DSLR - Short for Digital Single Lens Reflex. Since all marketing departments these days love an acronym they decided that cameras needed a new one. The birth of the HDSLR.
The letters HD in the camera we've been calling an HDSLR do not stand for high definition; an HDSLR is a Hybrid Digital Lens Reflex Camera. The hybrid was added because these DSLRs were very special. Not only do they take amazing still pictures, but since Nikon's release of the D90, they now shoot incredible video. As with everything hybrid, there are pros and cons to using a camera originally made for shooting still pictures as a video camera.
The first and biggest advantage to using an HDSLR is the ability to change the lens . Being able to use a choice of lenses that changes upon the situation or the shot has been a hallmark of all professional filmmaking. Additionally, some of these cameras are able to shoot in full HD at 1920 x 1080 with your choice of frame rates from the standard 24p, 25p, and 30p. Some also allow you to shoot in 1280 x 720 at 50p or 60p. Although the first DSLR that could shoot video was introduced by Nikon in 2008 with the D90, HDSLRs didn't immediately catch on as video cameras. By 2010, however, film and television productions began embracing HDSLRs as a viable alternative to their 35mm film format. In fact, the seventh season of FOX's House was shot using a Canon 5D Mark II HDSLR camera.
Sensor Size - One of the best news about choosing to shoot video using an HDSLR is their sensor size. Compared to compact video cameras, an HDSLR has a sensor that can be significantly larger. This larger sensor size improves the signal-to-noise ratio, resulting in a much cleaner image.
Interchangeable Lenses - One of the biggest restrictions of most camcorders is their fixed lens system, preventing the ability to change lenses. A lot of camcorders come with very good lenses, but they lack that all important depth of field ability that good lenses allow you to capture. They also don't give you choices of a better zoom lens or a macro lens for when you want to record your favorite butterfly landing on a leaf shot. Also, interchangeable lenses give you the ability to shoot in lower light since many prime lenses can achieve f-stops as low as 1.2.
Dual Purpose - These HDSLRs are indeed chameleons. They take stunning still pictures and video, and in some cases 1080p video just as well. So now, you no longer have to carry around two cameras to do both. Lugging around multiple cameras with multiple batteries can be a hassle. There are always moments when you have your still camera with you, but wish you could capture a quick short movie or times when you're lugging your video camera when you wish you could take a quality still photo.
Price - Getting a great still camera as well as great video camera sounds like it would cost a lot. To most people's surprise it doesn't. Compared to the standard prices of camcorders, a DSLR holds its own. Being digital you don't have to worry about buying film either, just make sure you have enough of those inexpensive memory cards.
Well Built - Many of these HDSLRs, such as the Canon EOS 1 series cameras, are weather-sealed making them great when you need to shoot in rain or snow (however, you should always aim to keep your camera dry). Others, such as the Nikon D3S, are sometimes compared to a tank because of their in-the-field durability. These cameras can take a pounding and still be reliable.
Limited Video Recording Time - DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II as well as the Nikon D7000 are just a couple of examples of great quality DSLRs that limit your continuous recording time. We have all seen home movies or semi professional videos where the scene seems to go on forever. Rarely do you see long, drawn-out scenes in professional productions, aside from a documentary or interview. So a limited record time means more pre-planning before pressing that record button.
The Build - We know size was listed already as a positive attribute to these cameras, but it works both ways. The build of an HDSLR is typically made for a user who is shooting a single still shot, and not for someone who might be shooting long scenes. HDSLRs aren't ergonomic for video shooting and are harder to hold steady for any length of time. Most users are shooting with a variety of steadying devices like tripods or hand-held stabilizers designed to compensate for HDSLR shooting.
Audio - Since HDSLRs first mission is to capture still images, they are often lacking in options for capturing audio recording. Some HDSLR models also won't record in stereo. There are no XLR inputs for microphones on these cameras, only 1/8-inch inputs, so many users are relying on separate audio recording devices to capture their sound. See our Audio for HDSLRs article for more on audio capturing tips for HDSLRs. Some cameras have auto gain control (AGC), which results in audio that ends up being high and low with little consistency. The AGC problem is no longer an issue on some cameras due to updates, and with the popularity of HDSLRs growing rapidly for video recording, these issues will be addressed in either firmware or hardware upgrades in the near future. You are already seeing more video friendly, less expensive HDSLRs coming on the market. Clearly the advantages these DSLR or HDSLRs have are attracting consumers as well as professionals.
$3,000 and Up - In this the most expensive level of HDSLR there are many features to look for. It's not unheard of to have an ISO as high as 12,800, making this class the best when it comes to shooting in low light. They have excellent build quality and are often weather sealed, which is to be expected at this price point. They have larger sensors and shoot at high megapixels. Often these cameras don't come with a lens attached. You're expected to know the type and quality of lens you want, which you purchase separately or as part of a kit. These cameras have choices of SD and CF card size and offer live HDMI out when recording.
$1,000 - $3,000 - In this price range, the cameras can often include a lens as part of the kit. Headphone jacks might be harder to find in this price level, which makes it difficult to monitor your audio recording during your shoot. Cameras in the $1000 to $3000 priced range are often smaller than their bigger and more expensive HDSLR cousins. If you choose a camera such as an Olympus or Panasonic, you can find what is known as a Micro Four-Thirds system. This system allows for a smaller body size due to the lack of the mirror box common with SLR cameras. With inexpensive adapters you can still use standard sized lenses. Nearer to the $3,000 level you can get a full sized Canon 5D Mark II body only.
Under $1,000 - At this price point you're looking at a camera that generally comes with a standard lens. These cameras are aimed at the novice to enthusiast video shooter. ISO levels are typically not as good as the full bodied HDSLRs. Do expect to be surprised by many cameras with the ability to capture video resolutions up to 1920 x 1080. Many of the functions are buried in an onscreen menu and it can be very tedious to adjust settings quickly. These cameras might have auto-focus or other automatic features that you can't change or can be difficult to turn off.
The biggest difference in the sub $1,000 level HDSLR is the sensor. The built-in sensor is often not as good as the ones that can be found in the above $1,500 range. This is not to say that their pictures are still not stunning; the videos recorded are excellent as well, but this is where proper lens selection makes all the difference.
Think of the sub-$1,000 mark as your entry level camera. If you aren't quite sure you may need a more expensive DSLR or HDSLR, you can begin at this level. For the price point, these are excellent values. You will make some trade-offs but that's to be expected. Many videographers start here and jump right to a top-of-the-line HDSLR. The ability to take stunning still pictures as well as breathtaking video all on the same camera is a value that is hard to beat. The middle or $1,000 to $3,000 level is where many semi-professional videographers will find real value. They will be able to buy a very good camera that can take excellent video without breaking the bank.
Aspiring filmmakers will be able to make stunning movies with a camera bought at this level. The Canon 5D Mark II used in many professional video applications can be found here. Above this price level are the big boys. Professional photographers will be here as well as videographers who are looking for better low-light sensitivity along with the ability to output high definition video via HDMI while on the set.
While these DSLRs are just beginning to make a dent in the video world, their impact can not be denied. Video camera manufacturers everywhere have taken notice of the popularity and wide ranging uses of this market segment. While the bodies for many of these HDSLRs can seem expensive, they are chump change compared to lenses. But that's a subject that requires a lot more attention in another story. Check out the grid to find out about the different types of HDSLRs on the market today. This is a representation of most companies' products to get you started with your own research.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's DLSR/HDSLR Buyer's Guide