So, I’m happily shooting lots of 4K with my Sony F5/R5. I really love this camera and get beautiful results time and time again. It amazingly versatile thanks to it wide range of recording options and interchangeable lens mount, but…. it’s quite a big camera, definitely more tripod/shoulder mount than handheld. For many of the documentary productions I’m involved in a small handheld camera is required for pick-up shots or for slinging over your shoulder while racing around on a snow scooter or diving out of a car to shoot a tornado. I start storm chasing in May, so I need to pick something up before then.
I’ve been keeping an eye out for a compact 4K camcorder. At first I started looking at the Sony PXW-Z100 or FDR-AX1. These are both very capable camcorders. The have nice 20x zoom lenses and use either XAVC or XAVC-S. The pictures from the Z100’s that I’ve played with have been very good…. provided the light levels are good. These two cameras have very small sensors. There are pro’s and con’s to this. The small sensor size makes it easy to add a good quality 20x zoom lens and give deep DoF (something desirable for a 4K run and gun camera). But small sensors have small pixels and this makes them less sensitive and restricts the dynamic range. So the Z100 is still an option and I’m still considering one, but now there are more cameras on the horizon that look very interesting.
The first I spotted was another camera from Sony. The FDR-AX100 should be available in April with a price tag around $2K. So for a start it’s a lot cheaper than the Z100. It’s also a lot smaller, which is good (for me at least, remember this is a grab and go camera to work alongside my F5/R5) as it will save space and weight when travelling compared to the bulkier Z100. The AX100 has a 12x power zoom matched to a 1″ 20 megapixel sensor. Apparently this is the same sensor as the RX100 II, which produces lovely photos and HD video. The bigger sensor, means bigger pixels, so it should be reasonably sensitive. It may even end up more sensitive than the Z100, time will tell, I’d really like to get one to test and review. Ergonomically this is a handheld video camera, designed for exactly that with both a flip out LCD screen and a small rear viewfinder. It records using XAVC-S on to SD cards so cheap and easy to work with media, but I’m concerned about the quality of the UHD (3840×2160) video when the bit rate is only 50Mb/s. It should be good, but I want to see it for myself.
What about non Sony options? (I’m not a Sony employee, I’m a freelance DP). Well there are a couple.
There is the new Blackmagic 4K production camera. This is a little more compact than the F5/R5, but not by much. At the new reduced price of $3K it’s a lot more “disposable” than the F5/R5 meaning I would be less worried about chucking it about or hanging it over my shoulder via a camera strap. It has some appealing features including a global shutter (wish I could afforded an F55 with an R5) which would be great for shooting thunderstorms and lightning as well as raw or ProRes recording, but I would be back to the same lens challenges. No nice lightweight servo zoom here. By the time I’ve added hand grips etc I will be back to a large and bulky camera, so the BM 4K is not what I’m looking for right now, but an interesting camera all the same.
Then there is the Panasonic GH4. This is the dark horse right now. The GH3 shoots great HD video and the GH4, on paper at least sounds like it will do a good job at 4K. Being a compact (micro 4/3rds, MFT) DSLR type camera means I will still have lens issues, again no silky smooth, variable speed 20x servo zoom. But thanks to the Metabones MFT to Canon adapter I should be able to use all my Canon lenses and Panasonic have a number of compact zoom lenses including a 14-140mm and a few power zooms, although most of these are in the f3.5 – f4 range so not very fast. The GH4 records 4K 4096×2160 at 24fps or UHD 3840×2160 at up to 30fps to SDHC cards at 100Mb/s (Long GoP). This should produce good looking pictures and again SD cards are cheap and readily available. What really appeals to me about the GH4 is that it doesn’t look like a video camera, so you can shoot almost anywhere with it. In addition it is a stills camera, so I don’t need to include an additional stills camera in my shooting kit. It even has a built in time-lapse function. The sensor is “only” 16 Mega pixels. For video less is more, the lower pixel count will help compensate for the smaller than 35mm sized sensor and should help lessen any aliasing issues (remember this is a stills camera. The OLPF will be designed for 16MP stills).
So right now I’m still sitting on the fence. It will be really interesting to see the first reviews of the Sony AX100 and GH4. Right now I’m leaning towards the Panasonic GH4 as it ticks many boxes, handy 4K video camera and useful stills camera, but at the end of the day much will depend on the quality of the 4K video from these cameras.