Cinematography : Demystifying The Camera by Mark Stolaroff

Mark Stolaroff

Demystifying The Camera

I'm a producer, not a cinematographer. When I choose the camera for my production, I have to take into account a number of factors that a cinematographer doesn't have to consider--cost, ease-of-use, manpower, post workflow, cost (yes, twice!), etc. I attended an excellent seminar a few months ago in Los Angeles by the DP of all those great SNL shorts, Alex Buono. He gave an incredible lecture called "Demystifying The Camera," designed for micro-budget producers like me. It was so terrific, I boiled it down into a blog article. Before you make your next feature, give this a read! http://nobudgetfilmschool.com/demystifying_the_camera.html

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Bruce Alan Greene

Well done!

Andrew Sobkovich

Much of what you say is somewhat at odds with my experience as a Director of Photography. Cost? Like every other DP I know, I have a file full of spreadsheets that I have created and/or modified to fit the budget, time and artistic needs of countless productions. I do the trade-offs of how many people, which gear for how long and how can I create the best images with absolutely minimal expenditure. I do not know who you would have worked with and how they might have given you the impression that DP’s do not have to consider that list of details for our departments. And, seriously, how could “ease-of-use” possibly not be considered by any DP. Please clarify something, first you state that you are “a producer, not a cinematographer.” But then state “When I choose the camera…”. These disparate statements are obviously at odds with each other. If you are not the cinematographer why are you choosing the tools that will be used by the cinematographer? Do you actually choose all of the tools by specifying, lens, filters, lights, lighting filtration, camera support, etc? That is a lot of micro-managing, hope you have the knowledge base. Either trust the DP you have or get a different one. If the camera is not the best choice for a project but the producer says “this picture will be shot on a *** camera, this has an immediate effect. You will loose a portion of the potential people you might want because they do not want to shoot with that camera for whatever reason. If the chosen camera is one that has “fanboys”, the number of people who will refuse will be substantially higher. Isn’t it better to get the knowledge, experience and creativity your project deserves? To do that the choice of cameras should be in the hands of the artist who will bring your pictures to the screen. Nobody else, including the producer, is using the camera to create the images. Micromanaging is a really bad way to run any creative project. Glad you liked the seminar. There is a lot to learn as well as a whole lot of “internet wisdom” (aka utter BS) that has to be forgotten. thanks for posting the link

David Landau

Hi Bruce, not a bad article. It did seem to be a giant sales pitch for Canon. The Sony FS100 is as inexpensive as a D5 or a D7 and give you xlr inputs and interchangeable lens and a 35mm senor and so many other digital cinema functions. Also, its easier to use than the C100 or c300. I'm partial to the Sony cameras and especially like the Sony F3 and F5 (for stills I do own a Canon 60D). I have a friend who has all canon cameras - a 5D and the C100. I've shot with Canon and Sony and Panasonic and JVC. Here's my biggest warning to no-budget filmmakers - don't use any DSLR. They will make your shoots take much longer and you will have a lot of unusable footage that you won't know is unusable until you get it into the editing room. Use a video camera - any video camera. use the a tool that was actually made for what you intend to use it for. I shot a festival short on a 5D, and an internet commercial on a 7D and we lost hours because of the camera functions and because you can't hook up a monitor for the director to view while the operator is looking through the camera. We also had to do a lot of reshooting because while it looked in focus on the tiny DSLR monitor t was out of focus on the editing monitor. And yes, the Ac did use a tape measure and we did use the viewfinder enlargement for focus. but still lenses don't track and DSLRs are made to have extremely shallow depth of field - which more often than not will work against you. In no-budget filming, your biggest challenge is time. Yu have limited time in the location and limited time with the cast. You will save time and money in both the long and the short run if you use a video camera instead of a DSLR or an IPhone. Both will give you picture - but to even getting good enough pictures takes much more time and effort than using a camera made for shooting moving images.

Bruce Alan Greene

David, I own a Canon 5d...mk1, with no video :) Fortunately I've only had to use DSLR video once!

Mark Stolaroff

Hey Andrew, I hear what you're saying. I guess the way I should have put it is, for a DP, perhaps the biggest concern is creative, and while they have to consider budget, it's not ultimately their responsibility all down the chain. I worked with a DP recently, for instance, who insisted on shooting 4:4:4:4, rather than 4:2:2 with an Alexa, not realizing the kinds of difficulties that kind of file created in post, (this was a project with no money for post). The producer has to take the whole chain into consideration. As for the disparate statements, on several no-budget projects I have done, I have asked the DP to use the camera that I own. In those cases I've certainly worked with the DP to get lenses and accessories, mounts, etc. that they prefer, but often the camera decision was made before they were hired. This might sound crazy or at odds with your experience, but it's quite common on very low-budget films. And yes, there are DP's who may not want to work on a project like that. I'm getting ready to shoot another micro-budget feature this summer with very specific needs. I'm exploring what camera I'd like to purchase for it. The director and I will play around with some different cameras to see which ones we like, but to your point, we will probably wait until we hire a DP to have him or her weigh in before we actually make the purchase. And as for micromanaging, I am guilty. I wear a lot of hats on the films I produce, generally. On my film "Pig," which we shot a few years ago, I bought the camera and Letus lens adapter, found the lenses and borrowed items like a matte box and follow focus. And there are a number of shots in the final film that I shot myself. It was just that kind of project. But understand, I agree with what you're saying. And David, it sounds like a sales piece because as I mentioned in the article, Alex gave that presentation at a Canon facility, so there was a focus on Canon cameras. I like the dedicated video cameras too, like the FS100 or the AF100, but often the project and monetary restraints mean you might be forced to shoot with a DSLR. I teach a micro-budget filmmaking class and I have had numerous filmmakers come in as guest speakers who have shot their projects with DSLRs, with very favorable results. I've seen countless feature films shot with these cameras, too. I would recommend a recent 5D film, "Thou Wast Mild And Lovely," which premiered in Berlin last year and looked beautiful. Also check out Alex Karpovsky's "Rubberneck," also shot with the 5D. Looks terrific, and was made for only $20k. It's certainly great to shoot with an F3, but that's a $15k camera. Sean Baker shot his feature "Starlet" with an F3. On his follow up film, "Tangerine", he didn't have the money for that so he shot it with iPhones. That film was a hit at Sundance and was picked up for distribution. You'd have to see the film to understand why the iPhone was the right tool for the job.

Andrew Sobkovich

Thank you for the further information Mark. I felt certain there must be some information here that I missed. All of your examples are of No Budget to Low Budget projects. Any relationship to normal industry practices developed over time with proven efficacy is moot. Do anything to make the project is the only consideration. Sorry, I was speaking of a different much wider range of productions. To just take one of your examples, the issue of 4:4:4:4 versus 4:2:2. Your comment on the DP as “not realizing the kinds of difficulties that kind of file created in post”. That may be the case. However the actual problem may be communication. If the DP was informed that the post house could not work with 4:4:4:4 and still shot that format, that is a problem. Assumptions being made instead of checking. Sadly these things still do happen and will when people with significantly different working modalities and experiences work together. I completely understand both sides here, which are “why would you shoot a format we can’t edit” and “why would you be working with a post house that cannot deal with a very standard professional format from an Alexa”. Assumptions are a bitch.

Mark Stolaroff

Hey Andrew, I should have made it clear that everything I'm talking about is from the context of micro-budget filmmaking. I teach micro-budget filmmaking through something I created called No Budget Film School. So, yes, when there is some money, much if not all of what I said becomes moot--you're probably going to rent a camera at that point and which camera becomes more of a creative rather than budgetary decision, (for the most part). The article I wrote certainly comes at it from that assumption, though it's really more of a quick guide to understanding digital cameras and their features, than a treatise on filmmaking of any style. As for the 4x4 issue, if you're curious, I was involved with this project only peripherally at first, helping the director, who I often work with, with advice, etc. I wasn't attached as a producer at all during production, (I became a full producer once the film went into post and they needed that help). The producers got a deal on an Alexa (though the budget was very low to be shooting on that kind of format), and I was talking to the DP about what format he was going to shoot, and talking to the director about how they were planning to edit it. All the advice I was getting from friends who ran post houses was that it wasn't necessary to shoot 4x4 for this kind of project, (a drama, no f/x), and I knew there wasn't going to be any money for post. Literarily, $0, so there was no post house. The director was going to be editing the film at home on an old Mac Pro. The DP made his case for 4x4 and the director consented. It's only when we got into post, and I became officially the post production supervisor, that we learned to somewhat regret that decision, but it wasn't my call earlier on in the process. We never had the resources to really take advantage of all that latitude, (we shot log, too), and a friend graded the movie at his home for free. It was that kind of project. So, yes, with even a "normal" low budget, you probably wouldn't have to deal with these kinds of issues, but the people who attend my classes usually don't have anything close to a "normal" low budget to work with, so my advice is coming from that perspective.

Andrew Sobkovich

Hi Mark Sounds like the situation just developed and got out of hand and communication just didn't happen. Having a complete workflow for the picture in place and tested all the way through would have revealed the problems. But hindsight is always a good method to find the butts. Oh well. You certainly were part of a lesson learned by a few people. A lesson that none of the involved should ever forget. Please do know that many of us pay attention to things like teamwork on workflow, format and quality but also to who is saying what and why. Image quality necessary is somewhat of a personal judgement. When someone suggests lowered image quality is “good enough” the waving red flags should be followed by lots of questions .

Luca Nervegna

For that reason I've got my own red scarlet.. I don't want producers tells me: we have to use 5d because there's no money.. :)

Mark Stolaroff

Thanks Tanisha, yes it was a great presentation. I think Alex does these somewhat regularly, so I highly recommend catching him when he does it again. I'm a bit of a camera nerd myself and always hear very good things about the GH4--a very versatile camera with excellent picture quality for the price. But you're right, no need to buy a camera until you absolutely need one.

Jeffrey Akers

In the interests of not confusing camera students: the mentions above of 4:4:4:4 color were, I'm pretty sure, typos. The choice of "color subsampling" settings being discussed should be between 4:4:4 and 4:2:2, as mentioned in the article.

Andrew Sobkovich

ProRes 4:4:4:4 (RGB + alpha) is a very common professional format and correct in this usage. Entirely possible as a shooting choice within the context of the discussion. Not a typo.

Jeffrey Akers

Very cool. I stand corrected.

Andrew Sobkovich

Jeffery I am quite happy that you questioned the info. There are lots of formats and they keep changing. Just one of the reasons for all those days in endless seminars and classes. I make more than my share of errors and typos so will gladly go back and re-read what I wrote to make sure it is what was intended. Typos are aided by the ever increasing intrusiveness of spell-checkers. We’ve all seen examples of our own and others writing coming out as utterly indecipherable gobbledygook because the spell-checker looked at our intentions and “knew better”. This is a prime example of “if there is artificial intelligence there must be artificial stupidity”.

Jeffrey Akers

The endless technological seminars and classes are definitely a down-side to what we do... can't we just be artists? :) I like the quote "If there is artificial intelligence there must be artificial stupidity"!

Michael Anderson

This is a great resource,

Rafael Pinero

Mark, the article was great, I really enjoyed it and even learned from it.

Brian C. Harnick

Here's the deal. Stop choosing the camera. You are a producer. Have a budget discussion with your DP and let them choose the best camera for the needs of the production within the budget you have allotted. If there are problems down the line with budget or equipment, it will be easier to sort out who is responsible. Letting your technician pick their tools shows trust in the person you have hired, not to mention respect. If they can't pick a camera within the budget, then ask them why. Maybe the director's vision needs to be reigned in. Or maybe you need to hire a new DP. By doing it this way, you will eliminate budgetary and time problems that come up on set because a non-technical person picked the equipment.

David Landau

I think Brian says it all. I've never heard of the producer picking the lenses, the filters, the lighting package, the microphone, the make-up brand. Maybe a producer can get a wonderful discount deal on a camera package which is too good to pass up - but those usually come from cinematographers who own their own gear.

Debbie Croysdale

Thanks for going to the trouble of compiling article, easy for non techies like me to grasp.

Royce Allen Dudley

Choosing a camera has something to do with post workflow and related cost. It has little to do with the on-set cost of production beyond the cost of the rental- the DP's speed and creativity are a function of his experience, lighting and operating styles and chosen crew. The lighting and operating style should evolve from the director's intention. Savvy producers look at the whole picture and focus on 2 things : the DP's and post supervisor's suggestions and the distributor's delivery requirements. Cameras today are very interchangeable boxes - as they were in decades past - and have far less to do with the cost or effectiveness of cinematography than the people involved... despite what NAB salesmen may tell you.

Chris Hackett

It's hard to be brand agnostic these days. so many camera tests and monitors I've looked at could be nearly any cam. With hacks to the pannys and Canon low end brands there's interfaces that are very strong for filming micro budget. Great article as well. Reads like something else I read or heard from Buono. I've even thought in certain situations I wouldn't have used some of the cams he does, but some people like the same flavor every sip. I'm an everlasting gobstopper type of guy.

Dov S-S Simens

Hi Mark, Maybe we'll do something together someday. God Bless, Dov www.WebFilmSchool.com

Andrew Sobkovich

In decades past cameras were quite interchangeable because the sensitive medium was not part of the camera, it was film. The sensor/recorder currently take on that role. When shooting film then and now we were all very careful about mixing and matching film stocks. The look of the different stocks were and are quite different. Currently i choose cameras in the same way i chose film stocks. Choose the camera that has the best combination of image qualities that you wish for your project or parts of your project. Current cameras have unique looks and are different from each other, in some cases very different. If you consider actual real resolution, latitude, colour reproduction and the differences are actually quite large. For example, lots of "camera makers" advertise large latitudes but in reality some of these cameras loose 2-3 stops at the bottom of the range because of noise. One "Famous" (just ask them) maker's recent cameras could not even reproduce rec709 colour space never mind the P3 colours space that is now consider pretty much the minimum standard for cinema. Camera are far from interchangeable. Add to significant image differences the additional issue of makers who have lied so much about their products that their cameras and brand are effectively dead to many of us, never welcomed on a set again. Sitting through your own tests projected on a big screen is the best learning situation for comparing cameras. Many of us can plainly see on a screen that camera agnosticism is problematic.

Dov S-S Simens

It ain't the camera... It's the glass

Bruce Alan Greene

It's what you put in front of the lens that matters most. :). And good sound design helps a lot also! Of course a camera choice must be made and the cinematographer should consider the post workflow with the budget of the project in mind. For example, using a "free" RED camera may not be the best choice when there is no money to color grade the project from the RAW files. Camera choice should be pleasantly discussed with the DP, director, and producer :)

Brian C. Harnick

It ain't the glass or the camera. It's the person using it. That being said, don't give me an axe to chop down an oak tree if you can afford a chainsaw.

Mark Stolaroff

Bruce and Brian, you are both exactly right. And yes, if you can afford a chainsaw, use a chainsaw. But if you can't and you're trying to hack some twigs, don't worry that you can't get a chainsaw. It's not necessary and you'd have to pay for the gas and deal with the noise. I come at all this from a very particular perspective. I make no-budget films and I teach no-budget filmmaking and I am a student of no-budget filmmaking. I've worked in this area pretty much exclusively for the past 20 or more years. I worked with Chris Nolan and Joe Carnahan on their no-budget first features and I can tell you, the camera you pick doesn't make the difference. The audience doesn't care what you shoot on. Of course if you could afford an Alexa, you'd shoot with an Alexa, like just about every TV show does and every digitally-shot film that was nominated for Best Picture (and Best Cinematography) in 2014 did. But when you're working with $50k, or $20k, or most certainly $5k or $10k, you have to realize that renting a camera may not make sense, and using a camera that requires one or two extra people to use, or requires any extra brain bandwidth to figure out the workflow (creating proxies and putting LUTs on your footage, etc.), is not brain bandwidth well spent on a limited budget with limited manpower. And even though hard drives are less expensive, why spend extra money on more drives just to record in 4k when that will most certainly not make the difference in your success, (every Arri Alexa used last year was 2k). Chris Nolan on his $12k feature "Following" couldn't choose what camera to shoot with. He had access to one camera--a shitty, old 16mm camera that he borrowed from his film society. He could only afford to shoot on regular 16mm and in B&W, so he wrote a story that conformed to the aesthetic that he could afford to create--a grainy, B&W, handheld aesthetic. If you're working on a no-budget, you're likely making a film that falls within a very particular aesthetic range, and that film could probably be shot on any number of inexpensive cameras these days. Which camera you pick is likely not all that important until you pick it, and then once you pick it, figuring out how to maximize what it can do well, minimize what it doesn't do so well, and making sure your workflow works becomes very important. I'm sorry so many people focused on the little lead-in to my blog article rather than the article itself. The whole point of the article was for no-budget producers who probably weren't all that aware of camera characteristics to have an opportunity to educate themselves about what those different characteristics meant, so they could make educated choices when it came to working out what kind of camera to shoot with. Of course you'd want to make that decision in harmony with your DP, but I personally like to know what I'm getting into, so if a prospective DP tells me I HAVE to shoot with a particular camera, I'll know where they're coming from. If a DP tells me you can't make a professional movie with a Canon 5D, I'll know he's not the right person for my $5k feature that's set mostly at night, (and I'll know he's wrong because I've just seen too many successful feature films shot with that camera, BTW). I realize this whole camera discussion is a sensitive one for DPs, who spend their whole craft looking through the lens of a camera. But like what has already been suggested by previous commenters, a producer has to consider 100 other things, too, in order for their film to be successful. The more they know about all those things the easier their job will be.

Rafael Pinero

I totally agree with you Mark.

Rafael Pinero

It's not about the camera or the lenses or who's shooting or what's being shot, it's all about the story.

Levente Dudas

thanks for sharing this fantastic article...

Brian C. Harnick

The best takeaway from that article is not about the cameras. All of that information is available and fairly easy to cull together onto one page, and has been done before. The best takeaway from that article is that PRODUCTION DESIGN is indeed one of the most important parts of making an image look great.

Randolph Sellars

Over 30 years in the business, I've shot films (on film and digital) with a variety budget ranges including very low budget. I understand DP's wanting the best camera possible, but I also completely understand Mark's points. Sorry fellow DP's but ultimately it is the producer's call because he or she must consider what's best for the film as a whole - whether they are right or not. Ideally, the choice of the camera should based on a collaborative discussion between the producer, director, DP, and the editor. I believe that the DP should be given the first opportunity to recommend a camera based on the budget. They SHOULD know the most about the technical and aesthetic qualities of different cameras. I think it's great when producers and directors educate themselves about technical considerations such as those brought up in the article. That way everyone can understand the pros and cons of a particular camera when comparing costs. Of course the camera choice is an important decision - even more important for some genres and styles. I also don't agree with the statement that lenses are more important. I would say equally important. Different sensors have different qualities like dynamic range, etc. that lenses can't compensate for. However, as Mark and others have pointed out, the camera is nowhere near as important as the filmmaker's skill, experience, and creativity. A good DP (with help) can find a way to work around any camera's technical limitation. I think it's important for DP's to be concerned about the overall quality of a film and not focus solely on the most "pristine" image quality possible. In my opinion, far too much attention is focused on cameras these days. Great lighting and composition can overcome nearly any camera limitations. And while visuals are important, one needs to remember that the quality of the script, acting, direction, and sound is more important to an audience. Of course, no DP wants to be saddled with a camera choice they feel is totally wrong. If that's the case, then they probably should pass on the job. And if a DP is being a prima donna about having to have an Alexa on a low budget film, then the producer AND the director should consider a different DP. Making a film is all about collaboration and give and take.

Royce Allen Dudley

By the same token, many ( very many ) producers today insist on a hyped camera or related toys at the expense of intelligent choices made with the input of the DP. Just like when patients go to the doctor and insist on a particular prescription they read about, despite the doctor's advise to the contrary. Time for the doctor to refuse the patient.

Randolph Sellars

Royce, yes I've seen that happen as well - although not as often in independent low to modest budget features. In those scenarios, producers are usually looking at every department and line item to see where cuts can be made. But definitely in bigger budget commercials and corporate films. It's funny how some producers will throw a lot of money at equipment toys without blinking an eye - and yet balk at adding another experienced crew member to make the shooting day go smoothly. I also have to laugh when a producer or director insists that we need to shoot in 4K or even 6K when the only deliverable is for the web! When I ask why, the typical answer is so that they can reframe in post. My reply is that if they hire me (or any other experienced DP) and watch the monitor carefully, there will be no need to reframe.

Royce Allen Dudley

Actually, Randolph, while I understand your mileage may vary, in my experience, it's almost always what's happening in low to modest budget indie films today, because the producers are, on the whole, passion driven and minimally film-biz experienced; they trust the hyped gear and actually may distrust a viable or better alternative suggestion despite the experience behind the comment. True professionals look first at the end deliverable requirements of a show, then step backwards into considering the post production workflow needs to get there, and then finally to the on-set requirements of lighting and movement to deliver that footage forward to post; that is how a smart camera choice is arrived at. Circular saw, jig saw, miter saw; they are all just tools for cutting wood, and each has a a strength and weakness. No passion involved. Just tools. Without knowledge one may choose the wrong saw, or even lose a finger ;) As for reframing in high-K formats; skill and commitment aside, people change their minds, and any tool that lets them change their (our) work later is not going away.

Randolph Sellars

Royce, we're really on the same page. I totally agree with you on a "logical" approach to choosing a camera. You're right, tools are just tools. More experience and knowledge (of tools) increases the filmmaker's ability to make an informed decision that is right for their film. That being said, I believe that many filmmakers give their tool selection too high a priority thinking that it will make or break their film. IMO, they would be much better off putting more energy into choosing the best cast and crew, rehearsing with actors, getting great locations, and honing their scripts and visual language. Instead of "fixing it in post," why not fix it in pre-production? BTW, I'm not completely against 4K capture as it does offer advantages. But in some cases (especially with very low budgets), choosing those tools can hamper the film more than help. It's overkill that saps money and energy away from more important decisions.

Vance Burberry

As you are not a cinematographer, heres how it is. I have been for 30 years. Producers would come to us, ask for camera order, no issue. Then we would select film stock based on what would most suit the look and parameters of the project. With digital, the cameras are like film stocks, and the cameras vary greatly, many just don't look that good. Yes, producers think they know what we need, but it's based on budget not a decision based on the many layers of what a cinematographer bases his camera choice on. So for cinematographers it's so frustrating when producers who think they know select a camera or us. Mostly they don't.

Vitale Justice

I own my camera's such as they are and most indie projects just don't have the budget to run out and buy or rent any camera they want . now days people are posting adds looking for cinematographers who own a specific camera or camera's yet their budgets for said cinematographer doesn't make it realistic. I mean if I owned 4 Red Cameras and all The accessories it takes o run them? I couldn't justify showing up for a shoot that pays only 60.00 an hour or a couple hundred dollars a day but I can show up with a Panasonic AG-HVX200ap or a good DSLR rig while its a good topic in my experience it becomes moot the second they determined the budget

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