Although I love to have people write and compliment the site, I find that I am more inspired and challenged by people who write with issues about the site. Some of the issues are totally out of left field, like a guy who condemned me for supporting extended warranties or another guy who was offended by my “innacurate” description of a category a certain program should be included in. However, some provide an interesting perspective that either challenges me to try to improve something here at the site or challenges me to explain the site better to our readers.
The gentleman who wrote me recently wished to complain that we reviewed cameras that were “way out of the price range of most Independent filmmakers.” He went on to say that Indie filmmakers were most interested in the new wave sub-$2,000 cameras.
I found this very interesting, because my gut instinct was to say, “What are you talking about? We review things like the $5,000 HVR-Z1U and the HVX200, things that are at the most basic threshold of Indie cameras. Why, most Indie magazines look at cameras that are $30,000 and above! Goodness, they include the $100,000 Sony cameras George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez own as Indie cameras!”
However, when I took away my gut reaction and looked at what he was saying, I was quite heartened. Here was a reader who was pointing out that we are winning the war for Independent filmmaking creation. Here was someone who so much associated true Independent filmmakers with those who couldn’t afford millions on a budget, that they actually felt the $5,000 was too much for filmmakers to be expected to spend on a camera. That’s a far cry from the belief that low-budget studio fare released by boutique portions of Hollywood studio is Independent.
To begin with, as I explained to the reader, the reason we don’t have any reviews of the more inexpensive camera is not because we don’t believe they apply to our readers, but because having an in-depth camera section that would include these cameras is a very time-intensive proposition. It is something that we’re working hard to set up, but it is the most complex portion of having a filmmaking magazine, one which requires the assembly of a number of qualified technical reviewers, organizing special forms of insurance to cover the equipment, and coordinating these efforts with camera companies based on when they have a review version of their cameras available.
But that really wasn’t the heart of his question. His question was one that many microfilmmakers are asking: Why should a filmmaker spend $5,000 on the Panasonic HVX200 or Sony HVR-Z1U to get HD/HDV when they can get HDV camcorders for under $2,000? Obviously, we all know that any camera can create a no-budget film, even a single-chip consumer DV cam. However, with the technology increase, are there any advantages to the more expensive cameras? Or are you just paying for some high-priced abilities that you’ll never use?
First off, the difference between less expensive and more expensive cameras is often easily seen via chip size, whether that chip be a CCD or the more recently explored CMOS. High end cameras ranging from $30,000 - $100,000 will often have chips that range from 2/3" to 1” in size, which gives them the ability to get clearer pictures and to be more sensitive to light. (Thus the reason why the Grass Valley Viper is used to get true night shots in Michael Mann films like Collateral and Miami Vice.) I mention these not because any of us are likely to afford them, but to give a frame of reference. The $3,000 - $6,000 SD/HD/HDV cameras have a 1/3” chip size, which is at least half the size of the more expensive cameras. You can still get very good quality, but the chip isn’t as sensitive as those in the larger cameras and has to be lit with more light to pick up a good picture. Now, when you go into the sub-$2,000 cameras you get into chips that range from ¼” to 1/6”, with most coming in at 1/6”. Now, that’s half as small as the 1/3”, so the number of receptors on the chip decreases tremendously. This means that it’s much harder to get a clean, clear picture without a lot of light. We’ve received films in which that has happened and you can barely believe the entire film was shot with the same camera. Sunlit footage outdoors looks gorgeously professional, but all the indoor footage looks like it was shot with a 1980’s Handycam. So, even though a 1/6” 3 CCD SD camera may be only $1500 in comparison to the 1/3” 3 CCD SD DVX100 B which retails for $3,000 to $4,000, you may easily spend more than the difference between the cameras lighting it properly. (Additionally, the bigger the chip size, the shallower the depth of field, which I’m not going to go into because the use of 35mm lens adapters is becoming much more prevalent and making this point less decisive to many people.)
Another big difference is in audio. Professionally-designed SD/HD/HDV cameras in the $3,000-$6,000 all have XLR plug-ins on them, which allow you to plug a shotgun mic directly into them, which, in turn, allows you to get the best possible sound. Additionally, most of them allow you to plug-in phantom powered mics. (Phantom-powered mics are mics that are powered by the camera. Some of the cheaper shotgun mics actually sound much better if they are powered by the camera than if they are powered by an internal battery.) Your sub-$2,000 cameras will have a 1/8” jack for audio mics, which means you will have to get an adapter to use a normal shotgun mic and you will be unable to use any phantom-powered mics (unless you power the mic through a Phantom-power switcher). Because an adapter often can result in signal degradation and because a 1/8” jack compresses that information more than an XLR plug, you’re much less likely to get great sounding audio. Additionally, some of the sub-$2,000 cameras don’t even have any mic plug-in at all.
Finally, sub-$2000 cameras are much more likely to have consumer quirks. One of the more annoying consumer quirks is the auto-shutoff. Because so many consumers forget to shut off their cameras, many lower cost cameras will automatically shut down if you don’t press the record button within five minutes of powering up your camera. For folks who are setting up their shots through their viewfinders, this can be extremely detrimental, especially since many cameras will lose their white-balance settings when they are powered down. (Strangely enough, this was a huge problem for the first big “low”-budget 3 CCD camera, the Canon XL1. At the time, the release of this camera at $6,000 was an amazing price break through for no-budget Indie filmmakers, but it retained the consumer quirk of the auto-shutdown. I shot my first feature with this camera and learned to loathe this quirk.) Another consumer quirk is audio auto-gain. Auto gain means that the audio compressor in the camera will try to boost audio levels if there is even a moment of silence. This means that the beginning of each sentence is louder than the rest of the sentence, causing your audio to sound nasty. Other quirks can include: no manual focus, no ability to manually white balance, utilizing a recording format that is not yet supported by nonlinear editors, and a host of other potential hazards.
So as I write all these things, am I trying to discourage filmmakers from using a sub-$2,000 camera to make their film? Absolutely not. We’re micro-budget filmmakers and we will shoot films with whatever we can get our hands on. However, what I’m saying is that, while there are many more low-priced cameras that can generate a professional image than there ever have been before, they may not be the best cameras to shoot your films on for your career as a filmmaker. As such, if you’re going to save up to invest in a camera, then consider what limitations you’re going to have if you go with a cheaper camera. Are these limitations that you will easily be able to accept? If they’re not, then you would do well to save up a little longer and get a better camera.
As a final thought, don’t rule out SD just because there are some low-priced HDV cameras on the market. HDV often has to be lit with brighter and more expensive lights than SD, it compresses your audio which gives you lower audio quality, and the video editing systems that edit HDV require faster processors and more RAM than those that are designed to just edit SD. (Plus, if you add something like a Redrock Micro lens adapter down the road, you can get nearly as film-like an image with SD as you can with HDV!)