Buyers Guide: affordable 4K cameras

Sony A7II
Buyers Guide
April 24th 2015 at 12:44PM

They may not be everyone’s shooter of choice but affordable UHD/4K cameras are growing in popularity and they certainly have their place.

The range of affordable cameras that are said to be able to record 4K video is pretty wide and is getting ever wider with several new cameras launching into the field already this year, writes Adrian Pennington.

Of course, you first have to unpick the recording specifications. Most will claim UHD at 3840x2160 pixel resolution but others have the higher cinema defined 4K standard of 4096 x 2160. As always though, beautiful pictures are not judged by pixel count alone.

“The less defined aesthetic of quality of images plus the form-factor, ease-of-use, operational format and ease of post production workflows become much more important characteristics than pixel count and low cost in all but the cheapest of productions,” asserts Barry Bassett, managing director at equipment hire firm VMI.

“For ‘micro budget’ and indie productions which are shot on a shoestring, all technologies become fair game but when people actually have a choice and a realistic budget, the incumbent camera standards made by Sony, ARRI and Canon become the norm and productions are straightforward, rather than being fraught with difficulties to make them work,” he says.

Things to consider for several of the cameras specified below include:

  • Viewfinders: the lack of a suitable viewfinder can result in viewfinder delay that makes shoulder operation difficult and unpleasant for the operator.
  • Monitoring: the absence of professional HDMI outputs can make video monitoring difficult.
  • Codecs: non-standard codecs can make post-production more time consuming.
  • Global Shutter: the lack of a global shutter can exaggerate the ‘jello’ effect, making shooting moving images appear with wobbly vertical lines.

“Some of the pictures produced by these new 4K cameras can be really good but the low cost of the camera in a full production package with lights, grip, camera accessories and monitoring often only makes a minimal impact on the overall budget,” says Bassett. For these reasons VMI has no current plans to stock any on the following list, “though if peoples’ expectations and views change markedly from ours, this will change.”

At CES this year Sony touted its “4K for $1K” releases. Here are those plus select others that fit very roughly into that price bracket.*

GoPro Hero4 Black £359

The action-cam market leader by some distance. Its flagship model shoots 4K at 30 fps or 1080p at 120 fps (Hero3 captures 4K at 15fps) from a 170-degree wide angle lens with output of the 4K via HDMI. Kitchen matchbox-sized they may be but unless you connect it to an external monitor or use Wi-Fi you won’t be able to see what you’re shooting. The Hero now comes with Vislink wireless transmission units for integration of footage into live broadcasts, only at HD res though.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 £1,100

Shooting UHD and 4K, the GH4 features a 16.05 MP Digital Live MOS sensor and MFT mount for PL and EF lens adapters to support optics from Canon, Panasonic, Olympus, Tokina, Voigtlander and Sigma. It will output 4K via HDMI but for the highest quality the DMW-YAGH recorder is recommended. This optional adapter – which sits under the camera – costs more than the body but fits the GH4 into a traditional production workflow. It also includes XLR inputs, 3G-SDI and Quad Link SDI outputs, audio level meters and a 2,359K-dot OLED Live View Finder.

Blackmagic Design (BMD) Production Camera 4k £1,800

Models are fitted with either PL, EF or MFT mounts but all house a Super 35mm-sized sensor and global shutter to record UHD (3840 x 2160) and 1080p video at up to 12 stops of dynamic range. A 6G-SDI output allows for monitoring (or BMD vision mixers for live production) in either 1080p or 4K and it will record 4K in ProRes onboard. Comes bundled with £500 worth of Da Vinci Resolve finishing software.

JVC GY-HM200 £2,225

A fixed lens camcorder that shoots UHD (and Full HD 50Mbps) from a 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS chip. The built-in 12x zoom lens comes with an optical image stabiliser and 24x zoom in HD mode. Includes a built-in HD streaming engine with Wi-Fi and 4G LTE connectivity. Shipped in March.

JVC GY-LS300 £3,500

An interchangeable lens camcorder featuring a Super 35mm CMOS sensor combined with MFT lens mount. Contains a unique Variable Scan Mapping technology that maintains the native angle of view for a variety of lenses, including Super35, MFT, and Super16. As a result, states JVC, lens options for the camera are almost limitless. Records to non-proprietary SDHC and SDXC media cards. Available as of April.

Panasonic HC-WX970 £900

Shoots UHD video at 30 fps, or 120 fps at HD, and is equipped with a 20x Leica Dicomar zoom and HDR functionality. What sets the HC-WX970 apart from the cheaper HC-VX870 is a secondary camera on the flip-out LCD. This allows it to record two simultaneous video streams and permits picture-in-picture monitoring on the LCD. An additional narration mode will record commentary while shooting. A smartphone can also be used as a ‘B’ camera, streaming video to the HC-WX970 (or the HC-VX870) via Wi-Fi where it will be recorded.

Sony FDR-AX433 £800

Sony’s newest Handycam started shipping in February. It includes Balanced Optical SteadyShot image stabilisation, a Zeiss Tessar 170-degree ultra-wide-angle lens, stereo mics and the ability to control the frame with a companion mobile app.

Sony FDR-X1000V £350

Widely seen as a direct response to GoPro, Sony’s latest action-cam arrived in March with similar benefits to the Handycam including SteadyShot. Records 4K at 30fps onto Micro SDXC cards compressed in XAVC S. Alternatively, 4K can be output to an external recorder via HDMI. Its Exmor R CMOS sensor and Bionz X image processor are also found in Sony A7 full frame cameras.

Samsung NX1 £1,200

Mirrorless cameras could overtake sales of DSLRs in the next few years. Instead of reflecting light through the lens onto a prism and into the viewfinder, in mirrorless models light passes right onto the image sensor, which captures a preview of the image on a rear screen. The benefits are a smaller and lighter form factor which until recently has been outweighed by delays on autofocus and on preview display and high demands on battery power. Perhaps the frontrunner in this category, and more so since the release of firmware 1.2, the NX1 can record 4K at 24fps in H.265/HEVC to a conventional memory card and also 4:2:0 8-bit footage including timecode to compatible external recorders via HDMI.

There’s a 28MP sensor, OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF), C Gamma mode for higher overall contrast and D Gamma for wider dynamic range, plus a Master Black Level control and three luminance range options for precise tonal control. The lag in display is down to milliseconds. Sony has also released the A7II (£1,300), the first mirrorless model in its A7 range but that is only an HD shooter at present.

Sony A7S £1,900

Pairing a 12.2MP 35mm Exmor CMOS sensor with the Bionz X image processor, the A7S records 4K using XAVC S and to AVCHD and MP4 codecs. However you must do this via an external HDMI recorder. The A7S also handles Full HD at 60p, 60i, 30p, and 24fps, saving them to a memory card. Other pro features include support for XLR mics and customisable Picture Profiles with SLog2 gamma.

Smartphone cameras

There are over 20 smartphones containing 20 megapixel and higher sensors capable of
4K video, most running Android. They include: LG G3, Motorola Google Nexus and Moto X, Panasonic CM1, Samsung Galaxy Note Edge, Acer Liquid S2 and Sony Xperia Z3. The iPhone 6 is not 4K capable. Some can record RAW (uncompressed) and HDR is also being introduced. Chinese brand OnePlus One uniquely records 24fps DCI 4K.

*Prices are approximate.