What Is HDSLR Good For?

I won’t spend too much time writing about HDSLR on this site, but I am interested in finding out what they’re good for. Unlike others, I am a bit skeptical to the current generation, and after testing them on a few projects, I am still convinced that this is nowhere near what you would expect from a professional digital motion picture camera. However, it is a very affordable tool with a specific aesthetic (due to sensor size) that few other solutions in the same price range can offer. This is my take on the format and how to avoid the biggest issues associated with it.

The above video is a really quick no-budget spot I shot for a friend who did scenography on the play. It was captured on the 5D, and has a few problems, but none of them are related to the capture device 😉 (thanks to peirik for lending me the camera for the day). This was the kind of project that showed up just a few days before, and without an HDSLR probably wouldn’t have happened. No time, no budget, no crew. Just a few hours with the actors inside the set with a lamp. And that is a valid point for the HDSLR’s, they enable some projects to happen that otherwise wouldn’t.

This summer I’m employing a Canon 7D in two other specific situations where I think it can prove to be useful. I lighted an instructional video for home baristas in June, where I shot b-camera details and closeups with a Canon 7D (Panasonic HPX3000 was a-camera, and responsible for the main bulk of footage), and in the end of July I will be shooting a documentary for an extreme sports contest with Canon 7D and a few other light cameras. Keep in mind that both these projects are on a very tight budget, which is why we’re considering HDSLR in the first place.

Issue number 1

Resolution charts provided by RED on reduser.net, showing artifacts and loss of resolution on 7D (click to see larger version).

In the first scenario, the 7D offered a cheap way of getting bonus shots and cutaways on a project that was quite pressed for time. The shots were mainly close details with a lot of defocused image space, allowing the camera and the codec to focus it’s attention on capturing detail in the in-focus areas. Which brings us to issue number one with these cameras. They are in no way actual 1080p resolution, they process the line-skipping signal from the large sensors in a very smart way to recreate 1920 by 1080 pixels of imagery, but under the right circumstances they will fall apart. Actual resolution according to science is somewhere between standard definition and 720p, but in real life you’ll sometimes get the appearance of HD. The question is, does your project actually need 1080p? This project was going online and onto DVD’s, and we could happily live with the lower resolution. But try to stay away from very detailed images, or you will be disappointed.

Issue number 2

In the second scenario, I am heading off the road for some documentary shooting. The prospect of running through forests and up mountains with a heavy broadcast camera is not very appealing to me, and the size of the 7D will allow me to put it in places I otherwise wouldn’t be able to capture images. But the heavy focus on action sequences means we’ll need a good way to operate the camera handheld, and some remedy for the bad rolling shutter problems: issue number two.

15 mm support with mattebox and follow focus from Chrosziel.

A lot of the jelloish pictures you’ve seen on the net are caused by the small size of these cameras. Anthony Dod Mantle, cinematographer on Slumdog Millionaire, had similar problems when handholding the tiny SI2k. It actually needs more weight. With a support system, mattebox and follow focus, a lot of the tiny vibrations go away. I have also found that having an HDSLR viewfinder (mine is an LCDVF) is essential, as your head pressed towards the back of the camera will stabilize it a lot. Rolling shutter from fast pans and movements should then be possible to partially correct in post, and partially just accept as a part of the package (WYGIWYPF — What You Get Is What You Paid For).

This handheld configuration from Shane Hurlbut, ASC was my starting point for minimizing tiny camera vibrations. (Image is property of Shane Hurlbut, ASC)

With this basic rig, you can do very versatile handheld operating, quickly moving around and getting into tight spots to capture images. You can also build on this rig, adding your favourite bells and whistles. Personally, I don’t really believe in the shoulder rigs offered by a wide range of accessory makers, but I haven’t really tried them either. The big problem for me with operating is when you put it on a tripod, as you can’t angle the viewfinder, and will have to resort to operating with a monitor.

Issue number 3

Issue number three is a crucial point for any scenario: exposing as close to the final look as possible. There is little to no room in your HDSLR footage to tweak exposure and/or colors in post, so you need to be spot on while shooting. Ideally you should have a monitor with a waveform or similar to control exposure, but an HDSLR viewfinder helps a lot with this as well, as you aren’t disturbed too much by light levels in your surroundings when looking at the screen. You might also want to setup your Canon with user settings that help take down contrast and sharpness (reducing some aliasing). I would hesitate (a LOT!) to bring this camera on any kind of VFX-shoot or wherever greenscreen is involved. Call me conservative. What you see on your screen is basically what you get, and for a 1500$ camera (plus about 8000$ of accessories), that’s not too bad.

And that’s about it for me. On the right project, it’s a viable, cheap solution to get the images you want. I can see these cameras on a lot of low budget music videos, feature film pilots, short films, student films, documentaries, commercials and the likes in the time ahead. But if budget will allow it, I’ll still be using proper tools for the job. I can also see both Panasonic and Sony (and then most likely Canon too) cooking up new prosumer videocameras with larger sensors to win back this market segment during the next year or so, while RED and Arri are rolling out a new generation of professional motion picture cameras to win back the industry. HDSLR might not be a revolution, but it’s certainly part of an ongoing reform.

Are you trying out HDSLR? Please feel free to share experiences and results you’ve attained in the comments. And remember, in the end it’s all about the final image — not about the equipment you used to create it. Just ask Stu Maschwitz.