What I Want, What I'd Pay and Why I'll Wait a Bit Longer to Invest

Camera manufacturers are getting so close to delivering what most of us would consider to be the ideal camcorder. But what would that camera consist of?
In my opinion, the perfect camera would be light and easy to carry, yet be big enough to balance well on a shoulder or in the wind on a tripod. The mass would be say 8 to 14 pounds- enough to provide a stable picture if vehicle mounted, yet not uncomfortable for all-day carrying as a news shooter. The housing would be tough, with all switches and parts sealed from the weather, so shooting would be no problem if it suddenly starts to rain or the wind blows up some dust. I’d want the power consumption to be reasonable enough so that a couple of batteries would last out a weekend backpacking trip to shoot in some remote place where power is not available. (The perfect camera, of course, would last hours on a AA rechargeable. But I’m not counting on that happening any time soon.) The camera would lack moving parts and record to solid-state media that’s easy to acquire and cheap enough to buy in bulk so multiple shoots could be ongoing without the desperate need to offload the dailies to hard drives before the media can be reused. (I suppose the $59, 2 terabyte compact flash card with the 550 Mbps transfer rate isn’t likely anytime soon, huh?) This recordable media should be durable and be able to pass through airport security "frying" without total file loss or damage. The camera would support multiple HD formats and resolutions and have variable frame rates and compression choices and be able to over- and under-crank for cinematic effect. The imaging chips would be smear and aberration free under severe lighting or environmental conditions, too. The camera would support top-end HD glass and pro audio connections and would have all the appropriate connections for outputting video and audio for studio-quality use. It would also have down-conversion built in for lower-quality output in the field.
I’d like all of these features in one camera for under $15,000. That’s reasonable for most small producers and easy for the big folks. After investing in good glass out front, batteries and mics, that means you can build your kit for about $40,000. Sounds pretty nice, huh?
Does this camera exist? Not yet, but we’re getting very close.
Canon has shown us great HD in an inexpensive package with its HDV lineup. The interchangeable lenses are nice, but not as comfortable for a broadcast shooter. The ease of finding DV tapes for recording is also nice, but unfortunately these tape-based cameras have small sensors, which is why the price is so good. But small sensors have real limitations.
Sony has shown us that ½-inch CMOS chips can produce surprising quality for less money than⅔-inch imagers, which in turn saves you money for better front-end glass. The use of its pioneering Blu-ray discs gets you reliable recordings, but where do you get one of those in a small town? Maybe the smaller, just-released XDCAM EX, which produces beautiful images from its three ½-inch chips and also features solid-state recording, will be easier for far-flung shooters to rent or buy. In early 2008, the⅔-inch version of XDCAM (CineAlta HD) will be available, though full recordings will require yet another form of new media, the dual-layer disc.
Panasonic has shown that solid-state recording is here now with its functional and impressive P2 cards, but the tradeoff is low recording times or a much larger investment up front. But with IEEE 1394 connections, you don’t need a studio machine to get started. That’s a huge savings right there. Panasonic continues to increase P2 capacity and has just announced 32 GB P2 cards (coming by the end of the year). Too bad the price will still be about 50 bucks a minute! Yes, I know, those are reusable minutes. But for a shooter out on a week-long documentary project, four or even eight cards won’t be enough. When the media costs more than the camera itself, that’s not practical. Still, the AG-HPX500, introduced this past summer, has the right price point, size, weight and solid-state recording features for my taste. The CCDs still require pixel-shifting to reach the full 1080 resolution, but this camera is much closer to my ideal.
Thomson Grass Valley and Ikegami offer great results with portable hard-drive recording, but at the cost of added weight and heat in the cameras. It looks like Hitachi will also offer a drive-type camera as well. Two questions are how long will field-bumped drives write effectively and are they reliable in the long run? The Iomega recording media that Thomson Grass Valley tailored to its Infinity camera sure seems durable.
JVC has cool-looking cameras with broadcast-like features for the⅓-inch devotees. Since⅓-inch interchangeable lenses are becoming more available from the major glass manufacturers, JVC’s cameras make sense for the 720p HD market. Still,⅓-inch sensors are limited. And what about 1080 resolutions? By the way, what ever happened to the promising D-9 format? Couldn’t that have provided wicked HD at a decent price?
I can’t finish this piece without mentioning RED. No doubt, the images shown at NAB and elsewhere this past spring were impressive. The working models are definitely cool, but for my money, there will be an endless set of unresolved issues with this camera, the most notable being wider unit availability. (As of September, RED delivered the first four dozen or so beta versions of the cameras. See James Mathers’ review of one of them on page 12.) Many may be intrigued and willing to wait, but most run-and-gun shooters want and need solid answers now. RED is definitely a move in the right direction and its promise is beyond sweet: 4K out will give us the best digital picture for the buck on the market. But what about edit systems that can support RED’s unique formats? Or any plans for an ENG-style lens and not just 35mm primes?
Which brings me back to my original quandary: should I hold off buying a camera for a few more months or even one more year to see what’s coming next? Should you? If you can rent while you wait, know that stronger, cheaper chips come out almost yearly. CCD sensors and CMOS sensors are becoming so good that the perfect picture, as far as the human eye is concerned, may be nearly here. Glass, we can all agree, will continue to be expensive, maybe forever. Growing crystals and cutting and engineering the optics into sealed housings with precision-smooth zoom and focus mechanisms is not cheap to do, and that cost must be passed on to you. Count instead on innovations in the chip and wire market to keep pushing digital camera prices down to where we can all afford them.
I hope my perfect camera is available soon, because I, for one, am actually a little tired of watching for it. I would much rather be standing behind it shooting a sunset!
Contributing editor Will Holloway is a Steadicam operater and DP who loves to shoot extreme sports, martial arts and transportation documentaries featuring large trucks, trains, planes and ships. His production company, Iron Horse America, is based in Seattle, WA.