Shooting good video with a DSLR is one of the most headache-inducing, cursing-laden, blood pressure-raising experiences in which a human being can engage—and it’s worth every stress-filled second.
I’m a professional videographer who, after months of anticipation, saving and research, made the switch from camcorders and bought my first video-capable DSLR in October. It wasn’t an easy process. There’s an overwhelmingly diverse combination of bodies (that’s the actual camera part—there’s also an ocean of lingo to wade through), lenses, lights, mics, recorders, and mounts to buy. Cheap-looking, often crucial accessories tend to carry a price tag seemingly more appropriate for relics from the Ming Dynasty. It’s frighteningly easy to drop $10,000 on a rig, and you will have to spend hours, and hours, and hours, learning how to use the camera and its accessories. And your first videos are still going to look like crap. But shooting gets easier as you go, and results can eventually become so vivid, so cinematic, that every dollar spent and afternoon whittled away will be worth it. And it’s always best to start prepared, so here are some tips I’ve learned that can save money, shorten the learning curve, and keep you sane.
1. Set your price, choose your body, and ignore marketing gimmicks
Canon, Sony, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax are the big brands, and, since camera accessories (especially lenses) are often more important than the body itself, its best to stick with a name that has a lot of support from other manufacturers. Once you start looking you’ll notice, in big fat type on every flyer and website, text hyping a camera’s megapixel count. Forget about megapixels. Marketing has turned them into a false shorthand for quality—any new DSLR, or point-and-shoot for that matter, will have plenty. Concentrate on sensor size instead. The sensor is tantamount to film, and its size will determine how much light your camera can capture. I settled on a 5D Mark II because it has a full-frame sensor, which means it’s the same size as 35mm film. But my camera, and equivalent models from other brands, costs well over $2000. Most consumers will want to aim for DSLRs in the $500-$1000 price range. Their sensors aren’t full-frame, but achieve similar results for the price, and are still far more powerful than point-and-shoots.
I recommend Sony’s entry-level products. I’ve used a Sony a350 for still photography for years. Their Alpha line of cameras are affordable, have a a tiltable screen—perfect for shooting from high or low angles—and use proprietary technology allowing them to autofocus quickly while shooting video, a feature most other DSLRs lack.
However, a new technology, called mirrorless interchanageable-lense cameras (MILC), is probably the best overall solution for consumers looking to shoot DSLR-quality video. They’re just as powerful as DSLRs, but were designed with video at their core and come in a much smaller, user-friendly package. They also use the same lenses as their larger cousins, but can autofocus even better than Sony’s Alpha line, and, unlike DSLRs, aren’t limited to recording video in 12 minute clips. These features almost had me sold on an MILC (the Sony NEX-7) for myself, but in the end I just couldn’t say no to the siren call of full-frame.
2. Choose the right lens(es), and (maybe) buy a light
Lenses are more important than your body. They’re the first thing light passes through to reach your sensor. They have a bigger impact on the quality and look of your video than any other part of the camera, so picking the right ones are essential.
Most cameras come with what’s called a kit lens, a normally mid-range, bread-and-butter zoom lens. As long as it has image stabilization (this reduces camera shake in your video, and is important in a lens because, unlike camcorders, DSLR bodies usually don’t have it built-in), it’s probably all most consumers will need. But kit lenses rarely feature much zoom, and aren’t great for capturing in low-light, so it’s nice to augment them with additional options.
That being said, lenses often cost over $1000, but you can pay far less when you know what to look for. Lenses made by camera manufacturers are almost always a safe bet, but they’re pricey and products from Tamron and Sigma can achieve similar results at a large discount. Buying used is also usually an option, as most camera stores keep their pre-owned sections well stocked.
The first glass I always buy is a 50mm or 60mm prime, which is a fixed (no zoom) lens that falls in the middle of a normal kit lens’ zoom range. These are usually much cheaper than zooms—the one I bought with my 5D only cost $140—but capture brighter, more cinematic images because they have “faster” (meaning larger) apertures. An aperture is the hole through which light passes—the larger the hole, the more light makes it to the sensor. I love primes, they might be a bit less convenient—you’re basically always walking instead of zooming—but resulting images are of such a higher quality (especially low light situations) that the effort is made worthwhile.
My second purchase is normally a telephoto, which should start at the top-end of your kit lens’ range (about 70mm) and zoom about three or four times further (about 200-300mm). This is ideal for sports, or getting the perfect shot of your high-school grad walking across stage when you’re stuck at the back of a gymnasium. But remember that cheap telephotos tend to have small apertures—this can be remedied by skipping the zoom and purchasing a telephoto prime.
Finally, you may want to purchase an on-camera light. They make a huge difference in video quality, especially since most houses simply aren’t bright enough to shoot quality images at night. Pro versions cost around $300, but consumer-level lights work well for a third of the price. It’s best to stick with LED lights, as they use far less power than most alternatives, and usually have dimmer dials. However, they can be intrusive, and turning one on may result in frustrated, squinting relatives.
3. Spring for better audio
One of the first lessons I learned shooting for web was that audiences almost always forgive low-quality video, but a comment section will tear you apart over bad audio—in-laws aren’t much better. Unfortunately, DSLRs are almost universally terrible when it comes to audio quality. Sound from my 5D is literally unusable. Luckily there is a fairly cheap alternative in Zoom and Tascam recorders. These function as affordable shotgun mics (they normally cost between $100 and $400) you can mount to your camera and plug into its external microphone jack, instantly turning a static-filled mess into near-broadcast quality sound.
Higher-end recorders also include external mic inputs, allowing you to use separate shotgun, handheld or lapel mics. These are more than what most consumers need, and cost around $800 apiece. But, for the more adventurous DSLR filmmaker, a cheap kit featuring a lapel and shotgun/handheld mic combination from Azden is available for half that price. The mics aren’t quite as good as what the pros use, but they’re close enough for home use.
4. Find a good retailer and demand a bargain
All this gear can be purchased on Kijiji or Craigslist, but camera equipment tends to retain its value, meaning you’ll rarely find a big enough discount to make up for the risks of buying used online. Camera stores, such as Aden or Vistek in Toronto or Henry’s across the country, are your best bet. They offer decent warranties, salespeople usually have more expertise than what you’ll find at a big box store, and you can sometimes bundle gear for a big discount. And, best of all, they’re almost always willing to beat other stores when it comes to price. I asked for a quote before buying my gear, and spent a day biking around Toronto, testing cameras and showing the price to different retailers. I ended up buying at the store from which I got the initial quote, but not until a few hundred dollars were shaved off my gear.
5. Save another $1500 and build a shoulder rig (it only takes about an hour)
So, you’ve got your camera. But DSLRs were originally designed to take pictures, and they’re almost impossible to hold steady while shooting video. Humans are not built to handle a four-pound camera four inches in front of their faces, and if you do so for any length of time, you will be incapacitated by back pain. One possible solution is a tripod (about $150 to $250), but while great in some situations, they’re a bit limiting when chasing kids around a backyard. A better option is a lightweight shoulder rig, which turns DSLRs into miniature versions of the shoulder-mounted cameras often used by TV and documentary crews. Good ones cost anywhere from $500 to $1600—and up—but you can easily build one yourself for less than $20. There’s a huge selection of plans online, I recommend ones built with PVC pipe—it’s lightweight, won’t give you frostbite in winter, and easily slides together with plumbing joints—but pick whatever will best suit your needs. All you need is a $10 pipe cutter and a half hour trip to Canadian tire—I started mine on a Saturday afternoon and was showing it off by the time my buddies arrived to watch the Leafs Game. Once the rig’s finished you drill a few ¼ holes, insert ¼ bolts, and attach anything with a standard tripod mount. I customized mine with a coat of glossy black spray paint, bicycle grips on the front handles, and mounts for lights, counterweights, a zoom recorder, wireless microphone receivers, and a monopod (in case my back gets tired)—but all you really need is a single screw to attach the camera.
6. Buy a monopod
A monopod, which is little more than a telescoping metal stick onto which you can mount a camera, gives you stability without sacrificing too much mobility. A good model is normally half the price of a tripod, and while not as versatile as a shoulder rig, is great for eliminating camera-shake, and preventing a weekend laid up with back spasms.
7. Learn how to white balance, change aperture and set ISO
DSLRs are complicated. There are literally hundreds of options buried within dozens of menus and sub menus. But there are only three that you really need to know to get started, and on a good camera they’ll each have their own controls right on the body. So, dig out your manual and figure out how to manually set:
White balance – Ever notice how a lot of pictures and movies taken around the house have a yellowish tinge, almost like they were shot through pea soup? That’s because a camera’s automatic white balance doesn’t do well outside of sunlight, and handles incandescent and florescent light especially poorly. But this is easily remedied by changing the white balance, either with presets (most cameras have sunlight, shade, incandescent, tungsten, florescent and more as defaults) or by setting it manually. This is a bit of a process at first, but should be clearly outlined in your instruction manual.
Aperture – The width of an aperture is measured in F-stops. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the lower the F stop (1.4 or 1.8 being the maximum width on many prime lenses, 3.5 on most zooms), the wider the opening. This is a simple adjustment that normally has a dedicated dial on your camera body. It’s crucial to know since it determines how much light reaches your sensor, and, again, should be easy to find in your camera’s instructions
ISO – This determines your sensor’s sensitivity to light—think of it as a volume knob. The higher you set the ISO, the more sensitive your camera and the brighter your pictures. But, like a volume knob, turning it higher increases “noise,” which shows up as grain in your pictures. You won’t need a high ISO in the park, but will almost always want to crank it up in a dimly-lit hockey rink, so its important to know how to make adjustments according to the situation.
8. Learn the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds helps you compose your shots. It basically means mentally dividing your frame into horizontal and vertical thirds and keeping a subject within them.When zoomed on a face you want it taking up the left or right third, with background composing the other two thirds in the direction the subject is facing. It works the same way when tracking someone skating or while shooting an interesting-looking rock. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and is meant to be broken, but it’s something every camera person learns because, simply put, it makes shots look nicer aesthetically.
9. Get comfortable focusing manually, and go shoot!
Focusing is easy on camcorders and point-and-shoot cameras. You aim at a subject and they do the work. DSLRs have the same function—when they’re in still mode and you’re looking through the viewfinder. But only mirrorless systems and translucent-mirror cameras like Sony’s Alphas can focus effectively while shooting video. The autofocus function on most other cameras is essentially useless. This means reaching out to the front of your lens and turning the focus ring manually. It’s a challenge, especially when you’re trying to focus smoothly while recording. The only way to get good is with lots of practice, but once you do your results will be far better than what’s acheivable with even the best autofocus.
Every other aspect of shooting improves with practice as well, so go out, create, and hone your skills. Your daughter’s rugby game, your uncle’s 85th birthday, the first snowfall in December, that punk concert you’ve been excited about or your dog chewing on a pillow. There’s a great video waiting to be shot every day, on every city block and country road, and you’ll only get better with every moment you capture.