Over the past five years, DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras have been sweeping the photography market, blurring the line between what is "amateur" and what is "professional."
That's because the newer models — like Canon's 5D Mark II or Nikon's D7000 — have both video and still photo capabilities, so filmmaking is cheaper for video producers, and photography is easier for striving amateurs.
Well, OK, maybe not exactly easier. But the quality of imagery blows any point-and-shoot out of the water. Still, before you drop the hefty fee that one of these things can ring up, you may first want to know: Is it for you?
If you're looking to make home movies and no-hassle snapshots of birthdays and vacations, maybe not. These cameras can be cumbersome; the audio quality is not as reliable as with traditional video-only cameras, and there's a steep learning curve for the manual settings. Plus, on some cameras you can only roll a few minutes of video at a time.
On the other hand, if you do use one of these cameras for a home movie, it will look pretty professional with minimal effort. Just take a look around Vimeo and you'll see thousands of professional-looking videos made by "amateurs."
So if you're wanting to dabble in video, or even take your photography skills to the next level, then maybe these cameras are for you. The low cost of DSLR cameras — ranging from low to high thousands — has sprouted a crop of newcomers to the motion picture industry like the Nashville company Yeah Yeah Creative. Tyler Evans calls the cameras its secret weapon: "The cameras make us look a little better than we might be." Here's an example of a music video the company produced:
Fanciness has its trade-offs, though. Zooming on the fly is not easy. And, again, recording audio separately can be a big hassle. But a whole cottage industry has sprung up to accessorize. And in the end, amateurs get the ability to shoot like pros. Some pros are turning to DSLRs, too.
Stephen Alvarez, for example, has spent the past few decades as a still photographer for National Geographic magazine. Throughout his career he has used film cameras, DSLR cameras for still images — and, most recently, worked with NPR to produce his first video mini-documentary using a DSLR camera.
"It's a very filmic look. The cameras have a very large sensor, so that gives you the ability to shoot with a very narrow depth of field. If I want to, I can shoot a video of you talking and just have your eyeball in focus. And that's a look that until now took a very expensive machine to do."
But now that the film look is available to the masses, it has created a fundamental shift — one that's not necessarily comfortable for industry veterans. Adam Rector owns a rental shop called The Video Company and says rates are falling.
"Where budgets for a music video were, say, $50,000, now they've dropped down to $20,000 because the camera equipment is cheaper."
Rector built his business on the premise that professional video cameras are just too expensive for most people to own. At the time, the technology was BetaCams, which still run $50,000 or more. "If cameras keep getting better and cheaper," he says, "yeah, we're in trouble for sure."
The only trouble for people watching these new videos is learning how to tell a home movie from a Hollywood film.