A client of mine asked for advice on upgrading their Sony DVCAM for something that shoots HD. There is now a bewildering array of cameras on sale so I gave her a brief outline, which I decided to record here for anyone else who might find it useful.
Which camera to buy depends both on your budget and the type of shooting you typically do. If you need to shoot news style footage or actuality you will have a hard time capturing it on a small and fiddly camera from the canon eos range that has no XLR audio inputs or audio monitoring. If you are producing promotional work that is fairly considered and you have time to set up your shots then one of these cameras might be perfect for you.
Rather than talk about each camera on the market individually, it is useful to split them up into groupings, with each group being useful for a certain kind of work. Below are 3 basic groups with examples of the cameras in that range and a rough price guide:
Full frame cameras:
Canon 5d, Canon 7d, Canon 1D £1500 -£2000
Panasonic AF101 £4000
Sony FS 100 £5000
Sony F3 £10,000
(Beyond this, if you have more cash to spend you can move up to the Red Epic, Arri Alexa,Red One etc.)
NB All prices are body only
The main advantage of full frame cameras is that they achieve really beautiful filmic shots at a very low price. The reason for this is that with a full frame sensor you can use a stills camera lens which will have great optics and a small depth of field. There are countless versions of fantastic looking films and television programmes that have been shot on a canon camera bought for just over £1000. This sounds great, but before you rush out and buy one here are a few disadvantages: Broadcast 3 chip cameras have huge zoom lenses with a massive range, full frame cameras do not. This means you need several different lenses, which take time to change on a shoot. The next big problem is audio. Stills cameras such as the Canon range are just that, stills cameras that shoot a bit of video and as such audio recording is tricky, there are ways around this, like recording to an external device such as a Zoom H4n and then synching this up in post using plural eyes or just synching to a clap, however this all ads another layer of hassle to you production. The next big problem with shooting on a stills camera is clip length. These cameras will record a maximum of approximately 12 minutes (I usually cut off at 10 to make sure). This means for interviews you have to break up the flow of the interview and re-synch up the cameras and audio to start the next clip. Small cameras also have no ND. ND, neutral density, controls the amount of light getting down the lens, like a pair of sunglasses, moving from indoor situations to outdoor will mean screwing on ND filters - again time consuming and fiddly compared to video cameras.
These problems are gradually resolved as you move up the full frame range - the Sony FS 100 has audio inputs, can record long clips, although it still has no ND. The Sony F3 solves all these problems, but then it is 10k and you still need to buy lenses and, since it is a small camera, some kind of mounting system so you can shoot hand held. By the time you have added on all the extras you could easily run into costs of between 20 to 30 thousand pounds depending on the set up you choose.
HD Disk cameras
Sony XDCAM 350 - 335 £8000 aprox
Sony XDCAM F700 £20,000
Sony XDCAM F800 £30,000
These cameras have become the work horses for a large chunk of the broadcast market. These are three chip cameras and are very similar to the old Digi Beta range. Most cameramen will use these with just two lenses, a wide and a standard, and the range on these is huge covering pretty much any shooting situation. You lose out on the really beautiful filmic look with the small depth of field of the full frame cameras, but you gain a very practical camera that can be used in all situations. The cameras record on to disks which can be used again and again (up to around 50x) You can record 1hr 45min on a 50GB disk. Many producers used to work ing with tape like this system, as like with tapes you can take many of these disks on a shoot without having to worry about downloading footage onto a laptop - and all the potential problems of losing footage. However, these cameras are not a cheap option.
Solid State Cameras - recording to card.
Sony EX3 - £3,500
Sony PMW 350 - £13,000
Sony PMW 500 - £17,000
Panasonic HPX31 - £7,200
Panasonic P2 2700 £20,000
Solid state cameras record to a memory card that can be backed up to a laptop and a drive and then wiped. The disadvantage of this system is if you are on a long shoot over several days you will need to wipe your cards and re use them. This ads an extra job, and if the crew are already tired the last thing they want to do after a long day's shoot is get back to the hotel and start transferring data. That said, if a shoot is not too busy and there is space in the day, you can transfer cards relatively quickly.
The price range of cameras here is pretty big, from the small ex3 with a fixed lens to the full broadcast camera with a 2/3" chip and a mount for broadcast lenses.
All of these cameras shoot "HD", although the quality of that HD will vary partly because that information is compressed to some degree or another, and more compression equals a lesser quality. If the project is for broadcast then you obviously have to look at the technical standards that the broadcaster has set for it's programmes. If it is not for broadcast, then budget, together with the kind of shooting you will be doing, is your only concern.