Best DSLR for Video

Ask most people which is the best DSLR for video and they are likely to respond “the Canon 5D”. I was one of those people until I dug a bit deeper and talked to folks who actually shoot video with DSLRs. Then I got my hands dirty. I tried the 5D, the 7D, the Sony SLT-55 and a few others as well. When you look at the feature set, the quality of the video and the ease of shooting it becomes clear that the Panasonic Lumix GH2 is the best all around DSLR for video if not the best DSLR camera in general. Here are several reasons why (with a few caveats).

  • Easy to Focus. The GH2 uses the “micro four-thirds” format. Micro four-thirds is a mirrorless format with a sensor size that is slightly smaller than a full-frame DSLR. The slightly smaller sensor helps prevent focus issues (the 5D in particular is notorious for being very tricky to focus) and the sensor is still much larger than what you will find on any camcorder anywhere near this price range. But what about the gorgeous depth-of-field DSLRs are known for? I have been extremely impressed with the depth of field. It is truly outstanding. Below is a shot from my doc Open Sesame.

  • Quick to focus. Micro four thirds uses the contrast method of focusing. The GH1 was relatively fast but the GH2 is even faster (and quieter). (Comparing the GH1 vs GH2 there is no reason to purchase the GH1 – there are just too many improvements you would miss out on). Focus is a critical area where the GH2 shines above the 5D and the SLT-55. It is much quicker to find a focus with the GH2 and you are less likely to discover that your focus is poor later. The continuous auto focus mode does a decent job of following focus with minimal hunting (provided there is adequate light – but this is the same for all auto-focus systems).
  • Focus pulling. The GH2 features touch screen focus-pulling. Touch the area that you want in focus and the GH2 pulls it into focus. Most of the time this works pretty well for a quick way to achieve a professional looking technique. Below is an example. Notice that there is a slight over correction at the end. What I’m finding is that this tends to occur most often at wide apertures. I’m still experimenting.

  • Lenses. Pick a lens, any lens. The best DSLR cameras offer the widest selection of lenses. Thanks to the micro four-thirds format, nearly any lens can be mounted on this camera with the correct adapter. Pay about $30 for the average adapter and you can throw on your favorite Nikon or Canon lens. There are many gorgeous used lenses on Ebay, each with their own character. The best DSLR lens is a subjective choice, but you will not lack from a range to choose from. (Note though that many, if not most of these lenses will be manual focus only.)
  • Image quality. The GH2 records 1080p video at 24 frames per second (as well as 1080 60i and 720 60p). The new firmware update (December 2011) bumps up the bit rate to 24Mbps allowing for even greater definition and contrast. (the higher the bit rate, the less compression). The GH2 has a wonderful filmic look that I am completely in love with. My prior camera was the Sony EX-1 and the GH2 has it beat in my opinion. Below is footage I shot in India. It may not read in the YouTube video, but I was very impressed with the fine level of detail present in the mist rising from the river.

  • Audio input. The GH2 has an external audio jack and it is possible to visually meter the audio (turn “mic level display” on in the video camera menu). This isn’t ideal in every situation (since you won’t actually be able to hear what is being recorded), but it is great in a pinch and delivers decent audio with the right mic. If you want to be able to monitor audio you’ll need to purchase an external digital recorder. I purchased the Tascam GR2 and so far, so good. Below is a clip of audio I recorded with a Sennheiser M66 plugged into the GH2 audio input. (with apologies for the shaky monopod:)) I’ve had the best results with the GH2 Mic Level Adjust at level 1.

  • Incredible zoom. The micro four-thirds mount effectively doubles the focal length of the lens you use. For example if you use a 20mm lens it will have the equivalent of a 40mm on a regular DSLR. This is neither good nor bad. Where it becomes a real bonus is when combined with the extra teleconversion function. This nifty feature doubles the focal length yet again. Envision this real life scenario as told by a colleague of mine. He purchased a used 300mm Nikon lens for his GH2. The focal length was effectively doubled so he had the equivalent of a 600mm lens. But with the extra teleconversion function eh had a 1200mm lens! With no loss of resolution (the extra teleconversion function uses the center of the sensor at its full resolution to achieve its enhancement). Don’t forget a tripod!! This is serious. I have yet to need such a lens but I can tell you that the 140mm lens kit lens is pretty amazing when you consider that it is the equivalent of a 560mm lens using the above technique.
  • HDMI output. If you are shooting serious video with your DSLR there will come a point where the small built-in monitor may be insufficient. The GH2 features a full 1080i HDMI output that can be delivered concurrently with your on-board viewfinder.
  • Weight. The GH2 is lighter and more compact than other DSLRs.
  • The GH2 Hack (if you dare). The GH2 firmware hack is widely available in several forms. Of course they will all void your warranty. Some of them take the bit rate up to a reported 84Mbps! I have not had the courage to try the GH2 hack. Rumor has it that Panasonic based the most recent gh2 firmware update on some of the elements that were included in recent hacks.
As you can tell I am in love with my GH2 and the more that I shoot with it the more that I appreciate its video capabilities. Why would anyone purchase the 5D? The 5D is also an excellent camera. If you shoot feature films or commercials and you have plenty of time for set-up and perhaps even a focus puller and excellent monitor I can’t imagine you would be disappointed with the 5D. It has a larger sensor, plus it’s what many clients expect you to walk in the room with. (That said, many are beginning to jump on-board the GH2 train as well – they just need to be educated:)). But as an all-around, affordable DSLR video camera, the GH2 vs. 5d is an easy decision to make – the GH2 beats the 5D as the best video dslr rig.
WARNING: If you have yet to purchase the GH2, don’t unless you are on a strict budget.
The GH3 and GH4 have since been released. I don’t recommend the GH3 (a hacked GH2 is a better camera) but the GH4 is spectacular. It features gorgeous 4K video (you can still shoot in regular HD – or shoot in 4K and deliver in 2K! That gives you room to push in, correct for bad focus, etc.)  Amazon currently has an excellent price, I recommend buying the model with the 14-140mm zoom rather than the GH2 body only. It is considerably cheaper than buying the lens separately and you are bound to find situations where you will appreciate having the extra focal length. Add on the 20mm pancake lens (excellent in low light and gorgeous depth of field!) and you have a very strong and capable DSLR video camera.



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