Camera Modes

DSLR video: a brief overview

Written by Brett Turner

Learn more about digital single lens reflex camera video. It comes with great promise, top quality, and some big hurdles.

ClapboardCompact, point and shoot, and bridge digital cameras have for quite a while had the capability to shoot fairly good video. As expected, some now include an option to record in High-Definition but what is less expected is the inclusion of video in digital single lens reflex cameras.

Most of this article applies to smaller cameras as well but as video in a DSLR presents some unique options and concerns we will focus there.

DSLR video

DSLRs are now available with the ability to record not only good video but some can record movie quality High-Definition video. What cameras?

Surely only the top level DSLRs; the ones that start at $8000.00?  No!

The most expensive of these is around $2500.00. Currently the Nikon D90 and the Canon 5d mk 2 are the HD capable high-end DSLRs on the market. By the time you read this there will likely be a plethora of sub $1000.00 consumer level HD video capable DSLRs.  Nikon and Canon both introduced such models at the time of this writing, the D5000 and the Rebel T1I respectively.

Yay! HD for everyone!

This brings up several questions.  To start with just a few: Why do I want HD on a DSLR?  What exactly is HD?  How do I edit and output my movies? Is the quality as good as HD camcorders?

Why do I want HD on a DSLR?

Nikon D90The first advantage is simply to only have to carry one camera when you go out to shoot.  Many working photojournalists who already have excellent cameras are buying video capable DSLRs because they have to get still photos for the paper and video for the web or broadcast.

The second major reason is that the quality of lenses available for a DSLR is far higher than the lenses built into consumer HD video cameras. No tapes, the DSLRs record directly on to digital media. And then there is my favorite; the ability to control depth of field in video.

I have been shooting video of my son’s baseball games with a 70-200mm 2.8 lens. The shallow depth of field allows the chain link fence to go so far out of focus as to disappear.

It works well but it quickly shows the biggest drawback currently in using a DSLR, the lack of auto focus in video mode and manual control. On the other hand when shooting in a dark auditorium the quality at high ISOs of the Canon 5dmk2 was amazing. The video shows little or no grain and was clear and well exposed.  Hopefully the manufactures will ad auto focus for video in later models but it would require a complete redesign of the auto focus system.

What exactly is High Definition?

In short, there are many standards and worse yet many more different file types. This is just the surface but it should give you some ideas.

First, some numbers:

  • 480 – Not HD. This is old crt TV and standard resolution DVDs. 640×480 pixels
  • 720p –  This is the smaller HD format. Used by HD sports channels. 1280×720 pixels.  (P)  Progressive scan provides the smoothest motion.
  • 1080i –  More apparent resolution than 720 but (I) Interlaced does not provide as sooth motion. Used by some HD channels when fast motion is not a concern. 1920×1080 pixels
  • 1080p –  The big boy. Way more data. Hard to deal with but the best resolution and motion. No HD Channels currently use this standard as the bandwidth would just be too much. 1920×1080 pixels

So which one do you need?

Most cameras allow you some choice between the set. You may choose based on the expected output.

A true HD file is too large to e-mail. Once you decide on the resolution the other concern is the frame rate. For example the Canon T1I boasts 1080, and 720. However look closely and you will see that on that camera the 1080 setting is only 20 frames per second (fps), the 720 is 30 fps.

The standard when Edison invented motion pictures was 24 fps (remember that movies used to flicker) but currently we use 30 fps.  It would be better to shoot 720 at 30fps than to use 1080 at 20. 20fps might be okay for a stationary subject but any motion will look jerky.

The Canon 5d mk2 has the ability to shoot at 1080p at 30fps at the moment this is the best quality available and is higher than any thing on any HD TV channel. For me it is like shooting RAW files. I would shoot the best your camera allows then convert it to a smaller file for output or editing. Save the original, you never know when you might need the extra quality in the future.

How do I edit and out put my movies?

The short answer is that there any number of editing software that can be used. Your budget, experience and computer platform will have the most to do with this choice. But let me say that you do not necessarily need the latest Mac running Final cut pro.

I am not that into video so don’t edit much and have a rather cheap editing program that I run on a PC.  The most important thing you will need is converter software.  In truth my computer can not even play back the files from my 5dmk2.

Canon used a codec that is for some reason hard to deal with for a PC. Macs will play these files with little to no trouble. The problem is that the camera hardware can simply not keep up with the data from an uncompressed HD file.

The compression or codec will likely be different on every camera and may not work immediately with your system. So the answer is to convert the file into something your computer can deal with.

I use a free software called Mpeg Streamclip. It allows me to create files that I can edit and/or downsize to post on Facebook, Flikr, Youtube, my iPod or send e-mail.

Is DSLR video quality as good as HD camcorders?

Way better, no question. However as I have pointed out DSLR video comes with great promise, top quality, and some big hurdles.

If you are the sort who really likes post production and are comfortable with manual focus, go get one. If not don’t worry your cell phone probably will have HD soon, or wait until improvements come in future model cameras.

Update: since this article was first written, a few DSLRs now use a contrast-detection autofocus system while shooting video using LiveView. However, even when using autofocus lenses, focusing can be slow.

For some helpful information about how to shoot video with a DSLR, visit the Learning DSLR Video site.

About the author

Brett Turner

Brett Turner is the owner of Brett Turner Photography of Watkinsville, Georgia. His diverse portfolio includes weddings, family portraits, school portraits, church photo directories, corporate advertising, events, and nature photography.

For the past 15 years, Brett has served markets in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, always delivering high standards both artistically and in service to clients.


  • are there any software editing suites that will import mjpg files (from my nikon d300s), edit and output them to dvd/desktop etc without getting 3rd party codecs and converting etc?

  • A good article, but allow me to expand on the pros and the cons and the Mac side of things. The area that a lot of people will be talking about is the “jelly effect” or rolling shutter issue. Perhaps a software update will fix this in the future, but in the meantime, pan SLOWLY or the world becomes warped and looks very sloppy even for an amateur such as myself. We are still in the camera takes good photos, ok video. Vice versa is also true: video cameras take good video, ok photos.

    In addition, post production with either a Canon or a Nikon is very simple on a Mac using the free program iMovie, or the upgraded version Final Cut Express. Very easy programs for kids to use…look at me (grin).

    If you use a Panasonic or non M-JPEG codec like when using the Panasonic 4/3 model Lumix DMC-GF1…then you are asking for a headache and will need mpeg streamclip. This  is a great free conversion program but is a real pain and time consuming to first convert even before you can edit. You can still view these videos prior to conversion on a Mac but there will be no audio…and this may not bother you if you are adding music tracks anyhow.

    Having said this, it bothers me and I only consider those that will work with a Mac without a headache and that is generally the Nikons, Canons, and Sonys. So that we don’t start a debate of PC vs. Mac, let me point out that I am cross-system trained but wanted to shed some light on the other OS.

  • Brett,

    24 frames per second is film speed. Video speed is 30 frames per second because it synchronises on AC current that is 60 cycles when divided by 2 you get 30. This why other standard like PAL is 25 frames per second, in Europe the AC current is 50 cycles per second devided by 2 equal 25.

    As for flickering remember that the very first movies used to be shot at … the camera operator speed, which was never stable. Latter on they were shot at 18 frames per second. When these film are played back at 24 frames per second the movement seam to quicker, jerky of course you shot 18 frames per second so when played back at 24, the action goes quicker. If you shoot at 20 frames per second you will experience the same effect if you play the video back at 30 frames per second you will likely feel an increase in the speed of the action unless the player recognize the speed and slow the payback down.


  • Thanks for the article and info! I can’t wait to get my hands on the new D5000! (and not for the HD video)  🙂