Film and video creators have three full-frame cameras vying for position as their favorite camera. Which one do you prefer?
Canon, Panasonic, and Sony. Three Japanese camera makers that have played a huge part in major advances in video production over the last 20 years. While they have lost some ground at the top end to innovators like RED, and to market leaders like ARRI, they are massively dominant in the budget range most of us can afford. And for the first time in a long, long time they have relatively comparable cameras in their lineup.
The reason why it's the first time in a long time goes back to the beginning of the DSLR/mirrorless revolution. Each company really targeted different markets. Sony was ahead of the game in moving towards full-frame mirrorless back in 2014 with its Alpha line. At the same time, Canon was still pushing hard on DSLR cameras with an internal mirror system that could adapt to PL mount, and Panasonic was out with the very popular, but smaller sensor GH line of cameras.
Not only was Sony out early with full-frame mirrorless, they then came out with the a7S II which was a huge hit among filmmakers for its high resolution and great low light performance. For nearly a decade, the three giants were competing in different spaces. Panasonic was up against Olympus and Fujifilm for the MFT market, Canon was up against Nikon for the DSLR market, and Sony had full-frame all to itself.
That almost changed two years ago with the release of the RF line from Canon, a series of full-frame mirrorless cameras built around a brand new lens mount. But the resolution wasn't exciting. It was a 4K crop, and it just didn't sing to filmmakers.
In 2019, Panasonic generated a ton of buzz with the LUMIX DC-S1H, a very filmmaker-focused full-frame mirrorless offering that shot 6K video, could do RAW over HDMI, 4K up to 60fps, and created very pleasing images. Combined with the same color science and log format as the very popular VariCam line of cameras made this an especially appealing choice for filmmakers who frequently rented or even owned that larger cinema platform. If you were on a VariCam show, you could feel comfortable using the S1H as a C camera or for crash setups.
Now Canon is catching up with the EOS R5, which is targeted towards filmmakers with a completely new sensor that is able to shoot 8K internal RAW footage. Now all the big players have options that are broadly in competition with each other.
The Canon R5 does 8K RAW internally. You can shoot 6K on the S1H, but to get RAW you need an external recorder. For Sony, the current "filmmaker" camera is the a7 III, which tops out at 4K. In truth, though, we don't care about the resolution number as an end in itself. The key is not the resolution of the file that is created, but the actual measurable perceivable resolution of the final image. If when projected on a movie screen you can't see any resolution difference between the 6K and 8K, then does it really matter?
Canon currently is ahead based on the 8K number, but we're going to wait for real-world side-by-side testing with the cameras to see what actually passes the most information along. 8K also requires lenses to actually resolve 8K, which might not even matter if you are shooting with a vintage cinema lens. If you are picking this camera and hoping to shoot with a set of old Super Speed primes or the even older and softer Cooke Speed Panchros, you may not see any difference in resolution at the camera level.
Canon has Dual Pixel Autofocus II on the EOS R5 that uses "deep learning" to identifying subjects. Autofocus development is likely going to be one of the key battlegrounds between the cameras. This is vital since Sony has gotten a major lead going in autofocus with some truly impressive results. Autofocus that actually feels like a tool filmmakers might really appreciate makes the a7 III very appealing.
As a reminder, in the end, you can make most cameras look like anything. As Steve Yedlin points out, there is so much power in post-processing that a lot of what we talk about when we discuss camera color science is just "wine language." However, color science does matter somewhat on smaller jobs when you won't have much time in post. If you are shooting something where you won't be invited to post, or where it will be online the next day, or even later that night, you want pleasing color straight out of the camera.
This category, to me, leans towards Panasonic and Canon. Sony has traditionally had the strangest color science choices, with greens looking a bit off and skin tones a bit shifted towards the orange as well. It's improved over the years, but footage from the FX9 still looks a bit too saturated in the greens for me, and the a7 III fits in that space as well.
The first Sony camera to really look good in this area was VENICE. Compare that to Panasonic, who has done an amazing job rolling down the VariCam look into an affordable package. For that alone, Panasonic wins the color competition.
While Canon looks quite nice out of the gate, its look is the "look of YouTube," and while it's pleasing, it's very associated with vlogging and the DIY space. Based on footage seen so far, the S1H is the winner here to me. It was also the first Netflix approved mirrorless camera, despite Sony having had 4K cameras available for several years prior.
Panasonic felt like a real contender with its 4K 60fps, but the Canon R5 stomps it with a 4K 120fps shooting mode. If you are doing sports, action, or even a certain kind of narrative filmmaking, that 120fps is going to be killer. Sony is carrying the rear here with only 30fps in 4K mode from the a7 III. But that will most likely change with the up-coming a7S III.
Canon uses the proprietary RF mount. Sony uses the proprietary E mount. Panasonic uses the open format L mount, part of the L-mount alliance with Leica and Sigma. While that isn't the biggest industry group, I tend to prefer open formats to closed formats, and that has some appeal. However, the E mount has a more robust lens offering at the moment than either RF or L. If you need to shoot today, and you need a lot of lens choices, E mount is the way to go. But then again, most lenses can be adapted.
The only reasonable conclusion I can make is that it's a good time to be a filmmaker looking for a camera around $4,000. There are three very strong choices that are going to give you amazing images no matter what. If you already shoot a lot of VariCam, the S1H is the obvious choice. But the R5 deserves a lot of attention and testing for its new autofocus, IBIS, and 8K RAW, which is a real game-changer at this price point. Sony isn't out of the game by any means with its arsenal of lens choices and famous low light quality. It will come down to what your personal expectations and preferences are in a camera.
So which one makes the most sense for you?