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A Decade of Game Changers, Part 1: Cameras

As the calendar flipped to 2020, we decided to review and select the best video production gear over the past decade. Partially, this is a list of the best of what we have used in our own productions, but it is also an opportunity to highlight some true pioneers and game-changers. Part 1 of a 2-part series.

As the calendar flipped to 2020, we decided to review and select the best video production gear over the past decade. Partially, this is a list of the best of what we have used in our own productions, but it is also an opportunity to highlight some true pioneers and game-changers.

In the past decade, HD gave way to 4K acquisition, and then delivery—lens to screen, for less than anyone imagined possible. The rate of change has accelerated, so while the transition from SD to HD was agonizingly slow for more than a decade, the move from HD to 4K, 6K, and beyond is spinning right past us in just a few years.

TV and cable networks used to be the gatekeepers and the arbitrators of consumable content. Today, producers can actually make money as solopreneurs, YouTube stars, channels, or brands. “Direct to consumer” is more than just T-shirts and Etsy crafts. Moreover, doing business without an online video presence online is no longer acceptable. Video is essential to business marketing, and even product sales.

Cellphones went from barely adequate video to 4K HDR and even spherical/3D, for both producing and consuming content. You can take a cellphone with its high-resolution screen and drop it into a set of goggles to immerse yourself into a 3D VR world of content. There are any number of “YouTubers” staking their claim on audiences with little more than their cell phone and a whole lot of chutzpah.

What are the game-changing tools and technologies that have driven these trends and others in the past 10 years?

Small Camcorder

Shawn: The Sony PXW-X70 (2014, Figure 1, below) is my pick for small camcorder of the decade. The X70 was the camcorder that started what B&H Photo Video referred to in 2017 as the “latest craze,” referring to new 1" sensor camcorders. Previous small camcorders had three 1/3" sensors, but as the 2010s demanded HD and 4K video, tiny 1/3" sensors were too small and couldn’t compete. The move to a larger 1"sensor was a game-changer for Sony, and the X70 sat in a class of its own for 3 years until Canon launched its own 1" model, the Canon XF405.

Figure 1. The Sony PXW-X70

Key features include your choice of 3G HD-SDI or 4K UHD HDMI output, and a 2x in HD or 1.5x in UHD Clear Image Zoom to losslessly extend the reach of the 12x f/2.8-4.5 lens. 4Kp30 internal recording is available as an optional upgrade.

Despite being more than 5 years old, the X70 can still hold its own when compared to newer current models like the Sony PXW-Z90, which features an upgraded 1" sensor. Today I would most likely buy the Sony Z150 or Z90 models if I were to buy new or if they were my A-cams, as the newer sensor is a bit better in low light and is less noisy. One sign of how good the X70 was and still is: after 5 years I still own two, and I haven’t bothered to upgrade my X70s beyond paying for the optional 4K firmware upgrade.

Anthony: While camcorders have become more powerful, being able to source technology almost directly off the factory lines in China enables producers today to buy amazing little “box” HD cameras with interchangeable C or CS lenses for less than $100 that deliver great images. The low cost of these cameras enables sports producers to sprinkle them everywhere—net cam, penalty box, even eSports (one in front of every player on both teams)—and not break the bank.

Today, while small camcorders deliver long lenses and good light, it’s the box cams that enable us to affordably deliver a 10-camera show.

Medium/Large Camcorder

Anthony: Late in the decade, Panasonic introduced the AG-CX350 (Figure 2, below), the first prosumer camcorder with integrated NDI. This is not just a streaming protocol that can be picked up by other streaming apps, this is the NDI standard with automatic discoverability, multicasting, and more. An ethernet port right in the body of the camcorder signifies the evolution from point-to-point HDMI and SDI connections (which the camcorder also has) to the camcorder being a networked device.

Figure 2. The Panasonic AG-CX350

While the NDI|HX in this camcorder is HD only at this point, the CX350 is the first step towards networked camera production where all the cameras are connected on an ethernet backbone and directly addressable and viewable by multiple devices, no patch bay needed.

Shawn: The 1” sensor Panasonic CX350, despite being a 2019 release, overcomes our arbitrary technology inflation adjustment by offering way more features than anything else in its class, with fewer tradeoffs, and for a very reasonable price ($3,695 at B&H). The CX350 features HEVC codec support for 2160p60 and a 20x f/2.8-4.5 lens with 32x intelligent zoom. The best part about the lens is that it starts off wider than all competitors at 24.5mm. I do wish that the NDI support was for the full NDI version, and not NDI|HX (which has more latency), and that the SDI output wasn’t limited to HD resolutions at 3G SDI, but at least the HDMI and SDI can be used simultaneously.

Micro 4/3 Interchangeable Video Camera

Anthony: My vote in this category goes to the Panasonic DMC-GH4 (Figure 3, below). When it came out in 2014, it didn’t depart from the successful form factor of its predecessor, but the GH4 was one of the very first DSLRs to record 4K. Moreover, it delivered clean, uncompromised 10-bit 4:2:2 4K UHD and DCI video out of the HDMI port. It also featured 8-bit H.264 4K internal recording. All for just $1,700 when there were very few other choices in larger-sensor 4K acquisition.

Figure 3. Panasonic DMC-GH4

With the GH4 and its successor, the GH5, Panasonic dominated the 4K DSLR market for several years, until Sony ramped up and delivered many notable APS-C and full-frame solutions. Eventually, even Fuji entered the 4K mirrorless market, and Canon realized that they needed to deliver 4K mirrorless as well.

It also started a lens adapter craze where nearly every other kind of lens was soon being adapted to Micro 4/3, and then other mirrorless as well.

Shawn: I too like the Panasonic GH4 and its successors, but I’m giving the nod to the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K (Figure 4, below), released in 2018. A worthy successor to the original S16mm Pocket Cinema Camera, the 4K version features a 4/3” sensor and can record DCI 4K60. I like the USB-C external SSD support, in addition to internal CFast 2.0 and SDXC recording.

Figure 4. The Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K

The mini-XLR input is a small but nice feature complement to the traditional 3.5mm input, and I appreciate the LEMO power port for a locking external power source. Aspiring cinematographers can record to ProRes 422 or Blackmagic RAW and edit in DaVinci Resolve Studio with the included activation key. The price point on the BMPCC4K is only $1,295, and this includes DaVinci Resolve.

In 2019, Blackmagic released a 6K version of the Pocket Cinema Camera. The main differences between the 6K and 4K models is that the sensor and mount have moved up a class to a Super35 sensor with a Canon EF mount, putting it head to head with the selections in our next category.

Ultimately, as Anthony points out, like most small form factor interchangeable lens video cameras, most users will kit out the PCC4K. In addition to a cage and external SSD, I also pair my PCC4K with an external V-lock battery and a LEMO power connector.

Anthony: I tried to use a PCC4K to replace my GH4 on my weekly realty shoots, but it was hard to see the un-adjustable screen, there was no autofocus confirmation, and no audible confirmation of record or stop when the screen was not easily visible. These essential little bits of communication make the difference when trying to get things done quick. Their absence drove me back to my GH4 on the next shoot.

The Pocket 6K ups the ante with a larger sensor and native Canon lens mount, but it has the same power and configuration issues as the 4K, at double the price. By the time you have it kitted out with a bigger power supply, external recording media for the big 6K RAW files eating up space, monitor hoods, cage, or third-party retrofits, it ends up being considerably more than the $2,500 asking price, not including the cost of glass. It’s useful for EFP, but not in a streamlined live production kit.

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As the calendar flipped to 2020, we decided to review and select the best video production gear over the past decade. Partially, this is a list of the best of what we have used in our own productions, but it is also an opportunity to highlight some true pioneers and game-changers. Part 2 of a 2-part series.