Moving to Video for Stills Photographers – The Canon XH.

It’s something I needed to do. I’m moving more and more into shooting video and as I climbed the learning curve, it made my head hurt, but I really needed to do it.

There are lots of stills photographers out there moving to video as an extra skill. Right now, there are great new oportinities to use video and new technologies to tell stories in ways we’ve never been able to until now. You’ll have read how I shot the Ice Driver video in Sweden on the Canon 5D Mk2, but how easy is it for a professional stills photographer to move into shooting video? Until this year I’ve been a 100% stills photographer. I shoot a combination of car editorial and commercial work, together with commercial aerial photography and ground based building assignments. Early last year, I could see the potential, but it took the Canon 5D Mk2 to unleash it.

Canon gear is my livelihood, I use it to make my living. I’m very comfortable with my 1DS, it’s been my constant companion since 2003 when I went digital. Everything is under my fingers and I rarely think about what I need to do. Even when I used the Canon 5D Mk2 to shoot video in Sweden, it easily became intuitive to use. So when I got the chance to begin using a Canon XH-G1 I jumped at the chance to move to a ‘broadcast’ spec camera.

So if you’re a stills photographer moving to HDV and are trying to figure the workflow, I hope the following helps you get up and running quickly. I’ve shot a couple of shorts on the XHG1 now and as soon as I can get permission, I’ll post them online, meanwhile, here’s some tips I hope you’ll find useful if moving to a Canon HDV camera, particularly the XH series.

First thing you’ll find on opening the box is that it’s actually a lot lighter than you think it’s going to be. In fact, it weighs less than my Canon 1DS with a wide angle zoom attached. Roll it over onto it’s left hand side and there’s lots of buttons, far too many for someone like me, but that big selection switch in the centre is very similar to the top dial on an EOS DSLR and if you’re an EOS user, you won’t need the manual to figure out what they do. In true photographer style, or course, the owners manual stays in the box and a tape is loaded (more about tapes later) and the power switch flicked….

First thoughts were that the zoom ring was a far better way for someone like me to control zoom for framing the shot than by using the button on the top of the handle. The second thing was that the viewfinder was too small, the LCD screen being my preferred method, though even that was difficult until I discovered the ‘peaking’ and ‘magnify’ buttons. Better, but still not great and a common factor on many cameras of this type, it seems. Once my initial ten minute fiddle without the instruction manual was over (you know how it is…), time to set up some presets. One of the first things I set up was in ‘display’ and I set up a ‘level mark’ which is basically a white horizontal line across the screen to help judge hand held shots for a reasonably accurate horizon. I’ve left that set ever since and find it invaluable.

Then I went to Final Cut Pro on my Mac and set up the settings for importing / cataloging clips and started playing back my tape. Initially, I was a bit dissappionted. It looked pretty cold and blue, like early Kodachrome and nothing like the richness of the colours I’d got from the Canon 5D. Better read that instruction manual for the Fujichrome look, then….

This camera is massively configurable compared to any prosumer camcorder and allows you to set ‘looks’ based upon various presets that can be loaded from a memory card. I wanted to find a look that emulated what I’d seen with the 5D, so headed over to the superb DV Info website. There’s a huge list of presets there for all sorts of looks, so a quick chat with photography colleague Nick Wilcox Brown who already owns an XH series and he emailed me over the look he’d found. Loading it is simple and I won’t go into it again here, but it transformed the look and I’m now far happier with ‘out of the camera’ footage. Ultimately, though, I know that to achieve the look I want, I’m going to have to hit the credit card and buy a professional grading app such as Magic Bullet Looks… More software to learn….

The final thing so far ( and it’s a biggie if you’re a stills shooter) is sound. You obviously need to record it, but also monitor it and control it.

You can record using the on-camera mike (which is what I’ve been doing so far) but the results are less than perfect when it’s windy or when there’s distracting noises nearby. I need something windproof, directional and XLR Powered, plus a wireless laveler mike for interviews and in-car shooting.
You need to monitor it. Plug in some headphones and listen. Otherwise, it’s like shooting without looking through the viewfinder.
Control it – Definately set the levels manually, but don’t just use the tell-tale bar graphs, use the heaphones and listen as you record. A sound check before you start rolling is nearly always wrong, as for me, people’s voices, cars and other sounds all change once you hit the button.

Other things that a stills photographer needs to budget for when moving into shooting motion content? There’s masses of it, but here’s a quick list of a few of the gadgets and bits of gear I’m going to have to look into:

A good video head. You just can’t use a traditional, non-damped photographer’s item
Barn Doors & Filters – None of my stills gear fits… More money.
Sound equipment – never needed as a stills photographer, so starting from scratch. Looks like I’ll need a good directional mike and a wireless Laveler mike for recording in-car sounds while the camera is on the outside and other moves I’ve got in mind.

I’ll be writing about each thing as I find the time, but if you’ve any suggestions, feel free to chime in with comments below. Meanwhile, here’s some links for the Canon XH series cameras you’ll find useful.

Great tutorials and short clips on Youtube about setting up the XHA1

DV Info – A superb forum with a whole section dedicated to Canon XH series discussions.

Canon Professional website. An excellent set of tutorials on Final Cut Pro plus some other information on setting up the Canon X series cameras

Finally for now, I’d got used to tapeless aquisition with the 5D and going back to using DV tape was initially a pain, as I had to get back to the FCP manual and work through the import process. It’s very straight forward, but to anyone coming from a tapeless background, it feels like a backward step. There’s little doubt on my part that the next generation of Canon HDV cameras will probably offer at least one tapeless version


  1. says

    You’re welcome to refer to me link back and comment on your blog about articles here. All I ask is that you don’t just copy and paste whole articles, but use mine as inspiration of your own. Your iPad site is interesting too!

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