In Part 2 of our 'Improve Your Edits' series, Morzine-based filmer Sam McMahon talks you through the basics of how to use a DSLR properly to film snowboarding - including what camera and lenses to buy and what settings work best.
So you’ve mastered using your GoPro but you’re wondering why your filming doesn’t look quite as swish as the pros? Good news and bad news; the bad news is, it’s mainly down to money, plus some tech-wizardry and a bit of practise. But the good news is that as long as you know what you’re doing before you start spending the dough you can get some great gear and start getting some even greater shots.
When it comes to what you can get, the sky is the limit: from the latest crop of DSLRs, through the professional range of camcorders to the super awesome, Art of Flight style Phantom cameras, £100,000 plus. For this article we’ll be discussing DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras, the reason being that their size, price and versatility make them so popular with amateurs and low-budget production crews. If you’ve not got one yourself then you’ve probably seen one or two around snowdomes and resort parks.
Originally intended for still photography, since around 2008 they have been gaining popularity for HD videography as well due to their high quality and much larger digital sensors, as compared to equivalent camcorders. They do lack a few features that make filming a bit easier, such as autofocus while shooting, so they require a bit more skill and forward thinking, but that’s what this article is here to help with! Whether you’re a complete newcomer to more advanced filming or a seasoned veteran, hopefully this article will either help you get set up or give you a few tips to get the most out of yours, so here goes!
N.B. A very important point to remember whilst using DSLRs for video is that when the camera is set to movie mode the internal mirror flips to let light from the lens constantly fall on the sensor. When used for still photos, most SLRs primary function, light only hits the sensor for a set amount of time after the shutter is pressed to avoid letting the sensor overheat and get damaged. Most cameras have a ‘standby mode’ setting to avoid this, but try and avoid using yours for extended periods of time to prolong its life.
Where to Splash Your Cash
One problem with buying something like a new camera is the sensory assault you get when you try and find out any information on what to get, especially online. Different brands have devoted fans who seem to dedicate a proportion of their lives shouting at the internet about their favourite, but like most things in life different cameras will suit different people’s needs best.
We won’t go so far as to big up a particular make or model, but popular DSLRs for video at the moment seem to be the 60D and 7D from the Canon EOS range and the Nikon equivalent, the D7000. They all come in at around £500 minimum so it’s best to think about exactly what you want from your purchase and do your own research to find out what’s best for you. Cheapest isn’t always the best option so really give it some time, and don’t just bend to the loudest fanboy’s opinion.
For a great example of what can be done with DSLRs used to their full potential, my sincerest apologies but I’d like to take you to the world of skiing for a brief moment. Stept Productions famously use Canon 7Ds for a large amount of their ski footage and are unquestionable masters of the budget camera format. But don’t get too worried though, we’re not about to make you watch a ski flick – these guys do film snowboarding as well: check out their 2012 edit of Tim Buol for a mini-master class.
Look Through the Lenses
One of the biggest advantages of using DSLRs and above over GoPros, iPhones or point and shoot cameras is the ability to change lenses. It’s a bit of a weird concept at first, after all, you’ve got on fine without this option before, but once you have a basic understanding of differences in lenses and have used a couple, it’s easy to get the hang of. Looking through the range of lenses available for your camera will give you an idea of how versatile a DSLR can be. Be warned though, collecting lenses can become an addiction, and an expensive one at that.
Most new cameras will come with what is called a kit lens, basic but not particularly awesome; they’ll do for the majority of entry-level requirements. For the Canon range, the normal lens included is the EF-S 18-55mm. The numbers basically mean the distance between different bits of glass within the body of the lens, the higher the number (or focal length for the tech savvy) the closer the lens can zoom into your subject.
Lenses such as the 18-55mm have a variable focal length (in this case anything between 18 and 55mm) meaning you can zoom in and out to frame your subject as desired. In an ideal world you would be able to buy one lens to cover all your needs, but the laws of optical physics sadly prevent this, thus there is normally a compromise between intended use, performance and price.
For a good quality but still basic starter lens, I would forgo the standard one and go for a lens with a fixed focal length of around 35mm to 50mm. This is a great for portraits, lifestyle shots and filming from a fixed position. The trade off is that you can’t zoom in, so if you want to crop your frame you’ll have to walk closer to your subject. But minimal moving parts mean you get great optical quality at a relatively low price. Perfect!
One favourite lens for filming in snowboarding is the ultra-wide angle or fisheye lens. It’s been used in skateboarding for years, features on the modern day GoPro (and other portable cameras) and is arguably one of the most important lenses to have in your quiver. Jesse Butner, director of the ultra-innovative Think Thank movies, would certainly agree.
Fish-eyes are great for getting the viewer straight right into the action by exaggerating the foreground and making the background seem further away, and as such are often used to shoot skate-style jibbing. But they need to used properly. Tip number 3 from the first article in this series (How to Use a GoPro Properly) gives you some ideas on how to get the most out of fisheye lenses.
Basically what you need to know is that they distort the edges of the picture and create a bulging effect, hence the name. They were made popular in 90s skate films where they were known as death lenses as they were often smashed as a result of how close cameramen would get to capture the action.
You could also opt for an ordinary wide-angled lens. While this won’t get your viewer as close to the action, they provide a much less distorted picture. As with the cameras themselves, there is a huge range to choose from; again, the best way of choosing is doing your own research and finding the lens that fits both your needs and your price range.
Get Your Zoom On
At the other end of the scale are the lenses that let you get in on the action from a distance: Telephoto, or zoom lenses. In snowboarding these are typically used for shooting big mountain riding, powder and larger kickers. Basically hard to reach places or features that would get lost using a wider lens. Get a load of Terje Haakonsen and John Jackson’s part from Burton’s 13 to see some great telephoto lens camera work.
This where big money comes into play, with the ‘long’ lenses, anything from around 70mm to 400mm, costing from the hundreds to thousands of pounds. These are for the ultra-serious cinematographers, willing to put the money and effort into making great films, but there’s no reason you couldn’t have a moderately-priced lens in your bag to get your mate’s new sick line or that end of season big kicker session. To avoid getting super-shaky shots you’ll probably need a tripod – hand wobbles are multiplied the more you zoom in.
Geek Speak - Formats
When you’ve got your new camera and your perfect range of lenses, you’ll want to start filming! The first thing you’ll need to decide on is what format you’re going to use whilst shooting. In last week’s article we covered the differences between resolutions so we’ll leave that one alone, but if you’re taking your filming to the next level you’ll want to take your knowledge a bit further too. You may have seen the abbreviations PAL and NTSC around before, but probably won’t have a clue what they mean.
They’re basically different encoding systems for TV, not really a huge issue in today’s online world, but knowing what’s what will save you some time if you ever want to transfer your footage to DVD and it’s important to know what you’re using when you get to the editing stage.
In the simplest terms, Canada and the USA use NTSC TVs, whilst the rest of the world (apart from those crazy Russians) use PAL. So unless you’re moving to Northern America anytime soon, get your camera set to record in PAL, that way if your Gran can’t figure out the internet, you can show her your skills on her telly.
The Numbers Count: ISO
So you’re setting up for that first shot, better get those camera settings right! At first it’s pretty confusing holding ISO, aperture and shutter speeds in your mind as well as angles and timing, let alone what they all mean, but with a little bit of practise it starts feeling pretty natural quite quickly. In the end it’s all down to personal preference, but ISO is normally the first thing you’d set on your camera.
This is a term that comes from film photography, where the ISO number on a roll of film tells you how quickly it reacts to light when you expose it by opening the shutter. Low numbers develop slowly, high numbers quickly, but with more ‘image noise’ - random speckles of colour in the picture. Transferred to DLSR photo and videography, it dictates the sensitivity of the sensor. It’s normally best to keep it as low as possible to avoid a grainy image, but you may need to compromise in low light.
The Numbers Count: Apertures
The aperture is the size of the hole in between the lens and the sensor in your camera; a bigger hole lets more light through and vice versa, though confusingly the number telling you what your aperture is set to (the ‘f-stop’ for those in the know) shows a low number for a wide aperture setting and a high one for a narrow aperture.
It seems weird to have two settings for a similar function with ISO and aperture, but the wider you have your aperture set the shorter your depth of field will be. This is the distance between the nearest and furthest feature in focus in your shot.
At first glance it may seem like a good idea to have as much of the scene in focus as possible, and sometimes it is, but a short depth of field is how you can get that lovely soft-focus style imagery (like in the intro to the classic Scott Stevens part above), another great tool to have in your arsenal!
The Numbers Count: Shutter Speed
Last but not least is shutter speed. Not to be confused with the frame rate (which we covered in point 7 of the first part of this series) this is the amount of time the sensor captures each frame for. It’s measured in tenths, hundredths or thousandths of a second.
Longer shutter speeds give a more ‘cinematic’ look to video, incorporating motion blur into each frame and making the clip look smoother and richer. The best for this effect is half the length of the time between each frame, so for 24fps this is roughly 1/50th of a second and 1/100th at 50fps. However, depending on your ISO and f-stop settings, this might make your picture too exposed so you might have to shorten your shutter speed.
Bearing all of this in mind, you’ll need to choose which setting is most important to you for each shot and adjust the others accordingly. Getting the right settings for your shot is a delicate balancing act, and more often than not requires some compromise, but the artistic choices you’ll learn to make, often on the fly, will be the making of you as a cameraman.
Shooting on Snow: Stuff to Remember
Other than the obvious potential pitfalls of filming in snowy conditions, namely dropping £1000 plus worth of delicate gear into a snow drift or falling on your ass and smashing it, there a couple of tips and tricks you can take advantage of to get the most your gear on the hill.
You get up to shoot on that perfect sunny bluebird day, but you find the bright light on snow means that even with your ISO dropped and your aperture on its narrowest setting everything appears washed out and you can’t get any details in the snow itself.
One trick is to use a ND (neutral density) filter; these handy circles screw over the front of most lenses and block a proportion of the light coming through, this means you can get a bit more detail from the snow and other reflective surfaces and even open up your f-stop to get some of that soft focusing that we just talked about. Getting the hang of the jargon yet?
We touched upon it in the last piece in this series, but if you’re using a fish eye on your DSLR it’s even more important to get a smooth image whilst follow- cam-ing your buddy to make the most of that quality picture. Luckily, there are a whole host of steady cam rigs and handles to help smooth out your shaky hands. For an absolute master class in glassy smooth follow-cam action, check out Jon Moy’s edit of Sam Turnbull and Si Cudlipp in Mayrhofen’s park this spring.
The Boy Scout’s Motto
Finally, be prepared. With all this new gear, you’re never going to want to waste it, so make sure you’re prepared for every eventuality. Especially if it’s an important shoot, you’re going to want to have spare batteries (fully charged!), memory cards, lens wipes (goggle bags make a good substitute), and basically everything you can to minimise the chance of you missing that crucial shot.
It might still happen, but at least you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to minimise that risk and make the most out of your set up. Happy shooting!