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There are some amazing cameras now, but how could the camera makers make them even better?

8 minute read

AJAAJA's Cion - pointing to a modular future

The paralysis of choice: The modern camera has a vast array of available features, but too often we find ourselves having to jump through hoops to get basic usability via add-ons, or standing in front of a bewilderingly long and involved menu scratched our heads trying to work out what it is we actually want. Just like buying a coffee. As Simon Wyndham writes, this needs to change.

Coffee fanatics. They drive me mad. Trying to order just a coffee these days is an exercise in frustration. There are so many different types of coffee. It is no wonder that queues in coffee shops seem to go on for an eternity. Not only does it take all day to order one, but then it takes the lovely lady behind the counter another day to make it.

Ordering a video camera is a bit like that now too. There are so many variations and specifications, but the types of boundaries and differences between cameras can now often make a purchasing decision very difficult indeed.

There is an often-heeded rule of selling goods in a shop that says that if a customer is faced with too much choice then they often make no choice at all, leaving the shop without making a purchase at all. With so many boundaries being blurred and so much choice, this is a risk for any would be purchaser of a camcorder. It is hard to find a system that offers a good balance of all capabilities. In fact it is one reason that I do not currently own a camera.

For example, it would be lovely to have a large chip camera that could cope with at least 60p in HD, have built in ND filters, a reasonable bitrate, and usable ergonomics. In fact with the off the shelf technology available today it should be possible to produce a camera for a reasonable price that exceeds all those specifications to include 4k.

In point of fact the ability to do just this has been proven by the announcements of the Blackmagic URSA and Aja Cion.

Most often though, traditionally we are offered the choice of cinematic picture quality with less thought given to ergonomics, usability, and codec. Or we can have a small chip with better ergonomics and usability with a better codec. My feeling, and some may disagree, is that these different qualities are often placed as being mutually exclusive.

Perpetual transition

It is also sometimes claimed that we are going through a transitional phase and that it takes time for design philosophies and technology to filter through the various ranges. The issue here is that we are almost perpetually going through a transitional phase. It used to be from SD to HD, then from small chip to large chip. Now we are transitioning to 4k, and in a few years time no doubt that will transition into 8k and beyond.

The pace of progress is such that it is often outstripping the ability of gear to make its money back, or to keep up across the different manufacturers. Of course progress cannot simply be stopped. That would be silly. But camera design does need to adapt to the new pace of development.

In other words we have a bit of a dilemma. We as professional camera users need equipment that lasts a reasonable amount of time and can easily make back the money that was invested in it. It should be robust and easily usable. On the flip side as professionals we don’t want to get left behind the curve and the camera manufacturers need to keep releasing new products in order to stay in business.

Sony have recently announced the X70, another in the popular XDCAM line up. It is a camcorder which promises a nice balance between image control, depth of field with its 1” sensor, low light capability, and ease of use. It has built in XLR audio inputs too. With a later paid upgrade it can be made to record 4k video. Sony have also seen fit to give the camera a 10-bit recording codec at 50Mbps.

This is clearly a good step forward for such a camera. It is being hailed by some as a camera that professionals can finally use as a good all rounder.

On a personal level I would not agree fully with this. While it cannot be denied that the X70 has a great initial specification, I would like to see is such specifications transposed into a more ergonomically controllable device.

The X70 follows a Sony tradition in that it takes an initially consumer orientated device, but adds on professional features. This in itself is not a bad thing. It will make a great one-man-band VJ or wedding style camcorder. However if we wish to start talking about a camera that can be used for 95% of professional productions, from industrial and corporate through to dramatic production, then I am afraid there is a fair way to go.

Certainly the X70 could be used for such applications if its user really wanted to, but it isn’t ideally suited, despite the excellent on board codec and 1” chip. A camera must be the sum of its parts.

We could very well pay the extra to purchase a PMW-200, but while we would get a much more professional camera for our money with its much welcome manual lens barrel rings, we would get 1/2” chips and 8-bit recording.

We could purchase an ENG style camera, too, but there again we are left with comparatively small chips and 8-bit recording, as well as a hefty price tag. With this type of camera falling by the wayside somewhat in recent years, we need a bit of a change of philosophy.

Alternatively we could purchase a camera such as the FS700, an incredibly versatile camera in the right hands, although it requires a lot of bolt on accessories to adapt it to various uses due to the design of its body.

All three of these examples would make great purchases in isolation, if the decision was based purely on resultant picture quality, but we need to consider how many different types of jobs we generally get asked to do. I am just as likely to be asked to cover a fast moving event with vox pops as I am to shoot a promo with more cinematic aesthetics.

Owning more than one camcorder for separate job types means that overall ROI for each device is diluted in such a case.

Being the heathen that I am I believe that we can, and should, have our cake and eat it. To a degree. As I have shown the different manufacturers have many multitudes of different cameras available, but in most cases if you want one type of feature it will often be at the expense of another.

A new base level

However what I believe we need is a base level for what can be considered a bread and butter professional camera for this day and age. One that considers that fact that even low end productions are now utilising software such as DaVinci Resolve, and are using some quite cinematic shots and editing styles alongside more on the hoof event coverage and conferences.

We have talked a lot on Red Shark about modular camcorders before. Very soon the Blackmagic URSA will be with us, the first footage from which can be seen elsewhere on this site, and very impressive it looks too. The URSA includes the ability to change out the sensor block as new technology appears. Something that is somewhat of a paradigm shift at this price point, and one that I fully welcome. There is the Aja Cion, too.

The specifications for these new camcorders tells us a story in that yes, we can have higher picture taking performance at a lower price than ever before, but we will still be missing small, but in the grand scheme of things, very useful features or design aspects that make a camera truly a joy to use.

The Aja Cion is camera that is said to be going up against the likes of the Arri Amira and Alexa, but in reality it is really a competitor to the URSA, FS700, and Sony F5. This is a bold market segment to go after because it is quite wide, but I have no doubt that the Cion will produce a fantastic picture.

The design of the Cion has clearly been thought about in great detail. The ergonomics look great, and important controls are at hand. It also has the added bonus of looking absolutely gorgeous.

Documentary production figures on its list of potential uses. Its price and ergonomics alone would lend itself well to a wide range of users, both at the high end and and at the lower end of the spectrum.

There are a couple of drawbacks that I feel could hold the Cion back, though. The lack of ND filters is something that could be frustrating for some, including myself. The choice of a PL mount with no other option is also one that I would question at this price point. My feeling is that the choice of a PL mount has possibly eradicated a large segment of potential buyers.

Although Aja have constructed the mount so that it is easily removable it is still uncertain whether an EF mount with pass through controls to the camera is possible. Since PL mounts do not contain an electronic lens interface it remains to be seen how such an issue can be resolved if the camera doesn’t have provision for such a function unless a cumbersome and expensive external control box is used.

One good reason to produce a camera for such a low price point is to appeal to a certain level of market, to allow people who would not normally be able to afford such equipment to finally do so, as well as to beat the larger companies at their own game. So I feel that Aja must consider offering an alternative EF mount option from their own company as a priority.

Paradigm shift required

Eventually we will need another paradigm shift in design. One where the absolute base level for good all round general professional use is a camera body with highly usable ergonomics and controls, good codec, decent sized chip, a choice of easily swappable lens mounts, decent viewfinder, audio meters, built in ND, decent resolution and framerate choice, good I/O, and a good range of manually controllable lenses.

A modular design can build from that base point so that the final price is dependent on your choice of sensor, recording codec, better viewfinder and such like if you wished to upgrade. However you would at least have a base camera that would fulfill most requirements to a decent standard out of the box. With the future lying in ever faster framerates, 8k, global shutters etc, the pace of development is becoming hard to keep pace with. So this type of modularity should be seen as a priority.

There are currently so many cameras available, each with their own little specialisms. Camera owners cannot possibly be expected to own them all.

We shouldn’t have to jump through hoops by way of add ons to get basic usability. Quality shouldn’t come at the cost of usability, nor vice versa. Ergonomics and ease of control should be a priority. 8-bit codecs should now not feature on any new professionally aimed cameras. We have been crying out for 10-bit to be standard right back to the standard definition days, so it is about time we put that demon to bed, too.

We should at the very least have a base level of what should be acceptable for versatile and continued professional use. From that point upwards there is scope for the much higher end specialist scale of gear that is only usually hired in, but from a camera owning perspective we do need to establish a bit of a standard of what is acceptable.

What can be more democratic than to pay for the features you want, but not those that you don’t, while ensuring that it is at least possible for the camera to meet your usage demands in a neat package?

A modular future?

In a few years we will hopefully see the back of fixed camera product lines that have no chance of modular upgradability.

From a personal perspective I am currently refusing to buy a new camera because there simply isn’t one out there that does what I would like it to do without purchasing a plethora of third party add ons. Instead I hire the cameras in, which is perfectly viable, although it does restrict me on what I can create on a personal level outside of my client base.

My camera should be an invisible tool. The important controls should be immediately to hand in logical positions. I don’t want to be hunting for them from camera to camera. I also want lens manufacturers to start looking seriously at sub £10k manually controllable zooms for large chip cameras.

Could it be that Sony’s new curved sensor technology will make lens design simpler, less expensive, and lighter for use on large chip camcorders, and therefore enable a more viable large chip equivalent of JVC’s GY-HM850 form?

The URSA and the Cion prove that it is possible to produce fantastic cameras for a price that is well below those of Sony and Panasonic, and even Red. Although it cannot be denied that some minor tweaks to their design could catapult them into being the ultimate all-rounders. So far.

Such products are most certainly a step in the right direction though, and one that over time will possibly change our perceptions of what we currently demand with cameras in terms of base feature set.

At one time ENG style camcorders were seen as the pinnacle of design for both ergonomics and usage. As technology has progressed we have seen massive gains in picture quality obtainable from much more affordable gear, but we haven’t seen similar gains or focus in transferring the overall professional usability and design philosophy of them into less expensive cameras.

As the new curved sensors come into reality, and as the idea of modularity gains ground, even from Sony, perhaps we are not far off reaching a panacea of camcorder design. One that allows us, the users, to take more control and hands us back some of the straightforwardness and simplicity that we used to have.


Tags: Technology