The rise of the PTZ camera

When you hear about cameras that can pan, tilt and zoom via remote control, you might think of video surveillance. However, the use of PTZ cameras is becoming common in content creation, and the pandemic shutdowns have accelerated that process. When you look at history, you actually see that pan-tilt-zoom technology has just recently come full circle.

Hollywood has actually used cameras that can be controlled remotely for some time now. Cameras with complete computer-controlled pan, tilt and zoom functions date back to the middle 70s. The use of these motion-control cameras really caught fire after the debut of “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977). These sophisticated film cameras were mainly handmade and required a high level of engineering prowess to operate.

By the ’90s, some savvy entrepreneurs would adopt the idea of motion control to give security cameras more functionality. The idea of cameras mechanically panning and tilting wasn’t new. New zoom capability and remote control functions added a greater dimension. This became important considering the low resolution of most security cameras. Additionally, keeping costs down was key.

However, every few years, as the TV industry stepped up quality and resolution, so did the security cameras. In fact, many of the same companies that manufacture broadcast cameras have a security or PTZ division. As the quality improved, video producers began looking at PTZ technology in a new way. Since these small cameras can be operated remotely and easily concealed, they found their way into sports venues, houses of worship and even some reality TV productions. For production, the PTZ cam was considered another tool to capture those unique shots or a secondary angle. You wouldn’t consider using one as your primary source.

In 2020, the COVID pandemic shut down so many industries. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates required the video production industry to get creative. As our industry always does, creatives started looking at new tools to get back to work. The PTZ camera moves to center stage. A camera operator can be in a separate room or even a different building and still control the framing. In some cases, remote controls can be operated over the internet, meaning the operator can be in a different country.

So, is the PTZ here to stay in professional video creation? The clues can be found in some of the new products. Sony has just unveiled the FR7 full-frame PTZ camera. It’s being called the world’s first PTZ camera with interchangeable lenses. It bears the Sony Alpha logo and boasts all the specs with 4K resolution and a cinema look. The camera can be operated via an app and linked over the internet. With a price tag of just under $10,000 (without a lens), it’s not for everyone, but by broadcast industry standards, it’s an affordable solution.

Sony is not alone, either. Canon, JVC, Panasonic and a host of smaller companies have all introduced new high-resolution PTZ cameras aimed at video professionals. It might be time to think about a new tool for your kit. At the very least, it’s time to think about learning a new skill — running a camera remotely.

Matthew York
Matthew York
Matt York is Videomaker's Publisher/Editor.

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