The DSLR Revolution: Cameras and Lenses

When I was in the market for my first DSLR camera I sought the advice of my CTE Business Advisors and the DSLR Cinematography Guide (http://nofilmschool.com/dslr/ ).

If you already own a DSLR or more importantly some lenses then that will probably be the deciding factor. Canon and Nikon are the kings of the DSLR market with Sony and Panasonic filling out the rest of the pack. Regardless of the brand here are the key things I consider when selecting a camera:

Full Frame vs. cropped sensor – Of course a full frame camera like the Canon 5D Mark III has its advantages, but if I can buy 3-4 cropped sensor cameras like the Canon T3i for the price of one then this decision is easy.SD card vs. Compact Flash – So many devices now use SD cards that they are considerably more affordable, are widely available and many families already have at least one. In fact, next year I plan to build the price of an SD card into my class fee and every student will get one.

Full Automatic vs. Manual – Be careful to make sure the camera you choose has manual exposure controls in video mode. I had a DSLR donated that didn’t have manual exposure control, making it difficult to control the depth of field. *If you use a lens with a manual F-stop ring you can at least control your aperture.

Removable lens – One of my students made the mistake of purchasing a DSLR that had a fixed lens. She has sold it on Craigslist and purchased a different camera. If you want that film look you will need prime lenses with a low f-stop because your aperture and the focal length of your lens makes all the difference in getting that shallow depth of field.

 

The latest batch of DSLR cameras have come out with “continuous autofocus” but don’t expect the same performance you get with your video camera. At this point in the development of DSLR video I wouldn’t spend any extra money to get this feature. Teach your students how to pull focus.

Microphone Jack and Manual Audio Control – I wouldn’t consider a DSLR that didn’t have a microphone jack. Also look for a camera that provides manual audio level controls. If a camera manufacture would add a headphone jack I would be sold! I will spend more time talking about the challenges and solutions of working with the audio side of DSLR video next month.

Articulating screen – When you are shooting at extreme angles such as on the ground or above your head, an articulating (swivel) screen is a great feature. I must admit I rarely flip it out myself because I prefer to attach a viewfinder when I shoot.

For me the Canon T3i currently hits that sweet spot between price (~$700) and features but I strongly recommend that you spend some time at your local camera store playing around with a variety of DSLR’s, talk to the professionals in your community, and do some online research.

If you want that gorgeous film look out of your DSLR camera then you need to invest in some good lenses. You
basically have two choices, prime lenses or zoom lenses.

Zoom lenses are great because you can quickly adjust your focal length and recompose your shot without moving. Of course you would never zoom while shooting! Most people purchase the basic DSLR kit that comes with the camera body and the 18-55mm zoom lens. This is a very light weight lens that has a nice focal range. However, the key to getting that shallow depth of field that everyone wants is a really low f-stop and this lens simply doesn’t go very low. In fact, you will have to pay tons of money for a zoom lenses with a low f-stop.

Prime lenses are a single focal length so you have to move the camera if you want a tighter or wider shot. But you can get a much faster (lower f-stop) lens for less money if it is a prime lens.

For my classroom I have chosen to get the basic kit lens for every DSLR. I inherited a couple telephoto zoom lenses from parents donating old gear. If you shoot at the telephoto range (200 – 400 mm) you can get a decent bokeh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bokeh ). My students love using this lens as the secondary camera at an assembly or while doing an interview. The rest of our lenses are prime because I am cheap and wanted lenses with an f-stop of at least 2.0 or lower. Our first prime lens was a Canon 85mm portrait lens that will go down to f 1.8. It is the prom queen of our lenses, going home with my students every weekend and often ending up in our photography teacher’s classroom during the day. Videomaker Magazine has a nice article titled “DSLR Lens Buyer’s Guide” that you might want to read to learn more. http://www.videomaker.com/article/15752-dslr-lens-buyers-guide

This summer a friend turned me onto the beauty of old Nikon lenses and now I spend way too much time scouring Craigslist for used lenses. With a $15 dollar adapter you can mount these old lenses onto a Canon. (Tip: Keep those old lens backs that came with your kit lens when you purchased your DSLR because you will need them. I got a bunch from our yearbook teacher.) These older lenses have a manual f-stop ring that makes it great for showing students how the iris in a lens works and makes the process of setting the aperture more tactile. Their manual focusing ring is much smoother and the movement is much larger making it easier to nail that sharp focus. Make sure to test the lens before you purchase it because I have found a couple that had issues with the focus ring. I have been able to get all the sellers to provide me with a bill of sale so I was able to be reimbursed.

One of the challenges of shooting with a shallow depth of field is shifting focus. Filmmakers need to do this when a subject moves closer or farther away or they want to shift the focus from one subject to another (rack focus).

This is virtually impossible to do with the 18-55mm kit lens that comes with the basic DSLR kit so don’t even try. If you have purchased a nice prime lens with a smooth focus ring then you will need to connect some type of follow focus device. I recently purchased the FocusShifter (http://www.focusshifter.com/follow-focus-dslr/) that you get from Adorama for $50. This simple and inexpensive solution has become a must have for my students, so much that I just turned in the purchase order so I will have one for every camera kit in my classroom. Mastering your control over depth of field is not easy but well worth the research and practice. I hope to write an entire article on the topic this spring.

Once you get your DSLR there are a couple menu settings that you will want to know about. Most DSLR cameras are set to turn off after a short period of time because they were designed for shooting stills so the first thing I do is change the auto power off to between 4-8 minutes. Next I change our cameras to manual exposure mode so that my students can control the shutter speed, f-stop and ISO. This should never be on auto! Finally, it is important to teach your students to pay attention to resolution and the frame rate that the camera is set at because in a school environment someone else might have changed it. Here are my recommendations for our Canon Rebels:
1280 x 720 w/60 fps is great for shooting sports like skiing, mountain biking or skating
1920 x 1080 w/24 fps is great for that film like motion blur
1920 x 1080 w/30 fps is for everything else and is the default setting when in doubt

I have a handout that includes some additional settings but these are things that I have done as soon as we got the camera and most students don’t even consider. http://dslrvideo.weebly.com/settings.html

The last thing that I wanted to share is a little controversial in that it is an open source firmware add-on for Canon cameras that adds tons of functionality to the limited filmmaking capabilities of the standard Canon menu options. http://magiclantern.wikia.com/wiki/Magic_Lantern_Firmware_Wiki

My favorite features include:
On-screen audio meters
Manual gain control with no AGC
Audio monitoring through the mini USB port with a couple adapters
Zebra stripes (video peaking)
Live histogram
Shutter lock

The cool thing about it is that the firmware lays on your SD card so you can basically turn it on or off simply by switching out your card. My beginning students find it a little overwhelming so I don’t introduce it until my advanced class. However, it was my advanced students that found it and talked me into using it.
The histogram that comes with Magic Lantern can be combined with a digital calibration target to help you get correct exposure and white balance before you shoot. You can also use a photograph of the target in the lighting from your scene to correct any issues in your video editor. For more information about this go to: http://www.photovisionvideo.com/digital-targets/

Next month I will cover the complex and often frustrating topic of recording quality sound with your DSLR cameras.

My students recently completed two projects that used the Canon T3i as the primary camera. I thought you might like to see some student examples of DSLR filmmaking in action. http://dslrvideo.weebly.com/index.html 


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