1080P is Better Than 4K (Or Why I Chose the Canon C100) with Ryan E. Walters
This is a guest post by Cinematographer Ryan E. Walters.
After many years of owning a wide range of camera systems, including a RED ONE and an EPIC, I decided to sell it all and rent. So for the past three years I have been exclusively renting cameras on a per project basis, that is, until recently when I made the plunge and bought the Canon C100. Little did I know how many eyebrows and questions it would raise when I posted a picture on Facebook. Here is why I chose a 1080p, 4:2:0 camera over a 4k RAW camera.
Reason 1: It Is The Craftsperson, Not The Tool, That Matters
I am a firm believer that it is the talent behind the lens that matters most, not the camera. I want to surround myself with people and productions who value the craft more than the tech. When was the last time you hired a carpenter and asked what brand hammer he was using? Or what brush the painter used on the oil painting you bought? Or how about the contents of this blog -- does it matter if I am writing it on a Mac, PC, iPhone, or Android?
What matters most is the craft that goes into delivering results that are appropriate for the project at hand. The people who get that, and have those values, are the ones who I work with. I'm not a monkey pushing buttons on a camera.
The C100 is a tool that checks off enough of the boxes that are important to me in owning a camera system. It is far from perfect, but it is a capable camera system that will allow me to create the images I want.
Reason 2: I'm Not A Rental House
While I do rent equipment on the side to generate additional income, the tools I buy are the ones I use frequently. I am not interested in owning everything, nor am I interested in worrying about making a camera work every month in order to make it pay for itself. Instead, I would rather choose the appropriate tool for the job, and not force a camera onto a shoot just because I own it and need to make a payment. For example, last year I chose the Alexa, Epic, Canon C300, Sony FS100, and the Canon 5D MKII & MKIII to shoot different spots for Adidas. Each tool was appropriate for that specific application.
With the instant $1,000 rebate on the C100, I felt that it came in at a price point that allows me to own a camera system objectively without forcing me to choose it due to financial reasons. (Although at $5,500, I think the camera is still about $1,000 over priced for the features it offers...). But I can't complain too much. Within a week of buying it, it is already going out on rentals that it is a good fit for. And with no payments on it, that is a great feeling!
Reason 3: Some Tools Are Easier To Use Than Others
A 4k camera for $4k sure does sound appealing; I can't deny that. However, the truth is that in order to get that camera to play nicely on an actual shoot it has to be outfitted with external batteries, audio adapters, and other accessories. So the cost is more than $4k. (The same can be said of DSLRs). As cameras get smaller and smaller, my frustrations with them grow.
The C100 comes in a form factor that works straight out of the box, with real professional, industry standard connections (1/4" is great for mics & guitars... XLR is for video), and even an included microphone. (Not that the on camera mic is good for anything other than natural sound/scratch track). I don't have to buy any accessories to make it work on a shoot if I don't want to. Instead, the accessories I buy will be for my own needs and style of working.
Reason 4: I'm Not Interested In Hype, I'm Interested In Reality
Reality check: 4k is not here, nor will it be for at least 5-10 years. Camera manufacturers and sales people love to play on our insecurities and want us to buy into their 4k and beyond hype machine. It is how they make their money -- selling us new technology. If you were at NAB this year, 4k was everywhere, just like 3D was everywhere last year. (And 3D was nowhere to be seen at NAB this year... but I doubt 4k will disappear like that).
However, I found it interesting that out of all of the booths displaying 4k content, NONE of them had it next to 1080p content for a side-by-side comparison. To me that is very telling. When we made the transition from SD to HD, the show floor was FULL of SD and HD comparisons and it was easy to tell the difference on the same sized screen. THX even states that most people will not see a benefit of 4k content on a 50" screen, which supports the claims of this chart: 1080p Does Matter, Here's When. So for the vast majority of end viewers and clients, all that 4k does is add overhead, expense, and complication without any real reward.
By the time the marketing machine has gotten us all to succumb to our insecurities and upgrade our tech to 4k, it will be light-years ahead of where it is today. And that will be the time to make the switch. Today's 4k+ cameras will not be able to compete with what is next. When 4k is a reality, I HIGHLY doubt that Adidas, Autodesk, or Nike will be wanting to have their 5+ year old commercial remastered in 4k. They will be on to new marketing campaigns shot with the newest cameras/tech available.
This is NOT to say that 4k doesn't matter; it does. Especially at origination of the recorded image. A 4k image down sampled to 1080p will have more detail in it than a straight 1080p image. This is where the brilliance of the C100 comes into play. The C100 has the SAME 4k sensor as the C500 and C300. So I am getting the same performance as their $26,000 camera at 1/5 the price without the added expense or complication that 4k brings with it on set or in post.
Reason 5: Protecting Vision Is Important
While I have to admit that I like working with RAW 4k images (I did own a Red after all), it is a double-edged sword. The proliferation of affordable camera tools and post tools means that a lot more people can play with and manipulate footage. This is GREAT when working with people who care about the quality of the finished image, and who work with you to get the most out of it.
This same power can be disastrous when people who think they know something start playing around with reframing and grading the images, destroying what I have worked hard to create. I have been burned on projects by people who have done just that -- poorly reframed images & poorly graded them.
In an industry where you are only as good as your last project, this can have a real negative impact on your career. Which is why I am now selective about whom I work with. (And I'm not alone, other cinematographers on CML have expressed facing these same problems).
The compressed footage, and the fact that the C100 only outputs a 1080p file means that there is a lot less that can be done in post to drastically change what was shot. Another upside of the compressed format is that it keeps me honest while shooting. I have to be much more precise in what I do as I have less flexibility in post if I screw up -- I HAVE to be on my A-Game at all times, and I like the discipline that it reinforces in my work.
Reason 6: Dynamic Range In Over Exposure Latitude Is Important
The smaller the production's resources, the more important the overexposure latitude becomes in the camera choice. The smaller that range, the more work has to be done on set to protect the highlights by bringing up ambient levels on the set. (Or a compromise has to be made by letting them clip). That is one of the major reasons why the Alexa is my favorite cameras to shoot on. With ~7 stops of overexposure latitude, it is hard to clip highlights, and even when they do clip it is more pleasant than other camera systems.
The RED ONE MX and the EPIC-X*, on the other hand, have ~5 stops of overexposure latitude. While this is a lot better than previous cameras, the headroom is not the same, nor is the roll off as pleasant as the Alexa. (As demonstrated by my extreme test). The Blackmagic Cinema Camera also has a similar overexposure latitude, as does the C300 and C100 (and presumably the C500, but I haven't tested it). So if all of the cameras have the same overexposure latitude, then I do not see a reason to jump on the 4k+ bandwagon just to be cool. All I am gaining is additional expense/work on set and in post.
I wish that the C100 had more overexposure latitude, but at least it doesn't have less than the other "affordable" options out there.
*I realize that the EPIC-X has HDR-X. However, I have yet to see an implementation of it that I personally like. Furthermore, it adds extra hassle and potential for BIG problems in post. See Reason 5 above.
Reason 7: Low Light Performance Is Important
Cameras these days can see more in the dark than our eyes can. The ability to work with and shape existing light on an exterior night location should not be overlooked, especially when working with a small crew. When a camera performs well in low light, it becomes more about removing light than adding it. And that directly translates into smaller setups, smaller power requirements, smaller everything. (Side note: I'm really interested in testing out and working with the F5 & F55 for this very reason).
This is where the C100 really shines over the RED MX, EPIC-X, and the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Coming from the pedigree of the C300 sensor, the C100 allows for astonishing clean imagery at EIs (A.K.A. ISOs) of more than 3200.
Yeah, but the C100 is only 8 bit 4:2:0...
Yep, it sure is. One of the huge takeaways I had from participating in Zacuto's Revenge Of The Great Shootout is that today's 8-bit 4:2:0 is not the same as when it first came onto the market. Now it doesn't come close to 16 bit 4:4:4 imagery, but if it is shot correctly, it can be graded well, delivering beautiful results. And, as a craftsperson, I should be skilled at choosing AND using tools that are appropriate for every job.
When I do find that I need a 4:2:2 color space (for green screen, or other VFX), then I can always add a Ninja 2. And if I find myself on a project that needs more than that -- then I can rent a better tool for the job. This is the beauty of owning an affordable camera system. See Reason 2. :)
Yeah, but the C100 only shoots up to 30p at 1080...
Correct. :) That is why I think this camera should be priced at $4,500. After all, even cameras like the AF100 can shoot in variable frame rates up to 60 fps in 1080p. This is a major oversight by Canon. I think they are working too hard at protecting their higher end cameras. The sensor is capable of 60 fps at 1080p. Why cripple it, other than to make more money?
This is when I have to realistically evaluate the work I do. While I would love to have 60 fps at 1080p, I don't shoot a lot of high-speed work. And when I do shoot high-speed work, it tends to be around 100-120 fps, which means I'm renting anyway. So while this is a downside for the camera, it isn't one that will impact me significantly.
The Bottom Line
Is the C100 the end all, be all camera? Not even close. I like it, and it will allow me to do what I need for the money I spent. If you haven't caught on by now, let me say it clearly -- I'm not interested in being a fan boy who is entrenched in one camera system or platform. The end all, be all camera doesn't exist. There isn't one camera system that fits every situation. It is about knowing the camera and using it effectively. After all it is just a tool.
What are your thoughts? Am I completely crazy, or only partially? ;) Why did you choose to buy the camera you have? Or have you chosen to continue to rent?
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.