Friday, December 04, 2009

The Camera Curmudgeon - Why DSLR’s make shockingly awful video cameras

I’ve had a Canon 7D for about a month now, and I have to say, it’s turning into a love/hate relationship. On the love side, it is a really nice DSLR. Of course, I would say that; my previous DSLR is the Canon 10D.

A couple of notes about the 10D vs the 7D; it’s amazing how similar the two cameras are in size, shape and arrangement of controls. If you’re happy with the way Canon puts cameras together, it’s easy to go from one to the other. And the 7D is definitely a big improvement, though the two things I notice most frequently is the difference in focusing (the extra focus points and routines really change the way that works) and the much larger LCD screen, which makes it easier to review pictures on the fly.

There’s lots of other tweaks along the way, and who can forget the difference in resolution, though frankly, I don’t need 18MP…

But back to video. Where to start? Well, firstly, the good:
It is really neat to be able to use your SLR to record video sequences, even if it’s just impromptu moments that occur. Just as any camera is better than no camera, any video camera is better than no video camera at all, so being able to shoot video with your DSLR is a great trick.

It’s also been pointed out that the 7D makes a great undercover video camera, and sure, it’s much less intimidating than a Sony EX3, but then so is a Flip Mino, or even a Sony HDR-XR500V. Finally, a video camera with interchangeable lenses and shallow depth of field can be hard to come by for less than $6,000, so there’s big points there.

The down side:
An SLR is not designed to be held in a steady position while shooting long video sequences. It just doesn’t work. Worse, you have to use the LCD panel to see what you’re shooting, and the LCD is fixed to the back of the camera. That means holding the camera up, away from your body. So right away, if you’re looking to do a lot of long shooting you have to put it on a tripod or you’re going to want a rig to hold it and some kind of viewfinder adapter or monitor.

Keeping the camera steady is almost mandatory, unless you have a lens with stabilization – which on SLR lenses has mainly been built into longer lenses. Primes and wide zooms don’t tend to have any stabilization built-in, and there’s nothing in the camera.

It’s great to be able to switch lenses, but let’s not forget; most of these are still camera lenses. Lenses that are harder to zoom and focus with while you’re shooting. Some are virtually impossible to do a smooth zoom with, many aren’t parfocal (don’t stay in focus as you zoom) and there’s no auto-focus mode during shooting. You have to manually focus, which can be difficult to do in some circumstances.

What does this all mean? If I was shooting in many situations where I need to be quick and flexible (like event shooting) the last thing I’d want to use is a 7D. Give me a “real” video camera. Yes, I know there are people out there using these cameras to shoot in the field, but it seems too much like hard work to me.

And don't forget that while the body is relatively inexpensive, once you start adding lenses, rigs and other contraptions, the actual cost of a DSLR setup can be three or four times the cost of the camera.

But if you’re looking for a sort-of-low-price “film” camera, if you’re looking to shoot something creatively, and can spend the time setting up focus or have complete control over position of the camera and the subject, or can shoot and shoot and throw away lots of stuff because it’s out of focus, then the 7D is a great tool.

Andy Wilkinson recently posted his own thoughts about the Canon 7D in his Mini Review. Unfortunately, he is also comparing the camera to the Sony EX3 (an $8,000 camera), which is a rather unfair comparison. It’s not all bad for the 7D though, and he does a good job of summing up the pros and cons:

  • Small,
  • Relatively easy to get good stuff
  • Depth of field
  • Use in places other cameras may raise attention

  • 12 minute clip length
  • Not as easy to use as a regular video camera
  • Not as good resolution as EX3 (well, of course!)
  • Getting exposure and focusing can be difficult

So I’m not alone in having mixed feelings. Could there actually be a backlash brewing against DSLR’s as video cameras? Over on the Cinema 5D forum a contributor wrote: “I notice DSLR's aren't feeling the love”

With the enthusiasm that was generated over the past year for all things DSLR/video, perhaps it was as inevitable as winter following fall that there would be a bumpy return to reality. After all, no tool is perfect for everyone.

One last note: I still love the camera, but – and this is the key point - I’m glad it’s not the only video camera that I have.

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