Home movies: will a DSLR work for me?
June 26, 2011 12:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering upgrading my DSLR to one with video capabilities. What will my experience be like for making home videos (babies doing baby stuff, cats playing, family parties)?

I'm a long-time SLR user and like taking pictures. We'll be having a baby soon enough and would like to shoot a lot of video of him/her. I could either go camcorder or upgrade my current camera (Nikon D70) to a new one (Nikon D7000) which can shoot video. While there are a lot of reasons for going the upgrade route I have some concerns too:

Am I going to get comparable or better video with a DSLR as I would with a camcorder under the same conditions: me walking around with the camera making use of ambient light.

Does the distortion happen where the picture waves back and forth when you pan with the camera or was that limited to the D90?

How quickly does shooting video drain the battery? Am I going to be carrying spares with me? I've never had to worry about batteries with previous cameras but I sense that shooting continuous video will be slightly more power intensive than just taking pictures.

Built in mics: how good are they at picking up people talking? If I can hear the subject talking will the mic pick it up as well? Will there be too much other noise? No intention of getting a separate mic so I want to know how the sound off a DSLR mic (particularly the D7000) would compare to the sound off a camcorder mic. I know the built-in is only mono, but we're talking home movies here, am I going to want stereo sound?

Will I be able to transcode my video in linux or does it have some weird format that will force me to use their own software? The Windows computer we have is sloooooow and steals a bit of my life-force each time I use it.

Those are the concerns I can think of. I am sure I am overlooking many things. But knowing these concerns, my main purpose and how I plan on shooting what will my experience be like? If my experience won't be good, how could I make it better?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm to Technology (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Wrt the sound of the built in mic of the D7000: in my experience it picks up quite a bit of noise from the auto-focus motor in the lens. Enough noise for me to get a mic that's affixed on top of the camera.
I think the distortion issue that used to be the case with the D90 is discussed in this thorough review.
posted by joost de vries at 1:08 PM on June 26, 2011

and the video format is the standard H.264 MPEG-4
posted by joost de vries at 1:09 PM on June 26, 2011

What is your goal with these videos?

For example, do you want to edit them for longer videos that will be memorable years later or have cute short videos for grandparents/friends?

Cuz babies do cute things on the fly and tend to stop doing cute things once they realize that they're being filmed, so in my baby-videoing/photographing experience, I find that the cell phone camera is way easier for capturing these moments than carrying something big around. By the time you run to the place where the camera is and turn it on, the cute moment is usually over.

Also, your free time for editing is going to decrease quite a bit. Being able to click "upload to Flickr" or "upload to Facebook" from your phone to get the cute moment to the audience soon is much easier and more possible than downloading video, editing it, and then uploading it. Moreover, Mrs. Portmanteau in a Storm might be a little annoyed when she's looking for some help putting the dishes away or holding the baby for a few minutes and you're buying making beautiful transitions between 2 scenes.

Once Portmeanteau Junior is older and you actually want to film the whole thing (like a dance recital or something), newer and better cameras will be available and you'll kick yourself for spending so much on this type of camera in 2011 that is 1/4th of the price in 2015.
posted by k8t at 1:12 PM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

A couple of points you might want to think about (and let us know, so that the suggestions can be to your specific situation):

1. Will you use the same device for both photo and video? While a DSLR can take great videos and a camcorder can take a photo, there are distinct capabilities in each. For videos, a camcorder can give much greater analog zoom (upto 22x) and is more stable than a DSLR

2. Is audio important? In most home video situations, a bit of outside noise is acceptable, but if you want clear audio, the camcorder has a better chance, since the mikes are built to capture sound at a distance

3. Will you want to do any post processing, such as break up the video into smaller pieces, add effects etc? Most camcorders come with standard formats, but you should be able to convert videos to a format that is suitable for such post processing. I use Windows Movie Maker, which accepts windows formats as well as mp4 and some other formats.

I guess, the deciding question, at least for me, is if you are willing to have two gadgets for photo and video or want to carry just one.

One more plus for the camcorder is that almost all of them come with a remote, so you can place the cam in a strategic place (with a tripod, perhaps) and use the remote to trigger recording. The same may be available with a DSLR, but may be limited to certain models.
posted by theobserver at 1:28 PM on June 26, 2011

It's funny. I normally recommend a camcorder over a DSLR. DSLRs are loud, the autofocus is slow for video, memory is small, microphone is crap, etc. But when I look at finished videos of my kids, my favorites are all from my DSLRs and the reason is the lenses. The glass I've collected over the years on my DSLRs is so much better that I prefer it to my camcorder in spite of all of the disadvantages. So if your lenses are good, you might find yourself enjoying a full-sized video DSLR. (I don't like the video from my 4/3s Panasonic however.)

As k8t says, your phone will capture a lot of kid video whatever your plans are. So your first upgrade should be to a phone with better video quality.
posted by acheekymonkey at 2:23 PM on June 26, 2011

You can take professional quality videos with a DSLR these days; indeed, at my work one of our production agencies has moved 90% to 50D Mk IIs for the videos they make for us. So, it can definitely be done. HOWEVER, getting great video out of a DSLR is difficult.

Sure, the lenses make for lovely narrow depth-of-field etc, but:

a) the sound is crap
b) you'll almost always want a tripod or else an ultrawide-to-wide angle lens to reduce shake (bye bye, depth of field!)
c) A lot of functions (e.g white balance) often can't be adjusting once shooting, and focussing can be slow and noisy.
d) You often can't use the viewfinder, and have to use the LCD on the back. Maybe that's a pro for you.
e) Most DLSR's are pretty heavy compared to a camcorder and the recording interface is a lot clunkier. and slower to use.

So, if you have some wide angle lenses, and a bit of experience shooting video and crucially shooting to edit, and you don't mind taking a tripod around, you will make some great videos. But, absent that experience, you may find a small video camera or phone camera an easier solution in a lot of ways.
posted by smoke at 4:44 PM on June 26, 2011

I don't have a D7000, but I have a D5100 which has the same sensor at the D7000. I'll echo some of the things said above:

- Distortion: The D5100 only shows distortion when something is moving extremely fast, like pointing it at a running fan with a fast shutter.

- You'll want to buy a mic. The built in microphone on Nikon's are inexplicably right by the focus motor and it's noisy.

- Recording a video is two buttons. One to throw it into Live View mode (Pulls the mirror up so the image can get to the sensor and shows the image on the LCD.) And press record. Reaction time is in the 10ths of seconds.

- Battery life depends on tons of factors (screen brightness, how much the autofocus is working, vid resolution, etc.) The max length of vids is 20 minutes or 4 gigs. After that you have to start a new shot, but it's pretty obvious on the camera and take a button press and starts immediately. The battery lasts for much longer than I ever thought it would. It takes high speed SD cards, but even those are only like $2 a gig.

- I like it better than a vid cam because its much smaller than an equivalent video camera and the lens selection is much larger.

- I like the D5100 better than the D7000 for video because it has the flip-out screen that can be turned around so the subject can see what is being recorded. The video quality is identical between those models.

- The quality of video from these is fantastic. I've seen them used as 2nd cameras on national TV shoots. Yeah, it'll be better in 4 years, but that's 4 years from now. The new Cannons have lightly better video quality for the same price, but I find them harder to use.

- You can do basic video editing right in camera.

- And you can take really nice looking stills without having to drag around another camera.

Here's a link that talks about the pros and cons on shooting videos with the Nikons.
posted by Ookseer at 6:37 PM on June 26, 2011

If you aren't using a Panasonic Lumix series Micro Four Thirds mount DSLR, you're in for a world of hurt if you want to follow anything that's moving. For all practical purposes, you're going to have to focus manually while shooting videos. It can be fun and satisfying, but it's nowhere near as simple an operation as you'd get with any camcorder (or, hell, even an iPod Nano).

If you're willing to deal with the fact that you'll probably have to buy a RODE VideoMic (for reasonably good audio at a reasonable-for-the-camera-world price) and that your focusing will all have to be done manually while shooting, hey, you're going to be very pleased with what you wind up with in the end.
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:32 PM on June 26, 2011

Why do you say that you have to focus manually? The D7000 has continuous autofocus and facetracking f.i.
posted by joost de vries at 9:16 PM on June 26, 2011

Well, I use the Canon 5D for professional video all the time. Last night for a nationally broadcast benefit show, we ran several clips where I used the 5D as a second camera on-location for the disaster footage. The director (old-school big time television) was amazed by what we pulled out of it. At first he was convinced I had just taken a break from video to take some stills, and was rightfully not happy.

That being said, there are a lot of hurdles and benefits to using a DSLR for video:

1. Across the board, Canons are better than Nikons for video (I know its somewhat better now, but I stand by it). You could always get an adapter to move your Nikon glass over to a Canon, but it adds a layer of complexity. The main issue is skew (rolling shutter) - either camera has an issue with movement, but it is more pronounced in the Nikons.

2. Focus is an issue. The continuous AF systems are not good (lots of little back and forth), but it depends on what you're shooting. Most of my shots are pre-set and planned, but for live events I will usually hit the AF button once before recording, and then doing my best to keep focus during the shot.

3. Battery life, storage, etc. are not as good as a camcorder. For example, the 5D is limited to 11 minute clips, and even then you have a slight risk of the system getting too hot to record (unlikely, but happens).

4. The visual - amazing. Straight out of the camera.

On the Canon side, the 60D is also a good choice ($1200 for 60D vs $3200 for the 5D vs $1600 for the 7D). It has the added benefit of a fold out screen, with the same basic system as the 7D. Most of the differences between the two are on the photography side.

For some of your specific questions - H.264 is processor intensive on your computer. For most of us, we convert to an editable format before dealing with the footage. The on-board mics are largely worthless (we use it for audio sync later, that's it).

I'm still of the opinion that there are too many downsides to using it as a day-to-day capture that moment camera. Find a decent flip-style camera, or your phone, something you can have with you all the time. If you have any DSLR questions moving forward, let me know.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:45 AM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far.

For absolute spur-of-the-moment videos my wife has an iPhone that seems to do a decent enough job, but it's not like our place is huge. At any given time I could probably locate and take a picture with my D70 faster than with my wife's iPhone. I'd imagine the situation would be the same for video with either a camcorder or D7000.

On my current still camera I don't spend that much time setting up. I'll swap out a lens and adjust the camera's settings depending on the situation/lighting but that's about it. I want a similar experience with video. Is a tripod necessary or will I be ok with VR lenses? Handheld to handheld how does camcorder VR compare?

Depth of Field - I'm planning on shooting fairly bog-standard videos (but in HD!). While a shallow depth of field would be nice I'd more often than not just prefer to get the whole frame in focus.

Battery life - Going 10/20 minutes at a time, how many minutes of video could I shoot on a single charged battery?

Microphone - I don't need great sound but I'd rather not hear the wind or my lens focusing. How bad is this? My big zoom is a noisy Tamron but my wider Sigma and Nikon are quiet. I'd imagine audio is more useful for the wide lenses because if I'm zooming in from a distance then the mic won't be able to pick up the subject anyway, at best it would be commentary by a nearby person.

Flip-out screen - this sounds like something useful for video. How problematic is not having one if a tripod is not being used?

I prefer pictures to video so if I'm going out with the intention of taking video I'll be lugging my camera around as well. Being able to do both with one device would be nice. But I imagine I'l be carrying lots of other stuff as well so an extra camera isn't going to add that much.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:45 AM on June 29, 2011

If you want an example of the focusing sound using the built in microphone send me a message and I'll share a video.
posted by joost de vries at 8:40 AM on July 2, 2011

Response by poster: Ended up getting an HD camcorder and played with it over a weekend getaway. My wife had no problems using it and ended up holding on to it for most of the time. So far it's a winner.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:54 AM on July 21, 2011

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