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The Problems With dSLR Video: Shaky Focus, Jello Artifacts

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I just rewatched the movie Once, a very low-budget Oscar-winning indie set in Ireland about an achingly romantic musical collaboration, built around some amazing songs. It’s a fantastic film, but I’m mentioning it is because it was shot about 9 years ago using one of the first prosumer HDV camcorders, the Sony HVR-Z1. This was the first HD camcorder I ever shot on, almost exactly a decade ago.

Viewing my first studio shots of full-HD footage was almost intoxicating, even if now that same footage has a look that nobody would mistake for cinematic (without a ton of post-processing). With seemingly infinite depth of field imposed by the tiny—by today’s standards— sensor, recorded at 30 interlaced fps, that footage just screamed “video.”

Today most videographers go for a dSLR when shooting anything more complex than a lecture video—and who could blame them? It’s hard to resist achieving a very cinematic look at 24 fps with a very shallow depth of field, for a fraction of the cost. Yet, there’s a price to this progress.

Recently, I was counseling someone shooting dSLR video. This person had some experience in both audio and video production, and test shots showed off a good understanding of the basics. One particular clip stood out because he nailed the light and framing—it was a gorgeous shot.

Then the subject moved a little out of center frame and the picture went out of focus. Obviously the camera had autofocus turned on, and that small bit of movement caused it to focus on a closer object until the subject moved back to center.

I winced, because it marred an otherwise great shot, and because I see it too often. It’s an error that I once thought technology had nearly eradicated. You see, for all their faults, the trusty old Z1 and other small-chip HD camcorders had rock-solid autofocus that a new shooter could rely on, whereas dSLR autofocus sucks for video.

Great depth of field, combined with highly refined autofocus technology, gives that video-centric handicam the advantage. There’s no way that a few inches of movement are going to throw its focus.

I was advising another shooter who wanted to do handheld work. I strongly suggested a camcorder over a dSLR. Aside from the fact that most camcorders are designed with handheld video in mind, dSLRs suffer from rolling shutter artifacts when the camera moves too quickly, giving that “jello” look. I told her that it takes a very practiced hand—or a Steadicam— to get smooth handheld footage.

She decided to forge ahead anyway and was disappointed with the results. Even when there were no pronounced jello artifacts, the shots were much shakier than desired.

With dSLRs, video quality and accessibility have taken an enormous leap forward, but usability has suffered. As an educator, I used to hand any camcorder to a new videography student and set everything to automatic. Then I only had to teach the basics of operation and framing. She would be quickly producing footage that was pretty solid and almost entirely in focus.

However, hand her a dSLR, and you need to give her a tripod if you want the footage to be stable enough to use. You also have to cover manual focusing if she’s going to shoot anything that moves. And you probably should supply an introduction into the relationship between aperture, exposure, and depth of field. Simply put, there are more skills to cover before the newbie can begin obtaining the beautiful video that she really wants to get.

I’m not pining for the old days. Inexpensive video dSLRs are a true revelation as far as I’m concerned. Yet as an educator, I think they’re something that most new videographers have to work up to. It takes more than a great camera to shoot great footage.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “The Price of Progress.”

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