This topic can be very confusing to a lot of people. If you’re just starting out in the industry and looking to purchase new equipment, you might think that when it comes to picking up a camera, you can just check out what is on sale at Best Buy, and you’ll be all set to go. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Whether you’re shooting for live production or post, there are many things that need to be considered: size and weight if you will be using it to shoot handheld or in the field, camera resolution, image sensor, audio/video outputs (this is especially relevant for live production), etc. If you’re looking for a “professional” quality camera, prices range all over the map but decent ones can be found for $1,000-$4,000, and there are many options out there. So, how do you know where to start? Here are four things to consider when picking up your new production camera.
1. HD vs. 2K/4K/UHD
I thought I’d start with the obvious, right out of the gate. I’m not going to talk about SD because, in most cases, the cost of HD cameras has come down so much, there’s no point in considering it. With that being said, the same can also be said these days for 2K and higher resolution cameras.
With the price of these cameras coming down (and down and down), you literally can find a professional quality HD or better camera to fit even the most limited production budget. In the high spatial resolution arena, new 4K models announced at NAB 2015 begin as low as US$2,995, with many choices now under US$5000. Consider your shooting needs, and your distribution means, and make your selection to fit those needs. For example, if you will be shooting fast action for live-streaming, you may want lower resolution but a faster framerate. If you are shooting interviews on the street with close-ups for broadcast, you can trade off lower frame-rate for higher resolution. But don’t start your bargain hunting yet – we’ve some more factors to consider before choosing that camera.
2. Tape vs. Tapeless
If you’ve decided that larger than HD is your format of choice, tapeless is pretty much your only option, but what if HD is how you’ll be shooting? Most people don’t think twice and go tapeless, but there are some important things to keep in mind. First, compression. Depending on the camera you choose, file compression will play an important factor in your workflow. Maybe not in the acquisition or editing phase, but definitely at the broadcast phase. Remember, most stations heavily compress their signal, and the more compressed your source material, the more compressed the end result will be. Also, if you plan on doing any live or post greenscreen work, compression will play a huge factor, as you want as little compression as possible, to get the best possible end product. Last, remember, for archival purposes of your original content, sometimes it’s just better to have a tape on a shelf or digital media in a drawer, as opposed to having your footage on a hard drive that can easily be erased or fail.
Some cameras come with built-in monitors sufficient for reviewing your footage, but there are a lot of great cameras out there with just a viewfinder-sized monitor, and for those you’ll want an option for review in the field. On this front, Atomos was a darling of NAB 2015. Not only was their booth huge, but so was their product selection. If you’re not familiar with them, their flagship product is the Shogun which lets you record, monitor, review, and tag your footage, right from the camera sensor, in 4K (other models from Atomos will record HD only).
To quote Atomos, the Shogun will “record direct from the camera sensor to your choice of Apple ProRes, DNxHD/DNxHR or RAW* in 10-bit 422 quality onto affordable media options. Based on the camera’s output the Shogun can accept and record up to 4K 30p and HD 120p over HDMI or 12/6/3/1.5G SDI,” and, “Full playback controls allow collaboration on set to review content the moment it’s captured, using the full suite of monitor tools on screen or out to a larger HDMI or SDI monitor. There is even 4K to HD down-scaling to connect with existing HD infrastructure.”
Basically, the Shogun is your one-stop shop for everything you need to do to your footage once it leaves the sensor of the camera. 4K monitoring for less than $2,000. Unbelievable!
This is something that is commonly overlooked. Most people think of acquisition in terms of post production – what will be the best file types for edit systems. However, what if you’re shooting for a live production? There your options depend on your switcher. For many cases, you will want to ensure that you have HD-SDI outputs on the cameras, so that it/they can be easily hooked into production switchers. If your switcher is a TriCaster™, most models can accept a range of input types from cameras. TriCaster 410 and TriCaster Mini HD-4sdi accept HD-SDI, and TriCaster Mini HD-4 accepts HDMI cameras.
A new consideration is that current TriCaster models with TriCaster Advanced Edition™ can accept input from the many new IP-capable cameras compatible with NewTek’s NDI™ protocol. NDI is seeing almost universal adoption among video production manufacturers, and makes it possible to use standard Gigabit Ethernet cables to connect cameras to production systems.
In sum, make sure you review the options that your switcher allows and check out the tech specs of all prospective cameras before narrowing down your search.
These days, most purchases come down to simple dollars and cents as budgets are getting tighter and tighter, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle. Pro-quality HD and 2K setups begin at not much beyond $1000, and if you need the additional resolution you can easily get a 4K production camera for either live productions or shooting for post-production, along with a monitor/recording device for less than US$6,000. Before you make your purchase, why not first rent the hardware you’re thinking of buying for a mock shoot/trial run? Most companies that rent equipment are also resellers, and most will put your rental cost towards the purchase of new equipment. So get out there and try the gear first to make sure it’s going to fit smoothly into your current workflow.