DSLR, Canon, TV Commercial,
Cameras designed for still photography have, in the last year, begun to have a huge impact on the video production market. One of the first in the region to exploit the potential of these cameras to make low-budget, sophisticated television commercials was Harvey Glen, a freelance Director of Photography (DoP) based in Dubai.
Glen first used the 5D MK II last spring on a BBC factual documentary project titled Science Story. Since then, he has been involved in several video productions with the DSLR camera including a TVC for Mercedes and more recently, for Gulf Air.
The Gulf Air series included five episodes of which four were meant to be profiles of the airline’s staff and were shot by Glen on the RED camera. The fifth in the series employed the time lapse technique and employed the DSLR cameras.
“This final commercial was to be shot on the 5D MK II with the initial concept of doing 80% time lapse in stills mode and 20% on video,” says Glen.
“The reason for this was twofold. Firstly, we wanted to cut down on the amount of data recorded and secondly, we wanted to keep the time lapses old school .i.e. do it the traditional way. We had two-and-half days in the schedule to shoot the time lapse bit at various locations in Bahrain Airport, which is the chief hub of Gulf Air,” explains Glen.
The crew was armed with two 5D MK II cameras, two Vinten pro 5 tripods, a Canon 24-70mm and 70mm-200mm (both F2.8), a set of Nikon Carl Zeiss Prime lenses, a Matte Box, follow focus unit, a set of screw on ND filters, a set of 4×4 straight NDs and ND Grads and a Canon TC-80N3 remote timer.
“We all set off to our previously recced locations to capture the action. The fifth commercial was meant to have about one minute of action but neither the director, Richard Topping, nor I thought that the airport would have enough dramatic action to sustain the amount of time lapse needed to successfully fill the time slot. As a result, we decided to shoot more 5D real time video footage to accompany them. This was a good decision as the final edit is made up of 80% video and 20% stills time lapse,” explains Glen.
The market, however, has always been sceptical about the role of a DSLR in video production. Take the 5D MK II itself. It is essentially a stills camera designed for the still photography market so at first glance, the ergonomics of the camera do not lend itself to video production.
It has no view finder; no way to be hand held other than hold it out in front of you which is uncomfortable; it doesn’t balance on a tripod particularly well especially if specific pans and tilts are required; it has no built-in ND filter, no peaking or zebra function for focus and exposure; and pulling focus directly off the barrel of a photographic stills lens is far from ideal.
Despite this, the Canon DSLR cameras have shot to fame over the last year in the video production market with good reason, says Glen.
“For one, they have amazing video functions.
The 5D MK II shoots 1920×1080 at 24, 25 and 30fps. It has a full frame sensor and records in the H264 format. This is better than any other professional video camera that Canon has ever released. H264 is traditionally a delivery format, not a shooting format, but that has not stopped its success as it is so simple to covert the files to Apple Pro Res for ease of editing,” Glen explains.
The first time the DoP used a 5D MK II was last spring when he worked on the BBC documentary.
It was a huge learning experience for the DoP.
“At that stage, the manual exposure firmware upgrade hadn’t been released and auto exposure was all you could use. The director I was working with was very keen to use the 5D MK II on some dramatic reconstruction. As I owned a 5D MK I (which doesn’t shoot video), I knew the operations of the camera, but was a little unsure why we would want to shoot on this when we had a HD Panasonic AJ-HDX900 camera especially, as you could not control the exposure. This is vital. How else could you ever do any creative lighting?” says Glen.
It wasn’t until the DoP started tinkering with the camera in low light that he began to fully “appreciate the shallow depth of field you could achieve, something akin to using a pro 35mm adaptor and a set of primes on a regular HD camera”, he says.
“Due to the readily-available range of lenses (especially tilt and shift), I was more than happy to give the 5D MKII a go. At that stage though, I did not realise how this camera would change our industry. In the past year, the firmware upgrades have enabled the camera to have full manual functions and it has rapidly become a lot more interesting. DSLR or HDSLR (High Definition Single Lens Reflex) cameras are now being considered as an alternative to RED. If you look at the specs and the H264 format that the 5D MK II records compared to the RED’s 4/ 4.5K, it doesn’t compare, but that does not stop the HDLR’s footage from looking beautiful and being a very cost-effective option,” he says.
Having experimented heavily with the camera on the BBC documentary and later, for the Mercedes commercial that followed a Hitchcock style plot, Glen quickly found the accessories to get the best out of the Canon DSLR.
“I found out that the first thing you need when shooting video on a HDSLR is a view finder. In this case, Zacuto makes the Z Finder, an expensive but very essential piece of plastic with a magnifier. It enables you to actually see your picture and judge your exposure and focus much more accurately than you could with the LCD screen. It also enables you to have three points of contact with the camera, your eye and both hands which makes hand-held work more comfortable and less tiresome. As with still images, you can use the same scale at the bottom of the frame to help judge a correct exposure. You can also add rings of ‘teeth’ to the lens to aid a follow focus, as well as matte boxes and various versions of hand held rigs. With all the right accessories, the stills camera quickly comes to look like something one would expect to find on a film set,” explains Glen.
For the Gulf Air project, the crew had to move around the airport quickly, ensuring they reached each location in time to catch the action whether it was a plane with the new livery landing or passengers boarding.
“We used the 5Ds, which even fully fitted with all the accessories, were still small and lightweight making them easy to transport. This is especially important when you have to go in and out of security three to four times a day, and you thought it was a nightmare when going on holiday!” chuckles Glen.
Often around the airport, the DoP was running two cameras simultaneously, one in stills mode taking several frames every other second while the other camera was physically recording. The role was typically that of a cinephotographer, a new name coined for those working across both disciplines.
“I set both cameras up identically decreasing the saturation, contrast and sharpness, which gives the image a more flat look. We did this to recreate the RAW set up as the 5D does not record RAW video although it shoots stills in RAW. By doing this, we had much more freedom in the grade to enhance the footage as we wanted,” says Glen.
On each project with the DSLR, the DoP claims to have successfully discovered something new that he could do with the camera.
When working on the Mercedes project, for instance, Glen says he learnt that these cameras perform best at low ISO.
“Increasing the ISO is a little akin to adding gain in a conventional camera. Canon says you can push the ISO to 1200. Personally, I wouldn’t go higher than 800 and whenever possible, I prefer to keep it at its minimum setting of 100 to avoid any unwanted grain. If you do increase the ISO, due to insufficient light, you will start to see the image break up with lots of noise in the blacks. You may not notice this at the time of shooting, because everything looks good on a small LCD screen, but when in the edit or watching it on 40+inch LCD TV (which the vast majority of people own these days) you will definitely notice it, and as this project was for international broadcast, I could not take any risks with the material,” explains Glen.
HDSLRs, like most cameras and lenses, are said to perform best at a wider aperture, especially if the cameraman wants to achieve a shallow depth of field. In fact, this seems to be the main reason these cameras are gaining popularity among video pros.
Glen adds that their ability to replicate the cine look (which is attributed to a shallow depth of field) “so simply, easily and, cheaply, is the reason they are playing a crucial part in this revolution.”
The DoP cautions still photographers though to move out of the mindset of “changing the shutter to compensate the exposure”.
“As with any moving image camera, if you increase the shutter above 1/100, your subjects will adopt a staccato effect. 1/50 or 1/60 is the preferable shutter speed for regular action,” he advises.
Canon’s 7D is also a favourite among pros and is slightly cheaper than the 5D MKII. It shoots at 1920 x 1080 (29.97, 25, 23.976 fps). In 1280 x 720, one can shoot slow motion 59.94, 50 fps.
This slow motion feature is said to have great appeal, according to Glen, as a cameraman is able “to closely replicate another popular filmic style look”. The main draw back with the 7D, however, is that it does not have a full frame sensor.
“This means that the lens sizes are not exact for shooting video. For instance, 35mm lens becomes a little tighter and the depth of field is not as shallow as the 5D MKII at the same F stop. Also the camera feels a little cheaper, less well made and is not weather proofed as well as the 5D MKII, but what can you expect for such a low price tag,” he says.
Lenses play a huge role in any photographic medium and with the option of shooting video on HDSLR cameras, cameramen have well-engineered lenses available at affordable budgets.
“This is nothing in comparison to the cost of the professional video lenses such as the Canon HJ11 Wide Angle or PL mount lens,” explains Glen.
In fact, Glen says one can also mount lenses from other brands to this camera with the aid of an adaptor. For the Gulf Air project, for instance, the crew used a set of Nikon Carl Zeiss primes.
“These have a fantastic quality and push the boundaries of HDSLR shooting as the depth of field is even further reduced. When using these adaptors, you lose all auto functions, which in my opinion, is a good thing. Fortunately, these cameras do have an expanded focus button (+ sign) which significantly helps to ensure your image is sharp before you start recording,” explains Glen.
Canon is not the only one to release cameras for this market. Nikon has also joined the bandwagon although its cameras have held less appeal thus far.
“The best Nikon offers, thus far, only shoots 1280 x 720, which is not the highest resolution. If you’re looking to buy an HDSLR to solely shoot video, this is not the best choice,” he cautions.
“Even though all the stills footage would be compiled together to become a moving image when using both cameras, I felt like I was simultaneously working as both a photographer as well as a cinematographer. Recently, the phrase Cinephotography has been coined to define how people are combining the two disciplines,” he adds.
The DoP claims the gap between the two crafts “is diminishing day by day as more photographers are becoming interested in video and people who
were traditionally not concerned with still photography now own a high-end stills camera”.
“As these HDSLRs are more affordable, many amateurs are buying them,” explains Glen.
“What happens then is that more creative minds with access to smaller budgets are now able to create video footages if they have the drive and the passion while also being organised, have the talent, skill, an eye and the ability to understand the principles of photography and lighting to shoot videos. More competition will drive people to push the limits further while others unfortunately will probably never take the camera off auto.”
Harvey Glen is a well-known DoP based in Dubai and has recently begun a blog for the production community at www.dopblog.com.