This article is a comparison of the specifications of the following medium budget 4K or UHD cameras (with Super35-sized sensors or above) for cinema work with currently available information:
- Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4.6K (B&H, Amazon)
- Sony FS7^ (B&H, Amazon) (Why not the FS5?*)
- Sony a7S II (B&H, Amazon) and a7R II (B&H, Amazon) (Either one or as a combo!)^
- Red Raven
*Why not the FS5? For these reasons:
- FS7 has LUTs and is better at shooting log
- It has a better internal codec
- It can shoot RAW
- 4K at 60 fps
- The Sony a7S II/R II can do most of what an FS5 can, and then some more! But the FS5 is in no way an unworthy camera.
^I won’t be considering external recorders for these cameras as that is true of any camera. Also, the image quality doesn’t differ much anyway.
Important: Some of the information is unverified. Some are just rumors. Therefore, don’t take this comparison seriously. Don’t take the prices or the specifications seriously either. For accurate information please consult manufacturers’ websites and data. Don’t take any decisions based on this comparison.
What makes cinematic quality?
- 4K (UHD or 4K, it doesn’t matter)
- Cinematic dynamic range (an audience shouldn’t be able to tell it was shot on video)
Why these cameras failed this comparison:
- Original BMCC – too small a sensor, end of life? Still not a bad option, though.
- BMPC4K and URSA 4K – poor dynamic range
- FS5 – for reasons given above, though it’s not an unworthy camera.
- LS300 – poor dynamic range, even with Log
- GH4 and DVX200 – video-like when stressed, small sensor
- Other DSLRs – poor dynamic range or no 4K
- Canon 1DC – poor dynamic range (don’t bother arguing with me on this one)
For examples of what these cameras can do, check out the following videos:
Unfortunately, Red doesn’t have anything to show us yet, but one expects it to be at least as good as a Scarlet Dragon. Update: And here’s the new footage from Red Raven:
What makes a cinema camera?
I’ve chosen the following traits that people have come to expect from a cinema camera:
- Large sensor that can deliver a shallow DOF*
- XLR inputs for audio**
- Ability to interface with a waveform monitor and vectorscope
- Have good low light ability – you still need the same number of lights and modifiers, only the power draw changes
- Have a rugged construction to withstand some abuse
- Simplify filmmaking to its bare essentials – plug and play – does not need any accessory to perform any of these functions
- Have an easy straight-to-edit workflow
- Good battery life^
- Long-enough duration shooting^^
*You don’t really need shallow DOF, but a cinema camera is expected to have this ability when the need arises.
**If you don’t agree with this stop reading! The a7S II and a7R II can take an XLR adapter via the hot shoe mount.
^This is where one can question the a7S II and a7R II, though the counter argument is the poor battery life is the fault of the battery, and another battery removes this problem.
^^A normal take for a feature or short is about 10 minutes. All of these cameras can do 30 minutes or above.
Because this is a fun comparison, only one camera will stand when the dust settles. Let’s get to it!
Let’s start with the camera bodies:
|Camera||Price of Camera body||Included Accessories /Software*||Warranty||Lens Mount|
|URSA Mini 4.6K EF/PL||$4,995/$5,495||Turret Dust Cap, 12V AC Adapter, Tripod mounting plate adapter, Resolve Dongle||12 months||Active EF, PL|
|PXW-FS7||$7,999||Body Cap, Viewfinder, Eyepiece, Grip Remote Control, Wireless LAN USB Module (IFU-WLM3), Wireless Remote Commander, WA Adaptor Bracket, MPA-AC1 AC Adapter, SOBCU1, BP-U30 Lithium-Ion Battery, 2 x Power Cord, USB Cable||12 months||Active Sony E|
|Sony a7S II||$2,998||Battery, AC Adapter Charger, HDMI Lock||12 months||Active Sony E|
|Sony a7R II||$3,198||Battery, AC Adapter Charger, HDMI Lock||12 months||Active Sony E|
|Red Raven||$5,950||AC Adapter, Media Bay||12 months||EF mount|
*The list of accessories is not complete.
The FS7 is ‘supposedly’ the most expensive, though we need to finish our comparisons before we know which system costs the most. Everyone else is in the same ballpark price-wise. Sony tends to throw a lot of accessories with their cameras. Things to note:
- The URSA Mini comes with Resolve, which is priced at $995. If you’re not using Resolve, or if you’re upgrading from another Blackmagic camera that had it earlier, it might as well be $0.
- The Red Raven brain is not enough to shoot, you need some accessories.
Comparison of sensors
Here’s how the camera sensors compare:
|Camera||Sensor Size (mm)||Horizontal Crop Factor||Maximum Resolution||ISO Range|
|URSA Mini 4.6K||25.34 x 14.25||1.4||4608 x 2592||Not announced (200-1600*)|
|Sony a7S II||36×24||1||3840×2160||100-102,400|
|Sony a7R II||36×24||1 and 1.5||3840×2160||100-25,600|
|Red Raven||23.04 x 10.8||1.6||4608 × 2160||200-6400***|
- *A guess based on the earlier URSA
- **Based on -3 to +18dB Gain setting at a base ISO of 2000. The actual ISO range changes depending on the gamma/preset selected
- ***This is a guess, I’ve heard the native ISO might be 800, and it could go all the way to 6400, though professionals have confirmed you can’t go over ISO 2000 without noise.
While the URSA Mini and FS7 can claim to be ‘true’ S35 sensors, the Raven is the weakest in the bunch. The horizontal crop factor makes it close to APS-C sensors, but it’s the vertical height that might be a problem. The aspect ratio of this sensor is about 2.1, so to get 16:9 or 1.85:1 you’ll have to crop the sides, further reducing the crop factor. E.g., if you need 1.85:1, the horizontal sensor width goes down to 1.8x. For 16:9, it’s 1.9, or very close to Micro Four Thirds.
The a7S II can shoot in full frame mode only.
The weird resolutions of the URSA Mini and Raven definitely allow for cropping in post, though at the loss of crop factor. So whatever advantages you gain in resolution you lose in sensor size. The maximum resolution is only available in RAW mode on the URSA Mini. All said and done, to some having the ability to crop is an advantage. To others, you are master of your frame, and don’t need to crop. There is no winner here.
Based on this comparison, the a7R II must be the winner of this bunch. It can shoot in both full frame and APS-C mode (crop factor 1.5x). You can shoot up to 6400 ISO with usable imagery as well. This combination is unbeatable.
This round goes to the Sony a7R II.
Comparison of video features
What kind of 4K do you get anyway? First, let’s look at the frame rates, dynamic range, built-in ND filter capability and type of shutter used:
|Camera||Frame rates at 4K (Internal)||Claimed Dynamic Range||Built-in ND?||Shutter|
|URSA Mini 4.6K||23.98p, 24p, 25p, 29.97p, 30p, 60p||15 stops||No||Global|
|PXW-FS7||23.98p, 25p, 29.97p, 50p, 59.94p||14 stops||2, 4, 6||Rolling|
|Sony a7S II||23.98p, 25p, 30p||14 stops||No|
|Sony a7R II||23.98p, 25p, 30p||14 stops||No|
|Red Raven||23.98p 24p 25p 29.97p 47.96p 50p 59.94p 60p 120p||16.5 stops||No||Rolling|
This is where the a7-series cameras fall behind. They lack a 60p option and have poor rolling shutter performance when compared to the rest of this list. Only the URSA Mini has a global shutter, but the Red Dragon sensors perform admirably well so I wouldn’t call that an advantage.
All of these cameras are cinema-quality cameras, and whatever dynamic range difference should really not concern anyone.
Based on this comparison, the Red Raven, with its combination of 120p, dynamic range and good rolling shutter performance is hard to beat.
Now let’s look at what’s being recorded: codec, data rates and color (all information for 4K only. Other resolutions are ignored):
|Camera||Best Internal Recording Formats (4K)||Max. RAW Data Rate||Max. Non-RAW Data Rate||Color information^|
|URSA Mini 4.6K||Compressed CDNG, Apple ProRes 444 XQ||180 MB/s||2000 Mbps||12-bit RAW, 10-bit 4:4:4 in Prores|
|PXW-FS7||RAW, XAVC-I||300-760 MB/s*||600 Mbps||12-bit RAW, 10-bit 4:2:2 in XAVC|
|Sony a7S II||XAVC S||n/a||100 Mbps||8-bit 4:2:0, 4:2:2|
|Sony a7R II||XAVC S||n/a||100 Mbps||8-bit 4:2:0, 4:2:2|
|Red Raven||Red RAW (3:1 @24, 8:1 @60, 15:1 @120 fps)||140 MB/s||n/a||12-bit RAW|
- ^Internal and External
- *Just an estimate
The URSA Mini has the best codec for editing, Apple Prores, though PC users might disagree. Uncompressed RAW from the FS7 could be arguably better, though it’s not fair to add an external recorder to this comparison. The next best is XAVC-I on the FS7, followed by XAVC S. Compressed RAW is the hardest on a CPU/GPU, though Red RAW has excellent support, while CDNG does not.
For ease of use, you can’t fault XAVC I. Red RAW comes second, though you lose more and more data as you increase the frame rate (it should be the other way around).
I’m going to give this one to XAVC I and the FS7. It really is the easiest workflow for budget-conscious filmmakers, and it doesn’t sacrifice much in terms of color fidelity.
What about the media used? Here’s a comparison:
|Camera||Media for 4K||Market price per GB||Price per second of 4K* @24p||Price per hour of 4K* @24p|
|URSA Mini 4.6K||CFast||$6.25/GB||$1.1||$3,955|
|Sony a7S II||SDXC U3||$0.65/GB||$0.008||$29|
|Sony a7R II||SDXC U3||$0.65/GB||$0.008||$29|
|Red Raven||Red Mini-Mag (SSD)||$7/GB||$0.95||$3,445|
*The lowest data rate possible. Values rounded off.
Both CFast and SSDs are expensive. Features tend to have higher shooting ratios, so you’ll need at least 3 or 4. At $6/GB a 120 GB card would cost $720, and four of these will cost $2,880. The actual figures might be somewhat higher!
Now if you’re telling me you’re perfectly happy to shoot an important project with just one or two cards, I know you’re a asking for trouble.
There’s no doubt SD cards are the cheapest option here. Sandisk Extreme Pro SDXC cards are reliable and rugged enough for many (at least 100,000 writes) cycles of use. However, they’re writing extremely compressed (in my opinion unacceptable) 4K footage at 4:2:0, so for that reason I’ll pass.
With the lower data rates on the FS7 you don’t feel the pinch so much. You would still need to spend money on XQD cards, but you can write a whole lot of data on to smaller sized cards – and you’re writing good data.
So far we don’t have a clear winner. There’s still audio, ergonomics, ports, battery and cost of ownership left to compare – in a fun way of course!
We’ll do that in Part Two. Stay tuned.