Evolution: HDSLR Cinematography

HDSLR is the one to the right (Image by NRKbeta.no)

HDSLR is the one to the right (Image by NRKbeta.no)

Apart from maybe the reintroduction of 3D and the final breakthrough of the RED digital cinema camera in the established business, one of the big technical news of 2009 seems to be HDSLR cinematography. What happened? Everyone was waiting for Sony, Panasonic, Arri and the other camera manufacturers to answer the challenge from RED, when suddenly Canon and Nikon flicked a switch on their prosumer and professional digital stills camera systems, and created a small revolution in itself that even made RED revise their next generation of digital cinema cameras.

It’s a young format, and clearly far away from widespread use in drama productions, but the technology and the ideas are exciting, and I think it’s a very interesting subject for discussion.

The Nikon D90 and the Canon 5D MKII became the first DSLR’s to offer video recording in respectively 720p and 1080p resolution when they came out in 2008. Overall reception was a bit sceptical, what would you actually want to use this for? Very few professional photographers could see themselves shooting video all of a sudden. But that was before a man named Vincent Laforet entered the field. He realised the huge potential of the format, and convinced Canon to lend him a pre-production model to shoot this sample video with:

Admittedly an early attempt, and maybe not a work of art in itself, but the video showcases some of the main strengths of the format, and why it has become so popular. There is an amazing amount of detail and colour saturation in these low light scenarios which were shot with almost no extra light at all, and the aesthetics of the image resemble 35mm film, mainly due to the shallow depth of field achieved by the camera’s full frame sensor (which is actually physically larger than the standard Super35mm gate).

The Good

The 5D can shoot up to ISO 6400 with surprisingly little noise. The highest ISO motion picture film available is 500 — in other words, doubling the amount of light more than three times to achieve proper exposure. With their next generation, Canon and Nikon are bumping the max up to 12800, with a ridiculous boosted ISO of 102400 (I think more than a few people thought this part of the spec sheet was a typo). Vincent Laforet tried the new camera in October, and was very excited (read here). These cameras see more than our eyes do, and somehow manage to make bright pictures of it. This is the video Vincent Laforet made with the pre-production 1D MKIV:

Some of the images were even shot on ISO 12800, because he left it on by accident and didn’t notice(!).

The Norwegian national broadcasting (NRK) also did a test (here and here) with cinematographer John Andreas Andersen where they compared the 5D with the RED, and pretty much confirmed that the 5D beat the crap out of RED in low light scenarios (but not much else).

Realistically you would probably not shoot ISO 12800 on a feature for quite some time, but the point is that when they bump the max to 12800, that means the 6400 is looking better than the last generation. Next time they might bump it to 25600, and all of a sudden 6400 is starting to look really attractive. Both Arri and RED are moving up to a “standard” ISO 800 in their next generation cameras, which I presume will still be virtually noisefree.

When it comes to the old film vs. digital battle, I think low light sensitivity will be one of the main differences between the formats a few years down the road (not saying I think film will go away, more on that later!).

The Bad

We’re talking about a camera system that in general costs less than 10% of it’s high end motion picture counterparts. It’s an unfair comparison.

First of all, the stated resolution of 1080p is not really a technical reality. The eminent Stu Maschwitz (“point it at a resolution chart, and you’re in for some hurt“) has highlighted this for some time (read here). The DSLR was not designed for shooting 25 frames or more per second. In order to achieve this, the camera does not use all the photosites available for each frame, and uses aliasing to recreate the details that are not actually there. This can be very bad.

Second of all the video is recorded in a highly compressed format (H.264) which leaves very little freedom when it comes to treating the images in a post production workflow, and highlight detail is somewhat suffering compared to the professional competition. There is much less data per frame, and no matter how intelligent the processing is, something is missing. Generally you want as much as possible (one of the main arguments for still shooting film).

There is also the issue of ergonomics and compatibility. A DSLR is designed for shooting stills, not for shooting movies, which means that practical implementation in an established workflow can be troublesome on a regular drama production. Whether it’s handheld, on a tripod, or from a crane or steadicam, you might need a lot of special equipment and adapters to be able to operate like you’re used to.

Also stills lenses are less than ideal in practical use, the focus markings are compressed and less accurate, and they breath a lot when focusing. You can get a PL-mount adapter for your DSLR (check out ASC-member Shane Hurlbut with a Primo on his 5D), but then you need special gear to utilise standard accessories like a mattebox and focus wheel. Definitely an option, though!

The final big issue in my opinion is the still unsolved rolling shutter issue caused by the CMOS sensor in these cameras (explained here). Also called the “jello-effect”, this is an attribute of how CMOS sensors capture an image that cause moving shots and handheld shots to wobble. This is actually a major gripe with the format so far, making a lot of footage shot on HDSLR’s feel a bit “liquified” (check out this video, and maybe this more humorous approach to the subject).

(There is also the issue of audio recording, but I’m assuming external recording of sound here.)


What makes the HDSLR bad in terms of ergonomics is also what makes it an excellent niche product. A small, inexpensive camera that deliver high quality images seems like a perfect companion for stunt work and small, cramped locations. When the cost of the camera is so low that you can break it on purpose, I see the possibility for lots of destroyed cameras with exciting footage inside. The unconventional size also allows for unconventional images.

Also, the promise of a low-cost alternative to 35mm film that deliver similar visual qualities is an exciting prospect for independent drama productions, and low-budget music videos and commercials. This is not just an assumption, even the venerable Lucasfilm have shown a clear interest in the technology, inviting cinematographer Philip Bloom to Skywalker Ranch to demonstrate (interesting read and video!). They had a closer look at the footage on a large screen, and was reportedly still impressed.

But the actual quality of the images is still nowhere close to 35mm or 16mm film, nor can it compete with the professional digital solutions available today. Except for low-light, which is an exciting evolution of digital image capture, and maybe what most obviously is starting to create an advantage to digital capture over film.

It feels like this is the direction where digital is going, and why you will decide to shoot your next drama on a digital format. But I still think film will stay king of ultimate image quality and information. And even when digital finally catches up, I think film will stay an attractive alternative because of the aesthetics that you might want for certain projects.

What do you think? How will HDSLR affect your reality? What are your pros and cons?

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in reading more about HDSLR and what it can do for your future film projects, I can recommend reading up on the following people and resources:

Where the eminent Stu Maschwitz provides valuable insights and thoughts
Philip Bloom
Who travels the world and tests HDSLR on different projects for different purposes
Shane Hurlbut
Another cinematographer who explores the world of HDSLR
Creative COW
Now with a dedicated HDSLR-forum
Vincent Laforet
The grandfather of HDSLR video, but really a stills photographer
5DMk2 blog
News and links about HDSLR

Some equipment to help adapt the cameras for video capture:

Redrock DSLR Cinema Bundle reviewed by Creative Cow
Zacuto Z-Finder v2 reviewed by Philip Bloom

And finally a couple more examples of HDSLR video: