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Thoughts After Seeing the Zacuto Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout 2012

06.14.12 @ 7:13PM Tags : , , , , , ,

A tremendous amount of time is spent perfecting the Zacuto shootouts, and if you haven’t seen what went into the Revenge of the Great Camera Shooutout 2012, you should watch the behind-the-scenes immediately. The documentary is going to be split into three parts, with part one being released tomorrow, June 15th. I didn’t have a chance to see the RGCSO (as Zacuto calls it in acronym form) at NAB because the showings were cancelled, but thankfully they’ve been showing them around the country and I was finally able to attend.

The following post is more of an opinion/editorial, and it certainly doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of any other writers on NoFilmSchool. Hopefully you can take something more out of it than just opinion.

Philip Bloom has posted his thoughts about seeing the RGCSO along with a video which I cannot embed here. Philip, as always, is ever the level-headed reviewer and critic, and you should head on over to his site, as he makes some great points about the test and about cameras in general, as well as which camera he personally liked the most (RED Epic). Here’s a quote from that post:

If you asked me “Philip, happy birthday… you can have any camera you want on me. Which one will you have?”. My answer would be “Can I sell it or do I have to use it?” as if it’s the former then I’d pick the Phantom Flex as it’s very expensive – I would sell it to buy lots of other cameras. And if it’s the latter then probably an Epic, as I love the image and size of it and I already own a C300 which is my number one documentary camera. But hey, I have my Canon XA10 with me right now…why? It makes my life damn easy for what I am going to film here in Korea.

So really what I hope that you will get from the final documentary is that the camera is important naturally. But it’s what you do with the camera. Yes a better camera will make your life easier but as we always say,  the important thing is YOU!

That’s certainly the opinion of many of those who spoke at the RGCSO screening that I attended. They were impressed by many of the cameras, not in the empirical test where the lighting was constant, but in the creative test where the DPs were able to change things around to compensate for the flaws in each camera. While I don’t necessarily think you can make any camera look great, you can definitely make any camera look a lot better by lighting properly and by knowing the limits of the system you’re working with. If you haven’t seen the list of cameras used, here they are:

  • Apple iPhone 4S
  • Panasonic GH2 (Hacked)
  • Canon 7D
  • Canon C300
  • Sony FS100
  • Sony F3
  • Sony F65
  • RED Epic
  • Arri Alexa

Many asked why the 7D was chosen, and not the 5D or a camera that could be hacked like the T2i or 60d. Here is an answer from our comment section from Scott Lynch of Zacuto:

The choice of 7D was a bit last minute. Originally we were trying to get a 1DX which at the last minute was unavailable as it was still unreleased and we were unable to get one in from Japan in time for the test. Michael Negrin, ASC was lined up to shoot the Canon DSLR and was comfortable using the 7D, as that was what he had worked with before. Because these things are so scrutinized by the public, at the time we did not give him a new camera with “hacked” firmware that he had no experience with. So at that point it became a practical decision as to why we used the 7D, it was what he was comfortable with and it had a super35mm sensor. I think though, having the 7D in there gives you a good reference as to where the technology was just over a year ago and it can be used as a sort of benchmark.

There is a theory that I have about movie watchers in general and I believe they are separated into three groups: pixel peepers (many DPs and shooters), people who see a lot of movies, but may not be as technically savvy when it comes to filmmaking (but they certainly like the picture to look nice), and the general audience who just wants to be entertained, and couldn’t care less as long as they like the story and can see what’s going on. Now, there are grey areas within those three categories, and there are many people who straddle the lines between all three at times (depending on the material they are watching). I personally cannot watch a film if it is in the wrong aspect ratio or it is highly compressed. I either have to find a better source or fix the aspect ratio. I can tell when something is wrong, and it immediately takes me out of the film.

Unfortunately, the general population, who are the majority of moviegoers, may not always be so discerning. HDTVs make this situation that much worse because aspect ratios in the television industry are all over the place, with 16:9 sources inside 4:3 frames, which then get stretched out when viewed on an HDTV — unless the TV is set correctly to 4:3 with bars on the side. I’ve heard different reasons from different people about why they’ll watch a film in this way: they don’t care, they don’t want to see black bars, or they don’t understand how to change the settings to get it to look correct (if they can recognize what the right aspect ratio would actually be in the first place). I usually present an analogy in these situations, and even though it’s not perfect, I think it applies. To me, watching a film in that way is like going to a museum to see paintings from the most famous painters, but instead of the originals, they’ve been copied and squished into odd forms, or cropped off in weird places. Can you really appreciate the work of  Vincent van Gogh or Leonardo da Vinci if you aren’t seeing them in their original form? I understand this analogy may make people scream in their heads a little, and I’m certainly not comparing the great painters to the great filmmakers (it’s apples to oranges after all). The point, however, is that if you respect the people that make the work, you’ll try your best to view their work in the least compressed way and in the correct aspect ratio.

This doesn’t always happen, and all of us are guilty of watching movies or television in highly compressed versions on tiny screens — most of the time it’s a matter of convenience. If I have to go buy or rent a film on Blu-Ray, I may watch it in a more highly compressed form on Netflix because it’s more convenient. There is something lost (however major or minor) when a work isn’t viewed in the most uncompressed way possible with a screen that can accurately represent its true colors. You could say “only in a theater” – but the theater experience, at times, is not necessarily better than watching a Blu-Ray at home on a calibrated TV with good surround sound.

That may seem like a tangent, but it is absolutely related. Not only do we have many different types of viewers watching our work, but they are also watching it in ways that may not be the best representation of what we are trying to achieve. I’m not complaining about this — there’s nothing that can be done about it — but it’s a fact of being a filmmaker. This also brings everything back to the original topic at hand. You have to know where your work is going — whether that be theatrical, TV, or the web. All of those different mediums will benefit differently from certain camera systems, and the most expensive cameras will shine a little brighter than something you can buy from WalMart. The camera matters for the medium through which it is being watched, and often that is on the internet.

The Zacuto test was certainly subjective, and I thought it did a great job proving that you can make almost any camera look better — even the lowly iPhone — it just depends who is lighting and operating the camera. The differences between the cameras may be even less apparent when the shootout is released on the web, and that’s one of the bigger points that I will come back to.

While we weren’t given much time to look at each camera, they were shown in a completely random order unlabeled — to try to remove as much bias as possible. We were given a sheet where to select our five favorite cameras. Before going in, my goal was to try to watch the clips with the mindset that there are certain aspects about cameras that remain more or less constant regardless of compression — with the two biggest being motion rendering (or motion blur), and dynamic range. To a certain extent, color reproduction and skin tones will also make it through heavy compression. Depth of field, obviously, is up there, but since this was a controlled test there wouldn’t be much difference between them. I tried to watch with those aspects in mind first, but I quickly realized that sharpness was going to play a huge role because this was being shown on a big screen — even though our distance from that screen probably lessened the extent to which the sharpness and clarity played a role.

So if you’re still reading, here were my choices, and my thoughts on the ones I didn’t pick:

  1. FS100
  2. RED Epic
  3. F3
  4. Arri Alexa
  5. F65

My top three were a complete toss-up, so I was willing to put any of them as first. After watching it a second time, I may have moved the Epic slightly farther down the list (due to a bit of yellow in the highlights), but I thought that would defeat the purpose of watching them blindly in the first place. Really, all five of those cameras performed beautifully in my eyes, and they checked off the list of the things I was looking for going in — unfortunately, sharpness played a bigger role than I would have liked. Keep in mind that these were my opinion, based on a theater screen, and that others in the audience had very different answers.

The iPhone, regardless of the excellent lighting in the scene, looked miserable in its motion rendering, and to me, was the worst of the bunch. The other two that I thought just didn’t hold up: the GH2 and the Canon 7D. The GH2 (which is the best camera under $1,000 depending on where you read), felt very digital, and it seemed over-sharpened. It’s color rendition was much poorer than the others, even though I think that scene probably had the best lighting of any of them — because the DPs knew what they were up against with the limited dynamic range, and were able to compensate. The colorist also was able to pull a lot out of the shadows, much more than I had expected. Even through all of that, I personally didn’t like the image in any way. The 7D, as was expected, suffered a bit from it’s limited 8-bit codec, and was also one of the softer cameras of the bunch. It just wasn’t in the same league as even a camera like the FS100 in this test. Lastly, the C300 was my number 6 camera — probably because of subjective choices. I just didn’t like the image as much as the others. Many also had left the C300 off their list, though there were enough that had the GH2 and the iPhone on their list to show that subjectivity played a certain role in the choices people made.

It was very telling for me, personally, that I left all of the DSLRs off the list. To bring it all back around, what do I think this means? It means that you need to know your camera’s limits, and you have to know where the work is going. Yes, you can make any of them look “good.” I’ve seen plenty of beautiful work from every single camera that was tested, so you shouldn’t be disappointed just because I personally didn’t pick any DSLRs. The screen size and final compression play a huge role. The digital cinema cameras shine the brightest when you push them the hardest — on a big screen where resolution matters. Sharpness and resolution are less important on the web, and to a lesser extent television. By the time people actually watch material on either one, it’s been compressed a great deal. Can you see a difference on the web if you compared an F65 to a Canon 7D? I think so, but the differences can be so minimal that you have to then start considering cost. That’s where it really starts to matter – you can buy a 7D for the cost of a one-day F65 rental. If your work is going on the web, and to a lesser extent TV, that money can be better spent elsewhere.

There are so many things we have to consider, and that’s really the lesson that you should take away from the Zacuto shootout. Often our audience is far more forgiving of poor visuals than we would like to believe, and it’s actually bad sound that they won’t be able to look past. The number one consideration you should have is the delivery medium — where your work is going. After that, consider cost, then usability (physical usability and also workflows and codecs), then worry about the image quality. A RED Scarlet might be miles ahead of a Canon 7D in image quality, but if your work is only going on the web, it might not make the most financial sense to use a Scarlet when the RAW workflow actually has other financial implications — like storage costs.

Bottom line: Shoot with the camera you have or the camera you can easily afford, and only move up when it makes financial sense (when you’re actually making money off your work), or you need something that fits into your workflow better (like needing a camera with ND filters). Don’t invest a lot of money into a camera system that will probably be surpassed in 2-4 years unless it’s going to pay for itself in less than a year. Investing in lenses is a much smarter decision — because those will pay off ten-fold in the long run, way after your Canon 7D or T2i bites the dust. Just go out and shoot with the camera that doesn’t kill your wallet, because the money can be better spent on other things (like good actors). All of the camera systems are good enough to get great results, more specifically on the web where differences can be minimal. Lastly, don’t forget that much of your audience doesn’t care what camera you shot with — make sure your audio is good and craft a story that keeps them interested.

On a side note – it’s a little baffling that many people insist on saying that certain cameras cost less money than they actually do. I understand that you can get many camera systems for less money used, but I think it’s doing a disservice to compare cameras at used prices — when often those prices can fluctuate wildly. From B&H, the Sony FS100 is $5,000, and the GH2 is $750 (body only for both). Just because you can buy a Canon 5D Mark II for $1,500 used on eBay doesn’t mean it’s a $1,500 camera. There are certain risks that come with buying a used camera, and in the end that $1,500 purchase might end up costing more money than if you bought it new. You can get great deals on used cameras, there’s no question, but you have to also understand the risks. I’ve had a lot of good luck with used cameras, but the main thing is that you have to buy carefully and consider the overall cost. Does saving $100 on a used camera really make sense when you can buy a brand new one with a warranty? Either way, you have to do what makes sense for your financial situation, and in some cases, you might be able to move up to a better camera if you choose to buy it used. That’s certainly a valid consideration, and it’s something to think about if you’re in the market for a new camera.

There may be more dates for the shootout, and you can check at the link below and sign up if they happen to be coming to your area. If you want, you can also download from the link below the technical paper that explains the testing procedures and all of the stats from each camera.


DISCLOSURE: Zacuto is a NoFilmSchool advertiser.


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 39 COMMENTS

  • Luke Neumann on 06.14.12 @ 7:51PM

    Good stuff Joe! Which would you say was the winner? I know you said you couldn’t really pick one, but if your LIFE depended on it.

    • My gut reaction was that I really liked the stuff that was shot with the F3 and the FS100. Again, keep in mind that it was subjectively lit and colored, but there was a slight warmness to the image that I preferred with how those cameras were handled over the somewhat sterile Alexa and F65. I felt like the F65 probably was the most capable of giving a true image exactly like our eyes see – but whether or not that it interesting is certainly debatable.

      I really couldn’t pick if my life depended on it, I know other people had clear winners but I don’t think I could pick one. It would probably be a toss-up between all 5. Of those cameras tested, if budget was no option, F65, and if I had less than $10,000 to spend, FS100. I think more and more we are going to find that the sensors and image processors won’t be as important as the features and the price. Do you need 4K? Do you need RAW? Do you need ND filters? I’d honestly be happy with any of those cameras on a feature, no question.

      • Luke Neumann on 06.14.12 @ 8:15PM

        Right. None of us need 4K right now. I feel bad for the Indie guys that bought a RED One and still probably haven’t viewed a single frame in 4K. That will probably change in the next year or so though. It’s pretty crazy to the see the FS100 in that list too btw. The FS700 is sounding like a better and better option since it at least is future proof with the 4K/RAW upgrade path.

        • Right – I mean I actually think the RAW flexibility with the RED One was far more important than overall pixel size. But you pay dearly for that ability. Again it comes back to buying a camera that fits into your workflow, but also one that you can pay off in a relatively short amount of time – hopefully the ones that bought into RED have paid them off, or they look a little silly paying so much for a camera.

          We’ll see how the images come out, but if they are anything like the FS100, the FS700 will be the camera to beat in the $5K to $10K range. Especially for the ability to do slow motion.

          • Well, assuming over the last several years these people actually made stuff with their camera, it’s hard to “feel bad” for them given none of these other cameras were available back then. We don’t own cameras to win future shootouts, we own cameras to make shit in the here and now after all. The Red One came out in 2007 and was more than a HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS cheaper than, say, Sony’s cinema camera at the time. So I think it’s a bit ridiculous to say “paid so much” for something that was itself a huge breakthrough price wise. Is anyone even mentioning another digital camera from 2007 and expecting it to compete today? No.

          • Don’t feel sad for us, Joe Marine, we’re doing just fine.

            • Well, I never said I felt sad – I don’t feel sad or bad for anyone who makes those purchases. People are free to do what they want with their money. I was simply saying it’s an investment.

          • Yeah, I was being kind. You said we ‘looked a little silly’.

            • Only if the investment hasn’t paid for itself in one way or another – either by using it or renting it.

          • I think a camera can also pay for itself through personal fulfillment. If someone can afford to purchase a 50k or 100k camera and not make a single dime back, but is thrilled by his film results, that to me is worth it even though no money is made back. In short, it’s worth it if you personally feel it’s worth it.

            • No, that’s true, as long as they can afford it. I’ve read more than a few stories of people taking out big loans and refinancing their homes – those are the people who should be buying it because it’s an investment. But again, people are free to do what they want – in the end I still think lenses are the better investment and will hold their value far longer.

  • Great thoughts Joe. I like that you didn’t get all crazy emotional about it like the rest of us do :) Very balanced and well thought out article.

    As for me, it’s going to be the FS700. I’m probably one of the few people that might use the 4K because the studio I freelance at the most has a large, professional green screen that needs to be used more. But for a majority of stuff, there’s no real need for 4K. I do wish the resolution was at 2.5K though, because then you have a nice bit of composition play in post, but not crazy file sizes. Maybe when the FS700 does release the 4K recorder, there will be resolution options. Now that would be great.

    • The FS700 is going to be a great option. Just wish Canon and Panasonic would enter that market with similar cameras.

  • C’mon. Zillions of cameras tests. Then comes Mr. Cameron, shoot with HD cameras and projetc it in an Imax… Whete is you god now, tech fetichists?

    • 60%-75% of that movie is strictly computer animation – with much of the rest of it scenes that are mixed with computer animation. Cameron is also buying dozens of RED Epics and Arri Alexas – and will probably get some F65s as well. The 2/3″ inch sensors used for Avatar also work very well for 3D, but I’d much rather shoot a narrative 2D film with a camera that has a larger sensor. Avatar starts to look somewhat flat if you’re not watching it in 3D. He developed the PACE system with those 2/3″ cameras as that was all that existed when he started with the Avatar project. You really think he’d shoot the next film on anything less than 4K if he has a choice? IMAX benefits greatly from higher resolution – as can be seen with any film that actually shoots in the IMAX film format (Dark Knight being a prime example). Just because something was done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to do it now.

  • Randolph Sellars on 06.15.12 @ 1:09AM

    Joe, your article was music to my ears. Your conclusions were reasonable and balanced. I agree that delivery medium is the paramount consideration. Your advise for filmmakers to “shoot with the camera you have or can easily afford” really sums up the wisest approach. Yes, put cost savings into other areas of craft! In many cases, that can mean skilled actors and crew. The argument that the quality differences between cameras has become surprisingly narrow is supported by the fact that viewers are disagreeing widely on their favorite cameras. As expected, subjectivity has increased by eliminating “fairness.” Scenes shot using “inferior cameras” with great lighting are beating out high end cameras – proving that the skills of the artist using the tool are much more important. Whatever camera you use, find a way to shoot more often with different subjects and challenging conditions. There is nothing more valuable than experience when quality is the goal.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. Too often people get hung up on specs without understanding the other aspects of filmmaking first. Just going out and shooting with what you have is the most important thing.

  • Joe, congratulations! This is one of the most objective and insightfully articulated posts you have offered up. I think you’ve come very close to putting into perspective the current state of affairs of digital cinema. Especially, where economy and quality cross paths.

    Of course, as an evangelist of the F3, I’m very happy to see it near the top of your list… in a blind ‘taste-test’, no less. I’ll, most likely, make more comments on this after I see the RGCSO later.

    Anyway, lots of thoughts I’ve had in my noggin for a while but, I couldn’t have put them in words as well as you have here. Congrats again on a very well-rounded piece.

    • Thank you – I appreciate the support. I did my best to watch the test without any preconceived notions about camera performance. I just watched them for what they were.

  • “Bottom line: Shoot with the camera you have or the camera you can easily afford, and only move up when it makes financial sense… All of the camera systems are good enough to get great results, more specifically on the web where differences can be minimal.”

    [slow clap]
    [fast clap]
    [roaring cheer]

  • I suppose camera B must be the GH2, judging from your description. It seems the most video-ish of the bunch and the sharpest and with the best lighting (seems like it would be the F65 or Epic based on its sharpness and clarity). I would be very surprised it camera F was the GH2 because it looks the most filmic to me (I’m thinking it’s the Alexa). Clearly D is the iPhone (no bokeh) and G is the 7D (softer image), so the GH2 is one of the better images. If it is either camera B or camera F, that would be pretty amazing as both cameras are leading the online poll for best image.

  • H, E, B

    Good work by the cinematographers on these, I preferred a bright window and some hard light and reflections on the tables.

  • B, F, H, C.
    Joe, where did you get the results, or the key for which camera corresponds to which letter? I can’t find that anywhere but it seems you know? Thanks for the great article.

    • B, F, H, C, I, G, E, A, D.
      I’d say that’s based on dynamic range and clarity in the blacks. I’m surprised that many people are saying that B is the GH2. I would have guessed it to be the Alexa. Of course it’s hard to judge artifacting and compression when viewing on Vimeo…

    • I saw it in person at one of their screenings. We were given the answers but Steve Weiss didn’t want them to be out in the open until part 2 is released in July.

  • Shootout irrelevant without Blackmagic Cinema Camera in the mix.

    • There will always be new cameras released after the test is conducted, it’s impossible to include all of them. Many people would say the same things about other cameras – irrelevant because the Nikon D800, FS700, etc. The idea is with this test is that there is no winner, which has been proven by many of the wildly different answers – it’s all what you do with the lighting and the color grade.

  • Daniel Mimura on 06.21.12 @ 6:12PM

    I also use the painting analogy when explaining to non-film geeks about aspect ratio. My favorite example, because even your old Aunt Gertrude from rural North Carolina knows of the painting: The Last Supper. Then I ask if you are okay with viewing the painting in a way that’s shows just Jesus and six of the apostles.

    Actually… don’t use that example with old Aunt Gertrude because of the Da Vinci Code…you might get into some fundamentalist xtian debate.

  • Bring your chosen cameras to where I’m shooting at the moment…remote West Papua…topside and underwater. Four weeks in rainy humid conditions with Jakarta being the nearest service center…two days flying away.

    Screw the lala palaver about 4k and raw farmats…and finely tuned lighting set-ups. Lets see which camera is still working herein the jungle after four weeks…I know my hacked GH2′s will be. They performed flawlessly during the February expedition.,,and unlike another IMAX cinematographer’s RED…they didn’t melt from overheating in the underwater housing.

  • Hi Joe, Am a noob here, and a cinematographer friend recently suggested the Blackmagic cinema camera. Said its the cheapest and the best and to order it now. What are your views on that camera? is it worth competing in such a shoot out? What are the general reviews on it? Thank you for a great and informative post, wish you the best ahead.

    • No reviews yet because it hasn’t been released, but we’ll be reviewing it here as soon as we can get our hands on it. It will have the best internal codec and dynamic range of any camera under $10,000, which looks pretty good on a spec sheet considering it will cost only $3,000 and includes the DaVinci Resolve color program free of charge.

  • its very nice

  • where iz it