Filming with a dSLR (and more)

My filming setup
My filming setup

The arrival of the Canon 5D mark II things changed for some photographers. For the first time it was possible to shoot full HD video with a dSLR. When I got mine in 2009, a whole new world opened up. However filming turned out to be something different from taking pictures. New equipment was needed, new preparations, different settings in the field and a new way of editing. This is the first post in a series on how I make movies: the equipment.

the camera
Every new dSLR seems to be able to film in full HD, so this  is normally not the problem. The quality is often astonishing. The only problem is the compression that has to be made in order to fit it on the memory card. The codec used makes the footage somewhat more difficult to edit later on. I’ll come back to this point later. Apart from that, the image quality of a full frame sensor is a bit higher as of a crop-sensor, but overall it is very nice.

the tripod
While shooting film it’s even more important to have a good support. Even though movie editing software can do a pretty good job in removing camera shake, it’s better not to have it at all. And while a ball head is very popular with photographers, it often has an initial friction that prevents a smooth following of a moving subject. For movies a fluid head is a lot better, as they don’t have that initial friction screwing up tracking shots if an animal suddenly starts to move.

In a movie, sound is almost equally important as the images. The built-in microphone in the dSLR’s are no good. They record all camera handling noise and have a very low sound quality. So the first new piece of equipment you need is a good microphone. The Australian company Røde makes very good, affordable microphones that fit nicely in the hotshoe of a camera. In a typical shoot, I use two different  microphones. The most important one is a Røde stereo video mic, connected to an external recorder, the Zoom H4N1 recorder. I let this mic run for a while in an environment without much distracting noise, just to get the sounds that are present in the environment. This recording is later used as a background track and will connect the different movie fragments.
The second microphone, either a Røde video mic or a Røde video mic pro, is connected to the camera and records the sound that comes with the footage. This way you have both the sounds from the moment the movie is shot and a longer one with background sounds.

Field recorder/monitor
The last part of equipment that can help is a field recorder and monitor. Can you do without one? Yes, I’ve made nice movies without one. But it definitely makes life easier and allows for better movies. I’ll explain why. The people from Atomos worked together with Canon to develop the Ninja 2, to work seamlessly with the 5D mark III. Like I said in the camera part of this story, when recording the footage the h.264 codec is used, which compresses the footage. This makes editing the footage a lot more difficult. With the Atomos Ninja 2 you can record with the Apple ProRes codec, which has hardly any compression. Disadvantage is the bigger file size, but the Ninja 2 fits large SSD-drives, like the 500GB I have in mine. This allows for 5.5 hours of uncompressed footage.
The second advantage is to have it as a field monitor. The small screen of a dSLR is not really fit to properly judge focus or exposure. Especially not with moving subjects where you have to manually focus and use the screen to see if the subject is still in focus. Fortunately the Ninja has focus peaking. This is an overlay on the screen that shows which parts are in focus and which parts are not. This way you can always check if the subject is still in focus. It also features zebra, a way to check exposure.
All in all a very nice addition to a dSLR setup, which helps making better movies.

In the picture above you see all these things come together. The next step is to set the camera in a way that allows for good movie making. That’s the subject for a next post…

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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