Starting with the Nikon D90 and the Canon 5D Mark II, video capabilities in DSLRs have been an important factor to many users. In fact, many commercial TV shows and movies use DSLRs, rather than traditional video cameras, for some tasks because of the relatively low cost, their great low-light capabilities, and the shallow depth-of-field they can achieve. I shot all of the videos for this book using DSLRs. Nonetheless, DSLRs are never as good for shooting video as a good video camera. DSLRs are designed to be briefly held against your face, not held at arm’s length or supported on your shoulder for an extended period of time. DSLR lenses have focusing and zoom systems designed for still photos, rather than video, preventing you from focusing or zooming smoothly. DSLR image stabilization and focusing systems tend to be so noisy that they ruin on-camera audio. Some DSLRs are better than others for video. If video is an important part of your buying decision, and you want to make professional-level videos, here are the features to look for:
- Video quality. Most new DSLRs can record 1080p video, which provides incredible sharpness. However, there are subtle differences in the quality of the video that professional videographers will notice, such as chromatic aberration (odd colors at the edges of objects), tearing (a strange artifact that occurs when you pan a DSLR), moiré (bizarre effects in tight patterns and grids), and aliasing (jagged edges that should be smooth).
- Frames per second. Most video is filmed at 30 frames per second (fps), and 30 fps is standard for all video playback. However, cameras that support higher fps allow you to use video editing software to create slow motion video without dropping the frame rate. If a camera supports 60 fps, you could play it back at half speed using the standard 30 fps rate. Many DSLRs also support 60 fps rates, but only at lower resolutions, such as 720p. Some cameras support very fast frame rates. The Sony A99, in particular, is capable of recording at 1080p and 60 fps.
- Maximum video length. Due to technical limitations, some cameras will only record for a limited amount of time, such as 12 minutes. After that time, you have to manually restart recording. This is important to anyone who plans to record a long event, especially if you plan to leave the camera on a tripod. For Canon cameras, adding the Magic Lantern firmware hack can allow the camera to record longer than its typical limits.
- Low light recording. One of the advantages of using a DSLR for video is that their sensors are better at recording in low light than typical video cameras. Some DSLRs are better in low light than others, and every DSLR’s video gets very noisy in dark environments.
- Autofocus while recording. There is exactly one DSLR that has usable autofocus while recording: the Canon 70D with an AF-S lens. It smoothly changes focus when you touch the LCD, and it looks great when being played back. No other DSLR is particularly good at autofocusing while recording; the focusing will be slow, jerky, and disturbing to watch. You’re better off stopping recording, refocusing, and then restarting. Serious videographers buy expensive focus pulling equipment and hire a second person just to control the cameras focus. Nonetheless, for casual shooting, you might want to choose a DSLR that supports autofocusing while recording. Sony SLT cameras excel at this, because their translucent mirrors allow continuous autofocus while filming video.
- Articulating display. An articulating display is very useful for video because it allows you to hold the camera high or low while still watching the display. If a camera does not have an articulating display, you can probably attach an external monitor, as described in the “HDMI out” bullet point below.
- Audio input. DSLRs have terrible microphones. For all but the most casual video, you will want to use an external mic. While it’s possible to record your audio to an external device, such as a Zoom H4n, it’s much more convenient to record the audio from an external mic directly to your DSLR. Look for a DSLR with a mic jack. If stereo audio is important, verify that the camera supports stereo input; some only support mono input.
- Manual audio levels. If a DSLR does have a mic jack, make sure you can manually control the audio levels. Some DSLRs automatically adjust the mic levels, which can lead to unpredictable and difficult-to-edit sound.
- Headphone jack. If sound is important to you, your cameraman should be monitoring the audio using headphones to ensure the mics are working properly. Most DSLRs do not offer a headphone jack, but some do.
- HDMI out. The display on the back of your camera is too small for serious videographers. Additionally, it might not be easily visible when holding the camera high or low. Therefore, many DSLR videographers attach a larger, external LCD camera monitor to the camera. I use the Lilliput 5DII-H camera monitor.
- Uncompressed/clean HDMI output. Modern DSLRs cannot record uncompressed or raw video. Instead, the camera processes the video before saving it to the memory card. Serious videographers working in studio environments often want to record uncompressed video to an external computer, both for image quality and to make the workflow more convenient; if you record video directly to a computer, a technician can edit the video as it records and doesn’t have to copy video files from the memory card later.
- Availability of video-friendly lenses. Video-friendly lenses tend to support image stabilization, and smooth, silent focusing and aperture adjustments. Of particular note are the Canon STM lenses, which are great for video, but your options are currently very limited: the only DSLR zoom lens is the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6, which only works with Canon APS-C DSLRs and is only suited for amateur video.
Right now, Canon cameras are considered the best DSLRs for recording video. The Canon 5D Mark III is widely considered the best DSLR for video recording, while a used Canon 5D Mark II with the Magic Lantern firmware provides the best value. However, unless you have professional requirements, any DSLR will do.