A Guide to Video Production Cameras


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This is a guide to the different camera options available for video productions in 2014. It describes video cameras from the consumer to the professional level.

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A Guide to Video Production Cameras

  1. 1. A Guide to Video Production Cameras Horacio Jones
  2. 2. Chapter 1 Video Production Cameras There are so many different types of video cameras available these days that one can easily be overwhelmed by the choices and the terminology associated with them. The goal of this article is to familiarize you with the most common cameras used to create a video so that you know what your choices are when it’s time to decide what to buy or rent for your next production. This book is not at all intended to be a comprehensive report on all the video cameras available in the world, but I hope you glean some useful information from reading it.
  3. 3. Video Cameras come in various price ranges and styles. They run the gamut from phone cameras to Hollywood style film cameras that cost over $100,000. The choice is yours on what camera to use for your video production and this usually comes down to a budgetary and stylistic decision. Ultimately though, it’s not about the camera but what you do with it that matters. Some movies shot on an iPhone have garnered more critical acclaim than some Hollywood blockbusters that flopped. I have divided the cameras into 7 categories that you see on the left. THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF VIDEO CAMERAS 1. Standard Definition 2. Consumer HD Cameras 3. DSLR Cameras 4. Prosumer Cameras 5. Professional/Broadcast HD Cameras 6. 4K Cameras 7. Action Cameras 2
  4. 4. 3 1. Standard Definition Cameras Although most cameras are now HD, there are still some uses for Standard Definition (SD) cameras. SD cameras are defined by the frame size they record. In the U.S. this is normally 720 x 480 or 640 x 480. They can also record in 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio. The most attractive feature of these cameras is price. You can still order small consumer SD cameras that record to tape for $200 - $300. Some used professional SD cameras like the Canon XL1 can be bought for $500 - $1000. They still capture great video and audio, just not in High Definition. If you have an old Standard Definition camera lying around, they are still useful for certain purposes: • Video Streaming your own show or Google Hangouts (depending on your internet connection, streaming HD can be troublesome) • Recording family videos to share on YouTube • Documenting your household inventory for insurance • Security Camera (plug it in to your computer to record time-lapse)
  5. 5. 4 2. Consumer HD Cameras Consumer HD cameras are defined by their small form factor and the quality of the images they record. They can all record in 1920 x 1080 or 1280 x 720. Most of them are small and fit in the palm of your hand. As such, they are easy to carry and store. The main disadvantage of them is the lack of manual controls that are standard in professional video cameras. The trend is to have the controls for iris and shutter in a touchscreen menu. Unfortunately, it can be cumbersome to have to press buttons to control important factors like exposure control. Another disadvantage is that the quality of the video suffers due to the small size of the sensor and the low quality of the lenses. The biggest advantages of Consumer Video Cameras are price (of course) and ease of use. These cameras generally run from $250 - $500 and they all have an automatic mode that takes care of the exposure and focus for you. Today they all record onto some kind of memory card and the footage can easily be transferred to your computer for editing. Some of the newer models can even upload the footage straight to YouTube or stream to websites like uStream or LiveStream. Advantages: • Low Price • Ease of Use • Portability • Easy to transfer footage to computer for editing • Videos files are small Disadvantages: • Lack of manual controls • Low quality lenses • Noisy images in low-light • No XLR audio input • Limited video outputs • Small image sensor • Limited frame rates
  6. 6. 5 3. DSLR Cameras DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex and this refers to their ability to use a single lens to shoot and view the picture. These cameras also record in a digital format instead of film. They are quite popular with Independent Filmmakers and video hobbyists because of their flexibility and price ($800 - $5000). Because of their light weight, they are also a popular choice for Aerial Videos using quad-copter drones. Most DSLRs feature the ability to change lenses as well as offer a wide selection of frame-rates. They also take still photos and can capture them in RAW format, which is an uncompressed digital format. Shooting in RAW is a great advantage when you have to do photo editing in Photoshop. Although you can shoot photos in RAW, video needs to be recorded in a compressed format because there are 24-60 frames per second that need to be captured. H.264 seems to be the preferred compression codec mainly because of its high quality and small size. Among the most popular DSLR cameras sold today are the Canon 5D series, the Panasonic GH series, and the Nikon D800. Advantages: • High quality Video/Photographs • Interchangeable lenses • Manual Controls • Flexibility and Speed • Multiple frame rate options • Dual Use - Photos or Video • Low noise in low light environments • Lightweight and Modular design Disadvantages: • Can be cumbersome to carry • Challenging to configure • Difficult to keep still without a stabilizer rig • Lack of high quality audio inputs • Some cameras have short clip limits and stop recording after 10-20 minutes Courtesy of Håkan Dahlström Photography
  7. 7. 6 4. Prosumer Cameras These types of cameras blur the line between Professional HD cameras and consumer camcorders and are priced between $1000- $5000. They are intended for the high end hobbyist or professionals but lack certain important elements that are standard in professional video cameras. Mainly, they do not have SDI connections and they do not record in an uncompressed format with bit rates of up to 30Mbs. Prosumer cameras however, can record excellent looking video and pristine audio. XLR audio connections are standard and they are not limited by the clip length as some DSLR cameras are. Most of these types of cameras also have a fixed lens with 10x to 20x zoom. For imaging, they use either a large CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Silicon) sensor or 3 CCD (Charge Coupled Device). They are popular for ENG and run-and-gun types of shoots because the form factor is more stable for handheld shots than DSLRs. I use the Sony FS-100UK, which is actually a hybrid of a DSLR and a traditional video camera. Its modular design gives it the look of a vintage Hasselblad camera, yet it has interchangeable lenses and an adjustable side-grip. Other popular Prosumer cameras include the Canon XA20, the Panasonic AG-AG90, and the Sony HXR-NX5U. Advantages: • More stable for handheld shots • XLR Audio • Uncompressed HDMI Output • Ergonomic • Larger Viewfinders • Electronic zoom control • Variable frame rates • Over and Under cranking on some cameras • Good low-light performance with low noise • Some have built in WiFI for streaming Disadvantages: • No SDI output • Low bit rate recording • More complex to operate
  8. 8. 7 5. Professional/Broadcast HD Cameras Professional or Broadcast HD Cameras are characterized by high bit rate recording < 35 Mbps, SDI (Serial Digital Interface) connectors, and Timecode/Genlock sync capabilities. The price range for such cameras starts at $5000 and goes up to infinity. These cameras record in at least a 4:2:2 color sampling, which is what makes them look so good and allows for a vast amount of color grading without degradation. SDI connections and Timecode/Genlock sync allow them to be integrated into multi-camera shoots with ease. Another factor that makes these cameras “professional” is their larger CMOS or CCD sensors. 2/3” CCDs are common as are 35mm CMOS sensors. These larger sensors also produce a shallow Depth of Field for achieving the much sought after “film look.” With the amount of money you are paying for these cameras, you also get a plethora of customization controls. Virtually any look you want, you can get. Many of these cameras are also large and shoulder mounted for exceptional stability. Popular models include the Sony XDCam series, Panasonic AJ-HPX3700, and the Canon XF305. Advantages: • SDI or HDSDI connection • Larger CCD or CMOS Sensors • Higher bit rate recording • Timecode/Genlock functionality • Superior customization controls Disadvantages: • Expensive • Can be heavy or bulky • High learning curve to operate
  9. 9. 8 6. 4k Cameras The latest development or trend in cameras is 4k which has a frame size twice that of HD. Around since 2006, you can now capture 4k video in everything from smartphones to Broadcast Cameras to high speed cameras like the Phantom 65 Gold. 4k has a frame size of 4096 x 2160 while the consumer version, “Ultra HD” has a slightly smaller size coming in at 3840 x 2160. While not everyone currently has a 4k TV, and nobody is broadcasting in 4k, companies keep building them and the prices are getting lower. It appears that 4k is here to stay unlike 3D TVs which were more of a consumer fad than a serious consideration for filmmakers. However, if you are producing HD programming, then shooting in 4k offers several advantages. The most important is the ability to zoom, pan and crop your 4k image in an 2k frame space during post-production. Also the detail of the 4k image looks stunning when compressed to 2k/HD resolution. Probably the most desired 4k camera is the RED Scarlet X due to its high contrast and extensive customization options. Other hot 4k cameras include the Black Magic Production Camera, the Sony FS700, and the Canon EOS 1D C. Advantages: • Higher resolution and detail • Cropping, Zooming & Panning options during HD editing • More cinematic viewing experience Disadvantages: • Workflow is still evolving • Relatively new format • Limited 4k distribution options • 4K Monitors are expensive • Requires a newer, faster computer to edit footage Courtesy of Sony.com
  10. 10. 9 7. Action Cameras If you are into action sports then you’ve got to get a rugged, waterproof camera that can roll with the punches. Action cameras are designed to take a beating and most of them offer some type of waterproof housing. People everywhere are taking their own action Point of View (POV) videos of their adventures. They are generally small and lightweight with several options for mounting onto helmets, surfboards, skateboard, cars, airplanes, you name it. Though the lenses are small, they tend to be wide angles lenses to capture all the action. Some of the more expensive models boast features like wifi data transfer, a built-in monitor, and the ability to preview video on your smart-phone or tablet. The one common disadvantage to all these cameras is the lack of exposure and focus controls, but when you are free falling, you have more important things to worry about! The most ubiquitous is the Go Pro line of cameras. Their newest model even records in 4k (at 12 fps). One of the most interesting cameras is the Geonaute which has 3 8MP cameras and lets you shoot in 360 degrees. Other popular action cameras are the Contour Roam 2, the Drift HD Ghost, Flytecam and the Garmin Virb. Advantages: • Rugged and waterproof • Small and lightweight • Wifi data transfer • Video preview on Smartphone or Tablet • Wide viewing angle Disadvantages: • No manual controls • Short battery life • Footage can be shaky • Auto exposure can under or over expose the subject • Poor audio quality • Poor low-light performance Courtesy of GoPro.com
  11. 11. Conclusion As you can see, there are many camera options out there for you to choose from. It’s wise to rent or borrow a camera before you buy so that you can test it out and see if it delivers the results you want. Keep in mind that technology is exponentially developing and your camera may only be relevant for 2-4 years before a new technology comes out that renders your camera obsolete or unpopular with producers and filmmakers. While 4K is looming on the horizon, how long before that will be replaced by 8K? 16K? Etc... About the Author Horacio Jones has been a Video Producer, Director, Camera Operator and Editor for over 10 years.   He has directed several documentaries, short films and numerous corporate and event videos.  Currently he is the owner of www.CinemaViva.com where he oversees the day-to-day video production and editing tasks necessary to maintain a successful video production company. He also teaching Video Production and Editing techniques to students attending the Film Connection Film Institute.