What I learned shooting my first two DSLR video stories

A PETA protest video story shot with a Nikon D3s

In the past 24 hours I have produced two news videos that I shot for the first time with my Nikon D3s. The transition for me shooting DSLR video has been slow. I have been quite comfortable with my Sony XDCAM EX1. But as more photographers embrace shooting video with a DSLR, I figured it was time to jump in. Here are some issues I encountered while shooting my stories.

Workflow
When I first started shooting with a traditional video camera, I was challenged by the workflow. Having to monitor audio, think in sequences and deal with a dozen other simultaneous details was overwhelming at times. I feel like that now shooting video with my DSLR camera. The workflow is a house of cards. Mess up one thing and your story is hosed. Forget to turn on the mic? Without being able to monitor your audio like a video camera, you’ll end up with a bunch of clips with no audio. I live in fear of this.

Mics
I’m shooting with a Sennheiser MKE 400 mic mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. I’m used to shooting with a full-sized Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun. This mini mic is definitely not in the same class as its big ME66 brother. It is important to get the mic close to the subject, and watch out for wind noise. Get a dead cat windscreen for this mic. The little one that came with mine fell off into the abyss within 15 minutes of ownership.

Stability
Using a DSLR makes me fully understand how much the optical stabilization on a video camera really works. Without some type of support, DSLRs are damn hard to hold steady. I’ve downsized to a smaller and lighter tripod that works pretty well. I can shorten it up and use it as a brace in a pinch. Monopods, I’ve found, stop the up and down camera movements, but not the side-to-side.

Focus
Focus really sucks with the DSLR. I am manually focusing every shot. I have remapped the back of my D3s to zoom the monitor 50% using the rear toggle button. To record, I use the front function button next to the grip on the front of the camera. This allows me to quickly zoom in on my subject, focus and zoom out. Without the feature my clips would be a blurry mess. I have a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro on order, which should really help my aging eyes.

A candlelight vigil video story shot at 4000 ISO on a Nikon D3s

Lenses
I’m used to having a wide to telephoto lens with my video camera. On my DSLR, I constantly have to change lenses. The only cool thing about this is the ability to use specialty glass like my 60 mm macro lens and my 85mm f/1.4. Shallow DOF rocks with a DSLR, but it makes focus all the more critical.

ND filter
I need a neutral density filter. Last night, shooting a candlelight vigil was not a problem, but today during a PETA protest in bright sunlight, I had a hard time keeping my f-stops low enough. With DSLRs you want keep your shutter speed between a 30th to no more that 125th of a second. Go higher than that, and your video will start to look funky. An ND filter blocks the light, but not the image quality. They are pricey. I have one on order for a hundred bucks and that’s a cheap one.

Editing
I have been a Final Cut Pro fan boy for seven years, but when Apple reinvented the wheel with Final Cut X, I decided to explore other options. I purchased a copy of Adobe Production Premium for my home computer. This suite of programs is topnotch and includes Premiere Pro CS5.5. My two videos were both edited in Premiere. This modern program edits my DSLR video without transcoding. It didn’t take much effort to jump right in and start editing. It’s not as intuitive as Final Cut. Some things like track heights and how the timeline functions are driving me crazy, but all in all, I settled in just fine.

I feel I’m over the hump. Shooting and editing two quick stories showed me I could do this without losing the quality of my storytelling.

Time to move to DSLR video

Being a Nikon shooter in a multimedia world has some disadvantages. In 2008, Nikon launched the D90, which was the first DSLR with the ability to shoot video as well as stills. The camera was rife with limitations. Without an audio mic jack, you could not use an external microphone to gather quality sound.  The Motion JPEG codec the D90 recorded in was a nightmare for Final Cut Pro to deal with. My newspaper bought two of these cameras on release. I played around with one, shrugged my shoulders, and went back to my Sony XDCAM EX1.

Then the shockwave hit a short time later when Canon released the 5D Mk II. With its full-frame sensor, 1920 x 1280p resolution and, hallelujah, a mic jack, photojournalists who resisted shooting video, were now intrigued. Shooters like Vincent LaForet have since built their careers promoting filmmaking with the 5D Mk II. Whole ecosystems of accessories to outfit the camera have blossomed. So what happened to Nikon’s response? Did their engineers shrug their shoulders like I did and move on to only service the consumer market? Over time, Nikon has added video capabilities to many of their cameras, but none have been able to meet or exceed the specifications of the Canon 5D Mk II.
During the last several years, I have sat on the sidelines, preferring to use my traditional video camera.  I kept telling myself that I would jump in when Nikon launched its 5D killer. I’m still waiting. Last year, I talked my editor into buying me the Nikon D3s. This amazing camera is unfortunately saddled with the same video 720 x 1280p resolution and Motion JPEG codec of the D90 and the Nikon D300s.

I have stewed as the newspaper photojournalism world embraced the entire Canon line with its superior video capabilities. Last year, Brian Immel and I founded Finding the Frame, a video critique website for multimedia storytellers. I started noticing something right away. Most of the videos uploaded had been shot with Canon DSLRs. I’ve noticed something else. The visual storytelling is way better than it was just two or three years ago. I attribute that to talented still photographers taking their composition, moment, and visual creativity with them in to the realm of DSLR video storytelling.

When I started this blog in January of 2008, video storytelling at newspapers was in full swing. It was a time when video cameras were being handed out to newsroom staff like candy. Little training and cameras in the hands of non-visual word folk led to some sad results.

The implosion at newspaper newsrooms over the last three years has showcased new realities when it comes to video. I think management finally understood that video storytelling takes time; so most of the consumer-level cameras given to reporters have gone into some drawer never to be seen again.  Photo staffs have been decimated too, but not the amount of work expected from them.  Video is still alive and well at newspapers. The transition from videotape cameras to DSLR based video has upped the expectations for photojournalists. One camera that can do it all has made the job of visual storytelling more exciting, but infinitely more complicated and challenging.

My time to stew is over. My time to wait for Nikon to up its game is over too. No, I’m not jumping to Canon. What I plan to do is to make the DSLR technology I do have work for me. Yesterday I put in a request that was approved to purchase accessories to will allow my Nikon D3s it function as a video camera better.  In the coming weeks and months I will explore on this blog my experiences as I make this transition to shooting video with a DSLR. Stayed Tuned!

The Nikon D3s is, like, WOW!

My new Nikon D3s arrived last Friday and I’m still kicking the tires.

This camera is one bad boy. Yesterday, I set my ISO at 4000 and left it there for three photo assignments. ISO 4000 looks like 800 did on my vintage Nikon D2h  of just a few years ago.

My newspaper has always been a Nikon shop. Though I was tempted by all the low-light Canon camera offerings of yore, management never blinked or gave my informed blathering much acknowledgement to make the switch. Now I’m glad they didn’t listen to me.  This camera kicks! In the past, when I needed to spin the ISO dial up to, say, ISO 3200, I would often regret the decision later. Noise in digital files looks horrible.

This camera easily handled 4000, and 6400 ISO. I haven’t needed to go higher on the account that I don’t need 500th of a second for an environmental portrait.

Take a look at this shot I did of my daughter Brenna, right, and her friend Shea.

I shot it on my living room floor with just lamplight at 6400 ISO in RAW. I tweaked the color to get the skin tones right and made just basic Adobe CS5 RAW converter adjustments. If I had shot this with my D2h, it would have noise the size of gravel.

This camera will open many new low-light avenues for me and any other shooter lucky enough to get their hands on one.  I had to go through Nikon Professional Services to find one. I’m told they are as elusive as unicorns.

The next thing for me to tackle is the whole DSLR video learning curve. I have shot video for five years. My Sony Z-1U and XDCAM EX-1 have served me well.  Lately, I’ve been feeling I’m on the outside looking in as the Canon 5D Mk II has dominated  the video gear spotlight.

Mostly, I suspect, for the look of the files coming out of these cameras. Shallow depth-of-field is all the rage, but at what cost? Audio is a DSLR camera’s Achilles heel. The contraptions DP’s and video producers are building to make these cameras work gives me pause.

If I was the subject of a story and someone came at me with a steering wheel contraption laden with mics, lights and other paraphernalia,  I’d probably freeze up like a deer in headlights.

So my toe dipping starts with the limited video capabilities of the D3s. It has been much maligned for not shooting in the higher resolution of 1920p that Canon cameras do. This doesn’t really concern me. The test files I’ve shot so far look better than anything that comes out of my XDCAM. The huge full-frame sensor in the D3s makes shooting in the dark a breeze. Its 720p file size is just about right for the web-based video storytelling I do.  I have to compress the hell out of the videos I shoot, so the huge files from a 5D Mk II will only slow my edit down. I’m not planning to shoot any Hollywood movies, so I’m cool with the Nikon’s smaller file size for now. Of course, in a few months, my camera will probably be rendered obsolete by the rumored Nikon D4. Such is life of a techno geek.