Low depth of field, high frame rate, high resolution. These are the technical hurdles which have traditionally separated consumers from creating film-quality video. HD video has been within consumer reach for quite a while now. 2008 has already seen high frame rates fall to Casio, and in the last couple of weeks, both Canon and Nikon have announced Digital SLRs that will be able to shoot HD video. Obviously real digital cinema cameras have some technical advantages, and there’s that truck full of matteboxes, focus pullers, dollys, cranes and best boys helping the cinema crowd out. But as far as image quality quality goes, the field is just about level.

The larger sensor size and interchangeable lenses of digital SLRs make their image output vastly superior to compact cameras and what we used to call “camcorders”. DSLRs have allowed us to produce stop-motion and time-lapse video with filmic colour, depth of field and resolution, but full motion video of this type was only available by using 35mm adapters (which are bulky and lose light and resolution), or spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a digital cinema camera.

Canon EOS 5D MKII – $2500

The above video – Reverie by Vincent Laforet (View original in high resolution on Canon’s site) – was shot entirely on the Canon EOS 5D MkII. Apart from resizing the 1080i footage to a resolution reasonable for playing online, there is no colour correction or post-processing trickery involved. To prove this to sceptics, from Friday Canon will be hosting some of the raw clips from the shoot. Without going too overboard: This is completely bananas.

There is also a behind the scenes video, shot with a Canon XH-A1, and it’s frightening to see the output of this current-gen $3300 prosumer HD camera up against the $2700 5D MKII.

Nikon D90 – $1000

Last month, pro shooter Chase Jarvis released a promo video for Nikon, documenting as he and his team tested out their new video-capable prosumer DSLR.

The Nikon D90 has an already hit the streets and seems to be selling for around $1000, and there’s plenty of great looking footage hitting the web.

Flowers by D90 from stoiQa on Vimeo.

Tech and Caveats

Photogeek excitement aside, there are still some serious limitations to these first-gen, ultra-compact cinema cameras.

Video Format: Both cameras are shooting to reasonably compressed files, so chromakey and other post production trickery becomes harder. The D90 records MJPEG, locked to 24FPS, at 14Mbit 720p, 620×424 or 320×216. The 5D records 30FPS H.264 at 1080p or 640×480. Data rate is 38Mbit at HD, 17Mbit at SD. These frame rates are currently the only options, so there’s going to be a whole new generation of shooters learning about pulldown.

Sound: Neither camera has any kind of external sound recording options, and on board sound is of course reasonably terrible. This isn’t such a worry for visualists looking for sexy images to put on screens, but the amateur directors are going to need to add a sound recordist and clapper to their crews and external audio recorders to their rigs for now.

Autofocus: Neither camera can auto focus while recording video. This will probably change over time, but the architecture of still lenses is still very different to video, so we’re unlikely to get smooth focus pulling or zooms in this form factor soon, if ever. I don’t see this as a big drawback however, as the “cinema look” generally involves prime lenses and highly rehearsed focus pulling, if you want crash zooms and autofocus hunting, get a video camera.

Shutter: It seems that you can’t manually choose and lock shutter speed in either camera at this stage. Footage from the D90 so far has had lots of rolling shutter artifacting evident, so this is an issue which many digital cinema snobs will be holding over this generation of DSLRV (Yes, I’ve just coined an acronym) cameras.

Time Limit: The D90 currently has a recording limit of 5 minutes for 720p, 20 minutes for low resolution. The 5D can record 12 minutes of 1080p, 24 minutes of 640×480.

HDMI Output: The D90 has an HDMI out. Currently this displays LCD information, but it can’t be long until a firmware update allows tethered shooting of uncompressed HDMI sensor data. There’s some discussion on DVInfo as to whether this will be “proper” uncompressed, but we’re still looking at a tethered film-look shooting rig for a couple of grand.

What’s Next?

These are formative days in DSLRV world, but things are likely to change rapidly. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year brings a Canon video camera with XH-A1 form factor and controls, and an EF lens mount. Low-budget and amateur filmmaking is looking better with each passing month. Other manufacturers are sure to get on board; I hope Pentax makes something which allows me to shoot video with my crazy russian fisheye and F1.4 bokeh weapon.

Barriers are falling, people. What are you going to do with all the clear space you have to run around in?