What's in vogue

Editor David Austerberry addresses the proliferation of DSLR cameras and their misuse.
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While researching for the feature on cameras in this issue, I recalled how often in the last year I have seen focus errors, especially in commercials. One of the drawbacks with using a DSLR is that just like a movie shoot, you need a focus puller. A producer using a DSLR may well have chosen the camera to save money, as well as for a “filmic look.” For similar budget reasons, he or she may have eliminated a focus puller. A likely consequence, however, is an out-of-focus subject.

I'm not saying that camera operators cannot focus (TV cameras are always focused by the cameraman), but if you stray into film-style operation, then you soon discover the usefulness of a focus puller.

DSLR use can be partially attributed to what's in fashion, but that can lead to visual clichés. For those who remember analog switchers, give a director heart wipes or a matrix of revolving stars, and they used them, until they realized how cheesy they looked. Once the DVE came along, it was another new toy that could be used for cliché effects. Again, it took a while for users to learn how to use them with style.

One of the claimed advantages of the DSLR is that a small depth of field can be achieved. The use of a small depth of field started with the movies, but it was more a consequence of the need to use wide apertures with the slow speed of early film stocks. Directors of photography used the effect to their advantage to focus viewers' attention on part of the scene and to help give depth to a 2-D medium. It had added benefits in a tracking or panning shot, for example, in which the background could be thrown out of focus, minimizing the inevitable strobing of 24fps capture.

Videographers have rediscovered this effect with the DSLR and might be having too much fun playing with it: It can be painfully overdone. I recently saw a production shot with digital cinema cameras that used such a small depth of field that it became visually obtrusive. The Hollywood guys learned how to use it subtly decades ago, but today's shooters are finding out for themselves.

Another popular effect is to get the edgy documentary look by using the camera as a handheld. It might work with a CCD camera, but the CMOS sensors in DSLRs create the rolling shutter or “jello” effect. This is an artifact of the sensor scanning, and it looks most unnatural. This effect is minimized in properly designed video cameras, but at a price.

I too have been guilty of the abuses of DSLR technology. When I first purchased a wide-angle lens, my friends were all captured as unflattering portraits in extreme close-up — more for comic effect than style. That said, I did learn to step back when composing.

Of course, it's not just shooters who are slaves to fashion. It used to be very much the thing in post to use the latest hip piece of gear, and no substitute would do. Post clients have learned, however, that it's the skill and creativity of the operator that counts if they want a quality product. Seasoned film cameramen must be bemused by this current vogue for the DSLR. Even so, some very creative and low-budget work has been shot on these cameras, so don't decry them just yet.

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