Down with DSLRs!

That’s it. Time out. I’ve had it with DSLRs.

They may work fine for you. They’re not working for me. I’ve given it a year, at which point I’d promised to trade up, or trade out.

As a videographer (a shooter who edits the material they shoot) in a field where there’s no rehearsals and no take twos (we’re talking corporate events here), I was, perhaps unfairly, looking for a ‘run and gun’ camera. I’ve been shooting with EX1s for a while now, and really appreciate the image quality and the benefits of a bigger chip than most fixed lens camcorders.

But the DSLR Revolution changed and enabled many things.

– Selective focus (shallow depth of field) looks great and really helps your subject pop out of a messy background

– Very good low-light performance, getting video where many camcorders would make a horrible grainy mess

– Special lenses (rather than do-it-all fixed lenses) make higher quality images with less fringing and better contrast and sharpness, and can go ‘wider’ or ‘longer’ too

– The small, neat, unthreatening dimensions of the camera enable you to get candid video where a bigger camera would be out of place (or unwanted)

– There’s something about the way the DSLRs create video that is very flattering for portraiture – and that equates to the hardy perennial ‘talking head’ in video terms

So I’ve dipped my toe into the DSLR waters with a 550D setup, and have loved the results – when the results were good. But DSLRs can also screw up in fairly fundamental ways, and can be a real handful to shoot with due to problems with ergonomics.

What’s tipped me over the edge are not the usual serious issues like aliasing and moire (which are bad enough), but the day to day issues of living with a Video DSLR:

– Overheating: sorry guys, I almost threw the camera in a bin after a shoot where the camera overheated towards the end of a fraught time-pressured interview. No, the talent wasn’t going to wait, and yes – a spare body may be the way to go if I were going 100% DSLR, but even then it would be a pain. It’s bad enough to halt a flow between journo and talent to get over the 12 minutes per take, but to have the camera demand a rest was just beyond the pale.

– White Set: DSLRs just don’t really get this. You’re asked to switch to photo mode, take a still, return to video mode, select Manual WB, then select the photo to base the WB on. However, differences between your picture profiles can really screw it up so badly, one feels safer in Auto WB mode, but then your shots don’t match – or worse, colours drift during a take. I want a White Set Button!

– Battery level: the 550D battery level is not merely coarse, it’s more of a traffic light – and a bad one at that. I purchased a power grip, but then you’re faced with double the batteries to charge overnight, which means setting your alarm for 2-3 hour chunks and getting a really bad night’s sleep. It’s like feeding a baby all over again.

Okay, there’s a slew of other niggles – the Z-Finder fogs up at the most inappropriate times, the start-stop button is in a stupid place, even a 60D style twiddly screen is no match for an EX1 or EX3 panel, and the list goes on. You can spend a hideous amount of money curing these ills, but at some point, one must call Time Out and look at a Red of some sort.

I loved the good times, but I’ve had bad times – probably because I’m using a DSLR in an inappropriate situation (hand held run & gun).

My path is clear – I am moving to Sony’s NEX-FS100 ‘medium format’ video camera, taking all my Canon glass with me and adding some Nikkors to boot. The 550D will still be with me, but relegated to Stills and Timelapse duties, and I think it will really shine in that respect.

So, I’m not selling my DSLR. I’m not giving up my DSLR. I’m not trading up, nor am I trading out. Just putting it to work in the best way for my needs.

An afterthought: one of the ‘benefits’ of my last year with a DSLR is learning and exploiting the value of having good quality stills that match your video – NOT to replace a professional photographer, but just to have nice mug-shots and ‘signature’ stills of your video programme for print, publicity and web.