DSLR in the Classroom: An Introduction

DSLR01"Whether you are person familiar shooting with standard video cameras, a still photographer, or a filmmaker, there will be overlap in equipment and vernacular.

However, there are some unique processes, gear, and work flows that apply specifically to shooting video on DSLR cameras.”

As a Career and Technical Education teacher in a rural town just outside of Seattle, I often ask local media professionals to come talk with my students about the industry. In 2009, Keith Rivers (http://keithriversfilms.com/ ), one of my former students and active business advisor for our CTE program showed my students a series of new commercial spots he had recently produced for Microsoft’s Windows 7 campaign (http://vimeo.com/search?q=keith+rivers+windows+7 ). This was his first big commercial contract and he produced them on a very tight budget using a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera. The cinematic look with the rich colors and shallow depth of field immediately inspired by my students and by the end of the year we had purchased our first DSLR camera, the Canon Rebel T1i.

I knew nothing about this new production tool so I scoured the Internet and found a gold mine of information in “The DSLR Cinematography Guide” from http://nofilmschool.com/dslr/. It is a fantastic free .pdf document that is a “MUST READ” for serious filmmakers interested in DSLR video. I also created a weekly “DSLR Video” Google Alert that feeds my need for new information on this hot topic. I have gathered all the best online resources on the topic into a web site I use in my classroom and to teach workshops on DSLR video at: http://dslrvideo.weebly.com/resources.html.

Dslr01

New tools come along all the time but what makes the DSLR a “Revolution” is the way it has transformed learning about filmmaking in the classroom. I have been teaching for over twenty years and have never seen anything like it. Student filmmakers want that cinematic look and are not just willing to learn but are demanding to be taught how to master shooting with a DSLR camera. They actually care about and can immediately see the difference that F/Stops make in controlling the depth of field. They fight over specific lenses and all of the cameras are checked out every weekend. Of course, filmmaking is essentially about storytelling, but the huge sensor and fast lenses allow students to creatively use depth of field and well executed rack focus as a storytelling device. It also doesn’t hurt that the cameras are so affordable that many students have been able to convince their parents to buy one for the family.

I had been flirting with the transition from a tape based workflow to memory based cameras for a while but the advantages of the DSLR cameras was the tipping point for my program. In my introduction class we shoot in small teams and then every student is responsible for editing the project. Memory based cameras allow us to download the footage to everyone’s computers in minutes. Another huge advantage of DSLR cameras is their ability to take excellent still photographs. As someone who also teaches graphic design and animation, the cameras and lenses are an investment that I can use in all my classes. We have also been able to get some fantastic production stills of my students in action that makes a great addition to their portfolios. DSLR cameras are not the right tool for every application so you will still need to invest or maintain some traditional video cameras. For example, if you need to shoot long performances such as plays or concerts then a DSLR camera will not cut it. They also don’t have the same continuous autofocus capabilities of a video camera so shooting some sports can be difficult. Finally, DSLR cameras are not built to feed a signal into a video switcher so they will not work for producing a live switched broadcast.

In January I will talk more about specific gear but wanted to give you a couple classroom management ideas I have picked up over the last couple years. Most of the newer DSLR cameras have a mini HDMI output that you can use with a long standard HDMI to mini HDMI cable connected to your projector or flat screen TV. This allows you to effectively demonstrate all the functions and shooting techniques. I use different colored electrical tape and paint pens to label all the pieces for each DSLR kit. The kit consist of a medium sized camera bag that will hold the camera with the kit lens, extra battery and charge, all the cables, at least one extra lens, and a viewfinder. Instead of buying a bunch of video tape with my class fee, I now purchase a “class 10” SD card for each student. In my class, students can check out a camera over night, but they must return it before school the next day with the batteries charged. If they are not at school then their parents are expected to bring the camera to school.

I believe the best way for students to learn something is through hands-on repetition that builds in complexity. I start with all the DSLR cameras on automatic and we practice manual focusing. Next we learn about all the menu settings that relate to shooting video and practice manual focus with a variety of lenses. Then we begin to experiment with depth of field by setting our shutter speed to 60 and leaving our ISO on “auto”. This let’s students concentrate on how the combination of F/stop, lens and distance between the camera, subject and background effect the depth of field. Finally, we start to add sound into the equation but I will save those lessons for March. I have handouts and video tutorials that cover all these lessons on my web site at: http://dslrvideo.weebly.com


DockeryJoe Dockery teaches digital media courses at Mount Si High School in the Snoqualmie Valley School District, just east of Seattle, Washington. He weaves service learning into all aspects of his curriculum to ensure his students receive an authentic learning experiences. Dockery also consults and trains nationwide as an Adobe Education Leader. He has taught courses for Washington State University, Seattle Pacific University, The Puget Sound Educational Service District, and a variety of other school districts.

Awards
The Washington State Golden Apple Award
Radio Shack National Technology Teacher of the Year Award
Educator of the Year Award from the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation ISTE’s “Best of the Best”
ISTE “Making IT Happen”
Adobe Education Leader "Impact" Award
Pacific Northwest Key Club Advisor of the Year