Why don't manufacturers put ND filters in small cameras?

Written by Simon Wyndham

Blackmagic DesignThe Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K is incredible value for the money. But when will such cameras ever have an ND wheel built in?

When will the issue of ND filters be addressed in stills inspired large-chip cameras?

There’s no shortage of new cameras being announced recently, but one thing that all small, stills influenced, video cameras lack is one of the most important functions needed. ND filters.

There is no doubting that when it comes to article popularity, for the most part a new camera release brings a huge number of article views to RedShark. Last year the announcement of the BMPCC 4K drove any article about the it to achieve an incredibly high view count, and understandably so. The camera is so much in demand that there are people who are still waiting for their initial orders to come through. But the fact remains that for its price, the P4K is incredibly hard to beat in terms of value/capability ratio.

Recently BMD issued a firmware update that addressed some of the more pressing bugs from the camera’s initial release, such as much more accurate reading of battery percentages, and addressing the random shutdown of the camera when using some batteries, as well as a few other useful odds and ends. While we still await BRAW, if it is capable, a question now remains as to what it would take to make any future cameras exciting? The answer, for me at least, is a simple.

Now that 4K is normal for any new camera, even if it isn’t in actual video production yet, there are precious few areas where a camera manufacturer could really be revolutionary, or at least really truly capture people’s imaginations.

The dream camera

Let’s be honest, I think there are a lot of people out there, myself included, who prefer documentary style shooting, and who would love there to be a camera similar to the BMD P4K, except with built in ND filters, a decent top handle, and an external clip on battery.

Okay, there may be more specifications required than that, but in order to do documentary work there are two highly important things. Battery life, and the ability to deal with ever changing light without needing to mess around with screwing filters on and off. The question is, would such additions to a design really add so much more to the cost of such a camera - in which case you might as well buy an FS5 or equivalent - or can such functionality be more effectively done by third parties?

I think one thing is pretty clear. The stills format shape does not lend itself well to having an external clip on battery, such as Sony’s F series. So it stands to reason that such a camera, if it is to be kept simple and costs kept down, might need to revert to the much maligned ‘box with a sensor’ along the lines of Sony’s original FS100. Conversely though is it too much to expect a manufacturer to be able to come up with a bolt on battery system that at least looks part of the camera once it has been attached? Making the bottom of the camera nice and flat, with a more angular design overall would help here.

It goes without saying that cameras like the GH5 do in fact have optional power pack systems made by their respective manufacturers. But such a battery system is still bottom heavy. At the very least we should have some optional top carry handles available without needing to rely on third parties.

Let’s talk about ND

Filters are an area, though, that really seriously do need addressing for video focussed cameras. Variable rotating NDs are not a very good solution, and they are fraught with side issues.

If there is one feature that I would be prepared to pay a bit more for, even if the company in question insisted on a stills camera form factor, it is an ND filter turret. Such a thing is the single biggest factor in fast shooting that it’s possible to get. The time and messing around that we would be saved from would be huge. I fact one of the most prominent questions that pops into my head regularly is why, if the OEM company won’t make such a design, why doesn’t a company such as Metabones make a SpeedBooster ND model? Surely there’s enough demand for such a thing?

The third party accessories market is quite large now, mainly thanks to the advent of cameras that, if we put it politely, have half the required parts missing! But to build a camera system around such accessories unfailingly ends up as being unwieldy, with wires, screws, and brackets hanging off awkwardly. Such parts do a job, and are often very sturdily built, but I quite often feel that most of them should really be unnecessary.

You might well ask why, if this is my view, I don’t just get a fixed lens camera, which almost always has such filter functionality built in already. And, faced with such a point I would have to be honest and confess that I have very often considered that this would be a very practical thing to do. Although by taking on such a camera, it would mean invariably having a system with a much smaller sensor.

I do not chase shallow depth of field like some. But I do like the feel of an image that has been taken with a larger sensor. There’s more dynamic range, there’s better low light performance, and the option to change lenses is a versatile one.

Is it possible?

It could be argued that a lot of the cameras around now do double duty as stills devices. And this is very true. Although ND is still useful in stills as well! Regardless, many of these cameras, such as the GH5S and Fuji X-T3 very much have a strong video slant to them. Even if you could specify on purchase whether you wanted an ND wheel lens turret, it would be a huge step forward.

Would it be truly possible to have a camera that recorded 10-bit 4K ProRes in a small and light body, with a more versatile external battery system, built in top handle, and built in ND filters, for let’s say £1500? It is possibly a ludicrous request, and one that anyone involved in manufacturing might well be getting a good chuckle out of by reading it.

But if the only extra feature that was featured in such a camera was the ND filter wheel, or at least the option of one, it would likely beat all comers at the same price point!

Tags: Production


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