4K Buyers Guide: Low-budget cameras for a high-budget look
With quality 4K cameras becoming more affordable, anyone can now produce cinema quality images, and broadcasters can ensure each and every video crew is capturing content future-proofed for UHD. David Fox guides us through shooting 4K on a budget
Almost every new camera coming out this year is Ultra HD (3840x2160 - 16:9 aspect ratio) or 4K (4096x2160 - 17:9, and intended primarily for cinema). Even if you only want to shoot HD, it is probably worth considering the UHD/4K cameras, as they often offer excellent HD pictures and should still be of use if you need to shoot UHD/4K in future.
Of course, not every camera is created equal; there are a lot of trade-offs, particularly if you want to save money. For the purposes of this article, ‘affordable’ is anything less than about £5,000 - although usable 4K cameras can cost as little as £360.
The key choices, from front to back, are: lenses, sensors, formats, codecs, bitrates, inputs/outputs and ergonomics.
Lenses: Cameras that come with a built-in lens are generally less expensive (all in) than ones that allow you to change lenses. One-piece camcorders have the advantage that everything (including lens control) is integrated, the lens is probably well matched to the sensor, and you won’t get dust on the sensor. Interchangeable lenses offer more creative possibilities, allow you to use lenses you’ve already invested in, and give you scope for growing your lens collection. Canon EF mount, Micro Four-Thirds mount, and Sony E or A mounts tend to offer the cheapest lenses, while PL or B-4 mount lenses are generally much more expensive - there are lots of adaptors available.
Sensors: Usually, the bigger, the better - in terms of quality, low-light capability, and shallow depth of field (if that is the look you want). A smaller sensor camera will be easier to focus, as it gives greater depth of field, which may be exactly what you want for unpredictable subjects. Some sensors are native UHD or 4K, others (particularly on stills cameras) may have even more pixels - which can be an advantage in post production, or can cause problems (such as poor low light performance).
Formats: If you’re shooting a drama and want a cinematic look, 24/25 frames per second will be enough. For documentary, sport or reality, 50p would be better, and if you want to do slow-motion action, then you’ll need higher frame rates. Most of the camera below offer higher frame rates for HD than for UHD.
Codecs: All the cameras use some form of compression, generally based on H.264, but some also offer Raw output or recording, using logarithmic gammas. These Log outputs will look terrible (grey and flat), because they have to be colour graded to get the most out of them (which generally includes higher dynamic range), so only use them if you are going to do proper post production. 4:2:2 colour sampling is always preferable to 4:2:0, as is 10-bit or even 12-bit (higher specs are available, particularly for Raw).
Bitrates: Generally, the higher the bitrate the better, but that takes up more space on your (more expensive higher-spec) recording media, and you’ll need a more powerful computer to edit it.
I/O: Some cameras will record in Apple’s ProRes or Avid’s DNx codecs, but many other cameras can be used with an external recorder to add these higher-quality, edit-ready codecs, either via HDMI or SDI outputs. If you are going to use the camera live, you will need one of these - and usually genlock too (for use with other cameras). For inputs, look for XLR for higher quality audio, and LANC for using with an external controller.
Ergonomics: Very tiny cameras can be difficult to hand hold (they’re just too light), but may be perfect for remote mounting. DSLRs generally also need some sort of rig to make them easier to hold, while shoulder-mounted cameras tend to be the most comfortable to hold for a long time. Small cameras also tend to have fewest buttons, forcing you to use the menu for even simple changes - assignable buttons are always good. Features like built-in neutral density filters are also useful, particularly if you want to open the lens wide for shallow depth of field shots. Always try out a camera before you buy it, like big fingers and small buttons, they will suit some people better than others.
To get the most out of many of these cameras, you’ll also need to budget for lenses (such as Samyang’s EF-mount VDSLR Lens Kit 2 with 14mm, 35mm and 85mm lenses and case for about £1,000), add-on electronic viewfinders (about £750-£1,000), and external recorders/monitors, such as the Ninja Assassin 4K for HDMI cameras (£850) the Shogun for HDMI and SDI cameras (about £1,300), or the Convergent Design Odyssey7Q+ (about £1,700) - bear in mind that the recorders are liable to be limited to a maximum of 30p in 4K or UHD.
There is lots of choice, and if you look for deals, you can get a lot for your money. All prices here include VAT and were the best available at larger broadcast dealers at time of writing in Spring 2016.
The GoPro Hero4 Black is about the cheapest way into 4K. At £360, the camera (UHD24/25/30p, 2.7K 2704x1520 50p and 1080p120) is the industry standard action camera.
If you don’t need the GoPro’s remote mounting options, there is the Panasonic HX-A500E (UHD 25p and HD 50p) wearable camera, with separate camera and recorder (attached via cable) for the same price. Panasonic also has small consumer (UHD/25p HD/50p) camcorders with 20x zoom lenses that are nice to use and produce pretty good pictures (especially for HD with HDR at 50Mbps). The £600 HC-VX870 is probably the one to choose, but there are other models.
The new £800 Z-Cam E1 is the smallest 4K camera that takes interchangeable lenses (MFT mount). It is a good size and weight (210g) for use with a drone, and records 4K at 24p, UHD at 24/25/30p and HD at up to 50/60p, using H.264 to a micro SD card at up to 60Mpbs. It has Mini HDMI output, Bluetooth and WiFi, and comprehensive control via an iOS or Android app.
For something a little more serious, there is the £900 (body only) Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 Micro Four Thirds camera (shown below with an Atomos Shogun), which offers a lot of capability for the money and is very well built. It shoots 4K/24p and UHD 24/25p at 100Mbps, and HD/50p at 200Mbps. It has useful video functions like peaking and zebras. But, if you want to do colour grading or match more expensive digital cinema cameras look at the GH4R, which includes V-Log L gamma and unlimited recording time (about £100 extra).
£1000 - £2000
Blackmagic’s small Micro Studio Camera 4K (£1,000) takes MFT lenses and is designed for live use (UHD 24/25/30p or HD 50/60p) via 6G-SDI (10-bit 4:2:2). It is the cheapest way in to studio production, especially when teamed with Blackmagic’s ATEM hardware.
Sony’s compact £1,000 Cybershot DSC-RX10 II camera offers UHD/25p recording, a fixed Zeiss 24-200mm (35mm equivalent) f2.8 zoom lens, uses the 100Mbps XAVC-S codec and Slog-2 gamma, and would be useful for drone use or hand-held gimbal stabilisers. It uses a medium-size (1-inch type) sensor, with ND filters, but the lens could be sharper. Frame rate in HD is up to 100fps.
Canon’s £1,450 XC10 records UHD 25/30p to an internal CFast 2.0 card at up to 305Mbps (XF-AVC). It has a 1-inch sensor, C-Log (11 stops), 10x zoom (manual zoom and focus rings), and optical and electronic image stabilisation. It’s small, but easy to operate and offers excellent HD quality - 8-bit 4:2:2 50Mbps 50/60p to an SD card.
JVC’s £1,600 GY-HM170 (150Mbps UHD 24/25/30p + 4:2:2 50Mbps HD 50/60p) has a 12x zoom (no resolution loss 24x digital for HD) and two SD cards slots. Nice to use, highly configurable, but the lens is a bit soft wide open. JVC’s £1,800 GY-HM200 is essentially the same, but with XLR audio handle, SDI output and live streaming (all worth the extra £200).
Sony’s £1,700 entry-level XDCAM 10-bit 4:2:2 XAVC HD camcorder, the PXW-X70 requires a UHD upgrade (licence - about £375) to record 8-bit 4:2:0 UHD 24/25/30p at 60Mbps (this may improve in future). It has 12x zoom, single focus/zoom control ring, ND filters, HDMI and SDI out, 2x XLRs in, 2x SD card slots, is highly configurable, lightweight but front heavy.
Panasonic’s £1,700 HC-X1000 records 100Mbps UHD 50/60p to SD card, 4K/24p, HD 50/60p 200Mbps. Small sensor, 20x zoom, three manual lens rings, 3x ND filters, 2x XLR input, HDMI out, IR night mode.
£2000 - £3000
The £2,000 Blackmagic Studio 4K camera (without fibre SFP module) has a very usable 10-inch viewfinder, MFT lens mount, talkback, tally, 4-hour battery life and outputs UHD 24/25/30p or HD 50/60p via 12G-SDI (10-bit 4:2:2). A low-cost, easy-to-operate studio camera.
Sony’s £2,500 A7S Mark II E-mount camera has a well-deserved reputation for excellent low-light performance. It has a 35mm full-frame sensor, with large pixels to take in more light, and records UHD internally (up to 30p using 8-bit 4:2:0 XAVC S at 100 or 60Mbps - 4:2:2 available for external recording), or HD up to 120fps using a full pixel readout (without line skipping or pixel binning), with 14 stops in S-Log3.
Blackmagic Design’s Ursa Mini is a whole family of mid-size UHD cameras The £2,300 Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4K EF-mount Super 35 camera has lots of pro facilities (a PL-mount version costs £2,700), and records 4K 12-bit Raw, UHD ProRes (both up to 60p) and HD up to 120p (crop sensor for higher frame rates). The image looks great in good light, but poor in low light. Not so mini, but well-built. Nice 5-inch touch screen. Global shutter (no rolling shutter effect). Requires costly Cfast 2.0 cards and pro batteries.
The £2,600 Sony A7RII is similar to the A7S II, but primarily a stills camera that can do UHD video. It has a 42.4-megapixel full-frame sensor, without the low-light capabilities of the A7S. Sony’s £2,700 FDR-AX1 has a 1/2.3-inch sensor plus 20x zoom lens, and can record UHD and HD up to 50/60p at up to 150Mbps (MPEG 4 and XAVC S) to 2x XQD card slots.
JVC’s versatile £2,850 GY-LS300 is similar to its GY-HM200, but with a Super 35-size sensor, interchangeable lenses (MFT mount), and Prime Zoom, enabling any lenses to zoom in and out without losing resolution or depth of field. It has J-Log gamma for expanded dynamic range, and there are some very good bundled lens deals available for it. A free forthcoming update will add 100/120fps HD.
£3000 - £4,000
Panasonic’s £3,300 AG-DVX200 (shown below with Atomos Ninja Assassin recorder) has a 4/3-inch sensor and fixed 13x zoom lens, recording 8-bit 4:2:2 internal (10-bit output via SDI and HDMI), offering 100Mbps 4K/24p, or 50/60p for UHD (150Mbps) and HD (200Mbps). It can go up to 120fps in HD. It is a stylish, versatile general-purpose camera, but not great in low light.
Sony’s new £3,500 PXW-Z150, launched at BVE 2016, has a 1-inch sensor, 12x zoom lens, and a usable digital zoom (from the 20-megapixel sensor) claimed to enable enlarging the image to 18x in UHD or 24x in HD. It records UHD 24/25/30p at up to 100Mbps in XAVC (4:2:0) or HD at up to 100/120fps (10-bit 4:2:2) in XAVC or MPEG2 at up to 50Mbps, to two SDXC/SDHC card slots.
Blackmagic’s £3,800 Ursa Mini 4.6K EF (and £4,250 Ursa Mini 4.6K PL) look like the Ursa Mini to buy, with an improved sensor offering up to 15 Stops dynamic range in Raw. Not available yet, but test shots have looked very good (certainly in good light). The camera has started shipping, but without its promised global shutter. Whether it lives up to its potential has yet to be seen. Look for a review in the May issue of TV Technology Europe.
£4000 - £5,000
Sony’s £4,000 PXW-Z100 handheld XDCAM camcorder has a 1/2.3-inch sensor, 20x zoom, recording 4K/UHD at 50/60p (up to 600Mbps, 10-bit 4:2:2) and HD 50/60p using XAVC to 2x (fairly expensive) XQD cards, with HDMI and SDI outputs and 2x XLR inputs. Very nice documentary-style camera, but not great in low light (as you’d expect from such a small sensor on what is one of the older 4K cameras).
Sony’s £4,500 PXW-FS5 Super 35 sensor camera takes E-mount lenses and records 100Mbps UHD 24/25/30p (4:2:0) and HD 50/60p (10-bit 4:2:2) XAVC, as well as eight or 16 seconds cache record of 240 or 120fps in HD, to SD cards. One of the neatest features is its electronic variable ND filter (very useful for shallow depth of field shots). It can also crop to Super 16 mode for 2K shots, and has a nice, rotatable handgrip. See the review on page 10 of this issue.
Price drops have brought AJA’s Cion into the affordable realm. The Cion is a lot of camera for the sort of deals seen recently (£4,700). It is a shoulder-mounted (ENG-style) model offering Apple ProRes 422 and 444 at up to 4K 50/60p (or outputs AJA Raw at up to 4K 120p), to SSD media. It has a global shutter, PL mount (MTF makes alternative mounts) and 4x SDI outputs (for Quad HD links), and all the professional features you could want - although you have to buy your own viewfinder.
Canon’s newly launched EOS-1D X Mark II full-frame 35mm sensor DSLR should cost under £5,000 when it’s available. Th camer offers 4K video capture up to 60p (800Mbps), plus HD 120p (360Mbps), to a CFast 2.0 card, with very good low-light capabilities.
Sony’s PXW-FS7 is only really affordable if you ignore VAT, but it is good value Sony’s full-featured PXW-FS7 4K XAVC XDCAM camcorder is available for less than £5,000, but only ex VAT (less than £6,000 including VAT), so if you have the budget, it should probably be on your list too. It can record Raw 4K/UHD to an external device at up to 60p or HD at up to 240fps. It has two internal XQD media slots recording up to UHD 50/60p or HD 150/180p in 10-bit 4:2:2 XAVC.