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I Switched! To DSLR Video

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Richard Walton
I Switched! To DSLR Video
on Apr 2, 2011 at 4:08:05 am

I am neither a professional or an expert in the field of photography or videography. I am a naturalist with a lot of time using video to capture images for both learning and pleasure. I hope my experiences will be of some help if you are considering macro videography.

Production Equipment
My most recent video camcorder production equipment included:

Canon XLH1 24P HDV 3CCD CAMCORDER 8900.00
Canon EF Adapter for EOS Lenses 369.00
Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Autofocus Lens 490.00
Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod with 501HDV Head 300.00

Total $10,059.00

My initial DSLR production equipment includes:

Manfrotto 055XPROB Tripod with 701HDV Head 288.00
CANON 180mm f/3.5L EF MACRO USM LENS 1,449.00
Canon EF 1.4x III Extender 499.00

Total $3,135.00

Not included in this pricing are essential items such as recording media, lens filters, batteries, and battery chargers etc. Potential videographers should also take note that computers, storage drives, and editing software are required for post production tasks to deliver broadcast media, DVDs, or online files etc. The good news is there are many “off the shelf” systems for doing this work.

Besides comparative costs for camcorder and DSLR systems, I considered other factors before making the switch. The most important were video quality and overall weight.

Video Quality
DSLR mid-range to top of the line cameras ($1000.00 to $7000.00) all acquire 1920 x 1080 HD images. Mid-range cameras tend to employ sensors with fewer mega pixels (18 MP); high end cameras use full-sized sensors (21+ MP). The differences in costs have more to do with the ruggedness and weather proofing of the camera body or factors of more concern to photographers than to videographers.

Weight & Portability
Weight and relative portability are important to me for several reasons. A three or four hour field trip, especially if it involves a good deal of hiking or steep terrain, teaches every videographer the real weight of each added pound. Travel on airplanes is much less convenient with heavy and bulky equipment.

Field-rigged XLH1 and Tripod 14.2 pounds

Field-rigged 60D and Tripod 8.1 pounds

When I put Canon’s 100mm f/2.8 Macro on my XLH1 I automatically got a big jump in image magnification. In fact the camcorder / lens combination was similar to having a 700mm lens! Obviously this is a big advantage when working with little critters. In contrast, the same lens on my 60D is like working with a 160mm lens. The bug at a distance that filled most of the frame with my camcorder is a lot less “present” with the DSLR. The 60D does not use a full size sensor (and in this application this is actually a benefit) and has a crop factor of 1.6. A full-sized sensor (higher priced camera) results in the 100mm lens acting as it is suppose to – as a 100mm lens.

Confused? I was too. Here’s how it works with my actual set up.

60D has a crop factor of 1.6b in combination with CANON 180mm Macro:

1.6 x 180 = 288mm

Even though I use a longer lens (180mm vs. 100mm) the 288mm result is still less than half the magnification I was getting with the XLH1 + 100mm macro.

To get a bit more of a magnification boost I’m adding Canon’s 1.4 III Extender. Here’s the math.

1.6 x 180 x 1.4 = 403mm

Of course everything has a cost and in this case we are talking image quality and money. Every lens (extender) you add increases potential image distortion as well as reducing the amount of light reaching the sensor. The better the glass (lens and extender) the less likely your image will suffer. Simply put camcorders plus good glass have some real advantages for macro videography. Making up the difference when using a DSLR is a challenge but high quality lenses help.

Most DSLR cameras have an LCD screen that acts like an electronic viewfinder. However in sunlight the image on the LCD screen may be vague or almost impossible to see. Achieving sharp focus under these conditions is very difficult. Third party viewfinders designed for videographers using DSLR cameras are now available and more sophisticated ones are in the pipeline. These are affixed to the camera’s LCD and function like a traditional camcorder viewfinder. One of the plus factors of Canon’s 60D is the flip out LCD that articulates at various angles and thus enables one to determine an angle that shades the screen and provides a clearer image. Even with this feature focusing is a challenge. Unfortunately if you add one of the typical third party viewfinders the 60D’s LCD is immovable. I did find a simple fabric, box-shaped add-on that allows the LCD to be repositioned and is a fairly effective sun screen. An in-camera function of the 60D is a 5X and 10X magnifier that can be enabled as you focus and then turned off when you are shoot. So while there are workarounds, I think it’s fair to say that achieving sharp focus in macro applications remains a drawback to DSLR video.

Initial Conclusions
After using the DSLR rig (without the 1.4 extender) for 10 days on a recent trip to Texas I’m pleased I made the decision to switch. Yes I missed some opportunities and struggled with achieving sharp focus at times. I also shot some fairly decent video (macro) footage. I think that given more “time in the field” with the DSLR my percentage of good footage will increase. And my back definitely appreciates my lighter rig.

Where The Rubber MeetsThe Road
To compare some of my online videos of jumping spiders (the cutest spiders!) taken with the XLH1 and the 60D see:

Footage shot with DSLR:

Thiodina puerpera
Plexippus paykulli
Sassacus vitis

Keep in mind these critters are small (5-15mm).


The following sites and other online resources address many of the issues and topics covered above and are highly recommended.

BugGuide Photographers Forum

Creative Cow DSLR Forum

Creative COW DSLR Essentials Podcast
Richard Harrington and Robbie Carmen

Tapeless Workflow with Final Cut Pro7
Shane Ross
reviews on camera bodies, lenses, and extenders
Bryan Carnathan

Dick Walton
Natural History Services

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