The Cameras of NAB 2014

If we think back to last year’s NAB, I remember seeing popup posters of the Black Magic 4K Production Camera and the Pocket Cine Camera the night before their launch. I remember thinking ‘this is a joke – a cunning deception to raise our hopes’ and today people are taking delivery of their 4K cameras.

So this year, I was excited to hear about AJA’s entry to the market – the CION.

UPDATE: AJA is PL only, posing a problem to owners of EF and Nikkor lenses. This is, for many of us, a bit of a show stopper. Happiness to AJA for choosing a standard, but they have effectively cut out their main audience – those of us who are upgrading from DSLR.

It looks great, their intro video is great, the price (considering…) is great. It looks like a really solid bit of kit. Well thought out, designed for professional use, a sort of pocket-money Alexa if you will, even though we haven’t seen the pictures.

I immediately started a little ‘savings’ pot – a stash of money where I’ll fund its purchase when I’m ready. I’ve already stated clearly that I will not buy another 8 bit camera (sorry Sony, with your cute Alpha 7S, and Atomos with your Shogun) and I really don’t want to buy a Panasonic GH4 and its own set of lenses. I’m happy that JVC are finally moving into the market of buyable cameras and acknowledge their choice of Micro Four Thirds, but I must move on.

So AJA’s Alexalookalike looks just the ticket. So excited!

Until, of course, those Aussies stroll up to the bar.

The Black Magic Ursa isn’t quite the Cion – it’s a giant (!) bear of a camera that has a 10″ flop-out screen. It has built in rail adaptors, it has a big handle, it has 3 big LCD screens, it screams ‘Production Department’ and all, and actually looks a little amateurish compared to the Cion. But it has something new and incredible:

The Ursa has swapable sensors.

That’s right, folks. You can buy the S35 EF mount edition. Later on, you can get a 2/3″ B4 sensor and mount. So in a few moments you’ve converted your big beefy Cinema camera into a big beefy ENG camera. You can have both a large S35 sensor mode with all your EOS lenses (or use Nikkors, or even opt for a PL mount S35 sensor – boggle!), and with a smallish investment and a little patience, have a 2/3″ B4 mount with your choice of ENG parfocal long range zooms.

Now, that’s worthy of investment!

Before we get all frothy at the mouth and loose at the wallet, we haven’t seen pictures (though both are promising 12 stops, ProRes 10 bit capture as well as raw, global shutter, et al), we haven’t got an actual shipping date (Black Magic are on the spot here), and it could all be show-stopping hype. But both AJA and Black Magic have effectively put the kybosh on many people’s purchasing decisions and both cameras offer – on paper at least – excellent value.

EDIT: More details came out about the camera. It’s 10 Kilograms with a lens and battery, so purchasers may want to think about their tripod heads and getting a good physiotherapist. Furthermore, it uses two C-Fast CF slots, which are quite expensive and don’t hold much footage when you’re shooting 10 bit 4K in an I-frame format like ProRes. A 128GB C-Fast card costs around $1,200 for 20 minutes of ProRes or 6 mins of raw. Come back, XQD cards, all is forgiven!

Right now, I’ll give the MDMA tip of the hat to AJA for the most desirable camera, but egad – the Ursa is so close behind and if they can deliver B4 they will win my vote. The GH4 was looking like the HVX200 of 2014 but may miss out to many users because of its Micro Four Thirds status.

Sony’s Alpha 7S was launched with great pizzazz, and is probably going to light fires under the 5D Mk3 market. But it’s a DSLR, and many of us have found that a DSLR just isn’t nice to use as a video camera if you’re being paid to deliver video. I think it’s excellent that Sony have included an S35 sensor crop and so your investment in S35/EF-S e-mount lenses is protected – you’re effectively getting a Canon 7D and 5D Mk3 in one body – and you have access to XLR audio through a special hot shoe with a £600 accessory. The body is tiny and it’s not hugely expensive. But it’s a DSLR style camera and I got on better with an AX100 than i did with an A7R when I had a chance to try lots of body styles.

So, welcome, AJA, to the camera market. You have a handsome product, but Black Magic is hot at your heals with interchangeable sensors. I trust AJA for its IO (which replaced a £35k Avid suite for me), and the Ki Pro (which replaced the Grass Valley things we were offered before). Your camera will always remind me of a pocket money Alexa and perhaps the comparison is deserved. But be aware of what Black Magic has done. The idea of swappable sensors is mind boggling.

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C100 AF Upgrade – worth it?

Canon’s introduced Dual Pixel autofocus for faster, more accurate focus on certain lenses. It cost an extra £340 plus VAT. Is it worth it?

The demos have been very convincing, though until Philip Bloom’s recent trial they’ve been fairly ‘safe’ studio-based tests. Like most C100 owners, I’m more ‘run and gun’ – and whilst I prefer manual focus, there are times when it’s a joy to let the camera help out when you don’t have a chance to plan. Hand-held pick-up shots of activities, children, animals, or when you’re unable to reach the camera – cranes and jibs for example.

So I decided to further demonstrate the tax-deductible nature of our chickens by employing them as models for my test shoot. They are suitable unpredictable, active, and feathers are something fairly easy to judge focus by. The result is shared below – it’s got no sound, this is NOT a Philip Bloom style video, but it demonstrates the Dual Pixel AF in use. There are situations where it snatches focus well and holds onto it. There are situations where it just gives up.

I’ve done some slow motion sequences too, and with Canon STM lenses it really is quick – useful in the (limited) C100 slomo situations.

Of course, it’s not perfect.

Continuous AF can be a little TOO helpful, and luckily ‘1 Shot AF’ is still fully functioning, using the same speedy mechanism.

This way, you press the AF button when your subject spends a second or so in the centre of the screen, the AF settles, and it locks at that point. Not good for tracking, but much more helpful when you’re not using a composition that’s centre weighted. It’s also smart enough not to ‘defocus to refocus’ unlike contrast detecting AF, so I’ll be testing it out on conference shots following a speaker up and down the stage. This way, I can select WHEN the AF does its magic rather than suffer the embarrassment of having the camera develop an obsession with the background, or for me not nailing the focus at the end of a ‘walk’.

The STM lenses are designed for this mode. They’re great. I tried a few other lenses, and the 70-200 f4 is pretty snappy. The 24-105 is okay.

The Sigma 50mm 1.4 is… a dog. But I knew this. The Sigma as a photographic lens was so bad I almost ditched it. As a manual video lens, it’s pretty darn good, my second favourite after the Samyang 85 1.4. But the Sigma’s conversation with the C100 is still so simplistic that it can’t take advantage of the Dual Pixel AF mode, and insists on defocussing and then grunting away at pulling it into sharp focus – frequently giving up or getting it wrong. This is how it behaved on my Canon C550, so it’s no surprise.

Be aware that image stabilisation and auto focus systems make a noise. Leaving the AF in continuous on an image stabilised 70-200 f4 made quite a racket. You would want to turn off both in an interview, or at least use ‘One Shot AF’ if you need to rely on a camera mounted microphone.

Overall, yes – to an event videographer who owns an STM lens, this upgrade is Sine Qua Non. In fact, most C100 owners are going to find uses for it.

And therein lies the rub: this upgrade is not cheap. You have to send your camera off to Canon for a few days, and there’s been a waiting list. This upgrade has taken Canon by surprise in its popularity, it seems.

Canon initially offered this AF upgrade for C100 owners only. No, it wasn’t going to be available for the C300, and no, it would only be offered as an upgrade. Not ‘off the shelf’.

Well, guess what? You can now get the C100 with the AF ‘pre-installed’ at $500 extra on the price, there’s a waiting list for C300 owners to get the upgrade, and I’m pretty sure that at some stage the AF function will be on the C100 and C300 (or their newer siblings after NAB perhaps) at ‘no extra cost’. But hey – the original owners of the C100 got to pay the ‘shiny’ tax, but we had the camera earning its keep for 12-18 months before the upgrade. It’s not quite the ’S-Log upgrade’ that hung over the first PMW-F3 owners.

So, get your C100 upgraded – you’ll find the firmware goes up from 1.0.3.00 to 2.0.3.00 – showing that the hardware has been tweaked and proving it’s got the Dual Pixel AF upgrade installed.