Some DSLR stills camera manufacturers now include HD video capabilities within their top-of-the-range products. This raises the prospect of lower cost stills cameras shooting good quality HD video. While this is true in certain circumstances there is much more that needs to be included with these cameras to make them consistently produce their best results. Stills photographers may have gazed in amazement at the collection of ‘meccano’ that gets bolted onto movie cameras – to the point where the camera is almost hidden; taken over by its accessories. Also TV camera operators may wonder why all those extra bits are not included within the cameras themselves.
We have already seen RED cameras in action, following the ‘movie’ accessories trend with loads of extra gear making up a RED rig – that allows the footage to be shot just the way the director of photography (DoP) wants. Making DSLR video fulfil its full potential, or just achieving the particular style of shots required, almost certainly requires much more than the barebones camera and lens. Accessories are essential.
Meet the Rig
A DSLR rig is a collection of tools and accessories that are configured around a DSLR camera. This not just to hold the camera in place but also to allow fitting the tools and accessories that are needed, as standard, for a moving-image camera to capture high quality images. As shooting requirements vary, each rig has different qualities that are defined by its tools and accessories. In most cases rigs allow mounting motion picture tools and accessories on industry-standard bars or rails (15mm or 19mm). The rigs should be able to mount to standard snap plate screws or a broadcast mounting plate. These are the primary requirements for any rig considered able to accept professional accessories. As with any craftsman, a cameraman is only as good as the tools and time you give him for the job. The basic rig enables these to be added.
Although photographers may have a collection of accessories that produce superb results for their stills work, these are unlikely to help with shooting high quality moving images. One obvious difference is in lighting; the ubiquitous flash is useless for lighting a movie. Clearly we have to look at the moving image requirements.
35mm format DSLR cameras shooting 720 or 1080 at 30 or 25 fps produce stunning high quality images, and some DSLR accessories such as lens shades and filters will do there respective jobs in both still and moving image shooting modes. However, by simply having the camera shooting moving frames and also moving the camera, a new set of values are introduced to the workflow. The basic implications of these manifest themselves in camera operation. This involves the technical adjustments required to shoot a sequence in continuity and crewmembers’ jobs that need to make this all happen as smoothly as possible. These tools are manufactured to fulfil the requirements of moving image workflows.
For example, one of the overriding differences for camera operation is that the movie camera shutter is running at a constant 25fps or 30fps. This means that the shutter is generally no longer used as a tool for changing exposure; instead light is controlled using neutral density filters. Also we know that lenses have different front diameters. As a rule prime lenses are preferable as they are faster; letting more light through than equivalent zoom lenses and this allows more flexibility with lighting. But then changing focal length entails continually unscrewing and changing of filters to fit different sized lens diameters. This would become very laborious and even slow up the shoot. However, it is easier if we use a bar-mounted matte box and place a large enough filter in it to cover the biggest chosen lens diameter. Then, by either sliding the matte box to the end of its bars or by removing it completely, we can quickly change the lens and not have to change the filter. Not only is this quicker but it means just one set of filters is all that’s needed, rather than a set per lens, and accompanying lens shades.
Such forward planning about all likely set-ups and their required accessories, rather than just today’s shots, pays dividends. Then the same matte box, that may have been originally purchased as a clip-on but has an option for bar mounting, may save time and money in the future. Future proofing your accessories across as many shooting environments, conditions and scenarios as possible is a good mindset. MPTV (Motion Picture and TV) equipment has many standard modular systems and getting to grips with them is essential in order to understand equipment compatibility.
Another area to consider is tripods and heads. Both are used to hold a camera in place but there are differences in the way movement is controlled – and that makes the difference. Knowing camera weights and speed gearings on a MPTV head is all-important and this freedom of movement is simply not available in a DSLR head!
When you start looking, there are many elementary considerations and, of course, people who have been educated in moving image acquisition see these straight away. But for stills photographers it is a learning curve. Because some fundamentals are similar does not mean they are the same. The mind has to tune into what you want to achieve and then how that translates into a rig that all fits together and is quick and easy to use.
Filters or post?
Today you can do a lot in post – including grading and colour effects. So why use filters in front of the camera when colour can be changed in post? The reality is that post cannot always do the same. The principle of photography and film and, of course, TV is always to get the look as near as you can in the camera. Then, any later adjustments will be small and allow the maximum flexibility to achieve the required look – without concern of running into the limitations of the medium such as burnt out skies or solid black shadows.
As mentioned, neutral density filters are used to adjust exposure and are widely used in motion image acquisition. If a DoP wants to use a wide aperture to create a shallow DOF (depth of field), an in-camera effect that cannot be easily created in post, then neutral density filters allow this to be done.
Tiffen, well known for its glass filters, also supplies Dfx software that is designed to digitally replicate the effect of glass filters, lab techniques, lighting tools and much more. Although this can be used in post it can also provide accurate previsualisation of the filter range, and allow creating the right look in the camera.
Hand-held and stabilisation
There is a big difference between hand-held and stabilised shots. Many of us are used to holding a DSLR camera and we all feel very comfortable with its ergonomics. The design has changed little since the original 35mm SLR cameras arrived over 60 years ago. What now is undeniably different is that these ergonomics do not work when moving the camera around in motion-capture mode. Just as the add-on culture of 35mm SLR and DSLR cameras has developed over the years, so have the ergonomics of MPTV cameras. The extra tools have themselves evolved in conjunction with changing format acquisition sizes.
There are five principle techniques for moving an MPTV camera: geared or fluid head, dolly, crane, hand held and stabilised. Here we are discussing hand held and stabilised. To facilitate the hand-held properties of DSLRs for moving images, some manufacturers offer supports that allow the camera to sit on the shoulder – the classic hand-held position.
How do these support systems benefit your workflow? You can choose a lightweight, inexpensive hand-held support system such as the Zaguto Sniper which enables operators to hold the camera on the shoulder and use it with or without a loupe attached to the LCD screen. Or you can go for a fully ergonomic contoured support system like the Kinomatik MOVIEtube PR Production kit. This not only has all the classic design features associated with a MPTV shoulder-mounted camera, but it also incorporates a broadcast industry-standard viewfinder, a breakout box for external monitors and power for remote follow-focus accessories.
These options offer operators the hand-held experience. For added production values and achieving a different way of moving the camera, stabiliser systems such as Steadicam offer products to suit a wide range of cameras and budgets. The operation of Steadicam is dependent on the weight of the rig. For the lightest requirements, such as a lightly loaded DSLR rig, the Merlin hand-held unit enables shooting with smooth natural-looking camera movement. For heavier DLSR rigs, Pilot is the choice.
Surly the point of DSLR shooting is to keep everything within a small, light unit? Yes you can make it small, light and with great production values. This produces a particularly small unobtrusive hand-held rig that can move in a crowd with more ease than traditional TV or film camera rigs. But sometimes the weight and mass of more accessories, matte box, remote follow focus, battery, recorders, monitors, etc, make it unsuitable for the smallest Steadicam stabilised support. However, it is still possible to design the rig and workflow that best suits the overall production needs.
There are already plenty of very good small professional or -inch chip HD cameras on the market. Why not use them? The overriding advantage of DSLRs is their large imaging chip. Generally this is about the same physical size as a 35mm film – hence they are called ‘full-frame’. This enables achieving the production values of the much loved 35mm film format. This includes achieving the shallow ‘35mm’ DOF that oozes high production value – because it is what we have become accustomed to in the cinema. Hence, if the background looks soft and the shift of focus involves us in the visual journey and enhances the story telling, we instinctively believe it must have cost a lot of money!
Apart from the focus effects, the larger imaging size means a lens can resolve more image detail onto the sensor than with smaller sensors. The result is more accuracy and clearer detail in the focussed picture areas, and again, more production value.
Note that SLR lenses are not built with dynamic operation in mind. And a focus pull is a dynamic use of the lens that is operated by rotating the glass. This will expose any unevenness of the lens as it rotates, producing a ‘breathing’ effect – distortion of the image. Prime lenses are built to the highest standards and should be more even, producing less ‘breathing’, than zoom lenses. Also for smoothness and avoiding camera wobble it is best to execute the operation using a follow focus unit.
Primes or zooms?
Prime lenses are, as a rule, the choice for production-staged filming where the shots and their framing is worked out ahead of the shoot. Also prime lenses are often the choice for Steadicam shooting as the camera can move to frame the scene. Zooms can provide some or all of the focal lengths with one or two lenses. This can make for quicker working but the optical path passes less light and the images may not be quite so sharp. Zooms for stills cameras are optimised for stills but they have limitations working with accessories as their barrels extend when zooming and this can cause problems with matte boxes and accessories.
Camera accessories are there to enable still and moving image photographers to capture exactly the images they want. Clearly the two requirements have many differences and adding the right accessories helps to make them work the way you want and produce the pictures you planned.
With a bit of careful selection and planning you can use accessories across cameras and formats. If you have a matte box, filters and rails you can fit that to another camera – maybe all you need to add is a different base plate to fit a second camera to share the accessories.