A Side-by-Side Comparison of 4K Cameras and Feature Sets
With the publication of our third annual overview of the 4K camera market, it's time to start wondering how much longer a 4K camera guide will be relevant. 4K acquisition has quickly become the rule for hot new cameras, and 2014 was the year the most notable holdouts came on board, with Panasonic finally shipping its long-promised 4K VariCam 35 and ARRI announcing its ours-goes-to-11 riposte to the Red Dragon, the ARRI Alexa 65. Indeed, by this time next year it's quite possible that you'll be able to select from a number of new cameras that shoot in 6K or even (depending on who's ready to bring their next big science project to market) 8K.
No, you can't readily buy 8K displays, and even 4K playback is a rare bird out there in the real world. But there are still advantages to acquiring in a higher resolution than your delivery format, not least of them the ability to frame and reframe to your heart's content without worrying about a visible loss of resolution in the final product. Yes, some cinematographers hate the idea of having their compositions remade in post, but that's the way of the world — DPs who have bristled as their work is recolored in the DI suite may be looking at some even rougher times ahead.
At the same time, it's important to remember that resolution is not everything. The ARRI Alexa became a de facto standard in digital image capture for feature films, including those released as 4K DCPs, even though the camera's output was originally only 2.8K. ARRI took steps to address the resolution gap, first offering an "open gate" recording format that captures the 3.4K image of the Alexa XT sensor for later upsampling to 4K (4096×2160) and then announcing the ProRes 3.2 format, which will enable high-quality resampling from a 3.2K recorded image for UHD delivery (3840×2160). At the other extreme, Gone Girl was shot entirely in 6K, partly to enable extensive image manipulation in post, including reframing, stabilization and split-screening, before the 4K delivery. Does Gone Girl look "better" than movies shot with the Alexa? Hard to say. It certainly looks different. But if director David Fincher's clean, clinical aesthetic isn't to your taste, all the pixels in the world won't make you warm up to the movie.
In 2012 and 2013, we sought to index nearly all of the 4K-capable cameras on the market, rounding up the usual suspects from Canon, Red, Sony, etc., alongside offerings aimed at prosumers, surveillance, and other niches. We've done our best this year, but with more DSLR and mirrorless still cameras shooting 4K and newcomers like KineTeam trying to break into the low end of the market alongside other sub-$10,000 offerings from a variety of manufacturers, it's more likely than ever that we've missed some significant gear. Let us know in the comments.
Finally, our usual caveat – 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 $500 GoPro Hero4 Black Edition — 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.
The AJA Cion was announced at NAB with promised delivery in summer 2014. The company had reportedly been working on the camera design for as long as four years, but it learned the same lesson that Blackmagic Design had a couple of years earlier with its long-delayed Cinema Camera — those last few months before you deliver the finished product are doozies. That said, AJA has just announced an "anticipated initial ship date" of the end of December for the camera. We don't yet know a lot about AJA's raw implementation, which is available at up to 120 fps over 3G-SDI or up to 30fps over Thunderbolt, but the camera is really built around a ProRes workflow, supporting 4K ProRes 4444 at up to 30p and ProRes 422 or lower at up to 60p.
The ARRI Alexa 65 is large-format filmmaking, boasting a 6.5K CMOS sensor that's slightly larger than a five-perf 65mm film frame and delivering a maximum open-gate resolution of 6560×3102. Interestingly enough, it's about the same size and weight as an Alexa XT and uses existing XT accessories. The main limitation for now is that the frame rate maxes out at 27, but ARRI said higher speeds will be enabled early next year. ARRI has clearly given some thought to lensing, rebranding some Hasselblad optics in ARRI Rental housings and adapting old ARRIFLEX 765 glass for the new camera. Be sure you're prepared to handle the data load, though — open-gate ARRIRAW footage will use up 732 MB/second, and ProRes is not (yet?) available. A Codex recording engine similar to the one in the Alexa XT can capture about 10 minutes of 24p footage on 512 GB media.
65 mm Reborn [ARRI Rental]
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.
Astrodesign AH-4413 [Astrodesign]
The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K finally began shipping in February 2014, with a $1,000 price reduction to say "sorry about the wait." At $2995, and with CinemaDNG raw recording, it's an exceptional value. A couple of months later at NAB, Blackmagic Design announced its counterpart, the Blackmagic Studio Camera 4K, along with the Blackmagic Ursa. The main distinguishing characteristic of both new cameras is their enormous 10-inch monitors — on the back of the Studio camera, facing the operator, and as a fold-out from the Blackmagic Ursa (pictured), which is designed to be used by a multi-person team including DP, assistant, and audio crew. Both of the new cameras are shipping now.
Blackmagic Production Camera 4K [Blackmagic Design]
Review: Blackmagic Production Camera 4K [StudioDaily]
Blackmagic Ursa [Blackmagic Design]
Blackmagic Studio Camera [Blackmagic Design]
Some observers expected more 4K camera announcements from Canon this year, but no news was forthcoming. The flagship of Canon's EOS Cinema line remains the EOS C500, which pumps out 10-bit Canon Raw 4K footage at up to 60 fps via dual 3G-SDI output. The camera shipped late in 2013, and the street price has dropped by several thousand dollars since.
Canon's sole 4K DSLR is the EOS-1D C, which 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. 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 Canon 5D Mark IV is expected to be announced early next year, and it's rumored to incorporate 4K video; if you're in the market for a video DSLR, it might be worth waiting to see what the company comes up with.
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). At Inter BEE this week in Tokyo, For-A unveiled a redesigned version, the FT-One-S (pictured), which is said to be smaller and lighter than its predecessor, but we don't yet have details.
For-A FT-One [For-A]
GoPro's 4K shooting option got a lot more useful with the recently released Hero4 Black, which now shoots UHD footage at 24p, 25p and 30p, rather than the measly 15p of its predecessor, the Hero3+. The price went up by $100, to $499, but hey — if you need a 4K crash cam, you need a 4K crash cam.
HERO4 Black [GoPro]
Canadian video equipment vendor IO Industries announced the 4KSDI this year, promising a camera body that's just 3.5 inches square and less than 2.5 inches deep. The camera can capture both 4K and UHD for output to an external recorder at up to 60p for raw data or 4:2:2 video over 3G-SDI, and 4:4:4 4K and UHD is also available over 3G-SDI with a max of 30fps. The company likes to show it feeding directly into an AJA Ki Pro Quad (right), which highlights the simplicity of the workflow. With an APS-C global-shutter CMOS, a choice of PL, F, and EF lens mounts, and remote control capabilities via RS485 or handheld remote, it's looking like a pretty capable unit.
The 4KSDI [IO Industries]
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. The company is doubling down on that strategy in 2015 with the release of three new UHD camcorders at sub-$4500 price points. The GY-LS300 ($4450; pictured) is a MFT-mount camera body with a Super 35 CMOS sensor that records UHD at 150Mbps while offering HDMI monitoring of the live UHD signal. It has dual XLR audio inputs and live streaming capabilities over Wi-Fi and 4G LTE (in HD only). As usual from JVC, it's an interesting offering for the price. Less expensive options are the GY-HM200 ($2,995) and the GY-HM170 ($2,495), both of them with 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS sensors. The main difference is that the HM170 lacks the HM200's HD streaming engine, HD-SDI, and XLR audio inputs. They're due in February (the HM170 and HM200) and March (the LS300).
JVC ProHD Product Overview [JVC]
From Beijing-based Kinefinity come the KineMINI 4K and the KineMAX 6K, both in preorders. The KineMINI shoots 4K and UHD with a Super-35 CMOS sensor to KineMAG media at speeds up to 30p, and the KineMAX is said to make it up to 100p, likewise with a Super-35 format CMOS. Both cameras record to CinemaDNG and Cineform Raw. When it arrives, the KineMAX will record 6K CinemaDNG (5760×3240) to a KineMag, but will require KineStation software to create Cineform Raw as an offline process. Interestingly, the KineMAX will have a 3K mode that outputs a 2880×1620 image derived from the 6K original. These two Kinefinity cameras are obviously an unknown quantity, but they're generating some interest for their high pixels-to-price ratio — the KineMAX will start at around $13,000 (body only), and the KineMINI at $4200, including $700 for the 4K option.
Kinefinity Products [Kinefinity]
Panasonic finally delivered the VariCam 35 this year, with a Super 35mm sensor rated at 14 stops of latitude behind a PL mount, 4K raw recording capability, and frame rates up to 120p. Along with the new VariCam came the ExpressP2 card format, which can offload camera footage at up to 2.4 Gbps. While 4K is being recorded to ExpressP2, 2K and proxy footage (at 3.5 Mbps) can be recorded simultaneously to MicroP2. If you want to shoot raw, the camera's 12-bit output can be captured using a new recorder from Codex Digital that's due to ship in December; the camera also supports live 4K quad output over HD-SDI for live production workflow. Panasonic implemented a new modular design for the VariCam 35 and its high-speed sister camera, the VariCam HS, allowing the camera head to be separated from the recording module as a tethered box camera. The VariCam 35 is $55,000. Other 4K options from Panasonic are more downmarket. The HC-X1000 camcorder with 20x zoom lens shoots 4K at 24p and UHD at up to 60p to SDXC cards and costs just $3,500. And the Lumix DMC-GH4 is a mirrorless MFT camera that does records 4K at 24p to SDXC cards and runs $1,698.
Panasonic VariCam 35 and VariCam HS Ship [Panasonic Press Release]
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.
Point Grey Flea3 USB Camera [Point Grey]
Red Digital Cinema
For Red, 2014 was unquestionably the year of the Red Dragon, as customers ordered new cameras and upgraded their existing Epic and Scarlet cameras to the company's formidable Super 35 Red Dragon CMOS sensor, with its full-frame resolution of 6144×3160 at a 1.94:1 aspect ratio. The proprietary Redcode wavelet codec 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. The company had a couple of new tricks up its sleeve in the year, announcing a new workflow possibility for Dragon shooters, the Advanced Dragon Debayer, or ADD. Aimed mainly at shooters who want to draw still images from high-resolution motion footage, ADD is kind of an ultimate debayering algorithm that requires extra processing time — many seconds per frame — but delivers a better final image. And, at NAB, the company debuted its new 4K Broadcast Module ($6950), which allows Dragon cameras to record in 6K while outputting live 4K simultaneously.
The big 4K announcement from Sony this year was the forthcoming PXW-FS7, a documentary-style camera with an innovative Smart Grip, a retractable handle with a handgrip that allows access to critical camera functions. The camera records UHD internally to XQD memory cards using XAVC Intra (10-bit 4:2:2) or XAVC Long-GOP (8-bit 4:2:0) compression. ProRes HQ 422 recording and 12-bit linear raw output will be enabled through the XDCA-FS7 extension unit ($2500), scheduled to come out by the end of the year. Designed to be small and lightweight for handheld use, the four-pound camera won't really come into its own until early 2015, when a firmware upgrade is scheduled to enable full 4K (4096×2160) recording, rather than UHD.
The Phantom Flex4K 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.
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