Not DSLR Killers, But Killer DSLRs: How DSLRs Killed the Prosumer Video Camera

It seems the blogosphere is filled with talk about “DSLR killers.” Here are a few predictions ranging from the end of 2008 to March 2011: “Red unwraps ‘DSLR Killer’” by John Mello; “Sony joins the fray with (another) DSLR-killer“; DVXUser thread: “Panasonic AF-100 being called the ‘DSLR killer’. Any thoughts?“; “The Real ‘DSLR Killer’ For Filmmaking (No, It’s Not A Hasselblad)” by Neil Matsumoto.

Indeed, I would argue that the DSLR was the prosumer video camera killer and the video camera had to evolve in order to stay in the game.

The two strongest prosumer video cameras that utilize the DSLR-sized large format sensors are Panasonic’s micro 4/3 AG-AF100 with a street price of $4800 at B&H and Sony’s Super 35mm NEX FS100U with a street price of under $6000. (These prices do not include any lenses.) The dimensions of the the Super 35mm sensor: 23.6mm x 13.3mm and the Four Thirds sensor: 17.3 x 13mm (imaging area). (Images courtesy of Sony and Panasonic, respectively.)

Rather than “killing” the HDSLR, it seems the large sensor HDSLR market has been killing the prosumer video camera market. They’ve stepped up and noticed. They’re taking on the best of the DSLR features and are crafting cheaper video cameras with DSLR sensors in order to be competitive in the low budget cinematic market.

Comparison of sensor sizes. Prosumer video cameras are the little rectangles in the bottom left of the screen, while DSLRs fall within the Four Thirds, APS-C, and 35mm full frame, allowing for more cinematic control over the image. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Going back to the pre-Hi Def days of 2000, when George Lucas decided to shoot Star Wars II on a 1920×1080 24P Sony CineAlta HDW-F900 (modified the Panavision HD-900F), they used a f/1.5 lens on three 2/3″ sensors. But with a current street price of around $80,000, only professional shoots are within reach of this camera (rentals). Thus we can begin to see the significance of the DSLR APS-C sized sensors in the Rebel T2i/T3i at one percent ($800-900) of what the CineAlta costs!

The DSLR revolution has struck the prosumer video market — they were the ones dying off and some have adapted. The low price point of the DSLR will ensure its survival.

Indy filmmakers may use the Sony FS 100 more than the Panasonic AF100, due to Sony’s S35mm chip size and the smaller body and design work on it (aesthetics). The main thing you’re getting with these cameras that makes them a step above DSLRs is XLR-inputs — which is great for news and doc shooters, but filmmakers serious about capturing high quality audio will only use this as a back-up. They record audio on a separate recorder — typically with a field mixer and mic preamp — in order to get the best possible sound.

At the same time, DSLRs are taking on the best of the prosumer video market, such as the flip out screens for the Panasonic GH-1 and GH-2, Canon’s 60D and Rebel T3i/600D.

If the DSLR makers are smart, they will eventually create models with XLR inputs and a headphone jack, for those who do not want to record to external devices. Yes, Beachtek and JuicedLink offer XLR adapters, but you cannot monitor the sound going into the camera.

In either case, DSLRs are not going away, because the price of the Sony is still over $3000 more than a Canon 5D Mark II and over $5500 more than the Rebel T3i. You can kit out a Canon T3i for $3000 with a shoulder rig, a couple of decent lenses, a Zoom H4n, a decent shotgun mic.

If you want everything in one package, and you can afford it, then the Sony FS100 may be the camera you should use. If you’re on a budget or prefer the smaller form factor of a DSLR, us it. Nearly twenty percent of the films at 2011 Sundance were shot on DSLRs. They’re not going away. Not even close.

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   Dave Creu said on April 16, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Nicely put. I totally agree.

   Film Production said on April 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm

A whole page to say, “What you get on a “DSLR Killer” is an XLR connector?” Yes, that is true, but that makes this a pretty thinly-stretched article.

A DSLR is fine for shooting stills, but you’re going to replace all the sound you record on location anyway, at least if you’re serious about having a great track.

The only advantage to a digital camera, over film, is you can record high-quality audio (of bad location sound, which you’re going to throw out anyway), and can edit and do effects on a computer.

Trade-off with digital is everything else, photographically and otherwise, is a step down in quality.

Resolution, reliability, archive-ability, choice of lenses and lens technique, quality of follow-focus and other camera controls. No digital camera yet matches those things I expect from my sturdy 35mm Mitchell BNCR.

Yes, it’s easier to make low-resolution digital movies, but I’m not in this for “easy.” I’m in this for “good.”

It will be different when the picture is at least 4k, and everybody has a 4k digital pipeline for workflow, and there is some way of archiving the movie, so it is not utterly lost when somebody forgets to transfer the archival hard drive (every two years). BUT…we are not there, yet.

I admit it’s nice the prices are coming down.

Sam Longoria
Hollywood CA USA

   Kurt Lancaster said on April 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

In most professional fiction film situations, yes, the audio will be replaced — so that’s my point exactly. Why spend so much money with everything integrated when you should be recording on separate audio, anyways!

You can spend about $1000 on a Zoom H4n connected to a SoundDevices MixPre mic preamp/mixer and you’ve not only got a killer system, but you can get a 7D with that and throw in a Rode NTG1 shotgun mic and you’ve only spent about $3,000 — so is $2,800 extra worth the built in audio of the Sony FS100? You’ve now have extra money to spend on lenses and a Sennheiser wireless system!

For those shooting news and single person multimedia journalists and documentarians, they won’t replacing audio, so having a system that works for them is important.

A DSLR, however, is more than just fine for shooting stills. The Canon 5D Mark II has been proven over and over again by master shooters and members of the American Society of Cinematographers that it delivers a strong image that has been projected on the big screen and used in professional broadcast television. About twenty percent of the Sundance films this year were shot on HDSLRs.

I’ve shot on film — it’s great, when you can afford it. Very few independent filmmakers and documentary shooters can afford film. And the intimacy of the DSLR for shooting documentary and in some cases fiction shoots cannot be compared to a larger film camera or HD camera.

The 4K world is a different story, and RED is ahead of the game in the digital camera vision.

   Paul Antico said on June 2, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Kurt: There are far, far more reasons to use a large sensor proper camcorder over a DSLR besides XLR imputs, starting with horrible moire that you can get on a DSLR.

I’ve laid out some of the key points here:

DSLRs will have a place for some time (mostly due to cost and portability) but they’re inferior to these new cameras in a lot of ways, including image quality. Those limitations can be worked around (I will still have one along with the Sony, for example), but as a true cinema camera for independent filmmaking they are hardly the best solution anymore.

Sam: I am sorry but Digital Tools have met or eclipsed film in quality – RED shoots in 4K and has for some time, for example. You can also now use any cine lens on a digital cinema camera (even these relative cheapies like the Sony F3). Look at RED, or Alexa, or Panavision’s Genesis, and so on. They all use PL mounts. You can use the same lens technique, follow focus, and so on. The only difference is the camera back.

Do you think Avatar looks bad? Or The Social Network? They were all shot on digital in 4K and look fantastic even on IMAX screens. Film is going away, and without sacrificing quality.

I will agree about the archival issue, but that can be planned for (or dump it to film in the end and store it for 100+ years.. ah the irony)

   Film and TV Production said on September 2, 2011 at 7:33 pm

DSLR Camera is very popular for Independent Film Makers in my country, Indonesia. however, from the film community we certainly have to think again in terms of audio processing. DSLR cameras became a favorite because the price is affordable. For the same picture quality as digital SLR cameras, of course, have to spend lots of money to buy a Professional Camcorder.

one of my seniors in college said, use something according to its function. I think it is right. for what invented the camcorder, if we record using DSLR camera? yes, but again, this is a choice. I certainly would prefer to record with digital SLR cameras. sound problems, usually solved with a separate Sound Production and Foley recording in the studio.

very helpful article, a friend. Greetings from the Independent Filmmaker Indonesia.

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