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Friday, 01 April 2011 17:24

Sensor Size Is Huge but Not Everything in Choosing the Best Camera for a Project

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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sfw_fieldcameras_turnkeyhd_2It was just a few years ago that any list of the year’s best and hottest cameras would be topped by 3CCD 2/3-inch sensor models. But that seems like another era altogether since today “bigger is definitely better,” with 35mm-sized sensors predominating. Ironically, these large sensors are conjoined with smaller, not larger, cameras. Blame it on HDSLRs, the digital still cameras that have taken the HD production world by storm, thanks to the rapid response of the camera support industry’s impressive array of viewfinders, support rigs, audio adapters and more for operating HDSLRs smoothly and with stability, much like video cameras.

Despite the native advantages of hyper (light) sensitivity, broad latitude, saturated colors and shallow depth of field, there are some limitations of shooting video with a digital still camera. “DSLRs have their weaknesses, like capturing audio and the rolling shutter or ‘Jell-O effect’ with fast panning,” says Cassidy Sullivan, operations manager at Turnkey HD, a rental house in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. “You don’t have those problems with video cameras. Also, the flange on DSLRs makes it tough to pull focus.” For those and other reasons, there’s still ample demand for other cameras at Turnkey HD. “While 60 percent or more of our clients choose HDSLR packages, we still have plenty of calls for [Sony] EX3 and EX1 packages, especially those shooting lots of sync sound,” Sullivan notes. “Some of them have already tried the outboard audio adapters for DSLRs and had problems with sync drift. That’s not an issue with the EX3 and other video cameras.”

Cinematographer Denver Miller, a former Turnkey client based in Rochester, N.Y., concurs. “I used the 5D and 7D Canons on several projects, including long ones,” he explains. “However I chose the EX1 with the Letus adapter and primes for some documentary projects entailing lots of travel and interviews. With the EX1, I was often able to work without a soundman, which really helped when interviewing regular folks who aren’t used to being on camera. Even simply adding a soundman could have made them more self-conscious on camera — with worse results. Also, I never had to worry about the audio levels, quality or losing sync. It really simplified everything and eliminated possible headaches.” Miller adds that he always uses a soundman when shooting with DSLRs: “It’s just too risky not to.”

sfw_fieldcameras_canon-5dIn terms of a quality differential between the EX1 and the Canon 5D or 7D, Miller doesn’t believe that to be a key factor for his projects. “When I’m shooting a doc or doing doc-style shooting, mobility — including being able to get close to my subjects without affecting them — is a key concern,” says the DP. “That’s where I prefer to operate solo if I possibly can, to keep my subjects at ease so that they act naturally. For the web, that has a much bigger impact on quality than sensor size.”

Miller acknowledges that there are times when DSLRs are clearly superior to HD cameras with smaller sensors. “It’s tough to beat DSLRs for image quality in low light,” he explains. “They are just more sensitive than most cameras with smaller sensors. Even at 800 ASA, the image quality and colors are awesome, with super-black blacks. With standard video cameras, image quality often degrades quickly once you begin adding gain in low light.” Moreover, the DP believes that smaller sensor HD cameras can be mixed and matched with DSLRs for some applications, especially non-broadcast ones. “When I was shooting HD programs for the VOOM Network, we often intercut [Panasonic] HVX200 footage with that shot from the [Sony] CineAlta F900, and no one but me could tell the difference,” he says. “Even though the image quality from DSLRs can be better than that from a CineAlta, the intercutting can still work if it’s done carefully and with Zeiss compact primes on both cameras.”

While Miller plans to use the EX1 (and EX3) as well as Canon DSLRs for future projects, he also has his eye on the new compact HD cameras with micro 4/3-inch sensors, particularly those by Panasonic and Sony, coming onto the market early in 2011. “I can’t wait to check out Panasonic’s new AF-100 and Sony’s F3,” he says. “Both combine micro 4/3-inch sensors with fully developed HD video cameras. If they deliver as promised, perhaps I won’t need to use both DSLRs and EX cameras to cover all of the key bases for much longer.”






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