New video camera concepts introduced this summer by Canon and Sony, and coming to market soon from RED Camera, signal the first major transformation in news cameras since the introduction of the groundbreaking Sony VX1000 more than 15 years ago.
Not only do camera prices keep falling, but the new models are hybrids that can simultaneously record both full-motion video and high-resolution still images.
"At TV stations, the old news model is pretty much dead. The producer, the cameraman and the editor have all merged into one person. Stations are now ditching their Betacams," said Dirck Halstead, a veteran photographer who, for 29 years, covered the White House for Time.
Halstead teaches new techniques to photojournalists throughout the nation with his Platypus Workshops. The 37 workshops so far have trained more than 400 students. He recently returned from the National Press Photographers Association meeting in Charleston, S.C., where he said "Topic A" was discussion of the new generation of cameras for journalism.
The new designs stem from the SLRs with 35mm imagers that now incorporate the ability to record high-definition video.
On one side are the hybrid still/HD video cameras such as the Canon EOS-5D or Mark II and the Nikon D3S. On the other are a new generation of low-cost camcorders. All the gear, fully equipped, is priced under $10,000.
The Canon and Nikon hybrid cameras have full-frame, 35mm-size sensors, which improve low-light capture and permit a shallower depth of field than with a standard video camera. They are increasingly favored by episodic TV producers due to the filmic quality they can produce.
Freelancers, who are rapidly replacing veteran staff news photographers, now favor the Canons and Nikons over traditional video cameras, Halstead said.
"Yet, DSLRs have some real problems in how you hold and use them," he noted. "Once you've outfitted those cameras properly, however, those problems go away."
The more logical thing to do is to reconfigure today's video camera and make it work for stills, Halstead said. "That to me is a more elegant solution."
Canon is on all sides of the trend. In addition to the EOS-5D and Mark II, the most popular full-frame DSLR that shoots 1080p video, it also offers the new XF305 and XF300 traditional camcorders.
Last month, Canon showed a video/still concept camera at the World Expo in Shanghai, China. It was billed the "Wonder Camera," and borrows from RED Camera of Lake Forest, Calif.
RED has worked for two years designing its DSMC, which stands for Digital Stills and Motion Camera. This fully professional camera can shoot still and full-motion, high-resolution video images simultaneously.
The RED concept can serve journalists shooting for TV, newspapers, magazines, websites and mobile applications. RED's system can be scaled — using a wide range of modular accessories — to handle like a ENG camera, DSLR or digital cinema camera.
In creating the camera configuration of choice, the user selects a RED camera "brain," or core component, that varies in resolution from 3K to 28K. From there, displays, eyepieces, grips, mounts and lenses are added to build out the camera's functionality.
RED has announced a 3K resolution "Scarlett" model specifically designed for photojournalism. It will be priced at about $2,500 in basic form and is set for delivery by the end of this year.
Jon Sagud, who is working on the Scarlett development team at RED, said the company sees the new cameras as the merger of still photography and full-motion video. "We have had a huge impact with our higher-end cameras and have a desire to move into a lower-cost market," Sagud said. "We envision Scarlett being the ideal photojournalist's camera."
When the user pulls a still frame from a conventional ENG camera, Sagud said, he will end up with about a 2 megapixel image. From Scarlett, it will be 12 megapixels. "Scarlett is a different animal," he said.
On July 14, Sony introduced the NEX-VG10E, a $2,000 E-mount camcorder that will become the first prosumer HD camcorder to use interchangeable lenses. Based on Sony's NEX line of mirrorless still cameras, it features a 14.6MP APS-sized CMOS sensor capable of recording 1080i video at a 24mbps bitrate.
Significantly, the Sony camera enables a shallow depth of field (like the Canon and Nikon DSLRs) and the ability to take DSLR-quality still images. At its low price, it's hard not to see Sony's new camcorder being used for hybrid applications in TV news.
And the market is moving quickly. Just two days ago, Canon confirmed it is working on a similar mirrorless camera.
Ronald Steinman, a 35-year veteran of NBC News and the network's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War, said the price of high-quality video cameras continues to fall.
"You can get very good camcorders today for $7,000 to $8,000. These are not bad for professional use," Steinman said. "In fact, I've shot footage for documentaries with cameras priced at $400 to $500. If you color correct, it doesn't look half bad. You can do a lot of magic that way. In fact, you can get away with murder."
That is, if the gear is rugged enough for daily use, added PF Bentley, a veteran photographer who has taken images of every major presidential candidate since 1980. "TV news people need gear that can be handled roughly and doesn't break down. It cannot be too delicate to use every day."
RED cameras, he said, "are great, but they are usually used in a motion picture production situation. They don't have the reputation for ‘run and gun' news. We'll see if they are tough enough to hold up."
As for Canon's Wonder Camera prototype, Bentley said that although the camera might do nice video and still images, it is an interlaced, not a progressive frame, camera, and doesn't have convenient manual controls. "It was made to be easy to use," he said. "As a pro, I only use cameras on manual."
Bentley, who also teaches at the Platypus Workshops, said the biggest effect of the revolution in ENG camera technology is it opens opportunities for more journalists to tell better stories with video.
"Some participants in our workshops are stuck in the TV news rut and they want to do better work. They want to change," he said. "They want to move from doing news video to getting a better documentary eye. You have a great many talented news camera operators who do a great job every day, but they now want to take it to the next level."
The problem that TV videographers have in adopting to the new age of journalism is they spend days aggregating content that must be sliced and diced to fit into 30-second or 1:30 segments, Halstead said.
"We are training for storytelling. That's a whole different proposition. Many of our people currently do better stories than the TV people do. It's not that the TV people are less gifted, but they run from pillar to post getting everything they need to make that 6:30 target. Storytellers are much less concerned with that. That is new," he said.
Historically, news footage was shot by still photographers trained to take motion pictures, Halstead said. When ENG took hold in the late 1970s, the baton was passed from photographers to engineers, whose main chore was to keep the early video cameras operating. "What went missing for about 40 years was the eye of the storyteller behind the camera," he said.
Then, in 1995, Sony introduced the VX1000 digital MiniDV camera with three CCD sensors. "That was the crucial breakthrough," Halstead said." The camera manufacturers had absolutely no concept of what they had wrought. It was a total accident. They had no idea that the VX1000 was going to start replacing $50,000 Betacams.
Today, all video is moving toward the Web, which is driving the demand for a new hybrid video camera designs.
"Our world is changing fast," Bentley said. "My motto is to 'evolve or die.' "
Re-published from TVNewsCheck, July 22nd, 2010