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Brave New World

Two new cameras bring HD video capability to the D-SLR and create a new way for nature photographers to see and share the world through imagery
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For all of the power of a single frozen moment in time that a photograph represents, sometimes it’s just not enough. We’ve all lamented the still frame’s inability to adequately capture the motion within a scene. Wildlife photographers, in particular, like to have a compact digital video camera handy to record dramatic action in the field. These compact video cameras can fall short on image quality, but they’ve been the best option for a nature photographer who wants to have the motion, but doesn’t want to invest the time and resources into a professional video setup—until now. Two new D-SLRs, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the Nikon D90, have changed the playing field, and a new era is dawning. The introduction of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II and Nikon’s D90 provides outdoor photographers with a whole new way to depict the great natural world: with motion and sound. Yes, video capability has come to the D-SLR—and high-quality HD video, no less! While still photographers work to capture the “decisive moment,” the single shot (or sequence) that clearly shows the viewer a particular animal action or gorgeous landscape scene, some wildlife behavior is better depicted with motion and sound. Adding this capability lets you show nature’s magical moments in new ways, from nestling feedings to mist rising from roaring waterfalls. Wildlife researchers can document behavior, and photographers can deliver photo essays on DVD with both stills and video clips.


How We Got Here
D-SLR video capability is an extension of Live View, and in both the D90 and the EOS 5D Mark II, operates from the Live View mode. D-SLR image sensor and processor technology has finally advanced to where data can be captured and passed along to the LCD monitor quickly enough to provide smooth HD video capability. In Canon’s case, a new 21.1-megapixel, full-frame CMOS image sensor outputs image data at high speed to a new DIGIC 4 processor that’s far more powerful than its DIGIC III predecessor—it can process the information quickly enough to turn out 1920×1080-resolution HD video at 30 fps. In Nikon’s case, a 12.3-megapixel, DX-format CMOS sensor provides high-speed multichannel readout directly into the high-speed EXPEED image-processing pipeline, and the live data stream is recorded and saved to the installed SD memory card.

D-SLR Video Advantages

D-SLRs offer a number of video advantages over not only the compact digicams, but dedicated HD camcorders as well. For one thing, the D-SLRs have much larger image sensors. The resulting bigger pixels mean image quality is a lot better, especially at higher ISO settings and in low-light situations. Second, the larger sensors reduce depth of field, which creates a professional “look” unobtainable with a camcorder and allows for effective “selective focus” photography, keeping viewers’ attention on the subject. Third, the D-SLRs accept a wide range of excellent lenses, including fish-eye, super-wide, super-telephoto, macro and even tilt-shift, many with built-in image stabilization. And finally, with the D-SLR, you can record a superb high-resolution still image at any time during video recording simply by pressing the shutter button (there will be a brief gap in the video each time you do this, of course).

Now, in all fairness, the video capabilities in the D90 and EOS 5D Mark II don’t quite match the functionality of a dedicated HD camcorder—there’s no articulated LCD monitor or electronic viewfinder or power zooming or practical autofocusing, for example, and the sound capabilities are limited—but these D-SLRs offer the still photographer an opportunity to record excellent video.

If you’d like to see what these two D-SLRs can do as camcorders, google “EOS 5D Mark II: Sample Videos,” and “Chase Jarvis RAW” for a Nikon look. (There should be other good examples available online by the time you read this.)

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The Cameras
Although there are only two D-SLRs with video capability (as of this writing), they’re both excellent and, between them, cover a wide range of users.

Nikon’s D90 joins the popular lower-mid-level D80 in the company’s D-SLR lineup. It’s a $999 model with a 12.3-megapixel, DX-format CMOS sensor based upon, but not identical to, the sensor in the D300. Features of note include excellent still-image quality, quick operation, a self-cleaning image-sensor unit, a 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor, effective Active D-Lighting to control contrast, and the ability to shoot 1280x720p HD video with monoaural sound.

Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II replaces the EOS 5D as the lowest-priced full-frame D-SLR. The original EOS 5D was a favorite of nature photographers with its combination of price, performance and, of course, the full-frame image sensor, and the new Mark II model is poised to continue that tradition. This $2,699 near-pro model has a 21.1-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor based upon, but not identical to, the sensor in the top-of-the-line EOS-1Ds Mark III. Features of note include high image quality, quick operation, a self-cleaning sensor unit, a 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor, ISOs to 25600, and the ability to shoot 1920x1080p full HD video with mono or (via a third-party external microphone) stereo sound.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II


Sensor: 21.1-megapixel CMOS
Still Resolution: 5616×3744 pixels
HD Video Resolution: 1920x1080p
Still Recording Format: JPEG, RAW, sRAW1, sRAW2
Video Recording Format: .MOV, MPEG-4
MPEG-4Storage Media:
CompactFlash (UDMA-compliant)
6.0×4.5×2.9 inches
Weight: 28.5 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $2,699
Contact: Canon, (800) OK-CANON,

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
The EOS 5D Mark II can shoot 1920×1080-pixel full HD video, or standard SD video at 640×480 pixels, both at 30 fps. While a fully charged battery will provide around 90 minutes of shooting, the camera is limited to clips of 29 minutes, 59 seconds or 4 GB, whichever comes first. A 4 GB memory card can hold about 12 minutes of HD video or 24 minutes of SD video. Video is recorded in .MOV format using MPEG-4 movie compression, and sound is recorded using linear PCM without compression. You can record mono sound via the camera’s built-in microphone or CD-quality stereo sound with an optional external stereo microphone. The camera incorporates an HDMI interface to output still and movie images to high-definition television sets.

Shooting video with the EOS 5D Mark II is easy. Enter Live View mode, press the Set button to start shooting, then press it again to stop.

Preparation is a little more complex: Go to the Live View function settings menu screen and for Live View mode, select Still Images + Movies. For Screen Display, select Movie. For Movie Resolution and Aspect Ratio, choose 1920×1080/16:9 or 640×480/4:3. For Live View AF, select Quick, Live or Face Detection (more on those in a moment). For Audio Recording, choose On or Off. For grid display, choose Off, Fine or Coarse. Tip: Unless you’re going for a “Blair Witch” effect, always shoot videos on a tripod—rocky videos look unprofessional and can be uncomfortable to watch.

Quick Mode AF uses the camera’s phase-detection AF system to establish focus, while Live Mode AF uses contrast-based AF off the image sensor so the LCD monitor doesn’t black out during focusing, since the SLR mirror doesn’t have to drop into the light path to focus as it does for the phase-detection system. Canon recommends not using AF for video, as AF is slow for video purposes and might momentarily defocus severely or throw the exposure off (and the built-in microphone might pick up the sound of the AF motor). You can always focus manually during shooting, which is how pro videographers do it.

You can adjust the Picture Style, white balance, AE lock, exposure compensation, peripheral illumination (vignetting) correction, Auto Lighting Optimizer and Highlight Tone Priority, if desired. Exposure mode is programmed AE; metering (via the image sensor) is center-weighted averaging.

HD videos have a 16:9 aspect ratio, SD videos 4:3 and still images 3:2. The 3:2-ratio LCD monitor is letterboxed by a semitransparent border in the appropriate aspect ratio during video shooting.

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Nikon D90
Sensor: 12.3-megapixel CMOS
Still Resolution: 4288×2848 pixels
HD Video Resolution: 1280x720p
Still Recording Format: JPEG, RAW
Video Recording Format: .AVI, Motion JPEG
Storage Media: SD, SDHC
Dimensions: 5.2×4.1×3.0 inches
Weight: 21.9 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $999
Contact: Nikon, (800) NIKON-US,

Nikon D90
The D90 can shoot HD video at 1280×720 resolution, or standard video at 640×424 or 320×216 pixels, all at a natural “cinematic” 24 fps. Videos are in .AVI format with Motion-JPEG compression and mono sound (or without sound, if you prefer). HD video has a wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio, while standard video has a 3:2 aspect ratio.

Nikon has made it easy to shoot video with the D90. Just choose your resolution and sound option (On or Off) from the Movie Settings submenu in the Shooting menu, press the Lv button next to the LCD screen to activate Live View mode, press the shutter button halfway to focus, and press the OK button in the middle of the Multi Selector to start recording. To end recording, press the OK button again.

You can shoot video in P, S, A or M mode; metering is Matrix. Note that autofocusing doesn’t occur during Live View shooting: Either set up the shot so the initial focusing point works for the entire clip or focus manually during shooting like the pro moviemakers do.

You can shoot up to 2 GB of video at a clip, 5 minutes maximum in HD and 20 minutes max at lesser resolutions. Picture Control settings can be used to adjust saturation and contrast, create an old-time sepia look or even produce black-and-white video. High-ISO performance is excellent.

Computer Requirements For Video
Playing videos on your computer requires an up-to-date computer system due to the large amounts of data involved. If you have an older system, it’s probably best to play the video directly from the camera on an HDTV set using the camera’s built-in HDMI interface.

If you just want video clips of nature’s moments, raw footage straight from the camera is fine. But if you want to produce finished videos, you’ll need to edit your footage. That requires video-editing software and a computer with sufficient power and storage to handle the job.

HD Video Resolutions
Digital still images consist of tiny square picture elements or “pixels.” Digital video images are continuously scanned onto the screen as horizontal lines. Thus, video resolutions are given in lines: A standard SD digital video image consists of 480 horizontal lines from top to bottom. An HD video image consists of either 720 or 1080 horizontal lines.

Because digital video images have a specific aspect ratio (width to height)—16:9 for HD, 4:3 for SD—each video line resolution is accompanied by a corresponding number of horizontal pixels: A standard SD digital video frame (image) consists of 480 horizontal lines, each 720 pixels wide; a 720-line HD video image consists of 720 lines, each 1280 pixels wide; and a 1080-line HD video image consists of 1080 lines, each 1920 pixels wide.

You’ll see a small “p” or “i” after the video line-resolution figure. These indicate the way the images are drawn on the screen. The “p” means progressive. Progressive images are quickly drawn across the screen one line at a time, from top to bottom—line 1, followed by line 2, followed by line 3, etc. The “i” means interlaced. Interlaced images are drawn in two fields, the first, consisting of the odd-numbered lines, followed quickly by the second, consisting of the even-numbered lines.

Progressive scanning produces smoother action and slow-motion effects. Generally, 1920×1080 HD video is interlaced (1920x1080i) while 1280×720 HD video is progressive-scan (1280x720p), but both the D90 (1280x720p) and EOS 5D Mark II (1920x1080p) use progressive scanning for their HD videos. The Mark II automatically adjusts output to match the resolution of the display device being used (for example, the HDMI port outputs a 1080i signal).

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Video Tips For Still Photographers
1 While image-stabilized lenses are very effective for still photography, handholding video clips will result in “rocky” video that distracts the viewer. Use a tripod for best video results.

2 Make sure the camera is level before you start shooting. This is especially important if a panning move is anticipated. Both the D90 and the EOS 5D Mark II have built-in grid lines that help you do this.

3 You can’t use electronic flash to illuminate videos, so you’ll have to shoot by ambient light or acquire a video light. Fortunately, the D90 and the EOS 5D Mark II provide excellent low-light image quality.

4 The built-in microphones will pick up camera noises (stabilizers, AF motors, flash units recycling if used for still shots). Plan accordingly.

5 It’s generally best not to zoom during a shot unless really necessary. If it’s necessary, zooming smoothly manually requires much practice—an advantage for the HD camcorders with their smooth power zooms.

6 Use the AE lock to lock in the initial exposure. Otherwise, distracting exposure changes may occur during a clip (for example, if a bird takes flight, showing its light wing linings, followed by the dark top sides of the wings as it flaps away).

7 With the D90 and EOS 5D Mark II, it’s probably best to set up a scene so that the initial focus point need not change. If the focus point must be changed during the clip, adjust focus manually (that’s how the pros do it).

8 While you’ll probably want to keep the sounds of the animals in wildlife videos, you might try adding music to a scenic video.

Camera Supports For Video D-SLRs
dslrsWhile image stabilizers in lenses and camera bodies work very well for handheld still photography, they aren’t really steady enough for video work. Any unintentional camera movement during a video clip will result in a jumpy on-screen image. For professional-looking videos, it’s best to mount the camera on a sturdy tripod. As an outdoor photographer, you probably already have one.

What you likely don’t have is a fluid head. While ballheads are terrific for still photos, making it easy to put the camera just where you want it and lock it there quickly and easily, balls don’t allow for smooth panning and other camera moves. If you want to follow a deer moving across the scene or pan peacefully across a beautiful sunrise, you need a fluid head, which utilizes hydraulic damping to provide smooth panning and tilting moves. Good fluid heads for the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Nikon D90 start at around $350, and are available from such manufacturers as Gitzo and Manfrotto. You don’t need an all-out pro fluid head (which can cost thousands of dollars), but you do want a fluid head with a built-in bubble level; if the camera isn’t level, a panned shot will look very bad.