Thursday, June 09, 2011

The death of DSLRs

Using a DSLR to shoot video? That's so 2010! DSLR's are dead; they were pronounced dead at NAB 2011!

Its ironic really; 2010 had been "the year of DSLRs" at NAB, but this year everyone agreed that their moment had passed. Attention moved to the large sensor video cameras; from the expensive RED's and Alexa's, to the more price conscious Sony PMW-F3, Sony NEX-FS100, and Panasonic AG-AF100.

Not everyone was happy about this change, but before we get to that, let's review how we got here.

A little history
It's hard to believe that it was less than three short years ago, in August 2008, that Nikon announced the D90, a DSLR with a 720p HD video mode. Just a month later, Canon announced the 5D Mark II, which captured 1920 x 1080 HD video. Canon had added the video capability because of requests from the Associated Press and other news organizations, who wanted their news photographers to be able to shoot short video clips for use on the web.

Canon was surprised - maybe even shocked - by the excitement generated when Vincent Laforet's short "Reverie" appeared on the web. He'd shot it over the course of a weekend using a borrowed prototype he wasn't supposed to have seen and he literally begged them to let him use it.

While the Nikon D90 was - just - first, it's lower resolution, less sensitive chip, and more obvious rolling shutter issues meant that it didn't get the attention the 5D Mark II did.

The 5D wasn't perfect by any means. Originally it shot at only 30fp; it wasn't even 29.97 to match video's frame rate. BUT, it had a really large sensor, making it possible to do dramatic shallow depth of field effects, and produced amazing pictures in low light. The commonly used video cameras - like the Sony EX3 - have 1/2" sensors which have a diagonal length of 8mm; while the 5D's 35mm Full Frame sensor is 43mm across the diagonal.

Cinematographers like Philip Bloom quickly started using the 5D to produce spectacular shorts and demos, and in a comparatively short period of time, it was adopted by indie filmmakers, used on the TV series 24 to shoot plates and other effect shots, and was even used to shoot the opening sequences for last season of Saturday Night Live. Perhaps the peak came when the 5D was used to shoot an entire episode of the TV series House.

The Imperfect Camera
Most people recognize that DSLR's, while they are comparatively inexpensive and offer some advantages over traditional video cameras, still have many limitations; they can be difficult to hand hold, monitor, focus, and record audio. In short, for the video shooter they are a great imager in the wrong package.

With the Canon DSLRs enjoying remarkable success, speculation arose in late 2009 that Canon would put out a "true" video camera with a large sensor, and many wondered when companies like Sony would come out with a video camera with a large sensor? Most theories were that the video division's of those companies didn't want these DSLR cameras to kill their regular video camera business.

After several months where it was thought that Canon would release a new video camera, there was some surprise when the Canon XF300/XF305 was announced last year and they did not use a large sensor.

And all the time, people talked about "The DSLR Killer."
When Panasonic finally rolled out the AG-AF100 - a large sensor camera in a more traditional video camera package - people whispered that it was a DSLR killer. While the picture quality wasn't considerably better than the DSLRs, many professionals started to move to the AG-AF100, though not always eschewing their DSLRs.

Then Sony came out with the PMW-F3 and - more recently - the NEX-FS100. Sony hasn't officially said either camera is intended as a DSLR killer; Den Lennie described the NEX-FS100 as Sony's response to EX1's and EX3's buyers switching to DSLR's. Rather than intended to "kill" DSLRs, they are a defense move against the inroads that DSLRs were making.

Why DSLR's?
It's important to consider who has been buying DSLRs, and why.

In one camp, you have people like Philip Bloom, who prior to the arrival of the DSLR were shooting with a Sony EX1, and using a Letus Extreme to create shallow depth of field. The ease with which you can create shallow-depth of field with the 5D sensor, and it's low-light performance were clearly what attracted Philip. But if the EX1 had a similar sensor (i.e. the PMW-F3 or NEX-FS100,) would he rather use that, or a DSLR? It seems pretty clear that unless he needed to be really stealthy, he'd rather have a serious camera, and it's worth noting that he did just purchase a PMW-F3.

Clearly Philip will continue to use DSLRs for time-lapse work, and for situations where small size is important, but otherwise, why would he want to use the 5D? Maybe if the Canon 5D Mark III comes out with RAW capture and even better low-light performance he'll switch again, but for serious projects, why continue to use a DSLR?

Alternatively, for the low-budget indie film maker, the DSLR's are still attractive; buy a T3i and an inexpensive lens or two, and you can produce some outstanding visual work for less than the cost of the AG-AF100 body. You have to work a lot harder, but you can save money and make up for that savings through your hard work.

The most expected, unexpected demise
Really, who was surprised that the DSLRs day in the sun was past? At NAB, Cinema5D ran a series of articles entitled "Death of HDSLR" even though the three parts were a somewhat less than coherent argument; grouping together two digital recorders and the Sony NEX-FS100. I'm not sure how the digital recorders spell the end of the DSLR

We also seem to be suffering from some internecine warfare. In a post originally titled "Vincent just lost his credibility with me" [now titled "Vincent Compares Canon to Phantom"] Sebastian Wöber at Cinema 5D took issue with Vincent Laforet comparing a Canon DSLR to a Phantom camera.
His words: “Do the math! You know, none of us have 50 thousand dollars laying around, maybe 2 in the audience do, but I can take a lot more of the cameras on the right than I can of the cameras on the left, that’s why it becomes much more versatile.”

I feel like Canon wants to sell their dslrs in a way that is very misleading.The Phantom model shown in that slide was a highspeed camera that records 1500fps uncompressed 1080p to be exact.
Vincent shot back viaTwitter:
"Seb" completely missed the point - I was showing that while a Canon w/ all of the kit may be intimidating - all motion pictures can look intimidating.
- @Vincentlaforet

The End of the DSLR Community?
The DSLR community seems to be splintering intro three groups: those who are moving on, those who see it as continuing to be a viable - though limited - tool, and those that are mounting the ramparts in its defense.

Moving On
Those who are moving on, and don't regret packing away the DSLR include:

Peter Lundström at the editman blog wrote an inflammatory post: "I don't find DSLR video shooting exciting anymore!":
Since getting the AF101 I hardly flipped the mirror on my 5DmkII. I'm using it as what it's meant to be - a still camera.
Another thing that's great, when having a video camera, is you don't have to get all of the things you need on a DSLR. All by itself the AF101 is a one box solution. Just peeking inside my numerous boxes of things reveals what hassles I've gone through to get DSLR to work like I want them to.
Sam Morgan Moore, a self-described "professional stills photographer" writes at DSLR 4 Real that DSLRs for shooting motion are dead, though he then clarifies it by saying that for the cinema crew and the corporate video shooter, the DSLR is dead, but for stills photographers and for the Indie shooter:
DSLRs are far from dead

Robin Schmidt, (also known as el skid), wrote after returning from NAB:
[...] there’s no denying the buzz of 18 months ago has receded. Large sensor filmmaking has been subsumed into the grand melée of filmmaking in general, closing the gap between the haves and the have nots, a much needed kick of adrenaline to an industry that was innovating far too slowly.
and went on to announce that he's moving on, or at least the topic of his blog posts is changing:
So that brings me to the final point of this slightly meandering post. It’s time to say goodbye to this blog as a DSLR beast. The grind and graft of finding something new to say about this funny little community of ours really isn’t that much fun anymore. I’d rather talk about filmmaking.
I guess this is as good a time as any to announce my retirement from the DSLR blogging scene. Been fun gang, but this dog is moving on

Still usable, with reservations
If many pros are eager to move on, some others are a little more circumspect. Vincent Laforet isn't exactly on record, but he did tweet:
Different - very different. I'd take a Canon HDDSLR over an AF-100 anyday in terms of IMAGE purely.
Similarly, Philip Bloom, after announcing his acquisition of a PMW-F3, did tweet that he will continue to use DSLRs, though I wonder if it will be mostly for the beautiful time-lapses that he creates.

To The Defenses!
And then there are those who are mounting a vigorous defense.

Kurt Lancaster at Mastering Film writes:
Rather than “killing” the HDSLR, it seems the large sensor HDSLR market has been killing the prosumer video camera market. They’ve stepped up and noticed. They’re taking on the best of the DSLR features and are crafting cheaper video cameras with DSLR sensors in order to be competitive in the low budget cinematic market.
And points out that:
If you want everything in one package, and you can afford it, then the Sony FS100 may be the camera you should use. If you’re on a budget or prefer the smaller form factor of a DSLR, use it. Nearly twenty percent of the films at 2011 Sundance were shot on DSLRs. They’re not going away. Not even close.

Andrew Reid at EOSHD noted:
For me NAB 2011 marks the moment when even some DSLR advocates upped sticks and realised that there was no such thing as a 'DSLR shooter', that 'timelapses were all a cliche' and that 'gear tests are irrelevant'.
and adds:
'DSLR shooter' is just as valid as 'documentary filmmaker', 'video journalist' or 'sci-fi filmmaker'. For the zero budget indie film community DSLRs have come to mean a certain thing.

So What Is A DSLR Shooter?
Is DSLR Shooter a category like documentary filmmaker, or an aesthetic, or is it just a gear label like "Sony Shooter" or "Canon Shooter?" And by the way, it's ironic that Andrew Reid could take a stand on people and labels; since at his EOSHD website he's spent a lot of time recently bemoaning Canon and advocating for the Panasonic GH2!

The identifiable characteristics of the DSLR video shooter are:
  • large sensor - shallow depth of field
  • small size - makes for guerrilla shooting
  • lower cost - though only if you don't buy lots of accessories!
Of those, the small size and lower cost are the two characteristics not duplicated by the DSLR killers; the PMW-F3, AG-AF100, and the slightly smaller NEX-FS100.

But really, was that all? Or was also a sense of excitement, experimentation and amazement, as people experimented and turned out amazing footage? Was it was also a little subversive? And like all subversive ideas, if they catch on, do they not become subsumed within the mainstream and lose some of their appeal?

We may look at these cameras as DSLR killers, but really it was success that killed the DSLR. When everyone was doing it - when you go to an event and the only people shooting video are doing it with DSLRs, you know that the moment of the "new" has passed.

And maybe that's what people are really mourning.




Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

I'll say it shorter...

High-end, high budget productions were never what DSLRs were intended for. That they were picked up and used by that kind of filmmaker proves that their genuine cinematic quality is real. But if you have a $150k budget why the hell use a DSLR?

They're for greater access for all to the cinema aesthetic at a very low price point. They're for production of professional end results which look similar to what the Sony F3 can do in terms of audience perception and aesthetics. I.e. the large sensor, interchangeable lens feel relative to the old option of small sensor, fixed zoom lens.

They're for aspiring filmmakers and those who need small and light cinematic tools with great flexibility in rigging, and huge lens adaption possibilities.

They're about the creative uses, like Danfung Dennis in Afghanistan and Andrew Wonder on the streets of NY. And a massive wave of talent that has been unleashed by having access to DSLR video. Some of the results and people are destine for great things. It still takes time but that new wave of filmmaker and the community is far more significant than the spec work that most commercial filmmakers put out.

So Vincent LaForet has started shooting Phantom, EPIC, on commercial shoots with huge budgets - do you really think all his blog readers are all suddenly going to drop DSLRs, pull out of the community and go and shoot on $150k worth of rented equipment?

Think about that for a moment.

Time to get some perspective and figure out who actually uses DSLRs and reads the blogs.

Mario said...

As long as someone uses DSLRs, they're not dead. I'd say Hi8 is dead. Super8 is not dead...
You know, a lot of people will still work with all te gear they bought the last 1,5 years. Why switching to a newer system when all the customers don't really care about the gear? They care about the result.

All of my customers give a shit about what gear I use as long as the result is great.
No matter if it's a DSLR or RED or whatever.

I currently have projects around 20-50k and none of them ever asked which gear we use. Really NONE o them

I'm always switching cameras to get a better workflow or if the results get really better.
Witg that said, the term "... is dead" or "... killer" is as overused as the word "gamechanger"

Gear is important but not THAT important. Lets move on and produce great stuff

Rick Macomber said...

To the big boys the DSLR may have been a flash in the pan, but for the indie filmmaker and producers of web content, they still provide a quality image as long as you shoot with a good DP and use quality glass. When the budget calls for it, there are always rental houses for a more expensive kit. With the ever changing technology it's foolish to invest in more expensive gear unless you are producing work for the client who requests Alexa, Red, Panny AF100 or either of the new Sony products. Better yet. Wait till next year. Your new DSLR killer will be dead. said...

"2010 had been "the year of DSLRs" at NAB, but this year everyone agreed that their moment had passed."

It's funny because it's the National Association of Broadcasters. It's the TV folks feeling that the technology that just swallowed them is really something they meant to do. They want everyone to go back to using TV equipment from the TV equipment manufacturers to make TV that looks like TV.

TV is emblematic of video and everything that's wrong with it in the computer age. It's traditional video that's dead. Low resolution interlaced images from big cameras with tiny sensors - which has sustained NAB for it's entire history - is dead.

Video has replaced film, but digital film - progressive video with 35mm optics - has replaced video. Video is dead. It died in 2010. NAB did not attend the funeral, nor acknowledge the death.

(I don't love HDSLRs, I hate video.)

Mansoor said...

what crap look @ the prices of the cameras mentioned .. 4K to 15K..

Goon65 said...

This is the most pathetic thing I've read in awhile. I'm an HDV shooter that loves the look of HDSLR's -- but I made my choice before that fad took on and I'm still very happy. Videotape makes me happy. I haven't even thought about buying an HDSLR but now the unknown blogger comes along and pronounces it dead. Stupid. Just like saying that film is dead, and then DVD is dead, and everything else. This type of reporting should be dead. It serves no purpose. Try telling all those who own that equipment that it's dead--HA!! My HDV isn't dead, either. I'm running a successful business with it and that is that.

Tom said...

Having been in the business since 1970, I am always amazed at how the new-comers to this industry are eager to embrace the latest tool to come down the pipeline, to the exclusion of all others, even to the point of throwing away the entire tool box!

Anonymous said...

Recent articles on the Death of the HDSLR seem to missing the point.

The first group did not want HDSLRS to begin with. They have the resources to afford what ever they want. They wanted large sensor video cameras.

The second group is always looking for a way of doing things better but not necessarily with cost in mind. This was the group that put up with expensive lens adapters on small sensor video cameras.

The assumption is that now that we have video cameras (the Sony PMW-F3, the Sony NEX-FS100, and the Panasonic AG-AF100) that shoot large sensor video, why use HDSLRs. Also, new external recorders record in higher bitrate formats than H264. Yes, these new cameras shoot great large sensor video with the convenience of a video camera, but HDSLR cameras have their advantages as well. (Some of us never did like the design and ergonomics of the video camera, especially inexpensive ones.) So I guess this article is in the third group, the defenders.

Some of the main reasons why we like HDSLRS is: small size, Price, great lenses that don’t cost am arm and a leg, beautiful video, adaptability, image stabilization and of course they are a great still camera as well. They are also the cause of the greatest democratization of filmmaking ever created. Anybody with a good story can now tell that story without a lot of money. All of the video cameras are over 6000 dollars buy the time you buy what’s needed to shoot with just the camera.

Read my whole responce @

cinemart said...

I adore comment like "killer", "DSLR is dead" etc.
Interesting but Kevin Shahinian obviouslly didn't run to buy FS100 or F3 and throw his DSLRs because of blogs titles like this one.

DSLR is dead...yea right: