Stop this crazy ride, I want to get off!
Ok, that is a bit dramatic. But seriously, if you’re looking to purchase a new video camera right now, the tsunami of choices is mind bending. And rather than feeling excited about this great new technology, you’re probably living in paralyzing fear of making a decision you’ll regret three months later. At this year’s NAB there was no shortage of overwhelmed camera people wandering around with expressions like they were background extras on the Walking Dead.
There used to be a distinct division between video production and film making. Video cameras were for video. Film cameras were for film. Two different worlds with completely different products. Film people were seen as elite purists working in an art form. Video people were grinding out a living shooting low budget TV shows and corporate videos in an inferior format while wishing they could work in film. For the record, we thought film camera operators were basically over-rated minions incapable of performing more than one specific task at a time who couldn’t shoot their way out of a paper bag in the video world. Bam!
Now, thankfully, the wall between these worlds has come down. We’re all basically film makers. Although I still find it hard to say that without sounding somewhat pretentious. The immediacy and convenience of video has merged with the artistic sensibility and quality of film production. We’ve all collided somewhere in the middle of this camera technology landscape and manufacturers are getting pulled along for the ride – some of them kicking and screaming – others dropping new products like bombs that shake the industry to its core. But where do you start when trying to find the camera that’s right for you?
Let’s start with a simple one – price point. What are you willing to pay? Chatting with many other camera types at the various NAB booths, I realized there are two distinctly different groups coming at things from opposite perspectives.
The “old guard” (myself included) developed our careers when a broadcast quality video camera cost at least $60,000. If we wanted to actually edit anything, add another $100,000 for tape machines and hardware based editing gear. Today, a $15,000 camera that’s immeasurably higher quality and light years more advanced is an unimaginable bargain from the gods.
The younger “emerging pros” see today’s market much differently. Many of you cut your teeth on $2,000 DSLR cameras and $500 editing software. For you, $15,000 cameras are outrageously over-priced and you expect nothing short of orgasmic perfection for around $6,000.
This must be driving manufacturers crazy. The market has turned upside down and they’re scrambling to meet the expectations of this new generation of demanding customers – customers who want it all, want it cheap, and want it now. It’s a good time to be a camera buyer. Not such a good time to be a camera manufacturer.
What I find interesting is that apparently manufacturers can meet this demand. Most brands desperately tried to protect their entire product line by holding back features on their lower priced cameras – but it appears many have thrown in the towel and realized they better go “all in” or get quickly left behind.
So, now I can get a pretty darn good camera at an amazing price. But which one? They’re all so shiny and new!
It’s obviously much easier and cheaper to make a camera that’s essentially a box that doesn’t come with a handgrip, viewfinder, professional audio inputs, easily accessible controls or pretty much any typical video camera features. These manufacturers don’t have to worry about including such pesky things – that’s for us to figure out.
My concern is that I’m getting a little awestruck and distracted by this new generation of ultra-high resolution cameras that are intended for cinema style production. I can’t help it. They just look so cool – all that third-party matt-black rigging and sexy accessories mounted everywhere. “Yes, I must have this. I need this. I need 4K resolution! I might be shooting a feature for my next project! I know this is totally impractical, extremely awkward and frustrating to use but I have to future proof myself!” Really?
What I have to do is be honest with myself and truly assess my camera needs. I make my living in the low-budget, small-crew world of television and web production. I’ll definitely take the improved picture quality, low light performance and depth-of-field control of the cine world – but I still need to have the functionality, form-factor and quick response of the traditional video world. I need a comfortable, easy to use, well designed video camera that feels right in my hands – with all the buttons and controls just where they should be.
Operating needs to be second nature so I can concentrate on story telling and capturing moments as they happen. For example, I know it’s not as uber-cool as some of the new breed of cine cameras, but the Sony PMW 200 is a pretty darn good camera for $7,000. And, it comes with a viewfinder and everything – wow! I also recently bought a Canon C100 – for what I need it’s an excellent solution.
Let’s stop getting caught up in codec and resolution snobbery and buying cameras to impress other camera operators.
As I get older and later in my career, I find that I want to simplify rather than complicate. I want to strip things down to their basic form and focus on the craft rather than the gear. I bought all kinds of crazy rigs for my Canon 5D MKII because that’s what everyone was doing. Eventually I got rid of it all. It was just more stuff between me and the camera that I really didn’t need. I can hand-hold a DSLR just fine.
The only thing I can say with certainty is that there’s no “magic bullet” camera for every operator and every style of shooting. It doesn’t exist. My best advice is to step back from the edge, be honest with yourself about what you truly need and admit that making a “perfect” choice just isn’t realistic. It’s never going to be perfect. Aim to make a “good” choice and then get on with your work and your life.
It’s not a life-long relationship. You’re probably going to buy a new camera in three years or less anyway!