DSLR Filmmaking Fundamentals

The extra time you take with your DSLR during each part of the filmmaking process is often the key ingredient to a successful film. That means taking a few extra moments to make sure the shot is technically perfect.

While you're capturing footage, pay attention to effective variations of each shot in the scene. At the very least, include variations of subject size and angle. That’s how professional filmmakers work.

Here’s a breakdown of each function and how it impacts your shot:

  • Shutter speed: Moviemaking uses a much narrower range of shutter speeds. The standard shutter setting for video is 1/60 of a second.

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    By using a higher shutter speed, say 1/250, you can more clearly capture fast-moving subjects that require crisp rendering.

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    You can even use a lower shutter speed, 1/15 of a second, if your camera permits, for a blurred effect. When the camera is steadily positioned on a tripod and you shoot a fast-moving subject, you can capture it as a blur.

  • Aperture setting: On the DSLR, you altering exposure using the aperture setting. Videographers call it iris, but it’s technically aperture. Basically, it’s the camera’s main means of controlling exposure by changing f-stops, which are each equivalent to double or half the exposure, depending on whether you require more or less light.

  • White balance: White balance is the means of adjusting the color temperature of each scene by setting the camera’s sensor by balancing to reproduce white under a specific temperature of light.

    Color temperature is based on the Kelvin scale with daylight at around 5500K. By setting white balance, you can match the proper color of the scene.

    Your camera’s white balance is usually controlled one of three ways. The most common requires you to do nothing: It’s the automatic setting and it adjusts white for each scene.

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    But it doesn’t work well. Then there’s the Preset mode, which lets you adjust the sensor for specific conditions like daylight, tungsten, fluorescent, and so on.

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    To use the manual mode, hold a white card in front of the lens and adjust to it each time you change locations or when the light changes.

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  • Manual focus: Autofocus does not play well with movie modes. To keep things clean and neat, set the lens to manual focus, zoom all the way in, focus, and then pull out to the desired focus.

Exposure

Exposure derives from the trinity of aperture setting, shutter speed, and ISO setting.

Measured in f-stops, many lenses show the following numbers: F2.8, F4, F5.6, F/8, F11, F16, and F22. Each one represents an entire stop of exposure. They allow less light into the lens as the numbers get higher, and more light when they get lower, known as closing down and opening up, respectively.

Shutter speed has a similar approach to adjusting exposure with a reciprocal relationship to aperture that allows you strike the right balance between shutter speed and aperture combination.

Measured in fractional seconds, applicable moviemaking shutter speeds include 15, 30, and 60, 125, 250. As you can see, they also have exponential variations that affect exposure by one full stop by doubling or halving with each change. Higher numbers allow less light to hit the sensor, whereas lower numbers let more light in.

The ISO setting affects the amount of light required for exposure and adds noise as it becomes more sensitive. The art is to use the lowest ISO setting as possible to assure image quality with the least possible noise.

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Scene preparation

Before you park yourself in the director’s chair, here’s what you need to know and do to get ready for each scene:

  1. Prepare to shoot.

    Set up the camera on your tripod and compose the scene.

  2. Set shutter speed.

    Use 1/60 for general situations. Higher shutter speeds can be used when you want to depict detail in action sequences or when the lighting is extremely bright. It’s not a bad idea to wait until after setting aperture to deal with adjusting shutter speed.

  3. Balance exposure.

    Raise or lower your aperture setting until the scene looks well exposed.

  4. Set white balance.

    Hold a card or paper and manually change it. Refer to your camera manual for specific instructions on setting manual white balance.

  5. Focus on the scene.

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    Make sure autofocus is turned off. If you're using a zoom lens, set the focus at maximum telephoto, and then reframe with the proper focal length.

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  6. Press the movie button.

    Always start recording before the action takes place and don’t stop recording until after it’s done.

  7. Repeat these steps for every shot.

    Taking these steps increases the probability of having usable footage for the editing process.

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