Over the past six months, it’s been a season of new camera releases, each more tempting than the last. The latest crop of mirrorless hybrids and digital cinema cameras present some compelling new features and innovations designed to make shooting more efficient and the output, to me, more impressive.
The past few months have seen several new cameras announced, but the ones that come to mind immediately as the most interesting are:
Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K — $2,495
Panasonic Lumix DC-S1H — $3,997
Sony PMW-FX9 — $10,998
Canon EOS C500 MKII — $15,999
Within such an enormous price range, what features make these cameras so interesting? Let’s review what makes the latest crop of cameras compelling:
One of the new cameras feature 6K sensors with 4K recording (the Sony PMW-FX9), while the other three cameras all feature native internal 6K recording.
Internal RAW Recording
Two of the cameras (the Blackmagic and the Canon) allow for internal RAW recording. The Sony and Panasonic will both allow external RAW recording, which, to me, is a non-starter. Once you’ve shot with internal RAW recording, shooting RAW externally seems like a step backward, but it’s nice that all four cameras at least have the option to shoot RAW period.
The Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K can interface with a Blackmagic external battery grip, which goes a long way to solving its too short internal single battery life. The Panasonic S1H can interface with the same optional Panasonic external audio interface that the GH5 and GH5S have utilized over the last few years.
Both of these lower dollar cameras pale in comparison with the Sony FX-9 and Canon C500 MKII when it comes to modularity. The Sony will interface with an accessory back that allows for various additional external interface functions, and the Canon C500 MKII has a whole new lineup of optional EVFs, camera backs and other accessories that will allow you to customize the cameras connections and interfaces to a degree that no other C Series camera has had before.
Higher Bit Rates And Data Rates
Some customers require certain bit rates and data rates. It’s fair to say that 8-bit video recording is now considered passé’, at least on pro digital cinema cameras, although 8-bit recording is still common with mirrorless cameras. All four of these cameras offer a minimum of 10-bit recording with some offering 12-bit recording and even 16-bit output. All four of these cameras offer data rates that are impressively robust and would have been unheard of just a few short years ago. As the recording media has improved, so too have digital cinema and mirrorless cameras ability to record in higher and higher data rate formats, including RAW, which records at up to 5.9K (5952 X 3140) at an astounding 2.1 Gbps, which requires the new CFexpress card format.
I ‘ve shot with two of these four new cameras, the Blackmagic and the Panasonic. Unfortunately, the Sony and the Canon aren’t yet available to review, but based upon previous experience with the Sony PMW-FS7 and FS7 MKII, the Canon EOS C100, 100 MKII, 300 MKI and MKII and that I own the C200, I can surmise at least roughly at how the Canon and Sony will perform. In my opinion, we’ve finally reached the point where any new cameras hitting the market will be better, but how many of us really need a better camera than this crop of technology?
Are We Hitting A Wall?
A question I see being raised repeatedly on discussion boards and in digital cinema forums is the assertion that we’re basically already at the saturation point for new digital cinema technology in cameras. What do we mean when we say “saturation point”? In order to answer what a saturation point is, let’s take a look at what customers and clients are looking for when they hire you to shoot either footage for them as a production services provider or when they hire you as a production company to shepherd their project all of the way through the creative process, from idea to final product.
Now that the latest crop of cameras has hit the 6K barrier, perhaps it makes sense to take a look at what real clients in the real world are actually asking for.
In our personal experience over the past two or three years, the majority of clients in the markets we shoot and produce in predominantly are still requesting 1080 acquisition. Wait, aren’t we in the era of 4K video already though? Well, yes and no. What we’re hearing over and over again is that many of our client’s internal workflows for editing, monitoring, archiving and outputting are mostly still optimized for 1080.
4K is four times the size of 1080, creating a resolution profile that’s two times wider and two times higher than 1080 HD, thus giving a total screen resolution that’s a bit over 4 times larger overall. Some of these clients are fine shooting a project in 4K UHD, but the final output still needs to be 1080 for the majority of projects we’re hired for. About 35 to 40 percent of the time, the clients don’t specify which format and frame size they want to shoot in, and we often recommend shooting a project UHD (3840×2160) even if we’re going to edit the footage in a 1080 timeline. In this way, at least the client’s footage, if not the edit, will be somewhat “future-proofed” as they could always go back and re-edit the project in UHD resolution. About 20 percent of the time, clients specify and request that the project be entirely shot and delivered in UHD.
Listening To Who Pays The Bills
What conclusions can we draw from what our customers are telling us? Simple. The sum of all projects being shot in at least 4K and delivered in 4K is still quite a bit smaller than many in our industry would have projected just two years ago. If we look at where we are today with shooting and delivering 4K, does it make sense to be buying any camera based upon its ability to shoot and record in 6K resolution? What about 8K? That’s a question you have to ask yourself. We now know that with Bayer sensors and the DeBayering process, to obtain the optimal down-sampled UHD 4K footage, it helps if the sensor in the camera can shoot at a native 5.7k to 5.9K resolution since you lose resolution during DeBayering. If a 4K native sensor is used instead, the DeBayered image will be lower than UHD resolution and will always fall short of fulfilling the potential of a UHD specification. Of course, this is all resolution discussion and not image quality or image characteristic talk, which is a totally different set of criteria.
The Business Case
A lot of your decisions and my own decisions about when to buy a new camera and which camera to buy should center on the business case. Here’s an example. Right now, in 2019, in our market, which is centered in Los Angeles, mostly in the entertainment media, shooting EPK, BTS and documentary type footage mostly, with some occasional corporate work and event work thrown in for good measure, we’re able to charge clients a day rate for the camera package of around $450 to $650 per day, which includes the camera, media, batteries, charger, tripod and a zoom lens. We can add wireless video transmission and a monitor, better and longer length lenses and external recording to Prores HQ as options that take the base $450 rate to the upper rate of around $650.
Looking at our clients, their needs and preferences, our current C200 package fulfills most of their needs, most of the time, so we can surmise for the majority of our clients, our camera, or a similar one like it (Panasonic EVA 1, Canon C300 MKII, Sony FS7/MKII) would fill their needs nicely. A Canon C200 or any of the competitors would cost around $6,000 to $7,500 new for the camera body only. While I find that the two new digital cinema camera offerings, the Sony FX-9 and the Canon C500 MKII would be a delight to shoot with and either would offer superior features in some areas over our C200, I can say with some confidence that none of the features either camera would offer would motivate our clients to pay more than the current $450 to $650 per day for our camera package.
In extrapolating this financial strategy, I’ve come to the conclusion that it won’t be worth it, from a business perspective, for us and our clients, to upgrade from our C200 to the FX-9 or the C500 MKII in the near future. This is not to say that the entire situation couldn’t change and evolve, but viewing the situation through a lens of today’s work with today’s clients with their current needs, we feel no immediate urge to sell off our year-and-half-old C200 to update to the latest and greatest successors.
If we were new to buying digital cinema cameras, we might find the new features offered by either to be very appealing and either could prove to be the right choice as our new first digital cinema camera. For quick turnaround day playing, the Sony FX-9 seems as if it will be a very worthy successor to Sony’s immensely popular FS7/FS7 MKII cameras. For higher budgeted, more involved projects that will be color corrected, graded and have longer production timelines, the internal RAW capability will make the C500 MKII appealing for a large population of users, clients and projects.
The real question is, what’s your business case for buying a new camera or for trading up from your current camera to the latest and greatest?