Entering the world of 4K cameras

posted by Jeff | Saturday, July 4, 2020, 9:30 PM | comments: 0

I have a surprisingly long history with pro camera gear, going back to 2006, which was seven years after I left the broadcast world where I spent other people's money on gear. I won't rehash that history entirely here, but I've always enjoyed being able to keep my hand in it all, mostly for fun. I bought the HVX200 in 2006, and it was exciting just to have an HD camera with pro features like internal neutral density filters and XLR audio. In 2012 I bought the AF100, and that was neat because I could put a bunch of different lenses I already had on it, and a bigger sensor meant you could get some of that cinematic depth of field. I even sold some video once for a show that aired on Discovery! In between, I did get a Canon DSLR that did video, the 7D in 2009, but shooting with that sucked, even when I rigged it up with a bunch of kit pieces.

I got a lot of mileage out of the AF100 though, and there are little bits and pieces on my Vimeo profile that I'm really proud of. The camera had been out already for a year and a half, and the price dropped a grand when I got it. It was super easy to coax great looking video out of that camera, and it even looked pretty good at night. The biggest challenge with it was that the compression was a bit aggressive when recording, so there were times where you'd get some artifacts in the image, especially once you compressed again for online use. External solid state recorders weren't an affordable thing yet, or I would have likely purchased one. The surprising thing is that I did generate enough revenue with video from that camera to almost pay for it over eight years. I was surprised when I realized that (the Discovery thing was a big part of that).

4K video is not a new thing at all, but honestly, we didn't even have a 4K TV until last year, and it's a smaller, inexpensive one we bought for the playroom. (The living room TV is now 10-years-old, an LED panel from Samsung, and it has some splotchy spots and light leak, but some day I'll replace it.) I've wanted to buy a new camera to enter the 4K world for a long time, but haven't pulled the trigger. The primary lens I have for the AF100 is worth more used than the camera itself at this point.

Three years ago, Canon released the C200, a new entry in their "cinema" camera lineup, which at the time had a strange mix of features, but not all of the features, that the sub-$10k camera crowd wanted. It checked a lot of boxes for me. It used Canon EF lenses, which I've had for more than a decade. It had real 4K resolution at all the frame rates you would prefer (24, 30, 60 fps, plus 120 in regular HD). It had all the proper pro ND filters and XLR audio. But the price was too much to spend on a hobby. The HVX200 in 2006 was about $7k with the crazy expensive memory cards, but I was single then.

Panasonic, which I have some loyalty to, introduced the EVA1 around the same time, and it checked many of the same boxes. The weirdness in that one is that it didn't have a proper viewfinder, but with updates, it was able to record with higher bit rates and even output raw data for external recording. When I saw it in real life last year on our NYC visit, which included a stop at the world-famous B&H, I was disappointed at how plastic it was. The Canon, by comparison, had the robust construction I would expect. Both cameras were the same price.

Anyway, in Covid-19 pandemic days, the urge to create and make things is stronger than ever. I saw that both cameras came down a grand in price I think late last year, but then I noticed the Canon came down another grand. With all the vacation travel refunds, it felt like maybe now I could justify it as the device I could use for the next eight years. Comparing the two cameras, aside from the viewfinder and build issues, came down to bit rates and outputs, and I had to psychologically get over that to make a good decision.

Cameras in this sub $10k range all make some compromises somewhere so they can't do what the expensive cameras do. Usually this comes as a combination of codec used to store the data, or how lossy it is, the color sampling rate, which determines how many pixels get counted for color information, and the color depth, which is the number of bits used to describe the colors. On paper, the Panasonic does the better sampling and depth for most of the recording options, but the Canon will record the full on raw format with 12-bit color sampling. The recording media is expensive and file sizes are enormous, but this is the equivalent of shooting raw on an SLR camera.

But here's the thing... to really see the flaws created by lower sampling and bit depths in compressed 4K, you need a specific set of circumstances and then zoom in to small areas of the image where those circumstances occur. There are so many pixels that you can "get away" with these "shortcomings." That was clear the more I looked at samples that reviewers posted (that is, the original files from the cameras) three years ago. And let's be honest... most of what I'm going to shoot is probably going to be viewed on a 5" phone screen. The less expensive Canon doesn't have real compromises, and since it's already three years in, the support in tooling for the raw format is a solved problem too. Plus, I've always liked the color science of Canon cameras. Canon is also known for legendary auto-focus capability, with face tracking and such. I've always been "meh" about that feature, but not having to pull your own focus when you're doing run-and-gun shooting is pretty awesome when it works so well.

So I pulled the trigger. I did a few quick tests, and the quality in low light, even with the 4:2:0 8-bit color, is pretty clean. In the raw mode, it's staggering how you can over-expose something by three or four stops and still correct it to find the detail. Mind you, at 24 fps, you can only record about 30 minutes on a 256 gig card, but you could composite special effects with the stuff that comes out of there. I can't believe what you can get out of a camera and not need to have a Hollywood budget.

What am I planning to shoot with this? Well, it's hard to say in the long run, but in the short run, I'd like to do some silly nonsense for YouTube, and I'm going to try and write some shorts, maybe casting my family since we can't exactly recruit people outside. I've got ideas about how to make drinks, some cooking (everyone's doing it), reviews of products, social commentaries, and whatever else comes to mind. I'd like to get some video of the cranes that live in the neighborhood, because they're pretty cool.


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