7 Tips To Get Better Video from a DSLR Camera Robert Caplin tells us how to shoot better video with a digital SLR By Grover Sanschagrin
Photo by Guy Rhodes
Robert Caplin, left, testing focus and framing with members of the BETRAYED crew before the “real” actors jumped in. In this photo, he is using the RedRockMicro system (mentioned in tip #3.)
About a year ago, I bought a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and I’ve been trying to shoot great video with it ever since. People like Vincent Laforet and Robert Caplin, who have produced amazing videos with this camera, made it look so easy. Immediately, on my very first attempt, I realized that I needed to take my old still-photographer habits and start seeing and thinking like a video person.
SportsShooter.com member Robert Caplin is a freelance photographer and cinematographer living and working in New York City.
A few weeks ago, Caplin showed me the trailer to “BETRAYED”, a project that he personally worked on – a project using the 5D Mark II.
BETRAYED trailer: http://www.betrayedshort.com
BETRAYED was filmed over the course of four days in May, 2009, in multiple locations in and around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Fire Island, Long Island. Four Canon 5D Mark II cameras were utilized which enabled the production to cover a lot of ground during that period.
I used the release of the trailer as an opportunity to try and get some information out of him. Luckily for me, he is a good guy, who shares information freely.
“How are you getting such great results?” I asked him during a lengthy phone call. “I know you have secrets. Tell me your secrets.”
I took a few pages of notes as we chatted on the phone. His suggestions are included here. Thanks, Robert, for sharing.
7 Tips To Get Better Video from a DSLR Camera
1) Use motion.
One of the biggest challenges for a still photographer shooting video is learning how to use motion with their visuals. Moving the camera should be considered another creative tool for the photographer.
“Motion is key,” says Caplin. “Motion gives the viewer more information as frame continually changes.”
Many successful video productions find creative ways to position and move the camera. Some examples include attaching the camera to the outside of a car and to moving the camera along with people as they move themselves.
“Motion shouldn’t be a gimmick, either,” he said. “It should add information to help the viewer along. For instance you can tell a story about the a subject’s surroundings by moving the camera around the subject. Don’t move the camera just to simply show that you can do it.”
2) Use a tripod, and make your movements smooth.
Another challenge for still photographers involves using a tripod. Still photographers usually don’t need to use a tripod, so they will continue that practice when they shoot video. This is a mistake.
Caplin says that motion is important, so simply throwing your camera on a tripod isn’t going to cut it if you can’t move the camera too. It’s important that your camera can remain steady, yet still move as smoothly as possible, which requires the use of a tripod and a fluid head made for video.
If you don’t use a tripod, your videos could end up looking sloppy and amateurish.
3) Solving the DSLR video focusing challenges.
It’s not easy to focus using the little video screen on the back of the those DSLR cameras, especially when you’re in bright light (like when the sun overpowers the screen), and when the subject is moving.
On large-scale shoots, it’s common to have a person working as a “focus puller”, whose only job is to keep things in focus. Usually this person has an external monitor hooked up to the camera’s video-out port. For the average shooter, this isn’t really an option because it can be quite involved, and expensive.
Caplin’s suggestions for the average shooter on a budget:
- On the Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, use the + and – buttons to zoom in on the area you’re looking to focus. It will be much easier to find your focus if your subject is small in the frame. This works during live-view mode just as it does when you’re chimping and want to zoom in for a closer look.
- Consider using a Zacuto Z-Finder. This device attaches to the back of your camera, over the monitor. This adds a more video-like viewfinder option that helps you get a better (magnified) view of the LCD monitor and shields the screen from sunlight, making it easier to see. It offers 3x focusable magnification, a 40mm diameter lens, an eyecup preventing extraneous light leakage, and a field of view perfectly matched to LCD screens. More info here: http://www.adorama.com/ZCZFIND.html
- If you want to get a little more serious, a company named RedRockMicro makes a series of “DSLR 2.0 Hybrid Support Rigs,” shoulder harnesses, and another product called “MicroFollowFocus” that, when used together, will allow you to add smooth, fine tuning focusing controls to your camera. More info here: http://www.redrockmicro.com/dslr/index.html
“The majority of BETRAYED was shot with the RedRockMicro products,” he said.
Photo by Noah Gilbert
A film still shot showing Caplin at work shooting BETRAYED. On the right, audio is being captured with a different device, not using th camera’s built-in audio.
4) Getting the best quality audio.
Big productions record audio with a different device entirely. But, if you must use the on-board audio in the camera, never use the built-in microphone.
Instead, consider using a Sennheiser MKE 400 Compact Super-Cardioid Shotgun Condenser Microphone. It sits in the hot-shoe of your camera and contains a little shock-absorber, so you don’t end up recording your hands moving on the camera, or the vibrations of the lens focusing. More info here: http://www.adorama.com/SEMKE400.html
Another solution is to use a microphone and a DXA-5Da DSLR Adapter made by BeachTek. It allows you to attach two professional audio devices to your camera with monitoring and control features. It attaches to the bottom of your camera, has level meters that show the exact signal strength while recording. You can attach headphones so you can monitor what you are recording. More info here: http://www.adorama.com/VDBDXA5DA.html
5) Shoot wide-open.
One of the nicest things about shooting video with a DSLR are using the lenses – especially the really fast/wide lenses like the 50mm f/1.2. Shooting wide open lets you blow the background out of focus, which cleans up the entire frame.
It also lets you focus the viewer’s attention on a certain spot in the frame, simply by letting other things fall out of focus.
Of course, this isn’t easy in situations where there is a lot of light, like in bright sunlight. Caplin recommends using neutral density and gradient filters on the lens if needed.
6) Leave the camera recording.
Leave room at the beginning, and at the end, of your shot. It makes editing easier later on, but it also opens you up to capturing some unplanned usable content.
“Often times still shooters are quick to hit the button and stop recording immediately after takes,” says Caplin. “But you never know what footage will be useful when you’re editing. I found myself scrambling for extra footage during the editing process of my first video (my sister’s music video “This Time”) and ended up using numerous scenes where she was just being herself, laughing, and text messaging between takes. I found them to be useful in breaking the video up a bit.”
“This Time” video: http://www.sportsshooter.com/special_feature/caplin_thistime/index.html
As a general rule, it’s better to have too much footage and too little.
7) Learn how to use natural light.
Look for conditions that are occurring in real life, using existing light, and learn to work with that as a base. Then add little bits of light to it as needed. DSLR cameras can operate in fairly low light, so you don’t really need to add much. Consider using a Litepanels “Micro” On-Camera Dimmable 5600K LED Video Light to supplement existing light in a subtle, effective way.
This unit is small, very light-weight, runs off 4 standard AA batteries, and can sit in your camera’s hot-shoe, or be hand-held off camera. It’s a very useful tool to use when you want to fill in the shadows a bit. More info here: http://www.adorama.com/LPAMICRO.html