2/3″ Shoulder Mount Camcorders. The end of an era?

Are we seeing the decline of the one de-facto 2/3″ shoulder mount camcorder? I think we are. The reasons are many fold, cost, and bulk are certainly factors, but what about sensor size, I think it depends on which sector you work in but historically larger sensors have been desireable

In movies and features the desire has always been to produce a film, even with a very low budget that has the look and feel of a big budget movie that would typically have been shot with a large sensor, so in the movie world little has changed, the desire for a large sensor has always been there, although often not at the top of the list of priorities.

However in factual, documentary, soaps and other television genres there was not the big desire for shallow DoF. I started in TV in the 80’s. I used to shoot on S16, then 2/3″ video cameras. This was normal for me and being honest it never even occurred to me that a bigger sensor might open up additional possibilities. As far as I was concerned it was a technology that was just not available for the kind of TV programmes that I worked on. Some of this was cost driven, smaller budgets simply meant the use of Super 16, Beta, DigiBeta and DVCAM and here in the UK at least this was normal and perhaps the biggest wish was just to have the budget for a better 2/3″ camera with a less electronic image.

Certainly I was aware of devices like the Pro35, Letus and other ground glass systems that could be used to allow the use of 35mm lenses on 2/3″ cameras, but they were just not practical for factual television. I did dabble with them on corporates, but frankly they were more trouble than they were worth.

Then along came video capable DSLR’s. Suddenly there was a perception that you could hand a $1500 camera to the DoP and hey-presto your documentary would look like a movie, your equipment and transportation costs would be slashed and you could shoot just about anywhere without being noticed. Now while most production companies realised that a DSLR would be a poor choice for many projects and had a whole bunch of new issues, the noise generated by the DSLR community was deafening. There have been some very beautiful looking, high profile (or at least highly vocal) productions shot with them and the shallow DoF, crushed blacks, high contrast look became quite fashionable amongst younger shooters, especially media students as a DSLR is very affordable compared to most full size cameras, you can pick up the Canon 550D (T2i) for £500. Because of the low cost of DSLR’s many of our universities and colleges will use then to teach video production. Yes they might have a couple of old HDCAM’s that the students might get a couple of hours on from time to time, but very often the day to day course work is done with either DSLR’s or handy cams.

So now we have a new generation of programme makers that own cameras that can produce something with that filmic shallow DoF and low frame rate progressive motion (DSLR’s don’t do interlace) that really don’t cost a lot of money. This is the look that these youngsters will be familiar with and to them a 2/3″ or half inch, off the shelf camcorder looks like video, while the DSLR’s look much more like film. With budgets in factual and TV in general getting squeezed more and more many of these younger shooters will find themselves out in the field as principle camera operators very early on in their career, possibly straight from college.

Now we have cameras like the F3, FS100 and AF101 that straddle and blur the boundary between DSLR style shooting and handy cam shooting. You have handy cam ergonomics with DSLR DoF. Because of the improved sensitivity you can shoot with these cameras at smaller apertures if you don’t want shallow DoF. The missing link is decent workable zoom lenses. Abel Cine’s 2/3″ adapters are certainly one way to go and I know that there are cheaper alternatives on the horizon. So conceivably you could have one camera that could be used for general purpose productions by using a 2/3″ lens plus adapter and shooting at f8. Then when you want the filmic look for more controlled situations you swap lenses and stick on a fast PL or DSLR lens.

In the future I envisage there being a range of compact “slow” f4  servo zooms specifically made for super 35. In effect all it would need is for Fuji or Canon to replace the 2x extender in the back of a 2/3″ HD lens with a 2.5x extender and the projected image will fill the s35 frame. Bolt on a PL mount and away you go. These lenses should cost no more than a current 2/3″ zoom, but they won’t be f1.8, now they will be f4 -f5.6.

So is 2/3″ going to hang around forever? I’m not convinced. You only have to look at the impact that lower cost 1/2″ and 1/3″ sensor cameras have had on the 2/3″ market. Single chip cameras will get better and better and the cost will almost always be lower as there is no expensive prism. Large sensor cameras with the right lens could be much more versatile than small sensor cameras. As the need for ultra fast lenses diminishes through improvements in sensor sensitivity, producing smaller, wide range zooms for s35 will become easier and cheaper, but then when shallow DoF is your goal you retain the flexibility to swap to fast primes or more exotic zooms. In the studio having larger lenses on s35 studio cameras would not really be a problem and a studio equipped with s35 cameras could one day shoot a game show and the next be used to shoot a filmic drama. For news 1/2″ and 1/3″ handycams are already becoming common place. For factual there is now a great desire to move from the video look to more of a film look, so s35 may be the way forwards. For Natural History, the 1/2″ EX3 is often used with DSLR lenses for long lens work. For sports you could argue that 1/2″ OB style cameras might make a lot of sense as producing compact long focal length lenses would be easier. If the cameras are smaller and lighter then the truck needed to transport them also gets smaller and lighter and each camera takes up less space in the stadium.

Clearly 2/3″ is not going to suddenly disappear, there is far too much already invested in it globally. But it’s share of the market in my opinion will only ever get smaller and smaller.

2 thoughts on “2/3″ Shoulder Mount Camcorders. The end of an era?”

  1. Interesting piece Alsiter.

    I’ve used 2/3 shoulder mount cameras since the early 90’s and each camera I’ve owned has been smaller and lighter than the previous model – whilst still retaining the ergonomic benefits of the shoulder mount design – nice balance and switches in the ‘right’ place. However the smallish sensor was always a little limiting when trying to get a truly filmic look.

    The new large sensor cameras are from the 5D to the F3 are, in my view, all ergonomically flawed and need extensive add-ons to make them properly useable without a tripod. I’m not quite sure what prevents manufacturers other than Sony from producing an affordable large sensor camera in a compact shoulder mount design. This, for me a least, would be the ultimate video camera.

    I wrote a blog earlier this year outlining the features that I thought would constitute an ideal camera: http://www.andytaplin.co.uk/2011/01/13/the-‘perfect’-video-camera-is-tantalisingly-close/

    I’m not holding my breath but if Canon for instance – who don’t have to worry about taking sales away from say an F35 – produced such a machine for around £10,000 -15,000 I would be very tempted.

    1. I don’t disagree that smaller cameras are often ergonomically lacking. Although one comment I would make is that it is easier to build a small camera up into a bigger camera through customisable accessories than deconstruct a large camera into something smaller. In many ways I find a shoulder mount camera to be less than ideal on a tripod.

      I don’t think we will see Canon bring out a full shoulder mount camera. The market is too small to support the R&D required. If the full size shoulder mount market was truly profitable JVC would not have abandoned it altogether and we would still see main stream cameras from Hitachi, Ikegami and the other manufactures that used to be major players.

      The big profits are in the smaller, high volume compact cameras. I’d rather have a camera I can build up to be whatever I need or leave in it’s basic configuration when I need portability, than a large bulky camera that is essentially tied to one specific configuration.

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