Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Five things all ‘real’ video cameras really need.

Hybrid cameras are very popular right now, for good reason. But for pure video there are some features that every camera really must have, to avoid becoming a flying brick.

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In 2020, we have access to incredible camera gear, much of which is perfectly capable of shooting an ambitious feature film. Taking a camera from being merely quite good to being really excellent, though, relies on things that aren’t necessarily high tech, but which have sometimes stopped cameras being as good as they could be.

Low latency viewfinder

Trying to follow a subject that’s moving unpredictably with just three or four frames of delay in the viewfinder is like trying to play pool with a rubber cue.  To their credit, Blackmagic released an update for the Ursa Mini series which hugely improved the viewfinder latency, so we know that manufacturers do understand how important it is.

It’s a new problem. Back in the days of analogue cameras, the only lag was the delays in transistors and vacuum tubes, which are measured in nanoseconds. The electron beam sweeping the picture tube in the camera moved in practically lock step with the electron beam sweeping the viewfinder. Adding delay required electronics capable of storing the image, which didn’t really exist until the digital age. 

The problem with modern designs is that it’s often easier, when writing the firmware, to wait for a whole frame to be available before processing it. Most cameras demand several stages of processing, so it’s easy to allow lag to build up. Avoiding this simply requires careful coding. The more complex cameras get, the more this demands a lot of the firmware people.

Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro G2 viewfinder lag
An updated firmware solved the viewfinder lag in the Ursa Mini. Can other cameras do the same, please? Image: Blackmagic Design

ND Filters

A piece of glass that doesn’t let all the light through seems simple, and easy to keep in a back pocket. Anyone who’s had problems with infra-red contamination understands that it isn’t always easy to make ideal ND filters, though that’s not why we want them built in. It’s a speed thing, and this is one situation where we shouldn’t defer to the people who work on the major feature films. They have the facilities to carry a big square ND if they want one. Documentarians don’t.

Yes, it’s really annoying to put internal ND filters in a camera. Traditionally, it’s a complex little mechanism that has to be packed in where there’s already not enough space, and mechanical parts are expensive to make, assemble, and replace if they fail under warranty, but they are essential.

Knobs

Big knobs. It’s been said that every control on a camera must be operable with gloves on. That’s a bit impractical for certain designs, the small, lightweight stuff that can often be so convenient, but it’s a good principle. Some cameras have so many nubs of plastic sticking out they look like they’re made of Lego, and that’s not a great approach for something that may be lugged into a warzone. 

Beyond the key photographic controls, probably the most important thing to have accessible is the audio level control. This seems reasonably well-understood by current manufacturers, but it’s worth reiterating here that we’d all rather have a bigger white balance or volume control than an assignable function button that, by default, turns the viewfinder battery level meter on or off. Put it in a menu, and use the space freed up for a big switch.

The ARRI ALEXA LF
Knobs and buttons galore. That’s what we like to see. Image: ARRI.

Endurance

Any camera that can’t last an hour on a battery needs a bigger battery or to consume less power. Manufacturers may be a little shy about asking customers to spend half as much again on the battery system as they did on the camera, so it’s better to engineer cameras that consume less power. Some full-frame cameras will empty a hundred watt-hour battery in less than forty-five minutes, and while the battery industry has responded with big, capable power systems, the increase in bulk and cost isn’t great.

Any camera that can record huge resolutions and frame rates has to handle a lot of data, and as microcircuitry gets faster it gets more power hugry. That’s especially so if we insist on using programmable logic. The design data used in the firmware for those cameras can be used to make cheaper, more power-frugal custom chips, but that’s money and time. On the most upscale productions, there’ll be someone to fetch batteries. More generally, power consumption is becoming a big issue, and like viewfinder lag there’s no easy solution beyond sheer design talent.

Anton Bauer Titon SL battery
The Anton Bauer Titon SL battery. We shouldn’t need a battery this size on every camera, but sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking that we do! Image: Anton Bauer

Flat surfaces

Manufacturers can’t resist trying to make cameras both sculptural and practical. The best of them, however, have now got enough experience to realise that a camera is not a decorative item and that the best shape is square and flat.

The reality is that many cameras will end up accessorised. The existence of cheese plates, which exist to make cameras easier to accessorise, speaks volumes. Putting the battery mount at a jaunty angle is another example of the same issue: stack a radio mic receiver and a video transmitter on the back, and the whole camera turns a corner.

Cameras are often designed with a specific purpose in mind, and with so many different types of production to cover, and so many personal preferences on top of that, there isn’t ever likely to be a single design that makes everyone happy. Still, none of these ideas should be a negative to anyone – should they?

What are your number one requests for camera manufacturers? Let us know in the comments.

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