Fall 2010 Prosumer video DSLR roundup (Part 1)

(Skip ahead to Part 2)

Later this week, Panasonic is announcing the GH2.  At that time, I will publish the second part of this roundup, which will feature a comparison spreadsheet I’ve been working on that compares the prosumer-level Digital SLR video-enabled cameras using the criteria I describe in this post, along with my comments about each camera.  It also considers the price of switching systems.  The cameras I’m considering are the Canon 550D (T2i), Canon 60D, Nikon D7000, Panasonic GH1, Panasonic GH2, Sony A55, and Sony NEX7 (rumored/guessed).  These will be compared against the Nikon D80, which I already own.

Along with the D80, I own a superzoom Nikon 18-200VR lens, a Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 portrait lens, and the cheap/small/useful 50mm f/1.8 lens.  I’ve discovered I’d rather have a 35mm or wider fast/cheap prime  I have been waiting for DSLR video to get good enough to replace a high-end consumer camcorder because the video quality, depth of field, and low light capabilities of DSLR video is much, much better than consumer camcorders, even to the videographer level of $2k-5k.  I’ve shot video for a couple of weddings, and I want to have a camera around that was at a high enough level to legitimately do it without having to rent or borrow a camera.

I’ve played a little with the Nikon D90, but I didn’t think it was worth the upgrade.  It has horrible rolling shutter effects when panning that make vertical lines look like they are at a 15-45 degree angle depending on how fast you pan.  It also lacked an external mic port; I have an external video boom mic already and want to use it when shooting serious video.  It was also limited to FIVE MINUTES at a time.  It was the first video-enabled DSLR, and while it had amazing video quality, it wasn’t ready for me.

I bought a Panasonic GH1 and a micro 4/3 to Nikon lens adapter 6 months ago to give it a demo and see if it was something I could shoot with my Nikon lenses.  I played with it for a month but I was disappointed by the photo quality and I had difficulty manually focusing the DSLR lenses and getting them to tack sharp focus.  In fact, while I was demoing it, two small birds started fighting outside my apartment so I immediately grabbed the GH1, the 70-200 lens, and a tripod and headed outside.  I videoed for about 10 minutes from different locations until the birds got spooked (oops) and flew off.  I thought I had gotten some killer footage and immediately loaded it on my computer and discovered ALL of the video was soft.  That was SO frustrating… it was the coolest thing I’ve ever shot and the video was weak even though I thought I had nailed the focus.  I also wanted IS because when I tried hand-holding it, the video was horrible.[quote]

For photos, I started off noting that the focus wasn’t nearly as quick as the Nikon DSLRs I’d used are.  Not only that, but I was very disappointed by the photos produced… the highlights felt like they lost a couple stops and were constantly clipping.  I had to dramatically underexpose to get decent highlight exposures.  It felt more like using a point and shoot and getting those results rather than a DSLR.  I’d also have to give up on an every-shot “HDR mode” that I get by shooting RAW on the D80 where I can get detail that isn’t in the JPEG shots.  Lens choices would also be an issue as there are only two m4/3 lenses I was interested in… the 20mm f/1.7 and the 14-140mm superzoom.  The 20mm f/1.7 also doesn’t have image stabilization.

On the upside, the GH1’s 720p 60 fps mode reduces the rolling shutter effect to the point where it is ignorable.  I also loved having an articulating LCD again.  Being able to install any manufacturer’s lenses in MF mode using adapters was also cool, though I felt like lenses were never wide enough because of the 2x crop sensor.  There are also really small m43-series camera bodies so I could own the GH1 and another body and grab the other body for hiking and not give up nearly as much as grabbing a P&S.

So that led me to the criteria I wouldn’t compromise in my next DSLR:

  1. Photo features/quality at least on the level with the Nikon D80 (includes wireless remote shutter and wireless flash commander support, the #1 reason I upgraded to the D80)
  2. Video Autofocus with the lenses I’ll use (m4/3 and NEX mount any lens with an adapter but can only AF some of the same manufacturer lenses)
  3. Microphone input
  4. 720p (or higher) 60 fps (rolling shutter is really annoying at 30/24 fps)
  5. Faster continuous fps and longer buffer than D80

These additional features were things I wanted:

  1. Fully Articulating LCD (heavily prefer side-hinged LCDs, but bottom hinged are better than nothing)
  2. 3″+ high-res LCD (I need all the help I can get when trying to focus manually)
  3. Image Stabilization with as many lenses as possible (preferably on body since I’m not buying a $700 Merlin Steadicam to go with it, and I also like doing slow shutter photos handheld)
  4. GPS (Not that important, but I do hike a lot, and it seems like it could be cool)
  5. SDXC (Since I’m shooting video, I don’t really want to be limited to 32 GB cards for as long as I own the camera)
  6. Extra batteries / Grip (Video sucks batteries dry.  Camcorders have huge batteries to compensate)
  7. Preference would be given to a smaller camera if it wasn’t uncomfortable to use… definitely would like a tiny body option (like the GF/NEX series).  The D80 is a chunky camera to carry around.  A small camera + small lens would be nice to hike with.

To summarize, I basically wanted a D80/90 combined with the video features of the GH1 for about $1000.  That’s what I thought the Nikon D7000 would be since the GH1 has been out for over a year.

However, when it was rumored that the D7000 would cost $1200 and not have an articulating LCD or 60 fps mode, I started looking for other options.

In 2-3 days, I’ll publish part 2, the comparison spreadsheet for the cameras I considered as well as my thoughts on each camera.

Continue on to Part 2

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