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4K Cameras: What’s the State of the Art in 2013?

A Side-by-Side Comparison of 4K Cameras and Feature Sets

A year ago in this space, we took a look at the 4K camera market, listing the many different ways for cinematographers to get into high-resolution image capture. It was an exciting time for 4K—Canon had started shipping the EOS C500, Sony had just debuted the F5 and F55 for early 2013 delivery, and Red Digital Cinema—which had already been shipping the 5K Epic and the 4K Scarlet for about a year—was talking up its Redray 4K playback system, along with the (still) forthcoming 4K Redray projector and the long-anticipated Dragon sensor.

It seemed like the floodgates were opening. 4K was the "it" technology in 2013, taking the place of 3D in the years before. But 4K didn't quite generate the storm surge of interest its proponents may have been hoping for. That's not to say we haven't seen some action this year. Sony moved things along on the consumer side by announcing new 4K TV sets with more affordable price tags (though the term affordable surely depends on your point of view). Monitors that were either 4K-native or 4K-ready (like the Marshall Electronics QV-2710, with quad 3G-SDI inputs and a native resolution of 2560×1440, or the Panasonic BT-4LH310 [PDF], with native 4K resolution) were hot items at NAB and IBC. And native 4K support became more common in post-production solutions, too.

But 4K's early adopters remained on the cutting edge all year, without many new camera products to challenge them. At NAB, Blackmagic announced a 4K camera for June delivery but has struggled to get it out the door in 2013. JVC devised a more expensive alternative to its inexpensive GY-HMQ10 camera, but only put it on the market in Japan. Sony delivered the promised 4K option for its FS700 camera, for a price, and surprised observers with the announcement of the Z100, which looks like a decent fixed-lens option for around $5,500. Red has started shipping the Dragon sensor, which captures at up to 6144×3160, but says it will take a while to fill pre-orders. Meanwhile, ARRI maintained that the success of its Alexa proved that 4K was overhyped, and Panasonic surprised many by pushing its big 4K VariCam announcement all the way into 2014. 

At the same time, 4K sensors are showing up in cameras that aren't really meant for pro production, like the tiny Flea3 USB camera from Point Grey or the AH-4413 camera from Astrodesign geared toward military and surveillance markets. We've included them here for easy comparison.

Just a note – there’s a lot happening under the hood in these cameras, and there will always be disagreements between vendors on how exactly to count pixel resolution, how different engineering tactics can yield greater or lesser results at a given resolution, etc. That discussion is beyond the scope of this overview and would be contentious at any rate. But all of these cameras — even the $400 GoPro — will output some kind of 4K image, and there's always a lot more going on when it comes to image quality than pure resolution. Click on the image, below, to see a full-size chart that will give you a good picture of how some key specs compare on 4K cameras at different price points. (You may need an HD monitor to make the whole thing fit at full resolution.) But we strongly suggest that, as always, you do some deep research, go hands-on with the camera body, and eyeball some actual footage before you make a significant investment in any given camera.

(Right-click here to download a PDF version.)

Astrodesign

The Astrodesign AH-4413, optimized for surveillance cam, teleconferencing, and military applications, is less of a camera than part of a camera system. The AH-4413 is actually a head unit that connects via 3G-SDI x4 (or HD-SDI x8) to Astrodesign's AP-4414 Camera Processor, which processes the signal, and the AM-4412 Master Control Unit, where RGB gain, RGB black and master pedestal, iris, shutter speed, color temperature, and more can be controlled. The interesting thing about this camera is the micro four-thirds lens mount—the earlier AH-4410 had a Nikon F mount—but even then it's not exactly what filmmakers are expecting from a 4K camera.

Further research:
Astrodesign AH-4413 [Astrodesign]

Blackmagic Design

It seemed like Blackmagic Design had barely begun shipping the 2K Blackmagic Cinema Camera before eclipsing it with the announcement of the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K at NAB this year. The announced June ship date, however, was too good to be true, with Blackmagic now promising delivery (optimistically?) by the end of the year. At $3995, however—and with CinemaDNG raw recording—the camera still promises to be an exceptional value when it does arrive.

Further research:
Blackmagic Production Camera 4K [Blackmagic Design]
Blackmagic Forum: Cinematography  [Blackmagic Design]

Canon

Canon C500Canon is currently giving you two roads to 4K. One is the EOS C500, which pumps out 10-bit Canon Raw 4K footage at up to 60 fps via dual 3G-SDI output. AbelCine’s Andy Shipsides described Canon Raw as “a 10-bit format with baked-in ISO and white balance.” By making gain adjustments at the sensor level, Canon is apparently able to reduce overall image noise. But the uncompressed picture coming out of the camera has not been de-Bayered, which is a commonly accepted definition of “raw” imagery. The camera shipped late last year, and the street price has since dropped by a few grand to around $26,000.

Canon's other approach to 4K is the EOS-1D C, a hybrid DSLR camera that captures 8-bit 4:2:2 4K video to 500 Mbps Motion JPEG at 24p. For 4K, the CMOS sensor is cropped to an APS-H sensor format (28.7 mm in width) which, unfortunately, will mitigate that large-sensor look that filmmakers love to see from their DSLRs. (Filmmakers shooting in HD can use the full 36mm width of the sensor or specify a Super-35 crop if necessary.)  Canon is pitching it toward filmmakers working in cramped or otherwise challenging environments due to its very small form factor. Unfortunately, it has only 8-bit HDMI output rather than HD-SDI, which limits its utility in pro shooting situations — par for the course with DSLRs. The EOS-1D C is selling for around $12,000—that may be a lot for a DSLR (the similar EOS-1D X sells for about $6,800), but your investment gets you an exceptional still camera as well as a 4K video camera.

Further research:
About EOS C500 [Canon USA]
About EOS-1D C  [Canon USA]
What Exactly Is Canon Raw? [Abel Cine]

For-A

The For-A FT-One is all about speed—4K at up to 900 fps. It records 10-bit raw video to RAM, which is then transferred to SSD cartridges. The SSDs can be mounted to an NLE via a reader FOR-A provides that outputs the frames in DPX format. The camera’s internal memory can hold just 8500 4K frames at a time (that’s 9.4 seconds of 900 fps footage), but each of two hot-swappable SSD cartridges can hold about nine times as much (up to 84 seconds of 900 fps 4K material). The company rates it at 11 stops of dynamic range. Priced at about $135,000, this will obviously be a rental item for most users. and that price may come down when the highly anticipated Vision Research Phantom Flex4K (see below) hits the market.

Further research:
For-A FT-One  [For-A]

GoPro

Yes, GoPro has a 4K option on its popular Hero3 camera, which got an upgrade to the Hero3+ this year, but it's still limited to 12 fps at 4K. If you can think of an image you'd like to capture undercranked, through an extremely wide-angle lens, this is definitely the 4K camera for you. Otherwise, it's a truly nifty HD camera but not so great for 4K. If you are thinking of using it, it's well worth looking at the Hero3+, which is 20 percent smaller and lighter than the previous model and also boasts features including better battery life, a sharper lens, and improved audio capture.

Further research:
HERO3+ Black Edition [GoPro]

JVC

JVC was first out of the gate with inexpensive 4K acquisition with the GY-HMQ10, a handheld Ultra HD (3840×2160) camcorder that sells for $4995. How do they do it? The camera employs “four-stream” recording, breaking the image into four quadrants and recording each one simultaneously to one of four SDHC or SDXC cards. Unfortunately, the JVC 4K Clip Manager, which is used to combine the shots into 4K ProRes 422 files, is a Mac-only application, and Final Cut Pro X and QuickTime Player are both required. You can also take uncompressed 4K directly out of the camera through four HDMI outputs for viewing in real time on a 4K or “Ultra HD” display. The successor to this camera is the more expensive GY-HMQ30, which was announced for the Japanese market this summer. It has a 1.25-inch CMOS sensor (compared to the 1/2.3-inch sensor in the HMQ10) and a Nikon F mount (rather than the fixed 10x zoom on the HMQ10) and sells for about $17,100 … in Japan. We haven't heard a peep about this camera coming stateside. The four-card solution feels cumbersome, especially with other inexpensive competitors hitting the market, and the Nikon F mount makes it an odd duck.

Further research:
JVC 4K Memory Card Camcorder: GY-HMQ10 (PDF)  [JVC Hong Kong]
GY-HMQ10 Press Release [Google Translation; JVC Japan]

Panasonic

Panasonic's long-in-development 4K VariCam is now slated for release sometime in 2014, the company says. Built to take advantage of the family of AVC-Ultra codecs Panasonic has been building out, the new VariCam is intended to capture 4K footage at frame rates ranging from 24p all the way up to 120p, the company said. The camera will have a newly developed 4K image sensor in a Super 35 form factor, with support for extended color space and log recording. However, no official announcement has been made. Also new with the 4K VariCam launch next year will be 256 GB Ultra P2 cards, with a new high-speed PCIe interface. 

Further research:
Panasonic Punts 4K VariCam into 2014, Along with a Revamped Ultra P2 Format [StudioDaily]

Point Grey Flea3

Included here for the sake of completeness, the Flea3 is another one of those 4K cameras that's not aimed at filmmakers. In fact, it only shoots 4K at 21 fps. Why is it interesting? Well at just one ounce in weight and with a price tag under $895, it's incredibly small and inexpensive. It's too bad that it has to be tethered to a Windows PC with a USB cable—but then, with ultralight PCs like the Microsoft Surface Pro turning up on set, someone somewhere may be able to figure out something cool to do with one of these little devils. 

Further research:
Point Grey Flea3 USB Camera [Point Grey]

Red Digital Cinema

Red is now shipping the first cameras with its new Dragon 6K sensor. Dragon has a full-frame resolution of 6144×3160 at a 1.94:1 aspect ratio, and consumes less power than the previous-generation Mysterium X sensor. Red founder Jim Jannard famously encouraged users to compared the new sensor to 65mm film, claiming it eclipses film in terms of resolution (when film is scanned at 4K), dynamic range (16 stops), and frame rates (up to 100 fps at the camera's wide "6K WS" format, and 82 fps at full-frame resolution). Whether or not you're happy to give up film, the new sensor represents a big leap forward for Red users, many of whom are upgrading their existing 5K Epic cameras with the new sensor, or trading in their Scarlet cameras. The proprietary Redcode wavelet codec offers offers compression ratios ranging from 18:1 to 3:1, depending on image resolution/format and frame rate, and the efficiency of compression is said to have improved with the reduced noise floor of the new sensor.

Further research:
Red Dragon [red.com]
Phil Holland's Red Dragon Info and Data Sheets [RedUser.net]

Sony

Following the arrival earlier this year of the F5 and F55, Sony made good on promises to offer a 4K upgrade to the NEX-FS700, though many have grumbled about the cost. The camera itself is around $7300 (without a lens, mind you) and the AXS-R5 memory recorder adds another $5,300 or so to the price. But that's not all — you also need the HXR-IFR5 interface unit to get data from the camera to the recorder, and it sells for around $2200. So you'll pay close to $15,000 for hardware. Once the FS700 was up and running with its 4K capabilities, Sony made a play for the lower end of the market with the $5,500 PXW-Z100, recording both 4K and Ultra HD in XAVC 10-bit 4:2:2 MXF to Sony XQD memory cards, due by the end of this year. Shipping with a 20x fixed lens and 1/2.3-inch sensor, it's an attractive, inexpensive option. Meanwhile, the F55 and F5 are a little more upscale. Be aware that only the F55 records 4K video (actually Ultra HD, the format formerly known as QFHD) internally to SxS cards, using the new XAVC 4K 10-bit 4:2:2 codec. The F5 can only record 4K raw to the AXS-R5. Sony's pack of 4K cameras is led, of course, by the F65, which now shoots 4K raw at up to 120 fps with the SR-R4 field recorder, and (with a recent firmware update) even has an "8K" mode that allows it to record images at 8192×2160 and x4320, should you want them.

Further research:
NEXFS700UK [pro.sony.com]
PXW-Z100 [pro.sony.com]
F5 CineAlta 4K [pro.sony.com]
F55 CineAlta 4K   [pro.sony.com]
F65  [pro.sony.com]
Review: Sony NEX-FS700 with 4K Upgrade  [StudioDaily]

Vision Research

This year saw the retirement of the Vision Research Phantom 65, which is no longer being manufactured, though some dealers still offer rentals. Taking its place is the soon-to-be-released Phantom Flex4K, which ups Vision Research's game with 4K recording at up to 1000 frames per second. The camera now has a PL mount standard. 12-bit linear data is packed into 10-bit raw files, but can be easily unpacked to 12-bit quality, we're told. Starting at around $100,000, it's likely a rental item for most users, but only the FOR-A FT-One can compete with it for super-slow-motion acquisition. There are still some question marks — audio recording options will be available early next year, but details have not been announced. Similarly, the camera will record compressed formats to Phantom CineMag IV media, but the company won't tell us what those formats are yet. Stay tuned!

Further research:
Phantom Flex 4K [Vision Research]

5 Comments

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  • Gomez Fabulous

    Great comprehensive research! Thank you.

  • John Hanlon

    The Note 3 smartphone shoots 4K video.

    • Anonymous

      This. I recently picked up a Seiki 4k TV and immediately grabbed a bunch of test 4k footage from around the Net to put it through its paces. To my amazement, the Note 3 footage was the sharpest one of them all. It’s so sharp, it almost looks like it could actually be downscaled 6k or something.

      Of course, it has all the expected other drawbacks of phone video: low dynamic range, horrific jello cam, lousy auto-white-balance, no optical zoom, compression artifacts.

      But it is corner-to-corner sharp. Its lens puts much DSLR glass to shame, and makes a laughingstock out of that GoPro Hero 3 (though I haven’t yet seen any 4k footage out of the 3+ model).

      I’d love to see that sensor in a better platform, and if they could do a premium version with better dynamic range and 60fps, so much the better.

  • gwz

    another 4k Sony camcorder: FDR-AX1

  • Naish Productions

    Thank you for the post. Becoming crowded and complicated. I own FS700 but hesitating for 4k upgrade as I sense something new coming which will solve the 4k issue. FS 700 is rubbish as a shoulder cam. So you need additional shoulder mount and view finder. So to get a functional camera you’re looking at closer to $17,000 or more not including SSD’s, seems bit extreme.

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