Despite offering much larger-format sensors than those you find in a typical camcorder, the problem with using your primary still camera for video is that a number of accessories will be required to gain the same advantages that a dedicated camcorder system has right out of the box. Camcorder bodies include XLR connections for the use of balanced professional microphones, for example. While a number of mics are certainly available for DSLRs from companies like RØDE, Shure and MXL, they use a 3.5mm jack, which feeds a very small voltage. So they require AA batteries, and as these mics are unbalanced, they’re largely limited to the hot-shoe of a camera because of noise that will be created along longer cords.
Camcorders often have an affixed lens, as well, which provides not only a massive zoom that will cover most general situations nicely, but also autofocus that can be used silently during video capture. Most still cameras must be refocused manually during video takes, while others use autofocusing systems that create a lot of internal noise from the motors, which of course ruins the audio. (Available in the EOS 70D, Canon’s newer Dual-Pixel CMOS AF technology is hinting that still cameras will soon be able to mitigate this disadvantage, however, and manual focus is almost always used for major film cinematography anyway.)
Because many of these cameras scan in from the left to right, top to bottom, imaging artifacts like jelly motion, skew and moiré are far more pronounced in still cameras. Additionally, while the complex codec formulation of a still camera often results in exceptionally high imaging quality, the bit-rate fidelity in still cameras is actually lower than the bit rates you’ll find in a better camcorder. Historically, camcorder sensors are also divided into three-chip sensors where each primary color is split by a prism, so that color information can be captured without the debayering process. So while color is often very good in a still camera, and even perceptually the colors and contrast may look better, in reality, dedicated camcorders are far better for green- and blue-screen special-effects work. This design also increases sharpness, hence the crisper look to video when captured with a dedicated video camera.
Thankfully, there are a number of dedicated camcorder solutions that have attempted to bridge the advantages of large sensor systems with dedicated camcorder bodies that also sport the versatility of interchangeable-lens mounts. Because of the larger bodies and extra space for internal components, most of them address the many shortcomings of using a still camera for motion, offering versatile frame rates and uncompressed video files while highlighting the advantages of still cameras like extended light sensitivity and affordability.
Blackmagic Design has been turning heads with their line of dedicated, small form-factor camcorders, especially as several of the models offer your choice of Canon EF or Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mount, making them an ideal video solution for photographers already owning Canon, Olympus or Panasonic lenses. Currently, there are five models in the lineup: the Blackmagic URSA and Production Camera 4K, both with large Super 35-sized sensor and 4K capture, as well as the Blackmagic Studio Camera for broadcast and live events, the Pocket Cinema Camera and the Blackmagic Cinema camera. Additionally, with the small size of the MFT sensor, there are a litany of adapters available for using cinematic PL mount and virtually any other lens on models that offer an MFT mount: the Pocket, the Studio and the Cinema Camera.
Alongside your choice of lens mount, Blackmagic’s offerings include professional features like Apple’s ready-to-edit ProRes 422 codec for working with video right out of the camera without the need to transcode. Compressed video also allows for longer capture times on a memory card. The URSA, Cinema, Pocket and Production 4K also include uncompressed RAW video, which is used for higher-end projects to save as much image information as possible, much like the RAW image files you find in a still camera. (RAW isn’t currently available in still cameras without complicated output hacks, but it’s available, and can extend dynamic range and sharpness quite a bit, depending on camera model.)
Similarly, AJA, another hardware electronics manufacturer, has entered the large imaging space with its new CION camcorder. With up to 4K capture, it also features Apple ProRes in 422 and at the larger-file 4444 setting, while RAW is available at up to 120 fps. Still cameras currently top off at 60p. With a Canon EF mount, the CION includes a PL mount if you prefer to look at solutions from the rich history of 35mm-based "cine-style" PL mount lenses with oversized barrels and detailed lens markings for making incredibly precise focus changes. It also sports a number of in/out connections that will allow it to be used with a versatile number of video recorders and solutions for uncompressed video.
Over the last few years, Canon’s Cinema EOS line of dedicated camcorders has expanded from the massive success of still cameras like the EOS 5D Mark II and the 7D for photographers already invested in the vast Canon EOS infrastructure of lenses and cameras. At $12,000, the 4K-capable EOS-1D C is a high-performance stills and video solution based on the same form factor as the EOS-1 D X. The small body makes it ideal for working from small spaces, as an albeit expensive crash or B-cam, for example, but the internal specs of 8-bits for color depth and ProRes 422 compression make the larger EOS C100, C300 and C500 camcorders more interesting as dedicated camcorder choices.
The digital cinema camera bodies are nicely designed to work as both a shoulder mount and dedicated cinema solution as a modular solution for adding extra gear and upgrades. The camcorders offer 8.8-megapixel Super 35mm-Size CMOS sensors, removable monitors and XLR inputs to power-balanced microphones, as well as features like extended variable frame rates all the way from 1-60 fps and the Log Gamma setting to help maximize the color space for postprocessing and color grading. The EOS C300 and C100 (entry level at only $5,499) offer the same Dual Pixel CMOS AF as the 70D, while the top-of-the-line Canon EOS C500 has full 4K and 10-bit RAW or 12-bit 4:4:4 video files at frame rates of up to 60 fps. All three are also available with a PL-Mount.
While GoPro is ubiquitous as an action camera, there are actually a number of available rugged-action cams from a variety of manufacturers like Drift, Sony, JVC, Panasonic and many more. The GoPro continues to lead the pack, however, because the tiny camera is insanely popular with athletes. Their flagship HERO3+ Black Edition will capture at a number of resolutions and frame rates, including full 4K at slow-motion speeds of 15/12/12.5 fps. There are a number of companies like Redrock Micro, K-Tek and even Glidecam that make accessories, mounting solutions and cages for working with the diminutive devices, even securing them to helmets or moving vehicles. Like Canon and Panasonic still cameras, you can do even more with a GoPro by hacking it. There are a number of ways to access the cameras to achieve extended time-lapse capabilities, live remote previews and new vi
deo capture formats by adding Wi-Fi scripts found at www.chernowii.com. (Keep in mind that these hacks will void your warranty.) A ProTune mode is also available for heightening dynamic range, brightness and contrast in post editing.
RED’s SCARLET, EPIC and ONE cameras are available in PL, Canon EF and, unlike most other camera solutions, Nikon F mounts. The camera bodies are professional and expensive solutions, especially as you must buy many of the components piecemeal, but the results have made them exceptionally popular with professional filmmakers. With video capture at up to a 6K resolution of 6144x3160mm, unlike most other RAW solutions, the massive files can be captured internally to REDMAG SSD drives in RED’s proprietary REDCODE RAW format. The SCARLET series is of particular interest to photographers as it’s also a still shooter with decent specs like 48 fps bursting at 5K resolution. As a longtime player in the video market, Sony was one of the first manufacturers to produce a large-sensor camcorder with the pro F55 and the more consumer F3. They have a number of large-sensor, interchangeable-lens camera solutions ranging all the way up to the professional solutions, including several XDCAM and CineAlta series models with Super 35mm sized sensors: the PMW-F3, F5, F35, F55 and F65. Their NEX series of video cameras, like the NEX-VG30 with APS-C sensor, features an E-Mount, the same found in their mirrorless line of cameras. The Sony VG900 is the first full-frame camcorder available from any company, but for even more options, including internal ND filters and XLR connections, the older Super-35-sized FS100 with PL-Mount ability is a much more capable option that’s currently available at discounted pricing. These cameras are all E-Mount, but they can be adapted to a wider selection of A-Mount lenses through a Sony adapter. Metabones also makes several adapters including models that will convert Canon EF lenses to the Sony E-Mount.
Full Frame Vs. APS-C Vs. Medium Format For Video
Larger sensors result in better imaging quality, but at what cost?
Professional (and very expensive) filmmaking cameras from companies like ARRI, RED and Sony offer interchangeable-lens systems with modular bodies that allow for sophisticated camera setups and top-quality cine-style lenses. Broadcast cameras, meanwhile, are also available, but they’re tailored for live videography with affixed zoom lenses and accurate, silent autofocusing systems. Also often referred to as ENG camcorders, they’re almost always set up as a shoulder-mount solution, as well, offering an ergonomically balanced setup for comfort during long takes and versatility to work with moving subjects. ENG systems can be used for filmmaking, but many dedicated ENG-style camcorders have a much smaller imaging sensor, most labeled at 2⁄3-inch in size or less, which is more accurately gauged by a diagonal measurement of 11mm or less.
This is one of the reasons that DSLR and mirrorless cameras have achieved such popularity for use as a video solution. Full-frame sensors offer three times the amount of real estate for light gathering at 36mm diagonally, while even Micro Four Thirds sensors, at half the size of a full-frame sensor, are still twice the size of a typical camcorder’s 2⁄3-inch sensor at 22mm in diagonal. All other things being equal, more space on a sensor for light gathering results in better image quality, and while a few millimeters may not seem like a lot, when you’re dealing with light-gathering sensors, the extra surface area will improve image quality exponentially. At twice the ratio of Micro Four Thirds, a full-frame sensor offers four times the captured image information.
Extending the concept further, medium-format cameras range in a surface area of 1200mm or more, though only the Pentax 645Z is currently capable of video. Much like a "modern IMAX" of cameras, at 43.8×32.8mm, the sensor approaches the surface area of 65mm film. With full HD available at 60i, 30p and 24p, the Pentax 645Z is even capable of producing limited 4K time-lapses through an internal intervalometer. The monstrously large sensor also implies incredibly shallow depth of field because the larger the sensor, the less the depth of field there will be with a given aperture and focal length. This is one of the many ways that still cameras are able to achieve such a "filmic" look, but this shallow focus can actually be a challenge when shooting motion, as the focus can be too tight for moving subjects, especially if you’re working on a live event or a project without focus marks. On the other hand, when used correctly, it can provide a very nice, organic feel, especially when isolating your subject to bokeh and background, even at extremely large, tight-focus apertures. Videos from the 645Z should be available for comparison soon.