A Familiar Pattern

It’s not often that three of the four major camera manufacturers each tout a new, groundbreaking, HD video capable DSLR within the same week.  And yet, that’s precisely what happened this past week.  Nikon, Sony, and then Canon all made major announcements in the past seven days about cameras that will retail in the $1,000 range, all of them capable of shooting 1920×1080 HD video.

The first camera out of the gate was the Nikon D3100.  It will retail for around $700 and comes with a kit lens.

Next came the Sony α55, also with kit lens, for around $750.

A couple days later, Canon made its announcement: the 60D, retailing for around $1,100 for the body only.

The buzz all three cameras have received on the internet thus far has been less than enthusiastic, to say the least.  And the disappointments may just be beginning: Panasonic’s soon to be announced successor to the popular GH1 may be a camera that, in terms of bitrate and footage quality, may not even reach the specs already achievable on a hacked GH1.

Comment sections on tech websites are alight with negative impressions of all three cameras.  As EOS HD reported, a Sony rep had to actually go out of his way on DPReview.com to directly address the negative buzz the α55 was receiving in a public message.

But before you think that I’m somehow going to use this post to side with the camera manufacturers against commenters and critics, well, that ain’t gonna happen.  Because this time, the critics have it exactly right.

Andrew Reid on EOS HD has been blogging up a storm this past week, reporting and commenting on all three cameras — if you haven’t checked out his site, you really should.  His opinions about these new models, which I’m inclined to share, reveal genuine disappointment and frustration.  While each new model falls short in a different way, overall a common theme is developing: these new cameras are not nearly as good as they could be, and this is holding back the entire HDSLR community.

I’m big on analogies, so let’s give this one a try: if you needed to buy a dishwasher, or a laptop, or a Blu-ray player, you’d go to the nearest Sears or Best Buy and have a look at all the various models.  You’d listen to a salesman, maybe go online to read reviews, or even talk to friends — but the bottom line is that at the end of the process you would buy a product that does as advertised.  It would wash your dishes, manage your finances, play your movies.  It would do what it was designed to do.  There will always be a more expensive model of whatever it is you’re looking to buy, but that doesn’t mean the cheaper models are undesirable.  Just the opposite is true: modern manufacturing techniques have made inexpensive products better than ever.

My point is that no matter how much you paid for a dishwasher, any model you chose would give you access to certain baseline settings that are considered mandatory for all dishwasher manufacturers to include in even their lowest-priced models.  No dishwasher manufacturer would dare exclude, say, a high temperature setting from any of its models.  The reason for this is simple: some technologies are so widespread, so pervasive, that not including them on all the latest models would be considered unthinkable.  Some features are simply mandatory.

But this analogy completely breaks down when it comes to video.

When the only game in town was MiniDV, manufacturers could distinguish their camcorders by subjective criteria such as reliability, ease of use, etc.  But for the most part, DV was DV, and because it was an analog technology, it was intrinsically flawed, in the same way that VHS or cassette tapes were flawed.  But once the world went digital, video began to make extraordinary leaps in quality, to the point where today we take high definition broadcasting completely for granted.  Popular television programs shot less than ten years ago, huge hits such as Friends, Frasier, or That 70’s Show that weren’t shot on film and didn’t anticipate the HD revolution, are now forever branded as standard definition programming, relegated to second class citizenship in the digital marketplace.

But HD is the norm today.  Even YouTube is HD.  Small kitchen sets are HD.  HD is everywhere.

For camera manufacturers, this has presented an opportunity as well as a dilemma.  They were faced with the option of either embracing the technology and agreeing on a common set of baseline standards — essentially making high quality HD a consumer standard available to everyone — or remaining protective of each and every quality gain, allowing new features to trickle out into the marketplace one camera model at a time.  By choosing the latter strategy, they could argue that they were giving consumers “improvements” with each new, must-have technology they introduced.

By now we’re all familiar with the story of how HD video came to exist on Nikon and Canon DSLRs in the first place.  Photojournalists asked for the option to shoot video in the field, and manufacturers complied.  And we all know what happened next: years and years of pent up frustration among videographers, cinematographers, and producers of all stripes literally exploded into an fireball of interest in what became known as the HDSLR community.

But, clearly, the Canons and Panasonics and Sonys of the world had no interest in killing off their camcorder divisions.  And yet consumer pressure has dictated exactly that, forcing manufacturers to add HD video capabilities to all their latest DSLRs, nearly guaranteeing that the camcorder as we know it will cease to exist in a few years time.  But while it’s probably true that we’ll all be walking around with hybrid cameras in the coming years, it seems just as likely that video professionals will still be complaining about the quality of our video footage for the foreseeable future as well.

I love my 7D, and my clients are thrilled with the quality of the footage I’m able to deliver — and for that reason I tend to dismiss a lot of the negativity that many users feel about these cameras.  But just for the heck of it, let’s go ahead and mention some of the negatives:

1.  Shooting video on a DSLR is not an enjoyable experience.  This has created a huge opportunity for manufacturers of DSLR accessories, enabling them to sell us more and more external monitors, LCD magnifiers, rod support systems, and follow focus gear.  But the experience of picking up a DSLR and using it to shoot primarily video is not a pleasant one.  There’s nothing ergonomic about using an HDSLR, and the shoulder mounted solutions are extremely bulky and expensive.  Furthermore, basing your focus or exposure on the LCD screen is a nightmare.  On a recent shoot in Utah, while I was out and about shooting b-roll, I realized that I had somehow left my detachable magnifier in my hotel room (unfortunately, I don’t own a clip-on Z-Finder).  Trying to shoot outdoors in the bright sunlight without a magnifier was nearly impossible.  But even if I had had it with me, the resolution of the 7D LCD screen leaves much to be desired, and a magnifier, though helpful, can’t work miracles.

2.  Maintaining accurate focus is very, very hard.  Old camcorders had tiny chips, and consequently extremely deep depth of field.  Cinematographers complained that having the entire frame in focus was a dead giveaway that you were shooting on video, but at the end of the day, at least your footage wasn’t soft.  The funny thing is, if I were a still photographer, I would get focus on every shot by looking through my internal viewfinder and selecting the part of my composition that I wanted to be in focus.  But I would do this using state-of-the-art auto focus technologies and lenses.  Why would I choose manual focus if I had the ability to achieve more accurate focus by simply holding a button half way down?  But in video mode on my 7D, not only do I not get to use my internal viewfinder, I can’t take advantage of auto focus either.  Well, that’s not exactly true: I suppose I could set the shot up using auto focus, but then once I hit the record button I’d be on my own.

3.  Moire sucks.  It’s awful.  In the scheme of things, it’s not on the same level as, say, world hunger, but it’s pretty bad.  I shoot a lot of b-roll, and I get moire on many, many wide shots.  It’s become such a common issue that I’m often hesitant to shoot faraway objects or buildings at all.  Have a look at some footage I took of bricks structures in Harvard Square.  I’m not sure how much of the moire will be visible in the compressed Flash version online, but on an HD monitor it’s impossible to miss.

4.  No motorized zoom.  Even if I purchased an expensive third party motor, I would still be using a still camera lens, and would lose focus during the zoom.  There’s absolutely no way that your shot will remain in focus once you’ve zoomed in on a subject.  You can ride the focus as you zoom, but that solution seems imperfect at best.

5.  I don’t feel mobile.  And the more accessories I purchase for my 7D, the less mobile I feel.  Rods, follow focus, matte box, and all the rest are exciting add-ons, but the parts seem greater to me than the whole.  What I’m really after is the same kind of artistic freedom that is available to any still photographer on the move, and, with HDSLRs, I simply don’t have it.  Unlike when I was shooting on a prosumer camcorder, I can’t walk around and expect to chase the action.  I need to worry about my focus constantly, and manually zooming in camera is clunky at best.  Consequently, I’m framing more and more static shots.  That’s not how I want to shoot, but that’s the best way to ensure that I’ll come away with usable footage.

So, two years into the HDSLR revolution, I’m starting to have some serious reservations.  I had assumed that I would never need to use another standard camcorder for my work again, but now I’m beginning to reassess that conclusion.

Which brings me back to this week’s announcements.  More and more shooters are voicing their frustration with HDSLRs.

The Sony α55, for example, enables the electronic viewfinder to remain active in video mode.  That’s huge.  It even retains auto focusing while shooting with its proprietary lenses.  Amazing, right?  But two years into the HDSLR revolution, you would expect that these exciting new features would be getting added to baseline mandatory specs, that the evolution of this technology would add new features without compromising existing ones.  Sadly, you’d be wrong.  If, like me, you were of the impression that progressive HD at 24 frames per second with manual exposure controls were mandatories at this point in the game, then the newest Sony entry will sorely disappoint you.

The Nikon D3100 is similarly flawed.  It too has the ability to shoot video in auto focus mode, and it even shoots at a true 24P.  But it records video at a low bitrate, and most of the camera’s manual exposure settings are unavailable in video mode.  The funny thing about these Nikon cameras is that, unlike the other manufacturers it’s competing against, Nikon doesn’t have a camcorder division to protect.  It could easily create a niche in the industry by simply adding features that Canon and Panasonic would be reluctant to include, and yet Nikon continues to suffer from the general impression that its HDSLRs shoot inferior video.

And then there’s the Canon 60D, which seems to be receiving some of the harshest user buzz of all.  It’s essentially a carbon copy of the 7D, but with an articulating, higher resolution LCD screen and the ability to adjust audio levels manually.  Those are two excellent advancements to be sure.  But if you’re keeping score at home, that means you still can’t look through the viewfinder in video mode, you still can’t auto focus while filming, and the moire and aliasing issues are as bad as ever.

Does anyone believe that Sony couldn’t have made a 24P version of their camera, or that Canon couldn’t have enabled auto focus in Live View?  And are we seriously being asked to accept that it’s impossible to see through the viewfinder while shooting video, or that there isn’t a better way to achieve a 1920×1080 image that would minimize aliasing and moire?

Consumers have a right to be annoyed, even angry.  I bought three L-series lenses for my 7D.  I did it because I believed that Canon was sincere in its commitment to achieving the highest quality video on their new DSLRs.  In retrospect, I suppose I was naive.  After all, why would any company release a $1,000 product that was superior to the same company’s $2,500 product?

Still photographers don’t have to worry about any of this.  Their images these days are 5000 pixels across.  They asked for and received outstanding low light capabilities, image stabilization, and the ability to take more and more shots per second (though somehow I suspect that while the shots per second number will keep going up, it will somehow never manage to achieve 24 frames).

Videographers and cinematographers, on the other hand, will continue to get jerked around.  Bitrates will remain low.  Internal viewfinders will remain disabled on the Canons.  Frame rates will be restricted on the Sonys.  We’ll blog about it and complain about it, and continue to hold out hope that next year’s announcements will bring better news, but in reality we’ll continue to experience a variation of this week’s disappointments for years to come.

Camera manufacturers could deliver the perfect HDSLR for the digital age right now.  It could have variable frame rates, fully manual exposure controls, auto focus capability while recording, no line skipping, and a high resolution internal viewfinder.  It could come in a small package, similar to the size of Panasonic’s GH1, or it could come in the shape of the larger 7D.  But they won’t do it.  That should seem obvious by now.  They will continue to mistreat their customers and intentionally hold back features that could improve our shooting experience.

There’s nothing wrong with releasing a product with a shortcoming or a flaw.  That’s how technology advances.  But once the flaw is deemed correctable, it’s supposed to get phased out.  That’s how we move forward.  Except when it comes to video cameras.

The fix is in.  And until this situation changes, I’ve come to the conclusion that HDSLR users have little choice but to react to each new camera announcement with widespread cynicism and disappointment.


3 responses to “A Familiar Pattern

  1. Very good post. Camera manufacturers are really frustrating.

    “Camera manufacturers could deliver the perfect HDSLR for the digital age right now. It could have variable frame rates, fully manual exposure controls, auto focus capability while recording, no line skipping, and a high resolution internal viewfinder. It could come in a small package, similar to the size of Panasonic’s GH1, or it could come in the shape of the larger 7D. But they won’t do it. That should seem obvious by now. They will continue to mistreat their customers and intentionally hold back features that could improve our shooting experience.”

    One word: Scarlet.
    Can’t wait.

  2. man, the reason you can’t use the viewfinder while in video is because of the fundamental way a dslr works. look it up in wikipedia. It has nothing to do with trickery of camera makers. you see there is a mirror in front of the sensor when the viewfinder is on, this mirrow blocks the sensor. video is recorded using the sensor so you cannot record video and use the optical viewfinder. it is simply impossible.

    conversely when you’re recording video, the mirror gets out of the way. this means the viewfinder cannot project the image seen via the lens (since it was the miror sending the light up to the viewfinder.

    the only way to solve this is to remove the mirror completely and replace it with an EVF or electronic viewfinder. however if you do that then you run into EVF issues (it is essentially an LCD not a true view of light passing from the lens to your eye). this has the typical problems of color and dynamic range reproduction (unlike optical viewfinders where you’re seeing true light, not just pixels from an lcd).

    thus, you need to research a little more before going on about this.

    • You are obviously very, very smart. Your intelligence is quite impressive. It is humbling to be in the presence of such wisdom.
      If your point is that an EVF is worse than nothing at all, then I don’t agree. All the gear manufacturers are tripping over themselves trying to sell us the latest LCD magnifier and, yes, external EVF, connected via the HDMI output. The GH1 uses an EVF and people seem to like it quite a bit. Sure, the current Canon and Nikon DSLR designs preclude the use of the viewfinder when the mirror is in use — any dope knows that. I guess what you’re saying is that Canon and Nikon will never offer an alternative to the current state of affairs, and because you are such an obvious genius, then you must be right. Well played!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s