Buyers guide: UHD cameras for every occasion

Blackmagic Ursa Mini
David Fox
June 17th 2015 at 3:07PM : By

Blackmagic Design - Sony - Canon - Bradley Engineering - Panasonic - Grass Valley - JVC

With Ultra HD channels now being readied for launch across Europe, David Fox examines a selection of the 4K and UHD-capable broadcast quality cameras on the market.

Ultra HD (UHD) and beyond was the key trend among new cameras announced at NAB 2015, some at prices that you’d have expected to pay for HD only a year ago.

There was even a choice of 3/4-inch UHD cameras for mainstream broadcast production, for those programmes, such as sport, where shallow depth of field isn’t such a good thing.

There were also new HD cameras, but even if you don’t need UHD, the higher-resolution cameras have other attractions, such as wider dynamic range - both the Blackmagic Ursa Mini and Canon EOS C300 Mark II offer 15 stops.

Most interesting

Indeed, the Ursa Mini was probably the most interesting new arrival, given its price - starting at £2,149 (€3,519) for the 4K EF-mount model - although if you want those 15 stops you’ll have to go for the 4.6K (4608x2592 pixel) sensor at £3,565 (€5,885) for the EF-mount model (there are also PL-mount versions of each).

The 4.6K sensor has a global shutter for shooting up to 30 frames per second (switchable to rolling shutter for up to 60p), and includes sensor refrigeration to maximise its dynamic range. It is also available as an upgrade for the larger Ursa Super 35 digital film camera.

The Ursa Mini 4.6K EF could be a real contender for general production - assuming that it lives up to its specifications.

The compact, lightweight Mini isn’t upgradable, but should appeal to a wider range of users. Having higher resolution than even DCI 4K (4096x2160) means that users can more easily stabilise images in post without losing resolution. The camera also records up to 160fps in HD and includes a full copy of the DaVinci Resolve colour grading and editing software.

The cheaper 4K sensor has 12 stops of dynamic range and shoots at HD, UHD (3840x2160) and 4000x2160 resolutions (the latter in 12-bit lossless CinemaDNG Raw).

Bit of a nuisance

The Mini comes with a 5-inch fold out viewfinder, 12G-SDI output, and dual Raw and Apple ProRes recorders. There is also an optional shoulder kit (£289/€475) and an add-on 1920x1080 colour OLED viewfinder (£1,079/€1,759). However, it doesn’t have built-in ND filters, which is a nuisance.

High dynamic range is just one of the improvements on the Canon EOS C300 Mk II, a comprehensive upgrade for the most hired broadcast camera of the past few years.

Compared to the C300, the MkII has: a new Canon-designed Super 35mm CMOS sensor with twice the readout speed (for reduced rolling shutter effects); a more advanced imaging engine with dual DIGIC DV5 processors; new Canon Log2 that retains more highlight and shadow information (enabling that extra dynamic range), plus the useful Wide DR setting seen in the C100 MkII, which requires less work in post; improved auto focus; extended ND filters; dual CFast 2.0 card slots; and an increased ISO range of up to 102,400 for low light use.

It also has new XF-AVC recording codecs (similar to Sony’s XAVC), based on H.264 compression and MXF wrapping. There is 10-bit 4:2:2 XF-AVC intra for 4K/UHD at 410, 225, 220, or 110Mbps, while HD and 2K can be recorded in 10-bit 4:4:4 at 210Mbps, or 12-bit at 225Mbps.

Main limitations

There are also XF-AVC Long GoP (50Mbps) and Proxy (35 or 24Mbps) options for 2K/HD recording, but not the MPEG2 format used on the C300 and XF series. The main limitation is that the C300 Mk II can not shoot at more than 30p in 4K/UHD, although it can go up to 100/120p in 2K/HD.

Although the current C300 (recently dropped in price) was widely used for all sorts of production, the C300 MkII is probably best suited to drama in 4K/UHD, while Sony’s FS7 is more suited to reality-style programming - not only because of its higher frame rates (up to 60fps in 4K/UHD and 180fps in HD), but also its shoulder-mount form factor.

The Ursa Mini 4.6K EF is a third of the price of the £11,299 (€15.5k) C300 MkII (and about half the cost of Sony’s FS7) and will be available in July, whereas the C300 MkII won’t ship until September. As such, the Ursa Mini could be a real contender for general production, assuming that it lives up to its specifications.

Canon also announced a new lightweight UHD camera, the £1,600 (€2.2k) XC10, that is suitable as a B-camera for larger productions.

It uses a new 1-inch CMOS sensor and Canon’s latest DIGIC DV5 processor, and can record UHD at 25/30p to a CFast 2.0 card at up to 305Mbps (XF-AVC) or 50/60p HD to an SD card at 50Mbps, 8-bit 4:2:2. It has a 10x optical f/2.8 - f/5.6 zoom (with manual zoom and focus ring), and optical and electronic image stabilisation.

Small and getting smaller

Blackmagic also announced what it claims to be “the world’s smallest digital film action camera”, the Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera (as well as Micro Studio Camera 4K) for 4K and UHD.

The £709 (€1179) Micro Cinema Camera also boasts an “innovative remote control” using an expansion port with PWM and S.Bus connections that provides access to many of the camera’s functions via widely-used wireless remote control systems, such as those for model aircraft. These are cheap and relatively simple to map on to various camera or lens settings (iris, focus, audio levels, start/stop recording, etc.).

It has a Super 16mm-size sensor (12.48mm x 7.02mm) with 13 stops of dynamic range. Its built-in recorder saves lossless 12-bit log CinemaDNG Raw (520Mbps at 30p) and Apple ProRes (up to 220Mbps at 30p) files.

These are cheap and relatively simple to map on to various camera or lens settings (iris, focus, audio levels, start/stop recording, etc.).

The £929 (€1,545) Micro Studio Camera 4K is not actually 4K but UHD (up to 25/30p) and HD (50/60p), and aimed at live production, although it also has the new expansion bus.

It includes: built in colour correction; talkback; tally indicator; PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) control; 6G-SDI input/output; HDMI output; and B4 lens control. When used for HD, the sensor’s extra resolution eliminates Bayer pattern colour loss, to give full bandwidth RGB HD colour and improved sub pixel anti-aliasing for finer detailed HD images.

Both Micro cameras are small enough to mount in cars, and can be controlled directly from buttons on the front of the camera. The bodies are not much larger than their Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lens mounts (and can use other lenses via adaptors).

Going remote

Bradley Engineering also launched a tiny new remote-controlled 4K camera that uses a Super 35 4K CMOS sensor developed by JVC Kenwood subsidiary AltaSens (the sensor also used in JVC’s new GY-LS300). It has a MFT lens interface, adaptable for B4 and PL mounts.

The output is by fibre, directly from the camera, and the Bradley Base Station provides genlock input, a simple TTL level control protocol and a dual ST fibre connection up to 20km, including full control and genlock.

There is also a dedicated Pan/Tilt unit (U3_4K), as well as three options for remote camera panels with full CCU control, a fibre base station with SMPTE hybrid options or ST connectors, remote control via fibre, SMPTE adaptors, zoom servo lenses and lens servos.

The design is based on Bradley’s U3 camera head - a PTZ camera that can memorise 99 pre-set positions and controlled remotely, including pan, tilt, zoom, iris, focus, full paint and colour balancing, using Bradley’s Remote Control Panel.

Sensors working overtime

Having 2/3-inch sensors is important for sports production so that cameras can follow far off action using 100x B4-mount zoom lenses and still keep the play in focus, whereas the typical, larger sensor 4K camera leaves very little depth of field for focusing, especially when the lens is wide open, as it would be for action shot at night.

So, to replicate this deeper depth of field, you’d think you’d need a three-chip 2/3-inch UHD camera, but not all the manufacturers agree.

While both Sony’s new HDC-4300 Ultra HD system camera, and Grass Valley’s LDX 86 4K model use three 2/3-inch UHD image sensors, Hitachi’s SK-UHD4000, which went into use earlier in the year, has four sensors: one red, one blue and two green for extra sensitivity, but Panasonic’s new AK-UC3000 camera has just one sensor, which, despite being larger, also claims to deliver 2/3-inch depth of field.

The latter takes conventional B4-mount lenses, but uses a low-loss expansion lens fitted where the prisms would be on a three-sensor camera, to keep the same depth of field as a 2/3-inch camera. It can deliver a 3840x2160 image at up to 50/60p and boasts reasonably high sensitivity (f10/2000 lux), low noise (S/N 60dB), wide dynamic range (600% or -6dB 36dB), and its MOS sensor uses a high-speed scan to reduce rolling shutter effects.

To replicate this deeper depth of field, you’d think you’d need a three-chip 2/3-inch UHD camera, but not all the manufacturers agree

The HDC-4300 does 50/60p UHD and also offers up to 8x Super-Slow Motion in HD (at up to 479.52/400fps), while Grass Valley’s new LDX 86 Universe is a switchable UHD/6x HD three-sensor camera that can be used for UHD, HD or high-speed HD acquisition in conjunction with the new K2 Dyno Universe replay system.

Its cheaper LDX 86 4K camera can be upgraded to the LDX Universe, while the new LDX 86 WorldCam HD camera is itself upgradable to 4K.

With the HDC-4300 both the 4K and slow-motion capabilities are available on a paid-for license (weekly, monthly or permanently). It comes standard with 2x and 3x HD recording.

It also supports the widened colour space included in the ITU-R BT.2020 broadcast standard, and allows for HD cut outs of two full HD images from the UHD picture, including a selectable zoom and perspective mode.