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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why I chose to film with a DSLR

by: Josh with Broken Pine Outdoors

You hear this question getting asked every day. Should I or shouldn’t I disregard the league norm and film my hunts completely with a DSLR? It’s a valid question. For so many years people have flocked to video cameras because of their ease of use, their professional audio and their ability to function well in the heat of the moment. This is not to mention the fact that most video cameras don’t require you to change out lenses, manually control every feature and physically put on ND filters. They are simply the easiest way to film and to capture your hunts on camera.

I myself started filming with video cameras. I began with a simple Sony Handycam and moved my way up to an AX2000. This camera was awesome and did absolutely everything I needed it to as far as smooth and reliable zoom, dual audio support and manual control over many functions. This camera launched me into my professional career and has been featured with me in many magazines, websites and more.

The problem with it though wasn’t really the camcorder itself, but more or less the fact that it was a camcorder. I found myself more often than not reaching for my crop sensored DSLR rather than my dedicated video camera. It wasn’t that the AX2000 was bad, but rather that the Sony a77 was that good.

I will admit that I am partial to the look from the image of a DSLR. Many other outdoor film crews are using them to get all of their B-Roll shots. I think Tom Petry from Campbell Cameras said last night on his online seminar that most shows are filming almost 80% or more of their entire productions with DSLRs. I would have to agree with him. It’s not uncommon to see everything but the kill filmed with a DSLR over a dedicated video camera. I found myself being one of those guys. The reason is because of their massive sensors. These sensors allow you to achieve an amazing depth of field that helps to give the cinematic look that so many of us love to watch. We are also attracted to DSLRs because of how creative you can be with them. You can get almost any lens for almost any situation that can help you film the most insane and beautiful shots. It also helps that you can use wide aperture lenses to gather a ton of light when filming in low light situations or even when filming around the camp at night.

As I began to book more film jobs and started to move up in the industry, I had decided it was time to upgrade from my AX2000 to a video camera that could give me a look more similar to what I could get with an SLR. The issue I ran into? They don’t make them. You can find cameras, tweak their picture profiles and do some massive editing in post to try and create the look of an SLR, but good luck getting it to be the same. SLRs are in their own class and to get that look with a video camera your best bet is to step into an interchangeable lens camcorder, like the Sony FS line. These, however, can be expensive after you add in the cost of lenses.

After months of searching for the perfect video camera, I finally realized that 95% of the time I went with a DSLR over my video camera, so why don’t I just find a way to film 100% with it? I mean, if we all love that look so much that we film most of our shows with these cameras, then why not film all of it with them? Why not try to capture the kill with that same cinematic look? The reason is because it is so hard to set up a DSLR just right and so many things become a factor when going that route. Focusing becomes extremely difficult. Finding out how to run dual audio becomes expensive. Having to mess with every little setting gets annoying when you have a monster buck headed your way. But if you can pull it off, you suddenly have some of the best footage you’ve ever taken in your life. That’s why I chose to make the switch.
So if you’re like me and you want to go the DLSR route, then here is some advice on how to make it work:

One of the best things about going with an SLR is their price. You can get a Sony a77 with an unbeatable kit lens from Campbell Cameras right now for $1,399.99. This is substantially cheaper than a lot of your professional dedicated video cameras. To get dual audio, Beachtek makes an adapter that screws into the bottom of your camera and can be phantom powered as well. I run the SLR Pro series, but you can get their SLR Pure Adapter for $299.00 and with it you will have audio meters to help monitor your sound.
With this money saved when buying a DSLR over a video camera, you can purchase some good lenses to cover different focal lengths. I personally run the Sony line of G lenses, but you don’t have to spend that much to get a good image. Look for lenses that have a constant aperture, preferably a 2.8 or better for use in low light. One of the best lenses to use for filming bow hunts would be a 70-200mm f/2.8. This allows you to zoom in or out with a constant aperture and is the perfect range for filming deer in or just out of bow range. For rifle hunts or anything with a much further distance, I would suggest a 70-400mm lens. These typically have an aperture of 4.5-5.6. On crop sensor cameras, like the a77, the max distance would actually be closer to 600mm. This is nearly equivalent to the 20x zoom found on the AX2000.
Other great lenses include primes for filming. The “nifty fifty” is a 50mm 1.4 lens that is often referred to as the go-to lens for independent filmmakers. These allow you to gather a ton of light, get great bokeh (blurred out backgrounds) and preform some super creative shots. These are also fantastic for filming interviews and can be found for $350 or less. Do you like the look of a time-lapse at night (starscape) showing off the stars? This can be obtained using super wide angle lenses (14-24mm) with apertures of 2.8 or less and a  intervalometer from Campbell Cameras. 

Other than lenses, a great way to enhance your production value with DSLRs is to drop the contrast, the sharpness and the saturation in your picture profile to get a “flat” look that you can manipulate more in the editing room. You can also get jibs, sliders, glide cams, rigs and more to help you produce other cinematic shots with your DSLR cameras. If you want to have two cameras going, try getting one crop sensor SLR and one full frame, like the a99. This allows you to have multiple cameras in the tree or blind so you can swap lenses with both and have both a primary and secondary angle.

This is just a summary of why I chose to switch to a DSLR and what types of equipment you can get to make them work for you. If you decide to take on this tough but rewarding road, I would highly recommend the Campbell Cameras Advanced Production School to help you better learn how to control your DSLR camera. Bear in mind that if you are new to filming and/or aren’t wanting to spend days/weeks/months on YouTube trying to learn the ins and outs, then filming with an SLR may not be for you. But if you have experience filming with video cameras, are looking for a way to enhance the look of your films and don’t mind an extreme challenge, then give DSLR cameras a shot.

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