Cinema Camera NAB: Panasonic GH4, Sony A7s, but where’s Canon?

The problem with the GH4 and A7s is that both are housed in DSLR-like bodies. They're compromises--again, shooting stills and video. Whereas something like the C100 is designed solely for video, especially doc/ENG/run-and-gun.

Canon EOS 70D. After years of shooting video with a DSLR, I'm contemplating a cinema camera. But which? Canon C100? Panasonic GH4? Sony A7s? Blackmagic...?
Canon EOS 70D. After years of shooting video with a DSLR, I'm contemplating a cinema camera. But which? Canon C100? Panasonic GH4? Sony A7s? Blackmagic...?
Canon EOS 70D. After years of shooting video with a DSLR, I’m contemplating a cinema camera. But which? Canon C100? Panasonic GH4? Sony A7s? Blackmagic…?

Panasonic is wowing at NAB in Las Vegas with its new GH4 4K camera.

Ditto that with Sony and the A7s, a low light demon.

But where on earth is Canon?

I’ve been watching the NAB Twitter feeds like a hawk. Lots of interest and excitement about the GH4 and A7s. Both seem like solid entries, especially for the price. Panasonic will sell the GH4 for $1,700 and Sony is expected to retail the A7s for around $2,000. Not too bad. In the world of wine we’d call them QPR champs.

Canon did announce a few new professional camcorders. They look good. But I’m ready to make the move to a cinema camera. I want something that is built from the get-go for video; not a stills camera that needs a bunch of rigging (monitor, mic holder/XLR inputs, extra batteries, etc.) to make it suitable for the run-and-gun that we like to do so much here on Stark Insider.

FROM DSLR TO CINEMA

I’m quite loyal to Canon. It runs in the Stark family. My grandfather shot on a bunch of Canons, including the TL1, and accumulated a rather sweet collection of EF glass (that 100mm is a beauty!). My father too followed his footsteps. I’ll never forget the early days with the AE1. I started in earnest with a Canon Vixia camcorder, shooting video interviews in theaters around Silicon Valley. Then I moved to DSLR – the crazy had begun. So I made the jump to the Rebel T2i. Then the EOS 60D. Then last year to the marvelous auto-focus beast that is the 70D.

Once I got a taste of bokeh, and the film-like potential of DSLR (at least compared to old school camcorder video) there was no going back. I loved being able to switch out lenses. And the aesthetic of the results had something special about it. Plus–bonus of bonuses–these things could still shoot great stills. Imagine that.

The problem with DSLR cameras, however, is their design. Originally targeted at photographers, they’re simply not as well suited for video. For example, there are no pro-level XLR inputs, no peaking/focus assist (not in the 70D at least). Battery life, while OK, is not the best, and the codecs and quality of the video files themselves are also just OK.

Canon answered the call with the C100 EOS Cinema Camera. Designed from the ground up for video, the C100 doesn’t even take stills. It is a single purpose device, and built solely for capturing 1080p video with decent dynamic range. Depending on your mindset, at $5,000 it’s either expensive or cheap. While many alternatives, such as the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera ($995), tempt with lower price points and equally beautiful results, you have to factor in all the add-ons to get up and running. For the most part the C100 is ready to go, out-of-the-box. Just add a mic, a memory card, and off you go.

BUT…

Everyone is talking 4K. UltraHD.

At NAB 2014, 4K is the story… at least thus far.

The C100 shoots “only” 1080p. That’s not a real limitation for me. I shoot for the web. Aka the small screen. Yes, retina is here. Monitors have resolution that goes beyond 1080p, and, yes, YouTube can stream 4K. But, by and large, I think we’re years away when the masses–the non early adopters such as you and me–really care that they’re clips of Jimmy Fallon or Steven Colbert are in 4K.

Still, there are other practical purposes for shooting a resolution higher than what you expect to deliver. For me, the top reason would be the flexibility to crop. I can reframe a 4K source into a 1080 window without sacrificing resolution. A great example. Just last weekend I had singer Colbie Caillat give us a great call sign for Stark Insider after an interview. When I shot it, my host and eternal trooper Loni Stark was in the frame. That looked awkward. So I cropped the shot in Premiere, scarifying resolution in the process. Not too big a deal since no one is watching these vids on 100-foot theater screens. Still, the loss of quality is there. And 4K (or even 2.5K) gives you more freedom in post.

PANASONIC GH4 or SONY A7s or BLACKMAGIC or CANON C100

Originally I had my heart set on Blackmagic – just so much quality result for the money. But, ergonomics are a problem. Battery life is poor. The BMCC has 1/4″ jacks, not XLR. The LCDs are not great, almost useless in sunlight. Basic features are missing, such as the ability to format a SSD or SD card in camera. Or to even tell how much recording time remains (this blows my mind, dealbreaker).

Then in my quest to step up from my 70D I gave serious consideration to the Canon C100. It’s a big step in price. Again $5,000. But you get it all. It’s ready to go. And battle tested. A 35mm sensor. Good dynamic range. Very good low light performance. And the EF mount, of course, means all my Canon glass will work. Most reviews are extremely positive. This is a great cinema camera. But the one problem? It doesn’t shoot 4K. Again, I’m not sure that bugs me too much. Except, if we’re going to spend that much money we do want to future proof our operation as much as possible. In a year, or two, 1080p could be the new 480p. Avoid at all costs. Plus, if I’m shooting so much footage and b-roll it would be nice to capture it in a high quality format – I mean, why go to all that work over a lifetime, and then look back realizing you blew it!?

Net-net: I was hoping Canon would release a C150 or C200 at NAB. Something that would take all the good stuff from the C100–ergonomics, build quality, connectability–and give it a kick in the codec/resolution pants. Up the game. So far, though… crickets.

Meanwhile, Panasonic is tearing it up with the GH4. I like it. Unlike the Sony A7s, it records 4K internally (you don’t need a recorder). That’s a huge plus. Focus is wicked fast.

The problem with the GH4 and A7s is that both are housed in DSLR-like bodies. They’re compromises–again, shooting stills and video. Whereas something like the C100 is designed solely for video, especially doc/ENG/run-and-gun.

WHAT NOW?

Wait.

For an early adopter it pains me to use that word. Reality is, the GH4 and A7s are first-gen 4K products. This time next year, or soon thereafter, their successors will land. And they will be orders of magnitude better, if history is any indication.

If Canon doesn’t release new cinema models at NAB this year, they would likely some time in 2014. I suspect–I hope–competitive pressure is finally making its way up the management chain.

Meantime I shoot happily away with the EOS 70D, a pretty darn good little camera. And, don’t forget, the 70D, with its touch screen, even does auto-focus better than the C100 (which now has the dual pixel AF option).

Regardless of what happens next, it’s a pretty special time to be in this game. So many amazing pro products (don’t forget the quirky, compelling Digital Bolex!) for such ridiculously low prices, that it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, and spoiled at the same time.

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  • SC

    “And, don’t forget, the 70D, with its touch screen, even does auto-focus better than the C100 (which now has the dual pixel AF option).”

    Could you cite this? I’m curious where you found that information.

    • With 70D you can tap to choose focal point. Very handy and fast to boot. C100 is center only. Watch Philip Bloom video review.

  • Bill Berner

    That’s the first time I’ve heard anybody complement the ergonomics of any canon C camera. The pix are great but unless ur on stix you definitely need a rig.
    Also, to release a low cost 4k camera canon would have to retire the very popular, if long in the tooth, C300 (around $12000 body only), and the not so popular c500 (19,000k body only) that records 4k to an external recorder.
    Don’t see it happening, at least not for a LONG time
    Bill Berner
    ICG 600 DP

  • Ryan Tower

    Great review Clinton. Same boat here (longtime devoted Canon buyer). Although I don’t mind the DSLR ADD ONS (every camera in feature film–what I do, needs external rental etc gear). I was really hoping for 7DMK2 for $2100-ish with amazing VIDEO/dynamic range boost. As long as I can throw a ATOMOS on the device im happy with 422/dynamic range and mega mbs’s. I love the LOOK of Canon and the SH#T load of “LENSE CHOICES!!!”BUT, because of CANON’s LACKINGNESS I am NOW Looking seriously at the FF SONY a7s 4K DSLR. With metabones and other adopters (cheapest being $49!!) Its a breeze to use my EF mount lenses. OH BTW: did you know the c100 NOW has a model with the same 70D touch screen focus!! Just saw it for sale on B&H with the 18-135 STM kit lens (yes, on C100) plus a guy already has video on youtube with that combo. Look really cool. If the 70D had clean HDMI OUT to ATOMOS I would buy that in a heart beat. I really love the SIGMA 18-35 and cant wait for the 50MM SIGMA “ART” lens to release. Those seem to even make the 70D Video excel !! I also am thinking WHAT IF I bought the new CANON xf205 with ATOMOS BLADE? LOL. and then just used 5DMK3 for my superb Bokeh low light shots? But over all something just seems MISSING to me from CANON as of late in their cameras. Too expensive (trying to protect what?). Not enough DYNAMIC RANGE or K’s.

  • dansecdev

    Why would you record sound off a camera in the first place ? You really want to evolve your AV production values get a field recorder for a few hundred dollars , a decent sennheiser mic some field headphones for around a hundred, borrow a student and listen to your video sound pro. It’s much easier and cheaper than buying half a dozen lens and other gear. If you are a solo shooter use the field recorder close to the subject or mount the mic on a $50 stand.
    Only ENG TV news type production can accept camera sound ultimately.
    It’s not just a feature of the recording capability it is the fact that aiming the mic straight on the the subject may accidentally be the best sound on a rare occasion but usually one of the worst angles.
    The cheapest and quickest way to improve your AV is on the audio side.