SmallHD to the rescue!

One of the benefits of using a DSLR for film making is enjoying the nice bokeh and shallow depth of field from the large sensors and 35mm lenses.

One of the problems with using a DSLR for film making is focusing. Even on the newer cameras with better quality LCD screens, achieving proper focus is difficult on such small screens. I have found that even when I think the subject is in focus on the lcd screen, when I review the footage back on the computer, I have to toss a lot of it away because it is slightly out of focus… such a waste of time and energy!

As I found myself on a remote tropical island, the sun and glare off of the LCD screen of my Canon 60D made focusing near impossible (and this was with an anti-glare protector placed over the LCD screen!)

So, what is the solution(s)?

Many of the features that are found on the bigger video/ digital film cameras are lacking on the DSLRs. This prompts vast excitement at the announcement of any new DSLR, as thousands of people eagerly wait in anticipation of some better quality video features on a camera primarily designed for photography. Some of these features include focus assist, focus peaking, false colour, audio control and monitor, etc. Many of these tools come standard on professional level cameras, but are greatly desired to be used with a DSLR.

Solution 1: Magic Lantern

Magic Lantern has been developed as an additional firmware system that can be loaded onto a Canon DSLR (except for 7D), which has sought to bring many of these features and more to the Canon DSLR film making community. I have personally found the latest Magic Lantern Unified release to be especially stable and helpful. The focus peaking option has saved me a number of times when I only have the small LCD to guess focus. Using areas of strong contrast as a guide, the focus peaking tool is a real help.

Although you can use the zoom option on the camera to zoom in 5x or 10x to double check focus before recording, once the camera is in record mode, there is no way to zoom in and check focus. This is where the focus peaking tool comes in most useful, to have a visual aide as you are recording.

However, in the Philippines, with the strong sunlight producing areas of high contrast (shadow and light), it made using the focus peaking tool next to impossible to use accurately. Even the magic zoom option was difficult to use on the fly.

Solution 2: Some sort of option to enlarge the viewing area

Whether it be an EVF, a Loupe or external field monitor, there are usually several options if going down this road for solving the focus problem. These options come at varying degrees of expense. Out of these options, a company named SmallHD, has produced several products that have quickly become the standard field monitors of choice on many productions.

The DP4 is a 4.3 inch monitor that can also be used as an EVF with small additional eye piece/ magnifier. The DP6 is a 5.6 in. true HD monitor. At NAB 2012, SmallHD announced the DP7, a new product in their line-up available later this year.

I had the privilege of using the DP6 for this project in Siargao. A great feature is the built-in DSLR preset that automatically scales up the 480p output from most of the Canon DSLRs (this also works with Nikons as well). The website does a great job of explaining how it all works, but in short, in the process of scaling up the image, it brings the not-so-HD signal up into the HD resolution range and fills the entire screen.

This, combined with some great features within the DP6 itself (focus peaking, focus assist, false colour, 1:1 scaling, monochrome, and more), allows for the DP6 to be an incredible asset on any shoot. While shooting on Siargao Island the past couple weeks, this could not be any more true!

*UPDATE 02/05/2012: I took some time to update the firmware on the DP6 and learned about the Focus Assist+ function. Instead of a contrast based focus assist which previously darkened the out of focus image too heavily (beyond use), the relatively new Focus Assist+ feature looks very helpful. For a explanatory video and a comparison between several other popular external field monitors, watch here or below:

Having a larger, HD monitor to use proved indispensable on this project. For some shots I was able to get by with using the standard LCD screen, but for most shots, the DP6 was life-saving.

Thank you SmallHD for making such a great product and allowing me to have the benefit of using the DP6 on this project. An incredible blessing!