Monday, February 13, 2012

Canon DSLR Shooting in a Nutshell

A friend of mine who is doing translation work in the country of Tibet just asked me to give him the best settings for shooting video with his new Canon 60D camera. I gave him a very basic list of tips that I thought others who are new to DSLR shooting may find useful. This is a good starting point, though there is, of course, much more that could be said on the issue. Hope it helps...

• Set the shutter speed as close as you can get to double whatever your frame rate is. For example, if you are shooting 24 frames per second (which I recommend), you would set the shutter speed to 48 or as close as possible. You should not change this except maybe in extreme circumstances or to achieve some sort of special visual effect.

IRIS (Aperture)
• Adjusting the iris will affect the depth of field (DoF) quite dramatically. With the iris all the way open, you will have a very shallow DoF and with it stopped down, you will have much more of the scene in focus. For example, if you set the iris to f4, only your subject will be in focus. If you set it to f22, both close and distant objects will be in focus. You use this to your advantage. In larger scenes where there is a lot that is important, you will want to close down the iris a bit. Also, when the subject is moving and it is hard to keep them in focus, you will want to close down. However, the thing that makes these cameras so good to use for video is their ability to get shallow DoF. Any time you are shooting a single person, small scene or a static object, try to open up the iris if possible to get a beautiful shot where only the important stuff is in focus. Outdoors, it can be difficult to accomplish this in bright sunlight since you often have to stop all the way down just to keep from over-exposing. This is where neutral density filters come in handy. They reduce the amount of light coming into the lens. I recommend the FaderFilter, since it gives you varying degrees of neutral density from two stops to eight stops in a single filter.

• Once you have set shutter and iris, you will adjust the ISO to get the proper exposure. You will want to use only multiples of 160 for best results in video mode (stills can use any setting). The choices you will have on the 60D, for example, will be 160, 320, 640, 1600 and 3200. At 1600, it begins to get grainy, though it is still usable when necessary. Before going to 1600, you should open up the iris as much as possible (without losing the ability to focus on the important elements of the scene). This balance between Iris and ISO is a bit tricky sometimes. With experience, you will begin to make the right decisions. I would avoid anything higher than 1600 unless it is the only way you can get a shot. It will certainly not be a very professional-looking shot.

• If you will be adjusting the look of your shots in an editing program, it is best to shoot an image that is a little flatter. Therefore, choose the NEUTRAL picture profile or download the CineStyle profile from Technicolor for much better results. Shooting flat gives you the maximum amount of information and dynamic range to work with in post-production. However, it means that your shot will not really look good until you do color-grading. If you do not plan to make adjustments in post, you can still shoot with NEUTRAL or you can choose one of the other settings, such as the STANDARD setting.

• The audio is not really very good in the camera. The best thing to do is record audio separately on a digital audio recorder when doing interviews or anything where the audio will be out front. The Zoom H4N is the most popular model for this, though there are a few cheaper options.
• You have 12 minutes at the most for any single shot. Occasionally it will be less if the camera begins to overheat. Be aware that this camera is not really an option for shooting lengthy events.
• Always use a tripod! Handheld shots rarely look good with this camera. If you do not have a really smooth fluid-head tripod, then you are better off doing only locked-down tripod shots for the most professional results.
• Focus manually. It is not necessarily easy, but will come with practice. You can keep the lens in AF mode and push the shutter button down halfway to find an initial focus if you like. Once you start recording however, you will pull focus manually. I do use the zoom feature quite often to check my focus, but again, this cannot be done once you have started the recording.
• Do not over-expose. It is better to under-expose a little than to blow out the bright parts of the image. The only thing really that should ever blow out is an actual light bulb or the sun/bright parts of the sky (or occasionally a window if you are shooting indoors in a very dark interior). Even that is only if they are background elements and it is absolutely necessary in order to capture a scene effectively. White shirts, white walls, etc really should never be blown out. There is a setting in the camera that will display blown out areas of the image by making them flash black. This only displays AFTER you take the shot, however, so I often take a quick still pict of the scene to see if I am over-exposing before I start rolling. Once you use the camera for a while, you will get to where you know what you are getting just by looking at the LCD screen.
• The lens is the single most important element affecting the quality of your shots. More expensive lenses will yield better results. When you can, you should upgrade from the stock lens to better lenses. I would start with the Canon 50mm f1.4 or f1.2 lens since the 50mm is the most affordable and one of the most useful. You can really shoot an entire production with this one lens if you have to.
• You will eat up battery fairly quickly when shooting video. You will really need at least two batteries--one to use while the other charges. If you only have one, there will be a lot of down-time.
• Find the interesting angles. Low, high, through interesting objects (foreground objects should be used as much as possible) and any other way you can keep it interesting. You also want to get as many diagonal lines happening as possible. For example, shoot a building from an angle rather than straight on. This will create diagonal perspective lines out of the roof-line and foundation that make the shot more interesting.
• People almost always look better when back-lit than facing direct sunlight. Shoot towards the sun when possible, just make sure you have a way to keep the sun from flaring in your lens. The sunshade that comes with the lens is often inadequate and you will need some other way to block the sun. A piece of cardboard shading the lens can work--or even your hand. Of course, the best option is to purchase a mattebox kit, which can be quite expensive. Just be aware that it is difficult to tell on your LCD screen when you are flaring the lens. This can create undesirable bright spots in the image or can make the entire scene appear foggy or washed out.
• Shoot a lot. The more you shoot (and critique your results), the faster you will get to a level of proficiency that will allow you to get great stuff on a consistent basis. If you only pull the camera out when it is time to shoot something important, you will rarely get good results. These cameras have great potential for video, but it really does take an experienced operator to make it happen.