Pro DSLR Video Tips from David Harry Stewart
Let a pro tell you how to get the most out of your HDSLR.
Commercial and editorial photographer David Harry Stewart (www.dhstewart.com) is one of the many pro shooters to take up DSLR video. Take a look at his short, Asia Mon Amour. For even more of his insights into the craft of photography, both still and video, visit blog1.dhstewart.com.
Q. How does shooting video differ from stills?
A. They’re very different approaches. The whole point with still photography is to capture the moment when something happens. But with video you want the moment before and the moment after, too&and then you have to chain them all together through montage.
Q. You mean editing?
A. Yes. Montage is one of the primary things that distinguish still images from movies. You see a person’s face and then a guy running and then a door slamming—and your brain connects all of these things into a narrative. I really recommend reading Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye. He’s a genius. Moviemaking is deeply psychological—your brain makes this leap. Murch’s thesis is your eyes blink and your brain is making edits. He also talks about the soundscape. Those things are totally foreign to a still photographer. But the study of cinema is a mature science—it’s been going on for 100 years. There’s a wealth of information out there.
Q. Do I need to storyboard or create a shot list?
A. Editing is the whole thing. Someone who does documentary work won’t have a script going in. But there are complications either way. If you’re going to try to block the action, there’s a tremendous amount of preproduction work to do. If you’re going a more documentary route, there’s a tremendous amount of postproduction. The post is a slog.
Q. What about software?
A. You can montage in iMovie, which is a very simple program. It works fine for YouTube and things like that. The problem with using a DSLR to produce HD video is that you can’t just put a toe in the water. iMovie is fine for very low-res, and the next step is a big step up. Say you want to make a high-res video: To put it in a nonlinear editor like Final Cut, you’ll have to transcode the file. H.264, the compression codec that Canon uses, will work native in iMovie but not in Final Cut. It will work in the latest version of Premier, though I don’t have personal experience with it or with Premier Elements. Final Cut Pro is not all that easy to use, but you can learn it in a few months. I started with Final Cut Express for four months, but that was a mistake because you can’t just upgrade from Express to Pro.
Q. Sounds complicated!
A. The hardest part of the deal is that now you’re a filmmaker. You have to learn about time and timing, sound, sequence, montaging. No longer can one picture tell the whole story. The most helpful thing I’ve ever done for video is studying African dance for five years—it’s about rhythm and timing.
Q. What about gear?
A. A lot of these guys are tricking out their cameras in ways that I think are stupid. It’s not a 70-pound camera—it’s a 3-pound camera. Use it like a 3-pound camera! For part of my Asia video, I used a 21mm f/2.8 Zeiss lens on my Canon EOS 7D in my palm, running after these kids. I set it to f/5.6. There’s huge depth of field, 6 to 8 feet or more. I don’t want to pull focus.
Q. And for more stability?
A. I use a Manfrotto Fig Rig—it’s brilliant—and a Zacuto magnifier for the LCD. For the skateboard video I’m working on now, we put the 7D on a monopod with a ballhead to extend it down into the ramps. My assistant, Dante, who’s shooting video with the 7D while I shoot stills with a Hasselblad H3D-31, is also using a larger rig from Redrock Micro.
Q. So shooting isn’t that hard?
A. If you know the limitations of your camera, you just work within them. For instance, I use a color meter all the time. You have to get the exposure and the color temperature exactly right. It’s like shooting transparencies all over again. H.264 files are 8-bit color. You can’t go from daylight to tungsten in the same shot. It’s not RAW.
Q. Any other quirks compared with camcorders?
A. With a camcorder, you have autofocus and zoom, but these cameras won’t do that. And a DSLR’s CMOS sensor scans diagonally from upper left to lower right. So if you pan quickly something bad called jello happens-you get a lot of strange distortion. The 7D handles this slightly better than the 5D. But with the 5D you can get shallower depth of field. If you’re shooting someone’s face and they’re staying in one place, it’s just fantastic. With the 7D, slow motion looks fantastic.
Q. What about exposure?
A. You’re limited on shutter speed: It needs to be constant. If you’re shooting 24p, it should be 1/50 sec—that’s the closest to what you’ll see in the movies—or less if you like your footage a bit softer. If you’re at 30p, for more of a TV look, you should set it to no more than 1/60 sec. And if you’re at 60p, it should be no more than 1/125 sec—this gives you a hideous video look. But I use a program called Cinema Tools, which is very easy to use, to pull it down to 24p. This gives you roughly 2.5X slo-mo, and that’s really beautiful.
Here’s something else you should know: If you’re under incandescent or fluorescent light, the shutter speed needs to correspond to the cycle-Hertz-rate of the electricity. In the U.S., we’re at 60 Hertz, so you should shoot at 1/60 sec, and 1/30 sec is okay. But in Europe, if you shoot at 1/60 sec, the light will pulse-you need to shoot at 1/50 sec.
Q. And aperture?
A. You don’t want to have to change the f-stop and lose your shallow depth of field to keep that shutter speed. On my 5D, I like it at about f/5.6. On the 7D, f/5.6 is still a lot of depth of field. The only time we use those big f-stops—f/16, for example—is with a long lens, because you don’t want someone moving and then falling out of focus.
Q. Then there’s ISO.
A. If you’re shooting outside in sunlight, set ISO 100. The camera has native ISOs, and anything other than the native ISOs look like hell. This is an unknown fact. I learned it from my man Shane Hurlbut. He did a test of these and sent out a newsletter of examples of each ISO. I’ve written them out and taped them to the top of my cameras. On the 5D, the native ISOs are 100, 160, 320, 640, 800, 1250. ISO 2500 will work, too. The 7D won’t go as high—I wouldn’t set the ISO much over 800. It’s possible to use much higher ISOs, but the image really starts to fall apart. DSLRs handle low light wonderfully, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid light. You have to expose and light properly.
Q. Any other limitations?
A. DSLRs don’t like bright highlights—detail disappears. But unless it’s critically important to you, this is no big deal.
Q. What about other camera settings?
A. Turn sharpening entirely off. Go into the menus—in Canons, it’s in the Picture Styles menu, and the Standard is the flattest. Choose this and turn the sharpening to zero. This will make it look more like film and less like video. Turn contrast down one notch (-1) and saturation down -1. Outside at night, with a high ISO, I’ll bring those down -2. Some people turn these all the way down, but then the image is super flat.
Q. What else must I buy?
A. The solution for your readers is: Buy less crap! Keep it really simple.
Q. Yeah, but there’s some stuff you can’t do without, right?
A. You need a magnifier—it helps you see better and also helps you brace the camera. A stabilized lens helps a lot.
Q. Any filters?
A. You need neutral-density filters—they give you the control over your aperture, since your shutter speed is fixed. I have a set of glass ND filters in 2- and 3-stop increments. A good ND filter is $100, so it gets expensive if you have a few of these. But with cheaper filters, the color is not consistent. It’s fine for stills, because when you’re shooting RAW it’s easy to fix the color, but it’s a real pain for video. You can also get a variable ND filter-two polarizers that cross each other; Singh-Ray makes a very good one.
Q. And memory cards?
A. Make sure you use a fast UDMA card and a fast reader. I standardize my cards—Lexar Professional 600x CF cards, all 16GB. You need about 250 megabytes a minute for video. But don’t put in a massive card. If you run the camera for 10 or 11 minutes without stopping, it’ll overheat. I’ve never had my 5D overheat, but my 7D did. I took the battery and card out, and let it ventilate and cool down for a few minutes. If you’re going to run a 20-minute take, use a video camera.
Q. A fast computer, too?
A. One of the things that surprised me was that a lot of the editing software runs off the video card, so you’ll need the fastest one possible. I’d covered RAM and processing speed, but I had to buy a new 512MB video card for my Mac tower. Also, you’re going to run into storage issues right away. That’s a big thing to prepare for.
Q. It’s all so intimidating.
A. Just go make movies! It’s really simple. Point your camera and hit the button.