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!

6 thoughts on “Time to move to DSLR video

  1. The Canons are wonderful cameras for scripted filmmaking, but for documentary or news work, it seems like their limitations (especially when it comes to focus speed) become a major hurdle.

    I know you’ve got a big investment in Nikon gear, but have you looked at the Sony A77 that’s coming out? AVCHD 2.0 at high bit rates, phase-detect autofocus while shooting video, the EVF to end all EVFs… it’s an impressive piece of work. On the flip side, I’m curious to see if any “print” photographers switch to something like the Sony NEX-VG20, which basically takes the sensor from the A77 and puts it in a video camera form factor along with real XLR audio inputs, while still shooting stills with more than enough resolution for print work.

  2. Aaron, I too am wondering about what is coming next. Canon is announcing “something big” in a few weeks. I’m wondering if it will be another game changer like the 5D Mk II. I like the direction Sony is heading with the A77, but I know the purist still shooter out there will balk a having to use an EVF. What I really want is a camera that minimizes the issues of focus, audio and stability for video, but also keeps the stellar quality for still photography. Tall order, but in a year, I think we will all be pleased by what both Nikon and Canon release for their users.

  3. I’ve been a professional videographer for 20+ years including stints as a camerman for SportsChannel NY and the Montel Williams Show. I’ve always believed that saving money is making money, so I didn’t jump onto the Canon 5D MkII wagon, especially since I owned lots of Nikon glass. I made do with Canon’s videocameras, adding the Nikon D90 footage (despite it’s glaring codec and audio limitations). On a pure 720p 24 project without heavy motion, it looks great (and sounds fine with separate audio capture). Problem came when I had to mix it with HDV or HD 1080 60i footage. Premiere CS5 handles all these formats just fine, but the results are less than stellar. When it was obvious that Nikon was sticking to their non video-friendly ways, I couldn’t wait any longer and picked up a Canon 60d and Nikon lens adapters. So for approximately $900, I’m back in the game…until the next ‘big’ thing comes along (micro 4/3 looks promising). A few of my professional colleagues are using the Panasonic GH2, which has some great advantages over DSLRs for filmmaking. In the end, it’s a tool just like any other. When they built my home, I didn’t care what brand hammer they used, so long as it got the job done.
    Thanks for sharing your experience with the rest of us frustrated Nikon fans.

  4. I’m a Nikon shooter as well and am a former multimedia journalist now working in philanthropy. I do a lot of shooting for a web video series about nonprofits and use a D5100. I love the flip screen and the quality of the video is fantastic. A lot of the videos I’ve shot on the D5100 are here: YouTube.com/mnpartners.

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