Why You Should Use a Cinema Camera for Video Versus a Mirrorless Camera


HomeHome / Blog / Why You Should Use a Cinema Camera for Video Versus a Mirrorless Camera

Jun 25, 2023

Why You Should Use a Cinema Camera for Video Versus a Mirrorless Camera

With a world full of options, why might you choose a cinema camera instead of

With a world full of options, why might you choose a cinema camera instead of opting for a mirrorless camera for video productions?

We should probably start by defining a cinema camera. This used to be far easier, as the delineating line between manufacturers' videocentric tools and their photocentric tools was far more defined. But while certain inherent differences still remain, which is the topic of this article, the advent of mirrorless cameras has blurred the line of what's possible in a small form factor.

Technology and filmmaking have always had an oddly symbiotic relationship. Certain techniques in filmmaking become popular almost as a direct result of new technology, making certain actions possible that might have literally been impossible before. As an example, early sound films don't have a great deal of camera movement. This isn't because they didn't want to move the camera. But, because early sound capture required such elaborate tools and rigging to be accomplished successfully, there were many times where the camera literally couldn't move if the hope was to capture dialogue and picture simultaneously. Dolly track has been around almost since the advent of Hollywood, but the introduction of the Steadicam by Garrett Brown in 1975 suddenly added a new way to move the camera untethered from the physical restraints while retaining smooth footage. In recent years, the growth of the gimbal market and affordable options designed for smaller cameras has only taken the possibilities to another level.

When I first learned cinematography, it was by shooting with reels of 16mm or Super 16mm film. This was the most economical way to learn before eventually moving up to 35mm film formats. Now that the world is digital, most younger filmmakers start their journey using digital tools such as mirrorless cameras or even their phones before eventually growing into a large and more expensive cinema camera system.

But we also now live in a technological space where companies brand certain models as cinema cameras, which share a great deal in common with other photocentric models within their same line. Specifically, I’m thinking of something like the Sony a7S III (photo line) and the Sony FX3 (cinema line). Internally, they are essentially the same camera. The only difference being the form factor and certain accessories included in the box.

So, what really is a cinema camera, and why would you want one? Well, let's start with the form factor.

As solo operators, the gear mantra is often simple: "Lighter is always better." If you have to light, shoot, pull focus, and do every other aspect of image creation independently, ease of use is the name of the game. Image quality is still important. But, great image quality and dynamic range doesn't mean a whole lot if you can't practically execute your job. You only have two hands, after all. So, you need to rely on your camera to handle a few tasks that might otherwise fall to an assistant or other team member. So, as a sole operator, you’re likely looking for an all-in-one tool which will allow you to run and gun with your subject with a minimal amount of fuss and a minimal amount of weight.

Cinema cameras, by contrast, are built to be used within a team setting. On a traditional film production set, you will have a camera operator, but also a 1st AC to pull focus and a 2nd AC as a loader. You’ll have sound being recorded separately and will need a way to tie into the camera for things like time code generation and sync. Your director, producer, and crew will likely want to actually see what's being captured as well, so you’re also going to need to have various monitoring tools to distribute the image being captured to a video village, director's monitor, or other displays viewable by the various stakeholders in the production.

In other words, a cinema camera is made to be built up. This is why most cinema cameras are physically bigger as they provide more real estate for ports and various types of connections. Even if a cinema camera is small by nature, like the RED Komodo, for example, by the time it is fully rigged up, it's unlikely to stay that way. Therefore, cinema cameras often feature larger, heavier, and more sturdy bodies in anticipation of the various elements that will connect to it.

Going back to our FX3 versus a7S III example, one of the major differentiators between the cameras is that the FX3 essentially has a built in cage with mounting points for accessories. The a7S III, nominally a photo camera, is designed for solo operator use. So, even though they produce the same image, one is designed to do so in more of a team environment, while the other is not.

Of course, you can get additional tools, such as cages, that will allow you to build up a photocentric camera into more of a cinema production ready package. But there may still be some limitations.

One thing you may not be able to add to a photocentric camera after the fact are the physical connections common to many film sets. Again, while photocentric cameras might be capable of producing similar imagery to many cinema cameras (with caveats we will discuss in a moment), they are designed for solo operators. Cinema cameras, on the other hand, often live on sets alongside various different departments, all with their own standardized methods of working. So it's not uncommon that your choice of gear will be driven as much by the needs of other members of your production as it will be driven by your own personal preference.

A simple example would be an SDI port. Most mirrorless cameras send video signals out through an HDMI connection. Depending on the model and manufacturer, this could be a full sized HDMI, a mini HDMI, or a micro HDMI. You may hear videographers grunt and groan about the inclusion of micro HDMI ports in newer cameras and wonder what is such a big deal. But, when you start to build up your own camera rig and have a dozen separate elements all dangling off your camera cage that all need to work perfectly, the rather delicate nature of a micro HDMI connection as opposed to a full sized HDMI connection will become immediately apparent.

But why would you want SDI? Simple, SDI is the established standard on most professional sets. Taking our previous HDMI discussion up a notch, SDI connections come with locking mechanisms to make sure they don't come loose during a shoot. Perhaps more importantly, on a practical level, many of the professional accessories that will need to connect to your camera will be SDI only. Some may include both HDMI and SDI connections. But many components, like wireless transmitters and many top level monitoring devices, use SDI exclusively.

Because this is the standard in the video industry, most cinema cameras will come with SDI ports built in. This makes it possible to connect your camera to the various video signals you’ll encounter in the professional world. Being able to send out a signal via HDMI doesn't mean a lot if your teammate only has an SDI receiver. And since SDI is most prominent, it's only practical that you would want to use a camera with connectors that match those of your team.

In addition to SDI, cinema cameras will more than likely offer additional ports you might need on a professional set like full sized XLR connections for sound, dedicated timecode ports required to sync sound as well as multicam footage, or additional ways to power the camera for long shooting days powering multiple components. On a professional set, being able to have your gear flow easily with the other gear required to complete a production adds efficiency and speed for everyone involved.

In my initial review of the Nikon Z 9, there was a lot I was excited about. But, what I was most excited about was the inclusion of internal ProRes 422 HQ recording. This might seem like not a big deal compared to things like 8K video or amazing autofocus. But, while those things are also much appreciated, I knew that being able to shoot internal ProRes 422 HQ would make my life easier.

It would do so by allowing me to take footage right from my camera and deliver faster to my clients without extra steps to encode the footage. ProRes is pretty universally accepted by clients and, if forced to shoot in another format such as the increasingly common H.265, I often need to convert the footage before delivering it. So, even though the feature was small, it was huge from the standpoint of practicality. It saves me time. And time is money.

The various alphabet soup of video formats used by the production world can be mad making. The number of acronyms seems to grow by the day. And, it's easy to get a headache just thinking about which clients want to receive which type of footage for each project. It's not that it's impossible. It's just that, because each production will have its established way of working, like camera accessories, you may often find yourself choosing your recording format to fit your production's needs rather than out of personal preference.

Sometimes, your format is dictated by budget. Smaller budget can mean a smaller storage/video transmission budget, so you might be asked to shoot in a less robust format to save on file space. Or, maybe the studio you are shooting for has a predefined requirement for all incoming footage that spans across every project they produce in an effort to streamline their media. Or perhaps you’re coming onto an existing project and your footage needs to reach the colorist and editorial team in the same format as the cinematographer that came before. There are all sorts of reasons why a specific format might be chosen. But having a camera that can provide multiple options is a practical advantage when working with a diverse set of clients.

You’ll notice that the first three advantages are based around practicality rather than image quality. In fact, there are many mirrorless cameras today that are more than capable of producing adequate image quality for almost any professional job. This is not to say that there isn't a difference in image quality as you move up the price scale. But I think it's fair to say that there's more image quality today in a mirrorless camera than was present in the early days of digital cinema cameras, yet they still created amazing films and television shows with what they had. So, there's no reason to be held back by image quality if you find yourself only with a budget for a mirrorless camera as opposed to being able to own a more substantial package. Of course, as you might expect, there are caveats.

Let's take two examples for the purposes of our discussion. Let's say you are shooting a music video in a studio. You will have complete control of the lighting and environment and can dial in your lighting ratios and exposure down to the T. In such a situation, you have a great deal more latitude in your choice of tool and, assuming you light properly, you will probably see little difference between footage shot with a top mirrorless camera or a professional cinema camera. The difference might be there. But it's along the lines of photographers arguing about megapixels. At a certain point, your client isn't really going to be able to tell the difference. And a skilled cinematographer can make a beautiful video image via lighting and other tools which will overcome some of the spec shortcomings of a less expensive camera.

But, I designed scenario number one in a controlled environment for a reason. Now, let's look at scenario number two. You are going to be shooting an action sequence outdoors at a beautiful location with rolling hills and open plains. The hills are beautiful, but the shape of them causes bright highlights to reside alongside deep shadows. The clouds are gorgeous, but they are blowing in and out from shot to shot. And your frame is so wide that, while maybe you can control the light on the actors’ faces, you are mostly relying on Mother Nature to provide illumination to the world around them. And Mother Nature can have a mind of her own.

It's in scenarios like this where you start to see the difference between your gear. When circumstances are less predictable and each minute shot is more expensive, this is where cinema cameras shine. If you were to shoot that outdoor scene, for instance, with even the best mirrorless camera available, you’d quickly notice that it would have nowhere near the dynamic range or color depth of something like an ARRI Alexa. This would be even more obvious when, midway through the scene, those beautiful clouds part and you suddenly find your frame filled with bright sky. The ARRI Alexa is known for its legendary highlight roll-off favored by cinematographers everywhere. To put it simply, the large cinema camera offers the ability to retain more light and color detail from the scene, which offers you more latitude to work in various situations. If you are creating a long-form project with lots of different shooting scenarios that all need to look good, this latitude means a lot.

Let's say you’ve just been hired to shoot the next Roger Deakins film. It's a period piece that will take you everywhere from the deserts of the Sahara to a ballroom in mid-century Manhattan to a fishing boat in the Atlantic during a tidal wave. I don't know what movie that would be, but it sounds interesting. But, in such a scenario, needing to capture thousands of unique angles in possibly unforgiving circumstances as opposed to only a handful in an environment which you completely control, you are going to want to use the tool that provides the widest safety net to make sure you can execute your vision. Cinema cameras, generally speaking, are going to have significantly more dynamic range and latitude, which might just be crucial in you being able to deliver the image your client demands.

While, objectively speaking, a camera designed with video in mind is almost invariably going to be a better tool for a video job than one whose focus is split between still and video capture, that doesn't always mean that a full-blown cinema camera is right for you.

As I mentioned earlier, cinema cameras are largely designed in that manner because they are meant to be used in a team environment. But if you are running and gunning, relying on autofocus rather than manual focus, and your scene/deliverable isn't likely to reveal the limitations of your camera's dynamic range, does it really make sense to invest the extra time and money to use a top cinema camera when your mirrorless camera might be capable of doing the same job with less aggravation? It might still be worth the investment. It might not.

If I’m on a full production trying to create something special, I’m almost always going to want to rent an ARRI. I love the camera. I love the image. If money is no object, it's always going to be my go-to. But, I live in the real world and money is quite often an issue. So, let's say I’m working alone and just need to grab a quick interview for something that's only ever going to air online and I’ll be wearing multiple hats, from camera operator to sound recordist, and I need a small lightweight tool that is going to do the job with no frills. Well, in that scenario, it might make a lot more sense to shoot the interview on my mirrorless camera. Or, maybe I need to shoot low-key documentary footage and carrying around a big cinema camera is just not practical, whereas a small mirrorless camera can go unnoticed. Perhaps it's not the best camera available, if viewed in a vacuum. But, for the given circumstances and budget, it might be the perfect choice.

These are just hypothetical examples. The larger point is that you should be picking your tool based on the needs of the job. If you are a full-time video professional working within a team environment under demanding circumstances, then a cinema camera will probably be a better route for you than a mirrorless camera. On the other hand, if your current mirrorless camera suits your needs and you are thinking that buying a cinema camera will suddenly transform your unlit home movies shot in the bathroom mirror into looking like something shot by Janusz Kaminski, you might be thinking about cinema cameras in the wrong way. Cinema cameras are important because they are purpose-built to work within an established system for production recognized worldwide and provide you with a system capable of performing under a wide assortment of scenarios without sacrificing quality. They sure aren't cheap. But they do have their advantages.

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

One more reason: because you are rich :)

What about procamcorders with interchangeable lenses

I think one of the most significant advantages of (some) cinema cameras is a global shutter, which to my knowledge is unavailable in any mirrorless camera. Rolling shutter has improved quite a bit, but it's still noticeable under the right circumstances and always takes me out of what I'm watching when I see it.

I’m not sure anyone who has the funds and big enough projects to justify investing in a cine cam would even consider a mirrorless. Also someone on a tight budget creating web content wouldn't consider a cine cam, most likely as they couldn't afford one anyway, let alone a cine cam being overkill. I’m not sure who this article is supposed to be aimed at.

Yep, I've seen it so many times, get a mirror less (used to be a DSLR) and go save the world getting all these jobs. Then they get a job at a small college or for a company that needs an it/photographer/videographer/indesign specialist/web specialist... ... only because they bring their own gear, free of charge with them. Not saying it always end that way, but it's quite often the case. I choose not to expand to video because I would probably end up being one of them one day.

Horses for courses. When I do a "hybrid" shoot renting a cinema camera would mean 3 more people at the shoot.The footage I need to capture is usually very similar to the still photos I am taking. I can press a different button and shoot video.But larger productions probably need all the cinema camera bells and whistles. But I do see ML used in crazy tight mounting situations, even in the bigger projects.

Of course there's always a place for cinema cameras for big productions, but there's no reason mirrorless cameras can't produce the same quality footage.

I can't wait for a mirrorless camera that can do RAW video, global shutter, and built in ND.....it'll happen at some point. Z9 is finally getting us closer.

Once there's no need for a shutter/we get global shutter, then we can replace the shutter with a built in ND.....

Really wish we could get BRAW or ProResRAW internally too.

"gEaR dOeSnT MaTtEr"

If you need SDI you want a cinema camera. From an image quality perspective you can get a lot of bang for your buck in the mirrorless world. You will often get a bigger sensor which starts you off at an advantage.

You can add a cage and all the accessories to any camera. You can add XLR, 32 bit float sound recording, matte boxes and anything else. Throw on an Atomos and record in prores.

I wonder, has anyone tried to see how well an ARRI ALEXA LF can work as a webcam (e.g., using it with an SDI capture card) for video conferences?

'Let's say you’ve just been hired to shoot the next Roger Deakins film' ... what ?