Rough Guide to DSLR Video ( Beginner / Intermediate )

If you have a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) stills camera that is only a few years old, it may well shoot video. Also referred to as HDSLR (High Definition Single Lens Reflex), it may well shoot better looking video than an expensive video camera. The BBC, Hollywood and American mainstream media have been using them for some time and they are well suited to drama where some of their shortcomings are less of a problem. They can however, be used very successfully for documentaries.  They can shoot great looking interviews and are even of some use for on the hoof 'run and gun' work.

The video below is an example of what can be achieved.  It was shot on a Canon 550D with a £7 neck tripod and a £50 LCDVF (an eyepiece similar to the one shown above) and the total cost of setup was around £500. This was the first time I have used a DSLR in anger!  There are a couple of slightly wobbly shots and I think a rig of the type shown above would help a lot (these are discussed below).

This beginners guide to DSLR video should get you started, outline the 'pros and cons' and set you in the right direction. For more information, you may also want to look at Rough Guide to Filming which is a general guide to shooting.

So what's so great about DSLRs?

The main reasons people like DSLRs are:  
  • The footage they produce looks great.  I have a Sony Z1 (£2000) and the stuff I have shot on a Canon 550D (£500) looks as good if not better.  The colours are vivid and the depth of field is nice and shallow (see Depth of Field section).
  • They are good in low light The reason for this is that they have a very big sensor (the bit that the light hits; where the film used to be), which is around 2 to 4 times bigger than entry level pro video cameras.
  • They are small and unobtrusive.  They are easy to carry but more importantly you can film without people realising.  People are more self conscious when being filmed than photographed.  Also some places will not let you take a video camera but will let you take a 'stills camera'.
  • They are very cheap A DSLR with a few bits and bobs costing £500 can produce footage as good as a £20,000 video camera.
  • They use still camera lenses This is another thing that makes them cheap (although they have their problems).  Stills lenses are a lot cheaper than specialist video ones.

3rd party firmware hacks can give you facilities and frame-rates only available on the most expensive cameras and/or new facilities not available at all. There are video cameras coming along with DSLR sensors (often refereed to as CMOS/Crouped Frame sensors) and these can give the best of both worlds but are still currently expensive (£3000+ not including a lens).

What are the downfalls

DSLRs are designed primarily for taking stills so there video capabilities and ergonomics are compromised.  The downfalls which apply to almost all DSLRs are:
  • The ergonomics are wrong and holding the camera steady is a problem but if you are using a tripod or support you can overcome that (see getting a steady shot section).
  • Sound quality  You can record sound on the camera but it will generally be of poor quality. It is not possible to monitor the sound going into the camera in real time. Some of the electronics in the camera are not to pro standard and the internal amplifier will sometimes distort the sound.  This is made worse by the fact that you will probably only have automatic 'gain control', which means the camera decides automatically what amplification to use.  It will boost the amplification up very high if it is quiet, which can add hiss and distortion. It is good practice to use manual gain and this is not sometimes possible.  This can be overcome with with external pre-amps (see What About Sound section)
  • Zooming during a shot is virtually impossible (with standard DSLR lenses and no extra kit).  To be able to zoom firstly you need expensive 'single F stop' lenses.  This is because if the aperture changes during a zoom you will see the light level suddenly change (as the aperture changes).  All but the top end zoom lenses for stills cameras change the aperture while zooming.  Also for stills cameras to go from max wide to max zoom you don't have to rotate the lens much (i.e 1/4 of a turn).  This makes it near on impossible to do a smooth zoom (also the lenses are not designed for smooth zoom so they can be a little sticky/jumpy).  Video Camera lenses usually have something like a full turn and are designed with a smooth mechanism.  It is possible to buy very expensive 'video' lenses but they are expensive.
  • No back focus.  This means you can not zoom in, focus and then zoom out  to the shot you want (keeping the focus) .  This is the generally how to focus when using professional video cameras; you do not have to change focus when zooming (they hold focus).
  • No professional XLR microphone sockets or phantom power. DSLRs which have microphone sockets have a 3.5mm mini-jack which is not ideal (XLR inputs are generality used for professional recording). A camera mounted preamp can be used but sound should ideally be recorded separately.
  • There is no viewfinder and the screen it small and often fixed.  Your DSLR may not have a transitional eyepiece viewfinder so you are reliant on the small LCD fixed to the back of the camera.  This is sometimes articulated so can be moved but it can be difficult to see in bright sunlight.  Camcorders generally have an articulated LCD viewfinder to use for framing/focusing which work in bright light. Having to be directly behind the camera is often not convenient (both LCDs and viewfinders tend to have various positions so you can, for example, be above the camera when filming).  A bolt on LCD/viewfinder can be used to overcome this.
  • The LCD monitor is generally inadequate for focusing and cameras do not have focus assist (i.e. no peaking).  I,ve found this to be the case for Canon and I believe later Panasonic Lumix models and the Sony Alpha are better than Canon. Again, a bolt on LCD/viewfinder is used to solve this problem.
  • No Zebras. In mid and top level camcorders you can set up a zebra pattern which appears in over exposed areas.  These are not supported in DSLRs but firmware hacks available for some DSLR cameras have these.  Magiclantern software has 'under' and 'over' exposure zebras (red for over, blue for under).
There are features that apply to only some DSLRs.  Some indications as to which limitations apply to which cameras are given but you should do your own research (this list should be used as a checklist of what to check):
  • limit to the maximum length of a single shot.  For Canon this is 12 minutes. This is because the camera would overheat. Panasonic Lumix does not have a limit.
  • Realtime focus DSLR cameras are designed to focus while the mirror is down and you are looking through the viewfinder.  While in video mode the mirror is constantly up and the LCD is used.  This means a secondary autofocus system is used when shooting video. 
  • Autofocus in DSLRs tends to be slow and noisy and hunts a lot (overshoots and them comes back).  This means it is not possible to use autofocus and manual focus must be used. 
  • Some don't have a microphone socket so sound must be recorded separately. Dramtends to record sound separately anyway but for documentary work this can be very inconvenient.
  • Some don't have a headphone socket so you cant monitor sound through headphones (which is essential). This means you would have to record sound separately.

Sound IS Important!

There are three issues you are trying to solve here. 
  1. The inability on most DSLRs to record decent quality sound
  2. They often do not have a headphone socket so the sound can not be monitored
  3. Most only have automatic levels
The options for sound are to record it separately or get a camera mounted mixer/amplifier. The latter will do in some situations where sound is less of an issue, but getting a sound recordist to record the sound separately is the best option. Although this requires more coordination when filming and there is then the need to sync all the audio and video for editing, this is definitely preferable to trying to edit with poor quality audio.

Recording Sound Separately

The solutions for recording sound separately while using DSLR are the same as recording with any film camera.  For years, DAT was used, followed by hard disk systems.  Recently there has been a move to solid state recorders which record on SD cards. Prices vary, but Zoom do a range which include the budget Zoom H1 and the more professional Zoom H4n (pictured right) which has balanced XLR inputs.  Other ones to consider are the Edirol R-06 (pictured left) and the Sony M10 (which is probably one of the best with 3.5mm jack inputs).  To get clean sound you will want to use a boom mic and lavalier for interviews and you can also get very good results using the internal microphones for ambient and wild-track. 

The best option is always to record the sound using external microphone(s) which are plugged into a mixer which is controlled by the sound engineer.  The output from the mixer can either be recorded separately (as above) or recorded on the camera (see next section). 

Using a camera mounted mixer/amplifier

Several people (Beachtek and Juicelink) have created units specifically to overcome the problems of recording sound on a DSLR.  They have an amplifier so the internal amplifiers in the cameras can be turned off.  They have circuitry that causes the Auto Gain Control to be turned to minimum.  They also have manual levels and a headphone socket to allow the audio to be monitored.  Jucelink do a budget, but high quality, unit (DS214, pictured left) which is designed for use with 3.5mm mini-jack Microphones such as the Rode VideoMic.  They do a full range that includes XLR and phantom powered models and even a 4 channel one.  Beachtek also do a full range which take both XLR and minijack. The Jucelink with XLR and phantom power (DT454) is quite a lot more expensive than the Beachtek Equivalent (DXA-SLR, pictured right) but you should look at both and see if there are any other ones around. Be sure the model you choose has all the features you need; for instance, some of the Jukelink models do not have a headphone output.

If you turn off the internal pre amps (the camera may have this feature or you may need to use hacked firmware), it may be possible to connect some microphones directly to the camera if they put out a line level signal (i.e. Sennheiser radio microphones).  You may not be able to monitor the sound.  Alternatively a external mixing desk will put out a high enough signal to record on to the camera with pre-amps turned off (but then, if you have a sound engineer and portable mixer available, you probably want to record sound separately anyway!).

Getting a Steady Shot - Rigs and Stabilisers

There are numerous rigs and stabilisers ranging for under £10 to thousands of pounds.  I have used a £7 stabiliser from 7dayshop with great success (see Skateboarding Guess video at top of this article).  There is also a £30 stabiliser that straps to your body which has had favourable reviews (Amazon Shoulder Support) but only works if you are right handed.  Redrock do a full range of reasonably prices rigs (from a couple of hundred pounds, the picture at the top of this article is a Redrock Micro Rig) and lots can be found on eBay by doing a search for 'dslr rig'.  Flycam are also worth looking at if you are looking for something a little more like a Steadycam.  The more expensive ones tend to use a system to allow you to attach accessories such as follow focus and matt boxes.  There are also several DIY ones you can build (have a look on Cheesycam), my particular favourite is made out of PVC pipes available from your local DIY shop.

So which camera to get

The Canon 5D Mark II is generally considered the leader of the pack due to it having a massive full frame (35mm) sensor.  This is even bigger than top of the range video cameras and the footage from this camera is spectacular. The body alone will set you back £1500 and as the sensor is large cheaper lenses (EF-S ones designed for smaller sensors) can not be used.  If you don't want to spend thousands of pounds the Canon 550D/60D or the Panasonic Lumix GH1/2 are worth looking at. There are lots of reviews of them and the GH2 may be the best choice.  This review pits the GH2 against the 60D. The Canon 7D, 550D/T2i and 60D all have the same sensor but the 60D has improved features so out of these is probably the one to go for. If you are on a very tight budget picking up a used 550D is a good option (see this article for more info).   Do lots of research, people have different requirements and the only way to know for sure is to try one.  There are lots of DSLR and even non DSLR stills cameras that do video so you may already have a suitable one. If buying one get full HD 1080 and if you want to record sound on the camera make sure it has at least a standard 3.5mm microphone socket.

Depth of Field (DOF)

The Depth of field is the area where things are in focus (eg. everything from 3 to 5 meters is in focus).  One thing that makes video look more 'cinematic' is setting up the camera so that the background is out of focus. This is refereed to as a shallow depth of field. This tends to make the contributor or in focus element pop out and if done properly can look great.  There are a number of different elements to getting a shallow DOF but having a bigger sensor helps a lot.  With DSLR cameras it is a lot easier to get a shallow DOF than all but the top of the range video cameras.  Exactly how best to achieve this is beyond the scope of this article but generally moving back from the contributor, zooming in and using a large aperture (small F number) helps.  Moving the contributor away from the background also helps.  Be careful not to overdo it, you may end up with only the tip of the nose in focus. Also you don't want a situation where there are interesting shapes in the background of objects that are out of focus that the viewer will get distracted trying to work out what they are.  Background which create abstract patterns work well, experiment. Sometimes extremely out of focus works best, sometimes a more subtle look works.  In terms of focusing, concentrating on the eyes is generally considered best practice.  More expensive lenses create a nicer looking out of focus area, this is referred to as the Bokeh of the lens.  Although a shallow DOF looks good it is not always practicable. 

If you use a small aperture (high F stop) and zoom wide you will have a much wider depth of field, this means that a lot more is in focus.  This is very useful for on the hoof shooting when a lot is happening and is also a good place to start if you are a beginner.  It much better to have everything in focus than nothing.  Lastly remember if you increase the ISO it is easier to get wider DOF and reducing it will mean you will use a lower f stop and DOF will be shallower.  For more info watch this video.

What other kit will I want?

With traditional camcorders, you have a whole integrated video recording unit but with DSLRs the camera often becomes the central building block for a video system comprising lots of bolted on kit. Rigs have already been mentioned and as well as stabilising the camera they are also used to bolt on extra components. Below is the list of the extra components you may require.

'LCD' Viewfinder and external monitors.

As has been mentioned above the inbuilt LCD screen is not very good for focusing. The cheapest way of solving this is to get an LCD Viewfinder which has a magnifier that clips onto the back of the camera (first image, LCDVF). The more expensive ones can adjust for eyesight (second image, z-finder). Up in price again is a Electronic View-Finder (EVF) module which has an eyepiece and a LCD monitor built in (third image, Redrock microEVF). Another solution is to mount a small monitor onto the camera (last picture, Lilliput do a 5" and 7" model).

Lots of Batteries and Battery Grips

DSLR cameras are designed mainly for taking stills, when doing this the LCD screen is only on briefly after each picture is taken.  With video the LCD is on all the time.  Also stills data is only written to the card when the shutter is pressed but while video is recording there is a constant stream of data.  Both these mean video uses a lot more power than pictures.  You will therefore need spare batteries (4-6) and a battery grip is good.  Battery grips (pictured above) allow two, rather than one, batteries to be used at once doubling the time you can run the camera.  

Matte Box

A Matte Box is a large lens hood which mounts on the front of the camera, used to stop glare from either lights or bright sunlight hitting the lens at odd angles creating strange patterns.  It normally mounts on rails which come with the more expensive rigs. They also hold filters, when choosing a matt box it is best to find one that will hold filters.  Bear in mind the square filters for Matt Boxes can be expensive.

LED Camera Light

Lighting for DSLRs is no different from lighting for other types of video cameras.  It is however worth mentioning that there have recently been a number of very cheap LED video lights that are good for fill (when in bright sunlight) or for the key light if you are shooting run and gun documentaries.  It is even possible to use several at once.   LED lights have three big advantages over traditional tungsten lights.

  • They use very little power
  • They don't get hot
  • They are light and portable
  • They don't have fragile bulbs
  • They are cheap
The Z96 pictured above is around £45 from eBay and uses the same batteries as the Z1 (they last around 90 mins on full power).  The Z96 provides a fairly good light for close up and can even provide fill for larger areas.  There is also a dimmable 500 LED light for around £250 on eBay, three of these would make a great basic kit.


As you have seen the DSLR can have multiple attachments.  One solution to this is to but a Rig but they are expensive.  Another solution is to buy a bracket (or even two) to increase the number of things that can be attached.  Pictured above is a very cheap 'camera bracket handle' that screws into the bottom of the camera and gives you 2 extra hot shoe attachments.  This can allow an LED light and microphone to be clipped onto a camera. There are various different brackets available on eBay such as the 'rotating flash bracket'.

 Follow focus

As mentioned above one of the problem with DSLR lenses is that the zoom ring is not designed for smooth zooming. The 'gearing' is too high and the ergonomics are not ideal for filmmaking.   There is a similar issue with focusing.  It is difficult to smoothly change the focus to follow something.  In professional filmmaking, even with top end video cameras, a attachment called a follow focus is used.  Follow focus systems generally attach to rigs (or the bottom of the camera).  They have a control wheel sticking out from the side of the camera and a focus wheel which press onto the focus ring of the lens.  When the control wheel is rotated the focus wheel has gears to change the focus.  The gearing is low so the focus can be changed slowly and smoothly.  It is also possible to mark specific focus settings.  This is put last in the list as it is more used in drama than documentary but it is still very useful for docs.  Follow focuses tend to cost from around £75.  Examples (with cheapest first) are Indiefocus, D focus and Redrock (pictured).  It is worth looking on eBay and Cheesycam have a few DIY projects and a review of a budget follow focus.

Special / Hacked Firmware to unlock hidden features.

Manufacturers have not necessarily given users everything they could regarding video facilities.  This has led to groups of very technical users finding ways to improve cameras.  Cameras have firmware which users have found ways of re-writing (or writing extensions). Below is a list of cameras and places where firmware can be got.  Bear in mind this is quite technical to do.  If you know of any details of any other cameras please contact us.

Links / Further Reading

The DSLR Show - excellent resource and good next stop.  The show is a series of high quality (in every way) video guides.
Cheesycam - blog giving advice on DSLR film-making.  It is mainly concerned with kit but has some tricks and techniques stuff also.

(c) Ben Edwards 2011