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HDSLR Cameras: The Future?

There is no denying that these compact, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive cameras have a lot to offer filmmakers of all kinds and in many genres.

The HDSLR: The Future of Documentary and Video Journalism? - by Ted Roach and Larry Engel

Since 2008, a new wave of cameras has swept across the filmmaking scene. The HD-DSLR or HDSLR (depending on who you talk to – High Definition or Hybrid Digital Single Lens Reflex) has increasingly found its place alongside the traditional 35mm cinematography of the motion picture film industry. Just in the last year, the Canon 5D captured key action sequences of Iron Man 2, and a feature shot entirely with the Canon 7D won the juried “Best Film” prize at SxSW (South by Southwest Film Festival). Over on the smaller screen, quite a few dramatic television programs have turned to these cameras as well. In particular, the critically acclaimed and widely popular House on Fox has used the Canon 5D exclusively on some of its episodes. While the debate continues about how best to use the HDSLR in these high profile markets, there’s no denying that these compact, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive cameras have a lot to offer filmmakers of all kinds and in many genres. 

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These advantages have especially piqued the interest of tightly budgeted, small crew productions, where the question is more often, “Should we use HD camcorders (such as Sony’s EX-1 or Panasonic’s HPX-170) or these new HDSLR cameras, such as the Canon 5D or 7D?” News journalists, backpack journalists and documentarians alike now face this difficult decision. Should we embrace this new technology, and will the HDSLR take over and revolutionize our industries? 

In trying to find the answers to these questions, I sought out the advice and guidance of a true professional. Professor Larry Engel from American University’s School of Communication in Washington, DC seemed a perfect candidate. A trained photographer who turned to film and video in pursuit of other powerful storytelling tools, Prof. Engel has been using both the Canon 7D and Panasonic GH2 extensively throughout the last year. After contacting him, I found out he had recently been invited to participate in an upcoming Skype video journalism summit addressing this conversion from HD camcorders to HDSLRs. This presented a great opportunity for me to observe the video conference, then ask Larry for his help in constructing this article based around his recent experiences in the field.

The first thing I ask Larry to explain is what makes these cameras so different from the HD camcorders he still often uses. I can tell right away from the smile on his face that he has become a fan, and his answer supports my theory. The first difference we discuss is the capability of these cameras to easily and quickly capture high-resolution stills while shooting video. As a documentary filmmaker, Larry is often asked to deliver production stills along with HD video. Further, as more video productions are not only distributed on legacy broadcast and cable systems but also find a robust life on the web, photographs become an even more important part of the communication package. Click below to hear Larry’s response:

Video by Larry Engel.

HDSLR Hard Time example

In the past, the need for production stills meant shooting a scene with his HD camcorder, then pulling out a DSLR and trying to grab quality stills between setups. As any documentarian will tell you, when trying to blend into the background of a subject’s everyday life, the last thing you want to do is interrupt his or her natural flow and ask him or her to hold for a picture. Larry also mentions that a lot of his work is done in extreme shooting conditions, such as ice climbing in the Arctic, so carrying two separate cameras makes his job much more difficult. For unobtrusive, low impact shooting, the HDSLR allows Larry to shoot beautiful HD video while also snapping off RAW production stills, without having to stop the video being recorded. He does add however, that on most such cameras there will be a one-second gap in the video clip, so the recommendation is usually to shoot the stills in-between video “moments” when the shot feels done and before it’s time to change the angle or reframe.

Video by Larry Engel.


The compact size of the HDSLR also helps Larry minimize the size of his camera package in these difficult conditions, another advantage that many shooters who work alone will appreciate (even if not hanging on the wall of a crevasse!). With this smaller size also comes the benefit of fitting easily into small spaces, such as car interiors, tight caves, or packed humvees, allowing for some interesting specialty shots.

So what about the visual aesthetics of the HDSLR footage? This is another area where Larry sees some significant advantages in the HDSLR over the HD camcorder (although these came with several warnings later in the interview). The HDSLR cameras have a significantly larger microchip size. Most of the HD camcorders employ only 1/3” or 1/2” chips, compared to predominantly 4/3” chips on the HDSLRs. This means that a camera such as the Canon 5D now records images at close to the same frame size as a traditional 35mm camera, while the Panasonic GH2 is just slightly behind with a frame size that rivals super 16 film cameras. (In technical terms, the field of view factor for the Canon 7D and Lumix GH2 as compared to a film 35mm aperture is 1.5x and 2x respectively. This means that a 20mm wide angle on a 35mm camera is essentially a 30mm on the 7D, and 40mm on the GH2. The Canon 5D actually has a full frame chip). When coupled with the flexibility of HDSLRs to change lenses (another huge difference from most HD camcorders, although there are a few exceptions such as Sony’s EX-3 and NEX-VG10), these cameras produce images that have a higher resolution, a much more controllable depth of field, and a greatly increased color space.

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