Using digital cinematography equipment for abbywinters video shoots

Terminology: While we use “DSLR” in this post, everything we say applies to all Digital cinematography equipment: DSLR’s (that is, cameras principlally designed for shooting still images), Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILC), Compact System Cameras (CSC), for example, Sony’s A7 series. This includes Black Magic range, RED range, Canon C100, Panasonic AF100 and G7, and similar platforms.

We draw the distinction between these cameras, and dedicated-to-shooting-video cameras for pro-sumers. It sounds weird, but those pro-sumer video cameras have features that work particularly well for the media we’re producing.

Shooting video with Digital Cinematography Equipment (DCE) is cool, there’s no question. Image quality can be amazing, and the shallow depth-of-field looks fantastic. Of course, DCE has its place in video media production, and that place is expanding rapidly.

But, they’re not ideal for abbywinters shoots, because there are several practical problems that need to be managed. The main issues are:

  • Managing audio well is expensive and fiddly
  • Shallower DoF is a double edged sword: focus needs to be pulled often
  • Camera steadiness is a big issue, and is expensive and difficult to address well
  • Weight and awkwardness becomes an issue with the widgets needs to manage the above issues
  • Costs to manage these issues can be prohibitive
  • Time taken to manage these issues on set is better spent on directing the model

Lets look at each one in more detail.

Digital Cinematography Equipment problem: Audio

It’s been said that audio is 70% of the picture. Perhaps that’s an over-estimation, but there’s no question that good audio is incredibly important.

Digital Cinematography Equipment tend to handle audio recording poorly – it’s a problem for a different department. For AW scenes, however, it’s all you! Microphones that are suitable for our shoots (ie, Sennheiser 416) require phantom power, so a power box is required, making the camera more bulky, and the system prone to error.

ABOVE: Phantom power box to supply power to condenser mic needed for AW scenes, whens hooting with a DSLR or similar camera.

ABOVE: Phantom power box to supply power to condenser mic needed for AW scenes, when shooting with Digital Cinematography Equipment.

Using an external audio recorder

Recording with an external recorder (eg, Zoom) works well in theory, but introduces syncing issues (for example, how will our video editor synch 150 short video clips, with 150 short audio clips? It’s possible, sure, but not really practical!).

And monitoring audio from a Zoom adds more cables and hassle (a cable from the mic to the Zoom, then a headphone cable to your head. So where is the Zoom recorder on set?). These hassles effectively encourage you to not monitor the audio throughout, which is a big risk! (A shoot with poor audio will likely be assessed at 1, paying the lowest rate).

Digital Cinematography Equipment problem: Shallower DoF, pulling focus

DCE typically have larger sensors and better lenses than most video-only cameras, which effectively makes for a shallower DoF – that’s part of the “filmic look” we all love so much, but also means pulling focus while shooting – while you and the model move – is essential. Even at f11!

It’s difficult to know if focus is correct on the small screen on the back of a camera, so an external viewfinder is usually necessary.


ABOVE: An external LCD viewfinder, for mounting on to Digital Cinematography Equipment.

Finally, pulling focus manually takes a lot of attention, time and effort that’s better spent on directing the amateur model! Producing for us is a “one man band” situation, so tools that can save time and attention are essential.

And in fact, we often don’t really want or need a shallow depth of field. It can be nice for some contextual shots, but we’re producing more “immediate” material.

Being able to have a model’s face and vulva in focus at f8 is more important than pretty effects with a shallow depth of field.

Digital Cinematography Equipment problem: Camera steadiness

DCE don’t have image stabilisation technology when shooting in video mode (or perhaps some lenses have a minor OIS function, but nowhere near enough for our needs). This means a lot of extra effort (or money, or both) has to go into keeping the camera steady. Shooting with a tripod is possible for around half of all shots required, but the other half need to be hand-held, due to the shots required (for example, extreme closeups).

Using a jib on a dolly, or a SteadyCam rig are possible solutions, but are a lot more hassle and cost than simply hand-holding a camera that has in-built stabilisation! Specialised equipment takes skill to operate, and are limited in various ways (for example, a model is lying on a bed with her legs apart. You need to get a clitoris XCU shot, where the camera is 50mm / 2″ away from the model).


ABOVE: This is not a practical way to shoot video of an scene. Do you really want to drag this up three flights of stairs on your own?

Digital Cinematography Equipment problem: Weight and awkwardness

Due to the issues above, DCE / DSLR’s need a “rig” – typically consisting of a focus control, shoulder mount, viewfinder, counter-weight, and mic power supply, plus rails and mounting hardware for all this. That makes something that is already complicated, even more complicated – and heavy!

DSLR rig

ABOVE: A DSLR rig with the required accessories for making an AW video shoot, with some exceptions: radio mic receiver and on-camera LED lighting are not required. A matte box is not required, but might be helpful. Image credit.

Digital Cinematography Equipment problem: Cost

By the time these extras are purchased, several high quality dedicated video cameras could have been bought instead, with all the additional benefits they bring that a DCE rig never could!

Plus, consider producing multi-camera shoots (for example, girl-girl), this cost is doubled, plus the cost of a skilled operator in addition to yourself (shooting with dedicated video cameras, the second cameraperson can be significantly less-experienced, so long as they are closely managed by the Shoot Producer).

Digital Cinematography Equipment problem: Time

Even for expert DCE / DSLR video operators, setting up shots takes longer when shooting with DCE (manually focusing, and rehearsing tracking-focus shots alone). Our shoot producers who shoot five days a week shudder at the very idea of using a tripod (let alone more complex equipment), dragging it around, levelling, changing the height, only to realise that for around half the shots, the tripod cannot do what’s needed anyway.

Producing a whole shoot is already time consuming, so let’s work to reduce that time, not increase it!

One Shoot Producer made the analogy of shooting an AW scene with Digital Cinematography Equipment being like the hassle-differential of shooting a wedding with a 35mm Arri moving picture film camera. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s just not necessary – and the crew blows the budget well before the shoot day comes around.


ABOVE: Arri 235. Would you choose to shoot a fast-moving wedding with this, all alone? Really?


While you can choose to shoot abbywinters videos with Digital Cinematography Equipment (DSLR, Red, Black Magic, Sony A7, etc), you’ll be assessed on the final quality of the work you produce, and unless you’re an expert in the issues listed above, it’s extremely likely the result will not be acceptable (and even if you are an expert, it’ll be challenging to shoot 1,000 still frames and 90 minutes of video material in one day, all alone).

We’ve been producing ~8 hours of finished video media a week for the last 19 years in a commercial environment, and run a profitable business from it.

We’re not just banging rocks together here.

The solution

For all the reasons above, we strongly recommend using a dedicated designed-for-shooting-video video camera.

Think of it this way: every modern consumer / pro-sumer video camera can also “shoot stills”, but no self-respecting photographer would consider using such a camera for actually shooting stills in a professional environment. It’s simply the wrong tool for the job! What would your grandpa say?

Our Recommended Equipment page has more detailed information on our recommended video camera selection (towards the bottom).

In a nutshell, it’s this:

ABOVE: (1) Sony CX900, with (2) XLR-K2M adapter, (3) Sennheiser MKH-416 mic, and (4) Short XLR-to-XLR mic cable. Used for all AW shoots shot in Amsterdam, since April 2016. (Addition of a wind jammer is required for shooting outside).

ABOVE: (1) Sony CX900, with (2) XLR-K2M audio adapter, (3) Sennheiser MKH-416 mic, and (4) Short XLR-to-XLR mic cable. Used for all AW shoots shot in Amsterdam, since April 2015.


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