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Tips for better DSLR videos

The key is to plan ahead

I've been a camera nut all my life, so it makes sense I'd end up being a video producer. Of course, it has been a roundabout journey for me, as I started at Crutchfield in 2007 writing about car audio gear. Over the years I've learned about all the electronic items we sell, and it is my job to make sure we are making videos that you will find useful, whether you're shopping for something specific or trying to install some new gear yourself. My job is a lot of fun because I get to play around with all the cool stuff you see on our website while I'm making videos about it. Getting hands-on with the gear helps me see what I should show you about a product, though the flip side is my personal wish list is a mile long...

More from Zak Billmeier

A DSLR can shoot video as well as most camcorders.

A DSLR can shoot video as well as most camcorders.

I am a photographer, not a videographer. Being good at one doesn't make you good at the other, as they are vastly different disciplines. But more and more SLR cameras come with video recording capability these days, so the line is becoming blurred a bit.

I've had the good fortune of testing several video-equipped DSLRs, and since shooting video is so different than it is with a camcorder, I thought I'd share a few tips you may find useful.

First things first, though. What are some advantages of DSLR video over a camcorder?

  • A larger sensor means you can achieve a shallower depth-of-field. This means you can easily blur the background, making your subject stand out. You can do cool things like pull focus from one thing to another, just like they do in movies and TV shows. You know when two people are doing a scene at a lunch table, and the camera takes turns focusing on who's speaking? That's focus pulling, and it's someone's job on the set to do just that. Now you can do it at home!
  • You have your lens arsenal at your disposal. Over time, a photographer acquires a collection of lenses, each with a different purpose. It's pretty fun to try and apply that to a moving picture.
  • It's nice to have the option on the camera you have with you, rather than having to carry a second device just for video.

You can achieve some truly memorable footage. But unlike a camcorder, you have to plan ahead. The main reason for this is that DSLR video, at present, cannot track moving subjects fast enough. Nor does it look very good when you pan the camera quickly. So this isn't the way to shoot your kid's soccer game, you'll want a dedicated camcorder for that. Here's what I'd recommend to get the most out of your video-equipped DSLR:

  1. Use a tripod. Or make your own steadicam rig. Either way, you want to keep it still, even if you have image-stabilized lenses (another hint: you might want to turn off the image stabilization while the camera's on the tripod).
  2. Plan your shot ahead of time. Focus, check your white balance, focus again, then shoot.
  3. Use a memory card with a fast write speed. Video uses a lot more processing power than shooting stills, and your card needs to keep up.
  4. Consider using an external mic. The built-in mic doesn't cut it, but at least there's a 1/8" stereo accessory jack for plugging in a mic. A shotgun condenser mic that mounts on the hotshoe will improve the sound immensely.

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