Almost all new digital SLRs now offer the ability to shoot video.  

The technique to shoot video with digital SLRs is different from the technique used with a dedicated video camera.  Most photographer try and shoot video with a digital SLR the same way as they shoot video with a video camera.  They are not aware of the benefits of video from digital SLR and are not aware of the shortcomings either. So they dont exploit the advantages and dont workaround the limitations of digital SLRs for video.

A dedicated video camera is like a point and shoot. However, a little more thought has to go into the process when shooting video with a video enabled digital SLR.

With the correct technique, very good results can be obtained. Even lowest spec digital SLRs is as good or better than a mid range video camera in terms of video quality.

See 3 videos below from digital SLRs.

Video from train

Video of tracking a tiger using manual focus with 70-200mm f2.8L image stabilizer lens

Shallow depth of field and excellent low light ability in video


Whats lacking in conventional digital video cameras

Consumer and professional grade digital video cameras suffer from these shortcomings:

  • Very small sized sensor – much smaller in size compared to a digital SLR.  A smaller sensor inherently has more noise and this leads to lower quality video.  
  • Shallow depth of field cannot be achieved with such small size sensors. Depth of field is inversely proportional to sensor size.
  • No interchangeable lenses for consumer grade video cameras
  • Limited choice of lenses in high end digital video cameras
  • No manual control of focus or aperture


Advantages of digital SLRs for shooting video

The advantages of using a digital SLR for shooting video are:

  • Shallow depth of field due to the large size sensor
  • Low noise and high quality due to large size sensor
  • Ability to shoot in low light due to large size sensor
  • Wide variety of lenses available
  • Easier logistics as the same camera can be used for video and still photography
  • Wide variety of accessories such as AA-battery packs, grips
  • Manual control of focus and aperture

The new mirrorless cameras such as micro 4/3 and E.V.I.L. cameras are not as good for video due to their smaller sensor.  However they usually have much better autofocus when shooting video.


Disadvantages of digital SLRs for shooting video

The disadvantages are:

  • Autofocus does not work well.  This is because the primary phase-contrast detection autofocus sensor in a digital SLR is in the prism.  When shooting video, the mirror is flipped up and so the Autofocus sensor in the camera can not be used.  A slower sensor is used when shooting video. This secondary AF sensor is barely good enough to focus on stationary objects but not good enough to track a moving person. As an example, the AF in Canon 1D Mk 4 and Nikon D3s is very fast for still photography but the AF during video in both the cameras is slow.
  • Frame rates are limited. A good mid-range dedicated video camera can shoot HD video at 1080p and 60fps.  Only the high end digital SLRs can match that.  For marketing and technical reasons, the video is restricted to 1080p and 30fps etc.
  • Sensor produces jello effect when capturing motion
  • Pictures cannot be taken during video. If the photographer tries to take a picture when shooting video, the video is interrupted briefly while the picture is being taken
  • Built in microphones not good enough to isolate camera operating noise.  Noise of autofocus motor, changes in aperture etc are captured by the microphone.

The disadvantages of video in digital SLRs are fundamentally due to this being a relatively immature technology.  As the use of video in digital SLRs matures, these advantages will be overcome.


Lessons from experience in the field shooting video with digital SLRs

I spent a few weeks travelling in India with a video enabled digital SLRs (Canon EOS 500D).  

The lessons learned were:

  • Video quality in the cheapest video enabled digital SLR is as good or better than a mid range video camera.  I used a mid range video camera (Canon HF100) for comparison and the video quality from the lowest end video enabled digital SLR(Canon 500D with 18-55 lens) has better quality video. In the right hands, a mid range digital SLR with video (e.g. Canon 5D Mk II) has quality to match very expensive dedicated digital video cameras.
  • Autofocus is barely usable for stationary subjects. Autofocus is too slow to focus on moving subjects. Manual focus is easy thanks to live view and 3inch screen.
  • Tripod is not necessary if video is shot with a relatively wide angle lens such as the Canon 18-55 lens with image stabilizer. However, a tripod is always recommended
  • The image stabilizer does work well with video. However, when panning the camera, switch the image stabilizer or switch to panning mode. Else the video will be 'jerky' as the image stabilizer tries to correct horizontal movement.
  • Manual focus can be used with long lenses while handholding the camera. See this video of tracking a Tiger. The Tiger was kept in focus using manual focus. The image stabilizer was very useful to reduce camera shake with the long lens (Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS).
  • Low bitrate and inherent jello effect shows up in the video.  Subject motion is not always smoothly rendered in the video. The motion is not as smooth as with a dedicated video camera
  • Video is stored using MP4 compression. It can be played back on most computers. It can be edited using iMovie on a Mac.

In terms of individual products, the distinction is very simple. Canon 5D MkII is the best in terms of image quality, and then there are all the rest. There is a big gap between the best (Canon 5D MkII) and all the rest. Canon cameras generally have better video capabilities compared to Nikon. The Canon 5D Mk II, 7D, 550D are very good. The Nikon cameras are not that good from video point of view. The new Nikon D3100 definitely has much improved video capability.

The Micro 4/3 format cameras dont have good video because of the small sensor size. However, the AF generally works better with video. The Sony NEX series camera also have very good video capabilities due to their larger APS-C/DX size sensor and fast AF during video.

Here is another sample of video with Canon 500D and Canon 400mm f2.8L II lens. The video is in 720p 30fps HD. This level of quality will cost a lot more if you try and do it using a conventional video camera.


Editing video from digital SLRs

Most modern video enabled digital SLRs store video using H264 compression codec as a MP4 or MOV file. These videos can be viewed in any good computer with fast graphics.

The good news is that the video is good enough to be watched on a computer without editing. The video can be burned to a DVD to watch on a TV. The video can be improved by adjusting the contrast, sharpness etc in a good video editing application(e.g. iMovie on a Mac).  

On a Mac, the video can be edited using the included iMovie.  iMovie also allows you to increase contrast, brightness, to make other minor adjustments and to add titles and other transition effects.  iMovie is good enough for most non-professional use.

On Windows computer, the video can be edited using the Windows live movie maker for Windows 7. Windows Live movie maker is a free optional download from Microsoft. However, Windows Live movie maker saves the videos as WMV files.  The WMV files can not be played in many devices and so is not recommended.  The only adjustments allowed is brightness.  So Windows movie maker is very limiting. On Windows, any good video editing application should be able to edit MP4 files.

For professional use, the video from high end digital SLRs such as Canon 5D Mk II is converted to ProRes codec included with Final Cut Pro on a Mac. This increases file size but makes it easier to edit the video in Final Cut Pro.


Desirables features in a digital SLR for shooting video

The desirables features in a digital SLR for shooting video are features which would strengthen the advantages of video with digital SLRs and solve their shortcomings.

Amateur photographer/videographer would like to see a different set of features in the next generation digital SLRs.  These features are:

  • Usable autofocus when shooting video with the digital SLR
  • Isolate camera operating noise when shooting video.  The noise from changing aperture, noise from image stabilizer and autofocus motor should not be captured by the camera microphone
  • Reduce jello effect when shooting motion


The desirables features for professional photographers/videographers, in addition to above, are:

  • Full frame sensor – to maximize the benefit of shallow depth of field, low light ability and high quality
  • High bit rate – preferably 1080p at 60 fps to capture smooth looking video.  There should also be an option to shoot at 24 and 30 fps.
  • Ability to output RAW video in a native format – preferably higher resolution 4k video.  
  • Ability to use external stereo microphone
  • HDMI output and ability to get video feed for external monitor

See this link for a survey which also discusses the list of features desired in the next generation digital SLR with video abilities.  The long list also suggests that video in digital SLRs is still immature.


Who is shooting video with digital SLRs

And thousands of other professional and amateur photographers.


Further reading



Even the lowest end digital SLRs have the capability to shoot HD video.  It is not just a marketing gimmick. The video quality is very high.  

The advantages are shallow depth of field, excellent low light ability, ability to use wide variety of lenses and accessories, and very good quality video.  The disadvantages are that AF is not usable, the microphone picks up focus and aperture noise, and it is not very good for shooting scenes with a lot of motion.

Video enabled digital SLRs are less suitable for the casual amateur photographer/videographer.  They are most suitable for the advanced photographer/videographer looking for high quality videos with shallow depth of field and low noise, and can work around the limitations of digital SLRs.  Digital SLRs are being used by professionals for documentary, music videos, ads for TV, TV shows, low budget films and wedding videos. 

While digital SLRs are mature for still photography, video in digital SLRs is not mature and rapidly evolving but definitely very usable and the results are really outstanding.  

Video in digital SLRs is just another example of the 'convergence of technologies' and 'network innovation' which is very popular now-a-days.

Video in digital SLRs is being embraced by millions of digital SLR users.  Give it a try!


Thanks for reading.  Your comments and feedback will be appreciated.

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