There are a plethora of options currently available in the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) market to choose from that offer video recording capability. These cameras are very attractive to video ministry teams because they can be quite affordable and offer interchangeable lens capability, which is meant to increase their versatility.
However, when it comes to using DSLR cameras in a live production environment, I have to strongly urge caution. The drawbacks to this camera platform begin to stack up rapidly when compared to the more traditional video camera platforms with either fixed servo lenses or the more expensive broadcast video camera platforms with interchangeable lenses.
1. Servo Zoom
First, servo zoom. when you are in a live environment there is great power in having the ability to zoom in and out while on-air. A slow zoom in (or push in) helps the viewer to focus on what your subject is because you’re controlling what they are seeing. A zoom out (pull out) has the effect of revealing the space/environment to the viewer to show them that they are watching something live that is taking place in a building or space they are not in. Or it could reveal that the violinist is part of a larger ensemble, etc. These are powerful camera moves that are lost when you move to a DSLR platform. Sure, you can buy lens adapters and power supplies or jerry-rig something up that will “allow” you to accomplish zooms on your lens, but it will never be as smooth as a lens that is built for the purpose.
2. Zoom and Focus Controls
Second, zoom and focus controls. A traditional live production camera will have the ability for a remote control to plug into the camera and thus control zoom and sometimes focus for that lens. The broadcast cameras have kinetic cables that connect directly to the lens that control the zoom and focus respectively from controls that clamp to the pan/tilt bar on their tripod. DSLRs have limited remote capability, especially when in video mode. There are ways around this, such as CamRanger, an app for iOS devices that allows you to control every function (depending on camera model) of the camera except zoom (because it’s not a servo zoom, as discussed above) from an iPhone and/or iPad. This is an awesome capability to have for situations where your DSLR is shooting video from a jib/crane or an aerial platform or other situation where you have to be removed from you camera. However, it still does not answer the question of how to smoothly zoom in and out and it also means you would need to invest in an iPad for every camera position you have. The closest camera/lens platform I’ve found that might offer remote zoom capability is a micro4/3 Panasonic GH series with a G series servo lens, but it still does not offer VARIABLE zoom control. Variable means that you can adjust the zoom speed on the fly; on the GH platform the zoom speed is a menu function that is not accessible while recording.
Third, weight. A live production video camera will have some weight to it which will provide smoother pans and tilts on the tripod. Contrary to popular belief, the lighter a camera is, the harder it is to stabilize. When you have some weight on the tripod, it actually helps you control movement better. It has something to do with physics and I won’t try to explain it. My only example is that when I put my Panasonic GH2 on a lightweight steadi-cam rig I bought, I could not get it stabilized to save my life. It was either too front heavy, side heavy, back heavy, etc. I could not get it to center on a balance point. I added a 2lb. weight to the counter-balance and it steadied right up. I needed to weigh it down, in other words, to provide stability between the camera and the counter-weight. Maybe I’m way off here, but my experience in live production, field shooting, studio shooting, etc. has told me that having a heavier camera will only help you in your ability to provide smooth movements. I’m not saying it’s not possible, I’m saying it’s easier with more weight.
4. Depth of Field
Finally, depth of field. This becomes more a function of the lens, but due to the size of the sensor and the inherent qualities of DSLR lenses, the depth of field tends to be much shallower on DSLR cameras than with video cameras. I won’t get into the mechanics of why that is so, but suffice to say that when you’re shooting a live event, you actually want a deeper depth of field (distance from the camera that objects appear in focus) rather than shallower. This is because you’re in a live and somewhat uncontrolled environment. DSLR cameras are great for film-style environments when you can record the action again and again. But in live production, it’s like a wedding-you’ve only got one shot at getting it right. So if I have a wide shot of the stage, I want to make sure that I have more of the stage in focus than just a few feet. When I zoom in for a close-up, my depth of field compacts and I get some bokeh (areas in the frame that are attractively out of focus) but I’m more in control of it than with a DSLR. To control bokeh on a DSLR, even with a variable lens, I would likely have to physically move the camera. In live production, this is often not possible so having control of the bokeh is the way to go.
Proceed with Caution
In the end, you have to remember that there are good and solid reasons why real, built-for-the-purpose video cameras are used for live production. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use DSLRs, but I would stress that the use of those cameras in a live environment are best served when each camera is recording its own footage and the footage will be edited together into a single file at some later date. The control of the image, the zoom and focus, the depth of field, and the user friendliness are just much better on a live production video camera.
There are many models to choose from, but you have to understand that they are more expensive than DSLRs, which is why people tend to shy away from them in the first place. However, you will spend just as much outfitting the DSLR for live production as you would on getting the video cameras in the first place, so make the right choice and buy the right tool for the job the first time.