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Slugline. Simple, elegant screenwriting.

Red Giant Color Suite, with Magic Bullet Looks 2.5 and Colorista II

  • Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

DSLR Movies, Pros and Cons

In my new tradition of rambling on about a subject only to post again a few days later with a more succinct summary of my thoughts, here’s a quick rundown of why you should be excited about shooting video with your DSLR, and why you should reserve some modicum of wait-and-see caution.

First, the reasons to get excited, ranging from the obvious to the more obvious: 

  • In the case of the D90, what a sweet deal. $1,000 for the body. I paid nearly that for my HV20. The real win here is that a resolution that is low to medium for a DSLR is positively overkill for HD. Nikon’s “bargain” SLR is overqualified by a mile for 720p video.
  • Use your DSLR lenses. If the 5D MkII (or whatever) shoots video too, then both Nikon and Canon peeps can rejoice about this one. A big drawback of the RED One is the expense of the lenses (which need to be top-notch), and a perceived drawback of next year’s Scarlet is the fixed lens.
  • A big-ass sensor. The D90’s sensor is roughly the size of the RED One’s. The rumored 5D MarkII’s is way bigger. That means more control of depth-of-field and more predictable results from your stable of lenses. It also means that a $1,000 camera is now making images that, at web resolutions, look an awful lot like those from much more expensive kit.
  • 24p. I’m still reeling from this one, but somehow the D90’s video wound up being 24 fps. Hallelujah. It so easily could have been anything else.

And now the reasons to reserve judgement:

  • 720p only, at least in the case of the D90. Personally I love 720p, but it’s quite a subset of what your DSLR can do.
  • 24p. And that’s all, on the D90 anyway. No overcranking or undercranking. And who knows what frame rates other DSLRs will offer. A camera on which video is an afterthought is not likely to offer a wealth of options here.
  • CMOS. CMOS roll. Roll MOS roll. Are DSLR chips, which have never had to fear shearing, skewing and wobbling from rolling shutters (mechanical shutters negate this), going to fare well when recording video? Or will they be jello-cams?
  • Limited running time. Aparently there’s some red-tape reason why the D90 is restructed to five minutes of video. Those five minutes will still cost you about 600MB.
  • No external audio input. But the D90 does have a mic. You’ll be dual-systeming it. Fortunately there’s cool software out there for syncing audio based on waveform matching.
  • Manual control. Although things look good for the D90, the thing about shooting video is that you need the same kind of quick access to key manual exposure controls that SLR stills shooters require. But will the video options be ghettoized in a deep menu?
  • Manual focus. Not in and of itself a problem, since that’s how pro video and film gets shot, but that LCD screen won’t be reliable for critical focus at HD res. HD cameras have handy focus-assist features like edge enhancement and LCD zoom.
  • You’ll be at the mercy of a codec. The D90 scores well here on paper, but you are still dealing with heavy (and inefficient) compression of a baked-in color palette that may not respond well to agressive grading, as tends to be the case with perceptual compression. This is a tough thing to swallow when you’re holding in your hands a camera that lives and breaths raw formats for stills. Maybe someday someone will make a DSLR that lays down CinemaDNG sequences. Maybe? How about Please God Yes.
  • But maybe worse than baked-in color and codecs, you’re at the mercy of whatever the camera can muster in realtime debayering. Most video from compact cameras looks bad not because of compression but because of the hasty techniques used to rapidly build an image from a tiny subset of the sensor’s photosites. I offer up my beloved LX2 as an example—its videos may be 848x480 on disk, but what’s actually present in the images is far less resolution than that. This hard-to-quantify factor could be the real pitfall, although none of the (heavily recompresed) D90 sample vids I’ve seen have exhibited egregious demosaicing artifacts.

I said I’d stop hypothesizing, but this is an interesting enough subject that I felt it was worth clearing the air about both why this thrilling new trend in DSLRs is so great, and why it’s not as great as one might hope.

UPDATE: Mike commented below with a link to dpreview’s sample D-Movies. If you download the original AVI files you can see some sizzle and color sparkle that is symptomatic of the expedient debayering I describe above.

Reader Comments (19)

Hey Stu,

take a look here: about the rolling shutter on the D90.

Doesn't look too bad if you're not going nuts with your pans :-)


September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.Schnyder

Interesting on the debayering comment; must admit I didn't really think about that.

But... shouldn't the camera use all the photosites, and the fact that it can downscale this to a *lower* resolution it would be an *easier* job to Debayer it? Or am I missing something?

I dunno, I'm dumb, blond and Swedish ;)


September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaster Zap

I thought the problem with the five minutes was the the chip itself got too hot to go any longer. Th question is which of the manufacturers are going to make claims like that, which are legit and which are to protect their HD video lines?

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersam

I just saw the clips posted on dpreview of video from the D90 and it doesn't look good.
Sudden colour shifts and image wobble from sudden sharp movements as you can get with the HV20/30 (I've got one so can attest to this). The shot of the Penguin and Parrot show this effect most dramatically from the available clips there.

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike

In hindsight I'll admit that never having shot with auto settings on any piece of equipment I've ever owned, that the colour shift may be due to the shooter using auto settings, if so this would make shooting outdoors a serious problem for anyone not willing to delve in to the manual controls of this shooting mode. I guess we'll see in the next few weeks as people get their hands on these.

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Hey Stu,

I was wondering about the codec for the D-movies;

Even if it's heavily compressed in motion jpeg, do you still get the same 4:2:0 subsampling than HDV ? Or is HDV still a lot better ?

I don't have much range when it comes to CCing HV20 footage, so I expect something similar with the D90.

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Master zap, re: debayering—That's what you'd think/hope, but that's a lot of processing per frame. It seems like often these movie modes depend on a much more expedient, lower-fidelity sampling of the photosites.

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

I the like the D90 and the movie feature is great. But do we really have to get so wrapped up in using technology to accomplish pretty simple tasks?

"Fortunately there's cool software out there for syncing audio based on waveform matching"

Last time I checked a simple piece of lucite and wood did the trick for syncing up. ;)

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I am really confused about this camera. Hopefully this is a transitional piece of hardware that changes both the DSLR market and the prosumer video market. Does this change Scarlet? How will Canon reply? How many companies ready for this step?

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEddie

David, I'm not sure I understand your objection. Clapperboard slating will be a must when doing sync sound with this camera, but that still entails manual line-up in post. I'm sorry if I've troubled you with my suggestion of a partially automated solution to that process. It is true that the software I've linked to actually does more that just sync up two tracks, it will actually variably stretch one track to fit another, to help align dodgy ADR with a temp track, for example. So in that sense it is overkill for basic dailies syncing.

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

Always the fuddy-duddy, I look no more forward to this than I would to a Swiss-Army knife if I were a mechanic. Even a hobbyist mechanic.

The D90, from the sounds of it, is a horrible option for filmmaking. I give it credit for being the beginning of something new, but it is young and unusable. It will mature, but by the time it does, there will be much more useful, much more affordable motion dedicated cameras.

(I'd easily shoot with an HV20/30 before this.)

But it's a beginning.

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

it's actualy mostly because of the subsampling of the image at the sensor. it's very likely that it's not (1) getting all its pixels clocked out then scaled down, or (2) running in binned-mode. running the sensor in subsampled mode is the easiest way to effect a video mode. but it has the drawback of making the image look just like an image from a sensor with a very small fill-factor.

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAdil H


September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

Does this change Scarlet?

Well, Red announced a Cam aimed squarely to the DSLR Market. That may be the Scarlet, or another cam that sits between Scarlet and the RedOne, with interchangeable Lenses and a 35mm-sized Chip (Monstro, the Epic one) with "only" 3k (well, 2.1k)

So yeah, maybe it will change the market.

September 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.Schnyder

IMHO one of the most exciting things about the D90 and interchangeable lenses--apart from the _fantastic_ quality (sharpness, color fidelity, bokeh) you get from stuff like the 14-24mm f2.8 or the 50mm 1.4--is the built-in VR (Vibration Reduction) in many of Nikon's new lenses. (70-200 f2.8 VR comes to mind. Mmm....)

This feature lets you shoot in around 2-3 stops lower light, but _most_ importantly works surreally (word?) well when looking through the viewfinder, and thus when shooting a D-Movie with through LiveView. It's simply stabilizing the frame extremely well.

So VR could be the saving grace from some of the inevitable shearing/wobble (also in Canon HV20/30, etc so no news there) you get from hand-held shooting. Couple this with low-light shooting down to ISO6400 (convert to BW and you'd possibly have some nice film-looking grain ala D3) and the downsides of this camera have a chance of being balanced out.

Just PLEASE make us able to set it to full-manual, like when taking still pics (locked aperture, shutter speed) and have the lock-exposure option readily available! From what I've experienced when using LiveView on a D3 to take stills (and D-Movie mode is piggy-backed on LiveView) it should all work out pretty nicely.

PS. Making the 5 min limitation seem like a huge downer can't come from someone planning to use this in a professional movie-setting, where most shots are well under 1 min. On the other hand, the longer the better.

/Oskar Lissheim-Boethius

September 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteravocade

I think one should mainly consider this camera as a way for a lot of amateur videographers and home movie makers to achieve looks and effects that have so far been restricted to film cameras and more expensive HD cameras. And not consider it a tool that will revolutionize semi-professional and professional filmmaking.

September 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterElling

Here is the Canon bad boy.

Images and example movies on that site.

September 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterswerve

Very informative Stu...thanks!

January 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTracey
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