Recently, I’ve found myself scouting around for a new prosumer video camera in hopes of finding something that is capable of capturing excellent video, above-average audio, and all with as little rolling shutter and moiré issues as possible. To my surprise, I discovered that HD camcorders are not the only big kids on the block in terms of video production.
DSLR cameras have evolved from being simple photo taking devices to digital workhorses capable of capturing rich video in addition to photographs. Much of the video you’ll find shot on DSLR cameras such as the Canon 5D Mark II or the T3i have a certain artistic quality to it thanks in part to the diverse quality of lenses used to capture still images.
Where HD camcorders may still have some advantages, there is no question that the debate is becoming less about the shortcomings from one platform to another, but the advantages.
Rolling Shutter and Aliasing
Perhaps one of the more obvious problems with many low-end HD camcorders and some mid-range DSLR videos exists in the form of rolling shutter or moiré. These are two problems that commonly appear when shooting in either high-movement situations or against a repeating pattern.
For the most part, HD camcorders are designed specifically to keep up with action and while some models have issues with rolling shutter, many of them do not. DSLRs and many 3/4 style cameras may still present this issue on lower and mid-range cameras. The Canon Rebel T2i and T3i, for example, are fairly good about avoiding this Jello-like effect, but the problem can still present itself under certain shooting conditions.
Aliasing (also sometimes referred to by the more specific moiré) is where those ultra-powerful DSLR sensors cause the biggest problems. This effect is caused by the capture of a relatively low-quality image (1920×1080) on a camera that’s intended to shoot stills at extremely higher pixel counts. To crush down this data, the camera makes a guess at where things should go, and this results in a type of grid shift. Stationary objects may appear to come alive or be covered in strange shapes or colors as the camera attempts to turn a large image into something much smaller. DSLRs, even with all their amazing image quality, are not generally very good at processing on the fly. The only reason many of these cameras can even shoot video is because of the software running the device. HD Camcorders are designed for motion, and that’s why they tend to do better in this department.
Edge: HD Camcorder
Depth of Field
Some HD camcorders are great at depth of field, but virtually all DSLRs are excellent at it. Depth of field is the effect you see when a subject is in perfect focus, but everything in front of or behind it is blurry. This adds an artistic look to your video that draws the viewer’s attention where it needs to be, covers any distracting elements in the background, and just makes things look a lot more interesting than they really are.
DSLRs require an investment in lenses to capture the best depth of field. A good professional lens purchased for this purpose might cost you over $1,000. Still, many of the kit lenses included with DSLRs these days are quite capable of achieving some basic depth of field on their own.
Any video editor out there will tell you, frame rates are a pain to deal with. If your camera doesn’t have the options to capture video in the format and frame rate you need, it might result in hours of reprocessing after the fact which may result in loss of quality.
Most folks never really pay attention to frame rates, going for whatever comes by default. Truth be told, the majority of the world works just fine in 30 FPS, though independent filmmakers and other professional videographers need some flexibility.
Not every DSLR is capable of shooting in 60i, 24p, etc. This means that you’re limited to whatever it is the camera is capable of. HD camcorders, even some of the entry-level consumer ones, are generally much more flexible when it comes to video capture formats. Again, this isn’t always the case, but it is enough of a concern to give it the edge in this category.
Edge: HD Camcorders
HD camcorders are made from the ground up to do one thing very well, capture video. That means virtually every feature on the camcorder is designed to help you find the setting you’re looking for and go about capturing video as quickly as possible. This means features like video image stabilization, autofocus (AF), and some of the more quick and dirty filter settings are commonly found on almost every model you can find.
HD camcorders also tend to do better in the audio department. Where a budget HD camcorder might sport a stereo microphone and optional external mic ports, this still isn’t a common sight on DSLRs. In many cases, you’re stuck with a built-in mono microphone that isn’t anything to write home about. Some DLSRs do offer a hot shoe or external mic input for stereo capture via a lav, boom, or shotgun mic.
DSLR cameras with video capture functionality are multitasking workhorses. Many of these devices feature tons of video options, but few (if any) can stand toe-to-toe with equally priced HD camcorders here. Much of what appeals to novice users in HD camcorders is completely lost in the DSLR market. Granted, if you want manual controls over everything and anything going on in your video, you’ll be hard-pressed to find as many options as you would with a DSLR.
Where DSLR cameras have a clear feature advantage is through interchangeable lenses. You can change the entire look of a scene by switching a lens. This can be done in seconds and requires very little adjustment on the end of the user. DSLRs are made to be broken down and reset in seconds, which makes them excellent choices for shoots that require advanced diversity of shots without sacrificing manual control.
In the end, this category comes down to personal choice. Amateur users will appreciate the automatic features of an HD camcorder while more technically savvy filmmakers may prefer the manual controls offered by DSLR systems at significantly lower prices.
HD camcorders, even professional ones, aren’t typically that difficult to figure out. Once you get the hang of zebra controls, video capture settings, and understand the limitations of your hardware you’re generally good to go. I’ve worked in environments where folks had to grab a camcorder and head out the door in a rush with little to no actual operating experience resulting in very few issues with the final product. On the same note, I’ve spent many hours of my life attempting to learn and figure out how to make things come out right on a DSLR.
DSLRs may have some automatic appeal to them, but the real power in these devices comes in knowing how to manually set your aperture, f-stop, and shutter speeds to achieve the absolute best results. While it’s great that many video-capable DSLRs carry over a lot of this manual control, there is definitely a learning curve to achieve even amateur results from an otherwise simple shoot.
Edge: HD Camcorder
HD camcorders in the prosumer and professional category are very expensive. You could spend $1,500 on a decent prosumer camcorder that features options such as a hot shoe, decent on-board memory with high-speed capture, and above-average low-light capture.
On the other side, DSLRs with excellent video capture capability can be found for quite a bit less. The Canon Rebel T3i is capable of shooting 1080p video at 30 frames per second (cinematic shooting available as well), sporting a fitted shotgun mic, and can capture amazing photos in a kit that runs under $800. Some other 1080p DSLR options are priced even lower.
That said, if you want to get a professional camcorder, you’re looking at about $2,000-5,000 for a decent one. A DSLR such as the Canon 7D, 5D Mark III, or the Nikon D700 can run you about as much. Again, we’re not talking top of the top here in either case.
Where DSLRs have a hidden cost that HD camcorders do not is lenses. A good lens can cost you a lot of money. In some cases, your lens investments will be quite a bit higher than the camera itself. That may sound strange, but it’s absolutely true. The good part about it though is that you can usually share lenses between cameras, making it easier to upgrade to a new body later on.
What about you? Which of these two video platforms do you prefer?