Breaking into Pro Video - Which Camcorder should You Use?
Courtesy B&H PhotoVideo
For aspiring filmmakers, the key to “getting into cinema” is networking, working on productions, and creating your own projects. There was a time when, if you wanted your films to look like film, you shot on film. Even five or six years ago, a professional-quality video camera would cost you several thousand dollars, at a minimum. Moreover, solid-state media and hard-drive storage cost nearly ten times what it does today. You could easily spend ten to fifteen thousand dollars on your equipment and your footage would still look like video, a look which—depending on your own aesthetic tastes—was not especially cinematic. However, with the ongoing developments in filmmaking technology, achieving a cinematic look has become increasingly affordable.
As you may well know, the introduction of video-capable DSLRs was the catalyst for many of the huge changes that we have seen in the past few years. The three major factors behind the mass appeal of the first video-capable DSLRs were larger image sensors, interchangeable lens mounts, and their relative affordability. Suddenly, film students and other aspiring filmmakers could shoot surprisingly cinematic footage with a camera that might cost under $1,000. Of course, initially, these cameras had a number of shortcomings that, in some respects, made them somewhat inferior to traditional video cameras. However, they did succeed in kicking off a technology race that has revolutionized the industry, and today, professional-quality equipment is very accessible.
This brief guide will highlight a number of cameras that, on one hand, offer cinematic image quality and, on the other, are more or less accessible for beginners. We will also discuss what it means for an image to be “cinematic,” so that you might be better able to compare each of these cameras according to your own subjective priorities for image quality. You will also find some general information concerning lenses and accessories, so that you can compare each camera in light of additional gear that may be required.
This is a surprisingly tricky term to pin down. Not long ago, motion pictures were made for presentation via either television or the cinema, and each of these two formats had their own rather distinct set of aesthetics. Now, not only have both aesthetics thoroughly crossbred with each other, but we have also thrown a whole new medium into the mix, namely Internet videos. Today, “cinematic” content is made for the big screen, as well as screens so small they fit into your pocket.
In order to simplify our discussion we will define the term “cinematic” as a set of aesthetics that approximate the look of traditional feature films, a look that is heavily influenced by the art and science of analog capture with traditional film stock. In that respect, we will primarily discuss each camera’s ability to render a film-like image. However, we will also discuss their cinematic qualities in terms of their suitability for presentation on large theater screens.
Current video cameras attempt to emulate the look of film by controlling four different factors: resolution, image-sensor size, dynamic range, and color sampling. 1080HD, 2K, and 4K are the current popular standards for resolution, and all of the cameras that we discuss here will be capable of at least 1080HD. While 4K is theoretically lower than the resolution of film, even 1080HD is capable of yielding perfectly satisfactory results when projected on “the big screen.”
When it comes to image-sensor size, manufacturers are principally concerned with approximating the physical size and shape of a single film frame, so that filmmakers can take advantage of traditional cinema lenses and their characteristic aesthetic. Of course, the aesthetics of cinema lenses alone is fodder for an expansive essay, but the factors with which we are primarily concerned include field of view and depth of field.
Dynamic range and color sampling are like two sides of the same coin. A camera’s ability to render film-like gradations of light and dark is referenced by the term "dynamic range." A camera’s ability to capture and preserve film-like color information is referenced by the term "color sampling." With digital capture, each pixel is assigned one value for luminance (light and dark) and a second value for chroma (color), and how a camera handles these values is largely determined by the sensor’s native ability to capture and the processor’s ability to record the information.
It is worth bearing in mind that this is a largely superficial explanation of the technological factors involved in digital cinema, and as technology advances there is one all-important consideration that has never changed. That is, in filmmaking and picture-making in general, the ineffable alchemy of compelling images is more akin to magic than it is to technology, more art than science. However, these concepts should provide a valuable foundation for evaluating the cameras that we discuss here.
In the past two years, Blackmagic Design has done much to endear their company to entry-level filmmakers. The original Blackmagic Cinema Camera offered several features that were previously exclusive to cameras that cost upwards of $10,000. Their new offering, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, is an entry-level revision that retains much of the same DNA of its predecessor. Of course, looking at the specifications for the BMPCC, it would be unfair to classify it as merely entry level. Even established professionals will appreciate the powerful features that Blackmagic Design has packed into this pocket-sized camera.
The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera features a Super-16mm-sized image sensor with an effective resolution of 1920 x 1080. Much like the original BMCC, the BMPCC’s sensor is capable of rendering 13 stops of dynamic range, which is perhaps the single largest determining factor in this camera’s film-like image. As a result, the “roll-off” into highlights and shadows looks remarkably natural.
Moreover, the camera is capable of recording footage in the Apple ProRes (HQ) format and, pending an upcoming firmware update, Lossless CinemaDNG RAW. While ProRes is arguably the highest-quality video format available on any camera in this class, the ability to record raw files with the BMPCC is practically a historic achievement. Recording raw sensor data preserves a tremendous amount of information, giving you unrivaled latitude for color grading and other post processes.
Of course, it is important to bear in mind that working with raw files entails a whole new learning curve. While shooting in raw mode precludes the camera from degrading your footage with automatic and often undesirable processes, those processes do eventually need to be applied manually. This requires time and skill, which should not dissuade you from considering this option, but certainly needs to be taken into consideration. Thankfully, Blackmagic Design offers DaVinci Resolve Lite as a free download, providing you with professional-quality raw processing and color-grading software.
The GH3’s predecessor, the GH2, was popular among filmmakers and video enthusiasts in large part because of custom firmware. Panasonic cautioned GH2 users against “hacked” firmware but never outright condemned the practice either. Instead, they built similar functionality into the official firmware of the GH3, giving this camera some of the highest-quality recording formats in the DSLR and mirrorless category. The option to record in high bit-rate modes, like 72Mbps (All-Intra) or 50Mbps (IPB) helps to minimize video compression artifacts and theoretically improves the character of digital grain.
The GH3 was also among the first cameras in this category to offer a 1080/60p recording mode. The ability to record Full HD video at 60 progressive frames per second is perhaps the GH3’s strongest advantage over cameras like the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which tops out at 30 fps. 60p recording modes are an increasingly popular broadcast standard and also enable smoother slow-motion videos.
Other key features of the GH3 include a 17.2MP Micro Four Thirds image sensor, an articulated touchscreen OLED monitor, built-in Wi-Fi, a weather-sealed magnesium-alloy body, and compatibility with a comprehensive range of accessories, such as an optional battery grip and external microphones. The battery grip is an especially nice option and somewhat of a rarity among entry-level cameras, which are not always designed for the continuous use that professionals demand.
The Canon 70D is aimed squarely at entry-level filmmakers. It may not be quite as advanced as the renowned 5D Mark III, but the 70D is a solid step up from Canon’s Rebel line. Much like the 60D before it, the 70D is a DSLR with a decidedly strong bias toward video shooters. The 70D features a new 20.2MP APS-C sensor and a DIGIC 5+ image processor (the very same processor as the 5D Mark III). The new sensor design, which Canon calls a Dual Pixel CMOS, enables a revamped autofocus system that vastly improves performance when operating in Live View and video mode.
Other key features include a 3” Vari-angle Clear View II LCD touchscreen with 1040k-dot resolution, built-in Wi-Fi, an external microphone input, and a range of video recording format options including 1080/24p/25p/30p (IPB) and 720/50p/60p (IPB). When paired with one of Canon’s new STM lenses, the 70D will provide remarkably smooth, accurate, and quiet autofocus, which should make this camera an appealing option for filmmakers who favor a documentary-style approach.
Including this camera here is a bit of a stretch. The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K is by no means an entry-level camera. However, it does offer an extraordinarily advanced feature set at a surprisingly accessible price point, relatively speaking. In many respects, this camera compares favorably with competitors that cost five to ten times more. There are limitations of course, but the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K promises tremendous value.
The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K has a super 35mm image sensor with an effective resolution of 3840 x 2160. Moreover, the sensor is capable of rendering 12 stops of dynamic range, which gives this camera a combination of sensor size, resolution, and exposure latitude that ought to translate into some of the most film-like images of any camera on the market today. Of course, Blackmagic Design didn’t stop there.
The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K is one of the few digital cinema cameras that offers a global shutter. While so-called “rolling shutters” are prone to undesirable effects like wobbling, skew and flash banding, especially when moving the camera or filming fast moving objects, a global shutter eliminates such distortion effects by sampling all pixels at the same time.
Other key features include compressed CinemaDNG RAW or Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) recording modes, a Canon EF lens mount, a 5” touchscreen LCD, and a built-in SSD recorder. The purchase of the camera also includes a full software license for DaVinci Resolve and UltraScope. While the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K is perhaps ideally suited to Ultra HD television production, it is certainly more than capable of producing “big-screen” images.
You may have noticed that all of the cameras listed in this guide feature interchangeable lens mounts. That is because lenses are perhaps the single most important factor in making compelling, cinematic images. Fixed-lens camcorders are rarely used for cinema, and when they are it is usually because the filmmakers are making a conscious choice to emulate the look and feel of journalism, documentaries, or home movies.
When you are researching a camera purchase, the type of lens mount should be among your top considerations. As the development of new and improved camera technologies carries on at a breakneck pace and camera prices continue to fall, lenses are likely to remain a long-term and relatively expensive investment. It is important that your choice of camera is compatible with lenses that fit your own aesthetic sensibilities.
It is also important to keep in mind that resolution, dynamic range, and recording format are arguably less important than things like storytelling, acting, lighting, and sound. Even if you are obsessed with cinematography and bound and determined to be a world-class director of photography, you are unlikely to succeed without a talented cast and crew.