Description image

Purchasing a Digital Cinema Camera Package: a Complete Guide from Ryan E. Walters

Things are moving fast in the world of digital cinema. Just a few years ago DSLRs were about the only affordable way to get a cinema quality image, but now we’ve got plenty of camera options under $20,000 that would have cost well over $100,000 just five years ago. We’ve already shared with you a rather comprehensive RED buying guide, and now we have a wonderful digital cinema buying guide from Ryan E. Walters. He covers everything you need to know about putting together a camera package, and gives personal experience about the package he is planning to put together.

This is a guest post by Cinematographer Ryan E. Walters.


At NAB 2012 Blackmagic surprised everyone with the release of their “3k” camera for $3k. And Canon showed off their 4k DSLR, the 1D C. In less than a year, the market has completely changed yet again with several big announcements from REDSony, and GoPro. It seems like every other week a new camera is coming out which leaves many people wondering what they should buy and what they should be shooting their projects on. Moore’s Law is not making this an easy time for equipment purchases. And I want to share some principles with you will help you navigate this minefield …

Principle #1: Be Realistic
If you are just starting out it is important to realize and accept that your first work is not going to be a masterful piece of art. When you look back on it in a year or two, you will see how awful it really is. This is not a bad thing, as we all start somewhere. It is just the reality of learning a new craft. It will take time to hone your skills. Due to this learning curve, I would suggest that you do not need to be shooting on the latest and greatest camera system. Instead, get the best that you can afford while not over-extending yourself. Then learn the craft using that system. What you learn with this system will be able to be applied to the next camera system you get. I highly doubt that in a three to five years, you will want to come back and remaster your first projects in their full 4k “glory.” Start small, and affordable; 1080p will suffice.

If you have been working on your craft for awhile now, and you’re looking to change systems, I would encourage you to evaluate what your clients needs really are in relation to the equipment you are wanting to buy. Does the push to upgrade really come from a need from the clients you work with, or is it just a need to use the latest and “coolest” equipment? Does that PSA really need to be shot in 5k? Will the end client know, or care if you shot in RAW? Will you really be going back to the source files in 5 years and remaster that corporate video, or will they want something new shot at that time?

While shooting on the latest and greatest is fun, it is important to be realistic about where you are at, as well as what the needs of the deliverables are for the majority of your projects. If you are spending more money on always having the latest and greatest gear, that means you have less money in your pocket, and the less profitable you will be – and in the end, this is a business. If you need to impress one client who needs to be shooting on the latest camera system, consider renting instead of buying.

Principle #2: Think Long-Term
The one constant in this line of work is that our camera systems are going to continue to change and evolve. If you can have a long-term outlook as you buy the parts of your camera system, you will be better off. Put your money into as many pieces of kit that will last as long as possible, and will outlive your current camera system. Just like your computer gets outdated every 6-12 months, the same is now true for camera bodies. If you are going to buy a more expensive system, be sure that you have the business model to support it. Otherwise, get something more affordable now, and then switch to something else when you outgrow it. You can alway rent the more expensive gear for the projects that need it. Remember, thanks to Moore’s Law, in another 6-12 months we will have even better cameras to use at even more affordable prices than we do today. Do not invest in a highly proprietary system that you cannot recoup your investment in unless you are confident that you can make your money back in one year of ownership.

Principle #3: Evaluate The Real Costs
Camera manufacturers are great at hiding the real costs of their camera systems. There are all kinds of hidden costs that can start to add up and impact your bottom line, and the bottom line of the projects you work on. As you look at a camera system, take a look at the following areas:

  • Accessories: What do I need to have to actually be able to shoot in they style I’m comfortable working in? Do I need all the bells and whistles, or can I get by with next to nothing?
  • Personnel: How does this camera affect the size and expertise of the crew I need? And how does this camera system impact the lighting requirements/budget?
  • Post: How does the recording format impact the storage, workflow, and the processing power it takes to use it? What kinds of deadlines and turnaround times do I typically have?

It is only after these areas are taken into consideration that you can have an accurate understanding of what the real costs are to a particular camera system.

Now let’s take a look at three RAW camera systems and apply these three principles in evaluating the purchase of each camera system. Each of these packages has been put together with the emphasis on frugality. I have only included the absolute minimum you need to get started and I have left out a lot of accessories that many people like to have, such as rails, cages, follow focuses, etc. The point here is that while these packages are not pretty, you could be up and shooting with them tomorrow. These packages would not rent well outside of the projects that you work on, but they will get the job done. I have split the total package price into two parts, Short-Term (ST) and Long-Term (LT). The short-term costs are all of the expenses that are specific to that camera system, while the long-term costs are accessories that will outlive the camera system. If you can recoup the short-term costs quickly enough before the next “popular” camera hits the market at a lower price, then you will be on a good financial footing with your business. The long-term costs can be rolled into your next camera purchase, as they only need to be made once.

I have also included a line item for Ongoing Costs, which is the cost of media storage, and a line item for any Additional Costs that the camera system will add to the production. The media storage is based on backing up the footage 3 times, as is the standard practice, and one I HIGHLY recommend. (One copy= not backed up, two copies is flirting with danger, and three copies is fully backed up). The cost is calculated on a bare 500GB Western Digital Drive: $55.99 or $0.11198 per GB. (Remember, I’m trying to be as frugal as possible, when possible. Western does not have a perfect history, and you can find horror stories about their drives. No drive maker is perfect, which is why you should have three copies of your footage to protect you from the inevitable. But they have proven to be reliable over the long-term for a large number of people, myself included).

Let’s get started …

[Editor's note, some prices may differ slightly based on sales or other deals, and some items, like the battle-tested RED ONE MX, are no longer available]

 

Blackmagic Cinema Camera

 


Up & Running Costs: $5,804.00  [ST= $4,457.20/LT= $1,346.80]

Ongoing Costs Per Hour Of Footage: $33.59 ProRes (100GB)/$167.97 RAW (500GB)
Additional Costs: Time & DMT/DIT (If shooting RAW)

$2,995 Camera Body: EF Mount [Short-Term]
The MFT Mount would be a better choice in my opinion, however, that adds the extra costs of the lens adapters.

$79.95 External Battery Adapter: Sony-L [Short-Term]
Sony batteries are used a lot on all kinds of devices on set. Having one type of battery that is popular/easily found can be extremely helpful if you find yourself in a pinch for power.

$69.95 ea Sony-L Battery x 4 [Short-Term $139.90/Long-Term $139.90]
Three of these should get you through a day of shooting, however, four will cover your bases. Two of these will be used for the camera, and two for the monitor.

$9.95 ea Sony Battery Charger x 4 [Short-Term $19.90/Long-Term $19.90]
If you are really tight on funds, you can knock this down to two. But having four means you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to swap batteries, which is worth the extra $20 to me…

$1,187 Small HD 5.6″ (Strong Arm, & Sony Plate) [Long-Term]
Personally, I’m not a fan of this monitor. I’d rather go with the TVLogic, but that is more expensive, and I’m trying to keep this cheap. This would be my second choice. (Unfortunately, with no HDMI out, in this camera, you have to go with an HD-SDI monitor, which means more money).

$119.99 ea OWC SSD: 120GB x2 [Short-Term] (These drives have the best track record from what I’ve found)
This is not the size of drive I would get, but it will allow you to record about 150 minutes of ProRes, or about 30 minutes of RAW. If you are going the ultra-cheap route, then you will want to be shooting in ProRes, as RAW is going to break the bank. While there are cheaper SSD options out there, having reliable media is paramount. Cheap failed drives that lose a day’s shoot are of no use to anyone…

$26.97 Startech Drive Dock [Short-Term]
Down and dirty, this dock will get the footage off of your drive and not break the bank. It is also not the fastest solution out there- that would be Thunderbolt. These docks are also meant for Desktop installation, so I’m not sure how long they will last if you are transporting them around on set a lot. They are cheaply made plastic housings.

$549 Sigma 18mm – 250mm [Short-Term]
A small, light lens with a long range, at a cheap price. This is not the lens I would put my money on, but it isn’t unusable either…

$406.50 Carbon Fiber Tripod & Head [Short-Term]
Again, keeping it down, dirty, and cheap. This head and sticks will work with the system, but I wouldn’t count on it lasting over the long haul. I’d rather put the money towards a different system.

Other Considerations To Make:

- This is a smaller sensor camera. If you are used to shooting with a full frame camera like the 5D, then the crop factor will be 2.3x which may be a deal breaker for you. If you are used to shooting Super 35 (just about any other camera system out there), then the crop factor is only 1.6x. Personally, I’m used to the Super 35 format frame, so a 1.6x crop is not as big of a deal to me. As long as you are shooting ProRes, then you should be able to get through a day’s shoot for most corporate, commercial, short film, or small indie feature work with 140 minutes of record time. However, footage will have to be backed up at the end of the day back at your office. If you have to shoot RAW, then you’ll need to invest in more drives with a larger capacity, or spend the money on having a DMT/DIT along with their computer system on set.

- Shooting in RAW will also increase the cost of the computer system you need to get decent results. It will also complicate the workflow as you will most likely have to use Resolve to transcode the files prior to editing. As of this posting, the RAW files are not natively supported by any NLE. If you shoot in ProRes, just about any computer system or laptop will be able to handle it without breaking a sweat.

Application Of Principles:

Principle #1: Be Realistic
This is a fairly affordable camera package to get into. And as long as it is shot using the ProRes codec, it doesn’t have to break the bank or complicate life on set or in post. It also allows for the possibility of shooting in RAW if it is needed for a specific project.

Principle #2: Think Long Term
About 23% of the money spent on this camera system can be applied towards future camera systems. That means that 77% of the cost will need to be recouped in rentals, and hopefully in reselling the camera when you upgrade. However, you will be lucky if you can recoup 50% of that price when you sell the camera system.

Principle #3: Evaluate The Real Costs
You can get away with a very small camera package that doesn’t tie you into a lot of proprietary gear. As soon as the camera starts recording in its RAW format, the cost on set and in post substantially increases. This camera gets less “affordable” and less easy to work with. So don’t be fooled by its low sticker price if you only intend to shoot with its RAW format.

 

RED ONE MX

Up & Running Costs: $9,770.00  [ST= $7,228/LT= $2,542]
Ongoing Costs Per Hour Of Footage: $40.31 RedCode 36 (120GB)
Additional Costs: DIT/DMT & computer system to offload cards throughout the day

$4,000 Camera Body: PL Mount [Short-Term] (Editor’s Note: This deal is now over)
PL mount is the only option, which is not the greatest choice for those on a budget…

$495 ea Red 1.8″ 48GB SSD x 2 [Short-Term]
Can we hear it for proprietary media? Fun times… A 48GB card will get you roughly 24 minutes of RedCode 36 at 4k HD per card. That should give your DMT enough time to copy one card before the second card gets full. The DMT/DIT will not appreciate it, and you’ll be in a tight spot if a problem comes up copying the footage. A better choice would be to have three or four cards…

$250 Red Station [Short-Term]
Yep, you’ll also need one of these to transfer the footage from the SSD.

$1,385 Battery Package (3 Total) [Long-Term]
3x 150w hour batteries, and 1 dual charger. Each one of these batteries should get you just under 2 hours of use. You’ll need to stay on top of changing the batteries as you will be fighting a slowly losing battle. It takes 210 minutes to completely recharge one 150w battery, which is why I would not get less than 3. I’ve shot with only 3 batteries, and it will get you through the day-but just barely.

$290 Battery Belt Clip [Short-Term]
You need a way to get the power to the camera, and this is the cheapest option. You do not need any rails, or any other expensive mounting system. Just don’t walk too far away from your camera…

$1,157 Small HD 5.6″ (Strong Arm, & D-Tap) [Long-Term]
Personally, I’m not a fan of this monitor. I’d rather go with the TVLogic, but that is more expensive, and I’m trying to keep this cheap. If you can get lucky, getting a used Red 5.6″ LCD for around $500 would be the way to go for this camera. (While you could also consider using an HDMI monitor, I have found the HDMI out of the Red One to be problematic at best, so I don’t see it as a viable option. And that means the use of an HD-SDI monitor).

$500 Red Nikon Mount [Short-Term]
If you are lucky, you can score a Birger Canon EF Mount used from $900-$1,500, or find one of the few Canon FD mounts floating around on Ebay for around $200 – but good luck, as they are in short supply…

$549 Sigma 18mm – 250mm Nikon Mount [Short-Term]
This isn’t the lens I would get, but for the money, size, weight, and the range it isn’t completely unusable.

$649 Aluminum Tripod & Head [Short-Term]
I would not put my money on this system, but it will get the job done in the short term, as long as you do not add anything more to the camera package. As soon as you add another accessory, you will need to step up to a head that can handle 20+ lbs.

Other Considerations To Make:
- Compared to the two other camera systems in this post, the Red One is a MUCH larger, and heavier camera package. That means that everything you do with it is going to require a larger investment in gear and personnel. And forget about trying to steal a location, or not getting noticed. There is no mistaking this camera for a consumer piece of gear.

- Boot times with the Red One are significant. This was one of my biggest frustrations of working with the camera. If you need to be up and running with minimal downtime, then this is not the camera system for you. I have lost shots due to powering the camera down and swapping batteries. Do not overlook this as you consider the appealing price of the camera body.

- This is an end of life product. That means Red is no longer supporting it, or devoting any more time towards its development. Accessories and needed cables will be hard to come by in the coming years, as they are no longer being made. This is a big deal, as there are a lot of proprietary cables, and accessories for this camera. What will you do when a cable/accessory breaks and you can’t get a replacement?

Application Of Principles:

Principle #1: Be Realistic
This camera is almost double the cost of the Blackmagic camera, and in my opinion, it is not offering double the benefits. The major benefit I see is the full super 35 field of view. Having no crop factor on this camera can be a huge deal in a small/tight location. But is your work really going to benefit from the 4k resolution? I’m not convinced that the cost outweighs the draw backs. NAB 2013 is just around the corner…

Principle #2: Think Long Term
About 26% of the money spent on this camera system can be applied towards future camera systems. That means that 74% of the cost will need to be recouped in rentals. I know in my market, rentals for this camera are next to nonexistent – people are literally giving away the camera. Don’t count on recouping the purchase when you sell the camera either. You will be lucky if you can recoup 25% of the purchase price. This is an end of life product that has flooded the market over the last 5 years. Additionally, with Red’s MAJOR reduction in price for this camera ($25,000 to $4,000 in just over a year) don’t count on it retaining its resale value…

Principle #3: Evaluate The Real Costs
This camera requires additional personnel to use it. There is no way around that unless you drop a lot of money on additional proprietary media. You will need a DMT/DIT on set with you, and if you are working a lot, you will want to consider having an assistant with you to help carry and setup the camera due to its size and weight. The good news is that in post just about every major NLE can natively edit the files now, so you shouldn’t have much added cost in that regard. And the storage costs are relatively affordable for being able to shoot “RAW.” The other real cost consideration to make is the replacement of accessories and cables. With a lot of proprietary support gear on an end of life product, it is going to become increasingly difficult to get replacement parts.

 

RED SCARLET

Up & Running Costs: $16,393.00 [ST= $15,008/LT= $1,385]
Ongoing Costs Per Hour Of Footage: $60.47 4k HD @ RC 7:1 (180GB)
Additional Costs: DIT/DMT & computer system to offload cards throughout the day

$10,150 Camera Body: Canon AL mount & SSD [Short-Term]
The titanium mount would be the better way to go in my opinion, but this mount will save you some cash on the front end. (I experienced flange issues with the aluminum mount on the Red One, so I’m not a fan of their aluminum mounts).

$495 ea Red 1.8″ 48GB SSD x 3 [Short-Term]
Can we hear it again for proprietary media? Fun times… At RC 7:1 in 4k HD these card will get you about 16 minutes of recording time each, or a total of 48 minutes. Your DMT/DIT is still going to be kept busy transferring footage all day, and there will not be a lot of room for errors/problems that come up. Four cards would be a better idea…

$250 Red Station [Short-Term]
Yep, you’ll also need one of these to transfer the footage from the SSD.

$1,385 Battery Package (3 Total) [Long-Term]
3x 150w hour batteries, and 1 dual charger. Each one of the batteries should get you just under 3 hours of use. This means you will still need to keep on top of the charging, but you will not be fighting a losing battle like you would with the Red One. If you are tight on cash, you could go with 2 batteries, but then you will be fighting a losing battle with the 210 minute charge times…

$325 Battery Belt Clip [Short-Term]
Yep, you need a way to get the power to the camera, and this is the cheapest option. Just don’t walk too far away from your camera…

$1,600 Red 5.0″ Touch LCD [Short-Term]
Going this route will save you about $600 over going with the side handle to control & power the camera, a third party LCD with power, and enough RedVolt Batteries and chargers to say powered all day.

$549 Sigma 18mm – 250mm [Short-Term]
A small lens with a long range, at a cheap price. This is not the lens I would put my money on, but it isn’t horrible either…

$649 Aluminum Tripod & Head [Short-Term]
I would not put my money on this system, but it will get the job done in the short-term, as long as you do not add anything more to the camera package. You might be able to get away with a clip-on matte box. Remember that the center of gravity of the camera system plays into how much weight the head sees. So a tall, light, camera system will actually be putting a greater load on the head than what it physically weighs.

Application Of Principles:

Principle #1: Be Realistic
This camera is almost three times the cost of the Blackmagic camera, and in my opinion, it is not offering three times the benefits. There are two major benefits that I see from this system: Full super 35 field of view, and high frame rates. Having no crop factor on this camera can be a huge deal in a small/tight location. And being able to shoot at higher than 60 frames a second can be a useful storytelling tool. But how often will you be shooting in slow motion? (In my work that is maybe 5% of the time. This means renting makes more sense for me). Is your work really going to benefit from the 4k resolution or would that money be better spent in production design, and developing your lighting skills? Personally, I’m not convinced that the added cost outweighs owning a more affordable system and renting when I need the high frame rates.

Principle #2: Think Long Term
About 9% of the money spent on this camera system can be applied towards future camera systems. That means that 91% of the cost will need to be recouped in rentals. In my market, rentals for this camera are dirt cheap. I honestly don’t know how individual owner/operators are making a profit, or keeping their equipment up-to-date. And I would not count on recouping the purchase cost when you sell the camera either. You will be lucky if you can recoup 50-75% of the purchase price. With Red’s reduction in price for this camera, it is devaluing the resell value of the used market. Who knows where prices will be when the new sensor comes out. And remember, that upgrade is going to cost around $6,000…

Principle #3: Evaluate The Real Costs
This camera requires additional personnel to use it. There is no way around that unless you drop a lot of money on additional proprietary media. You will need a DMT/DIT on set with you, unless you can afford to step away from the shoot and do it yourself. The good news is that in post just about every major NLE can natively edit the files now, so you shouldn’t have much added cost in that regard. And the storage costs are relatively affordable for being able to shoot “RAW.” Since this is a “new” camera for Red, and it shares accessories with the Epic, you should be able to buy what you need when you need it. The downside is that the accessories for the Scarlet tend to be a lot more expensive than other camera systems, and you can run into back order delays if you are ordering directly from Red. Another part of the real cost of a camera system is the performance and reliability of that system. Red has come A LONG way in its reliability, and a lot of the original issues that their cameras had are gone. However, that doesn’t mean that they are rock solid either. I have had an Epic completely freeze up for no reason at all, and it had to have its firmware completely reinstalled in the middle of a shoot. (Not a good thing, when you have 4 hours to shoot a spot with an NBA player). And I have had a Scarlet randomly do weird things with the white balance to me in the middle of a shoot. These cameras are ultra-fast, high-end super computers attached to a lens mount, and I have yet to use any computer system that is flawless… On set delays, troubleshooting, and having backup bodies are a part of the real cost of using this camera system.

So who is the winner?

There is no clear winner here as it all comes down to what your business model can support. If you have the work and the income to support a system that is a 91% short-term investment, more power to you. But if money is tight, and you are looking to be profitable over the long-term, then it would benefit you to consider other options. There will be newer and better cameras out next year at cheaper prices. Don’t get hung up on always having the latest and greatest. Rental houses exist for a reason…

Now I will share with you how I have made my camera purchase…

My Camera Package Of Choice: $11,221.06 [ST= $5,233.11/LT= $5,987.95]

Blackmagic Cinema Camera MFT Mount ($2,995) [Short-Term]
What I like about this camera system is that it is low overhead cost. It can sit on the shelf without having to worry about it getting rented out every month. I can shoot with it stripped down and not get noticed, or I can build it up to fit my style of shooting. I have the option of shooting in RAW for my own personal work. (I am hooked on shooting RAW when possible). And I can use ProRes for the smaller projects that need it. While I’m not excited about the crop factor or the limited frames rates, it doesn’t put me off either.

Letus 4/3 to PL Mount ($473.95) [Short-Term]
My preference is to work with PL lenses, so on my personal projects, that is what I’ll be doing. While there are cheaper 4/3 to PL mounts out there, none of them offer back focus adjustment like the Letus one does, and having an accurate lens is rather important to me, as that is kind of the point of using PL glass … :)

4/3 to C/Y Mount ($19.19) [Short-Term]
C/Y mount lenses have fallen by the wayside in recent years. I can see why as there are are no fast zooms for it, and it is an older format. However, that also means that you can get some great looking glass for cheap if you know where to look. Even though I prefer to not use SLR lenses, at least I have the option when the budgets are small.

OWC SSD: 240GB x2 ($299 ea) [Short-Term] (These drives have the best track record from what I’ve found).
I went with the Extreme Pro 6G SSD’s because this is the most crucial part of the entire system. Reliability and speed are the two most important things to me, and these drives deliver. I can save money elsewhere in the camera system. Going cheap here is being penny-wise and pound foolish in my opinion. With 60 minutes of RAW or 300 minutes of ProRes, I shouldn’t have to worry about downloading footage while I’m out in the field.

$26.97 Startech Drive Dock [Short-Term]
Down and dirty, this dock will get the footage off of your drive and not break the bank. I don’t have a thunderbolt port on my computer system, so I’m holding off on that option for now.

Anton Bauer / Gold Mount Battery Package ($755) [Long-Term]
Personally, I prefer AB Batteries as the connection is a lot more solid than V-Mount, and by using 2x 90Wh batteries, I should be able to power my camera and LCD all day. I’ll need to keep on top of charging the batteries, but it shouldn’t be a losing battle either. And since I can use the P-Tap to power my LCD, it means I only have to worry about one battery system, and one charger.

Sigma 28mm-70mm F2.8 & 70mm – 210 f3.5mm ($250) [Short-Term]
Ebay can be a great place to find lenses, which is where I picked up the 28mm-70mm for $100, complete with original packaging and hard case. I also found the 70mm-210mm on Ebay for $150. With a $21 C/Y to EF Adapter, I can use these lenses on any EF mount camera if needed. The only problem with this setup is the lack of a fast wide angle lense. But when I’m shooting with SLR lenses, I’m looking to keep costs down, which is why I’m avoiding investing in a lot of SLR lenses. Instead, I’ll rent them when, and if, they are needed. (In addition to Ebay, another great place to buy used SLR lenses is KEH).

JuiceLinked Riggy ($399) [Short-Term]
Thanks to Frank Glencairn for pointing this gem out to me. Since I’m not planning on plugging my guitar into the camera, I need an adapter to get XLR mic’s into the 1/4″ audio ports. I could save more money by getting XLR to 1/4″ cables, but this adapter allows real control of the audio (Watch this video.) and attaches to the camera cage making it a more secure and clean connection point. (I originally went with the Wooden Camera 1/4″ to XLR ($199) adapter, but that only solves the conversion issue, not the other issues that are pointed out in the video.)

Letus Cage w/Accessories ($3,287) [Short-Term $450 / Long-Term $2,837]
My minimal setup for making this camera usable for my style of working: Cage ($450)Baseplate ($420)Cheeseplate ($149),Gold Mount Plate w/4 P-Taps ($120)Top Handle ($195)Top Rods ($65)Base Rods 12″ ($90)Follow Focus ($899)Matte Box ($899). (Except for the cage, everything else will transfer over to whatever camera I buy next).

TV Logic 5.6″ LCD w/P-Tap ($1,195.95) [Long-Term]
Personally, I’ve found this monitor to be the best on camera monitor in terms of size, power draw, and color fidelity in relation to overall cost. And since I can power it via P-Tap, that means I do not have to worry about a separate battery system for it.

Sachtler 7+7 Panaroma Head & Carbon Fiber Tripod ($1,200) [Long-Term]
If you scour Ebay for long enough, you can get some great deals on used tripods and true fluid heads. (OConnor & Sachtler). My setup weighs in around 7 lbs. and can support up to 26 lbs. – more than enough for the majority of smaller camera systems I may find myself using.

Application Of Principles:

Principle #1: Be Realistic
In any given month I will shoot on anywhere from 2-6 different camera systems ranging from the Arri Alexa, or Red Epic, all the way down to the Canon T2i. I am most interested in using the appropriate tool for the job, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole just to get a rental out of it. I don’t have the business model to support owning every camera system, so if I am going to invest, I need to make sure that its cost/expense will not unduly influence me into using it when it is not appropriate. I’m sure that next year, there will be something better I’ll want to use, so I do not want to be sweating my financial investment in a single camera system. (I have owned a Red One and an Epic – which I have sold, and I couldn’t be happier about that choice).

Principle #2: Think Long Term
About 53% of the money spent on this camera system can be applied towards future camera systems. That means that 47% of the cost will need to be recouped in rentals. I have no idea what the rental market will be like for this camera, but with the low initial cost, I do not foresee it being very strong. However, the majority of the accessories I have can be used with any other camera system out there, and I am already renting them out for a number of other projects which is helping to offset their cost, and the overhead of the camera itself. If I can recoup 40% of the short-term costs when I sell the camera, I will be doing well with my initial investment.

Principle #3: Evaluate The Real Costs
For the low budget projects, shooting ProRes on this camera will be the realistic option as RAW will most likely exceed the budget on set and complicate post. For my personal projects, I will be choosing to shoot RAW, but in order to not see an increase in on set financial costs, that means I’ll have to be very disciplined in what I shoot. (Which is a different kind of cost). ProRes will not incur much additional cost for backing up of footage, but when I do shoot RAW, I’ll want to be sure the money is in place to support the huge increase in data, that the time in the schedule will be there to process the footage, and that the people working with the footage know how to properly handle it. Overall, I do like that I have the ability in camera to choose between ProRes and RAW — that flexibility means I do not have to invest in an added proprietary module to get the job done. This will keep costs down, making me more nimble from project to project.

Remember two important truths when it comes to any camera system: 1. There is no perfect camera that will work for every project; 2. Next year there will be something newer, better, and cheaper. If you remember these truths while applying the principles to your camera purchase, then you will be setting yourself up well for the long haul. As much as we may like to create art, in the end, this is a business, and if you can’t stay afloat, then having the best camera system on the market is not benefiting you.

What do you think? Are these principles helpful? What system will you be investing in?

This post originally appeared on Ryan’s Blog.


Ryan E. Walters is an award-winning Oregon-based cinematographer. His work has allowed him the opportunity to travel worldwide in the pursuit of telling stories that are visually compelling. His experience includes feature films, documentaries, commercials, and shooting for Comcast, TLC, Oxygen, and the Discovery Channel.

COMMENT POLICY

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 71 COMMENTS

  • Small HD AC7 SDI for $899 is newer, bigger and cheaper than the Small HD DP6 at $1049.
    See here : http://www.smallhd.com/products/ac7/

    • Thanks for that link. :) Don’t get me wrong, Small HD makes a decent product. :) However, they are not my preferred choice of monitor.

    • I just clicked over to the site to check out that monitor. It looks like an interesting option. However, I would HAVE to see that monitor in person before buying it. I have had a chance to work with the Sony 17″ OLED, and the TV Logic OLED, and I did not care for the Sony. The colors just were not there for me, and when I put it side by side with the TV Logic, the differences were night and day …

      • You are right, anyone should see it in person before buying anything. Unfortunately, it is not always possible, so sometimes, we have to rely on internet reviews, and hope for the best.

        For the price you target, the Small HD AC7 OLED-SDI for $1399 is also very interesting.
        There are no reviews for the moment, so we will have to wait…

        Thanks for your article. Very interesting one.

        • No problem. Always glad to help. :)

          I’m hoping that I’ll be able to see the Small HD OLED in person before NAB 2013 … it does look / sound promising. :)

  • This is exactly the post I was waiting for! Thanks!

    (Curious if you could do a micro budget rig post too, sub $2,000)

    • With this post, I wanted to show an application of principles rather then create a detailed line item rig for every budget range. I have found over the years that shooting styles and preferences are very different. What works for me, may not fit your preferred shooting style and you will end up buying gear you do not need, or you will not have the added pieces that you need to make your style work …

      What I would recommend is following the principles I have outlined here and apply them to buying your rig. What is your preferred shooting style- handheld, shoulder, tripod, steadicam, dolly / slider … Start by getting the bare minimum parts to make a rig work for 80% of how you shoot, and then build up from there. And also get as many parts as you can that will work with more then one camera system. :)

      I hope that helps a little bit …

      • Augusto Alves da SIlva on 12.20.12 @ 7:50PM

        Very realistic post…I have the same dilema every 6 months… :-) I start by buying a new camera and 70% of the income from that camera comes from rentals. By renting them I am allowed to have some of my cameras of choice at hand. I wouldn´t do the same if we were talking about a RED, ALEXA etc…because I am pretty sure in 6 months something newer and cheaper will be released. It is a little bit frustrating that I can´t spread my costs (camera) through 5 years of use…that would be great. So I will keep buying my under 10K cameras until I see an oportunity of buying (with return of course) a top of the range cam although I will always have more work for the under 10K cameras. I would be very happy to have a 4K cam, shooting in RAW but it is not practical, or economicaly viable to me buying it…that is why I invested strongly in lenses…long term investment.
        Thank you for the post…makes me notice I have been following the right path.

  • Joe thanks for posting this awesome article and Ryan thanks for taking all the time to put it together. Ryan, first I wanna say I love your work. Good job on BlackStar Warrior. Great little film.

    I love your logic and way of thinking in this article. It cuts through a lot of the hype going on right now in the camera world. I have a Canon 60D and recently thought about upgrading so your advice is well timed(bought support gear instead). Basically, when it comes to the camera game you kinda have to think like a pool or chess player. We must balance the short and long term at the same time.

    Quick question: Would the BlackMagic Camera stand up on a run gun style narrative movie like ‘Monsters’ or what would be something more suitable in the same price range? Thanks.

    David

    • Thanks David, I’m glad it was helpful to you. :)

      In response to your question-
      It depends on what format you are shooting in with the camera. If you are shooting RAW, then the only way to make it work in a run and gun situation is to buy A LOT of media, and then have someone (or yourself) stay up late at night backing up the footage. (That doesn’t sound very practical to me, but it is possible.) If you are shooting ProRes, then I don’t see why you couldn’t get through a days shoot with 2 or 3 drives.

      The other potential hinderance that you may run into with the Blackmagic, is the crop factor of the sensor. If you are used to the 5D then you may find the 2.3x crop to be too limiting, and even if you are used to Super35 (7D) you may still find the 1.6x crop to be tough in tight / small locations. (Although the Blackmagic is being used for a lot of interior car work, so it can work in very small quarters, it just depends on what your field of view requirements are.)

      The one HUGE benefit that I see form using the Blackmagic over other DSLR’s in a run and gun situation is the dynamic range (even in ProRes). With the added range in the camera, it means that you can get away with less supplemental light, which can really help in high dynamic range scenes when you are running and gunning it in the field.

  • An absolutely terrific article and nice blueprint for future ones.

    Apart from one minor detail…Only one of these packages (the Scarlet) is actually available to buy right now. =(

    For something you can load up into your shopping cart right now and have really, actually delivered in a week or less, I suggest the package I listed in the RED thread…C100, Ninja 2, Zacuto EVF, commodity batteries and media, 504HDV head with 536 sticks, 2 Noga arms, Rode Stereo VideoMic Pro…the same $11,300 total plus add any of the 80 million EF/EF-S mount lenses in the world and shotgun/lav mics and you’re all set for 1080p short medium and long term no matter what the assignment (slomo excepted).

    And BTW I had awful problems with my OWC Extreme Pro 6G SSD and no problems with several Crucial M4 SSDs so far…YMMV…

    • Really good point – I have the BMC m4/3 preordered – but I am not shooting with it. :) Until I get the little guy in my hands (and I am so excited for it) – to me its not an option for shooting today.

    • Good point. :) When I wrote and posted the article back in November, you could buy the Scarlet and the Red One, and the BMCC was supposedly just around the corner. Just goes to show how much things can change in the market place … But my bigger goal was to show some principles in action that can help to guide future purchases and be applied to anything. Specific’s are great, and helpful for sure, but I have found learning and applying principles to be more helpful. (Especially with the every changing technology that we use …)

      Thanks for the heads up on the OWC. :) Hard drives continue to be very difficult to get accurate info on. Your comments are the first I have heard about the the OWC not working well. Although it doesn’t surprise me, as I have yet to come across any hard drive maker that doesn’t have someone who can give a scathing testimony as to how the drive failed them. Personally, I weigh the ratio of bad reports against the good reports, and decide from there. I’ll continue to monitor the OWC reports and see how they fair. So far it has been good to me …

  • DIYFilmSchool on 12.20.12 @ 10:34AM

    This is an amazingly comprehensive post. Ryan really takes into consideration the different aspects of owning gear from a holistic perspective. Should I become able to consider any of these cameras in the future, you’d better believe I’ll be referencing this guide. For now, though, it’s interesting information to ponder.

    • I’m glad it is helpful. :) My goal was to show principles in action so that you can apply them to whatever camera system you are buying. So hopefully even as NAB 2013 rolls around and more cameras flood the market, you’ll have a good idea of how to approach buying the system, and not let all of the marketing hype cloud smart business choices. :)

  • Great article. Its a long, hard road to be an owner/operator. Especially now with all these cost shifts. But really as I do – the reason I own gear is because I do short one day shoots and its easier just to have it then to go pick up the gear and return it.

    Also this way I can use the gear and donate the gear to indie-films and art projecs for my friends.

    But its a brutal market right now for everyone involved.

    • For sure, and that makes perfect sense. There is nothing wrong with owning. Like I said, I owned a Red One, then an Epic, and now I’m waiting for my BMCC to show up. As long as it makes good business sense, why not own the gear? :)

  • Henrik Othman on 12.20.12 @ 11:52AM

    This was a great post, thanks!
    It would be very helpful to have something similar on building a system based omn a low end Canon or a GH3.

  • You can find much cheaper HDDs than that 500GB, I bought three Seagate 2TB drives for $70 each on Newegg and they all work just fine.

    • For sure. :) And with so many vendor to buy from, and drives getting bigger and cheaper all the time, the options are almost limitless. However, the 500GB drives have been out for a “long” time now, so that have a longer “proven” track record then the 1TB or 2TB drives do. And I tend to be more conservative / cautious when it comes to backing up my footage to hard drives. So my personal preference is to got with a drive that has been around longer, even if that means spending some extra cash- it is worth the extra cost to me. :)

  • Been curious as to the OWC drives. My understanding was that these were not approved for some reason that was engineering oriented? Above my pay grade for that understanding. Definitely not on the approved list from BM. Maybe they’ll chime in?

  • I think you need to correct in the RED ONE section. The 48GB is not completely compatible with the RED ONE yet. I think you will need to wait for a firmware upgrade so I think you need to go with a 64GB minimum.

  • my hacked GH2 package works perfectly for me, I do a lot of work with it, and it has payed for itself well over 20 times. I have about 1500$ invested, and wont need anything else

  • Great work, Ryan! I wrote a blog about the MFT BMCC on my site, http://www.SeeWhatHappens.tv where I discussed the Redrock Micro EF to MFT powered mount. It can be powered in several ways, including a simple 9v battery. It also has an aperture readout on a small LCD. It’s a little pricey, but it renders the EF BMCC virtually pointless, IMHO. Just thought I’d share. Thanks, man!

  • Shooting raw is not a “budget” solution!

    I did the “numbers” for my self a while back and for the work I do, raw is not a viable option to own, rental is another issue. I’m still pushing my 7D & 60D as far as I can till I have to upgrade. For me shooting with 2~3 cameras at once is a really big headache with raw cameras, way too much data to deal with, so I’ll be working with compressed formats for some time to come. With the specs on the GH3 looking good, If I were buying today I would probably go that route or the FS100, but it’s a bit high priced for me, and anyone on a “budget” (low budget) Long running times, low power consumption, cheap media, compressed codec, low cost lenses (not PL) are all the requirements of a “low budget” rig.

    If your “clients” are willing to pay for an expensive rig, great; but what I have seen is owner/operators are taking a huge hit buying expensive gear and are not treating it as a business, they use it as a calling card and are subsidizing someone else’ production. Not a good way to run a business for the long term.

    My $0.02

    Malcolm

    • Great $0.02 Malcom!

      And that’s my point exactly behind the principles. If you don’t have a sustainable business model, it doesn’t matter what you shoot on. :)

    • I’m not sure I fathom your statement:

      “If your “clients” are willing to pay for an expensive rig, great; but what I have seen is owner/operators are taking a huge hit buying expensive gear and are not treating it as a business, they use it as a calling card and are subsidizing someone else’ production. Not a good way to run a business for the long term.”

      I flunked economics, and ironically I might be a major sinner of your commandment. Gear is a calling card to an extent, especially in a competitive industry. I’ll consider procuring equipment that has marketability, but I probably don’t profit (much) from my investments. The ultimate irony is I’m fiscally comfortable and don’t have a day job, I savor shooting immensely, am a true techie at heart, but don’t want to simply play with my cash. I want to shoot for others if I have the right rig, and I think the right rig will pay for itself.

      • I can’t speak for Malcom, but I’ll speak to the issue of economics. If you are making X + $0.05 on your gear, that is a profit, and while not great, it could be sustainable over the long term. However, if you are making X – $0.05 on your gear, that is not sustainable over the long term, and is bad business. (Unless you have some other way of recouping that loss to stay afloat. But that gets into some other business practices that I don’t personally care for either …) It sounds like to me, you’ve made some wise choices in the gear you’ve bought as you are remaining profitable, even if it isn’t much. :)

        What I think Malcom may be speaking to, is the practice by some of buying an expensive camera system, and then offering an absurdly low rental on (and even their own time) it to get themselves work. That model isn’t sustainable. Nor does it get you the kind of clients that will be good to work with over the long haul. Really what is happening there, is the production is really wanting the camera, and not the skill of the person behind it. And that is a loosing situation as technology changes so quickly these days …

        For me, the right camera is the one that ticks off the most amount of boxes that the project requires. And for the work that I do, that is a wide range of cameras. If you can make one camera system work for the majority of projects you do- more power to you! :)

  • There have been quite a few articles on which cameras to buy on this website, but for myself (and many others), renting a camera is the most economical option, I can get the best gear and not have to own it. I’d like to see an article about the ins and outs of renting cameras as opposed to buying.

    Also, I would really like to know what sort of work most of the readers here do? From the comments it seems like many are owner/operators for corporate jobs.

    • Yep- which is exactly what I do. :) Rent according to the needs / budget of the project, and own something small and affordable I can shoot on whenever I want. :)

      I’m not sure there is too much to write when it comes to renting. Although that is an interesting thought / recommendation. When I rent, the rental shop takes good care of me and sets me up with what I need.

  • Great article! Extremely well thought out. This has been my thinking for a while now and it’s why I’ve stuck with my DSLRs (at least in terms of what I own). Put the investment into glass and important accessories like a sturdy tripod, shoulder rig, hard drives, etc. When it comes to value, those things will outlive the camera by years and years. Newbies should especially take this to heart and apply it to *renting* as well as buying. I’ve heard about and even seen so many young filmmakers or film students throw money at the latest and greatest camera, only to have no money left over to ensure that their post-workflow can handle all that “glorious” 4K footage that will probably just end up being seen streaming on the web anyway (or at best, projected in a 2K theater).

    • For sure- it is a sad situation to be in to have a camera to shoot on and not the proper post support- I’ve seen that happen to many times as well.

      Glass does seem like a solid investment, as does that other gear you mentioned. :)

  • Excellent piece, and given that I ended up in the same place you did Ryan, that’s not surprising!
    Appreciate the TV logic monitor tip – I haven’t personally worked with it. And on set yesterday the BMDCC was topic No 1 now that a few are out in the wild. We shot with one yesterday (briefly) as C cam to two Alexas. Once the spot is public I’ll see if any of the footage made it.
    This advice works for any camera and its what we do on our production kit budgets the last decade. Plan for your total camera life cycle, and be VERY realistic – don’t fool yourself (I’ve done that too many times!).
    One more thing – its always worked for us to only buy once we had a gig that paid it off in one job. I realise that may seem unrealistic, but you’d be amazed at how its a great measure of the quality of your work.

    • Anytime. :)

      Glad to hear that the BMCC is getting out there. I can’t wait for mine to show up … It is also encouraging to hear that it is working along side the Alexa. :)

      Great advice on buying once you’ve landed a job that pays for the rig- very smart way to go about it. :)

  • I owned two RED SCARLET cameras. for the first one I spent around 19k and 2nd one 12k. I found out a lot of problems on my cameras, they freezing a lot of times in middle of shots, a lot of wired errors, they are not a good cameras in rainy and snow weather, they got hot very soon, there is no way to have clean audio with this cameras, I had problem with white balance and the biggest problem its not a good investment becouse you buy the camera today and tomorrow when you wake up you see the company decries the price of the camera for 8k. I belive its good camera only In studios and for high end projects. The big problem i had it was costumer service. Any time I needed to fix something I had to mail the camera to Irvine CA and if I was lucky they fixed it in one mount. As a independent filmmaker (low budget) I have to work in diffrent contries it wasn’t a trustable camera for me on the set. A lot of times I stocked in the other contries and wasn’t able to fix the camera and I shot with my 7d. So I made up my mind why I should do it any more. I sold out the cameras and I’m happy with my DSLR s, they are really good in low light situation, no errors and in any contries when you need help to repair camera it takes less than 5 minutes to find the repair stor. I’m investing more in the glass (Carl Zeiss CP2) and they works great with DSLRs, you can use in any camera and doesn’t matter if technology changes very fast still the best lenses are the old cinematic lenses. any time I have a pay job and I need high end camera I’m renting the high end body (I don’t need lenses I already own, I don’t need tripod I already own the best one) , there is a lot of owners they rent out their camera even for 1.5 k for 20 days (enough time to shoot one feature movie). And at the end I’m happy becouse I don’t need to refresh the creagslist and other websites more than 20 times a day to find a client for my cameras to pay my credit card bills, I don’t need to pay for insurance, I don’t need to go to every stupid projects to take care of my camera and my other equipments becouse they don’t have insurance they don’t have credit and deposit to pay up front when they rent your camera. This article is 100% true and I wish i had chance to read it before spent several thousands for buying equipment and lost several thousands to sell them as a used.

    • That is very frustrating! Doesn’t sound like a good situation for you. I’m sorry to hear of your troubles. I’m glad that you’ve got it sorted out now. You bring up some very good points that are important to keep in mind, like customer service. Having to ship your camera back and forth can be very difficult, and in some countries very expensive, and time consuming with the taxes / duties, etc. Being without a working camera for a month, is not a good situation to be in.

      Sounds like you are in a much better place now! Congrats. And keep on shooting! :)

    • Tannz,
      Where can you rent an Epic, Scarlet, or Alexa for 1.5k for 20 days? Was this a typo?

      • Check craigs list. Those kind of rental package that you’ll get for that rate will not be great, and most likely it will not be updated, have missing / broken parts, etc. I’ve seen people in my area offer $100 / day for them and their camera package- that is a sad way to go, as you could make more flipping burgers and not have to spend the cash on buying a fancy camera …

  • Daniel Mimura on 12.21.12 @ 6:43AM

    With the R1MX don’t underestimate the battery requirements. I figured having 4 IDX 93 watt hour batteries would work as a starting point, cuz I already have them from my steadicam…figuring that, you know, 93 watt hours is like roughly a third of a 140 watt hour battery, so it’ll run for like an hour instead of an hour and a half. Not so! The R1 is very high amperage. I got my camera the other day and a 93 watt hour battery will last 20 minutes.

    And I’ve learned that it’s bad for the batteries too…it over stresses them.

    I’ve used 2 of those batteries on a 24v Moviecam SL on steadicam rig with a video tap and 2 monitors and lasted well over half the day…so I just assumed I’d be okay with the R1, which after all, is only a little 12 volt thing…but no, it’s not the voltage or wattage, it’s the amperage. That thing is a power hog.

    • Great point about the batteries. And it will suck even more power away if you need to draw power for your accessories / monitors … it is a power hog for sure, and that should not be over looked. :)

  • I appreciate the way you broke this down into logical steps. It’s a highly informative and well written article Ryan; well done sir! I too am looking forward to the pleasure and the pain of the BMCC. I feel it’s a historical, and challenging journey I cannot pass up. Bring it BMD!

    • Thanks. I’m glad you liked it. :)

      Yep, the BMCC will be fun, and painful to work with all at the same time! It seems like by the time computers catch up to the data our cameras throw at them, we have new cameras that throw even more data at them … I can remember when my computer had a hard time with compressed HD … oh well … at least we are progressing. :)

  • Great article that has me rethinking a few of my thoughts. I personally won’t buy most of my equipment until the camera is in my hands. Especially the brand new stuff. There could easily be new gear in the market by the time I get it.

    A couple of questions though:

    First, on your intended battery solution. I see you like Gold Mount in the Anton Bauer over V-mount connections. What led you to that decision? How do they stack up against Anton Bauers themselves?

    That gets me to thinking about the total load. what’s the complete list of devices you see powering at one time? How will you connect to all of these?

    Second, why specifically the Sachtler 7X7? Say over the Video-18 or ???

    • Thanks. :) To answer your questions:

      Gold Mount VS V-Lock:
      Over the years I’ve had better success with the Gold Mount. In my experience the pins and the lock on the V-Lock wear out quicker, and become loose. Gold mont has always been rock solid for me. The B4B batteries have worked well for me. I was originally introduced to them by my local rental shop. They don’t have the fancy display that AB has, but I haven’t missed it. :)

      Total Accessories:
      Camera, Monitor (5.6″ TV logic), Audio (JuicedLink), in the future I’ll be adding the TV logic EVF. Everything is powered via D-Tap with a voltage regulated AB plate from Letus.

      7×7 VS Video 18
      Just a matter of what I found on eBay in the price range I wanted to spend. An 18 would have been nice. :)

  • cool article. would like to see this continued with other cameras and maybe other scenarios. Like narrative vs event/eng. either way, great work

    • Thanks. :) My point in sharing the principles and all of the examples was to show them in action. That way anyone can take the principles and apply it to any situation, camera, or rig. Everyone’s preferences and shooting styles are so different that this could go on ad nausiuem. :)

  • Great job in this breakdown. It give us an idea on how others would shoot with the various digital cinema cameras. At the same time cross reference as well my personal views with the other experts.

    I have a question here though, you took out the lens filters. Are these considered options now with the powerful workstations around that can give the look in post?

    • My personal opinion is that post is NOT the place to do filtration. Filtration is needed with all cameras. :)

      At the start of the article I mentioned that these were bare bones packages that you could shoot with. Stripped down to the absolute minimums. Not pretty, but you could go out and record imagery. You’ll also notice that I left out a follow focus, rails, and some other accessories that many people like to have, but is not essential to recording images. In the package that I put together for myself, you’ll see a lot of additional accessories that are not in the other packages, but they are the tools I like to use. :)

  • Greetings Ryan,
    Great article. Very understandable. I was contemplating getting the BMCC at a point but overall it would make sense for me. I do mostly music videos and will be doing more short digitals soon. I came from a Canon 7D, which got stolen then upgraded to a GH@ which I now use and love. Looking to get a GH3 as well. My work is all HD and my clients are more than fine with that being their distribution of their work is the Internet. I did want to ask you from what I just stated of my works, what would be the best light meter for what I do and I do do occasional photo work as well? This would be my 1st light meter and do not want a cheap nor expensive meter. If it has to be on the expensive side, then it has to be worth it and I know your expertise can help. Thanks…

  • Philip John on 01.28.13 @ 8:07PM

    Thanks Ryan this was the best that I have read. Having gone into this business over the last six months or so I have been in a real quandary over what camera…what price do I pay…what extras will I need…etc…etc… Much to my surprise most shops I have been to don’t really help that much. I have been looking at the BlackMagic but your candid information has really helped come a long way to making an informed decision. Thanks again mate..Cheers Philip (Sydney Australia)

  • Hi,

    I need a decent camera for short film making, can you suggest me one?


    Ganesan