Dec 012011

This is a three-part article, you can access part 2 here and part 3 here

Here you have it. You hold the Nikon D5100 in your hands, a great camera incredible for its price. You can take great still pictures and record HD video in 1920 by 1080 pixels at 30 frames per second! Just fantastic!

So you skim through about eight pages of the 300 page manual, mount on your lens, fumble with it and by 11:00 at night, you finally figure out how to shoot video. You start recording thinking about how incredible this cute video of your cat running around the house is going to look on YouTube.

You get it on your computer and you notice some problems right away. The video looks really noisy. It goes dark and then brightens up like that video you’ve recorded on your old cellphone. It’s out of focus, in focus and back out of focus again.

Crap. Video on this camera sucks.

You couldn’t be further from the truth.

Like most tech gadgets today, there’s a bit of a learning curve to getting good video out of the D5100. You need to set up the camera so you can control it, throttle back the willy-nilly and plan your shots a bit so you can take that video quality up a notch or two.

Over the next few posts I’m going to explain the problem and give you a few solutions that have worked for me. In this article, I’m going to explain what’s happening to cause these problems and the next two will be divided into configurations to set up and then what to do for when you want to shoot the video.

Sorry, I can’t help you with your choice of content. That might be better left for a psychologist to work out your cat obsession.

So What’s Happening?

Basically, these problems are happening because Nikon is trying to save you from yourself. To make video, there are some standards that have to be adhered to and demand for more automated features has limited choices even more. On top of that, there are physical limitations in making video and Nikon had to make the hard call so you can just set the mode and start recording.

So what are these issues and why do they happen?

The Grainy Video Problem

Shutter speed, ISO and aperture are the three corners of what’s called the “Exposure Triangle”. To get the right amount of light in your images, you have to get the balance of all three correct. If exposure drops due to an increase of the shutter speed, you have to increase the ISO or open the aperture (or a combination of both) to bring it back to proper exposure.

Exposure Triangle

Frame rate is effectively a minimum shutter speed. You can’t record 24 frames in a second if each image takes 1/10th of a second to expose. To emulate a filmic look, shutter speed should ideally be double the frame rate that matches what film cameras typically record and matches what we’re used to seeing for the motion blur in each frame. So for 30 fps, you’re shutter speed would be 1/60th of a second and for 24 fps, 1/48th (or the closest equivalent, 1/50th) would be used.

Because of the physical limitation of framerate and shutter speed in recording video, the camera can only control ISO and aperture to get the right exposure. And due to a limitation in how LiveView works or by you’re choices for recording, aperture is usually removed from the equation as well. This is why a video in lower light situations get so noisy.

How do you control it then?

You have to get your exposure into a sweet spot where you have the optimal shutter speed, ISO and aperture. To do that, you have to alter the lighting to accommodate this range. Either you get some light on your subject or open up your aperture (lower f-stop number) if it’s too dark and if it’s too light you need an ND filter or to close down your aperture (higher f-stop number).

There is one more option.

If you can adjust your aperture and balance your shutter speed and ISO, you can find that sweet spot yourself. I’ll explain aperture control and getting more realistic ISO settings for the D5100 in the third part to this series.

The Changing Brightness Problem

When the video switches brightness around while filming, it’s due to the exposure adjusting as the lighting conditions change. Your camera is trying to keep your exposure in the ideal exposure settings by adjusting the ISO and shutter speed in the manner I’ve explained in the last segment. That doesn’t lend well to capturing quality video and is something you can’t easily correct in post (trust me on this).

The best method of preventing automatic exposure adjustments from happening mid-shot is to use a full manual mode (setting the ISO, shutter speed and aperture explicitly). Unfortunately, the D5100 doesn’t use your settings for shutter speed or ISO at all while recording video, so you have to do the next best thing. You lock the exposure.

I’ll describe some settings to help with locking the exposure and make it a bit more predictable in the next few posts.

The Hunting Focus Problem

One of the most frustrating problems with filming video on a DSLR is the horrible hunting of focus, where it focuses in and out and back again. By the time it’s done, you’ve burned about three seconds of video having nothing but blurriness. What’s going on?

First some basic information on how digital cameras focus. There are two main focusing techniques used by cameras, one is called “phase detection” and the other is called “contrast measurement”.

What is Phase Detection?

Phase Detection uses some deflectors in the viewfinder mirror to redirect some light coming in from the lens down to sensors in the bottom of the camera. Those are those dots you see when looking through the viewfinder. The sensors can not only figure out the image is out of focus, but how far out of focus the lens is and which way it’s out of focus. Because of this, the camera knows almost immediately which way and how far to adjust the focus to get a tack sharp image.

Phase detection does have its faults, but it’s fast and efficient. One of the down-sides of phase detection is it requires the mirror to be down to work in the D5100. LiveView requires the mirror up for the sensor to show you what the lens sees full-time so that excludes using phase detection for video recording.

What is Contrast Measurement?

The other option, Contrast Measurement, is used by LiveView and works a bit differently. The camera’s computer examines the area of focus for contrasting lines, seeing how sharp of a contrast between two shades in the area are. If it can’t find a sharp area, it has to adjust the focus and remeasure to see if the contrast worsened or improved. Then it knows a bit better which way to go, either more in the direction it’s going or reverse direction and go past where it was originally. This leads to the lens focusing out and back until it sorts out where ideal focus is.

One issue that can occur with contrast method is if the area of focus is on a blank wall or the ice on an ice rink (between the painted lines), it won’t ever find focus because there is nothing to compare for contrast sharpness. Sometimes the camera will try to improve its luck by increasing the contrast in LiveView so it has more information to work with, but it affects what’s being recorded as well. This will only happen if you partially depress the shutter release button to force a refocus.

There are more advanced contrast measurement methods, but sadly the D5100 doesn’t use them.

How Do I Make Focusing Work?

This is where you have to work with manual focus or a method I’ll describe that lets you set your focus and then start recording without it hunting. But we’ll save it for the following articles.

Problems Described, Now What?

Hopefully I’ve described the issues at hand enough for you. The next article will help with some settings on the D5100 in preparation for filming and the last of this series will go into the procedure to go through when you want to record video in the best quality this camera can produce.

Now this isn’t covering all the potential problems with shooting on a DSLR but is intended to cover the problems that are easier to handle directly in-camera, no extra equipment or investment. Β Some problems like moire, shutter roll and shaky cam I might cover later but this article is primarily in getting closer to par with the nay-sayers who say “it can’t be done on the D5100”. Β It can be done, it’s just a bit harder to do so.

Note that you don’t have to go through all the actions to record video whenever you want. They’re tips for you to take into account to be able to produce better quality video with the intent of editing together and making a more professional final product. Β You might want to run with auto-focus and auto-exposure enabled and unlocked so you can capture some great moments of your son’s hockey game, but if the auto-focus isn’t doing it, now you know why.

  40 Responses to “Shooting Better Quality Video on the Nikon D5100 Part 1”

  1. Kelly…thanks for your help in make better videos with our Nikon D5100.
    Thank you very much.

    • Hi there. I really appreciate all the help you are offering. I am having another problem. When I try to record video on the D5100 it will record for about 30 seconds and then stop with the message “video temporarily interrupted.” I have to keep turning the camera on and off to allow me to shoot another 30 seconds of video before it stops recording with the same message “video recording temporarily interrupted”. Is my camera broken? And if not, is there a way to stop this from happening? Thanks so much for any advice or help you might be able to send my way.

      • Hey Andrea,

        I would suggest trying a different SD Card (make sure it’s at least a class 10), format it in the camera and see if the problem persists.

        If it does, then the problem is probably your SD card.

        If it doesn’t, you most likely are dealing with a camera problem and should talk with an authorized Nikon Service Center.

        I wouldn’t recommend anything else because if there is a real problem with the camera, it might get exacerbated by trying things like reflashing the firmware.

        Hopefully it’s relatively new and still under warranty.

        • Hi Andrea, my camera is doing the same thing. Did u ever find out the problem or reason it is doing this? Thanks Brenda

  2. I have been searching for tips on how to make the best video using the D5100 and I think I may have just found it. I cant wait to try all these tips. Thanks.

  3. Any advice on the AF-area mode? Thanks!

    • Sorry, can't give any direct advice on using Auto-Area AF aside from don't use it. If you're concerned about where your focus should be, then you shouldn't leave it in the hands of the camera. Single point or 3D tracking works far better than Auto-Area and you can choose a great starting focus point. If you're using LiveView (which you need for video), the AF focus choices are quite different.

      For photography, I usually just leave the AF set to single point, half-press the shutter release button to lock focus and then reframe and finish the press on the shutter release button. In high action, you can leave it in AF-Continuous and Dynamic Area AF or 3D for tracking your subject as you take the picture, but you should first frame and then pick your focus point.

  4. I have been shooting videos in Bermuda this week and have gotten stunning results with your tips. For work I have been using the camera in manual mode for videos in a green screen setting with the same lighting but would still get slight shifts of lighting from video to video while always locking the the shutter and ISO withthesame settings. I tried your method in aperture priority but I still get slight shifts in lighting albeit less so than the manual, but there are still shifts after shooting ten videos, I curser through them and you can see the lighting shift a bit. If I never leave live view and shoot several clips all are the same, but going in and out of live view to review what I shot and then resetting the same shooting settings I will get slight shifts. Not sure why that is if the settings and lighting are exactly the same it should be exactly the same results but they are not. So I wonder if the camera still is doing a bit behind the scenes as far as shutter speed goes.

    • Unfortunately, that is going to happen. As the technique is locking off the values, you HAVE to hit exactly the same values between shots to get the same exposure and that can be really tricky. And to make matters worse, it seems to "forget" your exposure lock values when you leave live-view and return. You have to unlock and then re-lock your exposure to get the same values.

      I did some shooting over the past weekend in some pretty dark areas (a tinsmith and a blacksmith, both in really dark shacks) and was surprised I was able to get the shots, but the exposure required was different for both. For the tinsmith, I had several shots and I was having a real hard time re-achieving the lock I had before.

      It's unfortunate as the D5100 is a consumer level DSLR that COULD run better, but doesn't because of how Nikon crippled the firmware. I'm really eager to see what the firmware hacking community can ultimately achieve with their work.

      As a side note, I'm really curious how well the green-screen worked out as I believe the video files are 4:2:0 so would be a bit blocky when masking out the green-screen…I'd love to see that's wrong!

  5. This is the best article I've seen yet on shooting video with the D5100! Pretty much everything is there, but I can maybe add one or two tips.

    First, as the article says, you can set your shooting settings separately for the viewfinder and live view. If you set the viewfinder mode in the fourth option (the one where it picks the subject and sets focus), you can line up your shot in the viewfinder and half press the shutter button. Then when you go into live mode, you are starting from a point that is almost always already in perfect focus due to how well the viewfinder phase detect autofocus and subject picking works. You can also take advantage of the focus assist light this way. You don't even have to look in the viewfinder if you don't want to. Just frame your shot, switch live mode off to set your aperture, then half press the shutter button before going back into live view. This works extremely well in practice.

    Second, for wide shots with bricks and shingles where moiré is a problem, set manual focus and turn the focus ring all the way to infinity. This cuts the moiré in half and still looks very sharp (maybe not at 16 megapixel resolution, but at 1920x1080 it is plenty sharp)

    Third, for b-roll audio, the Nikon ME-1 with the audio set to auto AGC works really well. For interview audio, set the audio level to the lowest sensitivity setting and use a Beachtek. The Beachtek seems to be perfectly calibrated with the D5100 at this setting. Watch your ears though because the DC-Bias will cause a loud pop in the headphones every time you start recording.

    Fourth, get a faster lens. The kit lens on either this or a Canon Rebel is too slow to be much use in low light. Put a fast lens on it and the image in low light is just startling! You have to see it to believe it. The D5100 with a fast lens looks just incredible!

    • Awesome tips, Laurence!

      Focusing before going into Live View is a great option and can only make focusing go a lot faster. I'll have to see about updating the article to include your hints, if you don't mind πŸ˜‰

  6. I am using a SanDisk Extreme memory card and the issue I'm having is that my uploaded video is shaky and cutting out (almost as if it's buffering). Any thoughts on how to remedy this issue?

    • Hey Maria,

      It's dependent on what you mean by shaky and cutting out, but I'll assume you mean the video is stopping and starting its playback for cutting out.

      If that is how it's cutting out, does the video play back fine on the camera? If so, it's more likely the player or your computer isn't fast enough for the resolution you're shooting and you can either try it on a faster computer or just reduce the resolution and quality if you need to play it back on your system. If it's cutting out on the camera, it would be related to either your SD card or a defect in your camera. Try formatting your SD card using the camera (check the manual, you should do this regularly after you've taken all your photos and videos off the card) and then take some test footage. If it's still happening, try a different class 10 card (after formatting it in the camera). If it still doesn't work after all that, talk to a Nikon repairman about what you're experiencing and how to fix it as it's possibly a defect or issue with the camera at that point.

      (CAUTION: Formatting your SD card will remove all information from the card, so be sure you've already backed up your current pictures and video because they WILL NOT be on the card after formatting.)

      As for shaky video, if you mean the video is moving around a lot, that's most likely attributed to how you're shooting. Ideally, you want to have the camera on a tripod and don't bump the tripod while shooting. If you're zooming in, it will definitely be shaky, no matter what you do. Please read up or search the 'net for techniques of shooting pictures or video, they will show you techniques to reduce those issues.

      Is there a place to see a sample video?

  7. Thanks for all of those articles. It's really admirable that you took a lot of your time to share with this knowledge with us for free πŸ™‚

    I would have a question about filming with D5100 -- is it ok camera to shoot videos of live shows? Mainly concerts. As you realize, concerts have very specific low light situtations πŸ˜‰

    Also, how would you compare D5100 to Canon 600D? At this price range is it only logical to go with Canon when it comes to video?

    Greetings πŸ™‚

    • Hey Stewie,

      If shooting video of live shows is your primary goal, I can only suggest you get a video camera, even for low-light shooting. None of the DSLRs are setup for long-term video and will cut out after about half an hour of recording out of the box. You can install hacked firmware to extend that, but it doesn't change the fact they get hot in LiveView and will overheat and eventually stop recording where a video camera will keep on shooting.

      I won't get into a DSLR battle on this site, there are a lot of other places that do so (ask the same question on dpreview and you'll get a lot of opinions on that) and they're better suited for such discussions. I personally chose the D5100 as it was the right price point and had the right balance for me, shooting photos and video with decent resolution, great glass and produced better quality images than the T5i which was the direct competitor when I bought the D5100.

      The whole point of these articles are to help show that the camera model you chose can shoot comparable video, but you have to be smarter in how you shoot it and there aren't a lot of sites stating so. Consider this a site to provide some help with those that are shooting video on the Nikon side. There's more than enough support on the Canon side.

  8. I don't want to shoot a whole show, only fragments, like two or three songs πŸ™‚

    Don't get me wrong, i didn't want to get into DSLR battle of any sort . I dont really give an "F" about wars between N and C fanboys πŸ˜‰ I am also looking for the right balance as you do -- a balance between shooting good video and photos so i know what you mean and that is also what makes your articles very important for me.

    Thank you for detailed answer, i appreciate that πŸ™‚

    • Well, if you're looking for a good balanced camera, I'd start with looking at what lenses you have or can borrow on occasion around you. If you have a lot of friends with Canon DSLRs that have a good choice of glass you might get to borrow on occasion or you've already invested in several Canon lenses, you'd be better pressed to get a Canon than a Nikon. The reverse is also true. For me, all my pro friends with good glass I could borrow are Nikon shooters, so Nikon seemed like a good start.

      Some will say video works better with Canons than with Nikons, but that changes from release to release. I haven't done a lot of shooting with the Canons so I can't officially say they are definitely the best shooters out there. But ALL DSLRs are intended as #1 to shoot photos. Video shooting is the cherry on your DSLR sundae.

      But with the great choice of lenses for DSLRs, it can only lead to great creamy video shots with all that comes with them (trying to follow focus on someone with a really low aperture is a true challenge for the best DPs), but creates phenomenal results if it comes out right. So video on a DSLR leads to a quality people are only used to seeing on $40K + up rigs with $20k+ lenses intended for shooting film. Not exactly the same, but far better than most camcorders.

      Nikon is the lagging contender for video and until the D7000, was not a practical choice for video work in any light. It wasn't until the D7000 that full 1080p video was possible on their DSLRs, and not until the D5100 could you shoot 1080p @ 30 fps (conventional NTSC TV framerate). Canon had it a few years before and has been in the camcorder business for decades, but Nikon is catching up, maybe even caught up and surpassed with the D600/D800 models. Only time will tell.

  9. Hi, first off, fantastic information here. Thank you. Shooting video, I’m very interested in having my shots appear more cinematic with the subject in sharp focus and background blurred out like you see in the movies. I’m using the kit lens and notice my aperture only goes down to 3.5. Would your recommend I look into the AF 35mm f1.8 to achieve my goal here? Is it called bokeh in video as well? I’m wondering what your advice is for the best lens to shoot video and achieve sharp subjects with buttery backgrounds?

    • Hi David and thanks for the comments.

      For lens choice, I personally prefer the 35mm prime lens in the lowest f-stop you can afford. For myself that was the 35mm f1.8. If you can afford the f1.4, go for it! The reason I picked the 35mm is with the DX cameras, the equivalent focal length is 52.5mm, the closest you’re going to get to the “fast 50” used all over.

      As for using the term Bokeh with video, I’m all for it.

      With the 35mm 1.8, I was able to get the closest to a decent exposure with shallow depth of field and it has surprisingly good Bokeh for its price. You can also use a zoom with moderate focal length to produce similar Bokeh, but it will flatten your image as well. I have used a 70-300mm at 70 and lowest f-stop of f3.5 to create some terrifically shallow imagery when the subject was as close as possible (about four feet with that lens), and the Bokeh is gorgeous.

      The big issue with lens choice is the D5100 uses the lens for metering so old manual lenses won’t give you any exposure information. That means video work will become a nightmare, so stay away from them. (Yes, that means no Zeiss distagons for your D5100)

  10. Hi I have a D5100 and I can’t seem to shoot videos. At all. I try to press the record button yet nothing happens. Do you know what I am doing wrong? I had this camera for a day so I’m pretty much a noob when it comes to this sort of stuff. Thank you πŸ™‚

    • Hey Renier,

      I would highly suggest going through the manual to learn the intricacies of your camera. If you aren’t in LiveView (using the lever next to your mode switch) so you can see what you’re about to shoot on the back LCD, you won’t be able to record video. Also, you need a formatted SD card inserted into the camera.

      After you’re in LiveView and have an SD card in the camera, pressing the record button (not shutter release) will most likely start recording regardless of shooting mode. My articles are in how to control the quality of the video recorded and assume you have some familiarity in using your camera so please, go through your manual and study up!


    • You might have an issue with the actual hardware. One test to try is to enter into the audio settings and set the microphone to level high instead of auto. If you don’t see the meters moving on the screen while setting the audio settings, it’s time to take your D5100 to an authorized Nikon service center and talk about warranty repair.

  12. I;m having alot of trouble with the iso/aperature/exposure portion. I do get grainy videos alot, but I want to be able to shoot vlogs for youtube purposes. Also what is an ideal lense for low-light situations, and lens for best facial?

    • Hey Jake,

      There are two levels of graininess in video produced by any camera, one is a course grain people associate with what we see in videos showing “night vision” and the other noise is more fine grained but will always be there.

      If the noise looks like so-called night vision noise, the techniques in the second and third articles help in sorting out how to reduce or remove that big noise. One secret is you need a reasonable amount of light to get rid of it. If you’re shooting in a dark room lit by a small reading lamp and a monitor, there is no lens in the world nor any setting for the D5100 you can use to remove that noise and make reasonable footage. Get some light and play around with it. Look up the three lighting system for a lighting technique that flatters almost everyone.

      As for lens choices, I’ve been saying that the prime 35mm f1.4 can do wonders for lower light situations, and as the D5100’s equivalent to a fast fifty, serves well enough for portraiture. You could look into a faster lens for an extra 1/3 stop exposure room, but I couldn’t justify the extra $200 or more for that lens over the f1.4. You could also look into the 50mm for a 75mm equivalent, but get as low as you can go for the f-stop.

      I’m not the best for picking a better portrait lens as I’m not a professional photographer. That kind of question is better asked of photographers.

      Good luck, I hope that helps.

  13. Hi. Great guide. But I have some kind of a problem (new to this whole thing). Why cant I get my camera into the 30 fps mode? Something I have to change? Hope you can help.

    • Hey Mikkel,

      You should be able to pick 24/30 FPS if your camera is a model from North American/Japan (NTSC countries) and will be selectable between 24/25 FPS for EU and other PAL nations.

      What I mean is the cameras are set for the broadcast frame rates in the area it was released for sale. So for example, if you bought your camera in Germany, you would not be able to generate a 30 FPS video, only 24 or 25 FPS. Fortunately you can still use 24 FPS (which I always prefer to use anyway for a more filmic look).

      If you are asking how to switch your frame rate, it’s part of your movie quality selections and should be easily found in the manual if you haven’t found the option in the menu yet.

  14. I have not been able to find this topic in the discussion. Every video I shoot with this camera has a vertical line that shows up at some point. Any suggestions for how I might resolve this. I shoot in HD highest settings. Mardi

    • Hey Mardi,

      The vertical line that appears in your video: is it only on the D5100’s display, or is it recorded and viewable on the computer? Does it not show up anywhere?

      It sounds like a defect either of the display on the D5100 or with running video on the camera. Do you have any samples of the problem?

  15. It is recorded. I also tried playback at different speeds to see if that helped. The line comes and goes but always in the same spot on the screen. RIGHT in the middle so I can’t easily crop it out in the editing process. I am pretty sure it is a defect at this point as it happens in high light, low light, warm or cool weather, and every setting I have tried. So disappointed bc the image is otherwise GORGEOUS.

    • It’s extremely likely you have a hardware defect. The only curiosity is it coming up after filming for a bit, indicating it might be something like a cold solder joint or partial connection from the sensor to the camera. Have you tried talking with Nikon about it?

  16. Great article, but your mix-up of your and you’re is killing me.

    • Hi Sandy,

      I’m writing this as a service to hopefully educate someone who doesn’t really know any better due to the excessive lack of proper grammar on the internet, hopeful that I’m not feeding a troll. I am writing this as I can’t find the incorrect usage in my article that you seem to indicate is rife throughout my article. If there is any particular case, please indicate where you found it and I would be more than happy to correct it.

      Contractions are a challenging thing to understand and there is a lot of confusion with how they’re handled. Understand that I have had many years dealing with them and mostly understand the differences but do on occasion get confused due to how prevalent the internet is filled with just plain wrong grammar.

      Some examples (not intended to insult, only pose as examples that makes the point the best):

      What’s the difference between: “your shit” and “you’re shit”? “Your” is possessive making its use provide the owner of the main subject following it (as in “that’s your shit in the toilet” or “how is your book?”). “You’re” is the contraction of “you are” (I’ll leave the interpretation for you to figure out from there, not trying to insult, just illustrate the point). Similarly, it works the same with its and it’s. Contractions get apostrophes and possessives don’t when they would otherwise be the same (similar example: “It’s shit” becomes “it is shit” vs “its shit” which means it possesses the shit).

      Plural possessive illustrates the point the most… You don’t write “it’s you’res”, you write “it’s yours”. If you sincerely believe that the former is the correct manner, please go directly to your grade school English teacher and demand a refund on your education as they obviously missed out on it.

      If you still don’t believe me, here are some links I found on google:

  17. Great article! You deserve a medal. πŸ˜€

  18. Awesome. Could you tell me how to turn off the focus sound ( from the lenses I think ) when I am recording video on my D5100 ?
    Even I am recording and has music accompanied that focus sound still can be heard, it interrupted the music.
    Thank you very much.

    • Hey Kathy,

      The best solution for the focus noise? Use an off-camera microphone (ideally with an off-camera audio recorder). The next best solution? Turn off auto focus.

      Sorry, there is no other way to avoid the AF noise. As the camera body is relatively solid and it is a consumer level camera intended for photography, the mic will pick up the noise in a similar way that you hear your own voice when you plug your ears.

  19. You can use “focus tracking” for moving subjects and it works a treat takes a lot of guess work out of recording video.

    • Definitely, but on the D5100, you will end up with the focus hunting a lot. It might have a purpose for you as a stylistic intent or for home movies, but you would never use it if you’re trying to produce a more professional video.

  20. that cute cat though.. πŸ™‚

  21. Hi, So I film “1080p” video, and it looks like 330p… I’ve tried new sd cards and everything, nothing works.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: