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Switching from DSLR to RED
By Nuno Sá, March 18, 2015 @ 05:00 AM (EST)

 

A few years back, the emergence of DSLRs capable of capturing high-quality video made a lot of underwater photographers like myself explore the world of motion pictures. For me, that journey started with a Canon EOS 7D; and from the beginning, I was hooked by the ability to switch from stills to video at the push of a button.
 
As I started taking video seriously, I stopped constantly switching between stills and video during a dive and rather I chose my subjects and equipment accordingly. I changed to a full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mk III and added a couple of lights and an external monitor, as well as starting to use low-compression picture-style profiles such as CineStyle. But trying to get stable footage and neutral buoyancy with an underwater housing built for still photography remained a challenge.

 

The RED Revolution

A new revolution began when RED introduced the RED Scarlet and a Canon lens mount—as well as a lower price point. Suddenly the option of shooting 4K, cinema-quality footage underwater would only cost a small fortune, instead of a large one.

The problem is that there’s little to no information out there for HDSLR underwater shooters interested in switching to RED cinema cameras. But when you watch amazing footage of videographers such as Howard Hall shooting with these cameras, you start dreaming about taking the next big step. This article aims to help make the next big step seem a little less daunting and a little more doable.
 

Nuno now shoots with a RED Scarlet in Gates housing and external monitor with Sola lights

 

Making the Switch from HDSLR to RED

THE PROS

  • The Housing: Having a perfectly balanced video housing is going to yield beautifully stable imagery—even when swimming like crazy after a whale.
  • Future-Proof Concept: It’s already cutting edge, but with the option to upgrade you have a camera and housing for the next decade (at least).
  • Frame Rates: Choosing anything from 1fps to 180fps in 5K (in the Epic X) gives you the chance to capture pretty much anything from time lapse to ultra slow motion.
  • Shooting RAW: The amount of information you get in a clip for post-production is simply amazing.
  • From Web to BBC: Going for a cinema camera makes you equipped to work for any kind of client, including full broadcast and cinema.

In my case, the decision to go for RED came from meeting two well-known videographers one summer in the Azores, each offering different feelings about using cinema cameras for underwater filmmaking.

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 logistics involved in using it. He warned me about the logistics of backing up huge RAW files, as well as the post-production involved in getting nice imagery out of RAW flat images.

My final decision came when 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 RED underwater and hear the opinion of someone that was coming from the same place as me—switching from DSLR to RED. 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 like a DSLR on steroids, as you will be making the same adjustments underwater using manual exposure and focus. There are also similar parameters to be controlled, like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and frame rate.

However, there are noticeable differences that have to be accounted for, perhaps the biggest being maneuvering with 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 50fps can easily mean bringing home 1TB of footage. That corresponds to a little more than 60 minutes of footage.
 


Nuno’s footage shot with his “old” Canon EOS 7D. While the results are impressive, the footage has far less resolution and there’s less scope for making post-processing adjustments

 

Investing in a RED Camera for Underwater Use

THE CONS

  • The Price: This is the big one and could make the other cons quite irrelevant. A good housing, professional lights, and a fully functional camera will set you back around $60,000. Keep in mind this is just enough equipment for underwater use, without tripod or grips for topside work.
  • Upgrades: Being modular, these cameras are future proof, but upgrades are expensive—at least $10,000 per upgrade.
  • File Size: You’re going to need to spend a lot of time and money backing up your files. Fortunately, the price per TB is dropping all the time and that works in favor of RED owners.
  • Post-Production: You can forget about using RED files without considerable post-production work. That is what shooting in RAW is all about: taking an untouched image and having the freedom to deliver the final footage just as you want it.

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects that one has to seriously look into before making the decision to change systems would be exactly how much it will cost you. So far, RED has stuck to the “modular camera” concept, which was one of the main motivations behind my investment in this camera system.

In short, this means you buy a “brain” and then attach several other accessories needed to make the camera function: side SSD for media, lens mount to attach lenses, LCD for live view, and so on. The brain is upgradable, meaning that if you want to upgrade from Epic X to Epic Dragon, you just send in the brain and then you’ll have a different camera but with the same accessories and—above all—the same housing.

Gates, for example, has a housing that accommodates the RED Scarlet, Epic X and Scarlet Dragon. The downside is that upgrades can often cost $10,000 or more and that failing to upgrade may leave you out of the loop indefinitely. For instance, if you don´t upgrade from Epic X to Dragon before a certain date, then you will then not be able to make the next upgrade (in this case, Dragon to Weapon).
 


Nuno’s first reel shot with the RED system has blown away anything else he’s shot as a videographer, specifically the resolution of the images and ability to better make adjustments both in and out of water 

 

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I would say that DSLRs are capable of creating beautiful imagery and are good enough for many clients and uses. They are very lightweight, handle low-light conditions very well and can deliver amazing—ready-to-use—images with the right color profiles. Having said that, since I started with the RED, my DSLRs have been gathering dust on the shelf….
 

Nuno Sá and his new best friend

 

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