What you need to know to make beautiful, inexpensive movies using a DSLR.
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That “movie mode” hidden in the menu system of your new DSLR? It’s not just a novelty feature. It’s nothing short of a revolutionary, democratizing, disruptive moviemaking technology, as important as the invention of color film, 16mm, or HDTV. Not convinced? I’ve written more about how the DSLR is affecting the future of not only cinematography but also photography, as well as how their low-light sensitivity enables a whole new generation of international filmmakers to tell their story. However, the proof is in the pudding, so here are ten examples of stunning DSLR cinematography. Zacuto’s Great Camera Shootout 2010 is another great demonstration of what DSLRs are capable of when compared to (much more expensive) 35mm film cameras.
As for my own DSLR qualifications, I recently shot two episodes of the WBP Labs/Babelgum show RADAR on a Nikon D90; several behind-the-scenes videos for Focus Features on a Canon 5d Mark II; some other DSLR footage I can’t yet talk about publicly; and I’ve lensed plenty of pre-DSLR projects (e.g. The West Side, or a music video I shot when I was 19).
Digital cinematography is changing so rapidly these days that a printed book on the subject will likely be outdated by the time it reaches store shelves; this is especially true when it comes to the rapid release cycle of DSLRs. Up-to-date information can be found on online forums, but forums lack the organizing principles of a book, and as a result it can take a ludicrously long time to piece together reliable information (I spent months forum-surfing to assemble my own camera package). Thus, this guide: I hope it saves readers money they would’ve otherwise spent on an out-of-date book, and I hope it saves forums from so many newbie — sorry, “n00b” — questions.
DSLRs (often called HDSLRs or VDSLRs now) are a great enabler on the “no film school” front, as they are priced to own and allow aspiring filmmakers to follow the “buy a camera and learn” lesson plan. But as with any creative tool, a DSLR is only as good as the person using it — because, while these cameras offer a world of advantages, they also come with a considerable set of drawbacks. However, these drawbacks are worth dealing with in order to get the kind of amazing images possible with an imaging sensor that has twenty to thirty times more surface area than that of a similarly priced, dedicated video camera. To emphasize: these cameras are not designed to shoot movies. Their primary function remains to shoot still photos, but it just so happens that they shoot amazing video very inexpensively, and for that they are worth tinkering with, hacking, and jumping through a number of hoops to use. And make no mistake: to modify these still cameras to behave like “real” movie cameras, there are a lot of hoops to jump through (thus the length of this guide), but you will be rewarded by using a camera that many of us could only dream of a few years ago, for cheaper than any of us imagined.
This guide assumes some basic knowledge of moving images, such as exposure, shutter speed, focal length, and frame rate. It focuses on the technical challenges unique to DSLR cinematography — it won’t teach you how to light scenes, stage camera movements, or cook a full English breakfast. It will, however, give you a huge jump start in figuring out how to make beautiful, inexpensive movies using a DSLR.
I can only take credit for a small percentage of the knowledge here. The vast majority of it comes from terrific user forums like DV Info, Cinema5d, DVXuser, REDuser, and Creative COW; news sites like FreshDV, Pro Video Coalition, and Planet5D; and noted DSLR users like Philip Bloom, Dan Chung, Vincent LaForet, Jon Fairhurst, Stu Maschwitz, and Shane Hurlbut (not to mention firmware luminary Tramm Hudson). I’ve tried to credit and link to others wherever possible, but ultimately this is one person’s opinion. I’ve taken a lot of findings from the forums and aforementioned users, combined them with my own experiences, and distilled everything down into one time-saving guide. Plenty of people will disagree with some of what I say here, so please make the forums your first stop after reading this guide. Let me repeat: if you have questions, take them to the forums — you’ll get a faster response and benefit from the wisdom of the crowd. Finally, take into account the crucial fact that this guide is free! It’s saving a lot of people a lot of time, and it costs nothing, so with that in mind, please keep your comments and suggestions constructive.
The guide is organized in order of basic-to-advanced, meaning you can read it from start to finish if you’re new to DSLR cinematography, or jump around using the pull-down table of contents (top right) if you’re a seasoned vet. Without further ado, click “Next” to get started!