Technology

Still Cameras Go Primetime

More DSLRs are being used to shoot top TV shows 10/11/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Rating the Rigs

For the moment, Canon clearly dominates the DSLR professional production market, but producers note DSLRs have both strengths and weaknesses.

Pros for professional production:
• DSLRs feature large imaging sensors that produce stunning HD images and great performance in low light
• Offer a shallow depth of field for the cinematic look sought by primetime drama producers
• Small lightweight cameras can capture candid shots difficult to get with more traditional rigs
• Can be used with scores of relatively inexpensive high-quality lenses, providing more flexibility than lower-cost camcorders
• Offers low-cost alternative, with camera and lenses prices ranging from $4,000 to $12,000

Cons:
• Have small LCD screens, very shallow depth of field and controls designed for still photography, making it difficult to maintain focus
• Lacks many of the basic features videographers expect
• Isn’t always much cheaper than low-cost camcorders because accessories can push the cost of a DSLR camera rig over $20,000
• DSLRs offer limited recording time of around 20 minutes for HD video
• Poor in-camera audio
• Need to be better integrated into professional workflow —GW

In 1877, photographer Eadweard Muybridge
successfully captured a galloping
horse with a series of 24 stereoscopic cameras—
a feat that would help inspire the invention
of the first motion-picture cameras in the
late 1880s. But it would be another 130 years
before developments in still photography would
have such a dramatic impact on the technology
for capturing moving images.

Over the last three years, high-end digital
single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras costing under
$10,000 that were originally designed for
still photography have been increasingly used
to produce stunning HD images for big-budget
TV shows and movies costing millions of dollars.
In the last year alone, DSLR cameras have been
used to shoot all or parts of a number of major
network shows, including House, NCIS: Los
Angeles, 24, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno
and
Saturday Night Live, as well as theatrical films including Iron
Man 2
and high-end commercials.

“I’ve embraced the DSLR revolution because those cameras
offer the most beautiful cinematic visuals I’ve found in the HD
landscape,” notes Shane Hurlbut, a filmmaker whose Website
and blog—www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/—offers many examples
of DSLR HD production techniques.

One big reason for their success has been the fact that they
pack a big sensor in a small camera body, allowing producers
to do more for less. “With a $2,500 camera, I’ve been able to
put images on a 60-foot screen that several studio executives could not believe were shot on a still camera, the Canon EOS
5D,” Hurlbut noted. “It is really going to shake up the business
because the business needs to be shaken up.”

The growing popularity of DSLRs reflects a larger drive to
lower-cost production. The cameras, however, are not without
their drawbacks.

“It’s a tool, not a silver bullet,” noted Vasco Nunes, who
used DSLRs as the director of photography for the opening
sequences of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Problems with ease of use, the need to carefully monitor
focus, poor in-camera audio and limited recording times are
some issues filmmakers face in adapting a camera that had originally
been designed for still photography to TV production.

For the time being, those problems may make
lower-cost camcorders a better alternative for local
news, reality fare and documentaries, some producers
and vendors argue.

Lower-cost camcorders can generally be more
easily integrated into the traditional workflow at
stations, and in recent years this gear has offered
dramatically improved HD video, notes Chuck
Westfall, technical adviser for education in consumer
imaging group professional products marketing
at Canon USA.

Canon’s new XF304 camcorder, for example, is
priced at only $7,999 but offers a 50-megabits-per
second recording and 4:2:2 color sampling.

“You have capabilities in the XF series that you
don’t have in the EOS right now,” Westfall explains.

This could change as the popularity of DSLRs
encourages still-camera manufacturers to make
their cameras more appealing to TV producers.
“You’re going to see improvement in the camera
design to fit a professional workflow,” says Westfall.

E-mail
comments to
gpwin@oregoncoast.com

Rating the Rigs

For the moment, Canon clearly dominates the DSLR professional production market, but producers note DSLRs have both strengths and weaknesses.

Pros for professional production:
• DSLRs feature large imaging sensors that produce stunning HD images and great performance in low light
• Offer a shallow depth of field for the cinematic look sought by primetime drama producers
• Small lightweight cameras can capture candid shots difficult to get with more traditional rigs
• Can be used with scores of relatively inexpensive high-quality lenses, providing more flexibility than lower-cost camcorders
• Offers low-cost alternative, with camera and lenses prices ranging from $4,000 to $12,000

Cons:
• Have small LCD screens, very shallow depth of field and controls designed for still photography, making it difficult to maintain focus
• Lacks many of the basic features videographers expect
• Isn’t always much cheaper than low-cost camcorders because accessories can push the cost of a DSLR camera rig over $20,000
• DSLRs offer limited recording time of around 20 minutes for HD video
• Poor in-camera audio
• Need to be better integrated into professional workflow —GW

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