Topic Index

It's Raining Cameras

Last year, I went to NAB for the first time.  After a couple of years of watching my social media contacts having a much better time than me I decided I would join them.  It was a great trip and it was great to meet everyone.  If there was a disappointment for me, it was that NAB2011 was more notable for the cameras that were not released than it was for those that were.

This year, I was not able to make the show so Murphy’s Law has kicked and we have loads of new large sensor cameras making their NAB debut.  Many of these are not brand new at NAB but there is a distinct flavour to the latest announcements.  There is no doubt that the early buzz was all around 4K.  This prompted a veritable twitter frenzy about whether you needed 4K.  I have covered this ground before in so I will move on to the cameras themselves.

First up is Canon.  Despite recently having given us the C300 and the 5D Mk3, Canon still had some new toys to tempt us with. 

The more expected of these two is the Canon 1DC as Canon teased it at the C300 launch.  Unlike the C300 this is a proper convergence device.  As a stills camera it has the same spec as the 1DX which means it is a full frame, professional grade DSLR.  As a video camera it has some significant upgrades over the 1DX.  The most significant and its ticket to the NAB in-crowd is a 4K capability.  This is recorded to the CF card in good ole MJPEG at 24p.  This is an odd choice and I am guessing that what we are really getting is an image sequence rather than a movie file.  Its more like the stills shooting being sped up to 24fps rather than the movie resolution being doubled.  It is also the first Canon DSLR with a clean full HD resolution video out (8bit 4:2:2). HD recording has the same codec options and speeds as the 1DX/5D3 but adds 1080p50/60.  Canon has also added Canon Log Gamma.  UK pricing is a slightly speculative £10,000 inc VAT which would make it twice the cost of the (now very delayed) 1DX.    There is no doubt that it is the king of DSLR convergence as it out features everything in a DSLR shell.  No lesser man than Shane Hurlbut did the demo shoot for NAB and the twitter consensus was it looked great on the big screen.  Personally, I am just wondering who it is for.  By 4K standards it is not particularly expensive but unless you need 4K you can have a couple of D4s or four D800s with only a small drop in feature set.  More significantly, you can also have the much more shooter friendly C300.  If you do want 4K, it is significant that the recording is onboard.  With cameras like the FS700 we don’t know when 4K recording will come or how much it will be.  The 1DC is 4K out of the box but you have just that one way of getting it.  Its also worth noting that the eurotweeters were unhappy about the lack of 25p.  You lose many of the current advantages of 4K if you can’t downscale to HD easily.

Canon’s second camera is a big brother for the C300 - the C500.  Back on their shared birthday, the RED crowd mocked the C300 for being “only HD” and lacking RAW or high 1080p frame rates.  The C500 is here to kick sand back in the face of RED for only twice as much money as the C300.  OK, maybe that loses some of the impact.  Since its launch, the C300 has built a enthusiastic following.  Its picture quality and ease of use have given it a kind of baby Alexa reputation.  The C500 takes the same sensor but significantly beefs up the picture processing to give 4K out and is the first implementation of Canons own RAW format.  Speed has also been enhanced to up to 120fps.  I know that Canon has been working with Codex on a recorder.  Codex is the Rolls Royce option for external recorders (the worked with Arri too) with all that implies.  This is the first major manufacturer to venture into RED Epic territory, although technically its probably more of a baby Sony F65.  Its taken years for the industry to be get up to speed on RED’s RAW workflow.  How will Canon fare?

RED haven’t produced a new camera for NAB, the Scarlet is making its NAB debut but the real news is about a new sensor called RED Dragon.  This is the fulfillment of REDs main theme for NAB2011.  Its not a new camera but a new sensor which is inline with RED’s commitment to modularity and upgradability.  Resolution is up to an unprecedented 6K.  This may seem excessive given the debate about 4K but logically some of the advantages 4K acquisition has for HD delivery pass on up the line once you hit 4K delivery.  Of more immediate use is improved low light performance and dynamic range (without HDRX).  The cost for an Epic is expected to be around £4000 which is not exactly cheap but is a lot less than, say, trading in your C300 to get a C500.  Availability can be REDs achilles heel and the upgrade process won’t kick off till October.  Scarlet owner have an upgrade path too but they will have to wait longer which will give them more time to save.  Scarlet will be dearer because you effectively have to swap in Epic parts to get to Dragon.  Note that this is not the long awaited Monstro chip.  It is a touch bigger than the Epic but it is not yet full frame.


Sony’s only new large format camera is the FS700 I talked about recently.  The F65 was at NAB2011 last year if only in concept form.  Am I still enthusiastic about this camera now its in the context of all its piers?  I think the answer to that is yes.  It still represents what passes for value for money in the pro video market.  The upgrades from the FS100 are worthwhile and, in the case of the high speed, innovative.  It’s not upgradeable in the RED sense but the 4K 12bit RAW out shows some potential.  I just can’t think of many projects you might want to shoot that you couldn’t with the FS700.  I think Sony predicted the FS700 launch would get lost in the noise at NAB and launching before was a smart move.

Canon may have thought that launching 2 cameras would guarantee them the show buzz and for about 24 hours they were right.  Then the Aliens landed! 

Video processing specialist turned software guys Blackmagic Design lived up to their name and made Canon’s buzz disappear and reappear at their own stand.  Blackmagic’s last trick was to make the cost of getting hold of the feature film class grading software Resolve they acquired first shrink from $100,000 first to $1000 and then disappear entirely.  OK, that is a slight over-simplification but it shows they know have to think outside-the-box and drive value.  Blackmagic debuted some Thunderbolt connected SSD recorders last year at an attractive price.  This year they decided that as they do processing, recording and software all they really needed to do was find I nice sensor and they could make a camera - so they did.  What they have come up with is the most blue sky thinking camera I have seen.  Its a camera designed to be as filmic as possible.  It is not a convergence device, its not going to replace your 5D in that regard.  It has a Johnny Ive-like singularity of purpose.  They knew their customers wanted a camera with excellent grading capability and wide dynamic range (13 stops).  This meant shooting RAW.  Rather than go proprietory as the majors have they used the open CinemaDNG format.  It shoots at 2.5k and 12bit which gives scope for cropping but you can also shoot HD in ProRes (Apple) or DNxHD (Avid) formats.  As befits the makers of Resolve, your Colourist will love you for shooting on this. To cope with all this data the camera has an integrated SSD slot.  Again this is just a standard 2.5” SATA drive you can buy down at PC World.  To get the data into your NLE or Resolve you can just pop the drive in an enclosure or use the integrated Thunderbolt port.  This can also be used to connect your laptop to use the Ultrascope monitoring package that is bundled along with a full copy of Resolve (over £1000 value).  For more traditional forms of monitoring and audio there is SDI out and 1/4 jacks.  To top it off is a high res touch screen  monitor with an iOS-like interface that should make the designers of the major’s menu interfaces hide in shame.  So here we have a piece of gear with a hat full of ground-breaking tech and it costs £2300.  No really, I meant to type that.  OK then, don’t believe me - google it yourself.  When everyone picked themselves off the floor and hit the twitters there was a huge buzz.  This was shortly followed by the kill joys and fanboys chiming in.  

So where do I stand.  A week ago I was happy to imagine buying an FS700 (currently my camera budget is imaginary).  Now, here is a camera which I can buy three of for the same number of (imaginary) pounds stirling.  As I said earlier, the Blackmagic is a very focused device which will get you as close to film as you can for £2k.  The sensor is slightly less than MFT size, close to Super 16mm film.  This means a 2x crop.  As it uses EF or ZF 35mm lenses this means a struggle to find good wide angles and a increased depth of field.  Its also no speed merchant, frame rates span 24 to 30fps.  Its OK in low light but not exceptional.  It has a native ISO of 800 but early indications are it goes up to 1600ASA.  It does not take stills.  In fact it is almost the polar opposite of my 5D Mk II.  The FS700 is much more of a workhorse.  If you are not shooting a movie the AVCHD codec is perfectly adequate.  You have all the niceties of built in ND, XLR, decent AF, peaking, zebras etc and a long shooting time.  If you want to pimp up the image by recording externally (8bit 4:2:2) you can, but bear in thats going to cost you about a third of the cost of the Blackmagic on top of the base price.  Expect much more than that to enable that 4K RAW option.  I expect a new breed of 4K recorder to appear but the current ones cost more than the Blackmagic on their own. So, in summary, if you are working professionally on a mix of jobs and you want something that blends Sony EX3 convenience and versatility with a DSLR aesthetic then the FS700 still has the best feature set for the money.  If you were waiting for REDs 3k for 3k Scarlet and feel disenfranchised by how things turned out then Blackmagic has delivered it for you.  Just don’t sell that 5D MkII you bought while you waited just yet because it fills in a few gaps in the feature set.  If you just want carry round one device to shoot stills or video to a high level of quality then a DSLR like the D800 or a compact interchangeable like the GH2 or NEX7 would be a better bet.

I think the Blackmagic is the first camera worthy of the woefully overused term “game changer” since the Canon and Vincent LaForet shocked us with Reverie.  You can pick holes in its feature set but the real revolution is that Blackmagic set out to design a set of features in and the costs out.  They have not skimped on the technology, much of it is a step forward at any price.  Then they have decided on a price that presumably makes them some money.  They have not chosen to position it in a range or in a market and it came out at 2 grand.  If your allegiance is to another brand, how will it make you feel the next time you cough up 3 grand for a piece of firmware or £15 per Gb for proprietary media.


Is Sony Finally Listening?

In the HD-DSLR era Sony has tended to frustrate me.  Along with Panasonic they have the biggest profile in camcorders so had more to lose than Canon or Nikon.  Often quite good products would get hamstrung with what looked like marketing decisions.  The FS100 was one such product.  It always has been good value for a baby F3, closely matching its big brothers excellent image quality.  It even had a the benefit of 1080p50.  But there were downsides too.  Firstly Sony claimed to be addressing the drawbacks of HDDSLRs but they failed to include NDs like the competitor AF100.  It also wasn’t a global camera - Sony has since promised firmware but it was recently delayed.  I know a few people who own them and most love the image quality but criticise the handling. 

So when the first news of the FS700 broke I was skeptical, in fact I thought it may be an April Fool’s wind-up.  Not all the details are in yet and there is still time for Sony to stick a spanner in the works but I must say it looks really promising in the blurb: 


The first 4K-ready Super35mm camcorder in its class – providing an assured upgrade path to 4K acquisition and delivery - with full HD 1080p for today.The camcorder will also have the capability to produce 4K RAW 3G-SDI output via a future upgrade.

Whether you need 4K or not, its nice to have the option.  That option is going to depend when a compatible recorder turns up.  This is unlikely to be inexpensive.  If the FS100 was the baby F3 could the FS700 be the baby F65?  Of more immediate benefit is the addition of the SDI port.  The FS100 had only the much maligned HDMI port.  Thats one AF100 advantage cancelled out.

Super slow motion at 10x at full HD or 40x at lower resolutions

Incredible super slow motion capability of up to 10x slow motion at full HD resolution or up to 40x slow motion at a reduced resolution, giving you creative options that were once only available with specialist high-end equipment.

1080p high frame rates has eluded the budget sector.  The FS100 was already one of the best options.  OK, there are restrictions on shot length and super high rates bring various levels of compression but this is new and cool.  Its the closest thing to a baby Phantom.

E-mount interchangeable lenses offer a wide choice of lenses

The E-mount interchangeable lens system utilises an extremely short flange back distance allowing you to use a huge array of lenses via a range of adaptors giving you almost unlimited creative options.

Additional A-mount lenses available

The Sony LA-EA2 A-mount lens adaptor allows you to use the wide range of high quality alpha lenses and take advantage of the auto focus function for quicker, more convenient operation.

The FS100 has always been flexible in its mount options, even a few 3rd party Canon options are starting to appear.  The new adapter is probably overkill unless you have a strong need for AF.

Built-in ND filters

The NEX-FS700E features built-in, ultra-thin ND filters, offering exceptional shallow depth-of-field on highlights. It also means less accessories to manage as no external ND filters are required.

3G-SDI interface and HDMI

A 3G-SDI output enables easy integration with highest quality recording formats.

There goes the other AF100 advantage and a opens a clear advantage over HD-DSLRs.  We are starting to see HDMI output on the Nikons but its still flawed and doesn’t seem to realise the gains the FS100 does.  Presuming both these output are live simultaneously that opens a lot of new configuration and recorder options.

Exceptional ergonomics

The NEX-FS700E has a refined ergonomic design with a robust detachable handle and grip.

The key is the word “refined”.  I don’t think the FS700 will suddenly be a lot less fiddly than the FS100 and the “toilet-roll” EVF is still there, but early users say the build quality has improved and the accessories work better.

Switchable 50 Hz and 60 Hz shooting

The NEX-FS700E is switchable between 50 Hz and 60Hz to allow 24p shooting in PAL areas and no PAL/NTSC limitations.

Sony has listened, no waiting for firmware or having to buy two if you travel.

Selectable magnification and positioning of expanded focus

Expanded focus improvement allowing 4x and 8x magnification and a moveable area of expansion for easy focusing with shallow depth of field.

This should be familiar to those with Canon DSLRs, I wonder if it will work while recording?

Camera profile settings storage on memory card

Up to 99 camera profile settings can be stored, allowing rapid adaptation to multiple shooting environments without time wasted adjusting parameters. Settings are also easily shared in multi-camera productions.

Sounds sensible and opens up the possibility of easily adding new profiles.  One open question is S-Log, are Sony brave enough to bring that down to the FS700 and risk F3 sales?

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the price.  At a time when Canon seems to be determined to bump its prices up the FS700 comes in at £7200 inc VAT pre-order.  That’s more than the FS100 (£4700 inc VAT) but not a massive amount given the increase in spec.  Its a lot less than the C300EF & Sony F3 which are £12,000.  Its not significantly more that the Nikon D4 or Canon 1Dx (both about £5200 inc VAT) whose only real video advantage is being full frame.  The 5D Mk3 and D800 have a significant price advantage (sub £3,000) and are true convergent devices but the FS700 is a significantly better specified video camera which is suited to a much wider role. 

In fact its only significant weakness is the inbuilt codec.  Sony has a good track record in making the best of AVCHD with really good encoders but it is still what holds it back from being in the C300/F3/Scarlet club.  Still you can buy an encoder and a heap of nice glass for the price difference. 

My mate Den Lennie has already been shooting with one so I am guessing we will get to see the results from Den and others when NAB opens.


Isn't it bright in here?

This is an open letter to my local Vue cinema at Cheshire Oaks.  Actually that’s the polite way of saying its a rant.  I don’t want to be too harsh as the arrival of Vue vastly enhanced the viewing experience.  It was my first experience outside the US of big comfy seats with decent legroom.  Even now, with a good few years under its belt, it is still in good nick and they have invested heavily in 4K digital projection. 

I can even forgive them the cost of tickets and especially concessions because I am aware of the way Cinema economics work.  I can even forgive the chronic unreliability of the coffee machine as Starbucks and Costa are only 100m away.  What is winding me up at the moment is a bit more fundamental...turn the bleedin’ lights off!

I have recently been updating my lounge.  I know that my choice of light colours was always going to limit the quality I can expect from my projector.  However, this is a north-facing room and its my lounge...a certain degree of compromise has to be expected.  You don’t really expect compromise in a cinema where the pre-show Vue advertising is eulogising the experience.  

Vue haven’t gone as far as painting the room white but their lighting seems to be designed to trash the contrast.  I have long felt that they keep the house lights too bright.  This is washing out the contrast from the top.  For a spectacle wearer like me you tend to get unwanted reflections - worse in 3D films.  The next two problems are worst in the small theatres as they are narrower and the steps are closer to the screen. Vue have installed new blue LED safety lights to mark the steps.  There are uplighters along floor marking out the shape but there are also an array of lights across the front of the steps pointing at the screen.  Why!  These stay on during the film at the same light output.  Watching the Hunger Games and Act of Valor recently all the dark scenes had a distinct blue tint which I am pretty sure the colourist never meant to be there.  It looked like a day-to-night filter from the 1940s.  My last gripe is the fire exit signs.  These doors are close to the screen edge and are also way too bright.  I can understand why they need to be visible but do they have to be almost painfully bright during the movie.

It probably time to stop railing against safety culture before I turn into Jeremy Clarkson but, please Vue, turn down the lights so I can properly enjoy your fancy new projectors.


Just like buses ... the D800 and 5D Mark III arrive

Last year was pretty much a year of waiting in the DSLR field.  Even those cameras which showed their faces didn't start to ship till this year or we are still waiting.  Part of this was understandable given the problems in Japan and Thailand.  Into this vacuum we saw the dedicated video camera make its comeback peaking with the arrival of the C300 and Scarlet at the end of the year.  People were starting to say the video DSLR revolution is over.  This is a view which I half agree with.  It doesn't feel like a revolution anymore, DSLR is now largely mainstream and ubiquitous.  For filmmakers there are now many choices of large chip cameras which are easier to work with and easier to fit into a professional workflow.  

However, there are still a huge amount of footage being shot of DSLR all the way from the guerrilla filmmaker right up to major motion pictures.  That video function is not going away and will continue to improve. 2012 has seen the arrival of two “next generation” DSLRs from Canon and Nikon.  For Canon, it is the 5D Mark III - the replacement for the camera that has defined this whole sector for nearly three years.  For Nikon it is the D800 which brings most of the new technology recently launched on the D4 into direct competition with the 5D.

Canon 5D Mark III

With three years to wait, the blogosphere has had a long time to imagine what the 5D Mark III would be.  This probably meant that the Mark III was doomed to disappoint and I must admit I haven’t had a burning desire to upgrade.  At least part of that is due to the fact that I can’t afford it, but that doesn’t usually stop the “desire” part.  The increased price (£2999 at launch compared to £2299 for the Mark II) brings it into competition with the low-end big chip camcorders but I need a convergence device and those don’t qualify. 

I have only had the chance to play briefly with the camera so this is no review, but we can look at the spec sheet.  At the time of its launch, the video feature was the most original feature of the 5D Mark II along with its 21MP sensor.  Apart from that a lot of the tech got carried over from the 5D.  For the photographer, it was far from leading edge in the areas of AF and metering.  This didn't stop it being hugely popular with photographers as well as carving out the video niche.  The 7D which followed later did not suffer these issues.  It was more weatherproof, faster and had much better AF and metering.  In some ways the 5D Mark III is more like a 7Ds - a full frame 7D. 

Canon have improved the camera comprehensively in most areas both photographically and for the video section.  We have be starved of full res samples at the launch but all the signs are good.  I fully expect that the quality of the imagery will reduce the 5D bugbears of aliasing, moire and rolling shutter and it will be an order of magnitude better in low light.  Sound recording and monitoring have been improved but the big wish list items of clean 1080p out and faster frame rates at 1080p are not there.  There is also a lack of crop modes (like in the consumer 600D) which seems a missed opportunity to me.  Maybe Canon thinks giving you cheap, fast telephotos in camera is counterproductive for its bottom line?  All of these improvements are welcome but nothing which renders my Mark II obsolete which is why Canon will continue to sell it.

Nikon, who have had many false starts on DSLR video since they kicked the whole thing off with the D90, have put an amazing amount of new tech into the D800 to fight back.  They have managed to do this for a noticeably smaller chunk of change than Canon at £2399. 


Nikon D800

The are many remarkable things about the D800 but the most remarkable is that it so un-Nikon-like in philosophy.  Nikon had been the least enthusiastic DSLR manufacturer in the megapixel wars and now they have gone nuclear with a 36MP sensor.  The aging D700 it replaces couldn't wield half that at 15MP and it dwarfs the 5D Mark III’s 22MP.  This sensor dominates this camera for better or for worse.  For video, it sets alarm bells ringing.  That’s 34Mp to throw away to get to HD size, how will it cope in low light?  Again, we still don't have any uncompressed samples to answer those questions.  From what I have seen in the Nikon demonstration this is my own prediction.  I think the D800 will be on a par with the 5D Mark II for low-light and picture artifacts with on-board recording but will be well behind the Mark III.  I think the ability to record off-camera will narrow the gap some but not entirely close it. 

The D800 does have a lot of features which show Nikon have listened and which I think are valuable both in Photo and Video modes.  Nikon shows no fear of crop modes and this effectively gives you two cameras in one.  I can see this camera being a hit with time-lapsers and for making plates with that massive resolution.  For the photographer I think Nikon will be able to match the D700 for low light and be better at most other things apart from speed.  If you want to shoot darker and faster I expect you are going to have to save for a D4.

If you don't have the cash to hand or are not convinced by the feature set then its probably best to wait.  We still have the Canon Cinema EOS DSLR to show its colours and that is likely to have some very different tech in it.

Concept Cinema EOS DLSR

Expect to see much if not all the new video features trickle down into the rest of the rand in the next 12-18 months.  It think the upgrade for the Rebel/00D range is due soon and we will see from that how widely Canon is prepared to share its features.  With the Digic IV generation cameras they were pretty generous, so this will be a very interesting announcement.

Bear in mind that most of what I have said is still based on very incomplete information.  Its going to be a while before the blogosphere gets its hands on production models and can come to independent conclusions on the image quality and usability of these new cameras.  I am eager to see how it all pans out!

Some more in depth looks at the cameras can be found:


Making do

"Making do" - this phrase has typified a cash-strapped, post-war Britain which had, by then, lost the swagger and ambition of the Victorian era.  On a more positive note, its also about achieving the best results with what resources you have.  It is also "situation normal" for the budget filmmaker.  It's easy to fall into the trap that all that idea you have needs is some new piece of gear, or another workshop or some new software package.  Oh that's just me then is it?

Occasionally, you see a piece of work that has production values that far exceed the consumer equipment used to make it.  My friend J G Harding just posted his latest music video up on Vimeo which is just such a creation.  The track is called "Clapton Pond" by Apologies, I Have None, this is an ambitious, high concept piece which I think completely belies it's zero budget origins.

To judge for yourself here is the video


To learn more about its making go to Julian's website