as well as documentaries, music videos, and commercials.

Why Should You Use a DSLR for Video?

Shooting video with a DSLR camera
Even when compared to shooting with a professional broadcast camera, filming video with a DSLR camera provides an unexpected freedom that can be fun and exciting for seasoned videographers. DSLRs are capable of shooting professional-looking video, and they're cheaper and more accessible than your average professional-level camcorder.

One nice thing about using a DSLR for video is that you can pull the camera out of the box and start shooting right away. But to master the craft, you need to invest time and money in other equipment to get the most out of shooting video with a DSLR. For anyone used to broadcast cameras, this extra investment is understood; for people accustomed to consumer-level camcorders, however, this is a bit of a new setup. When budgeting for your DSLR, be aware that you'll need to set aside some cash for accessories if you want to get serious.

This guide is an overview of the general aspects of shooting video with a DSLR. Picking the right camera model is just as important as following the basic steps in this guide. The most important thing to ask yourself is what environments you'll be shooting in most frequently, and then buying a camera accordingly. Each camera has its pros and cons: Some are built for low-light shooting, some are very light, some are easy to use, and a lot of older DSLRs don't shoot video at all. Make sure to do your research by reading reviews, studying spec sheets, and getting some presale hands-on time with cameras before you make your initial investment.

Until recently, I've primarily used dedicated professional-level video cameras and even film cameras to shoot projects. So why would I switch to a DSLR for shooting video? For me, it came down to the following factors.

1. Cost: The cameras and lenses are much cheaper than any other professional broadcast option, but they give you similarly high-quality results.

2. Size: DSLRs are small and compact, and the benefits extend to the front of the camera. People are generally more at ease when being filmed with a DSLR than they are when a big broadcast camera is pointed at their face.

3. Ability to shoot high-quality stills and video: I came from a fashion-photography background, and being able to go back to using a camera to take film footage is great for me. I love the aesthetics and the different ways you can use a DSLR.

4. The look of the footage: Even now, after using many different DSLRs for a couple of years' worth of video projects, I am still amazed by the video quality. I've used DSLRs on big shoots for TV shows, advertisements, multicam setups, and interviews. The quality never disappoints.

What We'll Cover in This Guide

Here's a rundown of the topics I'll discuss in this guide; you can skip ahead to the sections you're interested in, or just click the Next link at the bottom of each page to read the guide in order.

How to Select a DSLR Lens for Video

How to Focus Manually While Shooting Video

How to Use a Zoom Lens While Shooting Video

How to Use a DSLR's Controls for Video

Tips on Clip Length and Storage Media

Next-Level Tips: Camera Rigs and Stabilization

Next-Level Tips: Audio and External Microphones

Selecting a DSLR Lens for Video

Selecting a DSLR Lens for video
Compared with using a standard fixed-lens camcorder, this is the most exciting part of the whole DSLR experience for me: Thousands of lens choices are on the market. And the prices vary from $10 in a backyard sale to $20,000 for a high-quality sports telephoto lens.

The two main choices you have are a prime lens (which has a fixed focal length) or a zoom lens (which lets you adjust the focal length). Even if you find a lens that doesn't fit the lens mount on your DSLR, you can buy adapters that make pretty much any lens fit on any camera. That said, autofocus features and the display of aperture readings from the lens may not work if you use a converter or an older lens with a newer DSLR. It's important to think about how each lens will react with your camera, and whether you can live with not having all the features and information you'd get with a newer, natively mounted lens.

When choosing a lens, keep several key points in mind.

1. The faster the lens, the more freedom you will have.

In this case, "fast" refers to the maximum aperture of the lens. Lenses that have very wide apertures (such as f/1.4 or f/1.8 lenses; the lower the f-stop, the wider the aperture) can gather a lot of light in near-dark situations, and they let you use faster shutter speeds as a result. Fast lenses also allow you to capture footage with a dramatically shallow depth of field, meaning your foreground subject will be in sharp focus while the background is blurry. In general, you get a lot more visual versatility out of a fast prime lens than you do with your standard f/3.5 kit zoom lens.

2. Spend the bulk of your money on the lenses, not the camera.

Camera bodies will age quickly, and as new technology becomes available your camera body will become obsolete. Lenses have a much longer shelf life, and you should plan to buy a lens that you can use with new DSLRs down the road. If you spend the money on a few good lenses, they'll last you 20 to 30 years. Some of the best lenses around are 30 years old, and they're still just as crisp as anything on the market right now.

3. Then again, don't overpay for a lens you don't need.

Get the lens that is right for you. If you're filming home movies, a good, fast zoom lens will cope with everything you throw at it. Buying a $20,000 sports telephoto lens is probably overkill for capturing your 8-year-old's soccer game.

4. Go bargain hunting.

A lot of great, new lenses are priced very competitively, but the deals don't end there. Look around in second-hand shops, as you can often find amazing bargains on older-but-excellent lenses.

5. Don't buy blindly.

Research is important. The specs for a particular lens may seem perfect for your needs, but there's no substitute for a real-world test drive. Always take your camera with you and test a lens out before you buy it. Get a feel for it and make sure it works for you. Rushing into a lens purchase can often be a disappointment and a waste of money.

How to Focus While Shooting Video With a DSLR

How to focus while shooting video with a DSLR
Focusing versatility is another area in which video-capable DSLRs have changed the game for cinematographers. It's a whole new experience for both professional videographers and consumers: For years, cinematographers have had access to really fast glass that's incredibly expensive, while the consumer video market has been stuck with slow, cheap, fixed-lens cameras with digital zooms and autofocus-only controls. With video-capable DSLRs, that high-quality glass is more affordable for pro shooters, and casual users have more freedom to experiment with depth-of-field effects and manual focusing.

You'll find cameras out there that will autofocus while in movie mode, but the vast majority of them don't. To keep an object in focus that's moving toward or away from the lens, you'll need to get skilled at "pulling focus," or adjusting the focus distance of the lens while you're filming so that the subject is always sharp.

And that's no easy feat. Professional focus pullers spend years learning the craft of getting a shot in focus; on a film shoot, it is one of the most technically demanding positions on the crew. DSLR owners, however, are expected to get the camera out of the box and start shooting with everything in focus straight away. You'll need quite a bit of patience, and these focusing tips should help.

1. Use a loupe.

You can't use a DSLR's optical viewfinder while shooting video, because the mirror box necessary for the optical view is flipped upward while you're filming video. That means you need to use the Live View feed on the camera's LCD as a viewfinder. A loupe is an eyepiece attached to a hood that lets you get an eye-level display of what you're filming; many available loupes will attach to the back of a DSLR's LCD viewfinder. Varying in price from $50 to $500, they magnify your screen and shield it from the sun so that you can clearly see the image.

2. Use a smaller aperture when you can.

With some lenses having apertures as wide as f/1.2 (and even faster), the focal plane is so small that you can literally focus on specific parts of a hair. Unless you're looking for an extremely shallow depth of field, this freedom of focus can turn a beautifully composed shot into an unusable, blurred mess. If you don't need the dramatic depth of field, and you're not shooting in low light, push the aperture up. The higher you go, the easier you will find the focus; it's much easier to get a well-focused shot at f/5.6 than it is at f/1.2. Stop it down!

3. Focus on the key point of interest.

Look at what you're filming, and focus on the most important part. If it's a person or an animal, the eyes are where it's at.

4. Find points of reference for your focus distance.

When you're framing the shot, look at the entire image and find static points that are about the same distance away from the subject you want to keep in focus. Before you start shooting, you can focus on these static objects to make sure that any moving subjects at the same distance are in focus as you start shooting. It makes life a lot easier. You can even pull a tape measure out and work back to your lens to have total certainty of the distance of the focus point.

5. Get a follow-focus system if you can afford it.

A follow-focus system is a small rig that wraps around the lens and lets you control focus by adjusting a knob instead of having to put your hand on the lens. These systems generally give you more-accurate, fine-tunable control over the focus, and there's less potential for jostling when your hand is removed from the lens itself. These rigs can be expensive--they vary in price from around $600 to $8000--but they are great tools for adjusting focus more comfortably.

How to Use a DSLR Zoom Lens When Filming

How to use a DSLR zoom lens when filming
Personally, I'm not a huge fan of zoom lenses; I usually use prime lenses while shooting video, as they're typically faster, sharper, smaller, and lighter than any zoom lens on the market. In general, zoom lenses have more image-quality issues than prime lenses do, and they can cost excessive amounts. I've found that even the cheapest prime lens can give you a stunning image.

However, zoom lenses can be very useful and versatile, especially if you are planning to use the DSLR to take stills as well as video during an outing. (Plus, you don't have to carry around five prime lenses in your bag.)

If you're shooting video with a zoom lens, here are a few tips that should help you out.

1. Use a tripod.

By using a tripod, a monopod, or another stabilizing system, you can keep both hands free. That way you can control the zoom with one hand and the focusing with the other hand.

2. Don't zoom while you're recording.

Unless you are going for the jerky, crash zoom, don't zoom while you're filming. It's likely to distract your audience from the content of your video, and it might even nauseate them.

3. Look for a zoom lens with a constant aperture.

When you're shopping for a zoom lens to handle video, keep an eye out for a model with a fixed aperture throughout the zoom range. Most zoom lenses' aperture narrows as you near the telephoto end of the zoom range. With a fixed-aperture lens, the image doesn't get darker as you zoom in.

4. Select a zoom lens that covers a lot of bases.

I have two zoom lenses: a 17mm-45mm one and a 70mm-200mm one. All of my other lenses are primes. The reason I have those zooms is because if I am in a situation where I can't change lenses quickly (or don't know what is going to happen), I know that I can cover the subject no matter what happens and where they are.

5. Use a zoom lens only in well-lit situations.

Remember: Zoom lenses are generally slower, as they usually have narrower maximum apertures than prime lenses do. In low-light situations, a zoom lens will struggle, so it's a good idea to use a fast prime lens in darker settings.

Using DSLR Controls for Video

DSLRs are primarily built for shooting still images, which is one of the drawbacks to using one for video. Because of a DSLR's relatively compact size and ergonomic design, a lot of controls need to be incorporated into a small product. In most cases camera controls are easy to locate, but for fine controls such as color setup, ISO settings, and other adjustments, you have to dive into the camera's menus. This makes things awkward if you want to change your settings while you're on location.

From the camera-controls perspective, consider the following items when shopping for a DSLR.

1. Again, try before you buy.

After you work out what kind of shooting you will do on a regular basis and use this info to figure out what kind of camera you need, play with your selected camera models. Look at the menu controls, determine which ones you'd access most often, and decide whether you'd be able to adjust them quickly on location.

2. Choose a camera with custom modes for video.

Many DSLRs have user-defined settings on their mode dial that you can employ to access saved in-camera settings on the fly. Ideally, you want a camera that lets you save custom settings for video; some of them offer this functionality only for still images. The cameras I'm familiar with allow a lot of customization, but the settings do require time to set up. Changing setups on the go isn't always the most efficient thing to do, so the key is to plan beforehand and have your controls ready at the click of a button, if possible.

3. Consult the crowd.

You can find many online forums that will talk you through the best color settings and other variables in different shooting environments. A solid, dependable forum is an invaluable resource for any videographer, and enthusiast forums such as the ones you'll find in the realm of videography usually produce accurate responses quickly.

Limitations on Clip Length

Many cameras have limitations on how long you can record video, as a precautionary measure to ensure that the sensor doesn't overheat. Some cameras have a video-file cap of 5 minutes, some run for 10 minutes, and some cameras have no clip-length restrictions. This can be annoying and frustrating, but on the whole it's not that bad; as long as you're aware of how long you have left to run, you'll be okay.

I came from XDCAMs, on which you have at least 45 minutes of HD-quality video to work with every time you press the record button. Reducing the clip length to 12 minutes or less was a bit of a shock for me at first. But then I remembered shooting on film, where you'd often have only a 5-minute or 10-minute reel to shoot on. I just fell back into that filmlike mindset of not recording long takes, and cueing up action just as I was about to record. It's a bit stressful at times, but it can also be good fun.

Choosing the Right Storage Media

The main video formats used in DSLR video capture are H.264 (a QuickTime wrapper for MPEG-2 video), AVI, and AVCHD (stored as .MTS files). All of these formats have their issues, and none of them are perfect. The main thing to consider is how you plan to edit your footage.

Some nonlinear video editing (NLE) systems (that is, systems that can perform random access on the source material) will accept any of these formats, but most footage has to be converted in some way. This process consumes both time and hard-disk space. I use third-party software to convert my clips into a file-friendly version before I start to edit, which not only makes the editing process quicker but also frees up my edit machine so that I can carry on with other edits.

As for the actual cards used in a camera, some DSLRs use CompactFlash, while others use SD/SDHC. In all cases you need to consider the card very carefully: The card is the equivalent of tape stock, and the more you spend, the better your chances of not losing any of your video.

As a rule of thumb, most video is captured at a data rate of around 24 megabits per second to 40 mbps. Cards that can cope with that speed are pretty expensive, and cards that have enough storage capacity to hold all of your video are also pricey. For the speed side of the equation, you'll need at least a Class 6 card if your capturing bitrate is greater than 32 mbps; you can get away with using a Class 4 card if your bitrate is less than that. As long as the write speed on the card is higher than 40 mbps (that's Class 6 and higher), you should be okay using it with any DSLR available today.

I use two 16GB cards, and they're the fastest on the market. They cost around $250 per card; they're robust and fast, and I have had no issue at all with them. On long shoots, I have my laptop and an external hard drive with me, and I dump the footage onto the drive every time a card fills up.

The reason I don't just buy higher-capacity cards is that some of my colleagues have lost data, had cards malfunction, and encountered dropped frames with cards that are 32GB or larger. I wanted to play it safe, because in the worst-case scenario, I will lose only 40 minutes' worth of footage if the card goes down--not ideal, but it's much better than losing the whole day's shoot.

The Next Level: Camera Rigs and Stabilization

Filming video on a DSLR: camera rigs
Very quickly, you will realize that the main issues with DSLR videography are holding and operating the camera comfortably. Video requires a steady hand, and the ergonomic design of a DSLR doesn't help the cause. DSLRs aren't designed to rest on the shoulder as large cameras are, and very few DSLRs have in-camera image stabilization (although many more-expensive lenses on the market are optically stabilized).

Many third-party camera rigs promise to counteract this awkwardness. Rigs can be useful in many ways: They can brace the camera on your shoulder, allow you to grip it comfortably with two hands, let you attach it to a Steadicam-style vest, and, in the most basic setups, use a cord that you stretch out from your neck to add extra support.

The selection of rigs is vast, and so is the range of prices. Costs vary from $20 for a simple rig to beyond $10,000, and prices depend largely on the quality and complexity of the rig. You may not need a rig unless you do a lot of handheld shots; in many cases a tripod will be sufficient for bracing your camera. I use a monopod with a fluid head for just about every shoot I work on.

When deciding which rig or stabilizer to buy (or not to purchase), think about the following key points.

1. What is your budget? (Remember that price isn't everything.)

The most-expensive rig isn't always the best for what you need. If a cheaper rig is comfortable for long-term use and easy to manage in a range of environments, it may be the perfect fit for your needs.

2. What environment will you be filming in?

If you're working in a small, enclosed space, an over-the-shoulder rig might not be suitable, whereas a monopod may be ideal. Rigs are big things, and you have to account for their size when you're planning a shoot. A rig detracts greatly from the convenience of using a small, portable camera, as you'll have this huge piece of kit that you need to lug around as well.

3. What extra attachments do you want to add to the rig?

Different rigs allow different adaptable options: mounts for microphones and other audio devices, LCD monitors, extended battery packs, and the like. But there's no point in buying a $10,000 rig with all the trimmings if you're going to use it only for shooting the occasional family video.

4. Try a rig before you buy it.

Each rig has its pluses and minuses. Go to a place that sells a variety of rigs and try your selections out with your system. I've used many rigs, and models by the same company can have a very different feel from one another. Bear in mind that you will be using the rig a lot, so it needs to be comfortable for extended periods.

The Next Level: Capturing Better Audio

Types of External Microphones

One of the first things I learned in filmmaking was that you can have a good film with a bad picture, but you can never have a good film with bad audio. Alas, one common feature of all DSLRs is terrible built-in audio recording. No camera I have used has handled audio in a competent way.

Most of the time, a camera provides only a small jack input that records heavily compressed mono sound. The audio on all cameras is pretty bad for the most part, so if you intend to capture good audio at all, you need to invest in a microphone (or a few).

You'll find three main types of microphones.

Lapel mics (lavalieres): These can be wired or wireless. They're great when you have one person as a focus point; you just mic them up and let them speak. I use wireless mics, as they give me much more flexibility in moving around the subject.

Shotgun mics: These are directional microphones (they pick up audio only in the direction you point them). They're another good choice for single-subject shots, but for footage in which you want to pick up environmental background noise while still covering the subject.

Omnidirectional mics: These general-atmosphere microphones cover a large field of sound. They can be brilliant for capturing the sound in an event where you have no key speaker.

Here are the main points to consider when looking for a microphone.

1. Will you plug it straight into your DSLR?

If you intend to do so, you'll need a powered mic. Make sure to have the appropriate adapters for plugging it into your camera.

2. Will your filming environment be windy or have external noise?

If so, look for a mic with a wind sock. Several third-party suppliers have great wind socks and other effective sound-dampening tools.

3. Do your research and listen to sample audio tests.

Much like lenses, microphones can be very expensive at the top end--and they're equally important for achieving professional-level results. And as with lenses, you won't find a one-mic-fits-all solution; so many options are available, however, that you're sure to encounter something that works for you. Online forums and review sites have a lot of good information about new mics, and you can even listen to sample tests of audio quality online.

External Audio Systems

For recording great audio, I personally prefer a two-system approach, meaning that I have a totally separate setup for audio capture in addition to my camera setup. This arrangement allows much more flexibility in terms of controlling the audio. Most cameras have no independent controls for audio--and if they do, they're buried in the menus.

I use a system that attaches to the top of my camera, which helps me keep the camera and the audio system together when I'm traveling around. You'll find many separate audio products on the market, as well as converter boxes that let you plug XLR leads into them and power the mics you use; this is called "phantom power."

One thing to keep in mind here is how long the battery will last if you are using phantom power. I quickly found out that although in theory it's great to plug two or more phantom mics into your system, that setup drains the system's battery quickly.

It's best to look for a converter box that sends a signal to override the automatic gain in the camera. That makes editing footage much easier, as you don't have to resync all your audio.

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