Many cinematographers feel that the camera they shoot on is the least important element when it comes to capturing a beautiful image since lighting, lenses, color grading and other factors often play a more important role. I myself fall into this camp for the most part…However, there are times that your choice in camera can be far more critical than any other element in the cinematography pipeline, and it’s important to know exactly when it matters most.
For the majority of my controlled professional shoots, my choice of camera is at the bottom of the priority list until many of the other creative and technical elements have been locked down. When approaching nearly any shoot, my number one concern is usually how we are going to light the scene. From there, I decide on the lens choice (based on the proposed lighting setup, and overall look of the project), and eventually settle on a camera choice that I believe will suit the project best – both in terms of its usability on set, as well as its look.
I typically approach things this way because on any professional shoot where I have access to permits, optimal locations, larger lighting setups, etc. I am confident that are a number of camera choices available to me, some of which might only be marginally better or more appropriate than others. In other words, I know that if, for instance, I was shooting in a studio type of environment with loads of controlled lighting, I wouldn’t necessarily need a camera that had extremely high dynamic range. With that much control over the lighting, I could light the set in a way that would allow even a camera with low dynamic range to look great. Does this mean I wouldn’t still want to shoot on the better, higher DR camera just because I didn’t need to? Of course not… I would still love to shoot with the best performing tool that I could, but it just wouldn’t be nearly as much of a priority as it would be under difference circumstances.
So under which conditions does the camera really matter most? When can your choice in camera literally make or break your final product? In my opinion, it’s in the exact opposite scenario to what I described above – in completely uncontrolled situations. When you don’t have access to ideal locations, aren’t shooting using proper lighting kits, or are struggling with any number of other common challenges, you really need to rely on your camera to do a lot of the heavy lifting. And let’s face it, for most of us shooting in uncontrolled environments is much more common than shooting under ideal conditions, making the camera choice on a small/indie level even more important than on a larger scale production in some respects.
Why It’s So Important
Imagine a situation where you need to shoot a night scene in an outdoor parking lot with nearly no lighting, and you are shooting guerrilla style. It goes without saying that you won’t be able to use lights since you need to shoot discreetly, and even if you are using extremely fast lenses (F1.4 or below let’s assume), you will likely still need to bump up your ISO/ASA to a very high level in order to get enough exposure on your talent. This means that you really do need to rely on your camera to perform because the other tools that you should have available to you as a DP, either aren’t available or aren’t going to cut it.
In the end you will need to choose a camera that will allow you to basically shoot in the dark, and that in itself will narrow your camera choice down significantly. In this scenario, it isn’t necessarily going to be the most expensive camera that is the right camera for the job… For instance, you might be tempted to shoot this scene on a RED Dragon or another similar high end cinema camera if you have access to one, but in actuality a Dragon wouldn’t perform well in these conditions. REDs aren’t meant to be pushed like that in low light, and certainly can’t compete with cameras like the Sony A7S or Canon C300, which can shoot at unbelievably high ISO’s with little noise or grain. The point being that it isn’t always about choosing the most expensive or highest end camera, but rather the camera that best suits your challenges on set.
In another scenario, the lighting itself might not be a problem (let’s say you’re shooting outside on an overcast day), but you might have a small crew and only a couple of hours with your talent to shoot a few pages, meaning you need to work very quickly while staying light on your feet. Once again, your camera choice is going to matter the most since your lighting is more or less taken care of for you (by the sun/clouds), and you have enough space outside to use any number of lenses and still get the exposure/DOF that you’re after since you aren’t fighting low light or shooting in a tight space.
The challenge here isn’t so much getting the images to look great, it’s being able to capture those images efficiently and fluidly while battling the challenges of shooting in this type of set up. In this case you probably wouldn’t want to use a large cinema camera as it would likely require an AC/Focus Puller, would need media cards to be switched out more frequently, and would generally take much longer to manage on set, meaning you wouldn’t be able to shoot as much coverage. If you choose a more nimble camera (like a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, DSLR) or a slightly larger camera that is still easy to manage (AJA CION, FS700), you would be able to get more shots in the can that you might have otherwise not been able to get to if you were too bogged down with a more cumbersome camera.
Sometimes It’s Not You…It’s The Camera.
We have all heard it a million times before – “It’s not the camera that matters most, it’s who’s behind it,” and obviously this sentiment is true. With that said though, it’s worth noting that even the best DP would not be able to produce their best work when shooting with a tool that isn’t conducive to their project. There are only so many tools that we have as DPs (the camera being one of the biggest), and as we lose access to some of the tools in our kit (notably lighting and lens choice), we need the remaining tools that we do have to work overtime in order to compensate.
Last weekend I was shooting an art film that largely fell into one of the scenarios that I described above. We were shooting with no permits, had very little time on set, and were working with a tiny crew. While I had considered many options for shooting this piece – ranging from using my GH4 to renting an Alexa, I ended up going with a RED Epic as it was small enough (even rigged up) to allow for a fast turn around between setups, and it had enough dynamic range to keep me comfortable shooting under the harsh sunlight, without much on set light control. I had also considered the BMCC, but I needed high frame rates in the end so I went with the Epic. Overall, I was really impressed with how the camera performed on the day, and other than having to reload media often (since we were shooting on very high frame rates on small 64gb redmags), there was nothing to complain about.
On this shoot, the camera really came through for me. The Epic allowed me to push things just a bit further than I should have both on set and in post, and ultimately produced some really nice images given the circumstances. Had I shot this on my GH4, it just wouldn’t have been the same. And no, I’m not comparing the $1700 GH4 with the RED Epic, but I am making the point that despite what we like to think… The camera really does matter – especially in cases like this.
I very much believe that in most circumstances lighting, framing, lenses, coloring, and other key factors are far more important than the camera itself. The more tools that you have in your kit (including your own working knowledge of the craft), the less you need to rely on having a more powerful camera to save you in tough situations. But sometimes when you’re gearing up for a shoot and you know things are going to be challenging enough as it is, it’s worth going out and renting/borrowing a more appropriate cinema camera that will allow you to have a bit more wiggle room on set, even if it isn’t the easiest choice to make.