How to pick a Professional Camera
by “Gospel” John Hess
The term “professional camera” is very subjective term. As technology continually improves, the line in quality between consumer cameras and professional cameras gets increasingly thin. But as any serious filmmaker/videographer will tell you, the jump to a professional level camera comes with huge improvement in the amount of control over your image. To make things more confusing, the word “prosumer” has popped up as a halfway between the consumer and professional realm. For the purposes of this article, we will consider professional cameras as cameras with 1/4″ chips sizes and up (more on chip size later).
When considering a professional camera, skip the beauty reels that you’ve seen on YouTube and Vimeo. Yes we’ve all seen the beauty videos with the rolling tree tops and the steel jungles. They’re fun to watch but they say more about the producer than the camera. After all, you can point any half way decent camera at a beautiful flower and capture a beautiful image. Beyond that, the fact is, all video hosting sites heavily compress their videos. Judging the capabilities of a camera based on compressed and resized web video will not give an accurate comparison of the cameras. Instead, you want focus of the features that will work for your film or video business.
If you’re planning on investing in a professional camera, the camera must be at least capable of HD.
DO NOT INVEST A NEW Standard Def (SD) camera*
*(unless you are required by your workflow, i.e. to match other SD cameras in a studio or to fit with an established look of a show).
HD comes in a variety of flavors (HDV, XDCAM HD, P2, DVCPRO HD), which you must consider when you purchase a camera, but any HD camera, given the proper framing and lighting, will yield a better image than an similarly priced SD camera.
If you feel like you’re not ready to take the plunge into HD quite yet (for any reason), look around in the used market for a professional SD camera. There are plenty of them floating around as the market moves towards HD.
Keep in mind also, that many HDV cameras are also capable of recording in Standard Def DV or outputing an HD signal to SD. So even if the rest of your workflow isn’t ready for HD, you can still shoot HD and downconvert to SD as needed.
Being that the camera is HD, you will be shooting in the 16×9 widescreen format. Make sure the camera shoots in the regional format that you want to deliver in (ie. NTSC and PAL).
If you want to produce a more “film like” experience (another loaded term for a different article), make sure the camera has a 24p option. Be sure to research the 24p system that your camera uses – every brand seems to perform the 24p acrobatics in different ways. Consider the capabilities of you Editing software as well.
Almost all lower to medium end professional cameras have a 1/3″ imaging chip. Some of the smaller guerilla type cameras sport a smaller 1/4″ chip.
As you step up in chip size to 1/2″ to 2/3″ and even to the full 35mm styled chips (as in the RED), you will see an improvement in low light performance and substantially greater Depth of Field. The downside is these larger chips will be substantially more expensive. Generally speaking, the larger the chip, the better the image quality.
CCD vs. CMOS
The professional camera industry is currently in a transitional state between CCD style imaging chips and CMOS style imaging chips although CCD cameras will be around for the foreseeable future. The difference between the two technologies is significant but goes way beyond the scope of this article. Both types are capable of producing great images but both have their drawbacks.
There is one major drawback to CMOS cameras that worth noting in this article. CMOS cameras use Rolling Shutters which can result in some unpleasant motion flaws in extreme situations – such as a whip pan. These flaws include: skew, wobble and partial exposure. These are problems in all CMOS cameras, but with the proper handling, can be avoided.
3 CCD / 3 CMOS
This is a term you’ll see thrown about a lot with these professional cameras. The concept involves splitting an image into its color components (Red, Green, and Blue) and recording them separately. Generally speaking in CCD cameras, having 3 chips is the prerequisite for a “professional” level camera. Because CMOS functions differently, many cameras (including the RED) only require 1 CMOS chip.
Interchangeable or Fixed Lens
For many professionals, this is the number one deciding factor when investing in a camera.
Cameras with interchangeable lenses allow you to swap out the lens for a different one. Although most cameras with an interchangeable lens come with a stock lens, there are a myriad of very high quality ENG (Electronic News Gathering) and Cine Lenses that you buy or rent to get achieve different focal lengths.
Cameras with fixed lenses tend to be less expensive and lighter. Although you cannot change the lens on a fixed lens camera, there are wide angle and telephoto adapters that can be attached on the front of the camera.
Example: Sony offers two versions of their popular XDCAM EX cameras, the EX1 and the EX3. Among some other minor differences, the EX1 (left) is a fixed lens camera while the EX3 (right) has an interchangeable lens.
Low Light Capability
If you plan on using your camera to shoot events where you can’t control the lighting, low light capability is something you’ll want to have. Similarly, if you want to use a DOF adapter (which we’ll discuss later), low light capability will be to your advantage.
The good news is most professional cameras these days have excellent low light capabilities. Generally speaking, the larger the chip size and optics, the better low light response ie. a camera that has 1/3″ chip will perform better than a 1/4″ chip..
The bad news is there is no industry standard for defining low light performance. Every manufacturer will define a camera’s minimum illumination differently and often times that minimum illumination is defined using a whole host of “light enhancing” electronic features like gain and frame accumulation which will ad noise and motion artifacting that is unwanted all but the most critical situations.
You may be able to use a manufacturer’s minimum illumination specs to compare the manufacturers cameras to each other. But for overall comparisons, search for independent comparisons (sites such as CamcorderInfo.com cover this extensively) and go with the general rule of thumb – the larger the chip size, the better the low light performance.
Tape or Tapeless
More and more camera manufacturers are offering tapeless options and it is becoming something worth considering when purchasing a camera.
Tape offers the advantage of being a simple, inexpensive, and well defined format. Archiving is simple – just pull the record inhibit tab on the tape and store in a cool dry environment away from light. Also if you’re in a collaborative environment, it’s easy just to hand off a tape to someone else. But tape is limited to a set bit rate so you are stuck with the limitation of the format (currently HDV).
Tapeless acquisition allows for much higher bit rates and opens the door to much higher quality video recording. The freedom from set bit rates also allows interesting camera options such as over-cranking and time lapse recording. The two major drawbacks to tapeless are the high cost of recording media and the fact that you will have to actively back up and archive footage on a hard drive in order to reuse your recording media.
Bar none, the best kind of audio connection for microphones is XLR. Most professional cameras have XLR connections, but there are a few out there that use RCA which means you’ll need an external converter for your XLR microphones.
Keep in mind how you will be using your camera for your production. If you intend on using the camera for event/corporate work, you may want to consider cameras that have a shoulder mount design – something that will allow you to get steady shots even while handheld.
If you want to use a smaller camera stabilizer, you may want to opt for the smaller light weight camera. Similarly, if you intended to shoot a lot of guerrilla shots, you will want a smaller more inconspicuous camera.
If you happen to be used to a particular brand’s button layout, you will mostly likely want to stick with that brand as different manufactures all have their own layouts.
And of course, the “cool factor” does play into it as well. A big hulking camera with wires and blinking buttons looks great and can impress a client. But it’s also can be intimidating, requires a lot of set up time, addition people to operate (such as a focus puller) and is impossible to pull off a guerrilla shoot.
Not all viewfinders are born equal. Although a viewfinder does not affect the final output of a camera, they make for easier critical focus and a generally more pleasant shooting experience.
Unfortunately, manufacturers are not exactly upfront about the specs of their LCD/Viewfinders. Most manufacturers supply a size, some will even give you a pixel count. The more pixels in an LCD, the cleaner and sharper the image.
Ultimately, the best way to judge a viewfinder is to compare models first hand.
You can forgo the viewfinder if you are planning to send the video to a monitor through video out. All professional cameras have video out. The video out connections can include: SDI/HD-SDI (highest professional quality SD and HD), HDMI, Component (HD and SD), S-Video (SD only), and Composite (consumer grade SD).
Make sure the camera you are purchasing has the same format as the monitor you are intending to use.
Video Out can also be used to send the video to a Digital Disk Recorder such as the AJA KiPro. On some cameras, the SDI connections actually send the video image out before the signal is compressed to the recording format (generally HDV). Sending the signal before the camera’s recording compression allows for better quality which can make color correction and greenscreen compositing easier in post production. If you intend on using these devices, keep the video out options in mind when selecting a camera.
Timecode / Genlock
If you intend on using your camera in a multicam studio situation, you will need a camera with Timecode/Genlock sync capabilities.
This may not be a concern if you are stepping up to your first professional camera. But if you are buying a second one, consider the type of battery the camera uses and how that will play into your budget.
Depth of Field Adapters
One of the more exciting tools for the independent filmmaker of the last few years has been the advent and the improvement of the Depth of Field Adapter. Then adapters allow you to use 35mm lenses (still photo or film lenses) with your camera. When considering buying a camera, it’s worth considering if and how you will use it with a DOF Adapter.
A Depth of Field Adapter, also called a 35mm Adapter, works essentially like a projection screen. The image passes through the lens, and is projected on a translucent screen – the camera takes a picture of the screen. Since the area of the translucent screen is much larger than the image sensor, Depth of Field Adapters are capable of much shallower depth of field than the camera alone.
There are several limitations when using a depth of field adapter that you should consider in conjunction with your camera purchase. All Depth of Field Adapters project an upside down image on their translucent screen. Several DOF Adapter manufacturers offer image flipping devices, otherwise a camera with a viewfinder flip option would be useful. DOF adapters also eat of a lot of light, so cameras with low light capabilities fare best with DOF adapters.
DOF Adapter Manufacturers
Here is a selection of professional level cameras. This is certainly by no means an exhaustive list of cameras that are available on the market. These listed below are NTSC cameras, if you are purchasing for use in a non-NTSC country, look for alternative versions of these models.
Popular Sony Cameras:
Popular Canon Cameras:
Popular Panasonic Cameras:
Popular JVC Cameras:
Where To Buy?
When investing in a pro camera cost is certainly a issue. The interwebs are full of companies saying the offer “low prices.” But, is saving a couple dollars worth not having professional support for the huge number of questions you will have before AND after buying that camera? With a sales staff made up of working professional filmmakers and videographers with years of field experience, B&H is the only retailer we recomend (they also have some of the lowest prices). Yes, they are one of our sponsors, but the reason they are a sponsor is because they are the best. Don’t take our word for it, just ask around.