In 1877, photographer Eadweard Muybridge successfully captured a galloping horse with a series of 24 stereoscopic cameras— a feat that would help inspire the invention of the first motion-picture cameras in the late 1880s. But it would be another 130 years before developments in still photography would have such a dramatic impact on the technology for capturing moving images.
Over the last three years, high-end digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras costing under $10,000 that were originally designed for still photography have been increasingly used to produce stunning HD images for big-budget TV shows and movies costing millions of dollars. In the last year alone, DSLR cameras have been used to shoot all or parts of a number of major network shows, including House, NCIS: Los Angeles, 24, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live, as well as theatrical films including Iron Man 2 and high-end commercials.
“I’ve embraced the DSLR revolution because those cameras offer the most beautiful cinematic visuals I’ve found in the HD landscape,” notes Shane Hurlbut, a filmmaker whose Website and blog—www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/—offers many examples of DSLR HD production techniques.
One big reason for their success has been the fact that they pack a big sensor in a small camera body, allowing producers to do more for less. “With a $2,500 camera, I’ve been able to put images on a 60-foot screen that several studio executives could not believe were shot on a still camera, the Canon EOS 5D,” Hurlbut noted. “It is really going to shake up the business because the business needs to be shaken up.”
The growing popularity of DSLRs reflects a larger drive to lower-cost production. The cameras, however, are not without their drawbacks.
“It’s a tool, not a silver bullet,” noted Vasco Nunes, who used DSLRs as the director of photography for the opening sequences of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
Problems with ease of use, the need to carefully monitor focus, poor in-camera audio and limited recording times are some issues filmmakers face in adapting a camera that had originally been designed for still photography to TV production.
For the time being, those problems may make lower-cost camcorders a better alternative for local news, reality fare and documentaries, some producers and vendors argue.
Lower-cost camcorders can generally be more easily integrated into the traditional workflow at stations, and in recent years this gear has offered dramatically improved HD video, notes Chuck Westfall, technical adviser for education in consumer imaging group professional products marketing at Canon USA.
Canon’s new XF304 camcorder, for example, is priced at only $7,999 but offers a 50-megabits-per second recording and 4:2:2 color sampling.
“You have capabilities in the XF series that you don’t have in the EOS right now,” Westfall explains.
This could change as the popularity of DSLRs encourages still-camera manufacturers to make their cameras more appealing to TV producers. “You’re going to see improvement in the camera design to fit a professional workflow,” says Westfall.
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