This article is a comparison of the specifications of the following medium budget 4K or UHD cameras for documentary work with currently available information:
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 a cinematic documentary camera?
Since we are talking about cameras, there can only be two kinds of documentaries:
- Those that care about achieving cinematic image quality
- Those that have other priorities
Making cinematic documentaries takes a lot of hard work. Here are some examples:
- Waking up early for golden hour. Also planning for golden hour in the evening
- Trekking or hiking to scenic spots
- Having time to contemplate the best angles, lenses
- If possible, have the time to light your subjects
- Have stabilized shots
- Shoot in a broadcast approved codec and format, with a strict eye on your scopes
- Take extra effort for great audio
We’re not talking about video journalism here, or catching an ego trip on a GoPro. People define ‘cinematic’ in any way they want, but in the real world, a lay person would say ‘cinematic’ is what has similar production values to cinema. In this respect, cinema shares most of the challenges we highlighted above:
- Meticulous planning to shoot under the best lighting conditions
- No compromise on audio
- Using imagery that matches each other in color, contrast, resolution and dynamic range
- Find a way to make the camera tell the story you are telling – no point and shoots, no unmotivated imagery
- No compromise on codec or format
Keeping these challenges in mind, I’ve chosen the following traits that people have come to expect from a cinematic documentary camera:
- Large sensor that can deliver a shallow DOF*
- XLR inputs for audio**
- Ability to interface with a waveform monitor and vectorscope
- Ability to record in both PAL and NTSC frame rates
- Ability to record in higher frame rates
- Shoot with a broadcast-approved codec and format
- Have good lenses
- Have good low light ability
- Be easy to setup, pack, and dismantle – must have good ergonomics, especially for shoulder mounting
- Be easy to transport
- 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 low data rates and an easy straight-to-edit workflow
- 4K or UHD – It’s the future, there’s no point making cinematic documentaries today without it
- Cheap media
- Good battery life
- Built-in ND filters
- Long duration shooting
*You don’t really need shallow DOF, but a cinematic camera is expected to have this ability when the need arises. The DVX200 is borderline and the Z100 might not make it to this category, so I’ve only added it as control.
**If you don’t agree with this stop reading!
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||$4,995||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|
|GY-LS300||$3,995||Handle Unit, Battery, AC Adapter Shotgun Mic||12 months||Active Micro Four Thirds|
|AG-DVX200||<$5,000||Lens, others n/a||n/a||n/a|
|CION||$4,995||Handle Grip, Handle Mount, LANC Collar and cable, Standard Rear Door Plate, Alternate Rear Door Plate, Battery Adapter Plate, AC Power Supply||24 months||PL mount|
|PXW-Z100||$4,999||Lens, Lens Hood, EVF Eyecup, AV Cable, AC-NB12A AC Adapter, HDMI Cable, Wi-Fi Dongle, ECM-XM1 Microphone, 2 x AC Cable, Battery Charger, NP-F970 battery||12 months||n/a|
*The list of accessories is not complete.
The FS7 is clearly the most expensive. Everyone else is in the same ballpark price-wise. Sony tends to throw a lot of accessories with their cameras. Things to note:
- Both the LS300 and Z100 ship with microphones, though these don’t qualify as cinematic audio
- The DVX200 and Z100 are fixed-lens cameras. There might be some wide angle/tele converters for them but you’re always limited by what you have
- Only the CION comes with a 2-year warranty
- *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.
Comparison of sensors
Here’s how the camera sensors compare:
|Camera||Sensor Size||Horizontal Crop Factor||Maximum Resolution||ISO Range|
|URSA Mini 4.6K||25.34 x 14.25 mm||1.4||4608 x 2592||Not announced (200-1600*)|
|AG-DVX200||17.3 mm × 13.0 mm||2||4096 x 2160||n/a|
|CION||22.5 x 11.9 mm||1.6||4096×2160||320-1000|
|PXW-Z100||1/2.3″||7.3||4096 x 2160||0-27dB^|
- *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 rough estimate.
- ^Can’t calculate ISO without a base, but I’ll be surprised if it’s any better than the LS300 or even the CION. A smaller sensor can’t collect that much light.
The small sensor size of the Z100 is its strength and weakness. At the wide-end, it can’t go beyond 30mm, though it makes up at the telephoto end. Surprisingly, the DVX200 can’t go wider than 29.5mm either (see below). If you’re in a small room and looking for a mid to long shot, forget it. If you want wide landscape frames, forget it.
The advantage of the Z100 at the telephoto end is the size of the lens. The equivalent lens for a Super35mm size sensor is almost another seat on the plane.
As far as resolution is concerned, the URSA Mini definitely has the edge, but it comes at a price. You only get this in RAW mode, and documentaries can hardly afford the workflow and storage space needs that come with it. If you’re recording Prores, then you’re on an even playing field.
Also, let’s not forget that most documentaries will go to UHD at best, so the 4096 (DCI) spec isn’t a large advantage, if at all.
Based on this comparison, the FS7 has the advantage, and it does so on one single factor – low light performance. You can’t compete against a camera that has a base ISO of 2000!
This round goes to the Sony FS7.
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|
|GY-LS300||23.98p, 25p, 30p||11 stops?*||2, 4, 6|
|AG-DVX200||24p, 25p, 30p, 50p, 60p||n/a**||2, 4, 6|
|CION||23.98p 24p 25p 29.97p 30p 50p 59.94p 60p||12 stops||No||Global|
|PXW-Z100||23.98p, 25p, 29.97p, 50p, 59.94p||<11 stops?*||2, 4, 6||Rolling|
Only the JVC LS300 falls behind here, with just up to 30p. Both the URSA Mini and CION have global shutters, but that comes at the expense built-in ND filters.
The latter is more important. Therefore, based on this comparison, the FS7 surges ahead, the combination of frame rates, dynamic range and built-in ND filters is unbeatable for documentary work.
Now let’s look at what’s being recorded: codec, data rates and color:
|Camera||Best Internal Recording Formats||Max. RAW Data Rate||Max. Non-RAW Data Rate||Color information|
|URSA Mini 4.6K||Compressed CDNG, Apple ProRes 444 XQ||180 MB/s**||2500 Mbps||12-bit RAW, 10-bit 4:4:4 in Prores|
|PXW-FS7||XAVC-I, XAVC-L and MPEG-2||300-760 MB/s***||600 Mbps for 4K, 222 Mbps for 1080p||12-bit RAW, 10-bit 4:2:2 in XAVC|
|GY-LS300||H.264 AVC, AVCHD||n/a||150 Mbps for UHD, 50 Mbps for 1080p||8-bit 4:2:2|
|CION||Apple Prores 4444||304-1500 MB/s||1,320 Mbps||12-bit RAW, 12-bit 4:4:4 in Prores|
|PXW-Z100||XAVC-I||n/a||880 Mbps||10-bit 4:2:2|
As I’ve mentioned at the beginning, few documentaries can afford a RAW or external recording workflow. There’s simply no point in considering it an advantage. In fact, the reverse can be argued – it’s actually a disadvantage to have to carry an external recorder around!
Prores or XAVC-I? Quality-wise, there’s hardly any difference. Prores has the edge based on two factors:
- A better codec designed to take multiple compression passes
- More widely supported on all major NLEs
However, it has two major disadvantages too:
- Prores only works well on Macs
- Transcoding and encoding on PCs are cumbersome at best
What about Prores 4444? It’s a codec that few would dare to use for documentaries. The shooting ratios are just too great, and the advantages are only visible for high-end green screen and grading work. Most people will shoot Prores 4:2:2 10-bit, and then the playing field is level again – except for the LS300 and DVX200 (they fall on a lower rung in broadcast acceptability).
And don’t get confused by the low data rates of the FS7, because the equivalent Prores HQ codec at the same frame rates will not be too far off – just enough that the difference should not be very relevant.
Now let’s look at lenses:
|Camera||Aperture control||Restrictions on lenses (35mm equiv.)||Highest f-number||Servo Zoom|
|URSA Mini 4.6K||Yes||No||all||No|
|AG-DVX200||Yes||29.5 mm to 384.9 mm||f/2.8-f/4.5||Yes|
|PXW-Z100||Yes||30.0 to 600.0 mm||f/1.6||Yes|
As mentioned earlier, the fixed lenses on the DVX200 and Z100 without a wide angle option (you can use an adapter, but that goes for all lenses) are slight downers. Also, the DVX200 can only shoot at f/4.5 at its telephoto end. So much for maintaining a constant aperture (something cinema is known for) or low light performance (noise levels won’t match).
Also, the lack of servo zoom options on the Mini and CION, and the general lack of broadcast-style lenses for them, make it hard to pick them for real documentary work.
The FS7 has a cinematic-docu combo lens, the 28-135mm f/4 OSS, which also has image stabilization. However, at the wide end, the 35mm equivalent focal length is only 40mm, which is worse than the DVX200!
The surprise winner here is the LS300, which has one main advantage, in addition to the fact that you can use the Metabones Speedbooster: It has a built-in servo zoom controller which works great with lighter, smaller lenses made for the Micro Four Thirds format.
What about the media used? Here’s a comparison:
|Camera||Media for 4K||Market price per GB||Price per second of 4K non-RAW @24p||Price per hour of 4K non-RAW @24p|
|URSA Mini 4.6K||CFast||$6.25/GB||$0.67||$2,417|
|CION||Aja Pak (SSD)||$2.45/GB||$0.39||$1,421|
Both CFast and SSDs are expensive. Documentaries tend to have higher shooting ratios. Let’s say you have a shooting ratio of 50:1 for a 60-minute documentary. That’s 50 hours of footage. That’s about 350 GB/ hour = 17.5 TB just for one copy!
If you shoot 2 hours of footage a day, you’ll need 700 GB, which is a few thousand dollars in media cards for the CION and URSA Mini.
There’s no doubt SD cards are the cheapest option here. But if we recall the codec might not be broadcast approved (They’re border-line and might need specific approval), then the FS7 wins this round.
Overall, so far I have to say the FS7 is in the lead, but we’re only half-way there. 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.