THE INCITING INCIDENT
At some point in the evolution of today's DSLR, digital replaced film, and low light level photography became astonishingly clear. We saw our world in a whole new way. And then a seemingly innocent event occurred that for some would be the beginning of a whole new style, and for others, would be another nail in the coffin of quality cinematography.
Rather than schlep a real movie camera or camcorder around with your still outfit, wouldn't it be convenient if you could just lock the mirror up and shoot motion synced to audio? Canon added the feature to their marvelous 5D Mark II still camera, almost as an afterthought.
Their normally astute marketers calculated that no more than 3 or 4 percent of users would ever use the feature -- perhaps a few wedding photographers and single-person reporting teams.
They were off by a mile. The $2,800 camera started selling 5,000 per week. And 35 to 40% of buyers were shooting movies! Had Canon known they would sell 100,000 or so of these high-end cameras they could have built the camera a whole lot better for us cinema types. As originally delivered, the aperture, gain, exposure, frame rate and shutter speed of the 5D Mk II could not be adjusted by the user! There was no 24 frames per second mode, only 30, and if god forbid you panned past a window, the camera would dutifully underexpose your subject, confident that you'd rather try to see what's out that window than see the facial details of that boring person in the foreground.
These deficiencies have been more or less successfully remedied with software updates for the 5D and with 3 newer Canons, the 7D, 1D Mark IV and the Rebel T1i, all of which have HD movie capability.
NIKON AND PANASONIC
Naturally, other major players weren't sleeping through all this. As of a few months ago, Nikon's only manually-controllable HD DSLR was their amazing D3s, which though not as high resolution as the Canons (720x1280 instead of 1080x1920 pixels), was the undisputed sensitivity king, with ISOs all the way up to an astonishing 100,000! Panasonic's Lumix GH-1 delivered less speed and exposure latitude than the competition, but offered a reasonable 1080P image at a bargain price.
Focusing -- easily one of the most challenging of the cinematography skills -- is made dimensionally more difficult by using cameras and often lenses not designed for following focus in movie scenes with subject and/or camera movement. The large imagers are a mixed blessing. Yes, you get more selective focus but that also requires a gifted technician to avoid distracting focus buzzes.
The critically sharp optical finder is disabled for movie work. All that remains during shooting is a reduced resolution video output. Aftermarket focusing devices are necessary and some cinematographers find themselves required to design less challenging shots or shooting with more light at smaller apertures.
Because the movie mode originated as merely an extra feature, very little effort was put into maximizing quality. The cameras were tiny compared to purposebuilt motion picture cameras with similar size sensors. Hence the amount of processing power, rate of data flow, heat build-up, storage etc. was severely limited and the makers certainly had no interest in compromising their world class still photography capabilities. The result was a greatly compressed image using the h.264 codec. Compared to the pristine raw modes most of these cameras offered, the motion picture images suffered from noticeably less exposure latitude, greater noise, fixed pattern noise, less usable sensitivity (ISO) and of course, much less resolution.
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