Sony’s new flagship mirrorless camera is the Alpha 1. The a1 has a 50.1-megapixel full-frame stacked Exmor CMOS. Its image processing is 8 times as powerful as other Alpha cameras thanks to the latest BIONZ XR processor. It’s capable of shooting 8K 30p 10-bit 4:2:0 XAVC HS video with 8.6K oversampling. It can also shoot 4K 120p 10-bit 4:2:2 internally.
What’s a pro video/digital cinema camera? That definition will vary widely, but most users can reach a consensus that pro video cameras generally, but not always, have a list of features common with professional users. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but in 2021, often a mid-level pro video shooter will want/need/expect the following features on their main camera:
- Dual XLR audio inputs.
- Internal ND filter system.
- Time code implementation.
- Professional codec options.
- Sophisticated color science.
- At least 4K resolution.
High-level users who are shooting feature films or episodic TV will likely have different priorities since they have camera assistants and are often shooting projects with budgets in the millions versus the average pro user shooting projects with budgets in the thousands or hundreds of thousands.
Enter The Mirrorless Camera
Of course, video-capable mirrorless cameras have been around for quite a few years now, but the past few years have seen the increasing capability and feature set of mirrorless cameras become more and more advanced with each generation. Today’s most sophisticated mirrorless cameras like the Sony Alpha 1 and the Canon R5 are capable of 8K recording, 10-bit 4:2:2 codecs, log and RAW recording too. These cameras often boast AF system technology as good or sometimes even better than the same company’s video cameras that cost two or three times as much.
Challenges For Video Users
Even in 2021 though, mirrorless cameras still lack features that pro shooters need and expect on their primary camera. The mirrorless camera form factor, for one, still isn’t ideal for the average pro video shooter, especially when they need to shoot handheld. Mirrorless camera bodies are designed for still photographers who shoot using the EVF with the camera held up to their eye. Very few video shooters are comfortable holding up a small video camera to their eye and capturing scenes handheld. Some can, but the weight and size of mirrorless cameras means that handheld shooting will often result in micro jitters as the camera body shakes in the hands of the operator or the operator’s small body movements are amplified when shooting motion.
The lack of time code implementation can be less than desirable. One mirrorless camera, the Panasonic S1H very cleverly utilizes the cameras rarely used flash sync port for time code i/o, but the implementation of this feature to date hasn’t been accurate or reliable.
The mirrorless camera’s lack of XLR inputs without an additional XLR audio input module, which only a few mirrorless cameras have, means that hacks using external recorders must be utilized to capture quality audio and that audio has to be synced up between the mirrorless camera’s audio scratch track and the audio recorded on the separate recorder. Syncing dual system audio isn’t difficult to do, but it’s an extra time-consuming step and in editing, time is money.
So Why Are Video Pros Using Mirrorless Cameras?
If there are so many shortcomings in utilizing mirrorless cameras in professional video workflows, then why have so many pro shooters been buying mirrorless cameras?
Even for pros who already own a relatively expensive pro video camera like a Canon C500 MKII or a Sony FX9 or even an Arri or a RED, it’s not always financially feasible to own multiple copies of an expensive camera. For pro shooters, it’s a must to always bring a backup or plan B camera to take over if their main camera breaks or has issues. Having a mirrorless camera is also an economical way to add a second camera or angle to an existing camera. The relatively low cost of mirrorless cameras means that pros often buy one as a backup camera because the cost is reasonable or even at times, very reasonable.
For working pros who own a professional camera, often adding professional level lenses, shoulder mounts, grip extensions, V-Mount or Gold Mount battery plates, wireless video transmitters, rods, follow focus and other accessories can result in a camera package that becomes much heavier and bulkier than it was in its original form. Trying to mount a larger, heavier camera package onto a handheld gimbal, Steadicam, drone or motion control slider used to be standard operating practice. Since the advancement of mirrorless cameras, though, it makes more sense for many users to reserve their A camera for tripod and handheld shooting and add a much smaller, lighter mirrorless camera to their kit for taking the camera mobile.
As a video shooter, especially working for corporations and organizations, you’ll often be asked if you could also shoot some still images for the client. These can range from BTS stills for the project to corporate headshots to event coverage. Having a hybrid mirrorless camera makes this much easier. You can carry one camera that shoots high-quality video or high-quality stills.
Guerilla Or Low Visibility Shoots
Bringing a large, fully rigged shoulder- or tripod-mounted digital cinema or video camera into many sensitive situations can be disruptive. It can make you a target for harassment, violence or bystanders incessantly asking you or your crew, “What are you shooting?” Having the choice of a much smaller, less conspicuous mirrorless camera can be invaluable in certain documentary and event situations, allowing you to capture footage that you might not have been able to using a pro-looking fully-sized video or digital cinema camera. Mirrorless cameras mostly look like what a hobbyist photographer would be carrying around, so utilizing a mirrorless camera can gain you access to places, people and situations that you wouldn’t have stood a chance with if you were carrying your pro video camera.
Choice Is Good
Like everything else in production, having choices is almost always a good thing. Mirrorless cameras have evolved to a point where if you’re a pro and you have always looked down on mirrorless cameras as merely “still cameras that can shoot video,” you owe it to yourself to borrow, rent or try one on your next shoot. You may be surprised at how incredibly useful they can be and how high quality the footage looks. While mirrorless cameras haven’t quite taken over pro-level video cameras, they’ve definitely evolved from a novelty, like the first video-capable DSLRs, to fully-featured, sophisticated tools that can become an invaluable tool in your kit.
Using a mirrorless camera for pro video shoots is an exercise in compromise. Which “must-have” features can you live without to gain the small size, lower weight and cost and increased mobility for on-the-go shooting with lots of camera movement? In video and digital cinema production, one size definitely doesn’t fit all. Adding a high-quality mirrorless camera to your kit can make you more money and let you offer greater capability to your clients while making your job easier and more creative. How can you not get excited about that?