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State of Our Industry January 2013

BM Cinema Camera By Heath Firestone

I was recently asked what the difference was between something like Black Magic Design’s Cinema Camera verses something like Red’s Epic Camera.  While these are both large image sensor cameras, there are a lot of important distinctions and differences in capabilities, which account for the widely different prices.

What is a Cinema Camera?

For a camera to be considered a cinema camera, it must primarily have a large image sensor, and the ability to handle cinema style lenses.  The BMD camera, however doesn't handle PL mount glass natively, so it fails in this category, it does however handle standard Canon EF mount lenses, so it can handle some great lenses, and since many of the high end cinema lenses are now available in Canon mounts, it no longer means you can’t use a professional cinema lens on the camera.  The same is true for DSLR rigs.  I believe the reason BMD refers to this as a cinema camera, has more to do with the fact that its real competition is the DSLR market, and it doesn't have many of the limitations of the DSLR cameras, because it isn't a still camera with video capabilities, but rather a digital cinema camera from the start, with higher capacity storage, higher resolution video, better quality codecs, more professional audio inputs, and RAW data capture capabilities.  These are significant and overcome many of the frustrating elements of dealing with DSLR cameras for cinema projects.

So, what about image sensor size?

This is always tricky.  When we get into large image sensors, we are talking about sizes that are comparable to Super 35mm film.  This is not the same as 35mm still also known as full frame, which is considerably larger because it uses film horizontally, rather than vertically, giving it a larger footprint (roughly 41.3mm diagonal verses 28.5mm for Super 35).  Interestingly, a Super 35 image sensor size is comparable to non full frame image sensors (APS-C) like those found on Canon's 7D.  The size of the image sensor also affects depth of field, and being able to achieve a narrow depth of field, gives a desirable film look.  The larger the image sensor, the narrower the depth of field, so a Super 35 sized sensor will have a much more narrow depth of field than an HD camera utilizing a ⅔” image sensor, which only has an 11mm diagonal.  I bring special attention to the image sensor size because the BMD camera has an unusual image sensor size, which is somewhat smaller than the standard 35mm equivalent image sensor, which they say is somewhere between the size of a 16mm and a 35mm sensor.  If it could take 16mm lenses, this might not be a problem, but since it takes EF mount lenses instead, users must be aware that their lenses will be tighter than with an Epic, by a factor of about 1.64, so a 10mm lens will be closer to a 16.4mm lens on an epic, making it harder to find a very wide lens.  To get a great visual representation of image sensor size,  and how it affects different millimeter lenses,  check out the most useful Field of View Comparitor I have found, at Abel Cine’s site: www.abelcine.com/fov.

Comparing the two

While the BMD camera has many features not found on a DSLR, it doesn't really compete on the professional scale with cameras like the Epic and its competitors, simply because it doesn't have several professional features like timecode, genlock, etc. It also doesn't have XLR inputs, but to be fair, it does have balanced TRS inputs, which accept XLR with an adapter.  If you don't need these features, then it won't matter to you, but if you do, it obviously will.  

Latitude, resolution, etc.

I haven't had the opportunity to compare low light capabilities, and clearly 2.5K is a lot less than 5K in the resolution department. Both cameras also support impressive latitudes, but in reality, the Epic outperforms in both areas, and probably should considering it’s much higher price point.  Whether the additional latitude and resolution are  necessary to your particular application, may be a major factor driving your buying decisions, if trying to decide between the two, but just as likely, purchasing decisions will be based on budget, and  whether the camera fits all of the specific needs of the buyer.  For example, if slow motion shooting is desired, the fact that the Epic shoots higher frame rates (up to 120 fps full resolution, 300 fps cropped), may be the decision maker.

Advantage of all in one

The BMD camera comes with everything you need to make it work, except for media.   It has a touch screen, built in viewfinder, etc, which is great, and you get this all for an amazingly low price of just under $3000. They also throw in a free copy of Davinci Resolve, so there is no question this is a lot of camera for the price.

Modular design

The Epic, on the other hand, is a modular camera, which means it comes in pieces.  You start with a camera body, and add everything you need, including rails, tripod mount, lens mount, monitor or viewfinder, input and output cables, media holders, media, battery receptor, etc.  This makes it very customizable, but also makes it much more expensive, just to get it to the most basic and reasonably functional state.  This means that a $22k Epic body, will probably cost closer to $35k, just to function.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, it is just important to consider if you are used to purchasing cameras that come with the basics built in.  On the plus side, you only pay for what you want or need, and have lots if options to customize it for your particular application.

Conclusion

These are two cameras that serve different needs.   Both create great images, but how you would use them is pretty different.  You can shoot a feature on the BMD Cinema camera,  and it will probably be more painless than trying to shoot one on a DSLR,  but the Epic is going to have features which are more designed for larger scale shoots,  especially when you are doing multi-camera shoots.  I would be more likely to use the BMD Cinema camera for situations where I don't have a crew, or don't have time to set up a complex rig and want to be able to pull out a small camera and start shooting, and know that I will still get great footage with a camera with a lot of latitude and resolution.  The BMD Cinema Camera is not competition for the Epic at this point,  but it is a great little camera that I would love to have, and isn't difficult to afford.


Heath Firestone Heath@FirestoneStudios.com
Heath Firestone is a Producer/Director/Editor, who specializes in advanced compositing and digital effects.  He is also a Phantom High Speed Camera Tech, and is available as a jib operator and DIT.