Mini Docs

With the Nikon D90 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, video was introduced to the still camera. The immense popularity of the devices for filmmaking caught the manufacturers by surprise in many ways, as they had originally intended the feature as a way for photographers to provide supplemental material for still clients. Only five years later, and video capabilities in still cameras have caused a revolution, not only in the world of photography, but also independent cinema and videography, thanks to short-profile bodies with incredible light sensitivity, exceptional imaging quality and a comparatively low cost over camcorders. Naturally, as still cameras are ideal for event and documentary work, several photographers have been making the jump to filmmaker.

Philip Bloom, for example, is a filmmaker with an immense social media following for his documentary and travel work. Put together primarily with video-capable still cameras, his on-target, behind-the-scenes and short promotional videos have proven to be extremely popular on the Internet. He has turned this attention into high-profile cinematography jobs, as well as several promotional campaigns. Similarly, a group of wedding photographers based out of Canada called Stillmotion were surprised to find that their documentarist approach to wedding videography had gained them notice from, almost shockingly, the NFL. They propelled the resulting behind-the-scenes documentary into several large commercial campaigns for companies like Canon and Apple, as well as a full-length documentary called #standwithme, which was released this last February. War photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed covering Libya in 2011, even received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary for a film he directed with journalist Sebastian Junger in 2010 called Restrepo.

As evidenced by Bloom’s incredible popularity with burgeoning filmmakers for his knowledge of still-camera filmmaking and gear, there now exists a litany of accessories that can turn your still camera into a full moviemaking machine. While you may not feel you’re ready to make the jump from photographer to full-time filmmaker just yet, documentaries, short films and promos are a great way to cut your teeth on the differences between still and motion photography. At the same time, the extra footage and content you produce can be leveraged for even further profit through several mediums like film festivals, stock footage companies like Shutterstock and iStock or Internet video sites such as Vimeo and YouTube. The best part? You’re the director and the producer, and there isn’t any meddling from the studio, so the decisions on content are entirely up to you!

You don’t necessarily need a script, but the first tip is to treat your short video just the same as you would a full-length feature. Starting with a "must-have" list of shots and scenes for the project is a great way to keep your project honed in on the material that’s absolutely necessary for the story. Often, documentaries and promo vids will unfold naturally as the events progress, but video projects are always fighting against the clock. Putting together a shot list or script prior to the shoot or event will keep your shots to the essentials while forcing you to think about what you’ll need to edit the project later. Even wedding videographers have shot lists of must-have moments.

Speaking of editing, while it certainly takes some time to master, there’s no better learning ground for how to work with video. Cutting through extraneous clips and takes will give you a sense for the natural feel of storytelling while showing you every flaw and mistake made during capture. Editing is also a great crash course in Filmmaking 101. Camera movements must work together intuitively in an edit, and there aren’t really hard rules for putting together shots as an editor. They work together viscerally because of pacing and movements or they don’t.

When he made An Amish Man, Bloom wrote a lengthy account of how the film came together, the equipment he used and the challenges he overcame.

Just as with editing a photo, cuts, edits and transitions between these separate takes will work to give you a sense for what you can "fix in editing" and what you need to get right the first time. And wait until you try to edit a project with bad audio! Audio is almost always an afterthought for photographers, but it’s of principal importance for a successful video project. Have you ever finished watching a film or short that had bad audio? There are several programs available for editing. Sony Vegas Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro X, Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere Pro are all popular editing programs with extended editing, audio and effects abilities.

Thankfully, video is a little more forgiving when it comes to aperture and resolution over stills. Shallower depth of field is more difficult to achieve and maintain when you have a moving subject, so larger minimum apertures are less important unless you plan on doing a lot of night shooting or using very tight focus. Most still lenses are capable of resolving to the resolution required by 1080p, which is 2 megapixels a frame. If interested in moving into 4K, however, keep in mind that these frames require 4x the image information to maintain minimum sharpness at roughly 8 megapixels a frame. Most professional-quality lenses like Nikon’s G-series or Canon’s L-series are capable of meeting an estimated MTF requirement of 80mm/lp, the minimum lens resolution required for 4K video, but for the ultimate in glass for filmmaking, an oversized cine-style lens from companies like Rokinon, Canon, Schneider Optics, Zeiss and Tokina will give you precision focusing abilities.

Alternatively, monitors and EVFs can help you to make focus and exposure decisions down to the pixel level. There are also other considerations like continuous lighting sources, as flashes are absolutely unusable for motion. For professional-quality video, dedicated external video recorders like solutions from Atomos will allow you to work with uncompressed raw video that gives you similar leverage in editing as a raw still file does. Optical neutral-density and polarizer filters will give you a way to control aperture, color saturation and shutter with effects that can’t be replicated in post. Most camcorders include internal ND filters to control aperture, while DSLRs don’t offer this feature.

While the compact form factor of a DSLR or mirrorless camera makes them an affordable and ideal low-profile choice for hiding in a scene or using as a B-roll or crash cam, the bodies are built for still shooting. This makes them awkward to use for motion shots and extremely difficult to hold during longer takes, especially when attached to a variety of potential accessories like monitors, EVFs, microphones, follow-focus units, matte boxes, and external audio and video recorders.

Dedicated camcorders are big enough to house these accessories, but to add them to a DSLR, you’ll need a support or rig system. Several setups are available, like modular rigs, cages and moviemaking assemblies, as well as stabilization systems, tripods and monopods. Monopods are great choices for behind-the-scenes video because you can set up from tight spots. Models with fluid heads will give you a smooth way to pan and track without being locked down by the wide footprint of a tripod. Specialized sliders, mini-jibs, cranes and other supports will also give unique movements to your camera work that can push the v
isual language of the project to literal new heights.

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