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How to shoot an event with a DSLR

Introduction

Warrington BID contracted us for a Christmas festive market event, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to tell you why we think DSLR set-ups are probably your best bet for jobs like this.

Half-way through Thursday, we received a call from Warrington BID. They needed video and photo coverage of their Christmas Market event and they needed it on Friday and Saturday. Obviously, this didn’t leave us much time (we’re talking about 4-hours) to go through our usual pre-production processes. However here at Studio 24-7 we’re always up for a challenge. We kicked into overdrive, and managed to have all the location releases, shot lists, schedules, insurance and drone stuff was signed off in time for production on Friday afternoon. No mean feat, I’ll tell you that. With the paperwork sorted, it was time for the fun part. Choosing the kit.

What did we choose?

Your brief determines your kit. Simple as that. The different aspects of the job dictate your gear choices, and in our case we knew the event was spread out, busy, and for online release. The ideal camera choice was something small, light and Full HD. As the client had asked for still along with video, and the budget was too small to have two shooters on the day, DSLRs were the obvious choice. At Studio 24-7 we use a mix of models and makes, as each brand brings something slightly different to the table. Between Josh and me, we decided to use the GH5 and the 1DX mkii.

This time the choice was partially dictated by the brief, and partially dictated by the budget. As we didn’t have enough to rent any kit, we resorted to using own in-house collection. We have the 1dxmkii and the GH5 for a couple of reasons. The 1dxmkii is our stills workhorse. The battery size, along with the blistering 14fps at which it can fire off still images at makes it the go to for any news or sporting photo jobs. It’s pretty difficult to miss the shot when you have that kind of firepower.

Not only is a stills beast, the video isn’t particularly lacking either. First of all, it’s full frame, so the depth of field you get is stunning. 120fps at full HD gives you buttery smooth slow-motion at 4x slower than real life, the 4k is beautiful and at 60fps you can even get over cranked slow-motion in UHD – not something most consumer level DSLRs offer. It is let down by a lack of some key video features, but we’ll talk about that later.

Our GH5 is pretty much the king of small form-factor video. Log-profiles, 120fps, variable frame rates, 4k, 10-bit colour, focus peaking, exposure zebras. It’s an internal ND filter away from being a dedicated video camera that does stills. Not to mention it’s a damn sight smaller that even the 1dxmkii. The 5-axis internal stabilisation pretty much negates the need for a gimbal (albeit, with a little practice and a steady hand) and the ability to create custom profiles you can quickly switch between only enhances the cameras already impressive ergonomics.

Now we’ve got the specs out the way, what makes a DSLR the right choice for a Christmas event video?

Advantages

The smaller form factor of DSLRs is beneficial on busy events shoots for a number of reasons. Firstly, they’re easier to move through crowds and allow you to get shots you might not necessarily be able to get with a larger, dedicated video camera. Weaving in and out of the crowd, slipping it through a railing or even placing at the front of the stage without obscuring the view of the crowd are all options. This increased manoeuvrability is due to weight as much as size. Being so light, your arms and back will be able to cope with holding the camera up for longer. You could also use more kit for less. For instance, with a dedicated video camera, a steadi-cam set-up would be needed for glide assisted shots, however with a DSLR a glide-cam is light enough to use without the easy-rig/body suit. Secondly, people will be less intimidated by a DSLR than a dedicated video camera. It’s a shape and look that generally people are more familiar with, and so more accepting of. This allows for your shots to be much more candid than they would be in people were aware and nervous of the camera.

Generally shooting in .mov or .mp4, the codecs used by most DSLRs take up less space and require less post-processing. This cuts down your time to deliver for your client, meaning you spend less time working and they get their product quicker. Surely that’s a win-win situation?

On this job, the ability to seamlessly switch between stills and video was a real time saver. It meant we could flow from place to place, collecting both stills and video with the same camera and not worrying about leaving a great big video camera lying around somewhere for someone to run off with. It’s not just time you save, but money. Imagine having to hire a freelance photographer to collect stills – that’s just going to eat into your bottom line. Instead we were able to use our in-house team to collect both.

Though we’re advocating for being able to get both stills and video, it’s not a recommended workflow. We knew the area, the client, the pacing of the event and had a strict photo brief to hit. If we hadn’t got such a good relationship with the client, I would have explained to them that getting stills and video at the same time is a fantastically challenging way of working and shouldn’t really be done. If we could capture the photos, fantastic. If not, don’t worry – an ideal client relationship in all honesty and one we’re extremely lucky to have!

Disadvantages

With full manual controls and interchangeable lenses, you’re not overly restricted by choosing a DSLR over a dedicated video camera. However some key video features are generally missing, such as focus peaking, exposure zebras and built in ND filters. These can be easily navigated with a sharp eye and extra attention to detail, or an external monitor, such as the Atomos Ninja. Using the LCD over the view-finder is a cheaper and more lightweight alternative to external LCDs/recorders, however you lose some of those benefits you gained by choosing a DSLR!

Unfortunately, though people will be more comfortable with the size and shape, they associate DSLRs with photography. You’ll get a lot of people posing for photos, asking for photos, and chatting to you about photography. Yelling “it’s a video!” will be something you’ll have to get very comfortable with, as will being referred to as “the photographer”. It’s not a big deal, just something to be mindful of, as you may meet potential future clients in the field and you should be conscious of how you’re being branded.

Challenges we faced

Shooting events on an entirely DSLR set-up isn’t new to us. Both Josh and I started as exclusively DSLR shooters and have produced many films shot entirely on DSLR. However, since using these versatile little cameras in a commercial setting, we have learned a lot. It’s these lessons we now want to pass onto you, dear reader.

Sound is everything. This should be the first lesson you learn in video creation, and it seems to be one that the teams that manufacture DSLRs consistently overlook. The on-board microphones for both the canon 1dmkii and Lumix GH5 are both passable if you’re using them for scratch tracks, but nothing more. At the very least you should be using an audio recorder to pick up foley/interviews, ideally with a microphone attached. We like the zoom H4N paired with the Rode NTG4, boom pole and XLR not included.

Batteries and memory cards seem to be an ever present issue when shooting DSLR. Even with the gargantuan batteries of the 1dxmkii, a back-up is still a really good idea. The same philosophy applies for memory cards – better to be over prepared than under! These ancillary items weigh so little that chucking an extra couple in your bag is well worth the peace of mind. Just make sure they stay organised. At 24-7 we have two little memory card pelicans, one for empty and one for full. This way, you don’t risk formatting the wrong card or wasting time on using one that’s already full.

 

Tips & Tricks

Autofocus – don’t be afraid of autofocus. If you’re flying solo, it will be your best friend. Especially if you’re using the canan – dual pixel autofocus has rarely let us down. Equally, don’t rely on it either. There will definitely be some shots that you want manual focus for.

“It’s a video!” – if people ask you to take a photo, just yell this at them so they put a little bit of movement in there and keep your shot interesting.

Batteries & Memory Cards – bring plenty of spares, goes without saying.

Stabalisation – in the case of cameras that don’t have stabalisation, do your best. A glidecam HD 2000 works for us on our smaller lenses, but you can equally use a camera strap. Just get three points of conact going, so you can use a camera strap pulled tight against your neck to steady your shots. There are some great tips from Peter McKinnon in the video below.

Two bodies, two focal lengths – If possible, have a wide angle and a telephoto on two different bodies. This way you can get different focal lengths of the same subject, even if everything is happening quickly!

A Conclusion

Basically, we’re huge proponents of DSLR. They’re mobile, functional and discreet. On bigger jobs, with bigger clients, you might be better suited opting for a dedicated video camera, but for those smaller jobs please don’t discount or underestimate the humble DSLR.

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