17 Sep 2016

Why are some cameras so expensive while others are so cheap?

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F65 F65 RedShark/Sony


RedShark Replay: Why is there such a huge difference in the price of some cameras, which might both be supposedly "Cinema Quality"?

Have you ever sat in one of those bulkhead seats on an airliner? Do you know the ones I mean? They're just behind the dividing panels between cattle class and business class. It's where they normally put mothers and small babies, so, if you do manage to nab one of these sought-after seats that come with enormous free extra legroom, the downside is that when you want to sleep, the adjacent babies will be wailing in your ear.

But if they are, there's plenty to occupy you. That's because everything you know about an ordinary aircraft seat is different when you're stationed behind a bulkhead. For a start, there's no video screen to be seen. How could there be? There's no seat in front to support one.

Some time after everyone else has settled into their in-flight movie, you may be lucky enough to discover your screen is hidden away in a slot behind your seat. You have to press a button to release it, and then pull it out, turning it through ninety degrees, and then arranging it in front of you so that you can actually see it.

And this is just the start of your troubles, because there's no seat-back tray, either. This essential piece of kit for a comfortable flight is even more hidden. Normally, it's below the armrest on your left hand side. You have to hinge open the armrest, put your finger through a small metal loop at the top of the folded tray, pull it out - with some determination - and then unfold it, so that it sits just above your lap, somehow supported on a single metal arm that is surprisingly strong enough to carry the weight of your meal and your wrists as you eat it.

At some point during your flight, if you're even slightly technically minded, you might pause to consider that if this is the level of engineering that's gone into stopping your meal sliding into your lap, then it's likely that the plane's designers have gone to quite extraordinary lengths to make it fly around three hundred people safely across the world every day of its working life.

Your penultimate conclusion to all of this might be that this is why aircraft are so expensive. And usually, my final thought is that I'm glad they are.

What about cameras?

What does this have to do with cameras?

Well, typically, lives don't depend on them. But careers, and huge budgets, often do.

Over the last few years, we've seen some extraordinary changes in video cameras. Less that 20 years ago, digital still cameras were so bad that you could photograph a horse and not know whether the resulting picture was of an animal or a car. But now, as we know, you rarely hear anyone ask whether video's ever going to replace film.

Now that the film/digital barrier has been shattered, the "cinema quality" qualification for cameras is moving down the price range - on several fronts. There's the DSLR video scene, now highly mature with cameras like the Canon 1DC and the highly mature Canon 5D Mk III (you could arguably include the new Panasonic GH4 4K camera in this). And then there are dedicated movie making cameras like the Blackmagic ones and the Digital Bolex D16 - although no one would suggest that they are similar in any way except a pretty low price point.

So let's cut straight to the big question: how is it that one "cinema quality" camera can cost twenty times more than another one?

Let's begin this part of the discussion by saying that there is more than one property, or ability that cameras should be measured by. The quality of the picture is only one of many, and within "quality" there are many other properties.

To take an extreme example: even the best camera in the world is no good if it's not waterproof and you need to use it underwater. The best camera in these circumstances is the one that isn't going to be destroyed by getting it wet.

But what if we were talking in general - without filtering out special circumstances?

Picture quality

Obviously, picture quality has to be right up there. But let's assume that we're going to limit our discussion to professional use. In which case, which would you rather have: a camera that was very cheap but took beautiful pictures, or one which was pretty expensive but took equally great pictures?

To answer that, and assuming that your budget did matter, you'd have to look at the cameras, and you'd have to look at how they were going to be used. Let's look at the camera at the cheap end of the scale.

This is likely to be a device that is not as mechanically sophisticated as it's more expensive relative. It may be made out of plastic, or, if it's made from metal, it's going to be a simple shape, easy to manufacture, and with minimal controls. What controls there are might be accessible only via a touchscreen.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

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David Shapton

David is the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications. He's been a professional columnist and author since 1998, when he started writing for the European Music Technology magazine Sound on Sound. David has worked with professional digital audio and video for the last 25 years.

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