What are cinema cameras, should you buy one?

If you have purchased a camera for video in the past several years, you may have reached a stationary DSLR camera or a mirrorless camera. As these have become better at video recording, their interchangeable lenses and high degree of control have had significant benefits for video shooting, compared to traditional video cameras. But what if you want to upgrade from there? Then maybe look at the "film cameras", which can cost several thousand dollars. What exactly makes these cameras worth it?

The term "cinema camera" is a bit vague, and its definition can vary depending on who you ask. Many film cameras are also mirrorless cameras, but with a greater focus on video rather than still images. I'll use the term here to refer to any category of cameras designed primarily around videography first, with a high degree of image control, which can produce film-like footage. You can get that "cinematic" look from photography cameras, even on iPhone, but some cameras are designed with video in mind.

More specifically, we're going to compare two cameras we've tested in a real-life environment: the Nikon D7500 – a mid-range DSLR camera that I personally use to produce my video – and the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro (BMPCC), which we were able to test for a few weeks. Nikon retail for about $1,000, and Black Magic goes for about $2,500 (both without lenses).

Both cameras have their place, and neither represents its entire class, but they give us a good basis to look at the differences between mid-range image cameras that happen to be good in video, and film cameras that can be more expensive but are designed to record video with a focus on film-like quality.

If there is one feature of cinema cameras worth upgrading, they work in RAW/Log formats. Photographers have been using RAW for a long time due to its flexibility. Instead of processing and compressing images directly into the camera, RAW formats store all the data from the camera's image sensor, allowing you to change things like exposure, white balance, and other color data after the fact, so you can focus on things like shot composition and framing.

Video cameras, on the other hand, have been slower to adopt RAW formats, largely because they require much more storage space than compressed formats. Some cameras struggle to record 4K video even in compressed formats – for example, the Nikon D7500 overheats up after 4K recording for too long. To overcome this, most high-end camcorders shoot in log formats – which, for oversimplification, is a way of encoding video data on a logarithmic scale that makes the video look very flat, but provides a more flexible toolkit for changing the look of your footage in a publication.

The difference between RAW and Log shots can be confusing. Technically, RAW footage is not an actual video format but a stream of uncompressed data. But to keep you on your toes, Apple's Blackmagic RAW and ProRes RAW, despite their names, use some form of compression — making them by definition not actually RAW shots.

Don't stop much on the difference yet. What matters here is that if you're shooting video that looks great straight from the camera, it's probably actually compressed and processed. And switching to a RAW/Log workflow, with the addition of additional steps, will also give you more creative control.

DaVinci Reresolve is one of the most popular editors working with RAW/Log footage (outside of professional studio environments anyway). Even the free version of this video editor allows you to bring Blackmagic RAW formats and adjust the color tone with a range of tools and ranges that may seem somewhat familiar if you edit an image in Lightroom.

This is where you can also apply color lookups (LUTs), tools with predefined color tones that you can quickly apply to your shots. While you can't rely on a single lookup table to provide the correct color gamut for each type of shot, it can be a quick way to get a basic color tone or to quickly apply color to shots you use regularly – for example if you shoot the same subject on the same set every day.
Raw/Log shooting can also help (sometimes) if you do any work on the green screen. Greater color tone control also means there is more flexibility to fix issues that can arise when you output the screen. But for baked color tones, you get what you get. For example, I used BMPCC to capture green screen elements in the opening shots of this video, which made it much easier to integrate into the rest of the effects, despite less than ideal lighting on the screen itself. With the D7500, I shot the rest of the video, however, it could have been more challenging.

High resolution allows you to edit your photos after shooting

Most cameras that shoot video usually have options for choosing different resolutions. For example, my D7500 camera can shoot at 720p, 1080p, and 4K at different frame rates. If you don't want to do a great deal of post-shooting editing for your videos, that's fine. However, filmmakers who want to become more serious in their compositions may want higher or more flexible resolution options.

This brings us to why the Black Magic camera is 6K instead of 4K or 8K. There are no 6K TVs, so what is the point of 6K photography? The answer lies in the investigation room. With 6K shooting, you can stabilize shaky video footage, zoom in for closer versions of the same shot, or move around different areas of the shot, all without losing resolution. This is a technique that studio directors frequently use to get exactly the right shot they need in post-production. If you zoom in on the 4K video footage that you also planned to distribute in 4K, you'll lose detail.

This technology works anytime you shoot at a higher resolution than you plan to export. For example, I shoot my videos in 4K but distribute them in 1080p so I can have that flexibility. However, with my D7500 – and many cameras that aren't primarily designed for video – there's no option to shoot at a resolution higher than 4K. If I want to distribute 4K videos, I can't use these same editing tricks.

The Blackmagic camera, on the other hand, has recording options ranging from 2.8K — which is slightly higher than 1080p and gives you plenty of space to crop or stabilize the image without having to handle entire 4K file sizes — up to 6K, which offers the same flexibility even if you plan to distribute 4K video. Until technology reaches a stage where 8K video distribution becomes more prevalent, chances are good that you'll have more than you need for a long period of time.

When you have more control, it's easier to get that cinematic outlook.
 What determines the "cinematic outlook" is the subject of much debate, but regardless of your definition, you'll need to control your image to get it. For example, if you want your project to be in the wide-screen drop-down format that some movies have, you can either add black strips on your project after shooting, or shoot in the drop-down widescreen format naturally (although you'll need some different lenses). Fortunately, there are a few things your film camera can do without the need for special lenses. For example, it's easier to get slow-motion shots when your camera is able to record up to 240 frames per second, just like the BMPCC you tested can. Most conventional imaging cameras are not designed to handle high frame rates like these. The extra precision we mentioned earlier also makes it easy to create smooth tracking footage, even if you only have low-cost tracks or home-made stabilizers. There is also something to be said about a camera interface designed specifically for video. While cameras like my D7500 can be used for video, some features that are more important to video than photos can be buried or unsuitable for use. For example, while my D7500 has a white balance button on its body, it only moves between a few basic settings. To manually adjust the color temperature requires searching the menus. In BMPCC, settings such as white balance, frame rate – and on the 6K Pro, up to three levels of built-in ND filter – are all readily available

Disadvantages of upgrading
Whatever the quality of the hardware you upgrade, there are always compromises, and moving to a film camera comes with some changes worth considering. The biggest change you may encounter from the cameras you've been using is that your storage needs will be different. While cameras like BMPCC can record at up to 6K, that doesn't mean your old SD card will be able to. Not only are the video files larger, but many high-quality SD cards aren't enough to keep up with 6K shooting in RAW format. You can find a list of cards that support CFast cards, or anything your camera manufacturer recommends, but as a Blackmagic representative told me, sometimes your best option would simply be to plug in an external hard drive (provided it's modern and fast as well). No matter which option you choose, remember that faster storage may be a little more expensive than you would get used to if you were recording on simple SD cards.

You also have to take into account how important things like color processing are in improving your workflow. While shots taken from a camera like my D7500 may not have much flexibility for post-production color processing, at least they already process. When shooting shots in RAWLog format, you'll need to do post-production work to make sure they look the way you want. Again, the more diverse your shots are, the more work it takes for everything to look good. If it's feasible for your projects, go. But if you're trying to keep your workflow as simple as possible, you may want to wait.
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