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Top 5 things to look for when buying a digital cinema camera

Screenshot of the Quixel Bridge interface

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Buying a new filmmaking camera can be scary. Whether you are a new filmmaker or a seasoned pro, there are a ton of options available today in a wide variety of price ranges, and while having that many choices is a wonderful thing, sometimes the choices can seem overwhelming.

But don’t worry, we’re going to break down the top 10 things to think about when buying a digital cinema camera, which will help make the decision-making process much less scary and maybe even a little fun!

Price

Price is always an important factor when making any purchase, and it can often be tempting to simply buy the most expensive camera you can afford because the more expensive a camera, the better it is, right?

Not exactly; while it is somewhat true that you usually get what you pay for, there are many great camera options in every price range, and a more expensive camera might actually be worse for your needs.

What is your price range?

The best way to think about cameras and price is to break them down into price ranges.

$3000 and Below

These are DSLR and mirrorless cameras that probably serve as both a stills (photo) and video camera. There are some great cameras in this group, such as the Sony A7S iii. The primary feature that is generally absent in this price range is the ability to record RAW videos. These cameras usually record to some form of compressed media, and it will be your duty to find the best settings to optimize the recorded image and retain as much detail and color information as possible.

$3000 to $10,000

This is an interesting area that has blossomed with many great options over the past few years. In this price range, you’ll find many cameras that are suited for both traditional style filmmaking as well as for broadcast, such as for use in TV news (field reporting and interviews, not studio cameras), reality TV, and other video content of this nature.

$10,000 and Above

Here, you will find the cameras that are being used to create Hollywood feature films and high-end commercials – as well as some of the more successful YouTube channels, for that matter.

These cameras are engineered to be used by a professional crew, and as such, many of the features that exist in the lower-end cameras, such as Auto Focus or image stabilization, simply do not exist in this price range. In this price range, it is expected that a camera assistant will be there to keep everything in focus and that Auto Focus is not needed.

Dynamic Range / Color Quality

Dynamic Range and Color Quality are two of the most important factors in overall image quality.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range refers to the range of luminance levels a camera can capture. A higher dynamic range means that a camera can capture both very dark and very bright areas in the same frame without losing detail or producing visual artifacts. This applies to both low light performance as well as highlight retention and how the camera handles both over and under-exposure.

Almost all modern cameras can produce a great image when used in a controlled environment where the artists (or camera manufacturer) can carefully adjust the lights and control the scene’s contrast, but only the best cameras have the proper dynamic range to the bright highlights of a midday sun while also retaining the details in the shadows.

The Arri Alexa and its ALEV 3 sensor tend to be regarded as the gold standard in dynamic range. In particular, they handle highlights and overexposure extremely well. Countless camera professionals have demonstrated how durable the images from the Alexa cameras can be by purposely overexposing by multiple stops of exposure and then recovering the image in post-production. No one would intentionally operate the camera in that way, but these exposure tests give insight into how much information the Alexa cameras capture and retain.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sony cameras tend to perform extremely well in low light – in particular, the A7S III and the FX-6 are really great examples of Sony’s dominance in this area.

Color Quality

Color quality refers to how accurately and beautifully a camera captures color information, and this can often be tied into the camera’s color science or “look.” Different cameras will have their own unique way of interpreting and capturing colors, and some may be more accurately representing reality while others may have a more stylized look.

Again, the Arri Alexa line is well renowned for its natural, accurate, and yet filmic color representation. The Sony, Canon, Red, and Black Magic cameras all provide very robust color science as well.

In both of these areas, it’s best to do your research, and then once you have purchased a camera, do your own tests. Put the camera through its paces and try to identify any weak spots. Knowing a camera’s weaknesses will allow you to avoid them and create the best images possible.

Raw Recording / Codecs

A consideration to go along with color quality is the recording format, such as RAW recording vs. compressed codecs.

Many of the lower and mid-range cameras record in compressed formats such as H.264, which can result in a loss of color information or other visual artifacts such as “macro blocking.”

At the higher end, most cameras are able to record in a RAW format, which is the purest form of digital capturing and allows for maximum flexibility in post-production. Many also offer ProRes recording, an industry-standard format that provides a balance between file size and image quality.

RAW is great, but it isn’t the end all be all; it is nice, and if you have that option, you’ll most likely want to use it. But keep in mind that the Arri Alexa was the industry workhorse from 2010 to 2020, and the majority of cameras in operation were shooting in ProRes. That camera and that level of codec were perfectly fine for a number of wide-release feature films, TV series, and advertisements.

Resolution

Resolution refers to the size and pixel count of a recorded image. Most cameras manufactured today offer a minimum of 4K UHD resolution, which is 3840 x 2160 pixels. Some higher-end cameras can record 8K or even 12K resolution.

How much resolution do you need?

Most televisions and projectors currently cannot display resolutions higher than 4k, and until very recently, most major motion pictures were shot or finished at 2k, so what’s the point in 4k or 8k?

Client Requirements

It’s entirely possible that your clients will demand 4k or even 8k. It could be a high-end client, such as a studio like Netflix, which has strict requirements for the cameras it allows, or it could be as simple as a local business that wants a future-proof ad for YouTube.

Oversampling

Another reason to shoot in 8k (or higher) is that you can scale down your image and finish at 4k. The extra resolution will mean a cleaner (less noisy) image, not to mention that it gives you the freedom to reframe in post-production or even to create subtle zoom effects.

Storage Concerns

All things being equal, higher resolution means larger files and more storage. Why is this important? Because storage costs money and you can’t just think about long-term archival storage, you also have to have more storage for editing, which can mean expensive SSDs.

A higher resolution isn’t just a small increase in price it is a price multiplier and should definitely be taken into consideration.

For all of these reasons, 4k tends to be the sweet spot at the moment, but there are real reasons to choose a 6k-8k camera it just depends on your specific needs.

Size / Form Factor

The physical size and form factor of a camera can be very important. This can affect how portable and versatile a camera is and whether or not it will fit into tight spaces or be able to be mounted on a small gimbal or even a drone.

Do you need a small mirrorless camera for run-and-gun shooting? Or do you need the rugged durability of a larger cinema camera? Think about your shooting style and the types of environments you will be shooting in before making a decision.

Autofocus

As recently as a few years ago, I never would have dreamt of adding autofocus to a list of features to consider when buying a camera. Throughout the history of digital and analog video cameras, autofocus has been a completely unreliable feature only used by amateurs. At best, a professional might use autofocus to set an initial focus mark and then quickly disable the feature and manage focus manually thereafter.

However, the latest breakthroughs, particularly by Sony and Canon, have created autofocus that can lock onto a face or eye and provide real-time tracking that is so sophisticated and impressively reliable that autofocus is now a legitimate feature that can be utilized by a professional working without a dedicated focus puller.

Other Things to Consider

In addition to our primary points of focus outlined above, here are a few other areas that are worth knowing about.

Framerate

Can the camera shoot in slow motion? What about timelapse? Most cameras can shoot in framerates from 24fps to 60fps, but there are many options that can shoot over 100fps to give you a decent level of slow motion. Often times, there is a trade-off of resolution or image quality with higher frame rates, so it’s good to learn the details about any camera you are considering to make sure that it fits your needs.

Sensor Size

The size of the camera’s imaging sensor (most likely a CMOS sensor) can affect the depth of field – how much of the image is in focus. A larger sensor, such as a “full frame,” will allow for a shallower, more cinematic depth of field, and a smaller sensor will have a deeper depth of field with more things in focus.

For reference, prior to the wave of digital cinema cameras, most television and feature films were shot on film with a frame size called Super 35, which is very close in size to the DSLR APS C sensor size.

Another popular size is the micro four-thirds sensor, which is close in size to a 16mm film frame. There’s no one right answer: any of these sensor sizes are capable of producing amazing images, but you’ll want to do your research and know which option is best for your workflow and shooting style.

Low-Light Capabilities

Low-light shooting can be a make-or-break feature for a lot of filmmakers and video creators. A camera with good low-light performance will allow you to shoot without having to bring in additional lighting, saving both time and money. Look for camera reviews and technical specs that mention the “native ISO” – this is a measure of how sensitive the sensor is to light. The lower the number, the better the low-light performance will be.

Lens Options

Most digital cinema cameras have interchangeable lenses, so it’s important to consider the availability and cost of lenses for any camera you are considering. Do you already own lenses of a particular kind, such as Canon EF or Sony E Mount? If so, you’ll want to research the lens mount options that exist for any camera that you consider buying.

For example, if you own several thousand dollars worth of Canon EOS glass, then you might want to stick with a Canon camera or at least a camera that offers a native EF mount. Otherwise, you’ll need to invest in adapters to make your lenses work with another camera body. And not all lenses are adaptable to work with other cameras; sometimes, it just isn’t possible, so be sure to do your research.

Image Stabilization

In body image stabilization (I.B.I.S.) is a highly useful feature when shooting handheld. It’s no substitute for a Steadicam or a gimbal, but it can help take the edge off of particularly shaky footage. Look for in-camera stabilization or investigate if the camera has lens options with built-in image stabilization.

Conclusion

There is no one “perfect” digital cinema camera – it all depends on the specific needs and shooting style of the individual filmmaker. Do your research, consider all of the above points, and make sure to read reviews and if possible, get your hands on a camera and run your own tests before making a purchasing decision. Happy shooting!

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