DSLRS Make Inroads into TV News

DeSales University film and TV students Katie Wallace (left) and Abbi Snee stage a practice news event using one of the school’s Canon DSLRs.

MULTIPLE CITIES -- One of the more interesting tools in the 21st century journalist’s kit is the digital single lens reflex camera, or more simply, the DSLR. It arrived on the scene a relatively short time ago, but has already been around long enough to evoke a love/hate relationship among users.

“The images are fabulous, really excellent pictures,” said Art Donahue (pictured below, right), an editor and producer at WCVB in Boston who has been shooting news footage for the past 40 years. “Everyone wants the shallow depth of field that DSLRs offer, and it works so well in low-light situations. With the fullframe sensor, you’re downsampling to HD. The noise virtually disappears and you’re able to shoot in low-light situations that you couldn’t do with a standard 2/3-inch imager—this is a huge, huge advantage.”

Carl Mrozek, an independent shooter based in Buffalo, N.Y., acknowledged that DSLRs provide great images, but getting good audio is more challenging. “It’s really hard to monitor audio properly, even with an outboard adapter,” Mrozek said. “Also, the audio adapters make the DSLR package clunky and harder to handle. It takes a lot of adjustment to use a DSLR for shooting video.”

No one knows for sure exactly why camera manufacturers began including a “video” mode on some of their digital models, or who actually used the feature to capture content aired on television. However, in the span of a few years, video capability has become more or less universal with DSLRs, and a lot of people are taking advantage of it.

“I think it all started with still photographers who wanted to grab some video from time to time,” Mrozek said. “Rather than go out and buy a $5,000 or $10,000 video camera, why not just use the DSLR?”

Jim Crawford, president of Frezzi Energy Systems, and one of several suppliers of DSLR shooting rigs, said Nikon may have been the first kid on the block with a production video mode on a still camera, but that now, “everybody is into it.” Crawford is based in the New York City area and interfaces with many area shooters on a regular basis.

“While the DSLR with video has been out for some time, it’s only been adopted by TV people in the last two years or so,” he said. “You don’t see it replacing shoulder-mount camcorders in its present form. When you’re a news guy, you cannot make a mistake—you really can’t fumble around looking for the on/off switch. What I’m seeing right now is its use in providing part of the production footage that’s intercut with that from conventional cameras. You do see a lot of specialty people using DSLRs, but it’s not in mainstream news just yet.”

Mrozek thinks that DSLR technology does have a place in some newsgathering applications, though.

“It would be good for special applications such as war-zone shooting, where a larger camera would be too conspicuous. DSLRs have obvious advantages for news applications involving stealth and traveling light. Getting a DSLR through customs shouldn’t be a problem either, where carrying a conventional video camera might. The ability to hide recording media is good too—the small size allows you to keep the important stuff safe.”

Chuck Gloman, who is chair of De- Sales University’s TV and Film department, also sees a bright future for the DSLR in newsgathering applications. His school offers a four-year bachelor of arts degree in television and film, and he has found that the current wave of students have all but abandoned conventional camcorders.

“The shift occurred about two years ago,” Gloman said. “Our students are using DSLRs exclusively in their work. The camcorders are gathering dust. We’ve had two graduating classes go out into the world, and DSLRs are all they’re using. They cost less, produce great pictures and offer a ‘film look’ because the glass is better. I think that eventually it will be universally accepted for news work.”

Gloman, however, does agree that the DSLR comes with a few negatives.

“One drawback is that the sensor overheats in 20 minutes or so. You have to let it rest, as the camera shuts itself down, so it’s not really good right now for long-form content capture. Another drawback for me is that I wear bifocals and I can’t focus that well. I really have to use an external monitor. Also, you’re really holding a still camera, so it doesn’t rest on your shoulder or fit the palm of your hand like a camcorder. This isn’t going to change.”

Another educator, Geoff Poister, who’s a member of Boston University’s Film and Television faculty, also sees a place for the DSLR in TV news.

“People don’t know you’re shooting video—they think you’re shooting stills,” Poister said. “These cameras let you get away with it. You look like a tourist and are not likely to be stopped as a professional shooter might. Plus the images are great—high-definition, which can be downscaled.”

On the negative side, Poister has also encountered the sensor overheating and audio drawbacks associated with DSLRs, but has learned to overcome these.

“The sensor can heat if you run continuously and the weather is warm,” he said. “You get an overheat warning and eventually, it will shut off. Then you have to wait 10 minutes or so for it to cool before you can start recording again. I don’t see it as a serious problem in most applications. In shooting documentaries I frequently stop and start the camera anyway.

“For me, audio is the real problem, but it’s not insurmountable. Several companies make attachments that mount on the bottom of the camera and let you plug in an XLR microphone, or you can use a separate recorder. For $150 or $200, you can get a nice recorder and match up the sound and video later. Tascam makes some nice units for this purpose.”

Although the jury is still out, most DSLR video users contacted tended to agree that while several items—including audio, sensor overheating, external rig requirements, and control location— will have to be addressed before the camera format goes mainstream in TV news, it is a useful tool.

“Yes, it takes some adjusting to use a DSLR for video,” Mrozek said. “Yet people are even using iPhones and the like for shooting video now. Who knows where it’s going to end up? We may all be shooting with totally different types of cameras someday. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for anything anymore. DSLRs are definitely an important new addition to the pro videographer’s toolbox, especially in situations where size matters, as does the replacement cost [when] the camera is at risk.”

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.