The End of an Era?

NAB 2012 has just gotten underway, and to a casual observer it may seem as if the video camera industry is currently undergoing an incredible flurry of mind-blowing advancements.  4K capture is the new buzzword, along with RAW codecs and high frame rates.

But if you make your living as an independent producer or videographer, you probably have a different point of view.  For the folks who need to decide whether to invest their hard earned cash in new equipment, this latest rush of announcements, especially from Canon, may seem like a kind of cruel joke.

The writing was on the wall a year and a half ago that camera manufacturers were about to hit the reset button on the HDSLR revolution.  As Canon held back anticipated updates to their 5D and 7D bodies, Sony and Panasonic caused a bit of a stir when they each introduced professional video cameras employing DSLR technology.  I wrote a post at the time called Price Creep, arguing that if Panasonic had decided to release their micro four thirds video entry, the AF100, at the widely rumored price point of $10,000 instead of the $5,000 number they eventually settled on, no one would have been terribly surprised. It was also clear even then that if Canon were ever to get around to releasing their video-only version of the 5DmkII — what eventually came to market as the C300– it would cost a whole lot more than the 5DmkII’s $2,500 price tag.

Less than two years later, the affordable, democratizing HDSLR revolution is all but dead.  Its greatest evangelists have moved on to objectively superior cameras that now cost $15,000, $20,000, or $30,000 (while the just-announced Sony NEX-FS700 is priced at around $8,500 and will have the option to shoot at high frame rates, an external 4K capture device will cost significantly more).  But those of us who got into DSLR video capture with either the 5DmkII or the 7D simply can’t afford to stay current with these newer, more enticing cameras.  Even the Red Scarlet, coming in at under $10,000 without extras, is too expensive, and while the C300 is everyone’s favorite camera of the moment, it just isn’t a realistic option for most shooters.

Meanwhile, the recently announced Canon EOS-1D Cinema, projected to cost $15,000, is so far removed from what most of us could pay for a DSLR body as to seem like a pipe dream.  The upcoming C300 upgrade, the C500, which will reportedly capture 24P in 4K at 10-bits, will be priced at twice the current $15,000 C300 — meaning, essentially, that the addition of 4K resolution and 10-bit color is being valued by Canon as a $15,000 upgrade.

If cost is not factored into the equation, then it’s easy to become seduced by these specs.  But there was more to the HDSLR revolution than specs.  It would simply be inaccurate to suggest that affordability wasn’t an enormous factor in the widespread acceptance of this technology.  Hence, HDSLR shooters are torn: we want these cool new features on our cameras, but we also want a camera we can afford.  Are we asking for too much?

No, I don’t think so.  I’ve made this analogy before, but it still works: imagine if Apple had underestimated the demand for the original iPad, but, upon realizing they had a winner on their hands, decided to charge five times the price of the original iPad for a new iPad 2.  Or maybe Apple could have kept on selling a bare-bones iPad while simultaneously producing an entirely new expensive model that had all the cool features tablet customers craved.  Imagine if your favorite recent iPad or iPhone features, such as a front facing camera or voice recognition, were only available to “pro” users at five times the price.  Do you think consumers would have let Apple get away with that?

The video camera industry is the only industry I can think of that is actively discouraging its most enthusiastic customers from making equipment upgrades.

More than any of the other companies, Canon has shown its hand: they have assigned a dollar value to 60P in full HD, 10-bit color, and, now, 4K and RAW.  They have indisputably embraced a tiered pricing model for their DSLR technology.  If you want 10-bit, you’ll need to pay.

So, if you’re feeling disgusted that the 5DmkIII is a thousand dollars more than the original 5DmkII and produces footage even softer than its predecessor, there’s really not much you can do about it, other than save up for a C300.  The reason a lot of folks have gotten behind Panasonic’s GH2 is not because mirrorless technology is in any way superior to Canon’s designs (though it does offer many benefits); the GH2’s popularity is philosophical as much as anything else.  Not only is it incredibly cheap to own, but it can be hacked!  This appeals to many of us in the video community who have suffered through years and years of Canon and Sony demanding unreasonable price increases for the most coveted camcorder features.

I don’t personally resent any of the HDSLR thought leaders who have fallen out of love with affordable DSLRs in favor of new, expensive, “pro” models.  If you are a well-funded professional DP, and camera price is no object, then by all means you have earned the right to abandon the philosophical underpinnings of the HDSLR movement in favor of better equipment.

But, at the same time, there is no longer any compelling reason for me to listen to what these guys have to say going forward.  Can an unequivocal convert to the C300 or the F3 still have any credibility with the average DSLR shooter who, at best, might find a way to upgrade to a $4,000 camera in the next year, but would then need to squeeze out at least two years of use from that camera before upgrading again?  I think not.

What’s great about the internet is that you can make up your own mind about whose advice to listen to and whose blogs to read.  And, seemingly overnight, as the name of the game changed from inexpensive consumer cameras with huge upsides to trendy, slick, pricey models aimed at the professional market, I now find myself visiting sites like CheesyCam and EOSHD more than any of the better known alternatives.

Part of the fun of a camera like the GH2 is that it’s cheap.  Is it perfect?  No, of course not.  There aren’t nearly as many lens options for the GH2 as there are for Canon cameras, and even a hacked GH2 can’t really be pushed much farther than 2500 ISO.  And because it’s shooting true 1080P, not the upscaled 720P of the Canon 7D and Rebel T3i, rolling shutter is a major issue.  It’s one of hardest adjustments I’ve had to make when I switched from the 7D to the GH2 for event videography gigs: GH2 footage has far more resolution than anything you’ll ever get from the 7D or T3i, but excessive camera movement can severely effect your footage if you’re not careful.

Here’s an event I shot on a hacked GH2 with a Canon 24-105mm zoom lens (with its aperture immovably set to f4).

I think the quality of the footage compares favorably with what I would have been able to capture with the 7D.  At the same time, however, I’m not under any illusions about the GH2.  If I had been running around with the C300 instead, with its exceptional low light performance and minimized rolling shutter, my shooting style would probably have been quite different.  But come on!  Event videography on a C300?

It remains an open question whether or not indie filmmakers should buy into this newer, sexier, far more expensive camera ecosystem.

A good friend of mine, Tim Bartell, is wrapping up the first week of his Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 toward a feature film.

If the campaign is successful, he’s going to have a shooting budget roughly in the neighborhood of $40,000 (which includes money he’s already raised on his own).  A year ago, I can’t think of a single HDSLR website that would have encouraged him to shoot a $40,000 feature on the RED ONE or the Alexa.  The consensus of the entire community would have been to go with the $2,500 5DmkII.

But today, I’m sure he’s going to be under a lot of pressure to shoot on a rented C300, or perhaps even the Scarlet.  DPs in the Los Angeles area, where Tim’s film will be produced, will surely advice him against using a micro four thirds camera, or even the new 5DmkIII, for that matter.  It turns out, you see, that a new bar has supposedly been set by the C300, regardless of whether or not it’s a prudent solution for indie filmmakers. This is a major philosophical shift that has occurred right under our noses, and nobody seems particularly concerned about it.

Update on April 16th: There are going to a large number of equipment announcements at NAB this week, but none may be more exciting to frugal shooters like me than a $3,000 2.5K RAW camera from Blackmagic Design!  We don’t really know much about it yet, though, according to the company, DP John Brawley had a chance to shoot some footage with it, and this is what he uploaded online. At this point in the evolution of DSLR technology, a video camera doesn’t need to be much more than a stills camera that can shoot 60 pictures per second. It’s not as if Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, and RED have access to some kind of magic, proprietary information that no one else could duplicate. And if those companies continue on their path to price indie filmmakers out of the market, there will be a great opportunity for an upstart company that no one would have previously associated with digital cameras to carve out a significant slice of the affordable camera market.


One response to “The End of an Era?

  1. Pingback: The End of an Era? | HDSLR news |·

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