Interchangeable Lens Camera held over red background

Shooting video with a “camera” is a relatively recent development and has been driven by the advent of digital technologies that have overwhelmed their film-based counterparts. Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras, for example, were initially created as the superior replacement to their film-driven predecessors, but have since morphed into video-capable recorders as well. Technology built into the DSLR controls shooting and affects the visual outcome of the shot. This is also true of Cinema-specific cameras possessing interchangeable-lens capabilities. Being able to change lenses provides creative freedom as well as the ability to use lenses provided by third-party manufacturers in some cases. Not being locked into a single fixed-lens situation also allows for cost issues to be more effectively reconciled.

A DSLR’s single biggest asset is that you see exactly what the lens sees: a mirror focuses the image being seen onto a viewfinder for composition uses. Or to put it simply: no cut off heads. Just as with film-based SLRs, the mirror must “move” out of the way prior to the image being recorded. This necessitates that the DSLR be made large enough to contain the mirror and pentaprism in order for the viewfinder to be effective. An alternative to this is the electronic viewfinder (EVF) which provides the real-time image, and which can allow the camera employing it to be made smaller. This is why MILCs (mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras) are typically slimmer than your average DSLR. The larger size of the image sensors in both MILCs and DSLRs puts them above the range of “point and shoot” cameras. In addition, these interchangeable-lens cameras possess a wide range of manual controls, thus enabling the user to move from “novice” into “prosumer” territory.

Unlike DSLRs, a digital cinema camera (a.k.a. digital movie camera) is designed specifically for capturing digital video. Cameras based on CCD technology in the late 1990s furthered the branding of “electronic cinematography” as “digital cinematography” and led to companies such as Sony, Panasonic and RED, among others, offering cameras that can shoot high definition video and which are more tailored to use by filmmakers. These cameras offer such features as selectable frame rates and the ability to record with little or no compression. They come with large image sensors, as befits their ability to produce high resolution results. Cinema cameras, as a class, also feature a broad dynamic range and color depth that DSLRs cannot match, along with a lack of color banding and compression artifact issues. These cameras are video first and their pricing is many times higher than that of DLSRs.


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Being able to change lenses provides creative freedom as well as the ability to use lenses provided by third-party manufacturers in some cases.

Deciding which camera — DSLR or Cinema — will best suit one’s video needs will always be a personal one, although the features and pricing will be strong motivators. It will be helpful to look at a selection of industry leading cameras that are now in play in order to make an informed decision.


Canon 5D Mark III

Canon’s full-frame DSLR has many enviable specifications: a 22 megapixel sensor, the ability to shoot at six fps (frames per second) and HD + HDR video shooting capabilities. The camera has a pentaprism viewfinder, with a 3.2-inch color accurate LCD screen on the back that can automatically adjust its level of brightness. Also featured is the ability to correct for lens flaws — such as lateral color fringes — in-camera. This allows for older and cheaper lenses to be used, a convenience where price is concerned. It can also correct for darkened corners and distortion. Other features include a silent shutter mode, an auto ISO function to select the slowest shutter speed before starting to increase the ISO and embedding of copyright and shooter information. There is no WiFi or built-in flash.

Video can be shot at Full HD (1080) at 30, 25 and 24 fps. The results can be exported uncompressed through HDMI to an external recorder while still recording to an internal card and viewing the video on the display. Dual memory card slots are available, one each CF and SD. The camera retails for about $3,400.

Nikon D750

The Nikon D750 employs 24.3 million pixels and is known for producing clean imaging with little noise, whether shooting stills or video. It also can do continuous shooting at 6.5 fps. It has a pentaprism viewfinder, with a flip down 3.2-inch LCD screen taking advantage of the “Live View” mode that is handy when shooting video (a smartphone app can also be used as a remote monitor). Autofocus utilizes 51 points and there is a group area AF mode.

There is a built-in flash and the camera has built-in WiFi capabilities, dual memory card slots (SD) and the ability to shoot full HD at 60 fps or 24 fps. The ISO range is 100-12800. Professional video features are built in, such as being able to record both uncompressed and compressed full HD video at varying fps (60/50/30/25/24p). There is also the ability to manually control ISO, shutter speed and aperture while recording (a Power Aperture control makes for smooth iris transitions) and a Flat Picture Control  can be applied for easier color grading in post. The camera retails for about $2,300.


Mirrorless Cameras

Panasonic GH4

A mirrorless, compact camera, the GH4 employs an OLED (organic LED) electronic viewfinder complemented by a back-mounted, free angle three-inch LCD panel. It has a number of terminals, such as microphone and flash sync, plus the HDMI port is capable of real-time output to an external monitor. The 16MP sensor functions in concert with a 49-area autofocus with a custom mode enabling the selection of a focus region from the focusing areas. Focusing time has been shortened through the use of depth of field evaluations for distance to subject, and there is WiFi with NFC built-in for remote functionality. Images are bright and sharp, but not having a full-frame sensor means that video performance in low-light can be less than optimal.

The camera is capable of full HD recordings and variable frame rates (2fps-96fps or 4X speed with full HD). A Motion Picture button on the back starts/stops video recordings. Video can be recorded in 4K: 4096 x 2160 / 24 fps, as well as QFHD 4K: 3840 x 2160 / up to 30 fps in MOV/MP4 with an ultra high bitrate recording capability of 200 Mbps or 100 Mbps. Professional video functions include time code, color bars and 1Khz test tone, zebra pattern, among others. Internal microphones provide Dolby-quality stereo sound recording. There is also an optional video interface unit for professional workflow use.

The camera itself is designed for heavy field use, being of a splash and dust proof construction with sealing on every joint. The retail is about $1,700.

Sony a7S

The Sony a7S is a full-frame, mirrorless, compact digital camera whose sensor utilizes 12.2 million pixels and, combined with its processing engine, is able to provide diffraction reduction images shot at small apertures. The ISO range is high, 100-102,400 (expandable for video up to 409,600), allowing for exceptional low light performance. Focusing is done through contrast detection autofocusing, with a number of AF point modes to choose from (examples: Wide, Zone, Lock-On AF). It has good low-light focusing capabilities.

The a7S can record 4K video to an external device through an HDMI connection, although shooting directly to a card limits the resolution to full HD. Recordings can be done at 50Mbps in multiple frame rates so as to improve on the image quality and reduce noise levels. Time code can also be used for ID and syncing footage, plus there is also support for S-Log2 gamma, which helps to expand the effective dynamic range during video recording.

The a7S employs an OLED electronic viewfinder whose sensor detects when the eye is nearby. There is also a tiltable (not articulating) three-inch non touch-sensitive LCD screen on the back. The camera saves to a variety of memory cards and Sony memory sticks. At this time, the list of lenses to use is limited. It retails for about $2,500.



Blackmagic URSA

The URSA is a user upgradable 4K digital film camera with both lens mount and sensor being separate modules that can be swapped out. A Super 35 global shutter 4K image sensor is standard, featuring 12 stops of dynamic range and excellent highlight control, and there is a built-in 10-inch fold out on-set monitor. Besides shooting in Cinema DNG RAW, Ultra HD or HD in Apple ProRes can also be shot. It also features scopes for exposure, focus and audio levels and has two dedicated five-inch touch screens; one for major settings in conjunction with a row of control buttons, and the other displaying settings, including a scrolling audio waveform monitor. These touch screens can be used by camera assistants for checking/updating camera parameters independently of the camera operator.

The camera has been described as ergonomically excellent and “dead-simple" to operate, featuring an admirable touchscreen interface and clearly designed menus. From the physical side, multiple mounting points enable customizing the rig to suit the need, with rail mounts built into the camera base. Dual recording slots allow for changing out the CFast 2.0 memory card when filled without having to stop recording. The camera makes use of standard broadcast connections, among them a 12G-SDI output that can down convert to HD or use directly at Ultra HD quality, and an input for displaying return video on the 10-inch monitor. Retail is $5,995 for the EF lens mount model and $6,495.00 for the model with film industry standard PL lens mount.

Canon EOS C100 EF Cinema Camera

This cinema camera utilizes a Super 35mm sensor with the same signal processing as found in 3 chip RGB systems, for reducing the angle of distortion. The ISO range is 320-80,000 and the 8.3MP resolution and wider pixel pitch than conventional pro camcorders also allows for greater sensitivity and reduced noise in low light environments. ND filters are built-in, as is an HDMI output for sending an uncompressed video signal with superimposed time code and 2:3 pull down marker to an external monitor. Dual memory card slots can take SDHC/SDXC cards.

The camera has an EF lens mount for use with Canon lenses and has been optimized for use in run-and-gun and one-person operation — it has a solid grip that is adjustable. One-shot AF, a built-in mic and a Push Auto iris accompany full HD video. There is also full manual control over each aspect of the recording process, with focusing aids in both the EVF and the flip-out 3.5-inch LCD monitor. The LCD features Edge Monitor Display, for displaying waveforms for the overall focus of the scene as well as for focus feedback of the three focus check boxes visible on the monitor. Those looking to shoot without the grip will find that they lose the XLR inputs as well as the built-in stereo mic. Also, video can output to HDMI, but not SDI.

The C100 retails for about $4,500 or about $5,000 with the optional Dual Pixel CMOS AF Technology upgrade feature for enhanced autofocusing.

RED Scarlet-X

The Scarlet-X provides 4K video acquisitions via a super 35mm sensor and also allows for frame grabs to be taken without having to stop recording through the use of the free Redcine-X Pro software. It has advanced capabilities such as HDRx and a native 13.5 stops of dynamic range. Besides shooting RAW 4K motion footage at 25fps, the resolution, if moved down to 3K, can do 48fps, with 2K getting 60fps and 1K delivering video at 120fps. It can also capture 5K stills. Due to the loudness of the built-in fan (which quiets down after being powered up), use of an external microphone is suggested.

The camera’s less expensive cost in comparison to other RED family members — $7,950 — is due to it coming with the “Brain” and power supply only. On the negative side this involves higher costs, since additions such as lenses, an LCD screen, a storage media module, batteries, among other devices will be needed, but being modular this is all user-serviceable. The camera has been characterized as being for the photographer transitioning to professional video as well as dyed-in-the-wool cinematographers.

The camera’s frame rate has been described as rendering colors and motion so as to look “cinematic,” and is designed to produce professional quality 4K video.



Must Have Lenses

DSLRs  and MILCs are useless without a lens attached to them. But which lenses to get is often the first question asked. Regardless of whether the camera is used for still photography or for shooting video, only having one lens to shoot with is boring. What is needed are the following different focal lengths to cover the different situations that can crop up:

Wide Angle Lens: These lenses remove the cramped look when shooting in a confined space. How wide to go depends on the effect desired, as the sides of the image will appear curved as the angle is increased (e.g., an 18mm). Also an extremely wide angle lens (e.g., fisheye) will not look normal to the eye, but might find use for artistic endeavors.

Portrait Lens: The slightly flat angle of view of a 75mm or 80mm lens works well for shooting people due to its being able to avoid having to move right up close, in which case distortions of facial features relative to each other occur. Such a lens can well be used as a “normal” lens for most shooting environments also, except in those cases where a wide angle lens would be needed.

Telephoto Lens: A telephoto lens draws in light from a greater distance and so enables shooting from afar for situations which might be difficult, as in sports, or dangerous, as in wildlife, to approach. These also offer a shallow depth of field that can be artistic as well as forgiving — unwanted objects or locations themselves can be rendered less noticeable. The advent of zoom lenses, in which varying focal lengths can be accessed from a single lens, makes buying a fixed focal length zoom lens a less appealing option than it once was.

Marshal M. Rosenthal is a technology and consumer electronics freelance writer based on the West Coast