Words: Adam Duckworth
When it comes to shooting video, mirrorless cameras have some big advantages over DSLRs. The smaller size, permanent Live View, often an EVF you can still use while shooting, plus lots of video-specific features like advanced video autofocus and built-in image stabilisation mean they are often a better buy for the image-maker who puts emphasis on shooting moving images. And the recent barrage of mirrorless launches from Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm and Blackmagic are taking the technology even further.
But taking a camera clearly designed for stills and adding more features for movies, doesn’t make a camera perfect for filming. There are still the handling quirks and often handicapped specs that you have to work around as each manufacturer brings a wildly varied approach to the filmmaking side of its mirrorless offerings.
And just as in stills photography, there is the issue of sensor size. Larger sensors cost more and necessitate the use of larger and more expensive lenses, but often give the ultimate in image resolution and low noise. However, for video, things aren’t as simple as ‘bigger is better’. Smaller sensors – such as the industry-standard Super35 – can read data quicker, so they can often output their footage at higher bit rates and even in Raw for a boost in quality of the footage. Plus, less issues with the blight of rolling shutter, which can ruin panning shots.
We take a look at the newest cameras on the market to discover the best.
If you come from a background in stills, you might not have heard of Blackmagic. The Australian firm makes high-end video cameras and the pro gear that goes with them, as well as smaller pocket-sized cameras and even the DaVinci Resolve software, which is industry-standard for colour grading.
The new Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K is designed solely for filmmaking with spec that leaves the others lagging. It has a five-inch screen so you can largely do away with an external monitor and a USB-C output so you can record up to 12-bit footage to inexpensive external SSD drives. There’s a Dual Native ISO for great low-light capture and a claimed 13 stops of dynamic range to provide detailed HDR images. There’s also a full-size HDMI socket, a mini-XLR input with phantom power for professional-style mics and an internal stereo mic with decent preamps.
But the real unique selling point is that it can record up to DCI 4K at rates up to 60fps in a variety of codecs including different quality levels of CinemaDNG Raw and ProRes 422 to a CFast 2.0 or SD card. That’s real Raw video footage, with all the flexibility and quality that brings.
Nothing else on the market can do this until you get to full-size cinema cameras. Best of all is the price. At £1055 it’s a bargain and it comes bundled with a full version of DaVinci Resolve software.
The Use of Raw in Film making
Raw files for filmmaking offer the same benefits as in stills, with more detail and dynamic range. Very few video cameras are capable of shooting Raw, though.
It might be called the Pocket Cinema Camera but at more than seven inches wide, it’s big. There are no autoexposure modes and the AF is the old-school contrast detect that pales in comparison to rivals’ advanced systems.
There’s also no image stabilisation, no viewfinder and a fixed screen. The only 120fps slow motion is HD and is from a 2x cropped version of the already small sensor, which is the camera’s major
issue. The sensor is a quarter the surface area of a full-frame 35mm chip, with all the negatives that can bring. So to get very shallow depth-of-field, you need some incredibly fast glass. In use, the camera feels much like a scaled-down professional cinema camera thanks to its on-screen menus that are simple to navigate. It’s something other manufacturers could learn from.
To start and stop recording, there is the obvious button on the front. Next to this is a small button that allows you to take stills, which are saved as DNG Raw, which are Raw frame grabs.
The camera punches above its weight with very sharp footage with lots of detail, neutral colours, lots of dynamic range and, crucially, low noise thanks to its Dual Native ISO sensor technology. The colour is especially pleasing, with neutral skin tones and natural-looking colours.
When shooting Raw or Log, you will need to add some noise-reduction in post, as is the case with all cameras. The Dual Native ISO function means that the camera essentially has two base ISO settings of 400 and 3200, although you can set any ISO rating from 100-25,600. At any setting up to ISO 1000, it uses the base 400 circuitry and switches seamlessly to the higher 3200 base at ISO settings higher than that. Comparing footage at ISO 400 and ISO 3200 gives results that are incredibly similar in terms of image quality and low noise. Only in deep shadows, where you would expect to find noise, does it rear its head. The reality is that at any ISO setting up to 6400, the camera delivers clean images with lots of information for you to grade them how you like in post – especially if you shoot Raw. It really is a pocket-sized cinema camera that can deliver great footage. See sample footage below.
The new X-T3 is the first Fujifilm X Series camera with a new sensor and processor that makes it outperform anything else in the range for both stills and especially video. It may not have in-body stabilisation and the reinforced body construction of the flagship X-H1, but it’s a great all-rounder and very affordable, with lenses that don’t break the bank.
The X-T3 is outstanding in video capability, especially if you pair it with an external recorder. It can capture DCI 4K and UHD 4K video in 60p and output this as 10-bit 4:2:2 files or store them as 10-bit 4:2:0 internally using the H.265 codec at 200Mbps. That’s double the bit rate of the older cameras for more colour information. It can also simultaneously record 4K 60p 4:2:0 10-bit to its internal SD card for an instant backup. There is also a less data-hungry H.264 codec, too, if you want to keep file sizes smaller.
The X-T3 can record F-Log footage internally with a minimum ISO of 640, and a firmware update will see Hybrid Log Gamma later this year for fast HDR.
In UHD or DCI 4K video at 60p, there is a slight 1.18x crop of the sensor. At 30p or below, the X-T3 records oversampled video using the full width of the sensor. In 1080p HD it records at up to 120fps but at this speed there is a 1.29x crop. And there’s very little rolling shutter when shooting video.
The AF in video mode is very good, too, using phase detection points to make it quicker and more reliable, with useable face tracking. In use, the
standard colours for shooting video are bright and punchy, which suits some subjects, but may be too bold for more cinematic work. In that case, the Eterna film simulation mode works really well. There is very little noise, which only starts to show its head at ISO 6400 and above.
When shooting F-Log, the dynamic range is more than 11 stops but this drops to around nine when using Eterna film simulation. Even so, it’s an impressive new APS-C camera. See example footage below.
Until very recently, if you wanted a full-frame mirrorless camera with inter-changeable lenses ideal for video, it was a very small pool to choose from. Sony’s range of A7 cameras ruled the roost, with the odd Sony A9 or Leica SL being used. But now the big names of the DSLR world have waded in with Canon’s EOS R and Nikon’s Z series, of which the Z 7 is the first to hit the shops.
The Canon is significantly cheaper than the Nikon, which is a higher-resolution model – 45.5 megapixels in comparison to the EOS R’s 30.3. Both will allow owners of their legacy lenses to be used on the new cameras via adapters, too. That’s a good thing as both cameras are launched with a very limited range of lenses for pro use. But there are significant differences between the two, as you might expect for first-generation offerings.
In terms of image stabilisation, Canon has gone for a lens-based system for stills, a different solution to the full-frame Sony and Nikon Z models, which utilise in-body image stabilisation, which so many filmmakers love. In video mode, the Canon has some basic digital image stabilisation that works surprisingly well, but does crop the image. That’s a big compromise.
In terms of focusing, the Canon’s AF is stunning thanks to the Dual Pixel autofocus system. The time of useable autofocus for pro video is getting closer by the minute and the EOS R is leading the way. It tracks moving subjects well and holds focus, too. It’s a world apart from the old-school contrast detect systems that hunt while filming and often ruin shots.
The touchscreen also lets you do smooth focus pulls by just tapping on which area of the image you want the camera to focus on. You can adjust the focus speed, too. However, if you are a left-eye shooter and use the viewfinder then your nose might just change the focus points accidentally.
The screen also fully articulates, which is what professional video users expect. It’s the only camera that does this.
The Nikon Z 7 also has great video AF, which does not have quite as many advanced options as it does for stills but is phase-detect and it also works with lenses via the Nikon FTZ Mount Adapter. It works very well and very close in performance to the latest Sony and Canon systems.
The video AF itself is one big reason for any Nikon D850 users to make the swap to the Z 7, as well as the in-body five-axis vibration reduction.
In fact, the Z 7 is very much a mirrorless version of the D850 as it retains its 4K video with no cropping of the sensor or you can choose a Super35 crop to give your lenses more reach. The Z 7’s CMOS sensor has no optical low pass filter, 493-Point AF system, ISO range of 64-25,600 and 4K video at 30/25/24p with no cropping. It also shoots in HD at up to 120fps and records to an XQD card.
With so many pixels, the camera has to remove some of the information to get down to 4K size and, therefore, can struggle at higher ISO settings and there is some rolling shutter. In Super35, the image is using all the pixels and oversampling, and rolling shutter is virtually eliminated.
The camera records 100Mbps H.264 8-bit internally but 10-bit 4:2:2 in N-Log over HDMI for maximum quality and dynamic range. There’s also a View Assist function so you can see a corrected version of the images rather than the flatter Log footage. To make it a more useable video camera, there is focus peaking and highlight warnings, and it can record timecode.
In comparison, the Canon records Full HD at up to 60p and 4K at 30p, although with the latter there is a significant 1.7x crop, which makes shooting in tight confines an issue. It pretty much turns the camera into a Super35 size mirrorless camera so does away with some of the benefits of full-frame. Shooting also shows some rolling shutter issues, which you need to be aware of when shooting fast pans, for example. It can output at up to 480Mbps, which is why the actual 4K quality is good, with great colours typical of Canon’s high-end video cameras. There is very little noise at up to ISO 3200 and the Log footage grades as beautifully filmic, especially as it can be output as 10-bit 4:2:2 via HDMI. That makes shooting Log a realistic proposition as the 10-bit footage retains so much more info than the internal 8-bit codec.
The image quality may be very filmic and have natural colours, but it’s disappointing if you want to shoot slow motion. There is no slow motion in 4K only 60p in full HD. Around 120fps is becoming the norm for super-slow HD in mirrorless cameras, and the Canon won’t cut the mustard for sports shooters or any fan of super slow motion.
Until the Fujifilm X-T3 and Blackmagic hit the market, the only mirrorless camera to record 10-bit internally were the MFT GH5 and GH5S, which are two of the best mirrorless cameras for video. They’re targeted at filmmakers, with the S-model aimed at video.
For fans of full-frame, Sony’s latest cameras include the A9, A7R III and A7 III. The A9 is best for sports shooters as it’s very fast and its video spec is limited. The A7R III is a high-resolution camera with great video spec, but it’s the £2000 A7 III that has the best video spec and is a great all-rounder.
Nikon’s forthcoming Z 6 is also more of an all-rounder, with a 24.5-megapixel sensor and 4K video at 30/25/24p. Panasonic also recently revealed it’s working on two full-frame mirrorless
cameras, the S1 and S1R, which will use the Leica L-Mount. Limited spec has been revealed so far.
For the money, Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K wins. It’s ideal for filmmakers who want to use it as a small cinema camera, rather than as a do-all, run-and-gun machine. It really delivers the best quality thanks to 4K Raw, despite its smaller sensor. For shooting pro-level stills, though, it’s a non-starter.
Fujifilm’s new X-T3 is a fantastic compromise as it’s a stunning stills camera, but now has incredible video spec – especially for the price. It can also record 4K video at 60p to give half-speed slow motion. Compared to full-frame cameras, it’s smaller, cheaper and is a great all-round performer with video quality that holds its own.
Canon’s EOS R has a flip-out screen, incredible autofocus, 10-bit 4:2:2 Log output and colours that look very filmic. But the cropped 4K and lack of serious slow motion will be a big issue for certain filmmakers. And the rolling shutter in full-frame mode is not good.
Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera is compact, has great image quality, AF speed, in-camera stabilisation and it handles well. But there is also some rolling shutter in 4K full-frame video. It has 10-bit output with Log, image stabilisation and good autofocus.
Compared to the smaller-sensor cameras like the Fujifilm and Blackmagic, the video spec isn’t quite as stunning and they are more expensive. But as stills cameras, both full-frame Canon and Nikon are incredible performers, and that could swing it for the user who shoots stills and video – and maybe has a bag full of Canon or Nikon lenses. See example videos below.
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