Micro 4/3, Super 35, DSLR and the impact on traditional Pro Camcorders.
I was asked by one of this blogs readers about my thoughts on this. It’s certainly a subject that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Traditionally broadcast and television professionals have used large and bulky cameras that use 3 sensors arranged around a prism to capture the 3 primary colours. The 3 chip design gives excellent colour reproduction, full resolution images of the very highest quality. It’s not however without it’s problems. First its expensive matching 3 sensors and accurately placing them on a high precision prism made from very exotic glass. That prism also introduces image artefacts that have to be dealt with by careful electronic processing. The lenses that have to work with these thick prisms also require very careful design.
Single sensor colour cameras are not something new. I had a couple of old tube cameras that produced colour pictures from a single tube. Until recently, single chip designs were always regarded as inferior to multi-chip designs. However the rise of digital stills photography forced manufacturers to really improve the technologies used to generate a colour image from a single sensor. Sony’s F35 camera used to shoot movies and high end productions is a single chip design with a special RGB pixel matrix. The most common method used is by a single sensor is a bayer mask which places a colour filter array in front of the individual pixels on the sensor. Bayer sensors now rival 3 chip designs in most respects. There is still some leakage of colours between adjacent pixels and the colour separation is not as precise as with a prism, but in most applications these issues are extremely hard to spot and the stills pictures coming from DSLR’s speak for themselves.
A couple of years ago Canon really shook things up by adding video capabilities to some of their DSLR’s. Even now (at the time of writing at least) these are far from perfect as they are at the end of the day high resolution stills cameras so there are some serious compromises to the way video is done. But the Canons do show what can be done with a low cost single chip camera using interchangeable lenses. The shallow depth of field offered by the large near 35mm size sensors (video cams are normally 2/3?, 1/2? or smaller) can be very pleasing and the lack of a prism makes it easier to use a wide range of lenses. So far I have not seen a DSLR or other stills camera with video that I would swap for a current pro 3 chip camera, but I can see the appeal and the possible benefits. Indeed I have used a Canon DSLR on a couple of shoots as a B camera to get very shallow DoF footage.
Sony’s new NEX-VG10 consumer camcorder was launched a couple of weeks ago. It has the shape and ergonomics of a camcorder but with the sensor and lenses of a 4/3? stills camera. I liked it a lot, but there is no zoom rocker and for day to day pro use it’s not what I’m looking for. Panasonic and Sony both have professional large sensor cameras in the pipelines and it’s these that could really shake things up.
While shallow DoF is often desirable in narrative work, for TV news and fast action its not so desirable. When you are shooting the unexpected or something thats moving about a lot you need to have some leeway in focus. So for many applications a big sensor is not suitable. I dread to think what TV news would look like if it was all shot with DSLR’s!
Having said that a good video camera using a big sensor would be a nice piece of kit to have for those projects where controlling the DoF is beneficial.
What I am hoping is that someone will be clever enough to bring out a camera with a 35mm (or thereabouts) sized sensor that has enough resolution to allow it to be used with DSLR (or 4/3) stills camera lenses but also be windowed down and provided with an adapter to take 2/3? broadcast lenses without adding a focal length increase. This means that the sensor needs to be around 8 to 10 Mega Pixels so that when windowed down use just the center 2/3? and it still has around 3 million active pixels to give 1920×1080 resolution (you need more pixels than resolution with a bayer mask). This creates a problem though when you use the full sensor as the readout of the sensor will have to be very clever to avoid the aliasing issues that plague the current DSLR’s as you will have too much resolution when you use the full sensor. Maybe it will come with lens adapters that will have to incorporate optical low pass filters to give the correct response for each type of lens.
A camera like this would, if designed right dramatically change the industry. It would have a considerable impact on the sales of traditional pro video cameras as one camera could be used for everything from movie production to TV news. By using a single sensor (possibly a DSLR sensor) the cost of the camera should be lower than a 3 chip design. If it has a 10 MP sensor then it could also be made 3D capable through the use of a 3D lens like the 4/3? ones announced by Panasonic. These are exciting time we live in. I think the revolution is just around the corner. Having said all of this, I think it’s also fair to point out while you and I are clearly interested in the cutting edge (or bleeding edge) there are an awful lot of producers and production companies that are not, preferring traditional, tried and tested methods. It takes them years to change and adapt, just look at how long tape is hanging on! So the days of the full size 2/3? camera are not over yet, but those of us that like to ride the latest technology wave have great things to look forward to.