Friday, June 4, 2010

Too Shallow?

I stood talking with a new friend during a break at the recent Adobe Roadshow in Atlanta. We were discussing the HDSLR revolution and specific benefits of the different Canon models, when I apparently uttered the unthinkable. A hush came over the previously noisy hallway and heads turned my direction when I said I prefer the 7D overall because the 5D tends to have too shallow a depth-of-field. I myself could not believe I had said it. Isn't this what we have always wanted? The glorious film-look and beautiful bokeh?

No one seemed to agree with me in the slightest. Nothing, it seemed, could have made me more unpopular with that crowd. Except maybe winning the giveaway everyone had come hoping to take home with them--a copy of the brand new CS5 Production Premium. When my name was drawn (and I never win anything, by the way), I was forced to take my prize and quietly slink out the back door.

My point about the Canon 5D MkII was not to demean it in any way. It is a fantastic camera and can produce amazing images. Because of the large sensor size, however, you have a few disadvantages when shooting traditional, non-stylized material.

Here I go again. There is such a thing as "too shallow." There are two things I have noticed in watching short films that have been shot on the 5D. First of all, there are almost always focus issues. I understand that focus-shifting/searching is a technique in modern films and has been used effectively by many DP's. But what tends to happen with the 5D is that when there is a lot of z-axis movement in the frame, the focus puller never seems to be able to find the "spot." What you end up with is long sequences that only find focus by accident every so often. This cannot be covered up in editing by quick cuts and close action. A quick blurry shot is still a blurry shot, and after a while the audience tires of seeing so much out of focus.

Granted, the skill of pulling focus is a difficult and specialized one on any film-style camera. The average video professional has never really had to develop that ability in the past, though I am sure they will become more adept in the future. But even the top Hollywood AC's cannot hit every mark every time, especially on Steadicam shots with tons of action. The fact that depth of field is extremely shallow can contribute to an increase in buzzed shots and retakes, resulting in additional production costs.

Another downside of excessively shallow depth of field is the loss of detail. Background elements are important for conveying additional information about the scene or the characters. Often the establishing shot is not on screen long enough for us to take it all in before being thrust into the closeups. When we are robbed of that info, the story may suffer. But even aside from that, many films start to feel flat when the background on every shot is nothing but a blob of soft colors. Beautiful blobs, of course, but blobs nonetheless, and not a whole lot more exciting than that muslin backdrop you used to use behind every interview. Some detail in the background is a good thing in order to feel like space exists on more than just one very narrow plane.

So, am I saying shallow depth of field is a bad thing? Absolutely not. I am simply saying that the goal is not always to achieve the shallowest we can possible achieve. Am I saying you should not use the 5D? Absolutely not. For many purposes, especially in a more stylized production, the look is perfect. It is also necessary for capturing wider angles. It would be difficult to shoot a feature film, for example, with only the 7D. The 1.6 crop factor makes it difficult to get the inside closeup and reverse needed on many shots involving dialogue. The colors also seem to be a little closer to the look of 35mm film on the 5D Mk II and its noise level is a little lower, not to mention the fact that its capability with stills is superior. And, of course, you can many times overcome the shallowness of the depth of field with a little extra effort and narrower apertures.

I love both cameras and, believe it or not, I love the look of a shot with shallow depth of field. But as with other tools, it all comes down to knowing how and when to use each one effectively. Now, pardon me while I slip out the back.