By Ron Dawson
In the fall of 2008, the world of professional photography was introduced to the world of professional video in a way that it never had been before. Nikon released the very first DSLR capable of shooting high definition video, the D90. It was a camera that had the potential to revolutionize the pro photo world. There was one problem: a pre-production camera in the works by another little Japanese company by the name of Canon. That camera was the EOS 5D Mark II. There was also this award-winning photojournalist by the name of Vincent Laforet who was in the right place at the right time and got access to the aforementioned pre-produciton camera. Vincent spent $5,000 of his own money to make a short film called “Reverie.” From that moment on, Canon was the hands down winner in the video DSLR world, a full six months before the camera would even be available for purchase. Today the 5D is synonymous with video DSLR filmmaking. So much so that there are video forums about DSLR filmmaking named after the 5D (e.g. Planet5D.com, cinema5D.com, and 5DFilmmaking.com).
So what went wrong? Why didn’t the D90 become the defacto winner despite the fact that it was out first, and had the backing and video work of another well-known, heavily followed photographer by the name of Chase Jarvis? I think the most commonly accepted answer is twofold. First, the D90 used an inferior video compression scheme (Motion JPEG vs. Apple’s h.264). Second, and perhaps even a bigger deal, it only shot 1,280x720p, as opposed to full sized HD at 1,920x1,080p.
Since the release of the 5D Mark II, Canon has come out with four more amazing video-capable DSLRs—the 1D Mark IV, the 7D, the 550D/T2i and now the 60D). People have wondered what Nikon would do to play catch-up. Nikon has finally answered that call and released the Nikon D7000: a mid-level prosumer camera that finally shoots 1080p and uses the h.264 codec. But is it enough to give the Canon line of video DSLRs a run for their money? Let’s see.
CONTROLS: For the most part, the controls for the camera are all in convenient locations that you are most likely already familiar with (e.g. the front dial controls aperture, menu button on the back left top, etc.). From a filmmaking perspective however, what I found rather disappointing was the fact that it takes two hands to change ISO. You have to hold the back ISO button on the left, then turn the dial on the back right-hand side of the camera. Although an annoyance, I could live with that.
However, I think the one setback that makes it a deal-killer for anyone looking to get into DSLR filmmaking for event shooting is the fact that you can’t change aperture in Live View mode (unless you're using a lens with a manual aperture ring). That’s the mode required for shooting video, ergo, you can’t change aperture on the fly while recording. There are too many situations while shooting an event on the run when you quickly move from one lighting environment to another that requires stopping up or down. With my Canon DSLR, I can quickly adjust aperture and keep recording the action. Worst case scenario, I’d have a second or two of video that is over or under exposed while I make the adjustment. But the audio would still be recording, and the action would still be going. With the D7000 I’d have to stop recording, change aperture, hope that I got the right setting for the new light, then start recording again. If I didn’t adjust it enough, I’d have to stop again to readjust. By then, any moments you were looking to capture are long gone. Sure, you can change shutter speed and ISO while recording, but they can dramatically change the look and/or quality of the footage (such as introducing improper motion blur or high ISO noise).
Above: Each frame is a video screen shot taken from D7000 footage using an 85mm lens at f/1.4, 1/50 second shutter speed, 24 frames per second. The ISO settings are noted on the frame. Click the image for a larger view.
Now, if most of the video work you plan to do with this camera is under controlled lighting environments (short film, commercial work, etc.), these issues won’t be as big a deal. Also, if you’re already a Nikon shooter looking to get into DSLR filmmaking, these issues certainly aren’t bad enough to require a switch to Canon.
VIDEO QUALITY: As was expected, the actual video quality of the camera is beautiful. As beautiful as the footage is, there are some quality issues serious filmmakers will want to note.
First, the D7000 has both a high quality video recording setting (at about 22 mbits/second on average) and a “normal” quality setting (at about 12 mbits/second). Both those compression rates are significantly lower than what you get from the Canon DSLRs, which have rates that average from 35 to about 48 mbits/second. If you haven’t already guessed, the higher the rate, the better the quality. In practice though, if most of what you’re shooting will end up on the web, this won’t make that much of a difference. And frankly, even for work you’ll release on regular DVDs, there won’t be any discernible difference to the average layperson. (Consider that the quality of HDV camcorders, the staple of most event videographers, is only about 25 mbits/second.) However, it makes the camera unsuitable for any kind of broadcast work, and definitely not ideal for anything you want to show on a big screen.
One benefit of this lower compression value is that each clip recorded on the D7000 can be as long as 20 minutes, whereas on the Canon DSLRs, individual clips top out at about 12 minutes. (Due to the format structure of the media cards, individual file sizes can’t exceed 4GB). That gives you 75 percent more recording time, which can be very beneficial during event shooting.
FRAME RATES: As mentioned earlier, a huge improvement of the D7000 over the D90 with regards to the video capabilities is the inclusion of full-size 1,920x1,080 HD resolution. The downside is that it’s only available at 24 frames per second (fps). If you need HD at 30 or 25 fps, the only HD flavor you get is 1,280x720. Another important note is that the camera doesn’t have higher frame rates like 50 or 60 fps. The benefit of these higher rates is they allow you to create “true” slow motion by over-cranking. This is a term that means you’re shooting at a frame rate faster than the rate of the final edited project. If your final video will be at 30 fps, any footage shot at 60 fps, when converted to 30 fps, will be at 50-percent slow-motion speed. You can artificially create slow motion in just about all non-linear editing systems by just reducing the speed percentage accordingly, but that can cause your footage to look a little muddy, or cause motion blur since the computer is interpolating the extra frames needed to create the slow motion. When you over-crank, you record the actual extra frames needed, resulting in a smooth, pristine, slow-motion video clip.
A New Orleans sunrise. Video shot with a 35mm at f8, ISO 100 at 1/50 second, 24 fps.
LOW LIGHT CAPABILITIES: The D7000 has great video imagery up to ISO 3200. I shot a series of very short clips in a dark restaurant with the following ISO settings: 400, 800, 1600, 3200 and 6400 with an 85mm at f/1.4 at 1/50-second shutter speed. Noise didn’t really become noticeable until ISO 800, but not at all terrible. Even up to ISO 3200 I felt it was acceptable. Not until ISO 6400 does it become too much. I was very impressed.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS: As is common with video footage created by all such DSLRs, some of the other visual downsides are present with this camera. The rolling shutter still causes the “jello” effect (when you do quick pans with the camera the footage can look wobbly). But from what I’ve read, it’s better than the D90. The rolling shutter will also cause weird effects when flashes go off. Only part of the object will appear to be lit by the flash as it goes off. It can become bothersome if you get a lot of those in your footage. Moire is also still a problem. (The Moire effect is those weird “twinkling” lines you see in digital video footage that includes fine lines and patterns). I saw quite a bit of it when filming in New Orleans. If you ever plan to use a video DSLR to record interviews with people, make sure you tell them not to wear any clothing with fine patterns (thin stripes, houndstooth, tiny checks, etc.)
The areas inside red circles show a moire pattern effect. This was shot at 35mm at f/13, ISO 100 at 1/50 second, 24 fps.
FINAL WORD: With respect to DSLR filmmaking, there’s nothing offered by the D7000 that elevates it over any of Canon’s video DSLRs, or even the pending Panasonic GH2 for that matter. However, if you’re a Nikon shooter looking to break into DSLR filmmaking and you want to take advantage of all the Nikon glass you already own, the addition of 1080p at 24 fps and the switch to h.264 make it a worthwhile addition to your lineup, or upgrade from the D90.
Watch the video below to get a taste of what the D7000 can do.
You'll find the rest of our review coverage on the Nikon D7000 in the February issue of Professional Photographer magazine.