Frames Per Second: Is a DSLR or a Cinema Camera Right for Your Video?

February 29, 2016

By Aimee Baldridge


Carr directed a short documentary about building a custom car using both a Canon C300 Mark II with an EF lens and a Canon XC10.

When Canon’s 5D Mark II DSLR was released in 2008, it took filmmaking by storm. In a world where pro cinema camera prices started in the five figures and even professional camcorders captured footage with a distinctly video look and a large depth of field, suddenly there was a sub-$3,000 device that could shoot gorgeous, cinematic motion. For any serious photographer who wanted to get into filmmaking, shooting with the Mark II or one of its similarly priced competitors was a no-brainer. DSLR filmmaking officially became all the rage; even the hit TV show House shot a season finale with the Mark II.

But that was then. According to a recent report by the British market research firm Futuresource Consulting, DSLR sales in the professional video market have dropped from their peak at 31 percent of the market in 2013 and are projected to account for a mere 4 percent of the market by 2019.

One of the main reasons motion shooters are rethinking the DSLR is simply that the price of dedicated digital cinema cameras has fallen. Numerous models that take interchangeable lenses and offer professional feature sets are now available for under $5,000 from vendors such as Sony, Blackmagic Design, AJA and Canon. These cameras offer advantages over DSLRs, including more built-in tools for motion capture, cine lens mounts, native RAW video formats, and 10-bit color. Design elements and features like focus peaking, zebras, pro audio ports and controls, and neutral density filters built into a camera give cinematographers more precise control and obviate the cost and burden of adding that functionality through third-party accessories. That can be especially advantageous when trying to shoot smooth footage handheld, unlike with a DSLR rig. “You’ve got this tiny DSLR, but you’re strapping it on a shoulder system and there are so many additional things you need to add to make it truly functional,” says filmmaker Jon Carr. “It definitely becomes a little bit cumbersome.”

Carr says there can also be a notable non-technical disadvantage when you’ve built out a rig for your DSLR: “Once you start getting out on professional jobs, there’s something to be said for having something that doesn’t look like some sort of hodge-podge rig,” he says. “Your producers and clients are expecting you to have a proper cinema camera, something that looks legitimate, versus having this crazy rig built out from all kinds of different pieces.”

Many filmmakers who use DSLRs love the look and shallow depth of field they get with interchangeable DSLR lenses. But while these lenses are made primarily for photography, cine lenses offer more precision when it comes to capturing motion. “On a film lens,” explains DP David Thies, “the focus throw might be 290 degrees up to 360, so to go from infinity to close focus is a good long roll around the barrel of the lens. If you’re a first AC and you’re pulling focus and you’ve got someone coming from 50 feet walking up to 6 feet, you need that slow focus pull to be able to keep them in focus.” Still lenses typically cover the distance with much less movement of the lens, making it hard to manually track moving subjects accurately. “It’s a lot easier pulling focus when the depth of field is going around the barrel instead of just an inch,” Thies says.

While there have been a number of DSLR-mount cinema lenses introduced recently, filmmakers who like cine cameras say their advantages continue after the shoot as well, since they generally support formats and in-camera processing that DSLRs don’t. Often with DSLR footage, says Thies, “you take it into post and start trying to do slight color correction, and things start falling apart.”

Many DSLR filmmakers have addressed this issue with third-party tools such as the Magic Lantern firmware add-on that can be used to enhance Canon’s EOS cameras in numerous ways. As independent filmmaker Theo Anthony explains, the enhancements are significant. “It really punches it to an incredible level where people think I’m shooting on a $100,000 camera when it’s just this little dinky camera,” he says. But there are significant costs in workflow efficiency and storage requirements to this workaround. Anthony explains, “It records to this proprietary format, and then you have to convert that to DNG, and then with the DNG you have to do a proxy that you edit off of. It also takes up so much space. It almost brings you back to this conception of limited media on film: Like on film you have 15 minutes of footage on a 35mm roll.”

Cine cameras aren’t the only alternatives filmmakers are trying. Some of the strongest competition has arisen from the new breed of small mirrorless cameras that are priced to compete directly with DSLRs. The most popular models for motion shooting—like Panasonic’s GH4 and Sony’s a7 series—offer video features that DSLRs don’t, including 4K capture and the ability to apply Look Up Tables (LUTs) such as Sony’s S-Log to preserve more detail and allow higher-quality color grading. They offer the same lens interchangeability and often include the full-frame sensors that have made DSLRs popular, and even models with smaller sensors, like the GH4, can simulate the shallow-depth-of-field cine look with a Metabones Speedbooster. Mirrorless cameras also generally don’t have the limits on video recording time and overheating problems typical in DSLRs. Of course, they do still require the kind of rig-building and accessorizing that DSLRs need to offer adequate physical controls, with some filmmakers even adding weights to their mirrorless rigs to give them the heft required for smooth handheld work.

What kind of camera filmmakers opt for often depends on the kind of camera work required. DPs opt for cine cameras when they need the ergonomics and the polished look that those cameras deliver. They’re usually the choice for a principal camera, whereas independent filmmakers who work on smaller productions often favor the portability and very competitive prices of DSLRs and mirrorless systems. As a longtime 5D shooter, Anthony says of his impending switch to a mirrorless camera, “I know how to crank really good performance out of a smaller package. I like to keep things very simple and mobile.”

Mirrorless cameras are making inroads into the world of larger-scale, high-production-value shooting as well, but often not as principal cameras. “I just did a camera test with an a7R II, using it as C or D camera,” says Thies, who regularly shoots for television and commercials. “That little camera really blew me away. It was holding a good 13 to 14 stops. When you were shooting [in] S-Log, once you brought [the footage] into post and did some color correction, you could cut it in and no one would know that it was [from] a small camera.”

All of this is not to say that DSLRs don’t remain a valuable tool for filmmakers who are working on a shoestring—or who simply feel that the DSLR look is the best choice for expressing a film’s intent. For someone with a strong vision and a tight budget, a $650 Canon EOS Rebel T5i can be a very attractive proposition. As Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers reminds us, it’s ultimately what filmmakers do with the tools within their reach that counts more than the technical distinctions between them. “All this nonsense about technology, it’s really getting old,” says Crudo. “It’s boring and it’s irrelevant, and it gets everybody off the real topic, which is who’s got a good story. If you’ve got a good story, I don’t care if you shoot it through the bottom of a Coke bottle. It’s going to sing.”

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