I’m on a bit of a DSLR kick right now as I’ve just announced my Guide To Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR, and have been eager to share some recent thoughts on this topic with my readers. The DSLR video tips that you find below are not so much technical, but rather fundamental in nature, focusing on core ideas that will help make your images stronger. I truly believe that following these 5 guidelines will not only make your work more cinematic, but will improve the overall quality of your work immensely. At the end of this post I will also name my pick for the best entry level DSLR today, but first here’s the list:
1. Know Your Camera’s Limitations
One of the first steps in acquiring the best possible image with your DSLR is to understand it’s limitations, as not all cameras are made equal. There may be some characteristics that are common amongst all DSLRs, but for the most part you really need to study, test, and shoot with your camera as much as possible in order to know it’s breaking point. Some DSLRs are fantastic in low light, but have poor dynamic range. Others are extremely sharp, but produce images with aliasing… You get where I’m going with this. The point is, you need to know your camera inside and out. If your DSLR captures gorgeous images in daylight, but isn’t a low-light monster, then consider shooting with it only at lower ISOs and in well lit night conditions that don’t require you to strain the codec. Or if your project requires a lot of low-light shots, then choose a different camera entirely, and one that isn’t as limited in that regard. Whatever you do though, don’t stress your camera past it’s breaking point in any way.
2. Avoid Micro Jitters!
Probably the most nauseating artifact of shooting with a DSLR (or any other camera with a small form factor) is the presence of micro jitters. What I am referring to are those tiny little shakes that will show up on your handheld footage, often not fully appearing until you look at your footage in post. You need to be very careful about the way that you shoot in order to avoid this problem, as even the slightest movement in your hand can wreak havoc on the image. Options to remedy this include using a tripod or stabilizer, but your lens choice makes a big different too. Longer lenses will always produce more shake, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them – you just need to be more careful! Alternatively you can uses lenses with built in image stabilization, but that isn’t always the best option as certain lenses can produce unpredictable results when their stabilization is activated.
3. Slow Pans Are Your Enemy
Second only to the micro-shake is the slow-pan as a dead giveaway that you are shooting on DSLR. Again, every DSLR varies in this regard but for the most part DSLRs when shooting in 24p mode have a very difficult time panning at slow speeds. My old Lumix GH2 was one of my favorite cameras, but it had the absolute worst judder effect that would plague my images when panning across an image with vertical lines (such as a building or even a person standing up). Ideally you want to avoid unnecessary pans whenever possible. Simply shoot a second setup and get your take in two shots instead of one so you can avoid having to pan too often if it comes down to it. Alternatively you can pan more quickly so the judder in your image is less noticeable, but don’t go too fast or you will get a wobble/jello effect as a result of the rolling shutter.
4. Hot Spots Are OK
One of the first things that you probably learned when exposing your images is not to blow out your highlights. This advice is extremely relevant and will effectively help you achieve a better exposure, but only when you understand the difference between highlights and hotspots. Some shooters are so afraid to overexpose any part of their image, that they will expose for the brightest area in the shot (such as a lamp in the background), and in turn end up bringing down the exposure on their talent’s face so much that the image looks horribly underexposed. It’s important to remember that it is completely okay for your images to clip to white, so long as it isn’t happening in a critical part of your frame – such as your actor’s face. If a window blows out in the background, that can actually look nice, as the window is a hotspot – and depending on the look you are after, it can potentially work well for your scene and mood. A blown out window in the background with a perfectly exposed face will always look better than a horribly exposed face and a window that holds detail. Unless of course you are going for something ultra-stylized.
5. Treat Your DSLR Like A Film Camera
Many of us feel so liberated by the fact that we can shoot with our DSLRs in small spaces and unique situations, that we can inadvertantly take things too far and forget to treat it like a true cinema camera. Just because it’s easier to shoot with your DSLR than let’s say a RED EPIC, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it like you would treat an EPIC. Rig it up. Mount it with beautiful glass. Use a follow focus. Add weight to the camera so it moves like a cinema camera. And don’t rush your shots just because you can. The more you treat your camera like a cinema camera, the more cinematic your images will be. It sounds simple, but it’s very true. The same is true in the opposite situation as well… If you just pull a RED EPIC out of the box, put on a crappy lens and shoot handheld with no rig and no lighting, it will look horrible. So remember how to treat your gear and it will serve you well!
6. ProMist Filters Are Your Friend
DSLR cameras are just getting better and better every year, and are now producing sharper images than ever. This is both good and bad. On one hand, sharp images help us to see detail in our images and produce a rich texture which can be nice, but when things get too sharp, the footage can really start to look like video. The best way to avoid this issue when shooting on DSLRs is simply to use a ProMist filter. These filters do an excellent job of softening up your image, but only in areas where you will want it to be softer, such as skin tones. It will leave a lot of detail in the image without going overboard and giving it that blurry/foggy soap opera effect. Just be careful about which camera you use this on. Cameras like the 5D MKIII are already so soft that you don’t usually want a ProMist filter in front of them, but for a really sharp camera like the GH4, they are your best friend.
This is just the tip of the iceberg…
It’s so important to remember to focus not only on the technical specs of your gear, but also the fundamental knowledge that will apply to any camera that you own or rent. We have really only scratched the surface here, but hopefully it has put things in perspective for some of you and given you some food for thought. In my new Guide To Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR, we will get into these topics and many more in way more depth, so be sure to click the link below if you are interested in pre-ordering your copy today at a discounted rate.
And Finally – My Pick For The Best Entry Level Video DSLR…
The Nikon D5300!
First and foremost, here are the specs:
- 24.1MP DX format CMOS sensor, without OLPF
- EXPEED 4 processing
- ISO 100-6400 standard, up to 25600 expanded
- 5 fps continuous shooting
- 39 point AF system, 9 sensors cross type
- 2016 pixel RGB metering sensor
- 1080p60 video recording, built-in stereo mic
- 1.04M dot 3.2″ vari-angle LCD monitor
Why is this my choice? Well for starters it’s a very well rounded DSLR that comes with a reasonable price tag of about $750. Granted, this isn’t the cheapest DSLR that you can buy, but this choice wasn’t solely based on price – it was based on value. You can buy a Canon T3i for a few hundred dollars and get pretty decent images with it, but in my opinion it is lightyears away from the Nikon in terms of image quality and functionality. The D5300 may not be the absolute best in any one category (such as low light, sharpness, noise, stills, etc.) but it is very good in nearly all of the above. It is capable of shooting in very low light situations which is ideal for filmmakers on a budget, and even shoots at 1080/60p which is quite rare in a camera at this price point. Additionally, it’s a fantastic stills camera which gives it even more added value, as many shooters that are just starting out need to shoot stills as well in order to supplement their income. Cameras like the Lumix G6 are excellent alternatives, but in my opinion the D5300 is the way to go if you need the most well rounded, budget-friendly option.
If you want to take the next step towards achieving a cinematic look, be sure to check out my Guide For Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR below!
Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!