The still camera and HD video camcorder worlds slowly are starting to converge. The biggest news in the still-photography industry has been the arrival of HD shooting for D-SLR cameras. Last year, Nikon released the D90—a D-SLR that offers a 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor and the ability to record cinematic-quality movie files at up to 720p HD. Very recently, Nikon has released the D5000, which can capture 720p video but also offers a new Vari-angle color LCD monitor to capture shots or clips from hard-to-position angles. Soon after the release of the D90, Canon introduced its long-awaited EOS 5D Mark II, which offers a 21.1-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor and the ability to capture full HD 1080p resolution. Canon also recently introduced 1080p video capture for cameras in both its popular Rebel line—the EOS Rebel T1i—and in its consumer PowerShot line—the PowerShot SX1 IS. Not wanting to be left out in the cold, Panasonic introduced the Lumix DMC-GH1 at PMA. The GH1 is the latest camera in Panasonic’s Lumix G Micro System and the first Four Thirds System camera to shoot 1080p video.
For many, the concept of shooting motion pictures with a D-SLR was surprising at first, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of shooting video with a D-SLR is using interchangeable lenses, especially fast-aperture primes. (Video camcorders that offer interchangeable lenses, such as the Sony EX3 or the Canon XL H1, retail between $9,000 and $10,000.) Another big advantage in using a D-SLR to shoot video is the camera’s larger sensor. Sensors on video camcorders are typically 1⁄4 to 1/3 inches for CCDs or CMOS sensors compared to larger APS-C or 35mm full-frame-sized sensors that, among other benefits, give a shooter more dynamic range and color tones and far less low-light noise.
For the new HD shooter, high-def video is a complex medium with numerous file formats, degrees of resolution, forms of compression and frame rates. The one thing all HD video formats have in common is the widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9. The resolution currently available for D-SLRs with video capture capability is 720 or 1080, which is similar to most consumer and prosumer HD video camcorders. (In terms of resolution, the number 720 represents the number of vertical scan lines of resolution found in HDTV video with 1280 horizontal lines; 1080 contains 1920 horizontal lines.)
There are two ways that video can be displayed—either in progressive scan or interlaced. The letter “p” stands for progressive scan, which captures and displays all the lines of each frame in a moving image sequence as opposed to interlaced (“i”), which captures the odd lines and then the even lines of a frame alternately, which is now called a field. For the casual viewer, it’s often said that a progressive image has a more cinematic feel, while an interlaced image has a more immediate feel. In this regard, most narrative movies shot on video are captured in progressive mode (almost always 24 fps), while live sports and broadcast news are almost always shot in interlaced at 60i.
Regarding formats, Nikon, Canon and Panasonic all use the MPEG-4 (mp4), which is a compressed video format. Canon uses the QuickTime MOV H.264 file format, Nikon captures in the AVI M-JPEG, and Panasonic uses the popular AVCHD (also H.264). Because of the popularity of HD consumer camcorders, almost all nonlinear editing systems (Avid, Final Cut Pro and iMovie, Premiere, etc.) now can work with the various mp4 formats.
In terms of frame rates, the D-SLRs also differ based on the model. Nikon’s range shoots in 720p at 24 fps, while Canon’s 5D Mark II shoots a higher-resolution 1080p at 30 fps. The entry-level Rebel T1i shoots 720p at 30 fps, but when shooting at 1080p, it captures only at 20 fps due to the camera’s internal processing power. At 20 fps, the image quality will be noticeably jerkier and rough compared to 30 fps when panning on a shot or when there’s a lot of movement within the frame.
Camera accessory companies, such as Zacuto and Redrock Micro, are building rigs that can accommodate “film-style” shooting (items like baseplates, matte boxes and follow-focus units), and in the near future, we’re likely to see XLR inputs for professional shotgun mics. Feature films are now in development to be shot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Because of this revolution, the future is limitless in creating a new dimension with your D-SLR.