Moving Stills

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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Over the last few weeks we have been running upgrades on some of the oldest video material on Article19. Our first feature piece, at least the first we published, is almost 10 years old now, and although that's not really that old, in terms of digital filming technology it might as well be a lifetime.

Back then we filmed using a Canon XM1 camera which, for the time, had superb image quality. The very latest feature we shot, the outdoor piece 'A Fools Journey', was actually filmed, in its entirety, on a digital stills camera, namely the Canon Eos 7D.

Not only is the image quality far better than the cameras of old but in terms of relative, inflation adjusted cost, even after we've added some additional pieces of equipment to the kit, the 7D still comes out cheaper than a 10 year old video camera.


Although Nikon, with the D90 in 2008, were first to the market with a Digital SLR* camera that could shoot high definition video it was Canon, with the 5D MKII, that really brought the possibilities of HD video in stills cameras to the attention of professional film makers.

Initially the idea behind enabling video capture in stills cameras like the MKII was to allow photo journalists to shoot video for their newspapers. As journalism has moved more on more into the online space over the last few years, newspapers have looked toward including more and more video in their output.

*SLR Say Wha?

SLR means Single Lens Reflex. This refers to the way in which an SLR camera works. When you look through the viewfinder of the camera what you are seeing is the reflection of the image seen by the lens. The reflection is coming from, somewhat obviously, a mirror that sits just behind the lens in the slender body of the camera.

When you press the camera's shutter button to take a picture, the mirror flips up out of the way and exposes the photo onto the cameras sensor and then to the cameras memory card.

The sound you hear is the mirror flipping up out of the way and coming into contact with the interior of the cameras body.

Compact cameras and cell phone cameras have no mirror, because they don't need one, that's why they operate silently or use a faked shutter release sound to let you know the camera has taken a picture.

Canon and other manufactures envisioned photographers being able to switch instantly from shooting high quality still images to HD video, with sound, without having to swap cameras or learn how to operate a new piece of kit.

Film makers quickly seized upon the technology though as a low cost way of shooting high quality film and videos not only for the web but broadcast television and even feature films.

The advanced digital sensors built into the 5DMkII and the ability to use a vast range of high quality lenses allowed film makers to replicate the look and feel of moving images shot with hugely expensive 35mm film cameras for a fraction of the price.

Of course there are limitations and caveats but good film makers know how to get around them.

Camera manufacturers have responded by including ever more features and control into not only their professional level cameras but also their lower cost "consumer" level equipment.

A massive third party market has also emerged, making equipment from lights to camera grips, providing everything the aspiring film maker could ever dream of to make shooting digital video with a stills camera a practical proposition.

For Dance?

As you may know we, here in TheLab™, are somewhat demanding when it comes to the quality of video material when dance is being filmed. Wobbly, grainy, rapidly edited, filmed from a weird angle doesn't cut the mustard with us and it shouldn't with you either.

The high end professional DSLR cameras might be expensive but they also have relatively inexpensive little brothers and sisters that will give you stunning video quality for not much money.

For example, the Canon Eos 550D comes in at just £650 with a lens featuring optical image stabilizers. Those stabilizers come in handy if you are shooting hand held, a tricky task with one of these cameras.

What it lacks in the build quality and features of the higher-end 7D and 5DMKII it makes up for in the imaging technology built into the camera. It may be half the price of its 7D bigger brother but the image sensor that shoots the photos and video is the same one used by the 7D.

You can of course spend more money if you want more features and a more rugged package for your filming.

So what's missing? Nothing that should really trouble you if you are trying to get some good shots of your work on stage or in the rehearsal studio. Most kit lenses (like the one that comes with the 550D) are technically poor when compared to much more expensive equipment but they will get the job done.

Operating the camera in either photo or video mode is very straight forward so there is not a lot to learn. Just read the manual and it will tell you all you need to know to get started. We'll do a more technical breakdown of how they work in a future piece.


The big advantage is image quality. Photos have always used far greater resolution than video. Standard definition video runs at a paltry 1050 pixels wide by 576 pixels tall (for European video). Photos on the other hand, from the 550D, come in at 5184 pixels wide x 3456 pixels tall, big difference.

High definition video is restricted, on this camera, to 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels tall. All of these numbers mean one thing, more detail in your image and this is especially useful for dance because dancers, for the most part, are taller than they are wide so when they are framed properly for filming the more detail you can get in there the better.

You can also pull of very "cinematic" depth of field tricks. If you watch the very short test video below you can clearly see the "focal plane" (the are of the image that is in focus) moving across the camera in the shot as we alter the focus distance back and forth across the scene.

This technique is especially useful for filming a talking head shot (like an interview) and for isolating your subject from the background. Subject in focus, background out of focus. This is especially useful if you are filming somewhere that's really ugly, like Birmingham (ouch, Ed!)

Finally, these cameras are very small, especially when you compare them to full size video cameras. Not only does this make them easy to carry around but it also makes shooting in tight rehearsal spaces and small theaters much easier. They pack a lot of visual punch for such a small package.


Now, to the problems you may have. First of all, sound. All of the DSLRs available will record sound straight into the camera and, in the Canon range at least, only the 5DMkII and the 60D have manual sound adjustment so you can control how sensitive the audio pickup is from the camera.

For reasons best known to themselves Canon have not included this feature on the 7D (more expensive than the 60D) or the 550D. Because the internal software on the cameras can be upgraded there is a good chance these features will be included in a future though.

Even with manual control however the sound quality, especially for interviews, is not good enough because the microphone onboard the camera is not up to the task. You can partially solve this issue by attaching an external microphone to the camera.

The Rode Videomic has become a particular favourite among film makers and costs just under £100 from most reputable retailers. Using the "hotshoe" fitting on the top of the camera, intended to be used for flash guns, the lightweight microphone sits there quite happily and dramatically enhances the sound quality.

Here in TheLab™ we use an external audio recorder, namely the Zoom H4N, along with a few professional shotgun microphones. This solution is more expensive but does produces interview quality audio.

If you watch the quick test video above, taken from an interview with Vicky Malin of Candoco Dance Company, the first section is audio straight into the camera and the second section was recorded into the external recorder and synchronized in post production. The difference is fairly dramatic.


A slightly more bizarre issue is caused by the way the camera records video images. Without getting too technical about this if you film anything that features vertical lines, like buildings, then rapidly move the camera from left to right the vertical lines will appear to wobble.

It's not really that much of a problem since "whip panning" is not a very practical filming technique in most situations. Just don't do it and your images will be fine.

Lastly we have a problem with recording time. Again, without getting too technical, these cameras will only shoot for 12 minutes at a time in one continuos shot. This is a limitation of the memory cards used in the cameras. When you hit the 12 minute limit the camera will simply stop recording. All you have to do is start it up again though.

It only takes a second or two to restart the camera but it is obviously noticeable

Obviously if you want to shoot a 30 minute show from start to finish then a DSLR camera is not going to be your weapon of choice.

A Conclusion

Like any piece of hi-tech equipment these new generation of stills/video cameras have their advantages and disadvantages.

Looking at the 550D then what you get is a camera capable of shooting very high quality video in a wide range of circumstances for very little money, relatively speaking. If you're looking to shoot rehearsal material or segments from your show either for your own use or for the general public to watch online then you can achieve superb results if you work the camera hard enough.

Go forth and shoot we say!

[ Video Tutorial on DSLR Cameras ]
[ Canon EOS 550D ]
[ Canon EOS 7D ]

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