David Saffir: DSLR Video Gear On a Budget – Cameras and Lenses
Nov 2013 14

How to get into reasonable quality video capture, without spending all your cash or going deeply into debt? Many small cameras and iPhones offer video capture, but few, if any, can deliver high-quality, reasonable resolution capture. Real-world people can’t afford a Camera Red (myself included), so what to do?

I’ve been looking into this, thinking long and hard about the opportunities. I’m particularly interested in creating video content for my educational efforts and in fine art imaging. In the latter case, I’m intrigued by the possibilities offered in capturing video with simultaneous camera movement. I’m convinced that one can capture an element of dimensionality and a realistic viewpoint in video not accessible in still photography. That’s a big statement, for a life-long still photographer.

So how to get started? I’ve been working with Barry Anderson and his team during the DSLR Digital Dynamics seminars (still ongoing – next session I will attend is in Miami, others can be found here.), and with Ken Sklute at the recent California Photo Festival, and I’ve picked up a few tips along the way that might be helpful to others.

Aside from training, which is highly recommended, the key consideration is equipment. And believe me, in this field it is all too easy to spend a lot of money – some of it would be on worthwhile gear, but in many cases one can add expensive bells and whistles that are not necessary.

Getting started involves a camera, lens, support device, and a supplemental viewfinder.

Camera: I won’t spend time here on the dedicated camera vs. DSLR debate – but suffice to say that the DSLR is a viable and flexible platform that can be used in a variety of shooting situations. Given its relatively low cost, and (in many cases) reasonable quality video capture, it’s hard to beat.

I’ve investigated use of cropped- and full-size sensor cameras. One consideration important to me was use of wide-angle lenses. Even knowing that cropped-sensor cameras are less expensive, I just can’t get past the restrictions inherent to the design – smaller sensor area, potentially crowded pixel arrays, limitations on lens usability, reduction of viewing angle, and more. For example, a 24-105mm lens mounted on a cropped-sensor camera becomes a 38-156mm – making the wide-angle feature less useful.

A full-frame camera, while it may cost a bit more, offers flexibility in use of larger, wider lenses, including legacy glass, a more “relaxed” pixel layout in some cases, and frequently less noise in the finished video.

A last thought regarding camera selection: one has to consider the quality of video captured. Manufacturers use different capture compression schemes; among DSLRs Canon seems to offer the best of the bunch. So, I’m currently scouting around for a lightly used Canon 5D Mark II (I’m getting tired of borrowing gear).

Lenses: It’s easy to spend big dollars here. Cinema lenses are terrific, but can be very pricey. Some important criteria for lenses: you’ll ideally want a lens that offers manual control for f/stop (aperture), and good lens design. Better lenses will be sharp and bright all the way into the corners, and will have minimal barrel or pincushion distortion.

Cheaper lenses may also suffer from chromatic aberration – often seen as color halos or fringing along contrast or luminance transitions. Try before you buy; renting is better than reselling!

If you do choose a zoom lens, purchase one that has a constant f/ stop. Lenses which have variable f/stop – that change aperture with focal length – don’t work very well in video capture. Exposure changes as you zoom in or out – something that’s nearly impossible to fix in post-production.

Adapters are available that will allow mounting of a Nikon lens to a Canon body – you won’t be able to use autofocus, so used manual-focus lenses are an option. Used Nikon manual-focus lenses frequently offer good quality at a reasonable price. I’ve even discovered adapters from Fotodiox that will allow mounting of Mamiya lenses to Nikon or Canon camera bodies! KEH has a nice selection of used lenses and camera bodies of all types – so does B&H.

Canon 24-105 f/4 Lens

David Saffir is a commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker, located in Southern California, and a well-known speaker at workshops and conferences across the US.

  • kenyee

    weren’t older film cameras roughly m4/3 equivalents in FOV? If so, the Panasonic GH3 seems like a good choice…it’s also the only one I know of that downsamples all the pixels on the sensor down to 1080p instead of just subsampling, so it has more resolution in video than a 5DmkIII or D800…