A Guide To Becoming A Filmmaker Using DSLR Cameras:
Helping Photographers Transition Into Filmmaking
I’m like most filmmakers who started off using HDSLR cameras to shoot video. However I started off passionately pursing a career in photography and toyed around with my new camera’s video settings and then BOOM! A video career began.
A common story I hear from creative folks in my circle is that they just got a new camera and it shoots video, so they’re looking for ways to learn how to break into making money through booking video gigs.
Little backstory on myself and how I got into video and where it took me… I purchased a Nikon that had video capabilities. It was never my intention to break into video, but I thought it would be a great thing to learn. Thought maybe I could offer video services in addition to my photography and double the amount I made. That’s exactly what happened, and it took me further than I could have ever imagined.
I first began filming bands performing live in studios. Being a musician myself, I gravitated toward my personal interest, music and live performance. I suggest finding a way to film the things you enjoy most. If you’re into cooking, start with some cooking videos. If you want to film documentaries, grab a close friend who has a story you want to help them share with the world. Start small, knock something out and get that first project done and under your belt.
After dabbling in video with bands, I decided to take video more seriously and grow it as large as I possibly could. Fast forward a few years, I linked up with Chicago Music Exchange and spent three years building their video channel. During that time I created over 400 videos for the independent music store. It grew the business from $3M a year to over $12M in sales a year, and we won the Chicago Crain’s business award for best use of Social Media to grow a company. The owner of the music store went onto create a platform called Reverb.com that allows musicians to buy sell and trade their used instruments online. We began with the same techniques with social media and integrated video to get the company up and running and had the same results. Reverb.com just won Music INC Magazine’s “Best Company of 2016.”
The point being that video provided a lucrative career for me and proved to be a necessary tool in the growth of these two striving companies. I’m so glad I picked up video and put that in my arsenal of creative skills. I think if you’re remotely interested in learning video, you can most definitely grow your company and expand your story telling capabilities.
I’d like to note that it was very important for me to continually focus on photography while growing my eye for motion. The two are very complimentary to each other. If you’ve got a knack for photography, it’ll be even easier to make the transition into video.
SHORTCUTS TO BREAKING INTO VIDEO
Let’s start with the basics. You’ve got a camera that shoots video. These tips should help you set your camera to the proper video settings.
Switch your camera to “Live Mode.”
Select manual mode on your camera.
Set Your Frame Rate, or Frames Per Second (FPS)
Your options here are 24, 30, or 60. This is a different setting than your shutter speed, which we’ll talk about next.
Quick Breakdown of each FPS:
- 24FPS will give you that classic Cinematic look. Just about every large motion picture is filmed in this format. This is the most natural and relaxing way for the eye to see motion pictures.
- 30FPS would be for needing a little extra clarity. Perhaps you are showing off some products or doing a talking head interview and prefer the look.
- 60FPS is going to allow you to slow your footage in post-editing by 50% and give you a clean slow motion effect.
Select Your Shutter Speed
The rule of thumb here is to double your shutter as closely as you can depending on what you set your FPS. So for instance if your FPS is set to 24FPS, you’ll set your shutter to 1/50 of a second. For 30FPS it’ll be 1/60 of a sec and if you choose 60FPS you’ll need to set your shutter to 1/125 of a sec.
Most cameras will allow you to crank your shutter up as high as your camera shoots like 1/8000. However you really want to stick to these guidelines to get the proper look for your video.
*Pro tip – When you shoot outdoors it may be temping to increase your shutter speed, but make sure to raise your f-stop, not shutter. If your image is still blown out and far too bright, consider purchasing a Neutral Density Filter. The toughest part at the beginning is using your video in super bright conditions, because you need to shoot at 1/50 of a second outdoors which is hard to do, especially if you want have a shallow depth-of-field look to your video.
Setting Your White Balance
Quick tip is if you’re outdoors, set your Kelvin manually to 5600K. That’ll be good rule of thumb for shooting anything in Daylight. If you’re indoors, start with 3200K. This cooler setting with compensate for the warmer light that is emitted by indoor lighting fixtures (aka Tungsten light).
These can vary depending on the lighting in your space, but start there and make small corrections up or down depending on the skin tone you’re looking to achieve.
Using Multiple Cameras
For shooting multiple cameras, it’s absolutely imperative to set all your cameras to the same settings on each of your cameras. Factory reset all your cameras and start over with all of your settings. You never know when you’re borrowing a buddies camera or if you had rented an extra body, if someone tweaked some settings in other modes like Color Profiles and what not.
For most people that’s the extent of the manual settings you need to know in order to start using your camera in manual video mode.
Advanced Video Settings
Color profiles are commonly found in your cameras shooting menu. I suggest using your “Standard” setting if you’re using your camera for the first few times. Once you’ve mastered the basics and want to experiment with different “Looks” then head to your camera’s menu and try the different Color Profiles available to you. The mode most cinematographers will choose is “Flat” or “Neutral.” This setting lowers the contrast in your camera and allows for more highlights to be captured without blowing them out. In addition it raises your shadows, allowing for more details to be captured in the darker areas of your scene.
The main reason for selecting this setting would be for doing additional color correcting in the post-editing process. This mode give you the most flexibility in your post-process. Imagine this being similar to shooting a JPEG vs RAW. The RAW captures more details and allows for more editing capabilities. HOWEVER, don’t mistake this for being RAW video. There are cameras out there that literally capture RAW video and you’re looking at a whole different ball game with those cameras.
The RAW capture cameras are RED, Black Magic and ARRI Alexa, to name a few. These are cinema cameras and don’t belong to the DSLR family. However, using these high-end cinema cameras is most definitely the direction you want to look forward to when expanding your career in large scale commercial work or feature length films.
Choosing The Right Lens
Being that I was a portrait photographer, shooting shallow depth-of-field video was my first priority and venture into filmmaking. I wanted to make my videos appear much like my photographs. A nice blown out background looks very cinematic, but when your subject is moving around the scene, it can be very challenging to keep your image in focus.
When shooting video I rarely shoot wide open apertures like f/1.4. I typically stay between f/2.8 and f/4. This is going to help you keep your subject in focus and allow you more wiggle room to keep your subject nice and sharp. So when beginning, it may be tempting to use your portrait prime lenses, but keep those lenses reserved for nice b-roll or when your camera is on a tripod shooting a talking head interview, where there is little to no motion in your scene.
*Pro-tip – There are lenses with built-in stabilizers in them. These are the lenses I gravitate toward when wanting a nice clean professional look. Here is a simple way of knowing if a lens has a stabilizer built-in. For Nikon it will be labeled as “VR” which stands for Vibration Reduction, and for Canon they label it as “IS” for Image Stabilization. Same thing, just named differently by brand. This is a major help in the field, especially when you’re putting your camera in motion.
Stabilizing Your Camera
The first mistake most beginners make is hand holding your camera for video, myself included. In order to take video seriously and get a proper look to your video, you’ll need to attach it to something to keep it far more stable than your hands. You don’t want every film you make looking like a Blair Witch film. Below are a few basic options.
Tripod – There is one major over looked difference between a tripod for photography and for video. The difference is for video you need to use a Fluid Video Head. This is the mechanism you camera attaches to on the very top your tripod. For photography, they focus on tilting your camera up and down and panning left and right, but its not meant to move smoothly. However the fluid video head allows you to move your camera in a smooth motion in all directions. This will be a necessary tool for shooting clean professional looking video.
Monopod – This is one legged stand that you can attach your camera to that allows you to pick up with ease and be very mobile. The trick here is attach a fluid video head to help keep everything smooth in your image. These stands collapse very small and are great for traveling and taking up very little space.
Shoulder Rig – Rigs like these vary in size and price. Some can tuck under your arm or against your chest, or of course, over your shoulder. This rig gives you full range of mobility and is an excellent option versus hand-holding your camera. Shoulder rigs greatly increase your ability to hold your camera still and provide excellent stability.
Slider – A slider is a simple track that you can attach your camera to that gives you smooth motion from left to right. To increase the motion capabilities, add a fluid video head and you’ve a great setup for putting your camera in motion and keeping your image stable.
Dolly – A dolly is much larger version of a slider. A board with wheels can glide across rails giving you the ability to move your camera left and right with many more feet of travel. I prefer using 12ft length of dolly track. You can set your fluid head tripod on top of this platform and add very simple, but professional looking movement to your video.
Jib/Crane – Like all of these tools, they can come in many ranges of build and size, same for jibs. A jib is a projected arm that you attach to your camera and raise your camera up and down with large sweeping movements. Smaller jibs can be as simple as an attachment on your tripod, and others are so large they require hours of set up and balancing. This is a great way to get some unbelievable elevated shots. They offer a look in motion that the previous tools simply do not offer. These are tricky to navigate the larger in size, so its preferred to find someone who is a dedicated jib operator for larger productions.
Gimbals – By definition, gimbals are pivoted supports that allow the rotation of an object about a single axis. There are several popular gimbals on the market but the one most commonly know is called a Ronin. A Ronin is a camera stabilization system designed to give the operator close to the freedom of unencumbered handheld shooting but without the hand-shake. This system is fantastic for shots less than 3 minutes in length before needing to rest. Any longer and your arms may turn to jello and your risk dropping your camera. There are add-ons you can add to help hold the gimbal in place, but they become pretty cumbersome and may require advance knowledge of the tool. In that case, you may just want to hire some to run a Steadicam, which is a handheld gimbal that works completely on balance of your camera and does not offer any mechanical assistance.
We can’t talk about making videos without talking about capturing sound. There are built-in mics on most DSLR cameras. However, I suggest finding a higher quality way of capturing sound. This subject can get very complex and in-depth, but I’ll try to keep it simple and as basic as possible for jumping into video for the first time.
On Camera Shotgun Microphones – Most cameras offer a mic input jack. This is perfect for plugging in a DSLR shotgun mic that attached to the hot shoe. This allows your directional microphone to be recorded on the same video file when recording and does not require any additional syncing of audio and video in post production.
Handheld Recorder – There are a few popular models such as the Zoom H4n that offer nice stereo built-in microphones along with several inputs to attach other mics via XLR microphone cable. This option will require you to sync your audio to your video in post production.
*Pro tip – To make syncing of audio and video easier in post-production, be sure to hit record on your recorder and your camera, then use a clap within the frame of your video and near and loud enough to be picked up by your audio recording device. Then in post production you have a visual cue to match to your audible que. If your camera’s built-in mic is recording audio and picks up the clap as well, you can sync in most editing software using the audio signal from the video. The software will examine both the audio from your camera and separate audio device and sync the two clips automatically. This is a huge time saver. On the flip side, if something happens where the audio on your camera wasn’t recording or loud enough, you still have the visual cue from the clap recorded on video.
You’re making large resolution video and not pictures now, so you’ll need a storage device other than your internal computer hard-drive. It’s time to invest in external hard-drives. My preference for storing and editing video is LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt / USB 3.0 hard-drives. They come in several memory sizes, but 1TB or 2TB should be good for beginning. You can work your way up to a 60TB hard-drive that allow you to edit RAW video with ease. But for now, just grab one of those fun orange hard-drives and take your storage with you. With these drives you don’t need to plug any external power sully into a wall, and it’s fast enough to allow all your video files to live on your external drive while being edited on your computer. Without externals, you risk filling up your computers internal memory and slowing your machine down to a snail’s pace. Buy a drive.
Let’s focus on two editing software options. Both come with trial versions, so give it 30 days and figure out which you prefer.
Final Cut Pro X – This system runs great and is an easy transition for those who may have dabbled with iMovie in your early stages of editing or prefer to use Apple based programs. This is what I prefer, but only because I’ve had many years of practice and experience with this particular platform.
Adobe Premiere Pro – If you currently use Adobe’s Creative Cloud for Photoshop and Lightroom, then Premiere Pro is waiting for you to download a trial version within seconds. This may be a great option for you is you’re familiar with the Adobe programs.
Both of these accomplish the same task, it just comes down to personal preference.
One of the most common questions comes down to the exporting process. When your video is done and ready to be sent off into the world to be seen, you have to select a format or “Codec” to export your video file. It’s safe to say that if you export your file as “H.264” it’ll be widely accepted on most online video platforms and play on most any device. It’s the industry standard.
When shooting stills and video, the camera may be the same, but the approach has to be different. The biggest difference comes down to the settings and tools you use to create video vs still photography. Use this quick guide to set your camera up and get shooting. The most important thing is to try, so get out there, film something small and build on that experience. Use one camera at first, then try using two cameras and editing between the two. Move on to putting your camera in motion and focus on building on to what you last learned from your previous video. Keep elevating your level of production and stay innovative. The world is waiting to see what you come up with!