Cinematography: Selecting Your Digital Camera (and All That Matters More Than That)

Should I buy camera X or Y?  This is, sadly, one of the most common question I have ever heard. One can spend hours reinforcing the idea that maybe lenses or lights (or skills) are far more interesting investments, that question always comes back to irritate me. ‘Should I buy camera X or Y’. The only answer I could give, to the great frustration of some of my students, was: ‘Well, it depends”

Every new month, reviews, comparisons and shootout tests are released online. By the time you might have finally made a decision regarding your investments, a bunch of new cameras would have been announced and released to the market, just to make you doubt a little more. In 2011 and 2012 Zacuto released two series of camera shootout (available in their entirety on the Web Series page on their site). The shelf life of such shootouts appears to be limited. Most of the cameras used at the time are now considered old and outdated.  This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to learn from an outdated camera shootout, especially if you are new to the world of Digital Cinematography.

Below, you will find selected segments from the Great Camera Shootout and the Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout video series. What are the technical aspects that define the quality of a digital camera? How can we assess and measure such aspects in an empirical fashion? Why is it essential for a DP to understand and work within the limitations of the camera? Most importantly, how do seasoned cinematographers look at the camera choice in relation to cinematography as a whole and how it al fits in the bigger ‘filmmaking picture’.

What is Dynamic Range? How can it be tested? 

“The difference between the darkest object a camera can photograph and the brightest” A higher dynamic range will allow you to tackle more complicated or challenging scenes where the difference between the brightest and the darkest parts of the scene is extreme. Without a wide dynamic range you will need to modify the lighting of the scene to fit what the camera can handle.

Under-exposde Scene

Testing a camera in an underexposed scene will give you an idea of what would happen in the shadows, in terms of noise and blocking.

Over-exposde Scene

Testing the camera in an overexposed scene will give you an idea of what happens to the highlight in terms of clipping and non-linear handling of the color balance.

What is Sensitivity? How can it be tested? 

Defining sensitivity for digital cameras is not as straight forward as for film. The better the sensitivity, the less noise the camera will generate in lower light.

Low Light

A low light test is useful in assessing the quantity and quality of noise in shadows area.

What is Sharpness? What are the variables that affect it? 

Sharpness is affected by resolution, the edge contrast of the image and the compression of the digital footage. The lens, the sensor and the digital treatment of the image all impact the perceived sharpness of the image.

What is Compression? How does it affect your image?

Your camera might have a beautiful image coming out of the sensor. The compression, however, will impact and often lower the quality of the image you record.

What are Motion Artefacts? How can they be tested?

Ideally, your footage will be captured frame by frame, the reality, however, is that it will often be captured line by line thus introducing motion artefacts in the process. Compression can also affect the manner in which movement is reproduced.

Color rendition and how to test it?

Even a perfectly white balance imaging system will introduce non-linear rendition of the color spectrum.

Importance of Skin Tones

Skin tones are often the most commonly captured colours, and some cameras will sacrifice the rendition o other tones to maintain skin color rendition.

I suspect that this first shootout received with a fair amount of questioning and criticising. Was the test properly handled ? Were the operators familiar with the cameras they were using? But most importantly, there is a sense that the camera was left to fend for itself, without the real input of DP’s magic touch.

In the following test, DP’s were given 90 minutes to shape the lighting of a scene, and were thus able to work within the limitations of their imaging system. After the shoot, another 90 minutes were given in the grading scene to shape the footage as they wished. It is a far more subjective test, which better reflects the reality of working with cameras.

The Last Camera Shootout? 

Color Correction is Cinematography

We tend to forget that photography is not only the act of capturing the image but also the way in which we process the image at a later stage. In digital, color correction is part of the cinematography where one might shoot within the limitations of the camera knowing in advance how the image might be altered and shifted in post.

The Test Footage

When looking at the footage, we can notice differences in quality (and qualities) between the various clips. However, these differences are not as significant as many would have expectd when pitting an iPhone against an Arri Alexa, for example. (If you’d like to know which camera is which, you can find them HERE)

The real question is: how does a Cinematographer select his/her camera? Well, it is a very subjective choice.

This does not mean there are no significant differences between pieces of equipment being sold at such different price points. It simply takes a better eye and more challenging shots for those differences to become more noticeable.

Being a Cinematographer is about so much more than selecting the right camera and understanding how and how well it works. This is where the real lesson starts.

What is a Cinematographer?

What is Light?

What matters most?

Collaborations

Talent, born or made?

Feelings and Lessons

Telling a Story

Heart of the Story

Creativity

Learning

Failure

Final Thoughts 

Yes, some cameras are better than others. But, if selecting the best camera is your main preoccupation as a learner, you are missing the point. Different DP’s will assess imaging systems differently, relying on different aspects for different reasons. It is an art after all, not a science.

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