Frames Per Second: A DP on How to Pick the Right Camera for Your Video
August 28, 2018
So you got the job. The director loves you, and the producer can tolerate you. Nice! Now what?
You have to choose a camera.
If you own the right one, then the answer is obvious. And maybe that’s why the producer can tolerate you. But if you don’t, how do you go about choosing a camera?
I have never owned equipment, because I haven’t wanted the trouble of maintenance, storage and obsolescence. And because the same producer who’s able to tolerate me always wants me to throw the camera in for free. It might be arrogant, but I don’t really want to be hired because I have free equipment. But I guess it works well for those who are owner/operators.
Half the time when I shoot a movie these days, I don’t have a choice of which camera to use. The producer tells me, “I just bought a couple of REDs, so that’s what we are going to shoot on.”
With few exceptions, all the cameras to choose from are more than good enough to make a feature film on. But for those times when I can choose what to rent, here are my criteria—ranked in order—of what I look at in choosing from the plethora of cameras available.
The most important thing to me when choosing a camera is what lenses I want to use. And incidentally, they will probably cost more than whatever camera I rent. Lenses will have more of an influence on the look of your picture than your camera.
So, maybe you want to use Hawk uncoated anamorphic lenses, which have PL mounts. So you will need a camera with a PL mount. That alone will cut down your choices, though many cameras with EF mounts will take a PL conversion adapter. But it certainly eliminates any camcorders.
It may be that you want a lot of different lenses to shoot your picture, and you want the most number of lenses you can get for the money. In which case you will probably select EF-mount lenses.
I haven’t heard of many people using an EF adaptor on a PL mount camera, but I’m sure it’s been done.
My number two reason for choosing a camera is for its workflow, maybe because I do so much post work on the movies I shoot. But I think it’s selfish for a DP not to consider what happens to their footage after having all the fun of shooting it.
It used to be that RED had a problematic workflow, requiring an expensive piece of hardware just to transcode the footage for editing. But that’s a thing of the past, with several editing programs now able to cope with native R3D files.
It might be that you choose a camera which has only a RAW workflow. One camera I tested recently had a transcode engine, which required purchasing a high-end color-correction program. There was a free software transcoder that you could download, but it took me four days to transcode two hours of footage. There was no way to queue the files, so every couple of hours I had to set a new file to process—a nightmare you wouldn’t want the production to be stuck with, let alone the editor. So beware of your workflow.
Netflix requires 4K or better image acquisition for new projects that they buy, and you wouldn’t want to exclude them as a company that might buy your project.
Plus, a 4K master is a delivery requirement for most distribution companies now. You don’t want an HD or even a 2K acquisition to be “blown up” to 4K.
People will tell you that 2K is still the de facto standard for theatrical distribution, and it may well be. But for how much longer?
The native Exposure Index of a camera is very important for shooting a feature film, especially if you are shooting a night picture in very low lighting. Perhaps you weren’t able to afford those expensive super-speed lenses. I suggest you shoot a test with the camera you intend to use, in the lighting that you will be using.
This is because a lot of manufacturers make claims about their native ISO and their low-noise features which, to put it politely, stretch the truth. Shoot your test footage, and take it through the color-correction process you are going to use for the project, to make sure you’re happy with the level of noise and data.
The codec that a camera shoots is often proprietary. You need to make sure that the software your editor is using can handle these files, especially if the camera is new.
Some cameras shoot RAW files and ProRes files simultaneously. Some feature films I’ve shot only wanted to use the ProRes files because of the cost of hard drives and data management throughout the process.
Shooting some RAW codecs takes up an incredible amount of data space. The Sony F65 camera comes with a rolling cart full of drives, processors and decks just for managing the massive amount of data on-set—beautiful pictures, but a lot of infrastructure.
I like 4 perf 35mm “Academy” sized sensors, mostly because when someone talks about an 18mm lens I know exactly what to expect, because I’m used to shooting 35mm film. I also like the amount of depth of field that I get using this size of sensor. A lot of people like larger sensors, but for me, the depth of field is a little too shallow and it’s tougher on the focus-puller.
In order to shoot high-speed (slow-motion) images, some cameras will change the amount of the sensor that they utilize. I admit I get totally confused about how wide an image is going to be with any given focal length lens. I’ve given up trying. I just put up a 50mm and say: A bit wider or a bit longer.
The next most important feature for me is a global shutter, especially if I’m shooting an action picture. This is the feature whereby all the photosites are activated simultaneously, as opposed to being scanned line by line like an old TV signal.
This is important because, when you pan a camera with a non-global shutter fast over a tall building, the building seems like it is leaning over at an angle. Or think of what you see in car footage shot with a GoPro camera: It makes the whole world look like it’s made of Jell-O.
Size does matter, especially if your picture is predominately handheld and shot in very tight quarters. These days, the lenses I use are usually heavier than the camera. But many of the new cameras that come out are way bigger than modern technology dictates. They usually say, “It’s the cooling. Makes them very reliable.” I’m afraid I no longer have use for the large Panaflex-sized cameras.
My ideal-sized cameras are the Alexa Mini, the mini Panasonic Cinema VariCam, and the Sony FS700. I’ve shot several films with DSLR cameras, but by the time you put a real lens on these cameras they are a bit fiddly and not too robust, especially when it comes to the mini HDMI plug.
I hope this helps just a little when you are choosing a camera to work with from the myriad of choices!
Bruce Logan, ASC, began his career in films when Stanley Kubrick hired him to work under Douglas Trumbull on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He studied at UCLA and has worked on more than a dozen films including Star Trek, Airplane! and The Incredible Shrinking Woman. He has served as director/cameraman on commercials for Pepsi, GE, Visa, Chevrolet, Pontiac, DuPont, Contac, Sprint, Amtrak, Suzuki, Sunlight, and Armstrong, and has made music videos for Prince, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith and other artists. He teaches and writes a column for the website of Zacuto, where this article was first published, in slightly different form, as “8 Things to Consider When Choosing a Camera”
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