DSLR Video Tips


If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that I’ve been shooting video in addition to still photos for about 3 years now. I was always curious about shooting video, but I never wanted to invest in a second set of gear. Once Canon started building video capability into their digital SLR’s I decided to take the plunge because I could use all of my existing lenses, and I figured there wouldn’t be much of a learning to curve to shoot video with cameras that already felt familiar.

In a sense that was true, and I love the fact that I can easily shoot a lot of projects without a lot of gear that’s different than what I carry on my still photo shoots. Of course, the more I learn about shooting moving images, the more I realize I don’t know, and I have had to master some new techniques and a lot of post-processing skills over the last few years. Still, there is a lot you can do without a big investment in gear beyond what you already own – if you keep things simple, concentrate on doing what you can well, and you look for interesting stories to shoot.

If you’re new to shooting video with a DSLR or you’re just starting to think of taking the plunge, here are some of the basics that will help you make the transition from stills to motion. (I also recently wrote a column for AMC Outdoors, “Lights, Camera, Mountain – Capturing your adventure in motion,” with more basic video tips that will apply even if you shoot with a point and shoot camera or iPhone.)

1) Don’t forget your still photography skills. Composition technique and the use of light translate well to motion. Shoot as much as possible in beautiful low-contrast light, whether it’s under an overcast sky or during that sweet golden hour light. Shooting in mid-day sun is just as problematic when shooting video, and those speedlights you have won’t be of any help. Video lighting is expensive and will usually require you to have an assistant as well if you’re doing it right.

2) Buy a fluid video head for your tripod. While you can do a lot by not moving the camera and letting the motion in the scene do its thing, eventually you’ll want to add some pans and tilts to your repertoire to add some variety to your shots. Trying to pan the camera by hand or on those ball heads we all love is just about impossible to do well, so you’ll want to get a fluid video head. Also, when panning, go VERY slowly. Fast pans are jarring and can introduce a stutter effect to your shots. The longer the lens, the slower your pan needs to be. You’ll also need to make sure your tripod is level before trying any pans. Doing this with traditional tripod gear is possible, but it’s frustrating and time-consuming. If it’s in the budget, adding a leveling base between your tripod legs and head (like that seen below) will save you a lot of time.


3) Shoot in manual exposure mode and at a 1/50 or 1/60 second. First, you really should shoot in manual exposure mode so that your exposure doesn’t vary during a shot or between similar shots. Second, your shutter speed should be set to approximately half the inverse of your frame rate. What’s that mean? Video is recorded at a frame rate – standard rates are 24 frames per second (standard for cinema-bound films), 30 fps (standard for on-line and TV) and 60 fps. So if you’re shooting at 24 fps, you should always be using a shutter speed of 1/50 second; for 30 fps, shoot at 1/60 second. Faster shutter speeds will result in a strobe light effect that you probably don’t want. Much slower and any movement starts to look blurry. 60 fps (or even the 120 fps that are available on some DSLR’s now) can be used to shoot slow-motion sequences because the extra frames allow you to cleanly lengthen the duration of a clip in post-production (and effectively creating a slow-mo effect.)

Since you need to shoot at a fixed shutter speed, you’ll need to control exposure by varying your aperture and ISO. I often shoot at big apertures like F4 and F2.8, which means sometimes I’ll have too much light to get a proper exposure at 1/60 second. In these cases, I’ll use a neutral density filter to cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor. I like Singh-Ray’s vari-ND filter because it lets me dial in the strength of the ND effect until I get a proper exposure at my chosen aperture and 1/50 second.


4) Sound has probably been the biggest challenge for me since I started shooting video, along with the post-processing skills.¬† You will quickly find that the on-camera mics on DSLR’s are less than adequate, so you’ll need to buy an external mic. Something like the relatively affordable Rode Video mic pictured above will improve your sound considerably. If you’re filming a lot of interviews or other types of conversations, you might need some extra gear. Microphones work best when they are close to the sound source (like within a couple of feet at most.) So instead of mounting your mic on the hot shoe like I did above, you will want to get it as close to the source as possible, which may require a mic stand (I use a Manfrotto Super Clamp with a mini ballhead attached to a second tripod or light stand) and a longer cable to reach your camera. I could write several blog posts about sound, but I’m trying to keep it simple here. This set-up, with the possible addition of an inexpensive fuzzy windshield like the Rode Dead Kitten to block out windnoise, is a good place to start. For a good overview of how mics work, check out this Basic Best Practices for Capturing Quality Audio post at Olivia Tech.

5) Post-processing. Of course, once you’ve shot all of your clips, you’ll want to mash it all together into one video that you can share with friends and post on-line. Lightroom and Photoshop now let you trim and color correct individual clips. To string together multiple clips, layer clips, and add transitions and/or titles, you’ll need to use non-linear editing software (NLE). If you’re just starting out, I recommend iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements. Both work well for simple projects and are relatively inexpensive and easy to learn. When you’re ready to get more sophisticated, you can upgrade to Apple’s Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro.

For all of the video projects I shot my first two years, I used this simple set of gear: Canon 5D MarkII, a few Canon lenses, A Rode Video Mic, Manfrotto Fluid Video Head on a Girzo tripod, and a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. My favorite video from that period is this one:

Fancy gear didn’t make this video – a great character and story did. So if you’re just starting out, keep it simple, try to stay away from blowing your budget, do what you’re good at, and find a good story.

Now that I’m taking on a more ambitious film project with¬†The Power of Place, I’ll be needing a bigger bag of gear, but my guess is that the vast majority of shots in the film will be made with the same simple set-up outlined above.

If you have any questions about this stuff, please post them in the comments section below.




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