Price Creep

When the 5DmkII was first released in 2008, word quickly spread that it could capture vibrant, cinematic 1080P footage at a price ordinarily associated with prosumer gear — a “mere” $2,500.  So began the HDSLR revolution.  In those days, the 5D had no manual controls in video mode and could only shoot at exactly 30 frames per second (no drop frame), causing unusual sound syncing issues in Final Cut timelines when trying to match the 5D’s audio with the recording from a dedicated audio device.

Cinematographers were rightly skeptical of its ability to thrive in a professional production setting, where, among other requirements, cameras must feed their signals into HD monitors for the “video village,” something the 5D still can’t do in HD resolution.  And folks working on even tighter budgets — independent filmmakers or freelance shooters — still considered the 5D an expensive purchase.  The excitement generated by the release of the 7D a year later had a lot to do with the fact that, at least as far as its video capabilities were concerned, the 7D was actually an improvement over the 5D (sensor size notwithstanding), while still managing to be priced at around $800 less than the 5D.

The name of the game at the height of the HDSLR phenomenon was to get prices down.  Panasonic’s GH1, with its infamous firmware hack bumping up footage bitrates and allowing for native 24P capture, was seen by many as a viable competitor to Canon’s vaunted position in the marketplace, and for a short while, until Panasonic put a stop to the practice by locking down its firmware on newly manufactured GH1s, you could pick up a hackable GH1 for under a thousand bucks!

From a technology standpoint, this has been one of the most exciting periods in recent history to be working in the video business.  But from a purely financial perspective, the landscape is not nearly as rosy.  With the economy still struggling, clients can exert a great deal of downward pressure on budgets, and it’s become increasingly difficult to come to an agreement on quotes these days.

So the recent news that major camera manufacturers appear to be abandoning the affordable-video-capable-DSLR pricing model for a more traditional better-off-renting pricing model is a bit perplexing, to say the least.  Before HDSLRs, there really weren’t any viable alternatives to the Varicam/CineAlta/Genesis/RED ONE pricing model monopoly.  Prior to the 5D, if I wanted to put together an estimate for a business-to-business client who wanted a low budget spot  — and I didn’t want to sacrifice a film look — I would have no choice but to pick up the phone and speak to a rental house, or a line producer, and then try not to gasp upon learning that the equipment costs alone for a one day, two camera shoot — complete with dolly, prime lenses, lighting, and all the rest — would often cost more than the client’s entire available budget!

The first shoot I put together with a 5D in early 2009 suffered a similar fate.  The DP wanted me to rent every lens under the sun — fast zooms, faster primes — along with a rod support system loaded up with every imaginable type of gear.  We rented three or four times the lighting equipment that we needed, given the 5D’s ability to capture clean video in low light, and, after all that additional expense, the DP found that it was easier to use a single zoom lens on 99% of his shots rather than interrupt the flow every few minutes to switch between primes.

It’s always going to be hard to change the mindset that a professional shoot requires a huge budget, and if HDSLRs challenged that mindset, for a short while anyway, it seems we are now returning to a period of rising production costs.  First came the news that the Red Scarlet would not be a “prosumer” camera, which is really only manufacturer-speak for price point.  The Scarlet, when it does finally arrive in 2011 or 2012, will be priced significantly higher than the 5D’s $2,500.  It will be closer in cost to Panasonic’s upcoming AG-AF100.

When information about the AG-AF100 began to trickle out, it was rumored to have a price tag of nearly $10,000, and hardly anyone batted an eye.  Now it will only cost you half that (in America anyway; prices will vary considerably depending on where you live), but you have to wonder if Panasonic could have gotten a few thousand more.

Then came the announcement of Sony’s PMW-F3, with its rumored pricing in the $20,000 to $25,000 range (Nov. 17th update: according to Stu Maschwitz, the F3’s street price in the States will be significantly less, perhaps in the neighborhood of $12,000.  But wait, there’s more…Engadget posted additional information on Nov. 18th claiming a starting price for the body of $16,000).

If this camera catches on — and no one should bet against it — then it will be impossible to convince Canon to make a similar video-only model for much less than $10,000.  A few days ago, Canon Rumors retracted a rumor that they briefly considered to be a reliable, claiming Canon was designing its own video-only AF100 killer. The price was going to be in the neighborhood of $6,000 – $8,000, and, if this had been accurate information — or, for that matter, if Canon were to one day actually release a video camera with specs similar to the AF100 — it could easily get away with charging more than the AF100, given that Canon’s version will have a larger sensor and be compatible with Canon lenses.

What is the AF100 anyway?  Philip Bloom experimented with the slow motion option (beginning after the one minute mark) now available by conforming full HD 60P footage to a frame-rate of 24 or 25…

then shot some gorgeous footage with it in Japan.  The camera itself looks like a real winner, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves and argue that Panasonic had no choice but to charge five thousand bucks because of all the research that went into creating the AF100.  The R&D went into creating the mirrorless design of micro four thirds still cameras, not the AF100.  A little more than six months passed between the time Panasonic revealed a computer render of the AF100 and its official arrival date.

And how did Panasonic manage to create such an incredible camera?  It turned out to be addition by subtraction.  By not having to build a hybrid still/video camera, Panasonic could focus exclusively on video, thereby optimizing its software, hardware, and sensor to reduce everyone’s least favorite byproduct of CMOS technology, rolling shutter.  Moire was almost nonexistent in the GH1 anyway, but now the combination of no rolling shutter, moire, or banding will prove extremely tempting to many DPs and producers.

Did you see this AF100 footage taken at a race track?

Holy cow, that is one beautiful camera!   A 5D was used for all the static shots (you can see some moire under the stairs at the 20 second mark), but whenever the DP had to follow a car in motion, or whenever a camera was attached to a car in motion, the AF100 was used instead.  The results speak for themselves.

What we are now experiencing is the realization from these manufacturers that there is absolutely no reason to charge $2,000 for a camera when they can get between $5,000 to $20,000 instead.  There is no incentive for Canon to improve upon the 7D anymore, for instance.  The 7D’s successor will probably not solve the rolling shutter or moire issues that plague Canon’s HDSLRs.  In fact, a reverse phenomenon may occur: from now on, cameras in the $1,000 – $2,000 range will be distinguished by annoyances such as rolling shutter, line skipping, and moire.

Affordable HDSLRs will remain still/video hybrids, forced to squeeze excessive amounts of pixel information down to the more manageable 1920×1080 pixels needed for video, leading to the holy trinity of rolling shutter, line skipping, and moire that Panasonic’s AF100 has apparently licked.  Could Panasonic have released a video-only model priced similarly to its recently announced GH2, with every improvement available on the AF100 except perhaps XLR inputs?  Of course they could have.  But that ship has sailed.  Instead, the AF100 actually subtracts an important feature — still photography — and yet Panasonic can easily justify a substantial cost increase.

It’s hard to really get too upset about this.  I’ve actually experimented with getting upset about it, and it just didn’t stick.  The truth is that the biggest beneficiaries of higher priced professional video cameras will probably be rental houses, who will package an AF100 with a set of PL mount prime lens, an external HD monitor, pro follow focus gear, and a whole assortment of other expensive goodies for around a thousand bucks a day.  And, honestly, anyone who thinks that’s a ripoff is completely kidding themselves.

Psychologically, most of us feel better owning gear as opposed to renting it.  And if you can still make a profit after purchasing one of these new cameras and a set of prime lenses, then by all means make the investment.  But if you’re not a hundred percent certain, that’s a pretty good sign you should probably be renting, at least for a little while.

Going forward, it seems that camera manufacturers have adjusted to what they now possibly view as a misstep, in that they set an expectation among shooters and producers that HDSLRs should be priced at around $2,000 instead of three times that price.  And if the professional community, which usually rents their equipment anyway, decides to dump the 5D in favor of the AF100 or Sony’s PMW-F3, then HDSLRs are suddenly not going to seem as sexy as they were once regarded only a few short months ago.  There will still be a market for a terrific new $2,000 HDSLR, but if it continues to suffer from excessive rolling shutter and moire, our gear envy will now extend to cameras costing a hell of a lot more.

Updated on November 18th: Another day, another camera announcement.  Yesterday, as Sony unveiled their hotly anticipated PMW-F3, (Philip Bloom was on hand at the announcement and posted his reaction), they also teased the audience with information about another video camera in the works, the NXCAM.

Scheduled for release next year, it will do just about everything the AF100 can do, except with E-Mount Sony lenses.  The price should be in the $6,000 range, which should not come as a surprise to anyone.  My sense is that this new entry, along with Panasonic’s, and the Scarlet, if it ever gets beyond prototype stage, will fracture the HDSLR community.  Some will argue that the 5D, with its full sensor, is still a superior means of capture.  Others will prefer the lack of rolling shutter and moire which these newer models offer.  My own hope is that Sony’s latest move will pressure Canon to respond with a competing video-only model of their own.  But I’m under no illusions about how a Canon version would be priced.  After this week, I think it’s safe to assume that the age of the $2,000 professional HDSLR is pretty much over.

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9 responses to “Price Creep

  1. It always blows me away, how fast the technology changes. We no longer have a year or two to adjust to an upgrade, we now have a few months. I have to say, the AF-100 images looked great. Thanks for the update.

    • It’s going to be a great camera for indies. Affordable enough for two camera set ups, cinema style lenses, amazing bang for the buck. But my guess is most people will choose to rent this equipment for their films rather than buy it, whereas with the Canon HDSLRs it made more sense to buy. Thanks Tim!

  2. Yea, I’m afraid you’re right. But one small part of me believes that Canon wants to blow us away with the 5D Mark 3… be revolutionary like they once were with the XL cameras. We’ll soon see.

    • After yesterday’s Sony announcement, I believe more and more that Canon will need to respond with a video-only DSLR. If they do, it will be very interesting to see what effect that will have on future 5D updates.

  3. I think the video-style form factor (with it’s physical manual controls and XLR inputs) and the ability to record to higher-quality codecs (albeit not as good as they could be) may be part of what justifies the higher price.

    Jan Crittenden, when asked why the AF100 didn’t shoot AVC-I to P2 cards, said that it would’ve added around $10k to the price tag. I can’t speak for the accuracy of that statement, but if it is true, “basic” things like form factor and codecs may be more to blame in driving up the price than one thinks.

    • Thanks for the comment, Zak. I didn’t mean to imply that these cameras aren’t worth the extra dough, just that some of the features on them could have been included on less expensive cameras had the manufacturers wanted to. But certainly $5,000 or $6,000 per camera is not too much money for a well funded production. The AF100 looks like an amazing camera, and I’m sure it will sell like hotcakes.

  4. Different tools for different uses. I would never use my newly acquired 60D as a main camera. I bought it for making videos about sports, such as kayaking, where even an EX1 is too bulky to take along with its support gear. With a 60D I can fit the camera body along with a few primes, and a lightweight tripod and slider in the back of a creek boat. I can get cinematic quality out in extremely hard to reach places.

    My intention is to get one of the new breed of dedicated video cameras to replace my EX3. Of course now that the AF100 has hit the resale value of the EX will nosedive (seems to be a habit with the gear that I buy!) Renting is only an option for me when there is no other choice as I do not have a local rental house. Renting usually means a pain in the backside trip down to London or Bristol, so purchasing equipment is always better for me.

    I think though that users really need to evaluate what they are actually using the cameras for. I’d bet that a large majority of corporate shooters videos never go beyond the web. It is highly unlikely that stuff will go to a cinema screen, and if it does there will usually be an associated budget anyway, so a ‘real’ video camera can be brought in anyway.

    One advantage of cameras such as the new NXCAM and AF100 is that all your existing investment in lenses will still be valid through the use of mounting adaptors. So the HDSLR will be a good B-cam to the new cameras. No need to worry about your camera becoming useless. It will still be very useful for the right purposes. I know for a fact I won’t ever be gaffer taping an AF100 to the front of a kayak!!

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