Photo world begins grappling with video SLRs

Photography buffs left cold by home video get new aesthetic possibilities with video SLRs. But adapting to the technology isn't always easy.

SLR video
This frame of a woman toasting shows how video from newer digital SLRs lets people blur backgrounds to emphasize a particular subject, something that's harder with conventional video cameras. CC Joi Ito

The photography world is beginning to adapt to a new phase in the marriage of cameras and computing technology: the arrival of SLRs that can shoot not just still images, but video too.

The change began with the arrival of image sensors, the light-sensitive microchips that replaced film. Now, two new SLRs--Nikon's D90 and Canon's EOS 5D Mark II --are taking another step away from the film paradigm, following in the footsteps of point-and-shoot cameras by recording continuous video and not just still images. Doubtless video will gradually spread to other SLR models and makers.

"This camera is the ultimate 'equalizer'--you no longer need half-million dollars' worth of high-definition video cameras and lenses delivered by a truck with its own driver to shoot a high-definition film in low light--you just need a $2,700 camera and a few lenses," gushed professional photographer and Canon adviser Vincent Laforet in a blog post about a 5D Mark II prototype.

But not everything will be simple for Laforet wannabes excited by the new possibilities. Hardware, software, Web sites, and perhaps most of all, technique all must catch up to the new technology.

Though how-to book authors have yet to weigh in, there are signs the adaptation has begun. Take the case of video hosting.

Canon's 5D Mark II
Canon's EOS 5D Mark Mark II. Canon

SmugMug's 1080p offer
With the 5D Mark II now for sale, some people will be looking for a Web site that can share their videos in full high-definition 1080p glory--1920x1080 pixels. SmugMug, a subscription-based photo-sharing site geared for photo enthusiasts, wants to be that place. Don MacAskill, CEO, and Chris MacAskill, who is his father and company president, each got 5D Mark II SLRs, and now the company is testing full-resolution videos on its site for those with $149.95-per-year professional-level subscriptions.

"If anyone else out there is shooting 1080p video with cameras like this and would like their SmugMug Pro accounts to allow 1080p video, let us know. That feature is currently in beta, but we'd love to get a few more people using it," Don MacAskill said in a blog posting.

High-definition video is starting to trickle onto the Web more broadly, though not generally at the aggressive full-resolution format.

Vimeo hosts high-definition videos with some limitations on file size and uploads, and Google has begun experimenting with higher-resolution versions. But the network capacity challenges are formidable for both the site hosting the video and for those watching it.

More emblematic is Flickr, a popular haunt for photo enthusiasts who like to share photos with like-minded people. When Flickr added video support earlier this year, some photography purists made a big stink. Now Flickr looks prescient: SLR video brings new aesthetic possibilities to digitally savvy photo buffs.

Photographers become cinematographers
The 5D Mark II, a 21-megapixel model that costs $2,700 with no lenses, is the second digital SLR to include video. The first, Nikon's 12-megapixel D90, only shoots 720p high-definition video--but it costs less than $900 and is the eighth most widely searched for item on Google Product Search. Both are a harbinger of things to come as the photography enthusiast community discovers what can be done with video on a camera with interchangeable lenses.

Nikon D90
Nikon's D90, the first SLR with video abilities. Nikon USA

Most people's videocameras employ smaller sensors and only the built-in lens. But SLRs accept fisheye lenses, supertelephotos, tilt-shift lenses, and wide-aperture lenses that work in low-light conditions. The result is much more visual variety--and a previously professional domain of higher-end video opening up to amateurs.

For example, most video cameras have a deep depth of field, meaning that much of what's recorded is in focus. SLR lenses can let portrait photographers use a shallow depth of field that makes a background into an undistracting blur.

'Reverie' fad
Laforet kicked the 5D Mark II video frenzy off with his Reverie video, notable for challenging low-light shots. The video eventually led to more than 1.5 million viewings of the video in its first 10 days.

"The raw footage that comes out of this camera is stunning--so much so that the entire video was cut with the raw footage--untouched in any way--no color, noise, or exposure adjustment whatsoever," Laforet crowed.

Mere mortals, though, will have to come to grips with the difficulties of making high-grade video. Though Laforet had no video experience to speak of beforehand, he had plenty of experience in setting up shots and other applicable camera craft.

It's a lot more practical to get a good still photo of a scene by taking a few dozen shots, for example, than it is to take a few dozen videos. An inopportune moment of camera shake can spoil a whole video rather than produce a few wasted frames that can be deleted without a second thought. Autofocus is not the new SLRs' strong suit in video mode. And at the same time that shooting becomes less forgiving, composition, lighting, staging, and setup don't get any easier.

Not so easy
"Shooting moving things is a lot harder than taking movies of leaves waving in the wind," wrote Joi Ito after moving from a nature videos to subways, cars, and shoppers.

And let's not forget gear costs. Higher-end video editing requires powerful computers and often software that photographers don't own today. High-resolution video eats hard drives for lunch. And for recording, flash card makers such as Lexar and SanDisk are salivating at the thought that 12 minutes of video on the 5D Mark II consumes about 4GB of storage space.

Other challenges come with focus and a user interface still geared mostly for still photography.

"I have to be honest: I missed many shots of fast-moving kids that I would have gotten with my video camera," Chris MacAskill said in the blog posting. "Maybe I just need figure out how to juggle zooming, focus, and having the controls scattered across the back of the camera, but it felt like I needed three hands and the skill(s) of a Cirque du Soleil juggler."

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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