-- Millions of point-and-shoot-camera lovers have stepped up to more advanced digital SLRs to improve their photography. But while $1,000 or so gets you a faster-performing, sharper camera that can stop action on a dime, the fancier camera hasn't been able to shoot video, something virtually any point-and-shoot can do.
Video clips on low-cost digital cameras have gotten so good that full-featured video camcorder sales have been declining for years. Get ready to weep some more, camcorder manufacturers.
Two new SLRs can now shoot high-definition video, taking advantage of the superior lenses (much better than video cameras, way better than point-and-shoots) available for SLRs.
Nikon's $999 D90 (body only), out now, is the first digital SLR to shoot video at 720-pixal resolution. Rival Canon ups the ante next month with the upgrade to its popular 5D camera, the $2,700 (body only) EOS 5D Mark II, which shoots high-def clips in the higher-resolution 1080-pixal format.
The 5D won't be in stores for four to six weeks. I tested a preproduction model. The verdict: Video on the 5D is vastly superior to the D90, but it's not really a fair comparison. The 5D is nearly three times the cost, and the D90 is an amazing camera but better for stills.
Video quality on the D90 is on par with a good point-and-shoot. The 5D, to these eyes anyway, looks comparable to a professional video camera.
Shooting video on SLRs.
Canon and Nikon were able to introduce HD video to SLRs thanks to advances in Live View technology, which allows shutterbugs to frame images on an LCD preview screen instead of a viewfinder. Manufacturers made this video breakthrough by ramping up the power of their cameras' image processors to increase video output resolution and data transfer speeds.
I'm not a fan of Live View. If you try composing your image in bright sunlight, it's nearly impossible to see. But if you want SLR video, this is what you have to do to get it.
The good news about SLR video, and it is pretty major: You can make use of the mouthwatering, supersharp, add-on accessory lenses that camera makers promote to let us zoom in really close or go wide for wonderful vistas.
I tested both the 5D and D90 with wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses and got video I never could achieve with a small point-and-shoot, or even my nice, expensive stand-alone video camera.
Furthermore, video from these cameras is a joy to work with. There are no tapes to transfer. And unlike the current crop of tapeless hard-drive or memory-card cameras, the video files on the D90 and 5D aren't in an incompatible format. They open right away in Windows Media Player, Apple QuickTime and other video-editing programs.
The bad news: Auto focusing is very problematic, more so on the D90 than the 5D.
With the Nikon, you need to focus the image before you start recording the video. If you move at all, and need to refocus, you can't. The only way to keep the image sharp is by switching to manual focus.
On the 5D, Canon adds a cool button on the back of the camera to keep the image in auto focus.
One of the selling points of both cameras is that they are excellent in low-light situations. Advances in low-light sensors have gotten so good, you could shoot a movie practically in the dark with the new 5D, Chris MacAskill, president of photo-sharing site SmugMug, enthused on his blog recently.
Well, that's a little optimistic, at least in this version of the camera. Focusing ability on full-size video cameras is so much more precise, filmmakers would be wise to stick with them for now.
But MacAskill is right: You can shoot in dark situations, and the video looks terrific.
One adage holds that 70% of the success of a video deals with sound. And most video cameras produce inferior sound, provided by the cheap, tinny built-in microphones.
Want good sound? You need to plug in an external microphone. The 5D has a slot for a microphone; the D90 does not. The sound from the D90's built-in microphone is certainly passable for vacation footage. You'll need to have the camera in your subjects' faces to be able to hear them.
The 5D and D90 are not camcorders but still cameras with video capability. Your videos are likely to be less steady than on a video camera, your zooming rocky and the images shakier.
The record controls are on the back of the camera, meaning you'll be fiddling with the buttons when you start and stop each clip. You won't reach for a zoom button but the lens itself.
My advice: Use a tripod for your SLR videos.