Consumer-based DSLR cameras shed light on money-saving option

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Indie feature ‘Tiny Furniture,’ a recent prizewinner at SXSW, was shot entirely with a Canon 7D DSLR.

The independent film world was rocked in the 1990s when low-priced video cameras made filmmaking accessible to just about anyone.While Canon cameras have been the go-to choice for DSLR video, Nikon seems ready to jump into the game and increase the resolution on its still cameras.
“It’s not lost on anybody over here how important this aspect of DSLR has become,” says Steve Heiner, senior technical manager at Nikon. “We’re conversing with photographers as well as filmmakers to get a better idea of what they’re looking for.”

Now digital single lens reflex cameras — normally used for still photography — are bringing another revolution to low-budget filmmaking.

“Tiny Furniture,” winner of the 2010 narrative feature award at SXSW, was shot entirely on a Canon 7D DSLR, and the choice of that camera significantly reduced the film’s post-production, crew and lighting costs.

“I think that if we didn’t tell people (a DSLR) was what we shot on, they probably wouldn’t know,” says Jody Lipes, the pic’s D.P.

In fact, not telling people is what some filmmakers are doing out of caution, lest potential distributors be scared off by what sounds like amateur technology.

But in reality, the quality is on part with some of the best digital video cameras such as the Red One — at a price of about a tenth as much.

Mastering shooting with SLRs takes some experimenting, cinematographers have found.

While DSLR cameras are particularly good in low light and offer cinematographers high-quality, easy-to-swap lenses that still photographers appreciate, they’re also hard to stabilize without a mount system. Monitoring the image is tricky. Color balancing issues make it harder to shoot in daylight. Shot adjustments require the deftest of hands.

Then there’s the “rolling shutter” issue.

DSLR shutters work by “rolling” across the sensor. The image is captured over time, not all at once, so if an object is moving fast in the frame (or if the camera itself is moving fast) the image can distort or bend.

“It looks like the image is stuttering,” Lipes says.

Lipes explains that many of the choices on “Tiny Furniture” were made to avoid such strobing.

“We definitely shot the movie without as much dramatic handheld,” he says. The actors were also told not to be too antic, so the movie has a deliberately underplayed style.

“Pulling in focus is almost impossible with these cameras,” Lipes says. “It’s so hard to rack focus. The way cinematic lenses work is they have a wide barrel. You need to rotate it a lot to change the focus. With still lenses, when you rotate them a small amount, they change the focus a lot.”

But the tradeoff in price is worth it to some filmmakers, allowing such pics as “Tiny Furniture” to be made.

Still photographers have always valued 35mm single lens reflex cameras for their easily interchangeable lenses. When Canon unveiled the EOS 5D Mark II in 2008, with 1080p full high-def resolution, filmmakers truly began jumping onboard.

The ability to shoot in low light is a major factor in the acceptance of still cameras for both film and TV shooting.

Alex Buono, director of photography for the “Saturday Night Live” film unit, says he’s able to shoot a clean image at 2000 ASA vs. roughly 500 ASA with a traditional VariCam. That eliminates the need for a lighting crew on many shoots, he says, giving him a lot more flexibility.

Buono shot the title sequence of this season’s “Saturday Night Live” solely with a pair of Canon DSLRs — both of which retail for less than $2,500, versus a Red One video camera package, costing $25,000 and up.

“They have a remarkable low-light sensitivity that is unlike anything else on the market,” he says. “We were able to go out with the (DSLR) camera, an actor and absolutely no lighting crew. We’ve never been able to do that before.”

And DSLRs have consumer-friendly features, like anti-shake technology, that pros also can utilize. Not surprisingly, those filmmakers do concede that pro equipment has an upper hand in that area.

“I definitely use the image stabilization if I’m shooting handheld,” Buono says. “It doesn’t make it seem like you’re walking with a Steadicam or anything, but it helps.”

From here on could be a sidebar, possibly for web only.

While Canon cameras have been the go-to choice for DSLR video, Nikon seems ready to jump into the game and increase the resolution on its still cameras.

“It’s not lost on anybody over here how important this aspect of DSLR has become,” says Steve Heiner, senior technical manager at Nikon. “We’re conversing with photographers as well as filmmakers to get a better idea of what they’re looking for.”

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