Compression Session
Real-World Shooting
With the Canon 7D:
Making the Switch to HD-DSLR
February/March 2010

by PF Bentley

Recently I shot two projects with the Canon 7D and was thinking about the differences between using the 7D and a "regular" video camera. (We'll be using the 7D as the camera of choice in our upcoming Platypus Workshops for 2010.)

Whether you shoot with the Canon 7D, 5D, Nikon or anything else, HD-DSLRs are now taking over a large segment of the videojournalism and motion picture markets. All are not really made to shoot video, but with various adapters and add-ons you can make it work and get results not obtainable in the past.

The most obvious difference is the wonderful limited depth of field (DOF) that is made possible by the large sensors and 35mm still lenses. A welcome change from the everything-in-focus, 3-chip smaller sensor video cameras.

At minimum, you'll need some sort of viewfinder to use the LCD screen in the back of the camera. I use the Zacuto Z-Finder, which magnifies the image 3x with Zeiss optics. There's really no way to use the camera without a viewfinder for professional results. This is a must.

The onboard sound in any HD-DSLR is abysmal at best. You can either record using the BeachTek DXA-5Da (news flash at press time: BeachTek has two new upgraded models coming out in February and March) as I do, or use an external recording device such as the Zoom H4 and sync everything up in Final Cut Pro with Pluraleyes, an incredible program from Singular Software that saves many frustrating hours of trying to sync sound.

One last item is a Vari-ND filter. This variable neutral density enables you to shoot at f2.8 in daylight and maintain that limited DOF look and feel. I use one from Singh-Ray. This also helps in shooting time-lapse segments using stills.

The following short film was for Lawrence Aki and done in the remote Halawa Valley on Molokai. Mr. Aki is a 50th generation Kumu of his Hawaiian Halau lineage, which is a traditional school of ancient knowledge from the island of Molokai. He has dedicated his life to preserving and perpetuating the cultural traditions of his ancestors for several decades. Kumu Lawrence is going out on a worldwide lecture and workshop tour and needed something to introduce himself and his life to audiences.

I stayed with him in Halawa and shot this in about five days (no electricity, e-mail, cell service or hot water). Editing took another three days or so. (Yes, you still have to log footage with HD-DSLRs. That will never change!)

The next film was a promo for the Hilton Waikoloa and consists of many clips set to music. Journalism? No way. PR Promo? You bet. This was shot over a two-day period on location at the hotel and on the Big Island, most of it done on a tripod.

As an added bonus for all you big wave surf aficionados, here's some footage from last December on the North Shore of Oahu during a couple of contests. This was done with the Canon 70-200/f2.8. Next time, I'm bringing some longer glass for those up-close-and-personal surfing moments.

For all their glory, there are a few downsides to these HD-DSLRs. There's no LANC remote setup – a major bummer for me. The LANC is a cable that goes from the camera or lens directly to the tripod handle and has easy on/off, zoom and focus controls.

No viewfinder audio meters (unless you have a 5D and do a software hack with Magic Lantern).

No built-in XLR connections or moveable viewfinder.

We accept these downsides because the final image is so spectacular and we have learned to work around them with adaptations.

In the end, the Canon 5D and 7D are incredible cameras and I doubt if I could ever use a smaller sensor video-type camera again, but I'd love to have a body that uses the 5D full-frame chip with built-in XLR connections, audio meters and a viewfinder that accepts SLR lenses and attaches a LANC cable to it. Whoever puts the 5D-type chip into that body will definitely corner the market for years to come.

Hopefully, we will see some of you this April in Las Vegas for Platypus and NAB. Should be a great workshop with great new tools and possibilities, expert Final Cut Pro training, how-tos on setting up your 7D or 5D workflow, multimedia editing, shooting time-lapses, slow-motion, portable backpack dollies and crane use, business ideas, and more, including shooting a professional final project – all in nine action-packed days. Then you get to hang around and see all the cool new products that will be shown at NAB 2010.

See ya in Vegas, baby!

© PF Bentley

PF Bentley is lead Final Cut Pro instructor at the Platypus Workshops. We won't bore you here with his 12-page bio & resume.

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