Comparing Camera Systems for Feature films

Thinking of buying a camera for your next low-budget independent feature film? Below is a comparison chart of five systems to help you decide. The cameras are the Sony PMW-F3, the Panasonic AF100, the Canon 600D, the Canon 5D Mark II, and the old and outdated JVC GY-HD111E.

Click on the image to enlarge:

Comparison Chart Camera Systems

First let’s get a few things out of the way:

Let’s talk about audio. Most independent filmmakers, who don’t know anything about audio or sound recording and mixing, assume what’s on their camera is enough. It is NOT. A sound recordist needs to monitor his/her sound independently, on a top-of-the-line recorder, with good headphones. The recorder will need more than two XLR inputs, unless you are making a feature film with only one character. Most features must use boom mics and lavalier mics simply because they can’t afford to screw up. With two to four characters, you’re already well over four XLR inputs – assuming you need a Dolby surround sound mix at the end. The sound inputs on prosumer cameras are a deadly trap – one which you should avoid at all costs. It’s like using the camera on your mobile phone. Just because it is there, doesn’t mean it is good enough. If you’re doing documentary or ENG, then it is necessary, of course. But not for features. To know more, read my post on Sound here.

Form Factor. None of the prosumer low-budget cameras have the form factor for rigorous hand-held shooting. Each and every one of them needs a handheld rig. The one I’ve chosen is an expensive variety, however I had to match the costs of a handheld rig for the F3, or it would have been too unbalanced.

Video Signal The most important thing. New filmmakers assume just because a camera has HDMI or HD-SDI, they have the best quality. Far too often, when one hears about the costs and time necessary to record uncompressed HD on the field, and its subsequent handling in post production, one avoids using it. What is left, on all these systems, is 8-bit 4:2:0 with either MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 compression, neither of which in real world terms is worse than the other. Most filmmakers who have invested everything into their camera end up using this signal, and not uncompressed HD or up-converted HD (like with the nanoflash).

Test criterion

  • I decided to use an F-mount just to equalize these cameras to the best lenses available for cinema – the ones from Zeiss.
  • A camera with a 1/3-inch CCD will need a dedicated lens adapter (like the ones made by Letus, for example) to get roughly the same field of view (FOV). Those are more expensive.
  • I’ve set the shooting hours required as 8, though in practice it will be lower. One always has to keep extra batteries anyway.
  • I have assumed only one variable ND filter for the single prime lens chosen. I believe this offers more control than the two or three stop filters on prosumer cameras, which might not be enough during practical shooting, especially in countries near the equator.
  • A basic video analysis system is available on the 600D and the 5D via Magic Lantern, and most independent filmmakers don’t use more than this anyway. A dedicated full HD monitor is an absolute must – none of the prosumer camera LCDs are good enough for monitoring.
  • I have assumed a remote video-viewing station (or village) for the filmmaker, which means the HDMI signal must be converted to HD-SDI. This is strictly done to even out the field for all cameras. However, even in actual usage, a dedicated monitor is necessary for critical follow focus, especially when working with shallow depth of field.
  • So, what did I discern from this chart?

    What I have come to understand, is that if the filmmaker is not going to use HD-SDI or HDMI for uncompressed HD, the F3 and the AF100 is sheer waste of money. There is a reason I put the JVC-111E there, which offers many advantages but one huge disadvantage – the small sensor. The quality from this sensor (as is with the HVX200 or the XL-H1 or the Z1) is not bad at all, just that when using 35mm lenses, an expensive adapter is required, which also reduces the amount of light hitting it.

    This brings us to the DSLRs (or HDSLRs). The actual used size of 35mm film is the same as an APS-C sensor, which makes a full frame sensor unnecessary, especially for video work. The extra money put in for a 5D can be used to buy more important gear. If one is not using HD-SDI at all, then the Canon 7D is the best bet. However, the price difference between the 600D and the 7D can go towards buying an HDMI-HDSDI converter, and that means video monitoring. The only ‘downside’ is that you need a great focus puller who knows how to work the old-fashioned way. Is that a downside?

    Winner: Canon 600D or Panasonic GH2. Forget the rest for now.