Wednesday, April 09, 2014

For 4K cameras, price is A thing, but not THE thing

I'm back from NAB, where the overriding theme this year was 4K everything--cameras, monitors, editors, special effects, routers, switchers, etc. Perhaps the biggest battle was in cameras, where AJA Video entered the market for the first time and Blackmagic Design and Sony announced new 4K cameras. (JVC also announced its first 4K digital cinematography cameras, but gave no prices or availability dates.) 4K cameras have been a "thing" ever since the RED One, but $10,000 was the least that you could spend to buy one (Canon's 1D C) until Blackmagic shipped its 4K Production Camera late last year, priced at $2,995.

The floodgates have now opened:
  • Panasonic's GH4: $1,699, or $3,299 bundled with its SDI/XLR interface dock
  • Sony's A7S: $2,499.99, will ship in July
  • Blackmagic's 4K Production Camera: $2,995
  • Blackmagic's URSA EF: $5,995
  • AJA's Cion: $8,995
None of these cameras cost more than a fraction of the price of an ARRI Alexa ($80,000+) or Amira ($40,000-$52,000 depending on enabled features,) RED EPIC-M Dragon ($50,000+), or Sony F55 ($29,000+) or F65 ($65,000+). You'd think that ARRI, RED and Sony would be shaking in their boots, but they're not. There are two reasons why the companies that make high-end cameras aren't necessarily threatened by the new inexpensive models:
  1. There are many elements that determine whether or not a specific camera is appropriate for an application, and
  2. You get what you pay for.
Here are some (but far from all) of the elements of camera design that influence how the camera performs and what it's good (or not good) for:
  • Imager size
  • Imager resolution
  • Color space (e.g., YUV or xvYCC)
  • Color sampling (e.g., 4:2:0, 4:2:2 or 4:4:4)
  • Bit depth (8-bit vs. 10-bit)
  • Video output resolution (DCI 4K (4096 x 2160), UHD (3840 x 2160), 1080, 720)
  • Video compression formats (e.g., AVCHD, H.264, ProRes, DNxHD, XAVC, XAVC S, AVC-Intra, AVC-Ultra)
  • RAW storage and/or output
  • Frame rates supported at specified resolution (e.g., 24, 25, 29.97, 30, 59.94, 60 or 120)
  • Dynamic range in stops
  • Native ISO speed
  • Sensitivity (maximum usable ISO speed, NOT the camera's rated top ISO speed)
  • Lens mount(s)
  • Lens control (manual, automatic or limited automatic)
  • Image stabilization (digital or optical, in the camera body or in the lens, or no stabilization)
  • Viewfinder, display screen, both or none
  • User interface design (e.g., touchscreen(s), menus, dedicated buttons and knobs)
  • Storage capacity
  • Storage media
  • Internal or external storage
  • Video interface(s) (HDMI or HD-SDI, with different HDMI versions and, for HD-SDI, maximum speeds)
  • Audio connector(s)
  • Balanced or unbalanced audio in
  • Phantom power availability
  • Run time on battery
  • Removable or permanent battery
  • External power voltage and connector
  • Camera shape
  • Camera weight
  • Ruggedness
  • Manufacturer and design maturity (how much experience does the manufacturer have in designing cameras, and how long has the manufacturer been making this particular camera)
There's an enormous number of elements to consider, and some elements work much better for certain applications than others. In some cases, buyers have a wealth of cameras to choose from, while in other cases, there may only be a handful that can do what they need.

Rather than salivating when you hear about a new low-priced camera with attractive features, ask yourself these questions:
  1. What am I going to use it for?
  2. What trade-offs am I willing to accept (for example, are you willing to live with less sensitivity in order to get a higher-quality compression format?)
  3. How often will I use the camera (do you know that you'll be using it over and over on new projects, or do you have one project in mind and you don't know when you'll have the next one?)
  4. How much can I afford to pay?
Answering the first two questions will allow you to compile a list of cameras that meet your needs. Answering the final two questions will tell you whether you should buy or rent the camera that you can afford. In some cases, you may decide to buy a less-expensive camera and use your remaining budget to buy lenses or mounting equipment. In other cases, you could rent a camera and use the savings elsewhere on your production, or rent a camera that you can't afford to buy that's superior to other choices for your application. In short, you should answer the four questions first, rather than starting with the price of the camera and instead hoping that it will meet your needs.
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