Migration from Stills to Video: DSLR to RED

A few years back the appearance of DSLR´s capable of capturing high quality video made a lot of underwater photographers as myself explore the world of motion picture. For me this journey started with a Canon Eos 7D and exploring its video capabilities in between photo shoots using available light. From the beginning I was hooked by the prospect of being able to switch from stills to video on the push of a button… as where most underwater photographers out there.

Text by Nuno Sa

On the next year I started taking video seriously and stopped constantly switching from stills to video during a dive and rather chose what I was going for and preparing the equipment and settings accordingly. I changed to a Full frame 5DMKIII and added a couple of lights and an external monitor as well as starting to use low compression picture styles such as the cinestlye. Trying to get stabile shoots and neutral buoyancy on a underwater housing created for capturing stills was probably the biggest challenge for me and most UW DSLR video shooters out there. As many others I would search on forums looking for solutions and do a lot of experiences such as attaching buoys and adding side wings on the housing with some moderate success.

And then a new revolution started with RED introducing the RED Scarlet and a Canon lens mount as well as dropping prices on the Epic. Suddenly all forums where talking about these high end 4K cinema cameras and how they where now only a small fortune instead of a big one. The problem was there seamed to be no information out there of DSLR UW shooters making the change to RED. But when you watch footage of videographers such as Howard Hall shooting amazing footage with these cameras one could start dreaming on taking the next big step.

In my case the decision to go for RED came from meeting two well known videographers in a summer in the Azores, curiously they had pretty different feelings about working with cinema cameras. I first met Rafa Herrero, a well-known Spanish videographer in Santa Maria Island and he was nice enough to show me the inside of the beast and the results and logistics using it involved. As a many year user of Run n Gun cameras producing documentaries Rafa did warn me a lot about the logistics backing up huge RAW files involved as well as the whole post production of getting nice imagery out of RAW flat images. But I must say I was immediately drawn to this camera and its potential.

The final choice came when a couple of months latter a close friend of mine, Mauricio Handler, came to shoot sperm whales with me in the Azores. I then had a chance to try his camera UW and hear the opinion of someone that was coming from the same place as me… from DSLR to RED. Meanwhile I have bought two Run n Gun cameras for top shoots and to use as B cameras (Canon XA20 and Sony FS7) and I must say that for someone coming from the world of DSLR the RED is actually easier to use than smaller handheld cameras. In essence the RED is pretty much a DSLR on steroids as you will be doing basically the same adjustment UW using manual exposure and focus, as well as choosing basic parameters as aperture, shutter speed, frame rate and ISO as well as a low depth of field to work with (especially in macro shoots). Perhaps the biggest differences will be logistics wise, as you will be carrying a substantially heavier system as well as accumulating very large files (a good day of shooting in 5K RAW with a 7:1 compression and 50 fps can easily bring home 1 TB of footage and that is for little over 60 min of footage).

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects that one has to seriously look into before making the decision to chance systems would be exactly how much it will cost you. So far RED has kept the “modular camera” concept witch was one of the main reasons that made me go for this camera. In short this means you buy a brain and then attach several accessories needed to make the camera work (Side SSD for media, lens mount to attach lens, LCD for live view etc.…). So far the brain is “upgradable” so this means if you want to upgrade from Epic X to Epic Dragon you just send in the brain and now have a different camera but the same accessories and above all… the same housing. So of course for UW works this brings a big advantage as for example Gates has the same housing for the Scarlet, Epic X and Dragon. The downside is many people think the price of the camera is the price of the brain, however you can expect to about double the price (or at least add another 10 000$) just for a basic package. Another aspect to keep in mind regarding upgrades is that if you miss one you may be left out of the loop indefinitely (for instance if you don´t upgrade from Epic X to Dragon until a certain date you will then not be able to make the next upgrade, in this case the Dragon to Weapon upgrade).

As for Pros and Cons I would point out:

Pros:

  • The housing – Oh the housing!!!… Perhaps more than everything else having a perfectly balanced video housing that just floats horizontally in front of you with a nice 5” or 7” screen is going to bring beautifully stable imagery, with perfect pans, even when swimming like crazy after a whale.
  • Future proof concept – The RED is pretty much as future proof as it gets (shooting in 5K or 6k for Epic X and epic Dragon) but if you add the fact that is upgradable to the equation you have a camera and housing for the next decade (at least).
  • Frame rates – Choosing anything from 1 fps to 180 fps in 5K (in the Epic X) and even more than this if you upgrade brings you the chance to capture pretty much anything from time-lapse to verrrry slow-motion.
  • Shooting RAW – The amount of information you get in a clip for post production is simply amazing, but of course backing this up is a challenge and post-production is demanding. Also keep in mind RED cameras use RED media period.
  • From web to BBC – Going for a cinema camera does, of course, make you equipped to pretty much work for any kind of client from web based to full broadcast and cinema.
  • UW OLPF – Red has just developed an interchangeable OLPF (Optical Low Pass-Filter) system for specific uses such as low light or skin tone-highlight. The good news is they have just developed a H2O OLPF for underwater use that should deliver new color science in the blue channel.

The cons:

  • The price – This is the big one and does make the other cons pretty irrelevant. A good housing, nice pro lights (15 000 lumens each or so) and a fully functional camera should go for around 50 000$ – 60 000$. Keep in mind this is for UW use only without a nice tripod, grips, cage etc.… for surface work.
  • Upgrades – This is pretty much the same as above. Upgradable cameras make them future proof but they are, unfortunately, expensive. At around 10 000$ per upgrade and you might need to make an upgrade until a certain date to keep your camera eligible for the next upgrade.
  • File size – Just like the upgrades one of the Red’s main advantages is also a bit of a downfall as you will, of course, spend a lot of time and money backing up your files. Fortunately the price per TB is dropping by the day and working in favor of RED owners. You can check online what a card will go for at http://www.red.com/tools/recording-time, but each of my 512 GB cards will go for around 30 min with my most common settings.
  • Post production – You can forget about using Red files without considerable post production work. That is what shooting in RAW is all about, taking a flat image with no contrast, sharpening, saturation etc.… and having the freedom to deliver the final image just like you want it.

In conclusion I would say that DSLR´s do make beautiful imagery and are good enough for many clients and uses. They are very light weight, handle low light conditions very well and can deliver amazing – ready to use – images with the right color profiles. I must say however that since I started with the RED system my 7D´s and 5D´s have been on the shelf.

Bellow you can check a couple of links and compare for yourself, the top one is the first production I made with the 7D and the second my first reel with Red Epic.

Using Canon 7D

Using RED

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