Imaging Innovations: The Next New Class of Cameras and Sensors

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The design of a modern digital video camera comes down to the physics of the sensor and shutter, the software that controls colorimetry, and smart industrial design to optimize the ergonomics for the operator. Couple that with a powerful internal processor and recording mechanism and you are on your way. Although manufacturing one is not exactly easy, it no longer requires competencies that are limited to the traditional camera manufacturers. As a result, innovative new cameras have been popping up from many unlikely sources.

The newest of these is AJA, which delivered the biggest surprise of the 2014 NAB Show in the form of the CION 4K/UHD/2K/HD digital camera. Capitalizing on a trend started by ARRI, CION records directly to the edit-ready Apple ProRes format on AJA Pak solid-state media. CION features a 4K APS-C sized CMOS sensor with a global shutter to eliminate rolling shutter artifacts. AJA claims 12 stops of dynamic range. CION uses a PL mount for lenses designed for Super 35mm. CION is also capable of outputting AJA camera raw at frame rates up to 120 fps. It can send out 4K or UltraHD video from its four 3G-SDI outputs to the AJA Corvid Ultra for replay and center extraction during live events.

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ARRI Amira

The darling of the film and high-end television world continues to be ARRI, with its line of Alexa cameras, which includes the Alexa Classic as well as Alexa XT, XT Plus, XT M and XT Studio configurations. They vary based on features and sensor size. Alexa Classic cameras have a maximum active sensor photosite size of 2880 x 2160, while the XT models go as high as 3414 x 2198. Another difference is that the XT models allow in-camera recording of ARRIRAW media. Alexa introduced ProRes recording; all current XT models permit Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD recording.

Alexa has been joined by the newer, lighter Amira, which is targeted at documentary-style shooters with smaller crews. Amira is tiered into three versions, with the Premium model offering 2K recording in all ProRes flavors at up to 200 fps. ARRI has added 4K capabilities to both the Alexa and Amira line by utilizing the full sensor size using their Open Gate mode. In the Amira, this 3.4K image is internally scaled by a factor of 1.2 to record a UHD file at up to 60 fps to its in-camera CFast 2.0 cards. Alexa uses a similar technique but records only the 3.4K signal in-camera, with scaling to be done later in post.

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ARRI Alexa 65

To leapfrog the competition, ARRI also introduced the Alexa 65, which is available through the ARRI Rental division. This camera is a scaled up version of the Alexa XT and uses a sensor that is larger than a 5-perf 65mm film frame. That’s an Open Gate resolution of 6560 x 3102 photosites. The signal is captured as uncompressed ARRIRAW. Currently data is recorded on Alexa XR Capture Drives at a maximum frame rate of 27 fps.

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Blackmagic URSA PL

Blackmagic Design, the most unexpected camera developer a few years ago, has since grown its DSLR-style camera line into four models: Studio, Production 4K, Cinema and Pocket Cinema. These vary in cosmetic style and size, which formats they are able to record and the lens mounts they use. The Pocket Cinema Camera is essentially a digital equivalent of a Super 16mm film camera, but in a point-and-shoot, small-camera form factor. The Cinema and Production 4K cameras feature a larger Super 35mm sensor. Each of these three incorporates ProRes and/or CinemaDNG raw recording. The Studio Camera is designed as a live production camera. It features a 10-inch viewfinder and offers the housing, accessories and connections necessary to integrate it into a television studio or remote truck environment. There is an HD and a 4K version of the Studio model.

The biggest Blackmagic news of 2014 was the introduction of URSA. Compared to the smaller form factors of the other Blackmagic Design cameras, URSA is literally a “bear” of a camera. It is a rugged 4K camera built around the idea of user-interchangeable parts. You can get EF, PL and broadcast lens mounts, but you can also operate it without a lens as a standalone recording device. It’s designed for UltraHD (3840 x 2160) but can record up to 4,000 pixels wide in raw. Recording formats include CinemaDNG raw (uncompressed and 3:1 compressed) and Apple ProRes, with speeds up to 80 fps. There are displays on both sides of the camera—a 10-inch fold-out picture monitor on the left, complemented by two 5-inch touchscreens, one on each side—that can be used for monitoring and operating controls. It has a built-in liquid cooling system. As part of the modular design, users can replace mounts and even the sensor in the field.

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Canon EOS C300

Canon was the most successful company out of the gate when the industry adopted HD video-capable DSLR cameras as serious production tools. Canon has expanded its offerings with the Cinema EOS line of small production cameras, including the C100, C100 Mark II, C300 and C500, which all have a similar form factor. Also included in this lineup is the EOS-1D C, a 4K camera that retains the DSLR body.

The C300 and C500 both use a Super 35mm sized sensor and come in EF or PL mount configurations. The C300 is limited to HD recording using the Canon XF codec. The C500 adds 2K and 4K (4096 cinema and 3840 UHD) recording capabilities, but this signal must be externally recorded using a device like Convergent Design’sOdyssey 7Q+. HD signals are recorded internally as Canon XF, just like on the C300.

The Canon EOS C100 and C100 Mark II share the design of the C300, but they record to AVCHD instead of Canon XF. In addition, the Mark II can record MP4 files. Both C100 models record to SD cards, whereas the C300/C500 cameras use CF cards. The Mark II features improved ergonomics over the base C100 model.

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Canon EOS-1D C

The Canon EOS-1D C is included here because it can record 4K video. Since it is also a still photography camera, the sensor is an 18-megapixel full-frame sensor. It uses a Motion JPEG codec when recording 4K video, but for HD, it can also use the AVCHD codec. The big plus over the C500 is that the 1D C records 4K to onboard CF cards, so it is better suited to handheld work.

The EOS 5D and 7D DSLR cameras that started the craze for Canon continue to be popular. The range now includes the EOS 5D Mark III and the new EOS 7D Mark II, as well as several versions of the consumer-oriented EOS Rebel DSLR camera. All are outstanding still photography cameras. The 5D features a 22.3-megapixel CMOS sensor and records HD video as H.264 MOV files to onboard CF cards. Thanks to its sensor size (35.8mm x 23.9mm), the 5D is still popular for videographers who want shots with an extremely shallow depth of field from a handheld camera.

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Digital Bolex D16

Digital Bolex has become a Kickstarter success story. The company’s out-of-the-box thinkers coupled the magic of a venerable name from the film era with innovative design and marketing to produce the Digital Bolex D16 camera. Its form factor evokes the design of smaller handheld film cameras from an earlier era, making it ideal for run-and-gun documentary production. It features a Super 16mm sized CCD sensor with a global shutter and a reported 12 stops of dynamic range. The D16 records in 12-bit CinemaDNG raw to internal SSDs, but media is offloaded to CF cards or via USB 3.0 for media interchange. The camera comes with a C mount, but EF, MFT and PL lens mounts are available. Currently the resolutions include 2048 x 1152 (“S16mm mode”), 2048 x 1080 (“S16 EU”) and HD (“16mm mode”). The D16 records 23.98, 24 and 25 fps frame rates; variable rates up to 32 fps in the S16mm mode are coming soon.

Digital Bolex offers a line of accessories that complements the D16’s retro design aesthetic, including sets of Kish/Bolex 16mm prime lenses. These fixed aperture f/4 lenses are C mount for native use with the D16 camera. Digital Bolex also offers the D16 in an MFT mount configuration and a monochrome version.

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GoPro HERO4 Black

The versatility of miniature GoPro cameras, coupled with their attractive ratio of quality to price, has made the HERO line a staple of many productions. The company continues to advance the product line: HERO4 Black and Silver models are the latest additions. The cameras are similar, though Black alone offers 4K video at 30 fps, 2.7K at 50 fps and 1080p at 120 fps. While Silver lacks Black’s higher-performance video capture modes, it offers a touchscreen for camera control.

As photo cameras, both HERO4 models use a 12-megapixel sensor and are capable of 30 frames a second in burst mode and time lapse intervals from 0.5 to 60 seconds. The video signal is recorded as an H.264 file with a high-quality mode that’s up 60 Mb/s. MicroSD card media is used. HERO cameras, popular for extreme point-of-video shots, may be outfitted with a waterproof housing good for 40 meters. The HERO4 series offers more manual control, new nighttime and low-light settings, and improved audio recording.

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Nikon D810

Nikon actually beat Canon to market with HD-capable DSLRs but lost the momentum when Canon capitalized on the popularity of the EOS 5D. Nevertheless, Nikon has its share of supportive videographers, thanks in part to the quantity of Nikon lenses in general use. The Nikon range of high-quality still photo and video-enabled cameras falls under Nikon’s D series product family. The Nikon D800/800E camera has been updated to the D810. This is the camera of most interest to professional videographers. It’s a 36.3-megapixel still photo camera that can also record 1920 x 1080 video in 24/30p modes internally and 60p externally. It can record up to 9,999 images in a time-lapse sequence. A big plus for many is its optical viewfinder. It records H.264/MPEG-4 media to onboard CF cards. Other Nikon video cameras include the D4S, D610, D7100, D5300 and D3300.

Panasonic used to own the commercial HD camera market with the original VariCam HD camera. They’ve now reimagined the brand with the VariCam 35 and VariCam HS versions. The new VariCam uses a modular configuration, with each of these two cameras using the same docking electronics back. In fact, a customer can purchase the VariCam HS head, VariCam 35 head and one camera back and will essentially own both models for less than the total cost of two cameras.

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Panasonic VariCam 35 with recorder

VariCam 35 is a 4K camera with wide color gamut and wide dynamic range (14+ stops are claimed). It features a PL lens mount, records from 1 to 120 fps, and supports dual recording. For example, you can simultaneously record a 4K log AVC-Intra master to the main recorder (expressP2 card) and 2K/HD Rec. 709 AVC-Intra/AVC-Proxy/Apple ProRes to a second internal recorder (microP2 card) for offline editing. VariCam V-Raw camera raw media can be recorded to a separate Codex V-RAW recorder, which can be piggybacked onto the camera. The PanasonicVariCam HS is a 2/3-inch 3MOS broadcast/EFP camera capable of up to 240 fps of continuous recording. It supports the same dual-recording options as the VariCam 35 using AVC-Intra and/or Apple ProRes codecs, but is limited to HD recordings.

With interest in DSLRs still high, those considering Panasonic solutions will look at the Lumix GH4. This camera records 4K (4096) and 4K UHD (3840) sized images as well as HD. It uses SD memory cards to record in MOV, MP4 or AVCHD formats. It features variable frame rates (up to 96 fps), HDMI monitoring and a professional 4K audio/video interface unit. The latter is a dock that mounts to the bottom of the camera and includes XLR audio and SDI video connections with embedded audio and timecode.

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RED camera with 4K Broadcast Module

RED Digital Cinema started the push for 4K cameras and camera raw video recording with the original RED ONE. That camera is now available only in refurbished models, as RED has advanced the technology with EPIC and Scarlet cameras. Both are modular designs offered with either the Dragon or Mysterium-X sensor. Dragon is a 6K, 19-megapixel sensor with 16.5+ stops of claimed dynamic range, while Mysterium-X is a 5K, 14-megapixel sensor that claims 13.5 stops, but up to 18 stops using RED’s HDRx (high dynamic range) technology.

The basic difference between EPIC and Scarlet, other than cost, is that EPIC features more advanced internal processing, and this computing power enables a wider range of features. For example, EPIC can record up to 300 fps at 2K, while Scarlet tops out at 120 fps at 1K. EPIC is sold in two configurations: EPIC-M, which is hand-assembled using machined parts, and EPIC-X, which is a production-run camera. With the interest in 4K live production, RED has introduced its 4K Broadcast Module. Coupled with an EPIC camera, you could record a 6K file for archive while simultaneously feeding a 4K and/or HD live signal for broadcast. RED is selling studio broadcast configurations complete with camera, modules and support accessories as broadcast-ready packages.

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Sony PMW-F55

Sony has been quickly gaining ground in the 4K market. Its CineAlta line includes the F65, PMW-F55, PMW-F5, PMW-F3, NEX-FS700R and NEX-FS100. All are HD-capable and use Super 35mm sized image sensors, with the lower-end NEX-FS700R able to record 4K raw to an external recorder. At the highest end is the 20-megapixel F65, which is designed for feature film production. The camera is capable of 8K raw recording, as well as 4K, 2K and HD variations. Recordings must be made on a separate SR-R4 field recorder.

The PMW-F55 is the high-end camera appropriate for most users who choose Sony solutions. It permits onboard recording in four formats: MPEG-2 HD, XAVC HD, SR File and XAVC 4K. With an external recorder, 4K and 2K raw recording are also available. Speeds up to 240 fps (2K raw with the optional external recorder) are possible. Sony’s F5 is the F55’s smaller sibling. It’s designed for onboard HD recording (MPEG-2 HD, XAVC HD, SR File). 4K and 2K recordings require an external recorder.

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Sony PXW-FS7

The Sony camera that has caught everyone’s attention is the PXW-FS7. It’s designed as a lightweight documentary-style camera with a form factor and rig that’s reminiscent of an Aaton 16mm film camera. It uses a Super 35mm sized sensor and delivers 4K resolution using onboard XAVC recording to XQD memory cards. The PXW-FS7 delivers XDCAM MPEG-2 HD recording (now) and ProRes (with a future upgrade). Raw recording will be possible to an outboard recorder.

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Sony a7s

Sony has not been left behind by the DSLR revolution. Its mirrorless a7s has a 12.2-megapixel, APS-C sized full-frame sensor that’s optimized for 4K and low light. It can record up to 1080p/60 (or 720p/120) onboard (50 Mb/s XAVC S) or feed uncompressed HD and/or 4K (UHD) out via its HDMI port. It will record onboard audio and includes such pro features as Sony’s S-Log2 gamma profile.

With any overview, there’s plenty that we can’t cover. If you are in the market for a camera, remember that many of these companies offer a slew of other cameras ranging from consumer to ENG/EFP offerings. I’ve only touched on the highlights. Plus there are other companies, like Grass Valley, Hitachi, Samsung and Ikegami, that make great products in use around the world every day. Finally, with all the video-enabled smartphones and tablets, don’t be surprised if you are recording your next production with an iPhone or iPad!  

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