My video camera history, and 4K cameras are finally getting interesting

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 9:12 PM | comments: 0

Way back in 2006, I bought my first pro (or semi-pro... let's call it not cheap) video camera, the Panasonic HVX200. I should qualify that... I bought a lot of pro gear when it was my job, but that was six years before that. This was for me, on my own dime, because I had no one to answer to and I wanted it. It's crazy to think about what it was and what it could do, but the big problem then was that no other camera under $10k could record 1080p at 24 fps on solid state media. The old P2 storage the camera used was crazy expensive, and I spent about $8k on that camera. That's nuts. Still, I recorded some memorable stuff with that camera, and one of the last things was the Matt Ouimet interview that I did in 2012. It didn't have interchangeable lenses, but it was a great ENG camera for me.

Three years later, I picked up a Canon 7D, and while it was the camera I had in hand while documenting the early months of Simon's life, the ergonomics of it weren't great, and not having built-in neutral density filters is a drag (it continues to be the thing that separates "real" video cameras from SLR's, as far as I'm concerned). Still, it could make some pretty stuff that looked like film.

In 2012, I sold the HVX200 and bought Panasonic's AF100. What a difference, as that camera was less than $4k without a lens, and it records on cheap SD cards. In addition to slow motion animals, I've shot a bunch of roller coaster porn, a short talking heads doc about a roller coaster and even a goofy little music video that I shot all in one day, without worrying about the technical quality of it. I even sold a little video to a production company for a Discovery Channel doc. I can use my whole range of Canon lenses on it, with a somewhat cumbersome adapter that powers the iris. Ergonomically, it still leaves some things to be desired (especially when using Canon glass), and I've never made anything with it that I would call "art," but it has served me pretty well.

These days, I mostly shoot video on my Pixel phone, and sometimes on the Panasonic GF7 I bought two years ago (it shares a lens with the AF100). Heck, the phone can shoot 4K, though I've never tried because, seriously, it's a phone.

But I do get the itch now and then, even though I may never actually make the movie I've talked about making for a decade. (That's gonna make for some regrets, I'm sure.) There is a lot of interesting action now in the sub-$10k space with 4K cameras, which seems like the next logical step. Although, honestly it would be cool to even have Canon's "lowly" C100 cinema camera, because it's small, uses my lenses and is a proper video camera, even if it's "only" 1080p, vanilla HD. I saw those things everywhere at SXSW a few weeks ago. Canon makes the generally liked C300 Mark II that does 4K, but it's still $12k. The fans are hoping for something new at NAB this year, but it doesn't look likely to happen.

Sony has captured a lot of attention with their FS5, because it's flexible and small, and there are really good adapters to use with it for Canon lenses. It gets mixed reviews because of the Sony menu system and somewhat aggressive codecs, and you do need to buy the adapter to use the Canon stuff. Sony was the default for broadcast gear back in the day (their 3/4" tape machines were indestructible, and Betacam was the only ENG format that mattered), so it's good to see them getting some attention with attainable gear.

Blackmagic Design is stirring the pot again with their new URSA Mini Pro, a next generation camera that appears to correct many of the complaints of the previous Mini. It has lots of real switches and buttons and stuff! The reviews are generally very positive outside of the audio input knobs not being actual pots (they spin infinitely). The question many will have is about the pattern noise seen in many of their cameras. The base camera doesn't include a viewfinder or batteries, so fully configured (with your Canon lens natively connected), it's almost $9k, but given what it can do, that's pretty remarkable. It even comes with DaVinci Resolve, the color grading software.

I'm also surprised to see Panasonic delivering a new mirrorless camera, the GH5, that on paper appears to make extraordinary video. Sure, it's a smaller sensor (micro-4/3), and there are no ND filters (now I'm asking why electronic ND, like the one on the Sony FS5, isn't in these SLR's and mirrorless cameras posing as video cameras). They even have a pro audio attachment available. I look forward to seeing more test footage.

It's great to see these tools that can help make better stuff. The true video cameras are still better, mostly because experienced people do better work with them. (Please, for the love of all that's good, put ND on your SLR if you're gonna shoot video, otherwise everything you shoot has a high shutter speed and makes it look like a shitty Michael Bay movie.) More pixels is exciting, though I wish the low light sensitivity would come as fast as the pixels.

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