The Rise Of The Small Cinema Camera.

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Sony’s new 61MP A7RV camera.

Yesterday Sony launched the A7RV – that’s the A – 7 – R  – 5 mirrorless digital stills and video camera to you and me, not some kind of motorhome.

This camera is being sold as first and foremost as a photo camera, it is not a part of Sony’s Cinema Line, but as well as it’s high resolution photo capabilities thanks to it’s 61MP sensor it can also shoot very high quality video at 8K 24p as well as 4K 60p from a 1.24x crop of the full frame sensor. It has S-Log3, S-Cinetone as well as HLG and all the usual codecs we now see in Sony Alpha’s including XAVC-SI and XAVC-HS. As well as the RV there is also the A1, another camera capable of shooting great looking 8K video.

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Sony’s Cinema Line Cameras (not shown here is the FX30)

If we then look at the Cinema Line, we start at the bottom with the new FX30, which is an APSC/Super 35mm sized sensor camera that shoots great looking S-Log3 or S-Cinetone. It has a fully functional and very useful CineEI mode with built in LUTs and the ability to add user LUT’s. From there we move up through the FX3 and on to the more box shaped FX6 and FX9.

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These two cameras are clearly designed for video and they gain the benefit of a built in variable ND filter, SDI outputs and arguably better LCD screens for monitoring. But in terms of the quality of the images they record there is little difference between these and the FX30 and FX3. What is missing from the Cinema Line right now is a camera less expensive than Venice that can record at more than 4K. My guess is that this is something we will see in the next year or so.

In the mean time, I’ve been wondering if I should add an A1 or perhaps the new A7RV to my fleet of cameras to tick the “8K” box. Having shot with the 8K Venice and the A1 I can see that that for some projects starting at 8K does have benefits. I absolutely adore the images from the 8K Venice 2 sensor and the A1 looks pretty good too. I shot this 8K video in Norway.

So then you start thinking – Do I really need big cameras like the FX9 or FX6? Purely from an image quality point of view I don’t think you do. BUT from an ergonomic point of view there can be a lot of issues with small cameras. Let’s take a look…..

No ND filter. The built in ND filter of the FX6/FX9 and Venice make life so, so much easier whenever you want to shoot outside. For most daylight shoots, when shooting at 800 ISO you are going to need an ND filter if you want to use a sensible shutter speed and aperture. Of course, you can add an ND filter to the front of your lenses, but it’s hard to ignore the convenience and consistency of a built in behind the lens ND filter system. It saves time, is less fiddly, makes swapping lenses easy and is one thing I miss every time I use a DSLR style camera body. BUT it isn’t a deal breaker, you can still add external ND’s.

Outputs: This is harder to resolve. The Sony DSLR style cameras all have some serious output limitations. They only have a single HDMI output and when you use the HDMI output there are limitations over where you can see the screen overlays and information about shutter speed, frame rates etc. Plus you get things like having to use the cameras touch screen to control the touch focus, but the live images only being on the external monitor (or in the EVF in the case of the A7RV, A1). The HDMI on the newer cameras is 10 bit and you could add a splitter or SDI converter if that’s what you need, but then you are hanging a load of extra boxes off the camera.

And talking of extra boxes – when the camera is so small, where do you attach any extras like a better external viewfinder, a monitor, wireless video sender etc? There simply isn’t enough real estate on these very small cameras, even the FX6 can lack sufficient space if you ave a lot of extra stuff you want to attach to the camera.

There is the issue of powering it all. It’s not as bad as it used to be as in most cases you can use the cameras USB-C port and a USB-PD compatible power source to power the camera. But this isn’t as convenient as running everything of a single V-Lock battery. You can adapt from D-Tap to USB-C and some V-Mounts have USB-C, but it still gets messy and the USB-C connector is not very robust.

Finally by the time you’ve got the DSLR sized camera rigged up it becomes so buried in wires, cables and accessories that the tiny buttons become hard to get at, the built in LCD gets hard to see and it all becomes an ergonomic nightmare. While the camera remains the size and shape of a DSLR many of these issues will remain. 

So- while I have to say I am extremely tempted by the A1 or A7RV I still can’t see how one would replace my FX6 or FX9. I could perhaps see an A1 becoming an alternative to my FX3, but I would miss the Cine EI mode. The one thing that keeps the FX3 easy to use when shooting S-Log3 is that Cine EI mode.  Without it, I would want to use an external monitor with LUT’s and then that defeats the purpose of a very small camera like the FX3.

But still, despite all of the above, the A1, A7RV, A7SIII etc are extremely capable cameras. In the right hands there is no reason why they won’t produce stunning content that audiences would not be able to separate from content from full size cinema cameras. Of course, if you do side by side, like for like tests you will find differences, but show an average viewer 2 different shots, equally well executed, one from perhaps a Venice and the other from an A1, in most cases it would be extremely hard to categorically say which is which. So really it comes down to the skill of the operator, the lenses used, the choice of locations and the lighting. Whether you shoot with an A1 or and FX6, an FX30 or a Venice, the camera isn’t going to be what decides the final quality, it will be how you use it, what you shoot with it, your composition and lighting.

And that makes this a really exciting time to be a film maker, because even a low cost camera like the FX30 could be used to shoot an award winning film.

In the coming years we will no doubt see replacements for cameras like the FX6 and FX9 and I am sure that these will get 8K capable sensors. But 8K isn’t the “be all and end all”.  Resolution is just one part of the image and other factors such as dynamic range, colour response and noise are equally and possibly more important. I’ve produced 8K demo content for various people, I’ve shot with the 8K Venice and the A1 and it IS nice to have. But it will be a very, very long time before most of us need to deliver in anything greater than 4K. Heck, even though 4K cameras have been around for a decade or more there are only a handful of 4K TV channels and I often struggle to tell whether the online content I am watching is 4K or HD.  So, after thinking this through and writing this I’ve decided to hold off for now. I’ll wait for an 8K FX6 or FX9, unless some project that absolutely must have 8K comes along that would justify the cost of another cameras. My FX6 and FX9 can and do produce wonderful images and will continue to do so for a long time.

8 thoughts on “The Rise Of The Small Cinema Camera.”

  1. Is it really a Cinema Camera? Haven’t seen on mainstream Hollywood movie shot on any of these. Are they really just prosumer cameras?

  2. But what is the definition of a cinema camera? Everything from Super 8 film to Hi8 and DVCAM has been used to make films for theatrical release. Hollywood films have been made with mirrorless cameras – “The Possession Of Hannah Grace” is just one example.

    If the audience doesn’t care or isn’t aware of what camera was used, why does it matter what was used or what it is called.

  3. Its usability thats the crux , so many times the best way to shoot is from the shoulder , with 3 points of contact , that hasn’t changed ,since the then new ,hand held cameras of the 1960,s , that really changed how even a feature film could be made. Every promo film I ever saw for the fx6 , let alone fx3 ,were all under slung shots, looking up the actors noses . Thats just not realistic for anything over than promo videos 😉 .. you just do need a work horse camera body of a certain size and weight ,

  4. I absolutely agree on with you. My A7S3 and the A1 are ergonomically, a challenge. The results are fantastic though.

  5. Hi Alister, may I ask you if you tried the full frame 4k pixel binned 30p of the A1 and A7R5 and if they look any good? I actually use my A7R3 and A7R4 but the line skipped 4k full frame 25p is just full of visible aliasing and artifacts.

  6. For making short films on a budget then it’s more than enough as Full HD and quad HD in these latest mirror less seems okay unless more editing and post manipulation is required. S-Log3, S-Cinetone is great but pixel binned footage and framerate doesn’t appear smoother even where iphone’s video sometimes feels more smoother than Sony. But definitely check out A7RV full review. Seems promising.

    1. Many are not pixel binned, the A7S3 in 4K or A1 in 8K are not. S-Log3 is very robust in post. When used correctly there is nothing wrong with the “smoothness” of most of these cameras either. Sony’s FX3 is frequently used as a B camera to Venice on high end and blockbuster features.

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