2012 Highlights in Video Tech

Posted in News, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on December 20, 2012

With manufacturers’ hands revealed, we can comfortably take stock of the trends and legacy of this momentous year for filmmakers.

Sony FS700 – Slo-mo for the rest of us
sony fs700High framerate HD has long been the domain of luxury car-priced specialty cameras like the Phantom Miro. Sony changed this with its sub-$10,000 FS700 super 35mm all-rounder. With Full HD video up to 240fps (and reduced resolution up to 960fps), slow motion is no longer an expensive and costly imposition, but seamlessly integrates with the production workflow. That the camera inherits the FS100’s low light prowess, and is 4K-capable with a recently revealed add on recorder, means this camera will be a future-proof, affordable, swiss army knife of a camera for filmmakers and DPs everywhere. Check out our Sony FS700 interview at NAB.

Canon goes all-in on Digital Cinema
Canon C500Little over a year ago, a “Cinema EOS” division was just a gleam in Canon’s eye. While other camera manufacturers seemed content to let their video capabilities on DSLR and mirrorless offerings act as value-added features to the core still-photography tool, Canon decided to take a gutsy leap into the Digital Cinema fray. By year’s end, it offers a full range of digital cameras, lenses and peripherals along a variety of price points, carving out a position among industry mainstays. We’ve seen customers enthusiastically adopting these cameras in all areas of the Digital Cinema industry: features, documentaries, music videos, commercials and more. Read our year one analysis of the Canon Cinema EOS line after our industry event.

Digital Continues its Hollywood Takeover
With a few notable exceptions (The Dark Knight Rises, The Master, which utilized IMAX or 70mm film stocks, respectively), many of the year’s biggest and most visually exceptional movies were shot digitally. Films like Prometheus, Skyfall, Life of Pi, The Avengers, Zero Dark Thirty and plenty more surreptitiously replaced their medium’s namesake for digital alternatives from ARRI and RED.

Sony Solves the Global Shutter Problem
Sony F5 ModularWhile digital cinema cameras marched slowly toward film parity over the last decade, they always lacked a fundamental advantage of their film counterparts: a global shutter. Synonymous with film cameras, global shutters allow the entire frame to be exposed at once, rather than the progressive exposure of digital sensors. Fast processors and internal algorithms and post software were able to mitigate the problems inherent in rolling shutters, yet skew, wobble and partial exposures plagued even the most advanced cameras in use today, and required artistic compromises during the shooting process. Late in the year, Sony announced two spec-heavy cinema cameras in the form of the F5 and F55. The cameras were so its impressive in their own right, it was easy to overlook the monumental achievement the F5 added to its long spec sheet: the first global shutter on a digital cinema camera. Read about the F5, F55 and other Sony 4K news.

The Year of the Price Cut 
If Martin Luther King, Jr. declared “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the filmmaking equivalent would be: “the arc of technology is pretty short, and it bends towards Crazy Eddie prices.” The shadow of the DSLR revolution hangs over the industry, when “film-like” depth-of-field and color range came within reach of millions of idea-rich but cash-poor filmmakers. Yet the truly high-end sheen and clarity of Hollywood imagery remained tantalizingly beyond the grasp of Indie filmmakers and small production houses. But perhaps more so than any other year, 2012 saw the dramatic price drop of cinema-grade options. First, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and Sony FS700 ruffled players at NAB with pro-level spec sheets at consumer level prices. Then, to top off the trend, RED finished the year with across the board cuts to its entire line, in many cases practically halving the cost of camera “brains.” Of course, “cheap” doesn’t begin to describe cameras, especially when requisite peripherals are added to the cost, and renting remains the most cost-effective option for most DPs, but the fact remains – the price and quality gap between high end and low end shooting has never been smaller.

Blackmagic Ups the Ante with its Cinema Camera
blackmagicBlackmagic, no stranger to bold shakeups in every area of the industry it enters, nevertheless shocked the filmmaking world at NAB by casting its lot into the mature camera market with the Cinema Camera. The specs seemed too good to be true: common EF and Micro Four Thirds Mounts, bleeding edge Thunderbolt I/O, built in SSD and, most importantly, 2.5K, 12-bit RAW codec – all for the price of a DSLR. Its encountered no shortage of setbacks since its announcement: from endless production delays (we’re the only rental house in the city with one), to buggy firmware, limited featureset, less than intuitive UI and massive files requiring huge post processing power. Nevertheless, its fundamental advantage, incredible internal codecs and pliable final output for post work put a serious wrench in the careful pricing strategies the major players use to protect price brackets along the product range. If the BMCC takes off, 8-bit compressed codecs on 5 digit price points will not hold water much longer. Now, its a question whether Blackmagic can resolve its production bottleneck and get it into the hands of more users. Follow our full coverage of the BMCC.

4K Goes Mainstream
NAB’s big cinema camera manufacturers all had optimized 4K theaters showing off the game-changing potential of a high resolution calibrated experience. It was such a startling event that all four ARC team members on the floor in Vegas wrote about the experience in our post-NAB report. It remains to be seen whether audiences demand the hyper-realism of high resolution, but savvy filmmakers aren’t going to ignore the future-proofing a 4K+ master provides. Astoundingly, even GoPro got in on the high res action at the end of the year with its Hero 3 Black Edition shooting 4K at 15fps for only $400. Read our 4K commentary from NAB.

Full-Frame Reaches Dedicated Video-Cameras 
sony nexvg900The full-frame “look” became so common during the 5D Mark II heyday that beautifully shallow depth of field and the focus searching that attended it became a common attribute of half the films on Vimeo, an aesthetic unto itself. Yet Super 35mm remained the de facto standard for dedicated digital cinema cameras, leaving filmmakers who wanted to achieve the distinctive shallow affect with a handful of cameras aimed at stills shooters. Sony took a step toward changing this with its E-mount NEX-VG900. While the camera has notable shortcomings for filmmakers – a somewhat muddy image for film work and auto-oriented camcorder layout and interface, it still was the first Full-Frame camera with such a thin flange-mount distance, allowing for a massive array of lenses to be affixed via adapters. Here’s hoping for more large-sensor offerings in video camera bodies to come. Follow the tremendous developments in full-frame this year.

GH2 Upsets at Zacuto’s “Revenge”
The hacked Panasonic GH2 claimed long-overdue credit as a formidable filmmaking tool when it upset the major players in a blind screening of Zacuto’s annual camera test. While the strictly controlled standard lighting scenario showed the cameras falling more closely along their price points, the GH2 was able to win over the audience (including Francis Ford Coppola) when individual teams were allowed to take on each camera and compensate for their weaknesses with additional fill light. While this was as much a victory for the DPs as the camera itself, it nevertheless showed off the surprising image quality of the hacked version of the camera, with its increased bitrates and added features. Now we can eagerly look forward to the GH3, which promises to bring many of the hacked features to the native firmware. Read our analysis of the test and our interview with “Revenge” test administrator, Bruce Logan.

OM-D E-M5 Image Stabilization – The Beginning of the End of Steadicam?
Olympus OMD EM5The diminutive Micro Four Thirds enthusiast camera got plenty of plaudits from the photography press this year, but most coverage highlighted the camera’s accomplishments for the stills shooter, with unprecedented image quality from such a small sensor, speedy autofocus and fantastic build quality and ergonomics. Video seemed an afterthought for Olympus, so much so that they somehow managed to leave out 24p, the standard framerate among filmmakers and a key ingredient in approximating the “film-look.” But the five-axis onboard image stabilization was a revolutionary leap forward for hand-holding filmmaking. Micro-shake is an inescapable reality, requiring heavy and cumbersome rigs or steadicams for even the most trivial hand-held shot, or unreliable post-tools. With this camera, we got to peak into a future of IS so advanced as to potentially remove the need for burdensome peripherals.

What do you think?
This roundup is just one glimpse into some of the massive changes we’ve seen in the industry this past year. It’s all come so fast, it’s actually been hard to keep up at times. What had the biggest impact for you this year? What did we miss? Add your voice in the comments!

Also take our poll below, which change was most important for you in 2012?


The Cinema EOS Gambit: Report from the Canon/Adorama Presentation

Posted in Events, News, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on November 19, 2012

It’s easy to forget how recently film lorded over the Hollywood; how absolute, how unquestionable it’s dominance as the medium of choice.

Sure, digital was convenient, and certainly there was that mysterious theoretical crossover point at which image quality could uncannily pass the Turing test of a trained DP’s eye, for film. But there was a lingering denial in many hearts that such a day would come, and for so long, this held true. Nothing could match the latitude of a film negative, not to mention replicate that “look.” Video was confined to a “choice” for risk-taking filmmakers, eager to push the aesthetic envelope of audience comfort (think David Lynch or Lars von Trier) or by trigger happy directors prematurely convinced of its substitutability and advantages (Michael Mann comes to mind).

Yet Moore’s Law marches stoically forward, and with it, hearts follow minds into the future reality, which has finally become the current one. The all-caps opposites – staid, storied ARRI and its foil, the plucky upstart, RED – took an early lead in getting real films, indistinguishable from the namesake, into theaters. Notably, the gorgeous Skyfall was shot on the Alexa and the approaching Hobbit trilogy was EPIC shot. Sony, never one to be left out of seemingly any market, answered with the formidable F65, used on the forthcoming M. Night Shyamalan feature. A new oligarchy around the centerpiece of cinematic technology – the camera – was forming, as suddenly as the market came up for grabs. Canon, seeing (more…)

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Interview: ROGCS Administrator Bruce Logan, ASC

Posted in Video by Nathan Lee Bush on November 13, 2012

I had the good luck of running into Bruce Logan, ASC, at PhotoPlus. The administrator of last summer’s revelatory Zacuto Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout camera test and a storied DP, having shot features like TRON and Star Trek, commercials for a who’s who of major brands and music videos for the likes of Madonna and Prince, he was recently asked by Panasonic to write, produce, direct and co-DP with Philip Bloom a short film, Genesis, using a pre-production GH3. We had a chance to talk cameras, industry trends, and just what exactly the takeaway from Revenge was.

Adorama Rental Company: Tell me about Revenge. Was that a massive time commitment for you?
Bruce Logan: Well it took a lot of time, but I learned so much that it was like going back to school. You know, they always say if you want to really learn a subject than go ahead and teach it. So being the administrator on that… I think it was a four-day event during the pre-light and everything else we had to do, but then the post took a long time. You know, we brought that test to NAB, but we couldn’t show it at NAB because the post pipeline was broken, and I was very unhappy with that. So I took it back to Chicago, and what we did was we made sure the native files went straight into Baselight and they came out as DPX 16-bit and nothing happened in between. And previously there’d been a whole bunch of different steps to get there. So yeah, it was intensive (laughs).

ARC: You mentioned earlier about administering different tests…
BL: The ICAS (Image Control Assessment Series) test, I didn’t actually administer that. They had wanted ICAS to be like little pieces of feature film. They were tired of seeing test charts and color charts and they wanted it to have a little more richness to the look. So I ended up being elected as the head writer. So it was my job to take 25 DPs in a room that wanted all these different parameters in the test, and then it was my job to come up with a concept that included those parameters, or most of them. So I was the writer and then I directed one of them. ICAS is a lot about the ACES workflow, and that is a very exciting thing that could revolutionize the industry for us.

ARC: How so?
BL: Well because ACES is a standard, in the same way that 35mm frame has been a standard bucket we’ve put all photographic information in, this is a new file, which is based on OpenEXR, which is originally for visual effects – for swapping visual effects between post houses so that there was a standardization to it – and each camera manufacturer will come up with an IDT, or an Input Device Transform, that will take their camera and their sensor and really kind of zero it out. So once you get into the ACES workflow you should theoretically be able to get a Canon, a RED, and an F65 put them all side by side and shoot this thing and when you bring them in, all the files look the same. Not necessarily in quality or dynamic range, but the basic color correction you’re gonna look at is standardized.

And then the other exciting thing about it is, if you do an ACES master negative of your project, even though normally you bake in a color correction, well nothing gets baked in with ACES, it’s just kind of a LUT that’s superimposed on it. So that means that when you archive the movie, you can always go back to the original negative, the way it was shot. And it doesn’t solve the problem of, physically, how do you keep data for 20 year or 100 years? But it’s a really great step forward in terms of standardization. And I guess post houses won’t be very happy about this, because it takes away some of the secret sauce away from the post houses. It has the catch that they are big files and its gonna be more data – but there’s Moore’s Law, and in a few years from now that won’t be significant.

ARC: Let’s go back to the Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout because everyone was blown away by that. Were you surprised by the results?
BL: Well, I’m told there were no results (laughs). I think it was really interesting to let DPs light for their camera. But basically what it shows is that there are a lot of choices out there that you can shoot a digital cinema movie with, if you’re a good DP and know the weaknesses of your camera. Like the GH2, they said “we knew we couldn’t compete with the dynamic range, so we put a lot more fill light in there.” So that part of the test is really more a DP test than a camera test, or a combination of the two. But there was that zero line of, “I want to include in the test every camera going through with the same lighting setup, same file…”

ARC: And they were more in line with the price point at that point.
BL: Exactly. And as I say the great leveler for that was the 2K, because a lot of the higher resolution cameras, at 2K, which is the de facto distribution now – 4K will be here soon, but it’s not really here worldwide yet – that gave an advantage to some of the low end cameras.

ARC: And you were saying up-resing has a disadvantage which would be more apparent, obviously.
BL: Well that’s what was really surprising to me. The HD cameras up-resed to 2K did better than the 8K, 4K cameras down-resed. And I thought the oversampling was going to negate that, was really going to make a difference. But it didn’t. It was the great leveler for those cameras.

ARC: What trends do you see in the industry right now? Does the GH2 represent a turning point? Or the Black Magic? What do you think about that camera?
BL: I haven’t seen footage. I’ve had it in my hands, but I wasn’t allowed to shoot files. So I don’t really know about that. But I have friends that have them, and they’re quite pleased with it. But until I get hands on myself and get it into Resolve, I’m not really gonna know. I’m on this tirade now, where I think DPs have to take control of color correction. And if that means being their own colorist, I think they should be. If the want to maintain and be the “auteur” of the image, they’re going to have to take control of that process. To have a producer and a colorist go in and decide how it’s going to be, I don’t think that’s acceptable anymore.

ARC: You used to decide, before you shot, the look you wanted.
BL: Exactly, you had so little – you had color correction and density – that’s all you had when you were doing photochemical negative. Now that we’re shooting RAW, it’s very hard for the DP to control the image at that point. I mean, the good lighting’s never going to go away, but as far as controlling the look, if it’s not there and taking hold of that process…

ARC: So you see those roles merging in the future, potentially?
BL: Well they have for me. The last two features I’ve done I’ve color corrected myself. I can go straight to where I want.

ARC: And what’s your camera of choice these days?
BL: Well this would just be a moment in time, because ask me again next week… But I really like the Alexa. And I really don’t mind whether I’m shooting RAW or ProRES. I don’t see a lot of differences.

ARC: Thanks so much for your time!
BL: Thank you.

The Blackmagic Cinema Camera has Landed at ARC!

Posted in News, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on November 8, 2012

Blackmagic Cinema Camera at Adorama Rental Co.

Blackmagic Design made history at NAB in April, transforming itself overnight from a niche supplier of high-end I/O and software solutions for the filmmaking industry to a mass market camera manufacturer. Eight months on, its name is uttered with hushed and quivering reverence in the filmmaking community. How did it achieve such a feat? With nothing short of an industry-defying, paradigm shifting announcement: the Blackmagic Cinema Camera.

With 2.5K,12-bit, RAW and 10-bit ProRes 1080p recording, a promised 13 stops of dynamic range, radical diminutive form factor, electronic EF mount, and innovative touch screen interface/monitor, the camera had filmmakers salivating straightaway. But then the truly jaw dropping feature landed: the price tag. All this could be had for $2,995. It seemed like a typo. Shouldn’t there be an extra digit in there somewhere? We were incredulous when we interviewed Blackmagic U.S. President Dan May last at the show.

The question remained: could the BMCC live up to its vaunted specs at this aggressive price point? Videos have recently begun trickling in from pre-production models answering enthusiastically in the affirmative. The images coming out of the camera were amazing, holding detail deep into the shadows, possessing pleasant, film-like highlight rolloff, and resolving incredible detail. This


Canon Digital Cinema Event from Adorama

Posted in Events, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on November 7, 2012

This coming Tuesday, join Adorama and Canon for an in depth Presentation by Larry Thorpe, Senior Fellow of the Professional Engineering & Solutions Division of Canon USA, Inc., on the Cinema EOS cameras, including the newly announced C500C1001DC, as well as the C300.

The presentation will be followed by hands on time on the full Cinema Family products, CINE lenses (Primes and Zooms) and the Pro Camcorder lineup (XF/XA products).

Food and drinks drinks will be served. Doors open at 6, the presentation starts at 6.30, and you’ll have the opportunity to go hands-on with the gear at 8.

The event will be held at Union Square Ballroom, 27 Union Square W. Please click the image to RSVP. See you there!

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RED Slashes Prices Across Line

Posted in News, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on November 2, 2012

Mere days after Sony’s 4K bomb dropped, with the F5 and F55, RED CEO Jim Jannard announced an across-the-board price cut on the “brains” of all its current camera models. this included a Crazy Eddie slash of its “battle-tested” (i.e. used) RED ONE MX, from $25,000 to a mere $4,000. That’s slightly more than a used FS100, though of course will require expensive peripherals to bring it to life. Still 4.5K RAW for $4k sounds pretty unreal. It’s 5K offerings also see substantial drops. The EPIC-M falls almost half from $39,500 to $24,000, while the EPIC-X falls to $19,000 from $34,500. The Scarlet drops a less dramatic sum from its pricetag, to $7,950 from $9,700.

It now remains to be seen how Sony will respond. It was cleverly silent on the pricing for its latest announcements – aware, no doubt, of RED’s impending move following Jannard’s earlier post hinting such a change was imminent. Now it can adjust its final pricing accordingly.

It’s Canon’s move now – its push into digital cinema a bit more precarious following these announcements. Its 8-bit 4K 1D C DSLR is $13,000 and it’s $26,000 C500 is due this month. It’s anyone’s guess when and how it responds, but its DSLR division has shown itself eager to drop prices in the wake of product launches, so a similar move is not unthinkable.

As with all things digital, the end user is the ultimate winner. It’s hard to remember that prior to NAB last spring, anything beyond Full-HD seemed exotic. Five digit pricetag cameras like the C300 and F3 were happy offering 720/60p. But now we have three cameras under the magical $10,000 threshold sporting greater than HD resolution and many with high framerates to match their astronomical resolutions. The corollary cost, of course, is the increased processing power and storage needed to handle the massive resulting files. Nevertheless, it seems that the long-awaited high resolution future is indeed now.

Update: we added a poll to get your take on the current landscape!

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Sony’s 4K Bombshell: F5, F55 and Prime Family

Posted in Equipment, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on November 1, 2012

While residents in the New York Region were stumbling (or kayaking) out of their dwellings after the semi-apocalyptic Sandy on Tuesday, Sony gifted area filmmakers with a bit of solace as they tried to ignore that tree branch through the window and the water sloshing in the basement.

Even a storm closing the NYSE two days running for the first time since 1888 wasn’t enough to stop Sony from announcing a dizzying array of digital cinema goodies to update and extend its already formidable offerings. From two new 4k premium CineAlta bodies to PL prime lenses to the long-awaited solution unleashing 4K FS700 output to the first global shutter on a digital camera(!!!), there’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started…

Sony F5

The Sony F5 looks to be a placed as a complement to the F3, not a complete replacement. Pricing is unspecified but I speculate it assuming the pricing of the F3 at launch, probably stacked to against the C300, with the F3 taking a step in the direction of FS700 pricing, where it will still be differentiated by its S-Log and chroma sampling rates for users not in need of high framerates.

The F5 is an impressive top-to-bottom revamp addressing the F3’s few shortcomings, adding modularity, raw horsepower robust build and generous new internal and external codecs. Sporting a RED-style modular system and an Alexa style interface, the camera has borrowed some of the strongest elements of these two rivals. It also promises tons of pro recording options on-board, though with the caveat that many marquee features will arrive with firmware upgrades at unspecified future dates.

The newly designed Super 35 sensor is capable of quite a lot natively out of the box. Upon release, it will record a C300ish 8 bit MPEG-2 HD with 4:2:2 color at 50Mbps internally to SxS media, which will fit comfortably into existing broadcast workflows. But promised firmware updates will support an impressive cadre of internal recording formats, like 10-bit, 100 Mbps XAVC HD 2K at 4:2:2 at up to 120fps with no loss in (more…)

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Canon 5D Mark III vs. Blackmagic Cinema Camera

Posted in Video by Nathan Lee Bush on September 24, 2012

OneRiver Media has an useful comparison video out comparing graded, simultaneously-shot footage out of the Canon 5D Mark III and the new Blackmagic Cinema Camera. In many ways these cameras couldn’t be more different. Comparing a stills camera with video to a digital cinema camera might seem unfair, except that the cameras are practically the same price, and a substantial portion of 5D shooters use it primarily, if not exclusively, for video, and Canon distinctly marketed it to filmmakers.

So how did they comepare? The achilles heel of the 5D Mark III video has always been softness (though it sharpens nicely in post). Still, the clarity and dynamic range of the BMCC is pretty startling when you see it side-by-side. Especially obvious in the clips is a remarkable ability of the BMCC to hold highlight detail which is long gone in the 5D, and a retention of detail in the shadows. The 5D Mark III still has a low light advantage, owing to its higher ISO range which is remarkably clean (the BMCC tops out at ASA 1600). But the BMCC has such dynamic range, that it nullifies this point somewhat.

It’s hardly surprising that a 12-bit RAW codec and a 2.5k file would hold more detail and information, but its nonetheless impressive what Blackmagic has accomplished in a first generation camera from a company with no previous camera to its name. Such audacious pricing and radical rethinking that shakeup a whole industry are so rare – think iPhone – it’s exciting to watch the action unfold.

Of course, the asterisk in the equation price equation is whether you have the hardware to handle these massive files in post. All our Macbook Pros and Mac Pro towers are certainly capable of it. But if you are using your own gear, you will need top of the line specs and substantial storage requirements to process BMCC footage, even if shooting in ProRes HQ.

Also, be sure to check out Philip Bloom’s exhaustive BMCC review:

We’re still waiting on our BMCC, but can’t wait to put it through its paces. Until then, we’ll eagerly follow the continuing developments online.

Panasonic GH3 is a Video-Optimized Powerhouse

Posted in Equipment, News, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on September 18, 2012

Long championed by a loyal cadre as an under-appreciated black sheep in the filmmaking world, the Panasonic GH2 had its retribution moment this past summer, when a hacked version of the camera was the surprise belle of the ball in Zacuto’s Revenge of the Great Camera Shooutout. Pitted against cameras up to a hundred times its price (really), it managed to win over none other than Francis Ford Coppola and other exclusive audience members in attendance as the favorite at Zacuto’s live optimized screenings, where each camera was presented anonymously against its competitors to prevent bias. The caveat was that the results were also highly influenced by how each camera team chose to add to the base lighting of the scene. In the test comparing the cameras apples-to-apples under one constant lighting scenario, they corresponded more closely to their price points. Still, it showed what the GH2 could be pushed to do.

Zacuto’s test propelled the GH2 into the spotlight. Just in time to capitalize on the massive upset, Panasonic has unveiled the successor, a camera drastically upgraded and reconfigured in practically every area and geared unapologetically towards video shooters (though its the top of the line stills camera from Panasonic as well). The GH3 is a full-fledged response to practically any complaint its lauded predecessor had leveled against it during its two year run.

The vibrant GH2 hacker community exposed massive unused potential in sensor and processor by unlocking higher bit rates and increasing high ISO range, among other enhancements. The result was pure magic, with video that was sharper and cleaner than cameras many multiples its price. The grain at (more…)

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The Full-Frame Future is Upon Us: Nikon D600 & Sony’s SLT-A99, RX1, NEX-VG900

Posted in Equipment, News, Photography, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on September 13, 2012

A Very Big Year for Full-Frame
2012 has seen a full revamping of the entirety of the traditional Canon and Nikon full-frame product lines. Those two companies have throughout the modern digital era lobbed back-and-forth assaults on one another in two categories: all-purpose models like the D800/D800E and 5D Mark III in the $3000-$3500 range, and supercharged cameras designed for specialty applications like sports and photojournalism at double the price.

Yet, in the past 24 hours, this clockwork-like pattern of incremental updates in defined product categories has seen a massive shakeup. Surprisingly (and admirably), Nikon is one of the disturbers of the peace. This generally conservative company has a lot to lose if it cannibalizes its bread and butter lines. But that’s exactly the risk it’s taking with the D600 entry-level full-frame.

Nikon D600
Time after time we’ve seen it demonstrated that if you don’t make your own products obsolete, your competition will for you. Apple famously undermined the very product that led to its resurrection in the early 2000s, the iPod, gambling big on a vision of a new kind of mobile phone, and winning untold riches in the process.

A more common refrain, though, are the missed opportunities monolithic companies make, which compound into a slow, almost imperceptible decline, eventually spiraling into sudden collapse.

Nikon seems to fit the latter mold. The 1 system, while winning over some soccer moms and japanese teens with its cute styling and simple interface, was mocked upon its release as a tepid, underspec’d entrant in the skyrocketing mirrorless market, whose elite members were already going toe to toe with enthusiast and semi-pro DSLRs in much smaller packages. The J1 and V1 seemed cynically calculated not to step on the toes of the traditional product lines. It seemed like a move by a company with too much skin in the game to make truly visionary leaps. Yet today Nikon has revealed a truly affordable full-frame with a killer spec sheet attached.

The D600 is essentially a cross between the D7000 and D800, arguably borrowing the best of both worlds at a price point ($2100 MSRP) smack dab in the middle. The camera body, closer in size to the enthusiast D7000, takes more styling and interface cues from the camera as well. It borrows its AF system, has dual SD card slots and USB 2.0 connectivity. The 24 megapixel sensor (presumably Sony-designed and Nikon-modified) brings it to the top of the megapixel heap, save for the D800.

On most other counts, the camera matches its big brother, the D800, from EXPEED 3 processor to 3.2 inch 920k LCD. In fact, for those who don’t need the billboard-sufficient mega-megapixels of the D800/E, the 24 megapixels on the D600 could provide low-light advantages in the video department, where the D800 languishes at higher ISOs.

Meanwhile, Sony has quietly been working on an entirely different roadmap, consistent with its propensity to forge new categories with an eye to future over present rewards. Yesterday it announced a raft of updates to its lineup, claiming three firsts in the full-frame arena:

  • The SLT-A99, the first full-frame camera employing its Single Lens Translucent (SLT)/EVF system
  • The NEX-VG900, the first dedicated video camera based around a full-frame chip and first E-Mount full-frame camera
  • The RX1, the first fixed lens and mirrorless rangefinder style full-frame

This stout-yet-svelte camera is the long-awaited followup to the almost 4-year-old A900. That camera, while no slouch when pitted against its nearest rivals at the time, belonged to the B.5D. (before 5D Mark II) era of straight photographic devices. The Mark II, which would be announced a week later, held the secret sauce which would, for the next generation, redefine the definition of the camera as a multi-media tool, empowering a new generation of Indie filmmakers and shaking up the entire video world.

The A99 is a thoroughly future-looking update, hell-bent to not be outdone as the multimedia DSLR of choice, and designed to wrest control from the big two with pure bleeding edge technology, leading the way among full-frames in its class for video features, including 1080/60p, an AVCHD 2.0 codec, clean HDMI out, and a multi-peripheral hotshoe allowing for additions like XLR inputs.

The A99 incorporates Sony’s single lens translucent technology, which employs a semi-transparent mirror which allows a small amount of light to be diverted to the always-on Phase Detection AF system. The system also allows for an all electronic viewfinder sending a live signal directly from the sensor to your eye, with a class-leading 2.4 million dot image in place of the classical optical system used in other traditional SLRs.

The EVF has advantages and disadvantages, depending on who you talk to. On the one hand, you get a live preview approximation of the changes you’re making and can have HUD features, such as a live histogram and settings overlayed on your image. On the A77 I played with last year and the NEX 7 I own, this turns out to be a huge advantage. You can even get a preview of the completed shot as you’re shooting. You can get focus assist and peaking for manual focus and video shooting. Removing your eye from the viewfinder becomes a much rarer occurrence. On the downside, despite its industry-leading resolution, the digital image can still not replace the clarity of looking through a large, bright optical viewfinder. It’s getting there though.

At $2800, the A99 is $200 and $700 cheaper than its intended competition (though the D600 surely blunts this coup, somewhat). Still, it’s taken for granted that Sony is in an uphill battle with the Big Two, and must offer more for less to wrest market share and encourage investment in its system.

Sony has finally done it. A full-frame sensor is now in a mirrorless, impossibly compact body. Remarkably, the camera is smaller in width and height than the APS-C based Fujifilm X100. Only the fixed 35mm F2 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens costs it the dimension Triple Crown. Like the X100 this product is definitely niche, especially when its $2800 price tag and lack of viewfinder is taken into account.

The Fujifilm X100 is ostensibly its nearest competitor, though at less than half the price and with a sensor 2.4 times smaller, I doubt there will be much overlap in audience. On the other end of the spectrum, it could give the Leica M9 a run for its money, at a fraction of the cost, with a killer lens and the manual aperture control ring giving a hint of that old school experience, with the luxury of AF and first rate video. The third, rose colored glasses way of looking at the camera is that it has no direct competitors, and will mop up as an unchallenged anomaly designed for an very real, if idiosyncratic, audience.

It’s a tool for street photographers and photojournalists, and I suspect it will find a small but devoted following in that category, those for whom the X100 is too flawed and the M9 too costly for its dearth of cutting-edge technology. I’m tempted myself, as it seems to fit the bill for most of my shooting. In my personal work, I rarely veer from that angle of view, and would love a fast and quiet camera full-frame camera to surreptitiously capture the life of the street.

Sony’s strength has always been incorporating its vast proprietary bleeding edge technology portfolio into its cameras. Its weakness has always been lenses. Its new E-mount, though still experiencing a native lens drought, has the considerable advantage that owing to its incredibly short flange-mount distance, with an adaptor, pretty much any glass can be affixed to NEX cameras. This is especially valuable in the digital cinema arena, where AF is still an afterthought on 99% of shoots anyway.

The main question with this camera is: is there a market for a prosumer camcorder with a full-frame look? I can see an offshoot of Sony’s Digital Cinema Cameras, like the F3/FS700/FS100 incorporating this sensor, though the choice of a run-and-gun style body kind of contradicts the purpose of the unique, super-shallow cinematic look full-frame provides.

The Irony of it all
Fifty years ago, “full-frame,” i.e. 35mm, was the smallest format you could reasonably expect to work with. APS sized sensors are an offshoot of a failed amateur-oriented film format introduced by Kodak in 1996. The digital era has brought us on a long, slow slog back up to parity with the minimum quality of a couple generations back.

Of course, this simplifies the situation. Digital has evolved ease of use, allowed productivity and workflow gains, and provided tangible progress in areas only digital technologies can provide consistent gains, like High ISO performance and noise control. But that we’d be counting our lucky stars to have an affordable 35mm equivalent capture size would surely seem ironic to even amateur photographers of yore, considering Brownie cameras had larger capture area over a century ago. In any case, here we are, back where we started, and full-frame imaging is fast becoming the new normal. And I have to say, it feels pretty good.

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