In this extended essay, I’ll go into detail on my decision to invest heavily in a cinema camera, and the pros and cons related to the purchase.
I was a high school quarterback. I realize that is an odd rather Al Bundy style way to begin a photography article, but hear me out for a second. As a quarterback, one thing you have to learn how to do is hit a moving target. Sure, it’d be nice if the receivers just stood still in one spot and you could just gently lob the football to them underhand, but on the actual field of battle that’s not exactly how it works. Not only do receivers have to run full speed in varying directions just to get free of their defenders, but the higher the level of competition, the more likely it is that you will be throwing the ball before the receiver even “comes out of their break.” In other words, you have to guess what move the receiver will make, before he makes it, based on the terrain, the receiver, and the situation. In essence, you are throwing blind.
I make that comparison because running your business, especially a photography business with constantly changing technology, can be a bit like trying to throw a pass before a receiver has come out of his break. You think you know where he will go. But you’re never completely sure until it actually happens. Sometimes you guess right and the play goes for a touchdown. Sometimes you forget to account for the free safety, throw an interception, and end up with egg on your face.
Buying a new camera system can be just as risky of a decision. Make the right call and you end up being paid back tenfold. Make the wrong decision, and you find yourself still needing to solve the same problem a year later but with far less money in your bank account.
Knowing this, I took my time before deciding to take the plunge to move up from shooting video on my DSLR to venture into the world of cinema cameras. What follows is a lengthy, but thorough trip through the arduous decision process.
Why I Needed a New Camera
First, a little background. I am a commercial photographer and director specializing in the lifestyle, fitness, and activewear markets. My primary revenue stream comes from large brands commissioning me to create stills and video for their products that will be used to market products through their various advertising channels. Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a significant uptick in the number of clients that want me to provide both still and motion (video) content as part of the assignments.
My background is in filmmaking, so this is great news for me. But, over the years, my personal gear closet has decidedly shifted from movie making equipment to still photography equipment. So, to fulfill the briefs, that means that I would need to either continue renting equipment for the production or invest in upgrading the video portion of my equipment room to match demand.
I started 2018 with only a Nikon D800. This had been my trusty still photography sidearm for almost six years and it continued to put out great files that my clients were more than happy with. The only downside was that it produced 1080p video at 24 fps. And for 60 fps, it went even further down to 720p. While 1080p is still adequate for many situations, the term 4K has hit enough of a saturation mark by this point that it was pretty clear it would become something my clients expected. With the D850 being released, and capable of 4K at 24 fps, it seemed to be a logical upgrade for a lifelong Nikonian looking to make an incremental improvement for motion.
I’ve written a lot about the D850, so won’t repeat myself again here, but, suffice to say, the still images coming from the system were amazing and the video was terrific as well. But the D850 is clearly a still camera first. And while the video works, the system overall is not really aimed at hybrid shooters.
You can make it work, and I did so on multiple assignments in early 2018, but it’s not ideal. For starters, the continuous autofocus in video is basically non-existent. I fully realize that serious cinematographers consider autofocus to be sacrilege. But when you often find yourself working as a one-man band without the aid (or budget for) 1st ACs or focus pullers, trying to operate a gimbal mounted DSLR without autofocus can be limiting. You can zonally focus, but that puts certain restrictions on how far you can or can’t be from your subjects as well as your options in terms of depth of field.
The other aggravation I was experiencing while doing both stills and motion on the same shoot was constantly changing my settings as I moved back and forth between mediums. Shutter speeds, 180-degree shutters, ND filters, frame rates. All of these things must be taken into account when trying to create smooth cinematic motion. But my desired video settings are unlikely to match my desired still settings. So, with the need to move quickly in many cases, switching back and forth with one camera body, I found I would occasionally forget to change a setting here or a setting there. The footage was still usable, but not exactly what I wanted. Worse, the mental energy expended switching back and forth was slowing my workflow and taking me out of “the zone” from a creativity standpoint.
This lead to a problem that I felt needed addressing. I needed at least two camera bodies. One setup for stills. One setup for video. That way, rather than having to de-rig and change settings between mediums, I could simply put down one camera and pick up another knowing that it was already setup the way I like. This would allow me to shoot both stills and video while reducing downtime and decreasing the mental gymnastics required when using one system.
But what should be the second camera? Buying another D850 would have its perks. I could share accessories between my still and motion body. I am already heavily invested in Nikon lenses over the years so it would be the most natural solution. But, again, this wouldn’t really solve my autofocus problem. And, if I was going to invest money in a second system just for video, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in a system purpose built for video? But Nikon didn’t have a system with truly advanced video features (this is prior to the announcement of the Z 6), which meant that I would be forced for the first time in years to look outside of the Nikon universe.
What Were My Options?
I considered several options. My first option was to try and use my already owned Fujifilm X-T2 as the motion body. I’d already fallen in love with it as my go-to still camera for pretty much all things not shot for advertising clients. And I was looking for ways to include it more in the rotation. But Fuji had yet to take the monumental leap in video that would eventually take place with the X-T3 (not yet announced at the time), so I continued my search.
I’d heard all kinds of good things about the Panasonic GH5 and GH5S. I’ll admit to being a bit hesitant about the Micro Four Thirds sensor, but the in-body image stabilization and filmmaker focus were appealing. I even went so far as to price out a system. But since I was starting from scratch, without any lenses or accessories, I started realizing that this “lower cost” option was still not going to come all that cheap.
There was also the other elephant in the room. Looking at the projects shot by other directors in my field to get a sense of what some of my favorite filmmakers were using to lens their own projects, the names that would constantly come up would be the Arri Alexas and RED Cameras of the world. As certain clients were beginning to ask for those cameras specifically, I would rent them for each project. Clearly this approach makes the most financial sense as there is no initial investment or overhead expense to me personally. The rental route is the way a great many successful photographers run their business and it was a valid option as well.
The only downside to the rental approach is that you may limit your familiarity with a certain piece of gear. I credit one of the main reasons why I was able to improve as a photographer as being the fact that prices on digital cameras had come down enough for me to own one. Because I owned my Nikon, I could shoot with it whenever I wanted. No trips to the rental house. No need for rental fees every time I wanted to shoot.
Owning removed mental blocks that may have prevented me from spending the necessary time improving my craft. Even if it would be cheaper overall to rent, my mind would always associate the act of shooting with spending money on rentals. It seems illogical, but if knowing every time I wanted to shoot I needed to spend money, it would likely lead to me shooting less. Shooting less would mean that I’m improving less. Shooting less would also mean that I am less familiar with my equipment. In other words, owning my camera freed me to use it as many times as I could find subjects to shoot. I wasn’t only limited to shooting on days clients had assignments (and budgets), but I could shoot for myself, for practice, or just because. All of this unpaid work, made possible simply because I already had the tool in hand, made me a better photographer when the paid jobs came along.
It was that type of thinking that leaned me in the direction of getting a video system I could own. Something I could shoot with all the time and get to know like the back of my hand. That way, when called upon to use it on set, the technical aspects would get out of the way, and the creativity could step to the forefront.
Of course, if you’ve ever shopped for a cinema camera like an Arri or a RED, you’ll likely see that there is a slight difference in prices between them and a DSLR. Like six figures versus four. No matter how badly I wanted to own my gear, there was no way I could justify that expense.
The sticker shock momentarily resigned me once again to the rental route. But even renting a minimal Arri package was going to cost me a great deal. Hard to justify when creating any personal projects or any spec work that would be aimed at generating new business, but not necessarily have an immediate direct revenue return. Rental rates seem to have dropped precipitously throughout 2018, likely due to the growth of equipment sharing services like ShareGrid, but at the time the rental rates remained prohibitive.
But, after all this searching, my problem persisted. I still needed a second body. I still had clients that were asking for video and often expecting to see a cinema camera on set. So, what would be my solution?
Enter the Canon C200.
Why I Choose the Canon C200
It may not have the prestige of Arri or RED. It’s not even the top cinema camera in the Canon line, as a matter of fact. But after a lot of research, I realized that it would tick off a number of boxes on my list of needs.
First, it is purpose built for filmmaking. Specifically, it is built with a lone operator in mind. It has all the necessary ports and caging to be built up into a major rig when blessed with a large crew. Large XLR inputs for the sound team to plug in. Monitoring options for ACs and producers. The ability to apply LUTs on site so that everyone can be on the same page with what is being captured visually. But it is equally at home in the hand of a lone wolf.
It shoots Canon RAW Light. This is basically exactly what it sounds like. It brings the raw functionality of the still world that many of us are accustomed to into the video world. So adjusting basics like exposure or white balance in post remain an option in the event that you’ve made a mistake or two on set.
The autofocus is smooth and effective. It allows me to move around a moving subject with my camera and know that they will remain in focus. It also has built in autofocus speed adjustments. Paired with a touchscreen that allows touch-to-focus, this can create a smooth focus rack from one subject to another somewhat akin to what you might get from a human focus puller. It always going to be better of course to have a full-time focus puller manually focusing your lens. But that’s not always an option and the C200 makes one heck of an assistant.
The audio options are one of the main advancements over shooting with a DSLR. As any filmmaker knows, your sound is often just as important if not more so than your imagery. DSLRs are notorious for poor internal audio. As a result, I have always recorded audio to a separate Tascam recorder on set. I’ll plug my boom mic or wireless system via XLR inputs into the recorder, then link the two in Premiere during post. It works well and improves audio significantly even if it requires an additional step.
The C200 simplifies this by building a robust audio recorder as well as two XLR inputs into the body of the C200 itself. I can mount my boom into one and my wireless receiver into the other and I am off and running. Even better, I am a able to control the level of my audio inputs independently.
One of the best tricks when using the camera is to record a safety track simultaneously. There are 4 internal tracks to record to in-camera. So, if, for example, I have a boom mic plugged in, I will record that audio to both tracks 1 and 2. But, for track two, I will reduce the level by a couple decibels. That way, when I get back to do my audio mix, I will have one audio track that is identical to the other by slightly lower. So, if I have accidentally clipped any of my audio on the louder track, I will already have a safe track from which to pull from.
As for the video itself, the files are beefy 4K files up to 60 fps. Shooting in raw 4K in Canon Log 3, the retrievable dynamic range of the video is nothing short of amazing. A lot is said about what makes an image “cinematic.” For me, dynamic range is number one on that list. And the C200 has plenty to spare.
For non-raw recording, it records in 4:2:0 internal as opposed to 4:2:2. This is how Canon differentiates the pricing between this and some of its higher-end models. But I’ve honestly never felt the difference. Besides, if you really want 4:2:2, you can always mount an Atmos recorder to the system and record in 4:2:2 ProRes for the added benefit.
More often than not, I find myself just whipping the camera out of its case by the top handle and shooting with its most basic components. I appreciate that this built-like-a-tank system is able to function in both ideal conditions and when time is running short and you just need to snatch and grab footage where you can. I am not a documentarian, but I imagine this camera would be an ideal rig for someone in that situation. Able to generate quality material in a variety of shooting scenarios. I haven't even touched on the built-in 6-stop ND filters which make fine tuning exposure when shooting on a sunny day incredibly expedient and gives you one less accessory to have to carry in your bag.
And, while recording internal raw to CFast cards can take up plenty of storage space, the camera also has dual SD card slots built in to optionally record straight 4K files as well. This is a major bonus if you need a space saving option. Essentially, it is two cameras in one; a cinema camera with raw for people who want to do extensive grading in post, and a documentary camera for people who need to shoot a lot of footage with as little fuss possible.
This functionality and flexibility are some of the main reasons I opted to purchase a Canon C200. It also didn’t hurt that, compared to the more expensive cinema camera options that started around $80,000 (with necessary accessories), this camera with a lens came in just south of $10,000. That’s not chump change. But, it’s doable. And with Canon running a lease to buy program at the time, it became all the more affordable.
Was It the Right Decision?
But was it a good investment? That is a larger and more difficult question. Similar to throwing a pass before a receiver comes out of their break, the wisdom of the decision will depend on how things eventually play out. With the initial buying euphoria having worn off, and over six months of having the camera in my arsenal, here are a few observations. Keep in mind these observations are based on my particular needs, circumstances, and preferences. They may or may not apply to you. You’ll need to gage these benefits and drawbacks based on your own situation.
While many DSLRs are capable of 4K video, the dynamic range offered by C200 sensor does add a bit of density to the image. It just feels more substantial when compared with footage shot on my DSLR side-by-side. This is likely due to the increase in dynamic range. Of course, this is also subjective. So, it’s something I can feel when looking at the footage, but maybe not explain in mathematical terms. I’ve seen side-by-side comparisons where some complain that the C200 images are “soft” compared to some DSLRs. Personally, I think that they just have less contrast. I like this. I think this “softness” is what makes the images feel more cinematic. You may not.
It should also be pointed out that buying a cinema camera doesn’t make you a better cinematographer. Interestingly enough, I’ve learned a number of tricks shooting with the Canon C200 that I have then applied to shooting with my DSLR. These tricks have made my DSLR footage look monumentally better than it did a year ago. Of course, that begs the question. If I had just learned these tricks earlier, could I have just done a better job of making due with the equipment I already had, or gotten away with investing in a less expensive system? Hindsight is 20/20.
Speaking of expense, the C200 is one of the most affordable options in the cinema camera market. It is not, however, cheap. You can, in fact, get a complete system from under $10,000. But, keep in mind, that, like many systems, you are going to need/want to spend a good bit more on accessories to be ready for production. Basic things like memory cards (CFast card are very expensive, like very) and stabilizers (you’re going to want at least a sturdy tripod with a fluid head versus a flimsy photography tripod) will add onto your initial costs. So, prior to purchasing, make sure to run all the numbers and not just the cost of the camera. What's your shooting style? Are you a gimbal person? Can your current gimbal handle the weight of the C200 fully built or are you going to need to buy another gimbal?
Costs are, of course, just one of the considerations you have to take into account when making a purchasing decision.
Who are your clients? Are they large companies accustomed to seeing Arri Alexas on set? Or are your clients brides and small businesses that won’t bat an eye if you shoot their assignment with a DSLR?
Do you need to plug other departments into your system, or will you be the only one reviewing the footage? The main advantage of a cinema camera versus a DSLR is that it is expandable. You can build it up to service and entire production. Smaller DSLRs are built to be small. They physically don’t have the same ports and interfaces as a cinema camera. So, if you try to plug a 50 person crew into a small mirrorless camera, you may find yourself short on real estate. Again, this depends on the shooting environment in which you will find yourself.
Is there a less expensive option for your purpose? Buying equipment for a photography business versus buying equipment for personal use requires additional calculus. How much bang will you get for your buck?
I have to compare the costs of system with the revenue generated as a result of having the system. This is further complicated by the fact that every client is different. Having this system in-house allows me to offer a high level of service to my customers, and often even charge my customers for "renting" my own equipment back to the production. But just because you have a cinema camera, doesn't mean the client will want to go with it. I've have clients specify that they want to shoot on an Alexa Mini at a minimum. So, even though I own a cinema camera already, I may still need to rent additional gear anyway.
There are ways to reduce the costs of ownership. For one, you could look to rent out the camera when it is not in use. While I haven’t taken advantage of this option, having a complete production package that I own also allows me the option of renting my gear to other local productions which further alleviates the pain of the initial investment and can eventually pay off the costs of the camera.
Of course, this option has grown a bit less effective in the past year. With the influx of gear sharing site, the rental costs you can get in return for the risks have decreased. Additionally, the rental costs for the more upscale systems like the Arri or the RED have also decreased. This means that the cost of foregoing ownership for a rental structure has altered as well.
Had I known that rental prices would decrease to the point they have, or that a number of options in the DSLR market would be introduced in 2018 that may not match, but at least rival, the features of my C200 I may have made another decision as well. Now that I’ve added a Fujifilm X-T3 to my lineup, I find myself opting for that camera in some smaller shooting situations, as a B camera, or for use on gimbals. The image quality isn’t an exact match for my C200, but it’s pretty darn good and comes in at about one-tenth of the cost with terrific autofocus options and the choice to connect an Atmos recorder and get 4:2:2 color.
At the end of the day, you can never know the future before making a decision in the present. You have to throw the pass before the receiver comes out of the break. But the Canon C200 has performed its duties with aplomb, taking my video to the next level while offering me the flexibility to shoot fast and effectively when producing both stills and motion to meet growing client demand.