Crossing The Blurring Line Between Still and Motion Picture Cameras – An essay by James Mathers

by | Feb 28, 2021 | Essays | 0 comments

JM Headshot2014Med
by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the February 2021 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter


I have a Canon 5D that takes beautiful pictures; it’s not a 5D Mark III, or a 5D Mark II, but the original 5D released in 2005 before it was given the ability to shoot video.  Since that time, I have also owned several high end Cinema cameras, so I never really saw the point to upgrade my still camera to a model that could also shoot motion.  Instead, I preferred to stick with a purpose built motion picture camera designed to stand up to the rigor of filmmaking.  I also wanted any new camera to fit into the well established architecture of motion picture camera accessories, some of which I have owned longer than the 5D, going back to the days when I owned ARRI film camera packages.

I’ve always been a proponent of new camera gear being backwards compatible with standard film camera accessories.  Although I was a big fan of the RED One when it was first released and its ability to use the 35mm film lenses I was accustomed to, one of my big complaints was that other aspects of the physical design of the camera didn’t quite match my other ancillary gear.  The lens height didn’t line up with matte boxes or follow focus rigs, and I especially didn’t care for their new mini connectors replacing the industry standard BNC and XLR.

However, a whole cottage industry developed to provide adaptor plates and various accessories to integrate the cameras into a professional level filmmaking environment.  Companies like Wooden Camera answered the call to cross the divide and help convert the camera to become more motion picture friendly with things like cheese plate risers, A-Box audio adapters and the like.

StillCamsAllDressedUpA camera is essentially just a box with a sensor in it, and you can build it out to meet your requirements.  So, when the time came, these same companies were ready to adapt DSLR and later mirrorless cameras to become more usable for filmmaking.  However, I still wasn’t having it. It seemed to me that adding a bunch of gak to turn a still camera into a movie camera was like trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  Why not just pick a camera that is more suitable for motion pictures?

In my defense, less you consider me a luddite for not embracing DSLR filmmaking from the outset, let’s remember that when the 5D first got the ability to shoot video in 2008 with the Mark II, there were severe limitations. The Mark II could only shoot HD video at 30fps instead of the film industry standard of 24fps, exhibited pretty severe rolling shutter artifacts, and had a maximum record time of only 11 minutes, to name a few.

CanonLensWcontactsCanonBunchOfLensesThe lens mounts were EF, and they were plentiful, so that wasn’t an issue.  Canon claims to have produced well over 100 million units, and the higher end models were of outstanding optical quality, but the problem was that they were designed as still camera lenses.  They had short focus throws, hard iris “clicks,” and breathed noticeably, which was not a problem for still photographers.  However, trying to pull focus or rack iris on a dramatic scene was suboptimal to say the least.  It is true that they had auto focus functionality but it was not nearly as sophisticated as it has become today, and it was not too useful for filmmakers who required far greater control over focus.

Flash ahead now a decade and a half later to find that all the major still camera manufacturers have kept packing additional motion picture features into their cameras while at the same time greatly improving image quality and shrinking the size and weight of the camera bodies.  So maybe it is time for me to reconsider.

This was recently on my mind as I was handholding my Varicam V35 on a long day’s shoot.  (I also own the much lighter Varicam LT, but it was needed on another unit which was being used with Steadicam.)  Perhaps I’m just aging, or a bit out of shape after the forced hibernation caused by the pandemic, but I would swear that the camera has doubled in weight since I first got it; at least that’s the way it feels.  I should also mention that I was a crew of one due to the extreme Covid safety requirements at the location; no one was there to help hoist the camera up onto my shoulder and no one to pull focus.  In any case, it got me thinking, why do I really need a full size Digital Cinema camera for this kind of shoot?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a small form factor camera, with features like Auto Focus and Image Stabilization that could still integrate with the bigger full featured cameras for these kinds of shoots?

I’ve held off on investing in full frame format cameras mostly due to the large investment I’ve made in S35 format cine lenses.  I’m also not a fan of such limited depth of field, and the resulting soft focus that sometimes results, but with technological improvements in Focus Assist, that challenge can now be overcome.  So, I decided to survey the market and see what might be a good fit.  There certainly are a lot of choices to consider.  Every major still camera manufacturer now offers cameras that are very capable of shooting high quality motion images.  Let’s look at some of the choices, (in alphabetical order of manufacturers name)

BMD Pocket6KPerhaps the contender that has been on the market the longest is the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K which was first unveiled in 2019, (light years ago in digital cinema camera evolution time).  The Pocket 6K features a Super 35 sensor and EF lens mount.  It is quite similar to the Pocket 4K and retains the controls and menu layout with only a slightly larger form factor to accommodate the EF lens mount. It claims 13 stops of dynamic range and recording options including capture in Blackmagic Raw or ProRes 422 with resolution combinations from HD all the way up to 6K. Internal recording is to CFast 2.0 or SD/UHS-II card slots; and external recording is also available using the USB-C output to an external drive.  The camera body is made from a carbon fiber polycarbonate composite for light weight and durability and can currently be purchased for around $2,000US including a license for the most up to date version of Resolve.

CanonC70TitleCardCanon’s contender in this comparison, their EOS C70, at an MSRP of $5,499US, is probably the most costly, but it also claims the highest dynamic range at 16+ stops and has some other really great features that set it apart.  The C70 can record 4K DCI or UHD up to 120 fps and 2K DCI or HD up to 180 fps with many choices of codecs including MXF, Long GOP, and MP4 file formats for added flexibility.  Canon has been a leader in developing Auto Focus and Electronic Image Stabilization, so of course, the C70 has top of the line capabilities in those areas.  Another small but important feature for multi camera shooting is Time Code in and out.

EOSC70 andAdapter320x 2The C70 brings the RF mount into the Cinema EOS line, and this opens up some interesting abilities.  The addition of their new EF-EOS R optical mount adapter to the package allows users to employ full-frame EF lenses preserving FF wide angle image onto the 4K Super 35mm image sensor while also boosting the lens sensitivity by one stop. The mount adapter also preserves full electronic communication between most Canon EF lenses and cameras, enabling optical lens corrections and transfer of lens metadata.  The C70 weighs only 2.6 lbs, yet includes a motorized ND filter unit built into the short flange back of the RF mount.

Fujifilm x t4The FUJIFILM X-T4, a versatile mirrorless camera, is another contender. It uses an APS-C-format 26.1MP CMOS sensor capable of internally recording DCI/UHD 4K at up to 60 fps, Full HD recording up to 240 fps, and sensitivity from ISO 160-12800. The sensor’s design also enables a hybrid autofocus system that combines 425 phase-detection points with a contrast-detection system for quick and accurate AF performance. The X-T4 also incorporates a 6.5 stop-effective sensor-shift image stabilization system to reduce the appearance of camera shake with almost any mounted lens. Additionally, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enables wireless remote camera control and image sharing to a mobile device.  MSRP: $1,699US.

LumixS5 2Panasonic continues to develop their Lumix S series.  The new S5 Full-Fame Mirrorless is a compact, lightweight hybrid camera that is optimized to shoot stills and motion.  It is a high-sensitivity camera that offers 4K 60p, 4:2:2 10-bit video recording, as well as 180fps Slow Motion in HD, and 4:3 Anamorphic support.  It also features Dual Native ISO and records V-Log/V-Gamut just as my Varicams do.  It is also said to have great autofocus which can detect a subjects head, eyes, face and body;  with an MSRP under $2,000US.

SigmaFPAt less than a pound and measuring only about 4 x 3 x 2 inches, the Sigma fp, is by far the smallest and lightest of the contenders, yet it packs a full-frame 24.6 megapixel sensor capable of 14-bit color depth, and HDR with CinemaDNG RAW external recording options.  A base sensitivity of ISO 100-25600 can be expanded to ISO 6-102400, and its video recording capabilities allow for UHD 4K recording at up to 30p, while Full HD recording can be captured at up to 120p.  The Sigma fp uses the L-mount, and while Sigma is building out a complete line of L-mount lenses to work with mirrorless cameras, they have also joined with other manufacturers to encourage the development of lenses in the format.  With the Sigma Mount Converter MC-21, Sigma SA mount and Sigma Canon EF mount lenses can also be used.   The purchase price is currently around $1,800US.

SonyFX3 Take3Sony’s new FX3 certainly blurs the line between still and motion picture cameras.  It employs a 10.2 megapixel full-frame sensor claiming 15+ stops of dynamic range.  It uses the same color science as their higher end digital cinema cameras like FX6, FX9 and Venice.  Plus its features include Real Time Touch Tracking AF and 5-axis in-body image stabilization.  The big brother Venice doesn’t have all that, and the FX3 only weighs about one and half pounds with a price under $4K.  And one little plus for me is the included detachable adapter/top handle.  It includes two full size XLR audio inputs and a microphone holder so you don’t have to be adding a lot of non-OME accessories to do simple and necessary movie making functions.

SonyA1 CompositeAlso fairly new from Sony is their A1, a 50MP full-frame mirrorless that can shoot 8K video as needed.  It also claims 15+ stops of DR and can record S-Cinetone with an S-Log3 gamma curve to better match their higher end pro cinema cameras.  The A1 can record up to 8K 30p and 4K 120p 10-bit and still offers versatile sensitivity up to ISO 102400 for low-light shooting.  It will be delivering any day now at a suggested price of $6,500US

There are a lot of great products in the category to consider, which is both a curse and a blessing.  I’ll be doing a little more research before I make a purchase and perhaps trying out a few of these models to see if they live up to their claims.  You can rest assured that I will not be giving up my larger full featured cinema cameras, but I will definitely be adding one of the above stills/motion cameras before my next shoot handholding all day as a crew of one.


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