Know the Filmmaking Capabilities of Your DSLR - dummies

Know the Filmmaking Capabilities of Your DSLR

By John Carucci

Although the capture of HD film remains consistent with DSLRs, each manufacturer varies with sensor type and camera features. Accessories, lens mounts, and functionality differ, as does movie file compression. For example, Canon and Nikon share the H.264 video codec, whereas Sony and Panasonic lean toward AVC-HD, although both can provide broadcast quality.

Here’s a little breakdown of the most popular DSLR manufacturers and their products.


With a movie-capable DSLR to fit the budget of almost any set of hands, Canon is one of the leaders of the movement. Even its most basic model, the Rebel T2i, offers impressive HD functionality.

It uses the APS-C sensor, which provides a 1.6X crop factor, and although that limits the wider focal lengths, it does take advantage of telephoto. The Rebel has a wide range of resolutions and frame rates from which to choose.

Models like the 60D and 7D reside on the next shelf. Besides slightly improved ergonomics and more sophisticated controls like an articulating viewfinder and alleged weatherproofing, respectively, found on each model, they have a more professional feel to them. With all that, they still have an APS-C sensor.

Another step up is the movie-friendly 5D Mark III, which is coveted by serious users and professionals alike. Some DSLRs offer movie capture, but are not suited to moviemaking: This is not one of them. Dedicated audio and video capabilities bring a high degree of control to serious moviemakers and professionals alike.

It follows in the footsteps of the 5D Mark II. That model already has the distinction of working on feature films and a stint on the television drama House, where the entire episode was shot with that camera.

At the peak of Canon’s line sits the new EOS-1D X. This full-frame beast boasts dual Digic 5 processors, uncompressed video output, and manual audio control. Canon also makes the 1D Mark IV, which uses the APS-H sensor size — somewhere in between full-frame and APS-C.


Nikon beat Canon to the punch with the first DSLR with movie mode, whereas Canon was the first to offer 1080p capture. Each offers a similar line of DSLR camera bodies with HD movie ability for all price ranges. Nikon uses two sensor sizes logically named FX for its full-frame models, and the DX series that uses an APS-C sensor.

The difference between the Canon and Nikon versions is the crop factor. Nikon uses a slightly larger sensor with a factor of 1.5X.

For the budget conscious, the D3200 offers a similar feature set and price point as the Rebel T3i. The next class up includes the D5100 and D300s. On the high side, and FX-sized, the new D800 captures in both the DX and FX modes, and the D4 offers many of the same features as the Canon 1D-X. It’s even priced similarly.



Although not a major player in the DSLR movie market, the company offers two separate lines with HD movie capability. The E-System resembles a traditional DSLR but only captures at 1270×720. The new PEN line models resemble the offspring of a DSLR and a point-and-shoot. They offer full HD capture with superior optics and interchangeable lenses.

Olympus stands out with its sensor system using a micro 4/3 type that is smaller than an APS-C. The sensor has a crop factor of about 2, making focal lengths twice as long as they would be with a 35 mm camera.

Olympus does offer a full set of lens for each system that compensates for the crop factors with focal lengths starting at 7 mm (creating a 14 mm ultra wide-angle view) to 300 mm. Although PEN and E-series lenses differ, you can use E-series on a PEN camera with an optional convertor.


Down to a single DSLR model, the K-5 series holds the line for Pentax. Available in several configurations including a limited-edition anniversary model, it offers a weather-resistant body, the ability to capture stereo with an external microphone, and full-frame HD video.

The caveat, however, is that in 1920×1080 mode, the frame rate is only 25fps. Not bad if you’re shooting PAL but not as advantageous for footage on a 29.97fps timeline. In the 1280×720 mode, the camera captures 30fps. On a unique note, this model is one of the few to use the shutter button to start the movie.


The most ubiquitous name in electronics has been making digital cameras for some time to complement its rich line of consumer-level camcorders and high-end video cameras. Although Sony isn’t a traditional SLR manufacturer, its Alpha line is a credible choice, and the camera is actually a DSLT.

While using an interchangeable lens system and offering the full functionality of a DSLR, Sony’s cameras use a translucent mirror, instead of the standard pellicle mirror. That allows autofocus while shooting in Live View mode.

Sony offers three models, beginning with the affordable a57K, the a65VK, and topping out with the a77VQ. They use a sensor Sony calls an APS-HD, which basically covers the same space as the Nikon DX format. It has a 1.5X crop factor.



Panasonic’s version of the DSLR is a little unorthodox, mainly because it’s not a DSLR by definition. That aside, the GH2K model has some awesome features.

The third generation of its mirrorless line offers a 16.7 MP sensor in a much smaller package than its counterpart, using a nice selection of lenses and some pretty cool features. It also includes a micro Four Thirds sensor, developed by Olympus and Kodak purely for newly designed digital cameras. CMOS sensors tend to be retro-fitted to classically designed SLR bodies that are now digital.

The touch-enabled LCD screen simplifies menu selection, whereas the autofocus-tracking mode for video is a nice feature for occasional use. Of course, the full HD capture makes it a serious contender.