Best Cinematic 4K Documentary Camera under $10,000? A Fun Comparison between the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4.6K, Sony FS7, JVC GY-LS300, Panasonic DVX200, Aja CION and Sony PXW-Z100 (Part Two)

In Part One we compared the basic features, sensor, lens options, codec and media requirements. In this part we’ll cover everything else.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my cheatsheet (with examples) of tried and tested ways to cover a scene or action that will save your skin when your mind goes blank (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

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Comparison of audio features

Here’s a look at the audio features:

Camera 3.5mm TRS headphone jack Microphone inputs Audio Specs Audio levels
URSA Mini 4.6K 1 2 x XLR analog switchable between mic and line levels. Phantom power support*. LPCM 2 channels 48 kHz and 24 bit Yes
PXW-FS7 1 2 x XLR (line and mic) with Phantom power LPCM 24 bits, 48 kHz, 4 channels (Recording/Playback 2 channels) Yes
GY-LS300 1 XLR x2 with Phantom power LPCM 2 channels 48 kHz and 16 bit Yes
AG-DVX200 n/a 2 x XLR (Phantom unknown) n/a n/a
CION 1 XLR x2 with Phantom power LPCM 2 channels 48 kHz and 24 bit Yes
PXW-Z100 1 XLR x2 with Phantom power, RCA LPCM 2 channels 48 kHz and 24 bit Yes

*I’m not sure this is available yet on the older URSA 4K.

The LS300 has a lower bit depth, but that doesn’t really matter much for voice recording. There’s no clear winner here, all of them can take XLR inputs and deliver Phantom power.

This does not mean the inner preamps are equally good, though with my experience it’s very hard to tell the difference unless you are a seasoned audio professional. And that brings me to cinematic audio. If you really want world-class audio, you’ll need to hire a production sound mixer (sound recordist) who will also carry separate audio mixers/recorders and microphones.

Two XLR inputs are best for simple audio work – you either put two lapel mics or shotgun mics into each, or put one lav and one shotgun into each. If you have more than two people in the frame talking, then you’ll be forced to use shotguns or use a mixer to get more XLR inputs, etc. Of course, you can also use pocket recorders and the like, but by now we’re way beyond the scope of this article.

Tie. Or in other words, there are no fails.

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The little things

The little things make all the difference. In addition to the little things, there are the ‘littler’ things – the stuff you only learn about after having used a camera for a while. At this stage the littler things will have to wait, and we’ll focus on the little things, which are:

  • Ergonomics, toughness and usability
  • Video ports
  • Viewfinder
  • Size and Weight
  • Timecode and Genlock
  • Scopes
  • Quality and size of the Monitor

Here’s how these cameras compare on ergonomics and usability:

Camera Shoulder-mounted Camcorder mode Size and Volume Weight
URSA Mini 4.6K No, but the URSA 4.6K does Yes, but handle is extra 7.6″ x 8.2″ x 5.8″ (360*) 2.27kg
PXW-FS7 Yes Yes 6.14″ x 9.41″ x 9.72″ (562) 4.4kg**
GY-LS300 No Yes 5.3″ x 7.5″ x 10.7″ (426) 1.6kg
AG-DVX200 No Yes n/a n/a
CION Yes Yes n/a 3.4kg***
PXW-Z100 No Yes 7.4″ x 7.6″ x 14.3″ (804) 2.91 kg^
  • * The Mini is about half the volume of the URSA 4.6K
  • **Including viewfinder, remote control and SELP28135G lens.
  • ***Includes top handle
  • ^Includes everything

The larger URSA weighs 7.5kg as-is, and is already outside most carry-on limits. All of these cameras shouldn’t be a problem. Fully rigged up, they should weigh about 5-6 kg, though the LS300 is pretty light all things considered.

On the usability front, the ability to shoulder-mount a camera without purchasing additional accessories (and bulking up) is important. In this regard, the FS7 and CION comes out on top. However, I will give this one to the FS7, because the only lenses you can use with the CION are PL-mounted glass, with almost no autofocus or image stabilization options, if at all.

Let’s move on to more little things:

Camera Video Ports Out Viewfinder Quality and size of the Monitor Exposure and focus aids*
URSA Mini 4.6K 12G-SDI 10-bit 4:2:2 No, extra purchase 5″ 1080p touchscreen H, FP, Z
PXW-FS7 3G-SDI x 2, HDMI 2.0 Yes 3.5″ LCD (520K pixels) H, S, FP, Z
GY-LS300 1x SDI and 1x HDMI Yes 3.5″ LCD (307K pixels) Z
AG-DVX200 n/a Yes n/a* n/a
CION 3G-SDI x 4, 3G-SDI x 2, HDMI x 2 No 77K pixels LCD H
PXW-Z100 1 x HD-SDI, 1 x HDMI 1.4, Type A, 1 Composite Yes 3.5″ LCD (408K pixels) FP, Z

*Key: H – histogram, FP – focus peaking, Z – Zebras, S – Waveform and Vectorscopes

Scopes are extremely important when exposing video for Rec. 709, so it’s inexcusable that some cameras don’t have them. You could connect an external monitor via HDMI, but that solution never beats a built-in scope.

The important aid is a Zebra, and it’s strange that the AJA CION has neither scopes nor zebras nor focus peaking. It also doesn’t have an LCD so you’re 100% dependent on an external monitor.

With all of Blackmagic Design’s experience with monitors and scopes, it is shocking why they haven’t included it in the URSA. A 5″ monitor is better at pulling focus, but it won’t help you expose correctly without the right tools.

This one goes to the FS7.

This last set of little things are not mandatory for cinematic documentaries, but are important features of the broadcast world:

Camera Timecode Genlock Remote Control* Wireless Video
URSA Mini 4.6K Yes No 2x LANC No
PXW-FS7 No, only with Extension Unit LANC No
GY-LS300 n/a No LANC, Wireless Yes
AG-DVX200 Yes No n/a No
CION Yes No Ethernet, 2x LANC No
PXW-Z100 Yes, RCA No LANC No

*LANC or 2.5mm jack, whatever the protocol used

The LS300 comes with built-in wireless streaming, though that’s not of much use in a cinematic camera. Timecode features are great, but the implementation is key (It’s one of the littler things). Genlock is useful when working with multiple cameras and/or audio recorders. For those who need it, the FS7 offers both as an additional purchase, with the XDCA-FS7 Extension Unit.

Battery life and Power

All the features in the world are useless if you have to hire a donkey to carry your batteries:

Camera Battery life^ Cost of one battery Cost per hour battery life Connectors*
URSA Mini 4.6K 1.4 hours $165*** $117/hr XLR, Molex, O
PXW-FS7 1 hour $145 $145/hr DC
GY-LS300 3 hours** $169 $56/hr DC
AG-DVX200 n/a n/a n/a No
CION 2 hours $165*** $82.5/hr XLR, O
PXW-Z100 1.4 hours $117 $83.6/hr# DC
  • * DC means you can use an AC adapter. O means the camera can output power to an external device
  • **Estimate based on other JVC cameras. This could be totally wrong.
  • ***Cost of cheap V-mount battery
  • ^All are estimates, and could be totally wrong
  • #You could buy cheaper/fake batteries

The CION offers a surprisingly low power draw, but then you must remember there’s no LCD monitor. All in all, the URSA Mini definitely has the best options. Not only can you use V-mount batteries, but you also have the ability to output to external devices.

The only negative with large batteries is that you also add extra weight. However, even the batteries for the FS7 are not that light.

Which is cheaper to own?

Let’s just add up the basics: Initial price, media cost per hour of footage and battery cost per hour:

Camera Price Media per hour Battery per hour Total (Rounded)
URSA Mini 4.6K $4,995 $2,417 $117 $7,529
PXW-FS7 $7,999 $485 $145 $8,629
GY-LS300 $3,995 $43 $56 $4,094
AG-DVX200 <$5,000 $42.85 n/a ~$5,000
CION $4,995 $1,421 $83 $6,499
PXW-Z100 $4,999 $485 $84 $5,568

If you’re really strapped for money, you could make a case for the LS300. JVC always makes low-maintenance and dependable gear. But if you were going to purchase this kit for that all-important documentary, would you be better off renting a higher-end camera for the same expenditure? That’s when you start weighing the gains in quality and usability over a little bit of money – and the future of your project.

From whatever videos I’ve seen so far from these cameras, I would rate image quality on this scale (dynamic range and color):

In my personal opinion I would only consider the first two to be a real evolution in image quality from previous generation sensors. And, to be fair to the last two, they don’t pretend to be cinema cameras, though the LS300 is very good value for money as a general documentary camera.

Time to declare the results.

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FS7

Conclusion

Who wins? Here’s a recap:

Feature Winner
Sensor and ISO FS7
Video features FS7
Codecs and Color none
Lenses LS300
Media FS7
Audio none
Ergonomics FS7
Ports and Monitoring FS7
Broadcast Features FS7
Power URSA Mini
Most value for money LS300 and DVX200

As an overall package, it’s hard to beat the Sony FS7. It is the camera that probably gives you almost everything you’ll ever need. Let’s compare it to our original demands for a cinematic documentary camera:

Requirement How the FS7 performs
Large sensor that can deliver a shallow DOF Yes
XLR inputs for audio Yes
Ability to interface with a waveform monitor and vectorscope Yes, built-in
Ability to record in both PAL and NTSC frame rates Yes
Ability to record in higher frame rates Up to 60p
Shoot with a broadcast-approved codec and format Yes
Have good lenses Yes
Have good low light ability Yes
Be easy to setup, pack, and dismantle – must have good ergonomics, especially for shoulder mounting Yes
Be easy to transport Yes
Have a rugged construction to withstand some abuse I’m skeptical, but it’s okay
Simplify filmmaking to its bare essentials – plug and play – does not need any accessory to perform any of these functions The camera itself is simple, but Sony loves to complicate things!
Have low data rates and an easy straight-to-edit workflow Yes
4K or UHD – It’s the future, there’s no point making cinematic documentaries today without it Yes, it can shoot both Log and RAW*
Cheap media No
Good battery life Yes
Built-in ND filters Yes
Long duration shooting Yes
  • *RAW with an external recorder

The choice is simple:

  • Want the best 4K cinematic documentary under $10,000? Answer: Sony FS7
  • Want 4K but can’t afford the FS7? Answer: Rent the Sony FS7!

What do you think? Is the Sony FS7 the best low budget cinematic documentary camera available today?

Exclusive Bonus: Download my cheatsheet (with examples) of tried and tested ways to cover a scene or action that will save your skin when your mind goes blank (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

3 replies on “Best Cinematic 4K Documentary Camera under $10,000? A Fun Comparison between the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4.6K, Sony FS7, JVC GY-LS300, Panasonic DVX200, Aja CION and Sony PXW-Z100 (Part Two)”

  1. I agree that the FS7 would be the best option, but i agree on that before coming to this site.
    And i wonder, why this is so incomplete? Mostly in the DVX200 section (gh4/5 based = 4k + 5axIS). For example in audio specs says n/a and anyone could see any picture of the camera and locate the XLR and the little wheels for it.
    The dvx and ux series of Panasonic also got video ports out, 4 inch LCD, and of course, zebra and wvf, etc. Including remote control.

    So how i can be sure if the other cameras are correct info here or not? i would say that this comparision is not good as it should.

    Now for the other hand, if you want to compare tomatoes with a Coke, fine. But really?
    Dvx200 would be a GH dslr turned to a videocamera. So a good comparision could be with the FS5.
    Ursa and FS7 are not fixed lens, so the comparision should be with a C200 maybe?
    And for the FS7 (7.500 USD) maybe the rival should be a EVA1 (7.300 USD) at real super35 5.7K sensor.

    The last thing, why i just wrote “real” ? because a lot of people is very confused with the 4k marketing crap. It is not REAL 4k.
    First of all sensor size results in cropping. Lens will result in cropping. Frame rate and bit rate will result in cropping. RGB photosites of a 4k never will reach 4k by logic, so, cropping again. And of course, the UHD also is not a real 4k, so… cropping. In the end pixels and effective pixels… like 8 or 12 at most. Once again. Keep cropping.
    So, you already know why your 1080p looks great in your supposed 4k camera.

    I agree (outside the DSLR) in the FS7 because is a real camera. The others are cropped models, and more cropped, and more.
    To the point that you will find a 4k with a 1 inch sensor, hahaha. All the gain or iso will be digitally and not real.
    (check any cheap dslr in manual, and then auto. that is digital retouch).

    So… good look to anyone. And remember, this is bussiness. This corps. live with you money and their marketing. Dont fall for it. Use your head.
    Thats why one model got a little bit of the other, and so on.
    Actually is a mother, and then fall a parts. Those parts are the URSA, DVX, FS5, etc.

    Byebye :)

  2. This is not fair play to compare dvx200 with “unknown” characteristics with sony full specs! In my vision this is a paid, hidden, sony’s commercials! Sorry for that! The real difference deosn’t make the price difference ….and weight… Just a single advantage for sony: lens changing….that it….but price! Well i preffer 2 pieces of dvx, or one piece and a nice vacation!
    God enlighten you all!

  3. All in all, a nice thorough comparison. I’m surprised you didn’t include the shoulder mount or viewfinder options for the URSA mini. Adding those features make it no less “bulky” than the FS7, plus puts the initial cost still less than the FS7. Essentially Blackmagic is letting you buy those options piece meal instead of including them in the price of the camera. Adding those options would make the URSA Mini the most expensive camera to own once you add in the cost of batteries/media, and actually, it’s still the most expensive to own if you want to ever capture more than an hour of footage at any given time.

    I feel like adding those features would tie the Mini to the FS7 in many categories.

    My top requests in a firmware update for the Mini would be to add an h.264 codec and http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?toolid=10029&campid=CAMPAIGNID&customid=CUSTOMID&catId=625&type=2&ext=111753341453&item=111753341453.

    The Canon C300 MkII would be nice to see in the list, but I assume in most cases, it would tie with the FS7 and Ursa Mini, and the price point is twice as much as either of those. I think where it may turn out to have an advantage is in the “littler things”, when comparing out-of-the-box color, and menu interface/layout.

    TODAY, the most important factor on this list is that the FS7 is readily available to rent/purchase, where the other top contender cameras are still waiting to ship (DVX200, Ursa Mini, Canon C300 MkII).

    Also, I’m curious, where did you get the information about the DVX200 having a servo zoom that works with m4/3 lenses?

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