Canon 60D for the New Videographer (Part 1)

What this post is about…

This post is for new or aspiring videographers like me who happened to get their hands on a Canon 60D. Shooting video with a DSLR is all the rage now and there’s plenty of info out on the Internet, but for my own records, I thought I’d track a few of the things I’ve learned along the way in my transition to shooting video with DSLR.

Why I bought the Canon 60D…

There may be an implied assumption that I bought the Canon 60D because it’s the best DSLR camera out there. Actually, like many would say, I bought it because it was the best camera for me and my situation. Being a freelance videographer, I have a mindset around getting the least expensive solution to get good quality results as judged by the job. In this case, I found a mint condition Canon 60D for $700 used, my wife already had a few Canon lens, and it even came with a 50mm 1.8. Since I had a big project involving shooting a series of web interviews, I had a good first DSLR project. So for me it was a no brainer.

For others without this particular alignment of the stars, I’d highly recommend checking out the Panasonic GH2 for a compact camera with incredible quality and bit rates to die for. I’ve also seen a lot of really cheap Canon T3i which I’m told is comparable to the 60D even if the build quality isn’t as good.

Nevertheless, the Canon 60D is also a neat camera on its own merits. The articulating screen is a real practical convenience. You don’t have to hold the camera up at eye level. You can easily record high or low shots. And it’s useful for checking a shot when you’re sitting in front of the camera. It’s perfectly compatible with Magic Lantern (unlike the 5D), has manual audio control, multiple shooting speeds and resolutions including 60fps at 720p, 24fps and 30fps at 1080p.

Basic Setup

Prior to this camera I was shooting with a JVC GY-HM100U, a remarkably portable 3CCD prosumer camera with 1/4″ sensor that shoots 35 Mbps. It’s my first camera. I love shooting with it. When I get stressed, I go back to it because I know it’s controls and what it is capable of.

The Canon 60D I initially eyed with a lot of suspicion and rightly so. I made plenty of mistakes in my first and second and third project. Each time slightly different ones. With enough stumbling and forum browsing though I’ve managed to work through the basics. Now by basics I mean enough to shoot a simple video interview for the web. No camera movement required, no studio quality audio, no indie film grading, and no especially sharp image needed.

Now for my setup.

The Camera

  • Everything to manual (focus, white balance, ISO or gain in videoland)
  • ISO should be set to multiples of the native ISO 160 [According to this Test]. I haven’t had a chance to test this myself to check it, but I don’t notice any problems with taking this approach. (Update: now my understanding is that 100,200,400 is the native resolution, but 160 is a software ISO pulldown from 200 which makes it appear to have less noise in the darks, but you lose headroom in the highlights. So in summary I think that means with bright highlights you should use 100,200.)
  • Sound Recording in the menu system should be set to Manual. This is where you can see the audio levels. More on recording audio separately in a moment.
  • Set the Picture Profile to what you want it to be. Now in this case I followed Philip Bloom’s advice on using the neutral profile with sharpness turned all the way down to minimize moire and saturation down to -2. But if you want to do less in post, then it’s nice to get the look you want coming out of the camera.

Lens

Interchangeable what? This was my first experience with lens. Not really wanting to purchase any other lens, I shot with the 50mm 1.8. Yes, it’s not the best lens out there, but it’s light, it was available, and it works. I was utterly amazed by the low-light performance. Of course, coming from a 1/4″ sensor on a video camera, it certainly seemed like it could see in the dark. Plus having the ability to shoot with a shallow depth-of-field gave me a lot more options when shooting interviews where finding just the right background is a pain. Now I can just blur out the background and use the colours.

Tripod

Shooting DSLR handheld without a stabilizer (either in the lens or with a Glidecam) is difficult. However, the articulating screen does allow you to hold the camera low and against your body which can make for some decent shots. But for interviews, tripod was the solution. I had a Manfrotto 501HDV with really heavy legs. Since all my shots were stationary, I could have easily used a lightweight photo tripod and gotten the same results. Keep in mind that the 50mm is really, really light.

Sound

The next obvious question is sound. The onboard microphone might be usable for ambient sound it, but definitely was not for interviews. Normally I would just plug-in a wireless mic or a boom mic to the XLR. Alas, no such luck with the DSLR. The cheapest solution with the equipment I did have was to simply plug-in my Senheisser G3 Wireless microphone directly into the 3.5 audio jack of the DSLR. If you turned the volume all the way down on the 60D so that it minimizes the use of it’s pre-amp, then bumped up the gain on the wireless receiver, the sound was decent enough, and it’s really, really portable.

But there was three big problems with it. One, I never knew how much I was comforted by those audio bars on the video camera to check levels (which the 60D doesn’t have). Two, I couldn’t hear how the audio sounded. And three I had no way of modifying the audio gain.

So I bought an audio recorder that could take XLRs. I went with a Zoom H4N audio recorder. It took XLRs and could power 3.5″ microphones. The 4-channel recording was useful for getting audience and speaker audio. It was also relatively inexpensive. However, if I were to go back, I would have liked to try the Tascam DR-100 or maybe even a Sony. The gain on the H4N seems noisy to me. Plus, it drains battery quickly especially if it’s in 4-channel mode or supplying phantom power. Also, don’t ever, ever let it die on you in the middle of the recording. You will probably lose the entire audio file.

Mounting

After shooting just once, I realized that oops, where do I put the Zoom? If I leave it on the ground, I can’t monitor it. I could strap it to the tripod, but I didn’t have anything convenient. Luckily, on a trip to the camera store I discovered a simple mounting bracket that turns one mount into two. They did have a bracket that allowed you to mount a gazillion devices, but the base mount was plastic and broke easily (verified with the store rep). I went with this sturdier metal one.

And my final setup was

Strange-looking, but it works well enough. Oh I guess I don’t show the little piece that connects the Zoom H4N to the shoe mount.

Shooting

Now for the actually shooting. Lots of trip ups. Here were the ones I stumbled over.

  • Accidentally changing shutter speed and not aperture: initially, I’d get accidentally change the shutter speed to get the proper exposure. I think I wasn’t use to the readouts and the controls, but you certainly don’t want to record one interview at 1/120 second and another with 1/30 of a second.
  • Finding focus with a shallow depth of field: This was new. With my video camera, if I was plus or minus a metre, I was good. With this camera and my admitted fascination with shallow depth-of-field, I had to be way more precise with focus. I discovered that hitting the plus button to zoom in to find focus was great. However, it doesn’t work while you record (unless you have Magic Lantern which I’ll get to).
  • Recording in 12 or less minute buffer: For interviews, there’s nothing worse than getting a great quote, looking at your camera, and see that it has stopped recording automatically. This is because the camera has a 4GB limit which is roughly 12 minutes. However, sometimes it will record even less if the card is fragmented. Tip (from Vincent Laforet is it?): do a low-level format of your cards before every shoot.
  • Missing the audio level and monitoring: Even with the Zoom H4N, monitoring is trickier because it isn’t on the same screen as the video. Worse, in the beginning I would forget to hit record a second time on the Zoom (remember hit once to monitor and a second time to record) because I was so use to hitting just one record button.
  • Shooting Outdoors in Bright Sunlight: Aye karumba! Now I get why cameras have viewfinders. Except that with the 60D you can only see the video on the LCD screen (unlike the GH2). Imagine not being able to check focus or exposure accurately. Also, I realized a little late, no ND filters. Easy fix, but none I could use in the moment.

In Post

In post, I discovered more challenges. The main one was moire. The cushion on seats, the cross-hatch on shirts, brick patterns were all candidates for creating these strange zebra like patterns. The LCD screen doesn’t provide any assistance since it will show moire well before there actually is moire. Any help in dealing with this would be appreciated.

Rolling shutter wasn’t an issue for me since everything was stationary.

Syncing audio to video is pretty easy since you can use the audio from the DSLR to match it with the audio from the Zoom. Because of the multiple starts and stops, it’s easiest to use PluralEyes to do the syncing, although syncing by hand is simple enough.

 

Conclusion

Well, I was pleased with my first shoot with the bare minimum of equipment. Here are some screengrabs:

 

You might well ask, what about magic lantern? What about rigs and other lens and cinestyles and mixers? One thing at a time! This basic setup gave me enough to do the job despite the challenges. My next post will show the evolution of my setup.

 

Read Part 2

 

 

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Contact Information


Chris Hsiung
chris@hiddenstory.ca
403-660-2187