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HD D-SLRs For Nature Photographers

For outdoor photographers, the latest high-tech cameras offer the ability to capture images and tell a story in incredible new ways
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In fall 2008, Nikon announced the D90, the first D-SLR with HD video capability. A few weeks later, Canon announced the EOS 5D Mark II, the first “pro” D-SLR with video capability. Those two announcements—along with the appearance online of some remarkable videos shot by skilled pros with these cameras and the delivery of the cameras into consumers’ hands a few months later—marked the dawn of a new era: the D-SLR movie era. While compact digital cameras have had built-in movie capability for years, it wasn’t until late last year that this feature came to the D-SLR.

Sometimes lost in the hype over the video capability (and HD video, no less!) is the fact that the D-SLRs that have it are, first and foremost, excellent still-photo devices. All five current video-capable D-SLRs (six, if you include the D-SLR-like Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1, which we will here) offer at least 12-megapixel resolution. All offer their manufacturers’ latest, most powerful image processors (needed to produce the HD video, among other features). All offer excellent metering and autofocusing systems, plus a host of still-photo features. Even if they couldn’t shoot video, these cameras would be good choices for the demanding outdoor photographer.

But they do shoot video, and that provides outdoor photographers with a chance to add new dimensions to their image-making: the motions and sounds of nature. Excellent outdoor subjects for video D-SLRs include action at a bird’s nest or watering hole, sunrises and sunsets, insects visiting a flower, steaming waterfalls, amber waves of grain blowing in the wind and anything else that has motion and doesn’t require a focus change during shooting. (Only one of these D-SLRs provides continuous autofocusing during video shooting.)

Video capability in D-SLRs brings additional benefits besides simply being able to shoot video with your D-SLR, among them:
• D-SLRs have much larger image sensors than compact digital cameras and camcorders, so the pixels are much larger, and that means much better high-ISO and low-light image quality.

• The much larger sensors also mean the D-SLRs can produce pro-cinema-like shallow depth of field, handy for selective-focus effects and a general “movie-like” look not possible with the small-sensor camcorders and their inherent great depth of field.

• D-SLRs accept a wide range of high-quality interchangeable lenses, which gives them a huge advantage over compact digital cameras in the framing department and an edge over HD camcorders, too.

• You can record an excellent still image at any time while shooting a video simply by pressing the shutter button (the video will contain a brief still image at that point). The recorded still image will be at whatever resolution and other settings you selected before starting the video and will be stored as a separate file. All of the video-capable D-SLRs provide much better still-image quality than compact digital cameras or camcorders.

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Of course, there are a few drawbacks:
• Current HD video-capable D-SLRs offer limited (or no) autofocusing capabilities during HD video shooting. You can autofocus before you begin shooting, but if a focus change is necessary during shooting, it’s best to do it manually—that’s how pro cinematographers do it.

• In many cases, the D-SLRs offer limited or no control over shutter speed, aperture or ISO during HD video operation. (You can apply exposure compensation, however, and use AE Lock.)

• D-SLRs can be less comfortable than camcorders to use for handheld HD video shooting, having been designed to be held up to the eye, not for LCD-monitor viewing. (The D-SLR-like Panasonic DMC-GH1 has an eye-level electronic viewfinder that can be used while shooting videos.)

• HD video, especially 1080 full HD video, requires fast, high-capacity memory cards and a powerful computer to edit it (or even play it back smoothly; it’s generally best to connect the camera to an HDTV or other viewing device and play back the video from the camera).

• If you want more than just moving snapshots, you’ll have to edit your videos. That requires special software, the aforementioned powerful computer and a steep learning curve.

All in all, though, HD video capability in a D-SLR is a good thing that will allow you to record nature in ways you can’t when limited only to still images. You’ll be seeing more D-SLRs with video capability in the future.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Hot on the D90’s heels, Canon’s long-awaited EOS 5D replacement blew its predecessor out of the water with nearly twice the pixel count (21.1 vs. 12.8 megapixels), a much larger LCD monitor with Live View and HD video capability, a sensor-dust removal system, a new DIGIC 4 processor with 14-bit A/D conversion and other improvements.

Although it’s very economically priced for a full-frame D-SLR, the EOS 5D Mark II is much more costly than the other current HD video-capable D-SLRs and is aimed at pros and advanced amateurs. Its still image quality is outstanding at ISOs up to 6400, and you can go all the way to ISO 25,600 if absolutely necessary. The full-frame sensor means any lens produces the same angle of view it does on a 35mm SLR, great for wide-angle landscape work. While it lacks the “telephoto factor” of smaller-sensor D-SLRs, you can crop the full-frame image to match the APS-C format and still have 10 megapixels—great for distant wildlife.

In the hands of a skilled photographer, the EOS 5D Mark II is capable of turning out pro-quality videos. Its video advantages include the full-frame sensor, which provides the best image quality (especially at higher ISOs and in dim light), the narrowest depth of field (handy to concentrate attention on the subject and minimize background distractions), and the wide range of Canon EF lenses available. Canon just made available a firmware upgrade that permits you to set the desired ISO (from 100-6400, plus 12,800 via ISO expansion), shutter speed (from 1/30 to 1/4000 sec.) and aperture for added versatility—these capabilities weren’t available when the camera first came out. You can apply any Picture Style to video (even black-and-white), and use exposure compensation and AE Lock as desired.

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To shoot videos, pick a video resolution (1920x1080p full HD or 640x480p SD, both at 30 fps), enter Live View mode, use one of the Live View AF modes (phase-detection Quick or contrast-based Live) or focus manually, then press the SET button to start shooting. Press SET again to stop. You can use the contrast-based Live View AF mode during video shooting, but it’s somewhat slow and produces noise that the built-in microphone will pick up. So it’s best to focus manually if a focus change is needed during a shot.

Mono sound is recorded via the built-in microphone, and there’s a jack for an optional external stereo mic. You also can record MOS (Mitout Sound, which means without sound). Estimated Street Price: $1,999.

Canon EOS Rebel T1i
Canon’s entry-level video D-SLR is the new EOS Rebel T1i. The T1i shares the EOS 50D’s 15.1-megapixel resolution, DIGIC 4 processor and—despite the T1i’s tiny size—a 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD monitor. The T1i has the latest version of Canon’s EOS Integrated Cleaning System, which automatically removes dust from the sensor assembly each time you switch the camera on or off.

Creative Auto Mode makes it easy for SLR newcomers to set the camera for their needs, and even experienced users will appreciate its convenience. Auto Lighting Optimizer and Highlight Tone Priority help maintain detail from shadows through highlights. Lens Peripheral Correction automatically brightens image corners to compensate for vignetting with most Canon EF lenses. Face Detection AF automatically detects and focuses on a face in the frame (if more than one face is there, use the arrow keys to select one).

Shooting videos is simple. Rotate the mode dial to the movie-camera icon, press the * button to focus (or focus manually), then press the movie button next to the LCD monitor to start shooting. To stop, press the movie button again.

You can shoot video at three recording sizes (selected via the Movie menu): 1920x1080p full HD, 1280x720p HD and 640x480p SD. The latter two are at the standard digital-video rate of 30 fps; the full HD is at a slowish 20 fps that might provide less-smooth results with action subjects. You can record 4 GB of video at a clip; this works out to around 12 minutes of full HD (4 GB worth), 18 minutes of HD or 24 minutes of SD at a clip. Note that one minute of full HD video takes up more than 300 MB of card space.

The shutter speed, aperture and ISO are set automatically during video shooting, but you can set exposure compensation, apply AE Lock, and choose the Picture Style and white balance. As with the EOS 5D Mark II, you can focus via phase-detection or contrast-based AF before shooting (or focus manually), and contrast-based single-shot AF during shooting, but it’s best to do any during-shooting focusing manually. Estimated Street Price: $829.

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Nikon D90
The first D-SLR to offer HD video capability, the D90 replaced the popular D80 as Nikon’s beyond-entry-level model. It features a 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor similar to the one in the near-pro D300 model, along with Nikon’s EXPEED processing system tailored to the camera’s features and users. This is a very solid, all-around outdoor D-SLR, featuring excellent image quality (the best of any APS-C-format D-SLR in DxO Labs’ RAW sensor tests,, commendable AF performance on flying birds, shooting at 4.5 fps, ISOs up to 6400, effective Active D-Lighting to retain detail in contrasty scenes and a built-in sensor-dust removal system—a particularly useful feature in an interchangeable-lens camera used in field conditions.

The D90 can shoot 1280x720p HD video and 640x424p and 320x216p SD video, all at a film-like 24 fps. You can record up to 2 GB per clip, which works out to about 5 minutes of full HD or 20 minutes at the lower resolutions. You can use the full range of Nikkor lenses for video, including fisheyes and Micro-Nikkors.

Shooting HD video with the D90 is simple: Press the Lv button to enter Live View mode, press the shutter button halfway to focus, then press the OK button to begin shooting. Press the OK button again to end the clip. The three Live View AF modes can be used to focus before starting to shoot, but not during shooting. In Live View mode, the D90 provides only contrast-based AF off the sensor in Live mode, albeit in three varieties: normal, wide and face-detection. The D90 does use excellent phase-detection AF for non-Live View still photography. Estimated Street Price: $975.


Nikon D5000
Nikon’s newest entry-level video D-SLR, the D5000 fits into the Nikon D-SLR line-up between the D90 and D60. It provides the same D-Movie video capabilities as the D90, but provides only contrast-based AF in Live View operation (including video shooting). Live View AF modes include wide-area AF, narrow-area AF, Face Detection AF and a new subject-tracking mode that tracks (but doesn’t focus on) a subject as it moves across (and even briefly out of) the frame. As with the D90, autofocusing must be done before shooting starts; there’s no autofocusing during shooting. Note also that the D5000 (like the D60 and D40) doesn’t contain a focusing motor, so it provides autofocusing only with lenses that contain one—the AF-S and AF-I Nikkors.

The D5000’s LCD monitor is a bit smaller and somewhat lower-res than the D90’s (2.7 inches and 230,000 dot vs. 3.0 inches and 920,000 dot), but adds the valuable ability to tilt and rotate. As with the D90, you can activate grid lines to help align the horizon or vertical lines in a scene.

As a still camera, the D5000 is a versatile outdoor tool. It uses essentially the same excellent 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor as the D90, provides the same wide ISO range (200-3200, expandable to 100-6400), and uses the same very effective 11-point AF system. It thus can handle a wide range of outdoor shooting very well, from early or late landscapes to wildlife action. Active D-Lighting effectively expands highlight and shadow detail, while a sensor-dust removal system keeps the sensor clean despite lens changes in the field. Estimated Street Price: $675.

HD Decoded

With the arrival of high-def video capture for still cameras, here are some familiar HD terms associated with motion-picture recording for D-SLRs
By Neil Matsumoto

HD video is opening up a wealth of opportunities for still photographers. With high-def recording becoming a standard feature in most of the D-SLRs being released, many shooters are experiencing high-def video capture for the first time. To help with the challenge of learning a new skill set, we offer a simple glossary of common HD terms that are featured in many of the new cameras.

1. Frame Rate. Frame rate measures how frequently a camera produces unique consecutive images, or frames. In video capture, as with film, there are numerous frame rates, and it’s measured in frames per second. For D-SLRs, the frame rates currently available capturing real-time video are 20 fps, 24 fps, 30 fps and 60 fps; 60 fps has the best resolution. For many shooters, the most popular frame rate is 24 fps, which is the standard frame rate for film capture. Perhaps because our minds are trained on it, it has the most “cinematic” look.

2. Bit Rate. Also known as data rate or data transfer rate, bit rate measures the number of bits per second that are processed. The higher the bit rate, the better the quality. For example, Panasonic’s new Lumix GH1 D-SLR has a bit rate of 17 Mbps (megabits per second) while Canon’s consumer Vixia HF S10 video camcorder captures up to 24 Mbps; the EOS 5D Mark II captures full HD video at about 38 Mbps.

3. Interlaced. Interlaced scan is a method of breaking a single video frame into two fields. These two fields create a frame, with one field containing all the odd lines in the image and the other containing the even lines. It’s the 1080 HDTV broadcast standard.

4. Progressive. Progressive scan is a method where all the lines in each frame are contained in a sequence or frame. Progressive scanning has higher vertical resolution and a closer look to film than interlaced video, but it requires much higher bandwidth. Nikon’s popular D-SLR, the D90, captures video in 720p24, while Canon’s top-of-the-line EOS 5D Mark II captures in 1080p30.

5. HDTV Modes. For HD video and broadcast standards, there are a few HDTV modes that are currently being broadcast on television.
• 1080i—1080 is the number of horizontal scan lines; the letter “i” is for interlaced scan. Networks such as CBS, NBC and Discovery broadcast their shows in 1080i.
• 720p—Containing 720 horizontal scan lines, with “p” standing for progressive scan. Although the resolution is less than 1080i because only half the scan lines are drawn per field in 1080i, 720p’s picture is arguably just as sharp. ABC and Fox Broadcasting Company broadcast their programming in 720p.
• 1080p—1080p is the highest-quality signal and is being used in most feature film production—1080p24 (fps); 1080p eventually will become the future broadcasting standard.

6. Codec. A video codec is a file format or container that allows video compression or decompression. For the latest D-SLRs, here are the most common video codecs:
• .mov format—Apple’s QuickTime format is a digital container format usually used in Apple’s Final Cut Pro for nonlinear editing.
• AVI—A format created by Microsoft that contains audio and video data; it stands for Audio Video Interleave. DV AVI is usually a compressed video file that conforms to DV standards.
• MPEG-4—A standard of audio and visual compression that’s much more efficient than previous compression standards like MPEG-1 or MPEG-2. It’s being used for streaming media, CD distribution, voice and broadcast.
• H.264—Another standard for video compression that’s similar to MPEG-4 Part 10 or MPEG-4AVC. It has new features that compress video more efficiently than previous standards.
• AVCHD—A trademark of Panasonic and Sony, AVCHD is a compressed MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 high-def format that has features to improve media presentation.

7. Aspect Ratio. In a film or video frame, this is the ratio of its width divided by its height. For HD, the aspect ratio is 16×9, and the vertical to horizontal lines measure 1920×1080 or 1280×720. For a standard-definition frame, the aspect ratio is 4×3, or 640×480 lines. Wider aspect ratios such as 1.85:1 and 2.40:1 are typical 35mm film aspect ratios.

8. PCM Audio. Pulse-code modulation is the standard form for digital audio in computers and compact disc audio. It’s a sampling technique for digitizing analog audio signals. Like with video, there are many types of compression, and uncompressed PCM isn’t typically used for video because of the high bandwidth.

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Keep Your Video Steady

We’ve often written that having a good, sturdy tripod and head is critical for taking the best still photographs. If you’re going to be shooting HD video with one of the amazing new HD video-capable D-SLRs, having steady support is even more critical. Of course, when shooting video, you’ll probably want to be able to pan (move the camera from side to side) and tilt (move the camera up and down) as you’re shooting, so the standard ballhead won’t work. Video heads are specifically designed to facilitate this kind of shooting.

But there are plenty of occasions when you want to shoot video and not be tied to a base like a tripod. The VariZoom FlowPod and Glidecam HD-2000 are unique stabilizing devices that can be used like monopods, but allow you to move the camera while you shoot and still keep a steady image. These stabilizers are incredibly useful for shooting video. Sequences don’t have the bounce and jitter that make so many videos difficult to watch. When shooting video of wildlife, in particular, you can easily move the camera with the subject, change position and get beautiful results.

Keeping video sequences smooth is one of the most important aspects of making a really good video that people will be excited to watch. Contact: Glidecam,; VariZoom,

Live View To HD Video: How We Got Here

It’s no accident that HD video has come to the digital SLR. It’s a natural outgrowth of the technology that brought Live View to the D-SLR. Live View requires an image sensor that’s capable of outputting data at high speed and an image processor capable of downsampling the tremendous amount of information in the resulting data stream, compressing it and converting it to a video signal. Such sensors and processors became available a few years ago, so Live View came to the D-SLR.

Producing HD video is essentially a matter of recording the live data stream to a CF or SD card. Again, this requires lots of processing power, which became available with the latest generation of image processors from the major D-SLR manufacturers. The 230,000-dot LCD screens on earlier cameras produced 320×240-pixel resolution, or 76,800 pixels per frame (each “pixel” of a TFT LCD monitor consists of three “dots,” one of each primary color—a red one, a green one and a blue one). The newer 920,000-dot LCD monitors produce 640×480-pixel resolution, or 307,200 pixels—four times the data. HD video at 1280×720 resolution is 921,600 pixels per frame. Full HD video at 1920×1080 resolution is more than two million pixels per frame—27 times the data required to supply a 230,000-dot monitor. That requires lots of processing power.

Now we have it, and so we have HD video in D-SLRs.

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Pentax K

Pentax K-7
The K-7 is Pentax’s new top-of-the-line D-SLR, aimed at the pro/advanced amateur market. It includes a number of features of interest to outdoor photographers. The very compact magnesium-alloy body is rugged and weather-, dust- and cold-resistant. A new HDR (High Dynamic Range) capture mode blends three bracketed exposures in-camera to bring out detail from dark areas through light. In-camera Lens Correction electronically compensates for distortion and lateral chromatic aberration with any DA-series Pentax lens. A new 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor and real Live View mode make odd-angle shooting easy. There’s even an Electronic Level function to keep those horizons horizontal. Built-in, sensor-shift shake reduction works with any lens you attach to the camera, and a sensor-dust removal system keeps dust off the sensor assembly.

The Pentax/Samsung 14.6-megapixel CMOS sensor introduced in the K20D has been redesigned for better noise reduction and four-channel output for faster capture (making HD video possible). It should produce even better image quality, thanks to the sensor improvements and the new PRIME II imaging engine.

Video-wise, the K-7 can shoot 1280x720p HD video, as well as 1536x1024p and 640x416p 3:2 aspect ratio video, all at 30 fps. You can adjust the aperture when shooting video, and record stereo sound via an optional external stereo microphone. Estimated Street Price: $1,299.


Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
While it looks like one, the GH1 isn’t a D-SLR. It lacks the “R” part, the reflex mirror, instead providing an electronic eye-level finder along with its Live View LCD monitor. The absence of the SLR mirror box makes it possible to design truly smaller interchangeable-lens cameras, and the Micro Four Thirds System cameras (currently, the GH1 and its G1 older sibling) are noticeably smaller than Four Thirds System models despite using the same sensor size.

Notable features of the GH1 include a new 12.1-megapixel Live MOS image sensor with high-speed, 4-channel readout and noise-reducing circuitry, plus a new two-CPU Venus Engine HD that improves image quality and operating speed, and makes possible AVCHD video recording. The 3.0-inch, 460,000-dot external LCD monitor swings and tilts for easy shooting at any angle.

Unique among the cameras presented here, the GH1 offers a lens designed specifically for video. The Lumix G Vario 14-140mm ƒ/4.0-5.8 zoom provides silent zooming and continuous autofocusing while shooting videos, so the built-in stereo microphone doesn’t pick up those sounds, and you can keep moving subjects sharp. The GH1 can also use all Micro Four Thirds System lenses and—with an adapter and some limitations—all Four Thirds System lenses. In Creative Movie mode, you can select the shutter speed and aperture, another feature not available in all video-capable D-SLRs.

Video aside, the GH1 is a good choice for users moving up from a compact digital camera, and it offers a lot for advanced photographers as well. Intelligent Auto mode with advanced Face Recognition (available in both still and video shooting) takes care of everything, including recognizing and adjusting focus and exposure for faces in a scene. A Supersonic Wave Filter effectively removes dust from the sensor assembly. Estimated Street Price: $1,499.

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