Turning a Digital SLR into a video camera: IDC System Zero

I have now spent nearly four years in possession of two of the world’s best video cameras: the Canon 5D Mark II and the Mark III. These have a 24x36mm sensor and I have a whole closet full of high performance lenses to stick front of them. Yet I have never become comfortable using either body as a video camera. The first problem is that the $3500 camera won’t autofocus while filming. You’re supposed to “follow focus” like a Hollywood cinematographer, but my 49-year-old eyes aren’t so good at perceiving sharp focus on the rear LCD. The second problem is that high quality video starts with high quality audio and I don’t think the on-camera microphone in the 5D Mark III is especially good. Even if it were, it is in the wrong place for a lot of subjects. I would want a Bluetooth microphone that I could clip onto a subject’s lapel and/or shotgun mic mounted farther away from the noise of the autofocus motor.

These photos show the 5D Mark III mounted inside an IDC System Zero. It seems to solve a lot of the problems described above. With the eyepiece over the rear LCD it becomes possible to evaluate focus more easily. With the big knurled knob it becomes easier to follow focus smoothly. With the big accessory cage it would be theoretically possible to plug in a shotgun microphone and run a cable down to the camera. Does it work? Maybe for a professional movie maker it would, especially if mounted on a tripod. I found the rig too difficult to hand-hold and also too cumbersome to mount and unmount. It would be perfect for a full-day video capture project but it doesn’t work for a parent interested in using one device for both still and moving images of a child.

My most-used video camera right now is the Sony NEX-6. The sensor is smaller than on the big Canon, though the dynamic range is better according to DxOMark. The high quality lenses that I ordered are out of stock so I’m using a $150 kit lens on this camera instead of the $2000 Canon L zoom that I might be using on the 5D Mark III. But the camera will autofocus while capturing video, the microphone seems pretty good, and flip-up LCD screen makes for an awesome 49-year-old parent camera (I would rather hold the camera at waist/child level and look down than stoop to waist/child level.)

Is anyone out there having good luck using a digital SLR such as the 5D Mark II/III as a video camera? If so, what accessories do you find essential? (And I guess it would be interesting to hear from folks who are having good luck with just the raw camera; I know that it can be done.)

5 Comments

  1. iDC Photo Video

    December 20, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

    1

    Hi all, iDC here. Just a few helpful tips on set-up!

    Oops! The iDC SYSTEM ZERO Focusing Wheel is designed to be mounted on the Left side of the lens, and the Bracket which sports a Handle mounted on the Right. Our set-up gives the user roomy access to the wheel while allowing the right hand to hold the camera and manipulate all of the controls on the camera with fingers that are used to controlling those functions. In short, you can shoot video while holding the camera the same way as you would for stills. You can see photos and find more information here: http://www.idcphotovideo.com/store/system-zero/overview

    This means that shooters can easily shoot stills or video using the SYSTEM ZERO rig on their camera. No need to disconnect the focusing rig from your camera to shoot stills. Our custom quick-release loupe bracket makes it fast and easy to remove the loupe when not shooting video in order to use the camera’s pentaprism viewfinder for still photography.

    Compact iDC SYSTEM ZERO is designed specifically for multi-purpose handheld video and still capture. :) If a smaller camera is of interest, we also make a iDC SYSTEM ZERO follow focus kit for the Panasonic GH2!

    Happy Shooting!
    -iDC Photo Video

  2. Paul Houle

    December 20, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    2

    Pro movie cameras don’t record sound. Because of technical limitations throughout the analog age, pro filmmakers have always recorded sound and images separately and combined them only at the last stage of editing.

    Today the technique lives on because sound is crucial to people’s perception of quality. Thus, movies soundtracks are made by mixing multiple recordings; even if I’m filming something simple, like a lecture, I’ll record one channel off a lapel mike and another with a pressure zone microphone and be able to mix legible speech with the presence of the crowd. Hollywood does this x50.

    In the digital age, multitrack sound recorders are small and cheap. Put a lapel mike on any adults interacting with the child and have somebody hold a boom mike over the child’s head. This is tree you should bark up if you want sound as good as the video you can shoot.

  3. Chris

    December 20, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    3

    I’m having occasional good luck using the 5d2 and an old Zoom H4 handheld audio recorder.

    The Magic Lantern firmware has been invaluable — with a combination of the focus peaking tool, which shows exactly what’s in focus, and the magic zoom tool, which does a picture-in-picture enlargement of one area of the LCD. Both work while recording is active (without affecting the recorded video itself, obviously), and are good enough to replace a follow focus for me — at least when you can see the rear LCD, which means you aren’t in sunlight.

    So, if you haven’t tried Magic Lantern much yet, I suggest turning on focus peaking and magic zoom in movie mode and see how it works out for you.

  4. Spence

    December 21, 2012 @ 8:36 am

    4

    You might check out this woman’s thread. She hasn’t posted on video much lately but her ideas are good and she knows her stuff. I bought Sony Vegas after I had problems with Elements and also picked up a cheapo cam on Amazon per her advice..

    http://eugenia.queru.com/2012/10/26/canon-a-piece-of-shit-company/#comments

  5. Les Jones

    December 23, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

    5

    DSLR video looks great. As you’ve discovered, focus and sound are two of the trickiest issues.

    I use a Nikon D7000. It autofocuses in video, but it’s hit or miss. For birthday party type video it’ll do, especially if you have lots of light and use small apertures to get more depth of field. If you want to be sure and esp with large apertures, use manual focus.

    Here are some club videos I’ve shot. The sound is generally good. The main problems you’ll see are focus-related.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMci47DHHzA&list=PL429A80E1931BC2B5

    One thing that helped me tremendously with focus and framing was an external monitor. I use a cheap 7″ model that cost around $50 and fits in the hotshoe. It’s worthless for setting color or exposure, but it makes seeing focus and composition easier than on a 3″ LCD.

    On Canon audio you’ll run into problems with auto gain control (AGC). When the audio is low (and when there’s more or less silence) AGC tries to boost it, which leads to hissy audio. There are lots of fixes available to overcome the problem. The Rode VideoMic Pro has a +20db feature that’s supposed to give it more range and overwhelm AGC hiss.

    Nikons have a similar problem when the audio level is set to Auto. I use a Rode Stereo VideoMic mic plugged into a Zoom H4n digital recorder. I set the Nikon’s audio level to 1 to bypass the camera’s cheap pre-amps. I control the levels using the Zoom. The Zoom’s VU-style LCD display lets me check the audio levels to make sure they’re not peaking.

Log in