The design of a modern digital video camera comes down to the physics of the sensor and shutter, the software to control colorimetry and smart industrial design to optimize the ergonomics for the operator. Couple that with a powerful internal processor and recording mechanism and you are on your way. Although not exactly easy, these traits no longer require skills that are limited to the traditional camera manufacturers. As a result, innovative new cameras have been popping up from many unlikely sources.
The newest of these is AJA, which delivered the biggest surprise of NAB 2014 in the form of their CION 4K/UltraHD/2K/HD digital camera. Capitalizing on a trend started by ARRI, the CION records directly to the edit-ready Apple ProRes format, using AJA Pak solid state media. The CION features a 4K APS-C sized CMOS sensor with a global shutter to eliminate rolling-shutter artifacts. AJA claims 12 stops of dynamic range and uses a PL mount for lenses designed for Super 35mm. The CION is also capable of outputting AJA camera raw at frame rates up to 120fps. It can send out 4K or UHD video from its four 3G-SDI outputs to the AJA Corvid Ultra for replay and center extraction during live events.
The darling of the film and high-end television world continues to be ARRI Digital with its line of ALEXA cameras. These now include the Classic, XT, XT Plus, XT M and XT Studio configurations. They vary based on features and sensor size. The Classic cameras have a maximum active sensor photosite size of 2880 x 2160, while the XT models go as high as 3414 x 2198. Another difference is that the XT models allow in-camera recording of ARRIRAW media. The ALEXA introduced ProRes recording and all current XT models permit Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD recording.
The ALEXA has been joined by the newer, lighter AMIRA, which is targeted at documentary-style shooting with smaller crews. The AMIRA is tiered into three versions, with the Premium model offering 2K recording in all ProRes flavors at up to 200fps. ARRI has added 4K capabilities to both the ALEXA and AMIRA line by utilizing the full sensor size using their Open Gate mode. In the Amira, this 3.4K image is internally scaled by a factor of 1.2 to record a UHD file at up to 60fps to its in-camera CFast 2.0 cards. The ALEXA uses a similar technique, but only records the 3.4K signal in-camera, with scaling to be done later in post.
To leapfrog the competition, ARRI also introduced its ALEXA 65, which is available through the ARRI Rental division. This camera is a scaled up version of the ALEXA XT and uses a sensor that is larger than a 5-perf 65mm film frame. That’s an Open Gate resolution of 6560 x 3102 photosites. The signal is captured as uncompressed ARRIRAW. Currently the media is recorded on ALEXA XR Capture drives at a maximum frame rate of 27fps.
Blackmagic Design had been the most unexpected camera developer a few years ago, but has since grown its DSLR-style camera line into four models: Studio, Production 4K, Cinema and Pocket Cinema. These vary in cosmetic style and size, which formats they are able to record and the lens mounts they use. The Pocket Cinema Camera is essentially a digital equivalent of a Super 16mm film camera, but in a point-and-shoot, small camera form factor. The Cinema and Production 4K cameras feature a larger, Super 35mm sensor. Each of these three incorporate ProRes and/or CinemaDNG raw recording. The Studio Camera is designed as a live production camera. It features a larger viewfinder, housing, accessories and connections designed to integrate this camera into a television studio or remote truck environment. There is an HD and a 4K version.
The biggest Blackmagic news was the introduction of the URSA. Compared to the smaller form factors of the other Blackmagic Design cameras, the URSA is literally a “bear” of a camera. It is a rugged 4K camera built around the idea of user-interchangeable parts. You can get EF, PL and broadcast lens mounts, but you can also operate it without a lens as a standalone recording device. It’s designed for UltraHD (3840 x 2160), but can record up to 4,000 pixels wide in raw. Recording formats include CinemaDNG raw (uncompressed and 3:1 compressed), as well as Apple ProRes, with speeds up to 80fps. There are two large displays on both sides of the camera, which can be used for monitoring and operating controls. It has a 10” fold-out viewfinder and a built-in liquid cooling system. As part of the modular design, users can replace mounts and even the sensor in the field.
Canon was the most successful company out of the gate when the industry adopted HD-video-capable DSLR cameras as serious production tools. Canon has expanded these offerings with its Cinema EOS line of small production cameras, including the C100, C100 Mark II, C300 and C500, which all share a similar form factor. Also included in this line-up is the EOS-1D C, a 4K camera that retains its DSLR body. The C300 and C500 camera both use a Super 35mm sized sensor and come in EF or PL mount configurations. The C300 is limited to HD recording using the Canon XF codec. The C500 adds 2K and 4K (4096 cinema and 3840 UHD) recording capabilities, but this signal must be externally recorded using a device like the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q+. HD signals are recorded internally as Canon XF, just like the C300. The Canon EOS C100 and C100 Mark II share the design of the C300, except that they record to AVCHD instead of Canon XF. In addition, the Mark II can also record MP4 files. Both C100 models record to SD cards, whereas the C300/C500 cameras use CF cards. The Mark II features improved ergonomics over the base C100 model.
The Canon EOS-1D C is included because it can record 4K video. Since it is also a still photography camera, the sensor is an 18MP full-frame sensor. When recording 4K video, it uses a Motion JPEG codec, but for HD, can also use the AVCHD codec. The big plus over the C500 is that the 1D C records 4K onboard to CF cards, so is better suited to hand-held work. The DSLR cameras that started the craze for Canon continue to be popular, including the EOS 5D Mark III and the new EOS 7D Mark II. Plus the consumer-oriented Rebel versions. All are outstanding still cameras. The 5D features a 22.3MP CMOS sensor and records HD video as H.264 MOV files to onboard CF cards. Thanks to the sensor size, the 5D is still popular for videographers who want extremely shallow depth-of-field shots from a handheld camera.
Digital Bolex has become a Kickstarter success story. These out-of-the-box thinkers coupled the magic of a venerable name from the film era with innovative design and marketing to produce the D16 Cinema Camera. Its form factor mimics older, smaller, handheld film camera designs, making it ideal for run-and-gun documentary production. It features a Super 16mm sized CCD sensor with a global shutter and claims 12 stops of dynamic range. The D16 records in 12-bit CinemaDNG raw to internal SSDs, but media is offloaded to CF cards or via USB3.0 for media interchange. The camera comes with a C-mount, but EF, MFT and PL lens mounts are available. Currently the resolutions include 2048 x 1152 (“S16mm mode”), 2048 x 1080 (“S16 EU”) and HD (“16mm mode”). The D16 records 23.98, 24 and 25fps frame rates, but variable rates up to 32fps in the S16mm mode are coming soon. To expand on the camera’s attractiveness, Digital Bolex also offers a line of accessories, including Kish/Bolex 16mm prime lens sets. These fixed aperture F4 lenses are C-mount for native use with the D16 camera. Digital Bolex also offers the D16 in an MFT mount configuration and in a monochrome version.
The sheer versatility and disposable quality of GoPro cameras has made the HERO line a staple of many productions. The company continues to advance this product with the HERO4 Black and Silver models as their latest. These are both 4K cameras and have similar features, but if you want full video frame rates in 4K, then the HERO4 Black is the correct model. It will record up to 30fps in 4K, 50fps in 2.7K and 120fps in 1080p. As a photo camera, it uses a 12MP sensor and is capable of 30 frames a one second in burst mode and time-lapse intervals from .5 to 60 seconds. The video signal is recorded as an H264 file with a high-quality mode that’s up 60 Mb/s. MicrosSD card media is used. HERO cameras have been popular for extreme point-of-video shots and its waterproof housing is good for 40 meters. This new HERO4 series offers more manual control, new night time and low-light settings, and improved audio recording.
Nikon actually beat Canon to market with HD-capable DSLRs, but lost the momentum when Canon capitalized on the popularity of the 5D. Nevertheless, Nikon has its share of supportive videographers, thanks in part to the quantity of Nikon lenses in general use. The Nikon range of high-quality still photo and video-enabled cameras fall under Nikon’s D-series product family. The Nikon D800/800E camera has been updated to the D810. This is the camera of most interest to professional videographers. It’s a 36.3MP still photo camera that can also record 1920 x 1080 video in 24/30p modes internally and 60p externally. It can also record up to 9,999 images in a time-lapse sequence. A big plus for many is its optical viewfinder. It records H.264/MPEG-4 media to onboard CF cards. Other Nikon video cameras include the D4S, D610, D7100, D5300 and D3300.
Panasonic used to own the commercial HD camera market with the original VariCam HD camera. They’ve now reimagined that brand in the new VariCam 35 and VariCam HS versions. The new VariCam uses a modular configuration with each of these two cameras using the same docking electronics back. In fact, a costumer can purchase one camera head and back and then only need to purchase the other head, thus owning both the 35 and the HS models for less than the total cost of two cameras. The VariCam 35 is a 4K camera with wide color gamut and wide dynamic range (14+ stops are claimed). It features a PL lens mount, records from 1 to 120fps and supports dual-recording. For example, you can simultaneously record a 4K log AVC-Intra master to the main recorder (expressP2 card) and 2K/HD Rec 709 AVC-Intra/AVC-Proxy/Apple ProRes to a second internal recorder (microP2 card) for offline editing. VariCam V-Raw camera raw media can be recorded to a separate Codex V-RAW recorder, which can be piggybacked onto the camera. The Panasonic VariCam HS is a 2/3” 3MOS broadcast/EFP camera capable of up to 240fps of continuous recording. It supports the same dual-recording options as the VariCam 35 using AVC-Intra and/or Apple ProRes codecs, but is limited to HD recordings.
With interest in DSLRs still in full swing, many users’ interest in Panasonic veers to the Lumix GH4. This camera records 4K cinema (4096) and 4K UHD (3840) sized images, as well as HD. It uses SD memory cards to record in MOV, MP4 or AVCHD formats. It features variable frame rates (up to 96fps), HDMI monitoring and a professional 4K audio/video interface unit. The latter is a dock the fits to the bottom of the camera. It includes XLR audio and SDI video connections with embedded audio and timecode.
RED Digital Cinema started the push for 4K cameras and camera raw video recording with the original RED One. That camera is now only available in refurbished models, as RED has advanced the technology with the EPIC and SCARLET. Both are modular camera designs that are offered with either the Dragon or the Mysterium-X sensor. The Dragon is a 6K, 19MP sensor with 16.5+ stops of claimed dynamic range. The Mysterium-X is a 5K, 14MP sensor that claims 13.5 stops, but up to 18 stops using RED’s HDRx (high dynamic range) technology. The basic difference between the EPIC and the SCARLET, other than cost, is that the EPIC features more advanced internal processing and this computing power enables a wider range of features. For example, the EPIC can record up to 300fps at 2K, while the SCARLET tops out at 120fps at 1K. The EPIC is also sold in two configurations: EPIC-M, which is hand-assembled using machined parts, and the EPIC-X, which is a production-run camera. With the interest in 4K live production, RED has introduced its 4K Broadcast Module. Coupled with an EPIC camera, you could record a 6K file for archive, while simultaneously feeding a 4K and/or HD live signal for broadcast. RED is selling studio broadcast configurations complete with camera, modules and support accessories as broadcast-ready packages.
Sony has been quickly gaining ground in the 4K market. Its CineAlta line includes the F65, PMW-F55, PMW-F5, PMW-F3, NEX-FS700R and NEX-FS100. All are HD-capable and use Super 35mm sized image sensors, with the lower-end FS700R able to record 4K raw to an external recorder. At the highest end is the 20MP F65, which is designed for feature film production. The camera is capable of 8K raw recording, as well as 4K, 2K and HD variations. Recordings must be made on a separate SR-R4 SR MASTER field recorder. For most users, the F55 is going to be the high-end camera for them if they purchase from Sony. It permits onboard recording in four formats: MPEG-2 HD, XAVC HD, SR File and XAVC 4K. With an external recorder, 4K and 2K raw recording is also available. High speeds up to 240fps (2K raw with the optional, external recorder) are possible. The F5 is the F55’s smaller sibling. It’s designed for onboard HD recording (MPEG-2 HD, XAVC HD, SR File). 4K and 2K recordings require an external recorder.
The Sony camera that has caught everyone’s attention is the PXW-FS7. It’s designed as a lightweight, documentary-style camera with a form factor and rig that’s reminiscent of an Aaton 16mm film camera. It uses a Super 35mm sized sensor and delivers 4K resolution using onboard XAVC recording to XQD memory cards. XDCAM MPEG-2 HD recording (now) and ProRes (with a future upgrade) will also be possible. Also raw will be possible to an outboard recorder.
Sony has also not been left behind by the DSLR revolution. The A7s is an APS-C, full frame, mirrorless 12.2MP camera that’s optimized for 4K and low light. It can record up to 1080p/60 (or 720p/120) onboard (50Mbps XAVC S) or feed uncompressed HD and/or 4K (UHD) out via its HDMI port. It will record onboard audio and sports such pro features as Sony’s S-Log2 gamma profile.
With any overview, there’s plenty that we can’t cover. If you are in the market for a camera, remember many of these companies offer a slew of other cameras ranging from consumer to ENG/EFP offerings. I’ve only touched on the highlights. Plus there are others, like Grass Valley, Hitachi, Samsung and Ikegami that make great products in use around the world every day. Finally, with all the video-enabled smart phones and tablets, don’t be surprised if you are recording your next production with an iPhone or iPad!
Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.
©2015 Oliver Peters