Camera Choices

The following is really me thinking out loud. Sometimes it’s easier to write out my thoughts to get a better grasp on them.

I’m interested in buying a new video camera. I currently own and shoot with a Canon 60D and a couple kits style lenses. Nothing fancy. I’ll more than likely just keep this 60D around as a stills camera. It’s been a good camera and I’m not interested in parting with it. But I do want to add something new to my toolbox.

For a good while now I’ve been eyeing the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. I like the Raw and ProRes recording options as well as the 13 stop dynamic range. The footage I’ve seen from this camera has a cinematic feel to it. Reminds me a bit of older 35mm film stock with the right kind of grading applied. But the more time that goes by, the more I feel like the camera just doesn’t hold up well as a choice for me. It requires a lot of add-on parts to make it functional. A ton of extra batties, a lot of storage cards and hard drive space, a selection of lenses including no real good wide angle lens choices, some kind of decent viewfinder option, etc. It all adds up. If I would have pulled the trigger nearly two years ago when they had their sale on them for $500, it would have been a good option for me. But since then the price has remained at $995 for what is becoming a dated HD camera in an increasingly UHD/4K market.

Do I need UHD/4K? No, not necessarily. All of what I currently produce is 720p/1080p HD and I haven’t had a demand for anything higher. But 4K does give that extra flexibility in case I am asked to produce something in 4K or just want some more cropping room in HD. Plus a 4K image does look super nice when downsampled to HD. With that said, I’ve generally taken the Blackmagic Pocket camera off of the consideration list. Even if it is still hovering around it with the hopes to get back on.

Right now my focus has shifted to two other cameras. The Panasonic GH4 and the Sony RX10 mkII (or mkIII). I’m a little surprised to even be considering the Sony. To be completely honest, price has a lot to do with these considerations. I don’t have the kind of money to spend $3K-$7K on a camera these days. It’s just not in the cards for me. As most know, the pro video market these days is an industry where things are shakey. I’m lucky to have a stable salary job doing it where the company supplies a camera for me to use, a Canon C100 mkII. Which is a great camera, but more than I can afford myself to pick one up as my own personal camera when doing side work (music videos, etc.) and personal ambitions (filmmaking). So I’m stuck having to look into cheaper options.

The GH4 has been around for a couple years and had forward-thinking specs when released. It’s only gotten better since then with new firmware updates and a better understanding of the camera on the part of the community that uses it. As someone who owned a GH1 and GH2 in the past I know what to expect from the Panasonic. But I also know why I traded my GH2 for a Canon 60D a couple years back. I wasn’t as satisfied with the photography capabilities compared to the Canon.  Things have changed though. I no longer expect one camera to be both my video and photography camera (as I’ll be keeping my 60D) and the GH4 has certainly improved its photo capability over the GH2, as well as the ergonomics when it comes to the bigger body design. Something else I didn’t care for about the original GH1/2.

I have to say, at first I wasn’t that impressed with what I was seeing from the GH4. The footage was sharp, but I wasn’t stunned by it. Truthfully though, I was looking for a different characteristic then, something that more closely mimicked celluloid. The more digital shot films I’ve watched over the last couple of years, the more accustomed I’ve become to the look. Something the GH series has always had more of compared to other cameras. What people sometimes call video-ish. So it was really more of my own prejudices against that type of footage than the footage itself. Yet, it may also be the footage. As more people have learned to use the camera to its advantages, the better the footage people have been getting out of it since it was first introduced. So that probably plays into it as well.

When I consider this and the price drop the GH4 has had, coming closer to the $800-1400 mark depending on used or new, it brings the camera into my range of affordability. With the bigger micro four thirds sensor versus the Blackmagic, there are also plenty of affordable wide angle lens choices and the use of a speed booster brings it into super35mm sensor size territory. Add the ability to shoot actual 4K, not just UHD, V-Log, longer battery life, unlimited record time, and all the other bells and whistles for video use, it seems like a no-brainer for me. As a GH5 is likely to be released later this year or early next year, that will only drive the GH4 price down more.

That said, enter the Sony RX10 mark 2 or 3.  These are what have commonly been called bridge cameras as they are a cross between a DSLR-style camera and a point and shoot camera. The sensor is only one inch (about the size of the Blackmagic pocket sensor) and the lens is permanently attached. But what a hell of a lens it is. A 24-200mm equivalent constant f2.8 Zeiss on the mark 2 and a a 24-600mm equivalent f2.4-f4 Zeiss on the mark 3. Add similar bells and whistles like the GH4 has, such as mic and headphone jacks, S-Log2, UHD recording, EVF and more, this becomes a compelling choice.

It’s really the lens that sells the Rx10 for me. Either one of them (mark 2 or 3). When you consider the cost of a decent set of lenses for the GH4 that can match the RX10 range and speed, you’re now looking at a total package over $2000, even if you get the camera body used for closer to $1000. With the RX10 mkII going for $1100 new and less used, that can mean the GH4 is twice the price. The question is, is the GH4 really twice the camera for twice the price?
In some ways yes. The larger sensor, the DCI 4K option, the interchangeable lens capability, the flip and swivel screen, unlimited record time, the ability to add a speed booster and S35 lenses, etc. It really become a question of whether or not I need all of that or will take advantage of all of that.

The truth is, I usually don’t. As much as I tell myself I’m going to build up a lens arsenal of nice fast glass, I’ve never once gotten around to doing that in all the years I’ve been into photography and filmmaking. Which is twenty years now including all my student and hobbyist years. At most I’ve had a basic kit lens and a couple of cheap primes before switching over to a different brand and starting over. I don’t think I’ve ever paid over $200 for a lens if I’m being honest. As much as I understand the value of these things, it’s hard for me to spend $500 or a $1000 or more on a single lens. When I get that kind of money for a lens something else usually comes up that the money needs to be spent on. Plus I’ve done pretty well with the kit lenses. Personal and paid work. Pros may see the difference between the expensive lenses and the cheaper kit glass when they start pixel peeping, but I’ve never had a paying client that did and most of the time I’m pretty satisfied as well. So with that in mind, is the ability to change lenses that important of a feature for me? Will I ever really take advantage of it in a big way? The answer is probably no. Its probably better for me to have a killer 24-200mm f2.8 Zeiss lens built right into the camera or the 24-600mm f2.4-4. At least then I’m getting a good lens to start, with all the range and speed I really need plus the inability to cheap out on a lesser lens since it’s attached to the camera.

What about the video quality of the RX10 mark 2 and 3? From what I’ve seen, it’s perfectly acceptable for what I do. I think we can sometimes get a little too obsessive about image quality with these lower end cameras. If we knew for certain our footage was going to be release in theaters or mass released on blu-ray it might be a different story, but most of what I do are smaller productions sent to youtube 95% of the time. Even then, there can be a mix of assets, some may be GoPro footage or still images. So already we’re mixing different mediums of different quality. We see this even in higher end productions where various cameras are used to get different shots, all of them graded and cut seamlessly together, which further convinces me it’s really less about the camera these days (as they’re all pretty good) and more about the way you post process it, not to mention light, cut it, move it, etc.

At the moment I’m typing this, Star Wars Episode II is playing in the background. A movie shot on the Sony F900 in 4:2:2 HD on a smaller sized sensor than even the RX10 has. Surely the RX10(mark 2 or 3) with its 4K one inch sensor is just as capable of producing similar image quality once down sampled to HD. It’s been 14 years since the release of that film. Camera technology has improved and dropped in price a lot since then. With that in mind, can I really look at a camera like this and say it’s not good enough for what I need it for, even if I chose to use it to shoot a shoestring budget indie feature film? It seems I would be silly to think it wouldn’t be. Plus compared to what I shoot with now (Canon 60D) which can’t even resolve a full 1080 lines of resolution, even this little Sony is a big upgade.

After all that the choice seems like it would have me leaning toward the RX10 over the GH4. Yet there is something about the ergonomics of the GH4 I prefer. So I must think about this a little longer.

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