It’s basically two-thirds of the way through 2019, and I felt it would be clarifying and helpful if I were to sit down and put fingers to keyboard to take a look at what’s happening with 2019 production cameras so far this year. A sort of state of the union for camera technology for video/digital cinema users. What sorts of changes, announcements, game plans and trajectories seem to be falling into place for the tools that we use to do our jobs? Let’s take a look at what we know and perhaps I can coax out a few prognostications about where I see the camera technology business going over the next year or two.
2019 Production Cameras
ArriThe big camera news from Arri this year was the March announcement of the Alexa Mini LF. Yes, at first glance, big deal, Arri put a large frame sensor into their smallest camera, the Mini. This announcement is almost more notable for what it means than what the product is. This camera is Arri tacitly saying that the new reality of Hollywood and high-end production is really all about the streaming services, with the implication that up until now, Netflix has been the primary driver since the Alexa Mini LF was almost certainly created as a response to Netflix’s now-famous camera mandate that all commissioned programming must be created with cameras with at least a 4K native sensor.
As you’re probably aware, the various Alexa variants, up until the recent past, featured a native 3.4k imager, not high enough resolution for Netflix evidently. The creation of the Alexa Mini LF shows that Arri can still be nimble and responsive to market requirements, even though Arri has used basically the same imager over the past nine years. This camera’s existence also shows that the OTTs (Over the Tops – Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) have collectively equaled or possibly surpassed the traditional Hollywood studios in importance for most content creators.
While Blackmagic Design is impressively growing the depth and breadth of their offerings to form an end to end production pipeline with cameras, converters, recorders and an editing suite of software with the release of Resolve several years ago, the latest news was the announcement of the Ursa Mini Pro G2 (Generation 2) and just this past week, the new Pocket Cinema Camera 6K. The UMP G2 is significant in the improvements it brings to the existing UMP. They redesigned the electronics and added a new S35 4.6K image sensor with 15 stops of DR as well as the ability to shoot at up to 300 fps.
The new Pocket Cinema 6K Camera brings some new updates to the existing PCC 4K. Not only can the new camera record up to 6K resolution, it also features a S35 sensor as well as a new Canon EF lens mount, different than the 4K version’s M43 sensor and lens mount. The 6K features dual native ISO with up to 13 stops of DR, internal Prores recording up to 4K and Blackmagic RAW at up to 6K recording. At only $2,495, the PCC 6K will be a nice companion B camera for UMP G2 users.
Canon has been conspicuously absent in releasing any new professional digital cinema cameras in 2019. The sole Canon camera announcement was in February for the EOS RP, a lower cost, less featured version of the Full Frame EOS R mirrorless camera, more of a consumer hybrid camera than a pro digital cinema camera. No new C300 MKIII, C500 MKII or any other new surprises this year so far. There are rumors about Canon possibly introducing something new at September’s IBC tradeshow in Amsterdam, but at this point, those are just rumors.
Canon has been one of the top three camera manufacturers in digital cinema over the past few years, so their non-announcements are probably a reliable indicator of the overall growth potential of the digital cinema market. Or they could just be laying low? Canon recently went through a round of layoffs at Canon USA’s Melville, NY US HQ and closed their large service center in Jamesburg, New Jersey. These obviously aren’t indicators of a healthy, growth-focused company division, so take that for what it’s worth.
The main reason I’m including Fujifilm in their analysis is that with the 2018 announcement of the XT-3 mirrorless, IMHO, Fuji has jumped over the wall separating still cameras from digital cinema cameras. The addition of their MKX Cine zooms reinforces this notion. As you probably know, Fuji also makes various lines of high-end digital cinema lenses, as well as B4 mount broadcast lenses, so in my mind, these factors move Fuji into the digital cinema camera realm.
The video/digital cinema-focused XT-3 has been a solid hit for the company, instantly jumping into the mix, representing between 20 and 30 percent of sales for Fujifilm—very impressive for a new product to instantly become almost one-third of the company’s sales. The addition of the medium format GFX 100 with 4K recording at up to 4K 30p, as well as the addition of the X-Processor 4, means that even though this is more of a still than digital cinema camera, I have the feeling Fuji may have a pro digital cinema camera in the pipeline. The company has an interesting philosophy in keeping the XT and XH cameras using a S35 sensor with the GFX lineup using a relatively huge medium format sensor and no cameras in between utilizing an FF imager.
Nikon is a DSLR and mirrorless company, right? Yes and no. The introduction of the video-capable Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras wouldn’t be that significant if it wasn’t also for the announcement from Atomos that they partnered with Nikon to figure out a way to record RAW video directly from the HDMI output of the Z series to the Atomos Ninja V. Considering the relatively low cost of the Z6 especially, the idea of pairing a low-cost Atomos recorder with a relatively low-cost mirrorless camera fired the imagination of lots of different users.
Other than the recently announced BMD PCC 6K and the existing PCC 4K, no other mirrorless-style, small cameras are capable of RAW internal video recording or output a RAW stream to external recorders like the Ninja V. Yet.
The problem is the Atomos/Nikon announcement in January 2019 was over eight months ago; it’s August 2019 and there has been no update or release date about when this marriage of the Z cameras and the Ninja V will actually happen. In the meantime, RAW recording in low cost self-contained mirrorless-type cameras is happening elsewhere. Nikon may be too late to the party.
Over the past couple of years, it’s been an interesting case of Panasonic’s consumer (Lumix) and professional (professional/broadcast) camera divisions sort of taking turns in introducing products that interest pro digital cinema camera users. Of course, the GH5 and subsequent introduction of the GH5S came from the Lumix division. The cameras are very good mirrorless, video-centric designs with a still impressive specification and feature list. The Pro Video division then introduced the EVA 1 professional digital cinema camera at the same time Canon introduced the C200.
The EVA 1 has some amazing features for the price range but has been hamstrung by its lack of a viewfinder, usable LCD and internal RAW recording. It does have a 5.7K sensor and can record in a plethora of codecs. The Lumix division introduced the FF S1 camera last year, but they were a bit more aimed at still shooters than video, although both of the variants are pretty video capable and feature the L lens mount that Panasonic and Leica designed. At Cine Gear 2019, the Lumix division introduced the S1H, a 6K FF video-centric variant that will sell for $4,000 and will be available in the fall of 2019. An interesting factor is that the Lumix S1H is a mirrorless hybrid that very much out specs the more expensive pro video EVA 1, yet sells for $2,000 less.
Video camera design at the house of Panasonic has had a big year. The rest of the lineup, the Varicam series haven’t had any new model variants introduced this year, although Panasonic did give the Varicam LT a huge discount from its selling price, down to $9,995, but to put together a fully usable, functional package, you still need to add an EVF, P2 Express cards, etc. which puts you back up in the $20k to $28K price bracket, depending on the options and amount of P2 media you need.
Let’s just bring it right to the forefront: If you’ve been following what’s been going on over at RED, it’s been an insane 2019 to date. There haven’t been a lot of new camera announcements from RED this year although they’ve just teased something called the Komodo, which it appears is a camera module for the Hydrogen cell phone/camera? Not sure yet, as all they have released are teaser images with a few words. RED also released a rental-only camera package known as the RED RANGERTM. Basically, it’s a camera system that’s all-inclusive and all included. As you may or may not know, when you rent a RED camera system, it’s very much similar to how we used to rent 16mm and 35mm film cameras, meaning that you rent a basic body and then customize your rental with any of several dozen accessories that are configured in various ways to result in a camera package that’s custom configured for your needs whether that’s for handheld, tripod, slider, Steadicam, drone, vehicle mount, etc.
The end result of this is that usually when I’ve rented RED packages, the paperwork is several pages long and I have to keep track of dozens of smalls bits and pieces that combine to make a RED camera functional for my particular use. The Ranger comes preconfigured with a top handle, PL-Mount, rod brackets, 7-inch LCD, power supply, etc. Many of these pieces are integrated into the Ranger body rather than having to be attached via hex screws to the basic RED “shoebox” form factor that their camera brains come from the factory as.
The insane factor has been the entire RED Mini Mag debacle. I don’t have room to recount it here in all of its glory, but let’s just say that a third party has publicly accused RED of some false advertisement and misleading public statements having to do with RED media, the SSDs contained within them and the money that RED charges for their proprietary media. In my opinion, RED’s response to these accusations has been a good example of how NOT to respond to a public accusation, there have been lawsuits and threats of lawsuits flying from both sides and in the end, a lot of RED customers have been, at the least, confused about what RED has said and sold as their proprietary media and at the most, furious with the company.
The entire issue has been a bit of a media circus, just Google “Red camera media” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s difficult to say if this is just a bump in the road for RED or if it may come to mean something more serious for them. Time will tell.
2019 has been an interesting year for the Sony Pro Video division. In a way, Sony has behaved in a very similar manner to competitor Canon. They haven’t really introduced a new digital cinema camera this year. They did release a V3.0 firmware update for the Venice that adds two new imager modes, 5.7K 16:9 and 6K (full-width) 2.39:1. Later in the year, they released the 4.0 firmware, which added 4K 120 fps and 6k 60 fps.
Sony also just released the A7R IV mirrorless, but all of its innovation was centered on still photography, with its video still hobbled to 2014 standards of 100 Mbps 4:2:0 8-bit internal recording to protect sales of the Sony FS5 MKII and FS7 MKII. There has been a rumor of a new video-centric A7S III for years now, but nobody outside of Sony knows when that camera will drop or if it will be in 2019. So basically, business as usual at Sony.
As the new kid on the block, Z cam is the latest Chinese camera manufacturer to try to make inroads into the U.S. market. I’ve never personally shot with a Z Cam camera, so I have no first-hand knowledge of their image quality, responsiveness, features or reliability.
I’m able to glean a little information from their press releases and from one colleague who purchased one of their cameras for professional use, so I can make the following observations about them and their cameras.
They’re aggressively pursuing market share against the established big three camera manufacturers (Canon, Panasonic and Sony). This is apparent from their expanding lineup, their availability at a lot of U.S. dealers and their kind of unusual form factor and robust feature sets at relatively low cost.
Z Cam currently offers two models of M43 imager cameras currently, the E2 and the E2C. The E2 is a $1,999 M43 shoebox camera with impressive specs, meaning that when you buy the camera, you literally just get a box with an imager inside. You must furnish a battery, media, EVF, handles, baseplate, really everything needed to make the “box” into a functional camera for your shooting situation. Apparently, some people like rigging up what are known as Frankenrig cameras, meaning that the end product is going to be festooned with cables dangling and weird ergonomics, depending on how well you understand camera ergonomics and can buy the right accessories to end up with a compact, ergonomically viable rig.
An observation, most people don’t and end up with a weird, Rube Goldberg (Google it) contraption with a camera buried in all of the Gak (Gak is a Hollywood term used to describe various messy cables, batteries, plates and rods that especially DSLR and mirrorless cameras are often rigged up with, but any camera package can have excess Gak). If you’re a do-it-yourselfer and like having to shop for a bunch of disparate accessories and try to make them into a workable pro camera rig, have at it. Personally, I dislike camera rigs that are like this; I find that the ergonomics are mostly terrible and the cables snag on everything you walk past or operate near, which can result in losing footage. Others, like RED operators, seem to like the “shoebox with tons of GAK” model. Your mileage may vary.
My 2019 Camera Trends and Progress Observations
I’d like to offer my observations and predictions about where professional digital cinema camera tech is headed and what to watch for as you navigate the murky waters of production for the rest of this year.
The mania for FF continues unabated, especially in the higher-end cameras. Doesn’t matter if you like it or not. Collectively, the industry and users have decided that if it’s not FF, it’s nor worth buying in 2019. Other than in the low end of the market where cameras like the Z Cam E2, even though it’s M43, continue to sell a lot of units.
The Death of the Mid-Range
You can’t ignore the facts. Fact: no manufacturer other than BMD has introduced a new mid-range ($5k-$12k) digital cinema in 2019. No FS7 MKIII. No EVA 1 MKII. No C300 MKIII. BMD did introduce the UMP G2, which is really just a slight update to the UMP, not a whole new camera. Interestingly, all of the action is at the high end (Alexa Mini LF, RED RANGER, VENICE Upgrades) and at the low end (Panasonic Lumix S1H, Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema 6K). What does this mean? I honestly think it could mean that a lot of users who used to buy the mid-range cameras are either stepping up to the high end with rentals and “slumming it” down at the low end, simply because these new low-end cameras offer such tremendous value and sophisticated features for the money. The $4,000 Panasonic S1H has better technical specs than the more expensive EVA 1. The $2,495 Pocket Cinema 6K has better technical specs than the more expensive UMP G2. Notice a trend here?
I know it has for me. Our A camera is the (used to be) $7,500 Canon C200. When we went to buy a new b-camera/gimbal camera, we didn’t spend another $5,000 on a C200B, we spent $1,399 on a Fujifilm XT-3 simply because the XT-3 is so good for the money and offers so many impressive features and specs for a prosumer mirrorless camera. I personally doubt if I’ll ever buy another mid-range camera. I’d rather rent high-end cameras, and it’s fun for me to see how far I can push a prosumer camera like the XT-3. Sure, the C200 is a better camera, but it should be for five times the cost. The XT-3 can do 85 percent of what the C200 can do, save for RAW, internal NDs, real audio connections and the client impress factor with its appearance. But the Fuji was inexpensive, works pretty well for video and the output is close to that of the C200, even though the C200 RAW is better.
I’ll go ahead and say it, 2019 is the year the number of lenses available, both still and cine, went nuts. Almost every day there’s a press release for a new optic or new optic company waiting for me in my email. I’m not complaining, this is the best time we’ve had for lenses in the history of our business. No matter what your taste is, you can find multiple lines and brands of lenses that can give you whatever look and optical characteristics you seek.
6K is the New Standard
It seems as if the bar has raised from 4K with the masses fully convinced that in order to optimize 4K, because of the image loss through De-Bayering, you have to have a 5.7K, 5.9K or 6.0K sensor. Strictly from a techno nerd/imaging engineer standpoint, it makes sense. In the real world, though, my Canon C200 has a 4k imager and I have yet to shoot anything with the camera, especially with Cinema RAW Light, that suffers from any mosaic artifacts, low resolution when viewed on a 5K screen or other optical anomalies. So, like everything in our business, there’s the theoretical, which at times you or your audience may or may not notice, then there’s the reality of what your clients and their audiences may or may not see.
It seems that going forward, I doubt if you’ll see many, if any at all, new digital cinema cameras that aren’t at least 6K native. It’s what is hopefully the end of the resolution wars, but I suspect those will go on at least until 8K and possibly might end at 12K or 16K? Who knows for sure?
I hope you’ve found this blog interesting and perhaps a little fun. In 2019, we’re at a place with professional digital cinema cameras where they’re literally all at least decent and the vast majority are really impressive. We’re definitely spoiled with options—a nice place to be.