Camera, camera on the dolly – which is the best for the lolly?


The debate regarding which camera is the best rages on. It is often a case of horses for courses and a myriad of other factors regarding conditions, locations and available facilities. But if budget is not an issue and the choice of capture device is wide open, which camera would YOU choose to shoot on and why?

The only person able to give a valued opinion on this issue is the director of photography (DOP). While most of the general public is not aware of which format their favourite movie or TV show is shot on, it is the critical, knowledgeable audience that can differentiate between film cameras and the various digital formats.

New film stocks available today can give up to eight stops latitude, whereas digital can currently only reach around five stops.

How then do digital cameras shape up and which do DOPs favour? The one defining factor is the type of chip / sensor. Most digital cameras use either a CCD image sensor or a CMOS sensor. Both types accomplish the same task of capturing light and converting it into electrical signals, but they do it in different ways.

Digitalfilms’ Frank Meyburgh recently set up a variety of cameras and invited DOPs to experiment. The results clearly indicate that personal choice counts for a lot.
Cameras covered in this feature are: Panasonic AVCCAM Model AG-AF101E, Sony PMW-F3K, Cannon 5D/7D and Arri Alexa.

Harmon Cusack

The Canon 5D is well known in the market place and (with all its problems) has found favour with the younger filmmakers. To me it is a fine stills camera and should remain in that niche.

For its price range the Panasonic AF 101E is good value for money. The standard kit is fitted with two SDI cards and it can come with a hard drive attachment fitted below the camera body. You have a choice of fitting Nikon lenses or PL mount lenses, which for me is a bonus. The only drawback on this camera is that if you choose to use the SDI cards, the images are recorded using the MPEG4 codec but have a colour compression of 4:2:2. For the corporate filmmaker this is great value for money, with HD punch and well worth looking at.

The third camera tested was the Sony PMW-F3. I call it the baby RED One. It employs a Super 35mm equivalent single plate CMOS sensor as the imaging device. With the exclusive PL mount adaptor, various PL mount lenses can be used. It has the capability of multiple format recording.

It records true HD at 1920X1080 HD using MPEG2 Long GOP codec. For the audio gurus it records uncompressed 16 bit-48kHz liner PCM – a major breakthrough for a camera this size.

The PMW-F3 is equipped with “hot shoes’ enabling you to use the new Cooke S4 range of lenses. Depending on your shooting conditions this camera can be rated from 12 ASA to 3600 ASA. It will be around for some time and the price tag is very affordable.

Digital technology is improving but in my view film is still the best format to use for origination. I have used the Arri D21 and have had very good results. I just find the whole system cumbersome to work with. Cables, cables and more cables. Set up time now takes longer because you have to rely on the digital imaging technician (DIT) to confirm your take.

Ivan Leathers

I have not worked with the Panasonic, which I think might work well for TV drama, but I am able to comment on my experience with the Sony PMW-F3 and Canon 5D.
Coupled with the Zeiss CP2 full frame primes, the Canon is extremely functional and can really produce great images. On a long form project we were able to work quite quickly and manage some complex focus issues, but needed to get used to the large full frame depth of field abilities.

Downloading the cards was never a hassle and the workflow was smooth, and unlike the 7D, the 5D never had any overheating problems. In post-production one can see that the images start falling apart and the material does not have the latitude of the RED One or 35mm film, regardless of the large CMOS sensor. But then the Canon is not in the same league and was designed for the consumer market.

On the set of a commercial recently the Sony PMW-F3 was quite impressive, especially with a good piece of Angenieux glass on the front. But this is essentially a camera for a low budget and high production value comparable with the Canon but with better ergonomics, menu options and plug-in manageability.

With the standard package, the camera shoots HD 1920×1080, almost 2k. It produced fine images with its Super 35 CMOS sensor; slightly smaller than that of the 5D and that feature combined with the PL mount will sell this camera. The dynamic range of the camera was fairly impressive and our DIT played with the settings and allowed us to get a wider exposure latitude when we were faced with a full sun backlit situation with black skin and white garments.

Our colourist felt the latitude of the PMW-F3 offered more than the 5D/Mk2. We never did get to try the Sony / Minolta prime lenses that are part of the kit, preferring to stay with the Optima. Some of the camera’s disappointing features are the slow-mo ability to 60fps which captures images that are not full HD and the sensor’s noise level in the blue colour spectrum. But against green screen, images keyed well. However this was working with the camera’s standard ability. It can be upgraded to 4:2:2 using the AJA ki Pro unit.

The PMW-F3 is not as robust as the second generation RED and from my experience nowhere near the professional level of the Epic or Alexa.
Looking ahead five years I would say that film is still going to hold its own, but the Arri Alexa and the RED Epic are the new kids on the block and will probably be my cameras of choice.

Dominic Black

Having shot all of my work over the past year on a Canon 7D, I was extremely excited by the prospect of getting a look at the PMW-F3. When you are used to shooting on a large sensor (CMOS) camera it’s impossible to go back. The concept of how many megabits per second is irrelevant. It’s all about controlling your depth of field, and that’s what the large sensor does.

Having looked at the Panasonic before I really felt that the look is video, even though it has a 4/3 sized sensor. While it may very well be Panasonic’s best camera it just didn’t have a filmic feel to it. Of course for the money compared to the Sony it will find a home with many people.

Personally I think the Canon 7D has a better look. So for me the day at digitalfilm was about comparing the Canon 5D and 7D versus the PMW-F3. The build quality of the Sony is excellent. The three lens options we used at the test were all primes – 35/50/85 and they look the part until you pick them up. The casings are made from plastic, so they are lighter than they look. But you really can’t fault the pictures; super sharp with a great feel on the focus and t-stop rings. A focus puller’s dream. The lenses open up to t2.

We tried a Nikon f2 135 prime. That’s when you start to see the difference. The Nikon was just incredible. So I think with a PL adaptor on and a set of ultra primes the camera will jump to another level again.

The pictures that come out of this camera are simply brilliant – the best I have ever seen from a so called video camera. Is it better than a 5D? We set recorded a shot on the 5D and matched the frame with the PMW-F3. We took them into FCP and started playing around. The difference between the cameras was negligible. Even when we zoomed into the images the differences were hard to see. If anything there was less depth of field on the PMW-F3. The feel of the Sony is very filmic and the latitude is wider, which means better grading. The ability to get as flat an image as possible in the camera is made easy by gamma set ups in the menu. In fact the grading options available in the camera are as good as any camera in the market.

Images from the PMW-F3 were very sharp, yet with a filmic look. Shooting with 18db of gain under low light conditions gives the camera an even more filmic look, adding just a subtle bit of grain. If you want more megs (although most people will not see the difference) then plug in a nano flash or ki pro and take advantage of the 422 HDSDI out.

Would I use an PMW-F3 over a Canon? It’s horses for courses. The key is your lenses – if you have your own set then it doesn’t matter. From an operations point of view the PMW-F3 is more like what we are used to. From a picture point of view it feels and looks very much the same. The PMW-F3 is better under low light but the Canon gets you into places where you need a small footprint.

I love my Canon 7D. I have directed and shot commercials, high end corporate videos and music videos with it. I have invested in lenses so in the future I will just change bodies. But I would definitely shoot on the PMW-F3 right now. What Canon has done is forced all the other players to change their approach. Depth of field is what it’s all about.

So now Panasonic and Sony have entered that arena and I guess the ball is in Canon’s court. If they release a video camera with the 5D specs with a recording format better than h264 then I think the ball will be back in the court of all the other players.

Lee Doig

I shot an extensive test with the new Arri Alexa and took it through the Baselight grading system at the HD Hub in Cape Town with colourist Craig Parker. The camera was launched around huge hype and is the upgrade of the Arri D21 which I had used for most of my commercial work last year. The D21 was my camera of choice and I had got some amazing results with it. So when the Alexa arrived I was very keen to get my hands on it.

What impressed me most about this camera is how user friendly it is, with a very effective simple menu that is easy to navigate and operate. The camera addresses all the issues that the D21 had. It shoots to an Arri card system that is very effective and makes the workflow a breeze. The camera is very nicely balanced and very compact which is great for handheld work.

We did very extensive tests and pushed the camera – high contrast, frame rates, shutter, as well as nicely lit set ups. We shot all on log C 444 for most of the time and the results where remarkable. The latitude on the grade done at Baselight was close to six stops either side.

What I like most is the creaminess of the pictures; very easy on the eye. The footage we shot at 60 frames was log C 422 with great results – nice and smooth and a lot of latitude. We pushed the camera to the limit with contrast and could retrieve an amazing amount of information.

This camera would have to be my camera of all time. Very easy to use and truly amazing images that I’m sure would even impress film diehards. Film will always be around but certainly digital is the way forward. It’s a hell of a lot greener.


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