Full Format Mania

Full Format digital cinema cameras are here. They’re here now and will be arriving in metered doses for the foreseeable future. RED Monstro VV. Panavision DXL and DXL 2. Sony Venice. Canon C700 FF. Arri Alexa LF. The past year or so has seen enough new full format cameras arrive in the market to make your head spin. I recently returned from CineGear and my visit to the Paramount lot confirmed what I had thought was going in: 2018 is the year of the full-format camera.

What Is Full Format?
Let’s break this down though. If you haven’t been following the bleeding edge of the new digital cinema cameras being offered, you may have thought that the new Full Format appellation actually meant “Full Frame.” If you want to use the correct terminology, in most cases, Full Format is the correct term and it’s not just ad speak or word play at work here. This is why. A “Full Format” imager is generally the same size as the full frame of 35mm film stock. To further clarify this terminology, a full 35mm frame, as used in still photography, measures 36mm x 24mm. This measurement was arrived at because when you shoot images using 35mm still film, the film stock leaves the film cartridge horizontally. The shutter in a 35mm still photo camera usually leaves the cartridge and moves left to the shutter and past the shutter to the take-up reel on the left of the camera (usually). The frame size standardized during the 20th century to 36mm x 24mm.

The Evolution To Super 35mm
When 35mm motion picture film cameras came onto the scene, the thought was that it would be too wasteful to move the film stock through the camera’s gate to be exposed by the rotating shutter and onward into a take-up magazine area using the horizontal orientation used in still cameras so it was decided to flip the film from it’s horizontal orientation to a vertical orientation. This resulted in several benefits, one being that less overall film stock, which was expensive and fragile, was consumed in the vertical orientation. There were other mechanical and physical reasons why the vertical orientation worked better for shuttling motion picture stock through the camera’s gate, but the main thing to remember was that rather than the still camera’s 36mm x 24mm frame size, 35mm motion picture cameras exposed an image that was smaller, 24.89mm x 18.66mm for a Super 35 sized frame. Keep in mind that over the 20th century, 35mm motion picture stock frame sizes evolved into a dizzying array of various frame sizes and aspect ratios but the one that we are most interested in is known today as the Super 35 format.

Film Frame Size Translation to Digital Cinema Via the Canon 5D MKII
My first exposure to full frame digital cinema was through the camera that really kicked the DSLR revolution into high gear, the Canon EOS 5D MKII. While there were and have been more full-frame digital cinema cameras, the 5D MKII was the first low cost, small and lightweight to shoot full frame digital cinema. The imager in the 5D MKII was a full 36mm x 24mm, the same as 35mm film stock but the camera could shoot fairly decent quality (for the time) digital video for well under U.S. $3,000. Canon unknowingly began the DSLR Revolution with many users drawn to the ability to shoot a wider field of view than they could with APS-C (roughly the same imager size as S35 film). Canon’s intent had been a stills camera for photojournalists that could also shoot 1080 HD video, a radical idea at the time. Canon didn’t create the 5D MKII for cinematographers; it was a tool to allow photojournalists to shoot stills as well as some 1080 HD video using the same camera and lens.

For those of us who used the 5D MKII and eventually the MKIII for video, there were several limitations that we had to work around. The most noticeable was that the imager scan rate was fairly slow, resulting in video with rolling shutter artifacts, also known as a Jello-Vision where the camera would exhibit a rubber-like quality to the image when the camera and or subject were moved in a less than slow and careful way.

Full Frame Challenges
The 5D MKII also was manual focus only when shooting video. Combining the very shallow depth of field characteristics when using the full frame sensor with any mid-range to telephoto lenses with the manual focus, many found trying to keep anything with a semblance of focus, especially with moving subjects and or camera movement to be a huge challenge. The sensor in the 5D MKII also had a tendency to heat up during long takes and on shoot days where the camera was used to record long continuous shots, resulting in increased noise in the recorded, highly compressed image.

Evolution to 2018
Fast forwarding to this year, are the new crop of digital cinema cameras full frame like the 5D MKII? In a nutshell, no, they aren’t. The differences between a DSLR like the 5D MKII, III or IV and cutting-edge Full Format camera like the RED Monstro VV are huge and go far beyond mere sensor size, but let’s take a look at the differences in sensor sizes for a few of these cameras:

Canon 5D MKIV
RED Monstro VV
Panavision DXL (RED)
Arri Alexa LF
Canon C700
Sony Venice
  • Canon 5D MKIV Imager Size 36.0mm x 24.0mm
  • RED Monstro VV Imager Size 40.9mm x 21.6mm
  • Panavision DXL (RED) Imager Size 40.9mm x 21.6mm
  • Arri Alexa LF Imager Size 36.7mm x 25.5mm
  • Canon C700 FF Imager Size 38.1mm x 20.1mm
  • Sony Venice Imager Size 36.0mm x 24.0mm

As you can see, there is little consistency about what is considered Full Frame and Full Format with the Sony Venice being the only true Full Frame Digital Cinema Camera. The rest of the cameras utilize different sized imagers for various reasons, some straightforward (Canon told me that the imager on the C700 FF is a perfect 17:9 aspect ratio because DCI 4K is the same 17:9 aspect ratio), some with more esoteric uses in mind (RED and Panavision seem to favor their imager size based upon many of their users seem to want to shoot anamorphic and the imager is a full 8K imager).

Of course, there are dozens of factors that set all of these cameras apart from a DSLR like the 5D MKIV but it seems that imager size for most of them is their own “secret sauce” that helps to determine the camera’s look, available raster size options and aspect ratio options.

In The Grand Scheme of Things
Space precludes me from going deep into the features and differences between this new crop of Full Format Digital Cinema cameras. In the end, though, I wondered if I’d personally be interested in replacing my now sorely outdated (sarcasm on) S35 imager camera? There are significant differences between Full Frame, Full Format and S35 Imager cameras, largely having to do with field of view and DOF characteristics. Full Frame or Full Format cameras don’t necessarily have superior low-light capability. This is determined partially by pixel pitch, which varies quite a bit from model to model.

Purchasing a FF (let’s just call Full Frame and Full Format ‘FF’ from here on out?) camera includes the very real cost increase that results from your S35 only lenses being relegated to either being used only in sensor crop mode (if you’re going to pay for an FF camera, why would you ever shoot in crop mode?)

FF lenses are larger, heavier and generally more expensive than S35 imager lenses. If you have an investment in S35 only glass, you may lose a significant amount of money selling all of the glass and investing FF versions in the focal lengths you need and use. In the end, is the FF image “better” than the image you would have captured with your S35 imager? For my work, no. For you and your work, the answer is, it probably depends on your situation.

If you mainly concentrate on high-end work for high-end clients where budgets are not as constrained, an FF camera may be just the ticket. It shows that you are using state of the art gear with the highest specifications. For some clients, this is important. For others, not so much. The more seasoned side of me looks at trends over the past few years in camera technology. First, it was the move from SD to HD. Then it was the move to HD and 3D, then the resolution wars from 1080 to 4K, then 5K, 6K and now 8K. There was the minor detour into VR and 360 cameras and content. Think about it, do you see a pattern here?

I don’t blame the camera manufacturers for trying to come up with a constant stream of innovation. Some of it works and sticks, some of it doesn’t. FF, combined with higher resolution imagers is a great reason for many users to update, spending money on expensive new gear. Without a reason to buy new gear, manufacturers would go under.

My advice would be, if you are in the market for a new camera for various reasons, your older camera is getting old as far as formats and technological capability, or other obsolescence issues, sure, I would definitely at least consider a new FF camera (and lenses!). But if you have a 4K or greater resolution S35 camera that is reliable, makes great images for you and your clients, do you need to list it on eBay and rush out to get a new FF camera? My answer would be probably no. All of our client situations are different though; your take may be different than mine.