DSLRs vs. Consumer HD Camcorders

I recently finished up shooting a side project DVD on Humpback Whale Photography… watching them and photographing them (facebook: Exploring Maui). A little different from my usual gig of wrangling Photoshop plugins! ;-) For the most part it was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II. The 5D is great when it’s locked down on a tripod and you’re shooting interviews or talking about a topic.

The DVD has a lot of amazing photos of the Humpbacks, but very little actual video. This is due to the fact that the 5D doesn’t work well for wildlife videography. Now, some of you might have expected that, knowing about rolling shutter, aliasing, and some of the other issues that DSLRs have. However, when I started the project, I was blissfully unaware of most of those issues. Even though we shot with the 5D on a Stedicam Merlin most of the footage was unusable. Between the motion of the boat, the rolling shutter, and fast moving wildlife the 5D proved not to be the camera we hoped it was. (it was everything we expected for the tripod shots, so that came out well. But when we were actually on the boat… not so much.) There are some Final Cut Pro plugins to help out with these problems, but when dealing with a boat and wildlife it was just too much for the camera.

So the DVD was made with a little video footage of the whales and a lot of great photos. It came out fine, but looking to the future we want to shoot videos of the whales. What to do?

Buy an inexpensive HD Camcorder! In my case, I choose the Panasonic TM700 (Canon also has some great ones, but they’re more expensive and nothing I read indicated they were worth the extra money). $750 and it shoots 1080/60p in high quality AVCHD format. The other nice thing, at least for wildlife, is the touchscreen focusing. You can tap the screen on the object you want the camera to focus on. This is incredibly useful because one of the main problems with shooting wildlife is keeping it in focus. And when you’re on a moving boat trying to focus on a fast moving whale you really don’t have the time to manually focus.  It’s extremely difficult and unless you’re a real pro at it, you’re usually going to miss the shot while you’re futzing around with the focus ring.

The image stabilization seems to have a noticable effect on the TM700 (perhaps because it’s designed for video). On the 5D (24-105 lens), the image stabilization doesn’t seem to make a difference. Of course, the real solution is not to shoot handheld and use something like the Steadicam Merlin. But nothing I shot handheld with the 5D was usuable (and very little of the 5D on a steadicam was either), whereas the TM700 produced relatively nice footage. It’s going to be fun to put it on the Merlin.

Here’s the first test with the TM700. This was basically just taking it out of the box and shooting. There are a number of things that I need to set up, which I think will improve the video even further. But right out of the box it trumps the 5D hands down for for this situation. For interviews and other situations where you have more control over what you’re shooting and how it’s being shot, the 5D is an amazing video camera. For scenics it’s beautiful and for wildlife where you can sit in the bushes with a tripod it works well. But if you’re moving and your subject is moving it starts to present a lot of challenges.


Vimeo, in this case, darkened the footage, so the original footage is nicer than what you see on vimeo. I’m still working out the best way to get the .mts files through FCP and into Vimeo. But still, good footage from a $750 camera!

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