Is your camera capable of broadcast quality? Everyone involved in television production will ask themselves this question at some point or another. Is the answer really cut-and-dried?
If not, how do you go about choosing a broadcast camera so a network won’t reject your project because of your camera?
Let’s start with the simple answer: There is no such thing as a broadcast quality camera.
Yeah, right. We’ve all heard the “You can shoot crap with your million-dollar camera, and you can shoot a masterpiece on a smartphone” argument. I feel it is a fundamental mistake to decide which cameras are worthy of broadcast quality by their specifications alone. Yet, this isn’t my argument. Then, what is?
Let me explain.
For the purposes of this article, I will use the EBU Rec. 118 document: Tiering of High Definition Cameras as reference. It’s not the last word in broadcast cameras, but it is respected worldwide as being a guideline more solid than most. To be honest, there are few other guidelines or guideline-makers.
First of all, a disclosure: I am not a fan of the Rec.118 document, nor of tiering cameras in general. I understand the EBU is trying to be helpful by ‘guiding’ producers to provide the best quality possible. But, if image quality was their ultimate goal, they should have guided producers towards film.
Till a few years ago, nothing could beat film. Many still believe there is no camera out there that can ‘beat film’. It is obvious, then, that the purpose of any guideline that allowed electronic cameras to be compared to film was a compromise at best. If compromise was the goal, then why restrict producers to broadcast quality cameras? You could try to argue that ‘broadcast quality cameras’ produce the best imagery. Is this really true?
In fact, as we shall see, the EBU itself has trouble grouping cameras. The lines have blurred beyond recognition. I feel the EBU should forego prejudging content on the basis of camera specifications and tests, and let the material speak for itself. This is my position.
The new Rec. 118 document breaks down cameras in this way:
It might be a good idea to quote the document, because it is as clear or unclear as you want it to be:
Although a camera can meet the requirements of a Tier (or standard) it may be let down (or even downgraded by an on-board codec. EBU R-132 recommends minimum acquisition codec.
- 50 Mbit/s 4:2:2 minimum for MPEG-2 based inter-frame codecs.
- 100 Mbit/s 4:2:2 minimum for intra-frame codecs.
Additionally, AVCHD above 35 Mbit/s 4:2:0 may be acceptable provided all post processing is carried out in the native camera codec. For Journalism/News these standards can be relaxed to allow the use of
- 35 Mbit/s MPEG-2 based inter-frame codecs at 4:2:0.
- 50 Mbit/s AVC intra-frame codecs at 4:2:0.
Additionally, AVCHD at a minimum of 24 Mbit/s 4:2:0 may be acceptable.
The use of External Recorders
Does the EBU support external recorders? E.g., if your camera cannot record 4:2:2 internally, can you use an external recorder via the HDMI or SDI feed (assuming they are at 4:2:2) to pass muster? Here’s the official position:
It is possible for a camera to be in two adjacent tiers if external accessories can be used to change the score e.g. an external recorder that meets the requirements of § 1.2* where the internal does not.
*1.2 being the earlier quote under Codecs.
In short, external recorders are acceptable.
The Tier System
Here is a brief overview of the tiering sytem used by the EBU (Click to enlarge):
**Is it just me, or is this resolution present in only one (and only one) camera on this planet?
In general, this is what I’m reading:
- Tier LS: Oh, they have large Super35 mm sensors with 4K resolution and above. Now what do we do?
- Tier SP: But wait, cool high-speed stuff can’t be produced by traditional broadcast cameras or the Super35 mm cameras. We can’t forsake cool high-speed slo-mo butterflies and bullets, can we? Even if the imagery isn’t as good as our own guidelines?
- Tier 1: These are the cameras we have always loved, but have to be shoulder mounted.
- Tier 2L: These are cameras our ‘friends’ have produced, similar to Tier 1, but can’t be shoulder-mounted (Canon C300, anyone? But wait – can’t you rig any camera to make it shoulder-mountable?)
- Tier 2J: J stands for journalism. Now that the economy is bad and most news guys are a news-guy-who-does-everything and can only afford palm-corders, we don’t want them to feel alienated. If you want to show real people and the most important events of the world, 35 Mbps AVCHD is peachy. 50 Mbps is for ‘unreal’ stuff.
- Tier 3: Damn, there are cameras sub-$10,000 that can shoot video as good as $50,000 broadcast cameras. We can’t ignore them, and our ‘friends’ don’t love them (heck, our ‘friends’ make them!), so we’ll just invite them to the party and ignore them.
- Tief 4: We reserve the right to put anything under Tier 4, under the pretext of ‘contingency’.
It’s no surprise that people can’t distinguish a broadcast camera from a hole in the wall. Nobody else can either.
Let me repeat, there is no such thing as a broadcast quality camera. Yet, we have to play this game by rules that are now called ‘guidelines’.
In Part Two we’ll look at some modern cameras and see if they pass the broadcast quality test. It’ll be fun, and totally unproductive.