What Did You Get Out of the DSLR Revolution?
by Bill Pryor
The DSR revolution has come and gone. There are still filmmakers making films with DSLR hybrid cameras, but the buzz is gone and most professionals have moved on to big chip digital cinema cameras, now that they’re available at reasonable prices.
It’s appropriate to think about what the DSLR revolution did for us as filmmakers, video producers, or buyers of such services. The most obvious thing is that the DSLR made the “film look” real yet affordable.
For years in video we all lusted after 24p while being stuck with 60i. That was the basis of the “film look,” everybody thought. I considered the “film look” to be a combination of lighting, wide screen composition, contrast and color, resolution, and depth of field control. The APS-C and larger chips of the DSLR gave us that last point—the ability to use DOF easily. Before the DSLR revolution the biggest chips in video cameras (outside the rarefied world of the F35, etc.) were 2/3” CCDs. Many individual filmmakers used the much smaller and much cheaper handycam style cameras with three 1/3” chips. Sony had some nice 1/2” chip models.
You could manage a shallow DOF with those cameras, but it was difficult and sometimes not really feasible. So even though a video camera had 24p and adjustable contrast curves and all that good stuff, the DOF usually gave away the fact that it was video and not film. The Canon 5DII gave us a real “film look” for a body price of $2500. That was revolutionary.
It was, in fact, so revolutionary that price acceptance changed almost overnight. Before the 5DII, we were accustomed to paying at least $15,000 for a 2/3” chip non-HD camera body. We paid $5,000 or more for HDV cameras like the XH A1, for 720p cameras like the Panasonic HVX. A big chip cinema camera cost over $40,000. Red did get the price down to under $20 for a body, but it was finicky and cost a lot more to make it fully functional.
The 5DII allowed us to shoot video in place of film and not have anything to apologize for. Probably just about as important as the size of the sensor was the increased latitude we could get with all the different picture profiles. Major TV shows like “House” routinely used the Canons to intercut with film and even shot their series finale with three 5DIIs and not a single film camera. Shane Hurlbut used DSLRs throughout a full blown feature film, “Act of Valor.”
Another thing the DSLR did was introduce young filmmakers and older video professionals to digital cinema style camera use. That included learning to shoot double system sound, learning all about full manual focus and aperture, learning how to shoot with prime lenses, and probably the best thing of all: it practically eliminated the ubiquitous and obnoxious zoom from corporate video and documentary filmmaking. Nothing says corporate video like a zoom.
For me DSLR filmmaking was like a return to my roots. It was fun. I got a superb, theatrical quality image for a relatively tiny amount of money. It also got me back to using prime lenses for filmmaking instead of just for stills. I recall that back in the days when I shot stills with Nikons and Hasselblads and film with a 16mm CP16R and other cameras, I never even considered using a zoom lens on a still camera. Primes were sharper. Case closed.
But for 16mm and later for video, the zoom lens was the standard. I always bought the best quality zoom len available, but it was still a zoom lens. This was not bothersome in those days because the lenses, even zoom lenses, were much better than the capability of the camera and recording system. With HD and the capabilities of the big sensor of the 5DII and 7D, suddenly it became more desirable to use prime lenses again. In fact, it became almost necessary because long range but fast zooms aren’t available for the bigger chips. The best you can do is something like an f2.8 in only about a 4:1 zoom range—24-70, etc. There are some cheaper zooms with wider ranges for the APS-C cameras but they aren’t fixed aperture—ie, they stop down when zooming, and most are F3.5 and up. So if you need fast lenses on a big chip camera, you use prime lenses.
So, the DSLR revolution gave us quite a bit—a great image, the DOF control we always wanted, low cost, it made us learn new things, made us shoot in a more cinematic fashion, it gave us better latitude than most of us had ever seen in a video camera. All of those things pale in comparison to the greatest gift of the DSLR revolution:
The big chip digital cinema camera that ordinary filmmakers can afford.
Before the DSLR revolution, if you wanted a big sensor you paid big money. Today that’s all changed, thanks to the DSLR revolution.
The FS100 is now under $4,000. The Canon C100 is about $1500 more. The Sony FS700, with 240 fps slomo and 4K potential is under $9,000. The Sony F3 is $13,500. The Canon C300 is about the same. The incredible Sony F5 is around $16K and the Sony F55 4K camera that rivals the Arri Alexa is under $30K.
Today $15K to $30K sounds ridiculously expensive for a camera. Yet my first camcorder cost nearly $40K with a lens and it was standard def low res Betacam SP. That’s how times have changed. In addition to causing manufacturers to get serious and become competitive, the DSLR revolution has changed our price awareness. Before the 5DII, a big chip HD camera for under $30K sounded awesome. And $15K was almost too good to be real.
Yet today, most of us see the C300 for $13,500 and we say: Damn, that’s expensive. I’ll just get a new DSLR. Or a Sony FS100, or another of the sub-$10K big chip cameras. We owe a lot to the DSLR revolution. Like all revolutions, it came to an end. But unlike many, it left a trail of benefits for the people.