Revisiting the DSLR or camcorder debate

Over the last few months we’ve seen both the arrival of a new generation of high-end DSLR cameras – especially the Canon 5Dmk3 and the Nikon D800.

But despite the creative appeal of DSLRs, manufacturers continue to release new, small-sensor camcorders. JVC replaced its entry-level GY-HM 100 with the GY-HM 150 last year and has new newsgathering camcorders in the works. Canon has had its single-sensor XF100 and XF105, 50mbps camcorders. And Sony recently joined in with its PMW-100.

With these camcorders in a similar price range to a good DSLR with lens (£1500 for the JVC to around £2700 for the Canon XF105) it’s worth looking again at which are the best reporting tools.

Smaller-format camcorders have smaller sensors; 1/3 inch CMOS units for the Sony and Canons and three 1/4 inch CCDs for the JVC. On paper this leads to an inferior low light performance, although in practice this is not always a problem for reporting work.

What the smaller camcorders do lack is the depth of field control of the DSLRs, and the ability to change lenses. The Sony PMW-100, for example, is 40mm (in 35mm equivalent terms) at the wide end, which is less than ideal in tight spaces. The long end, on the other hand, is a generous 400mm equivalent.

On the plus side, these cameras come with built-in XLR audio, audio monitoring, reversible LCD screens and in the case of the Sony and Canon, the option to record in broadcast-ready bitrates. In some cases these camcorders are actually more portable than DSLRs, especially when the DSLR has to be loaded with accessories. Set against this, the ‘basic’ DSLR set up, based around say the Canon 7D, is cheaper.

Testing a DSLR in a 10-minute shoot

A chance to test the DSLR in an unusual shooting situation came up at this year’s Farnborough air show. Boeing was arranging cabin tours of its 787 Dreamliner, but tours were limited to 15 minutes on board.

The choice of camera for the tour – with access granted at a day’s notice, common at these type of events – came down to the Nikon D800 and the much bulkier Sony EX3. The D800’s ability to take stills too tipped the scales in its favour.

On the day, the plusses of the DSLR were its relatively compact size, how light capability and its lenses. For shots in the cockpit, the wide end of a 28-70mm zoom proved sufficient, but a standard camcorder zoom would have struggled. The footage was recorded at 400ASA, with a combination of tripod shots (on a small tripod) and a few handheld “grab” shots.

Audio was via the internal mics: it was only “atmos” audio, and this was sufficient.

The downsides included the difficulty of taking good handheld shots (the EX3 can be used on the shoulder for these), and the lack of a reversible viewfinder for recording any pieces to camera. This is something a smaller camcorder such as the PMW-100 does feature, and is very useful if you are a reporter working alone.

Depth of field control also turned out to be as much of a disadvantage as a plus. One of the key features of the Dreamliner is its internal lighting, so even if space and time had allowed using additional lighting, this would have ruined these shots.

Perhaps going up to 1600ASA would have allowed more depth of field at the expense of noise, but this was not really a time for experimentation. As it turned out, our time inside the plane was closer to 10 minutes, with some extra time for outside shots.

The depth of field on the D800, as a full-frame sensor SLR, is very shallow, as some of the cabin interior shots show.

Whilst it is handy to be able to use differential focus to highlight one feature – such as a seatback TV – even at f5.6 this renders much of the rest of the footage in soft focus. This was quite useful to blur out other guests on the tour, for example, but a camcorder with its deeper depth of field might have handled the footage of the rows of seats more easily.

Moving between focus points, without a follow focus unit, is possible but difficult to do quickly. With perhaps only 10-15 seconds for each shot, a camera that can “nail” sharp focus immediately will be more practical. With so little time, whilst moving the lens into sharp focus creates a pleasant effect, a straight cut between two sharp clips would have done the job as well.

The search is on for a viable focus assistance device for the DSLR: our existing follow-focus rig is simply too large for this type of work.

Another factor, with a relatively small and light camera, was preventing camera shake from other visitors walking past the tripod: an aircraft floor vibrates in a way that a concrete floor does not (and people do push past, perhaps not realizing the camera is recording video). This would not have been noticeable on a shoulder-mount camcorder.

Overall, though, the D800 did the job, and the footage stood up well to colour correction and light grading (done in Apple’s FCP10.4). As there was no dialogue in the piece, the DSLR was a viable option. But had the clip also needed to include interviews, a conventional broadcast camera would have been my first choice.

The ideal, perhaps, would have been to carry two cameras: a DSLR for the tight shots for low light and for creative effects, and a small broadcast camcorder as a backup and for interviews. But that would mean twice the bulk, twice the set-up time, and quite possibly, twice the hassle. Anyway, the result of our attempts can be seen below.