Apples to Apples? Zacuto’s Great Camera Shootout, 2011 and Beyond
The third episode of the epic Great Camera Shootout 2011 Trilogy has landed. Bringing together a wide array of cameras, from the top end of the pro market to the prosumer, Zacuto has performed a valuable service, in the most thorough head-to-head camera test ever performed. The cameras included in the test include the Sony F35, Sony F3 (before the SLog update), RED ONE with MX sensor, Arri Alexa, Kodak film stocks 5219 and 5213, Weisscam HS-2, Phantom Flex, Panasonic AF-100, the top Canon DSLRs (with neutral picture profile – the Technicolor profile was not available at the time of shooting) 5D Mark II, 7D, and 1D Mark IV, and the Nikon D7000.
First, the takeaway
After watching all three episodes, here are my impressions.
The Great Camera Shootout 2011 was a brilliant test, which dared to start from a funny premise. Comparing a RED ONE MX or Sony F35 to the Canon 7D or Nikon D7000 is like pitting a Ferrari against a Saturn. Of course the Ferrari will win. But it also drove home the point of just how revolutionary these scrappy DSLRs are, and how fundamentally they’ve changed everything. I watched the tests in full screen mode on a 27 inch iMac, where the differences were more obvious, and I watched them in the embedded web page size, where the eye has a hard time detecting the differences. Considering how much media is consumed on people’s laptops, tablets and phones (I don’t own a TV, and most people I know don’t either as a generational shift in viewing preferences takes place), this is a key distinction. A music video on YouTube won’t necessarily benefit from a cost increase many multiples higher than the end experience warrants.
Then again, humans are trained, or perhaps are naturally disposed, to perceive subtle quality differences. When I walk through SoHo and see jackets or shoes equal to my monthly take home pay, there is just something nicer about the material, a quality to it, and I’m not sure it’s all in my head. Although the cuts and fitting of H&M and Forever 21 clothes are often direct copies of runway collections, I can still notice the difference between the two on the street. Or at least I think I can. Subconscious prejudices at work can play a surprisingly big role in our perceptions. Maybe the person wearing that coat just thinks it’s higher quality, and through some learned behavior, or inherent quirk of the human mind from millenia of social evolution, this perception is imparted to us.
In 1976, the Judgement of Paris shocked the world, when blind taste tests revealed California wines to be pre-eminant over French in every category. Just knowing where a wine came from had colored the perceptions of wine connoisseurs. Judging the ‘naturalness’ of skin tone rendering can be as subjective as tasting the ‘fruit-forward’ quality of a Malbec. One flaw of the test was that by revealing the footage we were looking at, our interpretation was shaded by our preconceptions.
With this weakness in mind, Zacuto finished the episode by announcing a new upcoming series, Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout, shot in Chicago, which will anonymize the footage until the final episode reveal, to prove that it’s the cinematographer who can make a camera sing, regardless of the perceived limitations of the gear. This will include cameras previously left out from the test, including the Panasonic GH2 and RED EPIC, as well as unnamed next generation cameras(!). The Judgement of Chicago could become a watershed moment in cinema history.
Now on to the results of episode three.
Global shutters, used on classic film cameras, capture each frame as a whole, while rolling shutters, as found digital cameras using CMOS sensors, capture different portions of the image at different points in time, leading to motion artifacts in the form of skews, wobbling effect and partial exposures. The rolling shutter effect was tested in two ways. A cylindrical drum with vertical lines painted along it was spun to see how vertical the lines stayed without slanting. As expected, the film cameras all performed flawlessly. The F35 and Arri Alexa dominated among rolling shutter sensors at controlling this effect, while the 1Ds Mark IV and D7000 seemed strongest among DSLRs.
In the second test, a wheel with an array of 8 lines was spun at 48 frames/second. The theoretical holy grail of global shutters would show the lines as perfectly still, while rolling shutters would bend and skew the lines. None of the digital cameras performed well here, save for the F35, but the DSLRs, not surprisingly with their slower processors, lagged the most.
In my mind, this was hardest to judge from a technical perspective in the entire series, as pleasing color is so subjective. In the first color test, a tableau of fruit, flowers, spices and other eclectic natural colors were laid out and lit to test color rendition across the dynamic range. The F35 was the winner in terms of overall range and accuracy, to my eye, with the Alexa and Sony F3 following. The RED looked surprisingly dull in comparison, the AF100 and DSLRs all seemed more saturated and less subtle and thus less natural.
Next they tested skin tones by lining up three actors representing the range of dark, olive, and fair-skinned subjects. Among the DSLRs, the D7000 and 5D excelled. But one commenter made a good point that it’s really when you color correct that the cameras with higher bit rates and color spaces shine, simply because of the amount of raw data they include.
The end of film?
The tests were followed by a fascinating discussion of what this meant for the future of film vs. video. There seemed to be surprise that high end digital sensors can, in many areas, finally best film in many areas, though many panel participants pointed to a certain je ne sais quoi that still gave film the edge. One commentator noted that while most established DPs have a great fondness for the film ‘look,’ mainstream consumers are often indifferent to its merits, and were raised on and, if not indifferent, often prefer a digital aesthetic. Most seemed to agree that while film still sets the bar, the future is clearly digital, as younger filmmakers, with film financially out of their reach, were raised without the discipline film requires and are used to the instant feedback digital provides.