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New HD Camera Options Will Change Everything in 2011.

By Oliver Peters

The production news in this coming year will continue to revolve around new cameras, tapeless acquisition and stereo 3D production. The factors that determine buying decisions will include cost, optical characteristics and the “green” impact of the production.

If I were to define the trend in new cameras, it would boil down to larger-format sensors. The move beyond the classic 2/3” video chip was initially popularized by RED Digital Cinema but really picked up steam with the success of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 7D digital SLR cameras. There will be a number of new cameras in 2011 sporting a sensor that’s roughly equivalent to the exposure area of Super 35mm (3-perf) motion picture film. (The 5D is still the current sensor to beat, with a so-called full-frame size that uses an image area comparable to 35mm still film.) These cameras have become popular because of the shallow depth of field their larger sensors are able to deliver.

I don’t see the buzz of video-enabled HDSLRs diminishing, but the real news will come from RED, ARRI, Sony and Panasonic. After a two-year delay, RED will finally release production versions of its next-generation EPIC camera. It’s bound to be an engineering tour de force, but one question will be the viability of the EPIC’s modular DSMC (digital still and motion camera) design. The camera body has the smallest form factor for a true digital cinematography camera, but the company’s concept is that the camera will appeal to high-end still photographers as well as motion picture cinematographers. That may be a stretch, but time will tell. To sweeten the pot, RED has pursued some unique engineering challenges, such as EPIC’s HDRx, an extended dynamic range feature designed to capture images with up to 18 stops, according to RED.

The future of EPIC’s sibling, Scarlet, is still to be determined. RED founder Jim Jannard announced a few months ago that the camera will not target the prosumer market, which at one time was thought to be where Scarlet might have been headed. Right after Thanksgiving, Jannard announced that the Scarlet S35 model was being rebranded as “EPIC Light.” Feature and price changes will be announced on the RED Web site sometime in December.

EPIC’s biggest challenger will be the ARRI Alexa. Out of the gate, ARRI has garnered a lot of industry interest, and there’s a backlog for camera deliveries. The first Alexas have already found their way to Hollywood, supplanting other digital cameras in the current television production season. Like EPIC, Alexa offers a wide dynamic range; the two will undoubtedly battle for claims of being the most sensitive and noiseless camera in low-light situations. Alexa is the professional production camera that is the most friendly to postproduction workflows. It offers three simultaneous recording options: the Apple ProRes family to onboard SxS media, HD video output via SDI connectors, and ARRIRAW images recorded to an external recorder using ARRI’s T-Link protocol. Lastly, the ProRes and SDI images can use either of two color profiles: Rec. 709 or Log-C.

In the last two years, many videographers have experimented with the Canon HDSLRs. The experience has left them longing for a video-production-friendly form factor, without losing the optical advantages of the 5D or 7D cameras. 2011 will see Sony and Panasonic answer this desire with the rollout of the PMW-F3 and AG-AF100, respectively.

Sony’s PMW-F3 can be viewed as the next level in the popular EX line, but with a Super 35mm sensor and a PL lens mount. The camera may be purchased without lens or with a PL lens kit. It records to SxS media using the same EX codec as the EX1 and EX3. An uncompressed HD signal can be recorded externally over SDI. During 2011, Sony also plans to release an NXCAM sibling of this camera.

Panasonic’s entry into this market is the AG-AF100 camcorder, based on the Micro Four Thirds still camera format used by Olympus. The general design of the AF100 body is similar to the popular AG-HVX200 and 170 cameras, but with an interchangeable lens design. Onboard recording is done to SD cards using the AVCCAM (AVC HD) codec, but also augmented by uncompressed SDI outputs.

The biggest feature these new camera have in common—aside from tapeless acquisition—is the ability to use a wide variety of prime lenses, including various motion picture and even still photography lenses. The PL mount has become the most popular for easy interchange, but the news is that demand for prime lenses—first with the RED ONE and now these new cameras—has gone through the roof. Fortunately, a number of high-quality glass manufacturers have stepped to the plate to bring the cost down. If you plan on one of these cameras, factor in the lenses as well. The Zeiss Compact Primes are one of the more popular choices.