12 great steps to follow when shooting with a DSLR

23 July 2010, Flagstaff, AZ

One of the great things about HDSLR for shooting digital film projects involves the fact that it forces the filmmaker to go back to basics. For years, those of us who have shot on video cameras (whether HD or not) had it easy. Most everything, including nice XLR inputs, were built into most video cameras (including neutral density filters).

But as Shane Hurlbut, ASC (“Terminator Salvation”) points out, the DSLR cinema revolution takes you back to
where cinema was born in the first place:

“Where did the idea of motion pictures come from?” Hurlbut asks. “It came from a brilliant individual, Louis Lumiere. When he looked through his pin-hole camera, he asked himself the question, ‘I wondered what it would look like if this image moved?’ SHABANG!! Motion pictures were born. Why were the keys to the castle given to the ENG manufacturers to design our HD platform? Their specialty is capturing the news and sports. When I look at their images they don’t look cinematic. I feel that the HD platform has now come from the right source, still photography” (Focal Press, 2011).

This means that approaching video projects as a cinematographer is a must—and it requires a bit more work than picking up an ENG HD camera. You must (or should) record audio separately, you must set your ISO levels, choose a picture style, and so forth.

However, despite the extra steps (some of which must be followed whether you’re using a regular video camera or not), the results can be truly amazing—cinematic. And for a DSLR that can be purchased as low as about $800 up to $2500 for a 5D Mark II body, that’s nothing short of astonishing. (See Figure 1.)



Figure 1. Stills from “The Last 3 Minutes”, a cinematic short shot on a Canon 5D Mark II by Shane Hurlbut, ASC.
(Stills ©2010 Hurlbut Visuals. Used with permission).

However, despite the extra steps (some of which must be followed whether you’re using a regular video camera or not), the results can be truly amazing—cinematic. And for a DSLR that can be purchased as low as about $800 up to $2500 for a 5D Mark II body, that’s nothing short of astonishing.

Here are my recommended steps for keeping your mind straight when shooting a project with HDSLRs:

Twelve steps for HDSLR shooting

  1. Choose and attach lens
  2. Choose picture style (use Neutral or download SuperFlat or ExtraFlat or other “flat” style if you’re planning to do postproduction color grading)
  3. Set white balance
  4. Attach and turn on XLR adapter and/or microphone
  5. Set audio levels
  6. Set shutter speed to 1/50 (or 1/40)—don’t use 1/60 in order to avoid a video feel
  7. Set ISO (for the 5D Mark II and 7D use the native ISOs: 160, 320, 640, 1250, and 2500)
  8. Set f-stop
  9. Focus
  10. Meter and adjust f-stop and/or ISO (for the Canons, push the shutter button halfway down)
  11. Examine histogram for tonal range to make sure your blacks are not crushed or your highlights blown out
  12. Press record (hit the info button if you want to see the time lapse for recording)

Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of “DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press, 2011.” He teaches digital filmmaking at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.

2 thoughts on “12 great steps to follow when shooting with a DSLR

  1. Hi Kurt

    After I bought your book and read to the end I saw this in the final appendix I realised that the cost of the book was worth it just to get this one single page. Great book and exceptionally helpful.

  2. Hi Kurt
    Cheers for the book, read it yesterday on the plane and train going along Lake Geneva on a sunny day.
    Today I have be trying to find out if you can ever have the audio readings in the Live view function, Im sure I read in the book you can, but I can’t find it now, can you?
    Cheers
    simon

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