photo credit: Mark Sebastian
Where were you when the floodgates opened?
Whether or not you agree with that choice is a different discussion and also largely irrelevant. The fact of the matter is you will eventually (if you haven’t already) work on a production that’s shooting with a DSLR.
And if you’re working on that gig as a camera assistant (AC), you’re going to find out why some moan and groan when shooting with DSLR’s. A lot of the reason behind these hissy-fits are the camera’s impracticalities in a film production environment — or “gotchas” — and here are three of them that can stall your production or even ruin your footage.
1. It’s Easy to Accidentally Change the Shutter Speed
For many of the Canon DSLR models, there is a toggle wheel on the top of the camera body that changes the shutter speed of the camera. What makes the wheel such a “gotcha” is its precarious position on the body. It’s designed to be easily accessible, which is great for still photographers experimenting with motion blur, but it’s quite inconvenient for filmmaking purposes.
One simple flick of this wheel, intended or not, can change the shutter speed.
This is especially problematic since filmmakers typically shoot at a constant shutter speed. You could change the entire look of a shot if you accidentally bump into it — or if someone else bumps into it and you don’t realize.
The only solution to this is to keep a stringent eye on the setting. Utilize the on-screen information display to confirm the shutter speed is where the director of photography (DP) wants it to be (confirm with them to make sure you don’t override their changes).
And when you’re moving between setups, be aware of where you grab the camera or interact with it — it only takes a tiny bump to end up in Saving Private Ryan territory.
2. You’re Limited to Recording 4GB at a Time
Recording footage to memory cards on a DSLR is no different than how most of the major digital cinema cameras capture footage. However, the unique feature of recording time limits unrelated to card capacity is.
On most DSLR’s, you will be limited to shooting only 12 – 14 minutes at a time.
Why? Because DSLR’s format their memory cards using the FAT 32 file system and one of the limitations of FAT 32 is it cannot process files larger than 4GB. As a result, 12 – 14 minutes is what you’re usually at when the file size hits that ceiling.
This “gotcha” will probably never arise when you’re crewing on narrative work, but it becomes a tremendous hurdle in a number of other production environments — interviews, documentaries, and live event coverage, to name a few.
I’ve definitely been on the wrong end of this when I was doing a behind the scenes shoot for a Virginia lottery commercial with a Canon 7D. My heart sank as I watched an error message appear on the camera’s LCD right as a one-of-a-kind moment was taking place.
About all you can do in that situation is to hit record as fast as possible, but if it happens in the middle of something important — like it did for me — the editor is going to have a tricky time cutting around it. Even a few frames missing in a clip is hard to gloss over in an edit, let alone a few seconds.
The best way to counteract this is to proactively limit your record times. If you are constantly shooting, just start/stop recording during moments with little action. It only takes a couple of seconds and it’s much better for you to control the camera’s recording than for it to force downtime on you.
As a last resort, if you do have a habit of recording into the limit, make sure you capture a lot of coverage and b-roll to give the editor something to cut with and bridge shots. You might think the edit isn’t your problem — and technically it’s not — but delivering footage that will make a polished product is.
3. You Have to Choose Between a Monitor or the LCD
When working on a true cinematic production, you’re used to having multiple monitors to see what the camera sees. At the very least, you’ll have a director’s monitor at video village, a witness monitor mounted to the camera, and an external viewfinder (EVF) for the camera operator.
WIth DSLR’s, you have to choose one of those.
Yep, you can only see a video output in either a) the camera’s built-in LCD or b) through the camera’s HDMI output. It won’t run those two things simultaneously.
This is one of the biggest “gotchas” it has.
It can really wreck your workflow if you aren’t prepared for it or aware of it before hand. There is no use in showing up to set with a video village monitor as well as an EVF unless you are prepared for one of them to be unplugged during a shot.
But don’t despair — there are workarounds.
For one, Marshall makes an excellent product called the Orchid which will receive an HDMI signal and output two HD-SDI signals. This way you can run one BNC cable to video village and another to an EVF. Of course, the Orchid costs money, so you will have to weigh the costs vs. the benefits if you’re limited by budget.
Your other option is to do what I mentioned above and use video village to monitor during setups, but unplug it when it comes time to shoot and operate with the camera’s LCD. You can then plug the monitor back in after the take and watch playback at video village if the director or other production crew need it.
Be warned: this will slow down your shoot. That’s why this is such a big “gotcha” — it gets right in the way of how you typically monitor footage on set.
Know the Limitations of Your Camera System
And further, you must know when they are completely unavoidable or the options you have to work around them. The easiest way to jump over a hurdle or avoid an obstacle is to know when it’s coming.
By being aware of these five “gotchas,” you are already one step ahead and can better anticipate your needs when working with a DSLR.
It’s true many of these “gotchas” are common knowledge, but you’d be surprised the number of producers, directors, and other production personnel who don’t realize the technological limits of DSLR’s. It’s your job, whether as an AC, Cam Op, or DP, to make them aware of the issues and present them with options. That way they can make an informed decision about which camera to shoot with.
They may decide afterwards to spend more money on a camera or increase their budget for necessary accessories.
Or they may decide to still shoot with a stock DSLR and not help you with any problems.
Either way, it’s going to be up to you to work within the parameters you’re given, even if they are less than ideal — and that’s the biggest “gotcha” of them all.
What “gotchas” have you run into with DSLRs? Please let me know in the comments!