Cameras are getting smaller. It’s official. Looking around at the wide variety of cameras available it’s clear to see the trend is firmly towards cameras becoming smaller and more compact. Looking back only a few years the thought of a 4K capable moving image camera was a thought only imagined by a few visionaries.

Red cameras with the ability to shoot 4K and above have only really been around since the official launch of the Red One in 2007, and they were hailed at the time as the pioneering company that gave the rest of the industry a jolt. Now 4K capable cameras are readily available at a much lower budget than even a few years ago, some for around just around a thousand pounds.

For example the Panasonic GH4 has a form factor similar to a DSLR stills camera, yet doesn’t have size of the mirror box of a DSLR. Instead the Micro 4/3 (MFT) lens mount reduces the depth between the lens flange and the sensor so the camera can be reduced in size. This has the added bonus of having enables lens adapters to be used for many different lens mounts as there is now a larger distance to accommodate lens adapters. Whilst perhaps not as robust as other lens mounts it certainly opens up possibilities of using many different lenses on the camera.

I recently did an independent test for the Rosco Silk 210 LED light, and this was also launched at the NAB show. More detail of this great new lighting tool in a minute, but as part of the test we wanted to see how different sensors on different cameras registered the colours on a test chart. We tested many of the high-end moving picture cameras side-by-side with the same lighting, along with my Panasonic GH4 I recently bought. On examining the results side by side the GH4 actually stood up extremely well against other massively more expensive and complex cameras. This was of course a simple static test of a test chart, and perhaps a moving image could be showing up different impression artefacts, yet I was suitably impressed with the image quality of this tiny camera compared to the other big hitters. If I was to shoot a long movie production I would still pick one of the traditional form factors over the form factor of mirrorless cameras, however shooting a documentary where I needed to hike up a mountain with the camera would probably make it a first choice over the other cameras. It’s all about picking the right tool for the job in hand.

Of course form factor is a vital part of the operational efficiency of any camera, along with the robustness of the lens mount, flexibility of use in terms of accessory ports and connectivity. Other factors to be taken into consideration are the recording format, compression, and overall form factor when shooting on location. The larger form factor of a traditional moving picture camera such as the Arri Alexa, Red, or a Sony or is way more manageable and robust than a small stills camera that happens to shoot 4K video.

The cameras have of course become even smaller and lighter than even a few years ago due to improvements in electronics and sensors. However if a camera becomes too small it is more difficult to design in terms of buttons switches and connectors to the outside world. It is also more difficult for the camera technicians to operate in cold conditions for example, when wearing gloves. This is always one of the traditional tests when evaluating any camera, can it be used at -10° C with your gloves still on? For some cameras that is a bit of a struggle to achieve.

What we now have available is many extremely small cameras capable of some extraordinary visual results, with many now able to record up to 13 stops of dynamic range or more, and record high quality images on a relatively small storage device. Some cameras are specifically designed for hazardous use, and they really need to be as small and compact as possible so they can be placed in shot of the main camera and be able to be disguised. One such example is the Blackmagic Micro Cine Camera which was launched at the NAB show recently. Whilst not recording in full 4K resolution, its small size and low weight lends itself extremely well to being attached to a remote controlled hexacopter drone, for example, with the ability to have the focus, iris, and zoom to be adjusted wirelessly. A truly remarkable engineering feat considering it will cost around about £700 when it becomes available in July.

This idea of a small high resolution camera being attached to a drone brings up other interesting operational possibilities. Up until only a few years ago the only way to get quality aerial shots was to use a helicopter or perhaps even a jet aircraft. Now it is possible to fly a high quality camera over land with some incredible results. In fact there are places you could fly a drone where you wouldn’t be able to fly a helicopter if the safety of the helicopter crew was at risk, such as over a volcano for example. A drone can even be flown inside a building with suitable safety provisions put in place, and the helicopter would definitely not be allowed inside many buildings!

Whilst this is enabling great creative shots to be created for documentaries and also movies, it also brings up other potential safety issues of course, and these have become front-page news in recent months. Where the drone needs to be operated by a competent operator who also has a “spotter” looking at the drone and what is around it at all times, they also need to be certified by the different aviation authorities in different countries, and the airworthiness needs to be also certified. All this is extremely sensible of course, and will hopefully bring a professionalism and safety element to unlicensed operators wanting to potentially undercut other operators. The certification is suitably expensive in price to sort out people who are playing at it against those people who are taking it professionally.

John Keedwell GBCT