Pro video blog…Produced by Philip Johnston DoP/Editor

Before I start on my soap box can I just start by saying that I have not spoken to any camcorder designers in the making of this blog.

So to the burning question “Who decides on the specifications of a camera while its on the drawing board” ?  Its become patently obvious over the last year or so that those who design camcorders are not the same people who use or need them !

Lets have a look at Sony’s four large sensor camcorders to appear over the last fifteen months or so…

Here is the best of the bunch, the Sony PMW-F3 in action, now this camera is superb in low light, produces fantastic pictures but has two immediate failings…it only shoots 35Mbps onto SxS cards and the viewfinder is appalling.

WHO designed the F3, why was the decision taken to run the camera at HD news resolution (35Mbps) when the camera was clearly designed to take over from the likes of the 750 with 35mm adapter. This camera would have sold twice the amount had it produced 50Mbps from day one.

Secondly WHO designes a £15K camcorder with such an appalling viewfinder, forcing every camera operator to spend a further 1-2K on an external viewfinder like a Zacuto EVF or the Alphatron EVF.

This camera came out just over a year ago and still no sign of a 50Mbps model, anyone who uses the current camera in HD television production is forced to use an external HD recorder in order to achieve full HD TV specification which is why Sony have lost a ton of sales to the Canon C300 which I may add is far from perfect but does cut the 50Mbps mustard.

Den Lennie and Alister Chapman are the only two cameramen I know who have been in a pre production meeting with Sony engineers and the outcome was the NEX-FS100 which came out just under a year ago.

Even with two very accomplished cameramen giving Sony their ideas, they still managed to get it wrong…again…No ND filters, a compromised viewfinder/LCD design, no HD-SDI socket and only one media slot.

The FS100 which I personally owned for six months was a very good camera with an excellent quiet picture and a cinematic look to die for but you had to work twice as hard to get those dreamlike pictures with vari filters and external EVFs.

Den Lennie seen above loves his FS100 so much so that he compares it to a 16mm Bolex cinematic camera, “It’s the Bolex of today”.

My good friend Frank Glencairn filming with the FS700 the son of the FS100, this has to one of Sony’s best kept secrets but a strange move to update the FS100 in less than 8 months.

Sony by this time are haemorrhaging sales to the Canon C300 and need to bring out a stop gap camera hence the 250 frames per second super slow mo full HD FS700 with a 4K firmware updatable chip set.

Once again no dual media slot and a compromised viewfinder/LCD, as you can see above Frank does not even use the FS700s LCD.

Never seen a FS700 in the flesh so I can’t comment on picture quality but I have it in authority that its slightly noisier than the FS100 due to the 4K chip.

Here we have Sony’s large sensor (LS) camera number four the new NEX-EA50, finally a camera that looks like a traditional camcorder, this camera isn’t due till November 2012 but it is the first LS camcorder with a servo zoom “E” mount lens…fantastic.

A viewfinder/LCD that is in the correct position…fantastic.

Semi shoulder mount, dual XLR inputs, picture profiles, gain switch but Sony decide to down scale the chip from the preferred Super 35mm (FS100/700) to the APS-C as featured on the domestic Sony VG-20. We all know the EA50 is not aimed at the top end but it would it not be better to have as many sales as possible than restrict it to the event side of the business.

Sony also decide to omit ND filters which has been proven by many a cameraman/woman to be almost critical in achieving a shallow depth of field in bright filming conditions.

You see my dilemma, Sony for some reason keep compromising their large sensor cameras when they now have plenty of feedback from blogs like this who keep telling them where they are going wrong.

Why produce a camera like the EA50 and compromise it with an known sensor that produces moire patterning and worst of all totally ignore the professional video community by leaving off ND filters, yet again !

Sony are more than capable with cracking camcorders like the very popular PMW-500, the defacto HD camcorder for HD television documentary work running at the magical 50Mbps, this camera was produced on the back of the ever popular PMW-350 which I owned and loved.

So why on earth are we getting a string of LS camcorders that never reach the perfect PMW-500 Gold Standard, only Sony know this one, but you can be assured that we will see a 50Mbps F3 sometime soon and hopefully with a Hi-Rez viewfinder that swivels up and down as seen on the EA50.

Panasonic (AF101) and Canon (C300) are not much better but as Sony seem to be on a large sensor roll they are the easiest of all three companies to compare with the fourth model on its way.

So if you are a large sensor camcorder designer who just happens to live in Japan…stop producing cameras that just fall short of perfect, all you do is compromise your manufacturers ability to make plenty of Yen or worse still, hand over plenty of Yen to a competitor !…listen to us…the people who use your design !!!

Professional people need professional tools to work with lets turn it on it’s head…I have now been appointed as the new IT specialist for Sony camera design, so lets start with a 14″ SVG display panel for all your CAD work and a PC with 2G ram, a basic graphics card with 50GB of hard drive space…now you start to see how constricting our side of the fence is when it comes to LS video cameras.


Having been working in the video business since 1988 I have amassed a great amount of knowledge of both the kit and production values over the last 30 years.

19 thoughts on “Camcorder Design PART ONE “Where do they get their ideas from”

  1. I have a Pansonic HMC81 and an AF101 and am looking for a third camera which is basically as you have specced (hopefully a new Panasonic unit [AF200] – currently looking at a HPX250 or HPX371 but keeping an eye on the future!

  2. I think the reason that Sony have not produced a camera with those specs is purely commercial rather than incompetence.

    About 18 months I wrote a blog post speculating that the ‘perfect’ video camera might be just around the corner:‘perfect’-video-camera-is-tantalisingly-close/

    It hasn’t happened and I don’t think it ever will. Sony have a vast empire built on the strategic release of products that are carefully tailored to markets and price points according to a very sophisticated matrix of features/price relationships.

    Sony must think that it’s better to have lots of flawed products that collectively sell huge numbers – spreading risk – than a few ‘perfect’ products, even if the numbers are similar.

  3. Sorry Andy I don’t agree with this ethos, as a professional I give my customers 100% satisfaction, not 70% because I could not be bothered.
    Times are hard, Sony more than ever need that extra Yen in their pockets so by bringing out a lot of flawed products gives the end user the wrong message…”DON’T BUY SONY” That’s not what I want nor many seasoned professionals, we love Sony products as I said before you should alway strive to give your customer the very best you have to offer and so far, this has not happened.
    You only have to look at Apple to see how to get it right.

  4. Apple are surely a bad example here. Look how they messed up spectacularly with the release of FCP X and how they launched their “new” Mac pro to a wave of criticism.

  5. I don’t agree with Sony’s thinking either – but I’m trying to find a rationale for it.

    It’s not rocket science to come up with great specs for a LS camera, we can all do it on the back of an envelope in 2 minutes – so there has to be a reason why it does not exist at a reasonable price and it can only be that Sony’s view of the market is different from ours.

    The commercial considerations of running a company like Sony are of course very different to a companies like yours or mine – they don’t need, or perhaps even want, to give 100% (and neither do Apple – try their customer service!) they give us what they want to give us which is not the same as what we want. I wish it were different…

  6. I was about to buy an FS100 but the lack of NDs etc made me buy the AF101 and was pleased that I did.

    Hopefully Panasonic’s next camera will be a FS700 beater!

  7. Well, everybody has a different idea, what the “perfect camera design” should be. You can’t please all, unless you sell a super modular camera construction kit, so everybody can build his dream camera. I – for example – never liked viewfinders and prefer monitors.I don’t care much about size or wight. But I do want 10but SDI out, prefer buttons over menus – things like that. Since I never could (or would, even if I could) afford an Alexa, the Kineraw comes closest to my ideal camera, in the moment – the mileage of others will vary.

  8. Hi Frank, good to hear from you, although your advice is sound I still think it cant be difficult for the likes of Sony to give us a large sensor camera with my 8 points as mentioned. Everyone knows we get this ducking and diving from manufacturers but Canon has proved that be giving us the specs and 50Mbps we will buy and Canon have taken a lot of Yen off Sony with their XF305 and C300 cameras.
    The F3 could have gone to the ball but her Mbps were only a size 35 but the C300 fitted perfectly with a size 50 !

  9. Your list of 8 is reasonable and it matches my top 8 however….here is my wee 2 pence worth.

    There is a good precedent for finding out when we will get a LS video camera that ticks almost all of your 8 boxes. Just look at the 1/3 inch chip camera market. Finally we have in the Panasonic AG-HPX250 (except for a proper viewfinder in the right place) a mature camera at a reasonable price.
    That happened incrementally.

    I don’t think any of this is right either but I’m a cameraman not a marketing expert. I used to get pissed off at poor camera design (especially no useable viewfinder in the right place) but got over it (a bit) when someone explained to me that all manufacturers are in the business of making more profitable and important than satisfying the few that have a clue.
    It’s unfortunately not reasonable to expect that a broadcast quality camera that does tick all your boxes should be on the shelves for under $5K or even $10K. So why is the Panasonic AG-HPX250 priced at around $5K? Because it’s reached the end of it’s maturing process. The big 3 have milked the small chip HD camera market for all it’s worth and they’re now concentrating on milking other areas of the market – like 3D, 4K and LS.
    The other point is that the big 3 are all competing but they also pretty much know what each other are up to. They make sure that technology is fed out to the consumer slowly to make the most of it. No point coming out with an F65 for $15K and that’s it. You get the idea.
    What annoys me more is that smaller camera manufacturers haven’t figured out how to trump the bigger competition. Even BMD could design a fantastic LS camera but instead chose not to. Why?

    And what about the F65? It’s cheaper than the standard def. Betacam I shot on in the 80’s. So when 4K and 8K cameras are all the rage but minus a proper viewfinder, time to pick up an F65 for $15K. Sad but true.

  10. The Panasonic HPX250 is a good example to choose except that it relies on P2 cards and although very good is also 1/3″. P2 will never be accepted till we get micro P2 adapters which Panasonic are dragging their heals to bring out next year.
    Panasonic is the perfect example of bringing out a solid state camera system that very few cameramen/women take up because of the stupid price of P2 cards.
    Solid state has bottomed off at about £80 for a CF 32G card and very few of us are willing to spend £400 for 32G P2 when we all know a P2 card is 2 x SDHC cards with a small controller inside.

  11. Just to be clear. I used the HPX250 and 1/3 inch to help explain the reasoning behind camera design, development and marketing not as a direct reference to your list of 8.

    As for P2. It’s a broadcast standard embraced by national broadcasters where reliability is bought at a premium. I agree that P2 is too expensive – especially when you learn that a P2 card is simply 4 SD cards soldered inside a casing.

    I believe the reason we’re talking about this at all is because the gap between a camera that ticks all 8 points you outlined (broadcast)and a prosumer camera, has narrowed over the last 10 years. Broadcasters pay a premium for reliable gear with proper viewfinders in the right place and an accepted codec. That’s why the FS100, FS700, EX1, EX3, F3 and anything else under $20K don’t tick all your 8 boxes.

    One other thought. When you post these topics it’s evident that many people understandably reply with comments that reflect their individual requirements. If there isn’t a perfect camera for everyone, then maybe that explains the reason for the extraordinary range of models (none of which is perfect for you and me)

    The bottom line is that the big 3 can of course build a camera that satisfies your top 8 for under $10K – but they won’t.

  12. I hope that some small company(like Bolex) could buy the right parts for a LS cam and build their own. I dont care about the Sony label on the camcorder. Just give us a *no name* smart cam. We also know that it is possible to build a complete cam with the FS100 price.
    So what is the problem with that huge Japanese corporations?

  13. i bought the fs100, sold it to get the af101, then rebought the fs100 after a while. i loved the nd’s on the af101 at first, but the image just doesn’t compare to the fs100. and with some ingenuity you can make the fs100 less un-ergonomic, e.g. using the xoom magnetic filter system. but all in all i agree with philip completely that sony’s designs, all so close and yet all with some kind of fatal flaw, are baffling and ridiculous.

  14. Sony must think that it’s better to have lots of flawed products that collectively sell huge numbers – spreading risk – than a few ‘perfect’ products, even if the numbers are similar.

    — Exactly. The only way to change their ways is through competition, so that Sony simply loses out to other companies. Unfortunately, as a whole, the industry takes this strategy. Every product has some kind of fatal flaw (the C300 its high price, the AF100 its sensor size and image quality, the F3 the onboard codec and viewfinder, etc).

  15. Fair enough.
    But I think there is an obsession going on to have a “one-does-it-all-self-contained” camera. Something that swapped over from the DSLR guys. Have you ever heard of a film camera that comes with a battery or build in ND filters? If you coming from film, those things don’t bother you. If you come from shooting video with photo cameras or ENG work, it’s a different game. Now all that mixes up and everyone has different wishes. That’s why I think, a super modular camera – think of a box with user-swappable sensors, and other boxes with other functions that attach to it (yes a bit like RED, but more sophisticated)plus an open software/firmware – that’s the future. At least I wish it would be the future. Build a camera to your need, money, budget, and job. That would be cool.

    And yeah, Sony would be absolutely able to make your 8 point camera – I never understood the way they design those things. Probably some bean counters have too much too say.

  16. You are absolutely correct in your assessment of the current Sony camera lack of design, and total lack of input by actual field users.

    I gave up, I bought a Red Scarlet and a Red Epic. They are great, well designed, and not crippled.

    I still own a 700 and an EX3, and I do hold out hoe that the F3 replacement will have a removable viewfinder, and decent recording specs… but given their track record they will cripple it in some way to protect the F65.

    Vote with your wallet, and buy tools from companies that listen.

  17. Thanks for another thoughtful article. I completely agree with the minimum specs list.
    I have always owned ENG-style cameras and somehow managed to skip the DSLR “revolution.”
    I bought the F3 based on the quality of the images but not fully appreciating how the camera would be an ergonomic challenge. I remember vaguely thinking at the time that a few relatively inexpensive bits from zacuto would set things right. I donated several hundred dollars to zacuto before I finally gave up. In the end, I probably spent about $6K just to get the camera configured to where I can now operate it efficiently and in a way that works for me. And even now I would only call it workable compromise. My point? I would have gladly handed Sony that additional $6K for an F3 that was designed to go from shoulder to tripod with a click and have a real VF with enough resolution to actually focus with. I would have been happy to pile on some extra dough for better recording rates and less compression. So what was Sony thinking? It’s obvious Sony feels it has to protect the higher CineAlta line by crippling the recording quality of the F3. So then was the F3 just an effort to lure DSLR shooters (many who could not appreciate the thoughtful design of traditional ENG-style camera) to the next level with a product that’s better in that it only sucks slightly less to use than what they were using? I understand the concept of market segmentation, but where’s the middle ground in the large sensor segment? Say at the $30-35K level? Shouldn’t there be a improved product there?
    Perhaps the rumored 4K F5 might be exactly what I’m waiting for. Call me a “glass half empty guy” but my bet is that it will be the same crappy shell with a new sensor and badge. Dear God, I hope I’m wrong…

    Oh…and the C300. More packaging wickedness from the evil scientists that invented the satanic semi-shoulder mount camera. Don’t get me started…Cheers-

  18. The BIG problem for me, coming from a motion picture background (not video), is ergonomics. I don’t want a Bolex that I have to hold in front of me, I want an Aaton that sits on my shoulder. If I have to spend additional money on a Kludge Kage, I ain’t buying. Simple as that.

    For me, NDs have always been put on the front of a lens. All cameras from Arri to Panavision used either retangular matt box or round screw-on filters.

    Give me an Eclair ACL (with 200″ mag) sized Pro Digital Cine camera with a Super 16 sized sensor and I’d be happy.

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