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Mixing Formats

While working as a director of photography for season two of National Geographic Channel’s Hard Time, Larry mixed footage from both shoulder-camera and the HDSLR Canon 7D.

The HDSLR: The Future of Documentary and Video Journalism? - by Ted Roach and Larry Engel   (page 3)

When asked about additional warnings for those setting out on HDSLR shoots, Larry offers a very important tip. Along with the aesthetic advantages of shallow focus, which allows strong “direction of the eye to key elements in the frame,” comes the potential for soft critical focus. If a subject moves even a half an inch forward or backward in his or her chair, on a longer lens with a low f-stop the focus could shift from the eyes to the ears. He admits to running into this problem on an early shoot, and has also seen many other cinematographers fall victim to this same fate. The focus is extremely critical, and since the Canon 5D and 7D have to be focused with the fixed LCD, critically focusing the camera without a monitor presents a real challenge. To combat this problem, Larry recommends using a third-party magnifying-eyepiece on all HDSLRs with fixed LCD screens. These eyepieces are also very important when shooting exterior daytime footage in direct sunlight. He bought a plastic Zacuto eyepiece that mounts onto the back of the LCD screen, but recommends finding one constructed of aluminum, or some other kind of metal for durability if the camera is going to get “abused.”

His final tip on preparing to shoot with the HDSLR was “test, test, test.” Every camera has potential problems and issues, and each HDSLR will vary. The only way to avoid these is to prepare in advance, test your gear, and know your camera as well as possible. Click below for Larry’s notes on preparation:

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My next-to-last question of the conversation seeks to answer the title of this essay. Will the HDSLR replace HD camcorders in documentary and video journalism? After hearing how much he loved working with these new cameras, I am surprised to hear him quickly answer, “No, it will not,” especially considering he prefers to work with a separate audio system and additional crewmembers anyway. But Larry explains there are situations well suited for each camera type. In fact, the most successful uses of this new technology on his own shoots have been a combination of both HDSLR and HD shoulder cameras (2/3” chip). While he advises against mixing both formats in the same scene (the most difficult issue here is matching HDSLR images together with camcorder images), he has found that through making story or aesthetic choices as to applications of each in advance, the two can compliment each other very well when used to convey different narrative elements. For example, while working as a director of photography (DoP) for season two of National Geographic Channel’s Hard Time (a highly acclaimed series about life inside prison), he used the larger shoulder-camera Panasonic HDX 900 for the observational filming and for interviews, and the Canon 7D for moving portraits of the inmates that were profiled (filmed in slow motion usually, and with very shallow DoF). While this can negate the advantage of having just one compact, lightweight camera, he definitely felt the resulting images were worth the sacrifice. For more on this experience from Larry himself, and for video examples, click below:

As Larry’s laptop began ringing to join the HDSLR video summit, I threw out one last issue in hopes he had time to answer. When is the right time to buy? If someone is in the market now, should they wait? He thought about this for a moment, and then answered (click below for video response):

As Larry’s video conference begins, I stay to watch along with the room full of professional journalists on the other end of the Skype summit connection, all struggling with the same dilemma. His seminar reinforces many of the points we have covered already, further solidifying my grasp and knowledge of this current debate. At the end, Larry offers a parting thought that seems to sum up the whole of our conversations very well:

“With most new innovations, there are both costs and benefits associated with their implementation. The HDSLR revolution is no different, offering many the opportunity to enter the HD video world at a pretty good entry point (vis a vis cost) and with an often-wonderful image. But with the great news comes some serious caveats. So long as you know what you’re needs and interests are, and you know what you’re getting into, you will be able to make a decent decision and enjoy the experience.”

So while we cannot definitively answer this debate today, there are certainly subjective preferences and situations that can help you make up your own mind in the immediate future. Through research and experimentation, find out which format works best for you and your style of shooting, and then make a well-informed decision on the dozens of options that are available to you today. Reminiscing on the old days of film, Larry recalled there used to only be two choices: Arri SRs or Aatons. He cracked a smile thinking back, then shook his head and added, “Boy, those days are long gone!” Larry and I wish you the best of luck through the decision-making process and subsequent shooting, and we sincerely hope these thoughts and discussions will help you with both in the future. Happy shooting!

About the Authors:

Ted Roach is a producer/videographer/editor working in the Washington, DC area for clients such as the National Park Service, NOAA, American News Project, and American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop. His films and videos have won numerous awards and appeared in over 30 film festivals. Ted will receive his MFA Film from American University in May 2011, and holds a BA History from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. For more about Ted and his work, visit his video portfolio or website.

Larry Engel is an Emmy® award-winning producer, writer, director, and cinematographer with more than thirty years of filmmaking experience spanning all seven continents. He began his career in photography and studied with Walker Evans. He then moved to film. Currently, Engel is an associate professor in American University’s School of Communication, associate director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, and filmmaker in residence with the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

Engel is co-author of “The Code of Best Practices in Sustainable Filmmaking.” (

A three-part series that he directed and shot, “The Human Spark” hosted by Alan Alda premiered on PBS nationally in January 2010 and won the 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for In-Depth Journalism (longer than 20 minutes).

Interview clips shot by Jacques Ledbetter

To see some of his work in photography and film, and writings on further writings on HDLSR please visit

More HDSLR video samples from Larry Engel: