We ditched the term ‘convergence’ in favour of the more flexible and vague description ‘lens-based media’. Maybe this was a sign of things to come: no longer the ‘coming together’; more an ‘anything goes’. Sounds like the end of an era; maybe some of us even feel a certain sense of loss. After all, for a while, we were all in it together; photographers and filmmakers learning how to use familiar tools in a whole new way.
So, have we been living through an era of imaging innovation, or a time of huge compromise? Where workflows and workarounds have become part of everyday life; a time when we have to think hard about the tools, rather than just getting on with the job in hand?
With all of this choice and blurred lines of specialism, even the most equipment-obsessed of us have to ask ourselves the question: ‘What camera would I buy next?’
Before you can answer this question, first you must fully understand what the camera is likely to be used for the most. Your second consideration should be, of course, budget - after all, it is easier to make your decision if you take a long, hard look at a potential purchase’s weaknesses as well as its strengths.
I was thinking about writing a list of the most notable cameras currently on the market and then breaking them down by most likely uses. However, I’m not sure that would help anyone decide. So instead, I think it is better to start with what I would shoot with an HDSLR.
This seems almost like a new genre. Most likely set to music with no sync sound, mood films lend themselves well to full-frame DSLR sensors.
Very similar to mood films, in that there is rarely sync sound and, once again, there’s the full-frame look. Even the limited gradation in highlights is something we are used to seeing in fashion and has become an integral part of the style.
The shallow depth of a large sensor offers subject/background separation that we were unable to achieve on a budget a few years ago. And, let’s face it, the average corporate job was unlikely to be shot on Super 35 anyway.
The sound requirements do make life more tricky, but with a modest sound kit, interviews are something we regularly shoot with DSLRs. The only spanner in the works comes when we need them to be broadcast-compliant, but this is something I’ve covered somewhat in previous features.
Many tens of thousands of music videos have been shot with DSLRs, and there is no sign of this letting up any time soon. Not just budget productions either - though this has changed to a certain extent.
Higher budget music videos are now more likely to be shot with Epics and F65s – among other cameras - for a variety of reasons: mostly bitrates and codecs but, let’s face it, to the naked eye at least, a DSLR will give great results for buttons.
There have been literally millions of short films shot with DSLRs over the last few years. And we have to agree, it’s been like breath of fresh air both to shoot and watch low-budget shorts that have the good looks of their high-budget big brothers.
From a filmmaking point of view, the need to record sound separately, as well as keep on top of focus or even use a focus puller, has brought the average enthusiast and serious filmmaker closer together in terms of the skills and techniques used.
This is really a no brainer; after all, if you can shoot interviews and general imagery with a DSLR, then you can make a documentary. Just remember though, if there is any chance your documentary might be broadcast, it is probably the wrong tool and you might want to consider a different camera.
I’m sure there are lots of areas of filmmaking that lend themselves well to DSLR shooting, but I never promised an absolute guide - just a taster. So, where do all the other types of video-capable cameras fit in?
Well, as these are more designed ‘for the job’, they will, on the whole, be good for most things - with a couple of exceptions.
I’ll list these by camera type with a few example models. Don’t get upset if I don’t mention a certain model, as it is not a full catalogue, just an overview.
These are primarily designed for electronic news gathering. They generally have sensors ranging from quarter to half-inch, and often have the ability to record at broadcast-compliant bitrates.
They are perfect for the times when DSLRs and cinema cameras start to make life difficult: mainly when function is more important than style - things like large conferences and events, when you need a long, bright lens and deeper focus. This is, of course, when the smaller sensor comes into its own. They are also often designed with a variety of direct outputs, so the images can be live mixed for projection or live recording.
The main advantages coming from the cinema cameras are the ability to record sound straight into camera using pro mics. There are exceptions to this even, but I’ll rule them out for now.
They have the advantage of being designed for video, so the in-camera processing is more efficient, with less RAW data to compress as they are not trying to down-sample a zillion megapixels to 1,920 x 1.080 before laying the file down to a memory card. This leads to less moiré and aliasing and improved rolling shutter.
The ergonomics are still more than slightly crap, so you’ll still need your auto-gizmo rigs to make them work off the sticks. However, the general control and usability is still better in general than a DSLR.
I decided to ignore the high-end cinema cameras because I think it’s fair to assume that if you are trying to decide whether or not to buy an Alexa, and you have the cash to spare, I would have little or no influence other than to say: ‘BUY AN ALEXA!’
There is one camera just coming on to the market that is spanning all these other cameras. I haven’t even seen one yet, but it looks to be a bargain and ticks a lot of the wide range of boxes. It may even - after a few revisions and improvements - be Sony’s way of taking back the market that they made for themselves with the HVR-Z1 way back in 2005.
That camera is the NEX-EA50EH. It has an APS-C sensor, pro XLR audio connections, power zoom lens, is semi-shoulder mount, clean HDMI and under £3,000. So why is no one excited? Maybe it’s over saturation. It may even be that we’ve been confused about the right tool for the job for so long, we don’t know how to recognise it when we finally see it?
I’m not saying that it is in any way a perfect camera, because it clearly isn’t. But it’s certainly as close as we’ve ever been for three grand!
I personally believe that professionally this is the most exciting time of my life. It’s the first time I’ve had this amount of choice, and the need for reinvention has forced me to think more about the best way to do things. More importantly, however, it’s made me look hard at what is going on around me in the industry, and encouraged me to change my way of thinking.