It was over two years before I started to experiment with video on my current DSLR camera. Little did I know what beautiful footage I was missing out on!
You can achieve a totally different look compared to video shot on a GoPro, compact camera, camcorder or phone, with a film-like quality that looks really professional. Although some principles of photography remain the same for filming with your DSLR, there are some specific settings and techniques you need to use when switching to the video function. If you too want to start making travel videos that stand out, read on to learn how to shoot cinematic video with DSLR cameras.
First up, you’ll need to ensure you have a few specific pieces of equipment. You’ll likely have some of these already if you’re a keen photographer, otherwise it’s time to invest in some new gear.
The most important thing to ensure when shooting video is that your shutter speed matches your frame rate. And if you want to achieve that cinematic look, with just the right amount of motion blur, you need to shoot at 1/50 with a frame rate of 24fps (frames per second). You can change your fps settings in your camera Menu – on my Canon 700D these settings are in the ‘Movie Rec. Size’ section (make sure the dial is switched to Video mode to access this tab). 1920 x 1080 is full HD.
Set your camera to 1920×1080 for full HD and 24fps
You should also change your ‘Picture Style’ settings to ‘Neutral’. This dials down the contrast, sharpness and saturation to zero, which gives you much more leeway when it comes to editing your footage and getting the look just right. Reducing the sharpness also helps to reduce moire, the wavy lines effect that can occur when filming something with patterns, lines etc (for example brick walls on a building, or someone wearing a striped T-shirt).
Change your picture style to ‘Neutral’
With these camera settings in place you can start to actually shoot your videos. There’s a bit more to it than just flicking the dial to video and hitting record though.
First of all, make sure the camera dial is set to Manual (M) mode. You’ll need to have an understanding of your camera’s manual settings, and how to change things like the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. If you’re not sure, check the instructions manual!
Remember I said you have to stick to a shutter speed of 1/50, regardless of the environment you’re filming in? Well, this can make it a bit tricky to get the right exposure for your shot. If you’re filming outside in bright light then your footage will be way too overexposed. If you’re shooting in low-light then it will be underexposed. So, what’s the solution? This is where your choice of lens and a variable ND filter come into play.
For shooting in bright light, you have the choice of narrowing your aperture (a bigger f-number like f/16, f/20 etc) in order to let less light in, or using a variable ND filter to block out the light.
While dialling your f-number right up might be the quickest and cheapest solution (if you don’t already own a filter) the main drawback with this is that you’ll lose your shallow depth of field (DOF). Shallow DOF is what really sets your footage apart from that which is shot on GoPro, camcorders or whatever (more on this below). So, ideally you’ll want to use a variable ND filter instead. Basically, it’s a filter that screws onto your lens and cuts out the amount of light getting through. You can twist it to vary the amount of light being blocked out, until you have the correct exposure while still shooting at 1/50. Think of it like putting sunglasses onto your lens. Also, make sure you’ve got your ISO at the lowest possible setting (eg. ISO 100).
You’ll need a variable ND filter like this in order to shoot in bright light
For filming in low-light situations you have the opposite problem – not enough light is getting into your lens at a shutter speed of 1/50. You can’t just slow down the speed like you would if you were taking a photo. You can, to an extent, increase your ISO, however noise is far more noticeable on video so it’s best to stick to ISO 800 or less.
This means that your ability to capture great footage in a low-light environment will come down to your choice of lens. You want to let as much light into your lens as possible, so you need as wide an aperture as possible. A fast lens with a small f-number like f/1.4 is perfect. I have a lot of love for my Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens. It captures beautiful images and the DOF you can achieve is delightfully dreamy. I can shoot perfectly exposed footage in low-light situations, while my 18-135mm f/3.5 lens is rendered completely useless.
You need to set your camera to manual focus mode and never shoot on auto-focus. Your camera will hunt around looking to auto-focus your scene and the resulting footage will be a mess, plus the noise of the motor will be audible on your video. If you mostly use auto-focus, making the switch to manual focus can take a bit of getting used to but it’s not difficult.
The easiest way to ensure you have your footage accurately in focus is to zoom in on the live view LCD screen and check the detail (on my Canon I touch the magnifying glass symbol). Twist your focus ring until the image looks sharp, then zoom back out on the screen. You can also quickly flick your dial to photo mode and auto-focus the scene, then switch to manual focus and set your dial back to video mode. As long as you don’t touch the focus ring, your focus will remain the same as the auto-focus setting.
In order to shoot cinematic video with DSLR cameras, there are a few techniques that you can use.
DEPTH OF FIELD
The most obvious technique is ensuring you take full advantage of your ability to create shallow depth of field (DOF) footage. This is characterised by an intentionally blurry background (also known as bokeh), with the foreground in focus. The wider your aperture (smaller f-number like f/1.4, f/2.0 etc) the more pronounced the DOF, or background blur, is. You simply can’t achieve this look on a GoPro, phone, camcorder and so on, and it’s a quality that is synonymous with film. The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the focal point of your shot and isn’t distracted by whatever else is going on in the frame. Experiment with different apertures and see what you like. I love shooting at night with colourful lights blurred out in the background, creating a creamy bokeh-licious scene.
Another technique to try is shifting the focus while filming. This allows you to bring the foreground, middle, or background into focus while the other areas remain blurred, sometimes called ‘rack focus’. For example, you could focus on a person in the foreground initially, then shift the focus to people in the background. Unless you want to invest in some pretty expensive and bulky equipment, you’ll need to rely on your own (very) gentle touch to do this without shaking the camera. Keep practicing, and getting the focus right will become second nature.
SLOW AND STEADY
DSLR cameras are suited to certain types of shots much better than others. To get the most out of your footage, and harness that film-like quality, it’s best to use a tripod. This means you’ll be shooting from a fixed location, so take the time to choose your scene and frame up your composition carefully. DSLRs are perfect for static or slow panning shots; not fast paced movement, action or walking with the camera shots.
There’s plenty of fancy equipment out there to help you capture ‘moving’ shots without any camera shake, but if you’re just starting out – or, like us, you’re travelling with all your filming gear in your backpack – then you’ll need to make do with the basics. Invest in as good a tripod as you can afford. I wasn’t happy with either of the tripods I owned, so after a LOT of research I settled on a new model last year and I’m absolutely loving it. I wanted a light-weight and compact one for backpacking around the world, but it had to be sturdy and tall enough that I wouldn’t be bending over the whole time.
No backache – yay! And it’s super light and easy to backpack with
I settled on the carbon fiber Zomei Z669C, which I got for just over £100 off Amazon (which is a fraction of the cost of most carbon fiber tripods out there!). The ballhead makes it a doddle to maneuver my camera into any position quickly, and I’ve found I can get a decent enough smooth pan just by loosening the pan adjustment knob and nudging it around slowly and evenly with my finger. It’s important not to pan too quickly when filming with your DSLR camera, otherwise you’ll likely end up with a wobble effect that will ruin your shot. Slow and steady it is!
Camera shake is very noticeable when shooting handheld video. If you’re unable to use a tripod, try to reduce the shake by resting the camera on a flat surface, or putting the strap around your neck and extending the camera as far as it will go, pulling the strap taut. Or, it may be that handheld footage is the kind of style you’re after, in which case go for it! Just remember, quick jerky movements and fast pans don’t work well.
FINAL TIPS ON HOW TO SHOOT CINEMATIC VIDEO WITH DSLR CAMERAS
It can take a bit of practice to find what works for you when starting out learning how to shoot cinematic video with DSLR cameras. Take the time to experiment with different techniques and finesse your style and you’ll be creating stand-out videos in no time!
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