The full list is:
1 Canon C300 (first time on the list)
2 Arri Alexa (down from 1 last year – easy to use, high quality and lots of good rental deals available)
3 Sony PDW-F800 (down from 4 – large broadcast camera)
4 Canon XF305 (down from 3, but still the most widely used compact camera)
5 Red Epic (up from 10)
6 Sony PMW-500 (up from 8 – a popular shoulder-mount workhorse)
7 Canon EOS-5D MkII and 5D MkIII (up from 9 – probably due to new MkIII model)
8 Sony PMW-EX3 (down from 2 – expect the PMW-200 to take its place this year)
9 Sony PDW-700 (from 5 last year - disc based compared to SxS cards of PMW-500)
10 Sony F65 (first time on the list for this very high-end camera - pictured right)
I wrote an article for TVBEurope magazine last year that looked at whether the C300 had become the budget Alexa. Its performance on this list appears to justify this, although now that Canon's EOS C100 is shipping and can offer high-quality 4:2:2 images when used with the Atomos Ninja external recorder, is the C100 the new budget Alexa?
That said, here is the full article, which is still relevant, although as 4K becomes more widely available (Canon EOS C500 and the EOS-1D C or Sony’s new PMW-F5 and PMW-F55), next year’s list is sure to change….
Canon C300 - the budget Alexa?
Canon’s C300 appears to be leading the way in bringing large sensor shooting to mainstream television.
Until recently, shooting with large sensor cameras either meant big budgets, using digital cinema cameras like Arri’s Alexa (pictured above), or the compromised ergonomics and limited controls of a DSLR.
Now, there are several mid-range S35mm cameras to choose from, including Sony’s F3, FS100, and FS700, and Blackmagic Design’s innovative, but slightly smaller sensored Digital Cinema Camera.
For the moment, Canon’s C300 is the most in-demand large-sensor camera for mainstream broadcast, even for observational documentaries, an area where you might think the shallow depth of field would be a disadvantage, but where its low-light capabilities have proved useful.
“The C300 is the most popular camera” for rental, according to Katie Thomas (pictured with an Arri Alexa and C300), Business Development Manager, Pro Motion Hire.
The C300 is “the most requested of all our cameras,” adds Olly Wiggins, DoP and Managing Director of S+O Media. “It’s a very affordable 35mm sensor that also hits the 50Mbps mark. A lot of people who used to shoot with DSLRs are using it.”
As the camera was only launched this year it is still being tried in situations or genres it hasn’t been used in before, such as extreme conditions in Sudan or on reality shows. “Everyone that has hired it, has loved it,” says Thomas. “I have had clients say that their shoots would have been impossible (given their budget) without the C300,” such as a music video shot in extremely low light.
Most users opt for the EF-mount version, as the PL-mount model requires more expensive lenses PL-mount lenses – although they offer smoother iris control. “The EOS [EF] lenses stutter as the iris moves in changes of a third of a stop,” says Wiggins. S+O has six EF C300s and three PL. The quality is good enough for use on feature films. S+O hired two PL versions to the new Tom Hanks/Paul Greengrass movie, Captain Phillips, for use alongside Alexas and film cameras – mainly for night scenes or in confined spaces.
Even though the Sony F3 produces very nice pictures, demand for it has dropped considerably because it only records 35Mbps internally. “It’s very much superseded by the C300,” says Wiggins. “People don’t want to deal with external recorders.”
Perfect for TV
Freelance Lighting Cameraman and DoP, Tim Sutton, bought the first C300 in the UK. "Buying the first of anything is always a bit of a gamble,” but it has paid off, because the C300 is now flavour of the moment and is “perfect for TV”.
He didn’t consider buying any other large-format camera at the time as nothing else ticked all the boxes for picture quality, usability, cost and specification - mainly the TV friendly codec.
He thinks the C300 is “excellent in its class of camera”, proving popular with his clients and fellow cameramen, and it’s quickly become something that production staff ask for. “It delivers good looking pictures, is easy to use and producers are not bewildered with yet another format or codec given the C300’s workflow is identical to that of the XF305.”
Sutton loves the safety net offered by dual slot recording and the fact that he can provide a very affordable package with a large selection of quality prime, zoom and specialist EF lenses. However, the C300 does need to be used with a rig and other accessories, like the new TV Logic/Alphatron Viewfinder for it to have the ergonomics cameramen are used to.
Sutton has used the C300 for a wide range of productions, from drama to commercials, and “increasingly on documentaries and current affairs, alongside my 2/3-inch camera,” using the C300 for pretty shots and interviews and his Sony F800 for handheld actuality or fast paced situations.
The Super35 sensor look is useful for him on high-end documentary work “where look and an emotive image is increasingly more important. A shallow depth of field helps make unfriendly small locations I’m often confronted with on current affairs programming look a lot better.”
Depth of field
S+O still rents out DSLRs in large numbers, “but the C300 has cornered a huge amount of the market,” says Wiggins (pictured). C300 kits cost from about £250 a day, including a couple of lenses, only marginally more than a Canon 5D MkII kit (which then needs separate audio and still wouldn’t be accepted as HD by broadcasters). Shallow depth of field is a key attraction of the larger sensor cameras, but then you have “problems of holding focus,” he adds.
“There’s a huge amount of hype behind [the C300] because of what it offers for the price, but it doesn’t necessarily fit all filming styles. It wouldn’t necessarily be particularly easy to use it for documentary or reality or a fast-paced entertainment shoot.”
It doesn’t have long zoom lenses (such as the 22x) that are available for the B4-mount. Typically, S+O’s clients take a minimum of a 24-70mm f2.8 and a 70-200mm f2.8, and often an EOS 50mm f1.2 for extreme shallow depth of field, which Wiggins says is particularly good for portrait shots.
However, “it is probably the best camera out there for low light,” he adds.
“A lot of people are put off by the C300’s small size and amount of buttons in comparison even to some of its direct competitors. For broadcast, connecting accessories like radio mics does prove problematic especially when operators have been used to the more traditional ENG-style cameras. It does take a bit of getting used to, but once you do, the images created will keep you using the camera,” says Thomas.
“We think the C300 produces fantastic images and are often still surprised by the quality of the unprocessed footage,” she adds. Like the Alexa, it has Log Gamma recording to help capture a higher dynamic range. “This is something normally seen in high end cameras. To be able to shoot log on a £10k camera is very impressive.”
The 4k conundrum
Sutton isn’t tempted by the Blackmagic Design Digital Cinema Camera or 4k cameras like the C500. He doesn’t like the Blackmagic’s ergonomics, the way its connectors are mounted directly to the internal printed circuit boards and its sensor size, but “it is a clever bit of independent design thinking and will appeal to filmmakers who want to evoke a 16mm film look for cinema,” he says.
Although, “on paper it looks fantastic,” Wiggins points out the Blackmagic does have a more cropped sensor than the S35 cameras.
The C500 (pictured) should arrive in November, and Wiggins says he “will probably buy it, but not in the same numbers as the C300, especially as it will need an external recorder for 4k, so will cost almost as much as a Red Epic, but without many of the Epic’s features.
“I think 4k recording will take a lot longer to take off. It will grow slowly, and probably for films first. The Alexa has shown that a 2k image is very usable. You don’t necessarily need to ramp everything up to 4k.” He believes that 4k will prove problematic in post, especially at TV budgets, where 4k would only be viable if you are doing a lot of effects work for promos or commercials. “Most people are very happy with HD and 50Mbps.”
While Thomas welcomes 4k as “a very exciting new development enabling lots more detail to work with in post as well as vastly improving green screen shoots,” she feels that it might be a slow burner as HD is still only getting established and many cinemas have only just rolled out 2k projection. “However, future proofing by shooting in 4k to deliver to 2k is something that we will see more and more,” especially with Sony’s F65 and the C500.
Sutton feels that 4k is “another manufacturer’s push for us to buy a whole new lot of gear. I don’t know anyone who has a 4k TV and I hope it stays that way for a little while. In TV it feels like we have just settled on standardised HD practices and codecs that everyone is familiar with, so other than for cinema projects, let’s slow things down a bit and leave 4k in the mainstream for another 5-10 years.” Although the C500 offers some interesting options, for 4k use it needs an external recorder and burdens the user with massive amounts of data. “It is good to have that option for cinema or commercials, but really it’s too much hassle and data for television productions where most of my work is, especially with very good options like the C300 on hand.”
For the future, he isn’t looking for higher resolution, but for "better ergonomics and features and, mainly, image quality - removing any limitations and artefacts we put up with from the current lot of sensors and compression algorithms.”
S+O has just taken delivery of its first Sony NEX-FS700, which includes built-in ND filters (unlike the FS100) and can shoot at up to 200 frames per second, but Wiggins hopes that Sony will develop a shoulder-mount large sensor camera, so there is no need for a lot of accessories just to make it usable. “One of the best things about the Alexa is that it seems to have been designed for cameramen.”
By David Fox