Is the fixed lens camera dead?

Written by Simon Wyndham

Sony/RedSharkDo professionals still want fixed lens cameras?

RedShark Christmas Replay: One from the archive back in 2013. There's a big trend towards affordable interchangeable lens cameras for professionals, but does this mean fixed lens cameras like the PMW-EX1 are a thing of the past? Definitely not, says Simon Wyndham

In 2007 Sony made a step change to the world of low priced professional cameras with the release of the PMW-EX3. Until that point to be able to own a professional grade video camera with the ability to change lenses meant owning a big, bulky, and expensive ENG style rig.

The EX3 changed this, enabling owners with lower budgets to have a number of potential lens options on an HD camera with a 1/2” chip that was genuinely capable of resolving 1000 lines of resolution without having to remortgage the house. Not surprisingly it became a huge success.

Shoot forward a few years and these days camcorders with interchangeable lenses and S35 mm sized sensors are the new normal. A rig without these abilities is looked down upon somewhat, rightly or wrongly, as being a bit “prosumer” because most fixed lens camcorders are restricted to 1/3” chips or smaller, which of course is so yesterday! The only real exception being the excellent Sony PMW-200, the successor to the almighty PMW-EX1.

The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room however is that the vast majority of EX3 owners never changed the lens. Even owners of ENG style cameras rarely swapped over glass. Some may have owned a couple of lenses, perhaps the workhorse J17, and then maybe swapped for a wide angle if they required it. However generally most just kept one lens on the front most of the time. Most EX3 owners could have happily owned the fixed lens EX1, but for many it seems that the idea that they could swap lenses was far more enticing than the reality, which was that many would never do so.

Changing lenses is, frankly, a pain in the arse. Yes it looks cool to an outsider, and it can make us feel like high and mighty DOP’s, but practical it is not.

There is a lot to be said for the quality of a good prime lens I admit. I could never muster an argument to suggest otherwise. However these days it seems that the way we use camcorders these days is lead more by a cultural movement than it is by practicality. In the quest to be given more flexible options we have made our lives all the more complicated.

If I was shooting a fictional story then using high grade prime lenses, assuming I had the budget, would be the way to go. If we are honest with ourselves though most people are not shooting high budget movies or adverts for Aston Martin. The vast majority of video production that goes on around the world is I’m afraid corporate and industrial (low to medium budget), low budget web video and that dirty word many of us try to avoid, “weddings”. What then is the best way to go for such production types, or perhaps even documentary? As an avid filmer of extreme sports what would be the best solution for me?

This is a more tricky decision than you might think. A lazy way to answer this question would be to say that a low level corporate and industrial type production would be better off with a 1/3” fixed lens camcorder. Maybe a documentary would be better off with a PMW-200. Perhaps a wedding videographer would be too.

To say this would be to degrade the work of many. What if the producers wanted a 35mm aesthetic? A low level corporate and industrial might well involve making a company promotional film for the web. This may involve a fast turnaround and a low budget, but that’s no reason to give it a cheap 1/3” video look just because “it’ll do for the web”, that often used derogatory phrase that gets bandied about as if web video is somehow less in need of standards than any other form of production.

So we have a bit of a quandary. Swapping lenses in the field on a large chip camera while trying to work quickly is simply not practical much of the time. Yet a small chip camera with a fixed lens may not give us the aesthetic that we require.

35mm look

The way things are at present requires that for the 35 mm look we need to own a “cinema camera” - technical speak for a camera with awkward ergonomics and only half the bits you need to make it work - and a set of lenses for various situations, half of which you will never use.

There will be those who sing the praises of using stills camera zoom lenses, such as the Canon L series, mounted onto cameras such as the Sony F5. Some will even suggest the purchase of older SLR lenses from eBay due to their aperture control on the lens barrel and their much longer and smoother focus controls over modern DSLR lenses.

Both of these solutions work, but in my opinion are a bit of a bodge. If I am going to purchase £8k or more of camera then the idea of fitting a knackered old Nikon lens from 1980 on the front of it is a tad silly. Likewise mounting a modern DSLR lens has cost benefits, but also many drawbacks.

Stills lenses are simply not designed for video. Modern lenses do not have aperture controls on the barrel, and they are designed for automatic servo focus. Focus breathing is a big issue too, as is the fact that they cannot hold focus through the zoom range.

Fujinon have seen this gap in the market and have released their Cabrio set of lenses. S35mm equivalents of an ENG style lens. A snip at, wait for it, now make sure you are sitting down... £40k each! Well beyond the means of the majority I think you’ll agree.

So we have a very confused situation. You can have the 35mm aesthetic, but you will have to carry around a bag of lenses with the associated time cost of that, as well as the impracticality of swapping them in less than ideal places, inclement weather and other situations where speed might be of essence. Either that or you have to stump up for a lens such as the aforementioned Fujinon Cabrio and live the rest of your life in abject poverty.

Tall order

So what’s a camera owner who wants the S35 mm look but wants a simple life to do? The simple fact is that manufacturing a single zoom lens for a large chip camcorder that will offer a decent wide angle, a good zoom range, solid manual controls, and a relatively constant aperture throughout its focal length at an affordable price is an incredibly tall order to make. So may say impossible.

With our demands over the last few years for manufacturers to manufacture large chip interchangeable lens camcorders so that we can pretend to be Steven Speilberg we have made a bit of a rod for our own backs.

So what is the solution? If we want a versatile go anywhere camera do we really have to restrict ourselves to small chip systems? Perhaps not, maybe the manufacturers could offer a solution. If they wanted to and if we allowed them to.

Before the PMW-EX1 was released the idea of a camera with chips of that size in a body that small was seen as technically very difficult. The fact that Sony released it as a three-chip camera was even more remarkable. It was only because they used CMOS chips that could be read from any direction that they were able to cram them into such a small camera body, thus negating the need for some of the more complex light splitting optics installed in the larger ENG style bodies.

These days of course large sensor camcorders are all single chip devices so the issue of camera body size is not so much of an issue any more. However the other remarkable thing about the EX1 was its lens. Not only was it optically very good, but it also had fully manual mechanically linked controls on the barrel...

Except that it didn’t. The EX1 lens was very responsive. It felt like a fully manual lens and it acted like it, but the key to it all was that it was in fact all servo controlled. It was a lens designed and made to a budget, but that optically was still a high performer and offered a degree of control never before seen on a camera in that price bracket. The EX1 made us re-evaluate what a low priced camcorder could do.

Having a dedicated camera specific lens like this means that the manufacturer can design the camera to compensate for deficiencies such as chroma aberration and barrel distortion amongst other factors. It also means that we as end users get to have a camera that will perform and work quickly under a wide variety of conditions.

So why hasn’t a similar thing happened for large chip cameras? Why can’t we buy a S35 mm chip version of a camera such as the PMW-200?

The prevailing wisdom is that such a camera could not be made for an affordable price or with a practically sized lens. Personally I am not sure that I would agree fully with this. I am sure that a decent and affordable video specific lens for a larger sensor capable of around 17-135 mm is perfectly feasible. After all there is the Sony SCL-Z18x140 FZ mount servo lens for the PMW-F3 (and soon to be F5/F55 compatible) which retails at around £7500.

This is a lens that is capable of 18-252 mm at a constant aperture and at a fairly practical size. So it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility to imagine a more budget conscious lens with less focal range and manual servo control similar to the EX1 and PMW-200 being produced for a specific camera.

Where is this camera?

So if we presume that it is practical to do, where is such a camera on the market? “Where there is a will there is a way” as the saying goes. Quite frankly I think that the lack of such a fixed lens camera is more likely down to the fact that there isn’t a will to make it, nor perhaps a demand or an open price bracket.

35 mm aficionados will always want to change lenses, no matter how impractical it usually is to do so, while wedding guys and the like will bemoan the more critical focussing that is required on such a large chip system. These issues would be exacerbated if the camera was selling for a similar price or more to a comparable interchangeable lens equivalent.

It just isn’t cool to use a fixed lens system anymore if you like to call yourself a cinematographer or DOP instead of videographer, cameraman or camerawoman as is the way these days. So for the foreseeable future if you want the 35 mm aesthetic you will have to put up with carrying around a suitcase full of lenses everywhere you go. Otherwise you will have to stay with smaller chip cameras for practicality.

For those with deeper pockets and who own Sony’s F5 or F55 there is at least hope for a do it all lens in the form of the aforementioned SCL-Z18X140, which Sony say will be made compatible with those cameras soon. At around £7500 this places it within a sensible budget range for the type of camera for which it was intended, being very similar in price to Canon’s old J17 workhorse.

More complicated than ever before

So with our demand for such large chip interchangeable cameras in the past, have we cut off our noses to spite our faces by trying to kill fixed lens cameras? In many ways I think we have. We are now in a situation where choosing gear is more complicated than ever before, and possibly more expensive in the long run looking at all the ancillary gear that we need to bolt on. This is made worse by the sheer speed of obsolescence.

We now have RAW recording on lower priced cameras available, and 4k is becoming more prevalent. The sheer performance of cameras is reaching a point where quality increases are increasingly small. We now need manufacturers to start taking the issue of affordable, versatile lenses much more seriously, and to look at the ease of operation closely.

Personally I mourn the loss of simplicity, and I would like to see it restored to the 35 mm sensor size generation of cameras. A 35 mm sensor version of the PMW-200 would be very nice indeed.


Tags: Production


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