With the explosion of high-definition video over the past few years, it’s no secret that camera makers have responded by building Full HD 1080p video capability into virtually every new digital camera in order to stay competitive.
DSLRs, with their larger sensors, interchangeable lenses, sophisticated feature sets and more advanced performance parameters, are the primary cameras used by serious and prosumer video shooters. And because they’re also optimized for capturing very high-quality images, these versatile machines are even more popular than camcorders for shooting Full HD movies.
Technically, almost every DSLR in production therefore qualifies as a multimedia camera, and those that can also capture still images while shooting video or short video clips in “video snapshot” mode offer a choice of three image capture options. But these days, technology does not stand still, and the concept of multimedia is rapidly evolving in amazing ways that are destined to make DSLRs even more competent when it comes to capturing and outputting broadcast-quality movies.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s out there, and examine some exciting new things that are likely to enhance the video performance of the next generation of HD DSLRs.
The multimedia advances built into current HD DSLRs fall into several distinct categories: 1. Delivering a wider choice of framing rates. 2. Recording in a variety of video formats that provide various advantages in terms of download speed, connectivity and quality. 3. Enhancing resolution and quality output using systems such as HDMI and AVCHD and progressive rather than interlaced video images. 4. Enhancing autofocus speed and decisiveness with continuous phase-detection AF (PDAF). 5. Upgrading sound output capability with built-in stereo microphones and/or stereo recording capability with plug-in accessory mikes. Here are some examples.
AVCHD and Progressive Scanning. DSLRs using the popular .MOV format are limited to recording at a maximum of 30 frames per second (fps), but models like the full-frame Sony SLT-A99 and the Micro Four Thirds Panasonic DMC-GH3 (an SLR-like mirrorless camera) record in AVCHD, enabling a framing rate of 60p progressive for capturing slow motion as well as smoother recording of rapidly moving subjects. Progressive scanning records a full-res signal for each movie frame, so the amount of data captured is twice that of interlace scanning (the traditional TV method), thus yielding inherently superior image quality. And the GH3 provides MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 and MPEG-4 AVCHD as well as .MOV video file formats.
HDMI Capability. DSLRs like the Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 with built-in HDMI capability (not just an HDMI output terminal) can transfer uncompressed video files to a hard disk drive rather than recording them to a memory card in compressed form, thereby retaining significantly more information and ultimately enabling a higher quality video output. HDMI output was one of the signature features of the Nikon D4 when it debuted in early 2012.
4K Super Resolution. Super-high-end DSLRs like the Canon EOS-1D C have video capture specs that rival those of professional camcorders, including the ability to record 4K (4,096×2,160-pixel) resolution, four times that of Full HD 1,920×1,080 at selectable framing rates from 24p to 60p, eliminating the need for an external recorder. Cameras with 24p and 25p framing rates record video that has the film look of traditional cinematography.
Full-Time Phase-Detection AF. Cameras like the Sony A99 and A77 plus the Canon EOS Rebel T5i provide continuous phase-detection autofocus (PDAF) or hybrid (phase-detection plus contrast-based) AF while shooting video. This results in faster, more precise AF than relying on contrast AF alone—the only other system that can provide continuous AF when shooting video.
Although contrast-based AF systems (like the one in the Panasonic GH3) have been significantly improved, they are still not as fast and decisive as PDAF, a true electronic rangefinder system, and they will “hunt” under certain circumstances, which may be visible in the videos. The A99 uses Translucent Mirror technology to reflect part of the image-forming light to the PDAF sensor; the Rebel T5i has PDAF sensors built into its CMOS sensor. PDAF on-sensor, which first appeared in Nikon’s 1 J1 and 1 V1, is an emerging technology that’s constantly being refined. It’s destined to alter the way DSLRs, compact system cameras (CSCs) and point-and-shoot models will be designed going forward.
Stereo Sound and External Mikes. With the increasing sophistication of DSLR video productions at all levels, there is now a greater emphasis on sound quality. Many of the latest DSLRs have built-in stereo mikes that are generally of higher quality than those of their predecessors, but there are limits to the sound quality you can achieve with any in-camera microphone. That’s why high-end external microphones are a big growth area for DSLR video shooters. A detailed discussion of DSLR mikes is beyond the scope of this article, but savvy dealers should check out the offerings among popular brands like Rode and Shure aimed at DSLR video shooters.
Now that you hopefully have a clearer idea of some of the trends in multimedia HD DSLRs, here’s a brief rundown on some important current models with particular emphasis on their video capabilities. Note that SRPs are body only.
Nikon D7100. This new HD DSLR incorporates a 24.1 megapixel APS-C-format CMOS sensor, Nikon’s latest Expeed 3 image processor and a 51-point autofocus system. It also offers wireless connectivity when using the WU-1a wireless mobile adapter. Video innovations include Full HD 1,920×1,080 capture at 60i/50i at 30 fps, 25 fps and 24 fps, or 60i/50i in 1.3x crop mode when connected via HDMI. Stereo sound is recorded via the internal microphone or with a Nikon ME-1 external mike connected through the dedicated terminal. It can also capture creative video effects in real time using selective color or color sketch features, as well as ultra-smooth slow motion or time-lapse sequences. $1,199.95. nikonusa.com
Nikon D800. Nikon’s high-res full-frame class leader has a 36.3MP CMOS sensor, a 91k-pixel RGB matrix metering system, 51-point AF and Nikon’s latest Expeed 3 image processor. Video features include Full HD 1,920×1,080 capture at 30p, 25p and 24p, and HD 1,280×720 at 60p, 30p and 24p. Utilizing the B-frame data compression method, users can record H.264/MPEG-4 AVC video for up to 29:59 min/sec per clip (normal quality) without increasing file size, for a more efficient workflow. The D800 has a built-in adjustable monaural mike and connection for an external stereo mike. Its Type C mini-pin HDMI connector can be used simultaneously with the camera monitor. $2,999.95. nikonusa.com
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3. This advanced DSLR-like mirrorless Micro Four Thirds-format camera incorporates a 16.05MP Live MOS sensor, a 3.0-inch 614k-dot touch-screen swiveling OLED monitor and a 1.74-million-dot OLED live-view eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF). Video capabilities include: Full HD 1,920×1,080 recording at 60, 30 and 24 fps; 1,280×720 at 60 and 30 fps; video clip lengths up to 240 minutes; stereo audio recording; and multiple file formats as noted above. The HDMI terminal connects to a large-screen monitor and enables external recording with simultaneous recording to the SD card. $1,299.99. panasonic.com
Canon EOS-1D C. Canon’s flagship multimedia HD DSLR, in its Cinema EOS family, points the way to the future with an amazing array of advanced video capabilities. This ultra-high-end model includes an 18.1MP full-frame sensor, dual CF slots and dual Digic 5+ image processors. Video features include: 4K (4,096×2,160) video recording capability with four times the resolution potential of Full HD 1080p, which is also available at 60, 50, 30, 25 and 24 fps using the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 movie format. There’s no time limit on video clip length, and the LCD works when the HDMI port is in use for external video recording. Also Super 35mm Crop HD is available at 30, 25 and 24 fps. Internal recording and silent control are possible using built-in or external stereo microphones, and there’s a headphone jack for real-time audio monitoring. $11,999. usa.canon.com
Canon EOS 5D Mark III. A popular choice among serious video shooters, this robust full-frame camera features a 22.3MP CMOS sensor, a 3.2-inch ClearView high-res LCD, a Digic 5+ image processor and a 61-point high-density AF system. Video-oriented features include: Full HD 1,920×1,080 capture at 30p, 25p and 24p; 1,280×720 at 60p and 50p; MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 and .MOV movie file formats; embedded time code to facilitate video editing; stereo sound recording via an external stereo microphone; and a built-in headphone jack. Canon has announced a firmware update slated for May that will add clean HD via HDMI to the Mark III. $3,499. usa.canon.com
Sony SLT-A99. Sony’s robust top-of-the line, full-frame 24.3MP prosumer DSLR is an excellent choice for shooting HD video because of the impressive performance of its continuous phase-detection AF system, its XGA-resolution OLED electronic viewfinder and a 3.0-inch 1,228,000-dot Xtra Fine tilting LCD. Video shooters appreciate that it records in the AVCHD format, enabling a framing rate of 60p, and at a cinematic 24p, and also that the full range of shooting modes (PASM) and creative picture effects plus auto, manual and continuous AF focusing options are always available. Maximum Full HD clip length is 29 minutes, and users can record stereo sound via an optional external microphone. $2,799.99. sony.com
Sony SLT-A77. The APS-C format A77 also shoots in AVCHD and provides Full HD 1,920×1,080 video capture at smooth 60p, standard 60i or cinematic 24p, making it a popular choice among serious HD video shooters. Videographers can capture high-quality AVCHD video for viewing on an HDTV or shoot MP4 videos to upload to the web with full-time phase-detection AF. Plus, they can maintain creative control of their movies with access to shutter priority, aperture priority, manual mode and creative effects. It, too, has a 24.3MP sensor, as well as a 2359k-dot OLED electronic viewfinder and a 3.0-inch tilting live-view LCD display. $1,099.99. sony.com