Best 4K Cinema Camera under $10,000? A Fun Comparison between the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4.6K, Sony FS7, Sony a7S II, a7R II, and the Red Raven (Part One)

URSAMini2

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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:

*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?

These things:

  • 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!

The basics

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.

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SonyFS7

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*)
PXW-FS7 25.5×15.6 1.4 4096×2160 800-16000**
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.

a7rii

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.

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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
PXW-FS7 XQD $4.6/GB $0.33 $1,213
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.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

24 replies on “Best 4K Cinema Camera under $10,000? A Fun Comparison between the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4.6K, Sony FS7, Sony a7S II, a7R II, and the Red Raven (Part One)”

  1. I smell FANBOY.

    I am a PC users, and I edit the Prores from my BMCP4k just flawlessly. I love the codec.

  2. I’m sorry my friend, but the Canon C500 is only 12 stops of DR, the same as the Blackmagic 4K. Both of these cameras should be on the list. Also keep in mind that MAD MAXY Fury Road used Blackmagic 2.5K and 4K, as well as the Pocket, to capture most of the crash footage. And that the C500, with its low 12 stops of DR, has been a workhorse on many many shows and quite a few features – even Fast and the Furious. The image quality is a lot more important than the resolution or 15 stops of DR. The C500 is a far superior image, compared to all of the Blackmagic & Sony cameras, including the 4.6K sensor.

    1. I have the C500 and a Sony a7rii and if you forget all the data, specs and charts and just look at the IMAGE on a UHD screen, then the Sony just plain shoots a better looking, more cinematic image. Canons shoot great video and photos but there is a reason they are NOT on this list. Canon is aPHOTO company and they RULE that niche (just look at all the pros using a 5D). But when it comes to VIDEO, unless you want to buy a Red Dragon or Arri, there is NOGODY doing better video these days than Sony. Sorry Canon. Do what you do best but leave the video to Sony. They now rule that venue!!

  3. I’m a film/TV professional, this comparison is great! Please, do a new version where you include the new Canon 5D IV compared to the others (Ursa Mini 4.6 and the A7s&r II).

    1. I second that. Do a fall 2016 review now that the cameras have been out (Raven very slow roll out). Obviously URSA mini 4.6k has also been out awhile now so it would be good to see an update and also cost for media now that CFast keeps falling in price

  4. There is a lot of mis-information throughout this whole post. Raven can record prores, and a7s is capable of crop recording. There is a difference in how manufactures have been interpreting dynamic range and this deserves a further qualification of all the cameras usable dynamic ranges. I’ll tell you, right now they don’t hold a candle to the Raven. FS7 is close and Ursa performs horribly. There are other stats that are just wrong here. I’d hate to tell you… I think you need to do more research and testing and rewrite this…

    1. I second this comment. Especially the a7s point. I have one and it can record in super35 if required.

  5. I think you’re confusing Super 35 with photographic S135. 3 perf S35 is 25×14… about the size of an APS-C sized sensor. Also, Prores 4444QX is 12bit.

  6. This article is soooo biased on behalf I the fs7.. A lot of wrong information as well. For example, the a7s ii is not limited to shooting in full frame. Get your info straight.

  7. johnwhession GrahamCoia Excellent, John – thank you so much. I really liked the look of the Nebula 4000 but the possible  lens-balance problems is a definite issue, especially as I will be looking to use an anamorphic attachment as well – so nose-heavy in the extreme. Thanks again and break-a-leg on the feature shoot.

  8. GrahamCoia johnwhession

    Hope these help.  Also using a Film Power Nebula 4000 for moving camera shots.  Though the 4000 is right on the edge with anything but a light sony lens.

  9. johnwhession That is a sweet rig. I will be looking at putting something similar together soon and as it turns out, shooting a feature in the same circumstances. Would be interesting to see some more shots of the rig in its different modes (and footage from the shoot – though maybe that’s asking too much ;P ).

  10. instead of CFast card use a C-box system, without this sytem I wouldn’t buy the ursa mini 4.6k

  11. Sareesh Sudhakaran johnwhession

    I learned a lot from your A7s manual.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in this kind of camera.  When set up the way you recommend, it really shines.

  12. I configured my A7sII with a small rig cage, the Sony xlr adapter, an inexpensive Fotga matte box and a Fotga follow focus with hard stops.  it weighs practically nothing, can convert to should mount in 2 minutes, gets me great shots in hard to light settings (Like shooting clean video of industrial robots in a 100 lux environment at 120FPS in macro at F11).  I don’t think there is a camera on earth that can touch it.  I have a full set of Nikkor primes and zooms and it works like nothing I ever dreamed of.  I grew up shooting SRIIs and this camera is so much better in every way.  It get s the shot every time.

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