Selecting the right mirrorless camera

Picking A Mirrorless Camera With a Little Help From My Friends

Excerpted from the November 2021 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter.

I shared earlier this year in an essay for DCS that I finally decided the time was right to invest in a mirrorless stills and motion camera. With an original Canon 5D in my stable that takes beautiful stills, (but no video,) and with a large assortment of full cinema cameras, I was slow to take interest in the growing selection of mirrorless models. Instead, I preferred to stick with purpose built motion picture cameras for filmmaking, and honestly, the iPhone took the place of the 5D for most of my still camera needs. It is pretty hard to beat the convenience of pulling your phone out of your pocket to shoot pretty decent quality stills, and have them automatically uploaded to your cloud.

However, I was starting to see the need for a small form factor capture device that could integrate with my higher end motion picture cameras which currently include an ARRI Alexa Mini LF, a couple of Panasonic Varicams, and a Blackmagic URSA 12K.  Sometimes I would need a less conspicuous camera for certain documentary shoots where I wanted to keep a low profile, or for things like drone or gimbal work, where larger, more elaborate solutions like Steadicam or helicopter mounts were not in the cards. And yes, auto focus is also a very desirable feature these days, and it would be nice to have at least one camera with those capabilities. Lacking the necessary image control, the iPhone really didn’t meet those needs, so I started to narrow down the field to a relatively new breed of mirrorless cameras that can shoot a combination of high quality stills and motion.  I further winnowed down my list to a price not to exceed $4,000, based on the current B&H website, and came up with the six contenders pictured below from Sony, Canon, Sigma, Fujifilm, Blackmagic and Panasonic.

My goal was to put each camera through its paces in real world production environments and report back on which attributes caused me to select one that I would invest in.  I began in earnest with the Sigma fp L and enlisted the help of my old friend, DP, Conrad Hunziker.  We shot tests and sample footage with impressive results using a variety of lenses including Infinity Micro/Macro, Conrad’s set of Anamorphics, and of course, Sigma lenses.  With the help of two other Cinematographer friends, Cameron Cannon and Enrique Del Rio, we also extensively tested the Panasonic Lumix S5.  In addition, we used both cameras to separately shoot behind the scenes on several of our other recent DCS Illuminates productions.

Both cameras performed beautifully, but there were many more mirrorless models we had yet to evaluate to meet my mandate of testing all the cameras in a reasonable amount of time.  So, I turned to even more filmmaker friends who had personal experience with the other cameras. DCS Vice President David Mahlmann, who is a Director, Producer, and Cinematographer, owns a Canon R and has also recently invested in a Blackmagic Pocket 6K camera.  Another good friend, Production Sound Mixer Daniel McCoy, CAS, provides not only sound gear, but also cameras to many of the shows he works on, in addition to producing his own documentary productions.  He has first-hand experience as an owner of both the Fujifilm X-T4 and the Sony FX3.  So, with a little help from my friends, allow me to share the aesthetic and practical attributes that led each of us to choose the cameras we invested in.  As I learned, it is not so much a matter of determining the “best” camera, but the one that is right for your particular needs.

Daniel McCoy, CAS works on a lot of major Reality and Documentary programs as a Production Sound Mixer and is the owner of ToneMesa, which he refers to as a “boutique production support service”.  He originally started to invest in camera gear to service his own filmmaking projects.  The Fujifilm X-T4 served him well on his own projects and he was occasionally able to rent to some of the shows he was mixing as an additional camera.  They were compact and he could easily pack two complete camera packages into his travel package, and since most of his work is on location, this was extremely important to him.  He also valued the ability to record 4K at up to 60 fps, and Full HD up to 240 fps, with sensitivity from ISO 160-12800. The hybrid autofocus system that combines 425 phase-detection points with a contrast-detection system for quick and accurate AF performance was also an important factor since he was usually working with a very small crew on his doc productions. The X-T4 also incorporates a 6.5 stop-effective sensor-shift image stabilization to reduce camera shake. Additionally, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled him to wirelessly control the cameras from a mobile device.

After Daniel worked on five shows in a row that were shot with the increasingly popular Sony Venice, he decided to look at Sony cameras.  He tried the A7c, Sony’s most compact full frame camera, but when the FX3, (which he calls the “cinevised version” of the A7siii,) was announced, he placed an order for two sight unseen.  Now he has a camera that is an easier sell as an additional camera for shows shooting with Sony, plus it features a 10.2 megapixel full-frame sensor with 15+ stops of dynamic range.  It not only shares the same mount as other Sony models, but also uses the same color science as their higher end digital cinema cameras like the FX6, FX9 and Venice.  It also has Real Time Touch Tracking AF and 5-axis in-body image stabilization, all in a body that weighs only about one and half pounds.  As a Sound Mixer, Daniel was especially impressed that the FX3 included a detachable adapter/top handle with two full size XLR audio inputs and a microphone holder.  In fact, McCoy has been so impressed with Sony that he has now ordered the new Sony flagship Venice 2.

DCS Vice President David Mahlmann is a veteran Cinematographer who has also increasingly been active as a Director and Producer of both documentary and narrative productions.  He previously shot many of his documentary projects with a Canon 7D, but with the emergence of 4K he decided to invest in the Canon R. In addition to the ability to record 4K, the Canon R has a full frame sensor which helps limit the depth of field.  It also records to the same economical SD cards, and more importantly, is easily adaptable to his large collection of EF lenses by adding an EF adapter to the built-in EOS -R mount.  He is also a big fan of the touchscreen focus, as he explains: “During my first endeavor with the Canon R camera body, I had over 20 subjects sitting in a stadium-style arrangement where any one person could begin to speak at any moment. It was extremely useful having the touchscreen focus setting on the 3.5” flip-out monitor when working at the lens length of 200 mm; and most helpful when panning and tilting to and from each subject.

While still a big fan of the Canon R, David also recently invested in a Blackmagic Pocket 6K camera.  The decision came about when an out-of-town client brought several of the camera bodies to shoot interviews.  David was impressed with both the image quality and the Blackmagic Resolve workflow; the DaVinci editing software was included in the purchase price of the camera. A bonus with the 6K Pocket camera was that it allowed him to natively use his Canon EF lenses, as well as the same Canon E6 batteries and fast SD cards.  In addition, he opted for an external 1TB hard drive for recording sit-down interviews so as not to be hampered by short recording durations.  David even found that he could mix the two cameras, using one for a locked-off wide master, and the second, which he operated for the close ups. This gave him editorial options and with the included DaVinci software he found it relatively easy to match the cameras.

In my own testing, I was extremely impressed with the Sigma fp L.  At less than a pound and measuring only about 4 x 3 x 2 inches, it is by far the smallest and lightest of the contenders, yet it packs a full-frame 24.6 megapixel sensor capable of 14-bit color depth, and HDR with CinemaDNG RAW external recording options. A base sensitivity of ISO 100-25600 can be expanded to ISO 6-102400, and its video recording capabilities allow for UHD 4K recording at up to 30p, while Full HD recording can be captured at up to 120p. The fp has an L mount that is perfect for keeping the camera extremely compact and light weight, with fine tuned focus assist abilities. This is an ideal configuration for use on gimbals or drones. However, add a PL adapter and you can go to town with virtually any cinema lens including anamorphic.

The small size of the camera and extremely crisp 3.15″ 2.1m-dot touchscreen LCD make for a really nice Director’s Viewfinder.  I’ve shot with mostly S35 format spherical lenses over the years, and I pretty much know what the angle of view and shot size will be at any given focal length.  However, with growing sensor sizes and especially with anamorphic, I find a Director’s Viewfinder really helpful.  The fp really excels here; it not only has various sizes of anamorphic de-squeeze, but also most format sizes programmed into the software that generates the frame lines so you’ll get an accurate frame indicator with most popular cinema cameras.  All in all, the Sigma fp was a real contender as my next camera investment.  It would not take the place of any of my cinema cameras, but could be a really good addition to the package adding increased versatility and mobility.

However, in the final analysis, there was another mirrorless camera that ticked off a few more boxes than the others to complement my package of cameras.  I settled on the Panasonic Lumix S5, a small, nimble capture device that can be placed on a handheld gimbal, mounted in a tight space, and can keep a low profile for documentary work, yet gives me the necessary image control and resolution to intercut when necessary with my bigger cameras.  The S5 really delivers everything I need to fill the void in my camera ensemble, with all the essential features I require. It has a full-frame 24.2MP CMOS sensor for UHD 4K 10-bit internal recording, impressive dynamic range, up to 180fps Slow Motion when cropped to APS-C, and 60fps in full HD, and it has 4:3 Anamorphic support, which is always fun.

Especially important to integrating with my particular package is its Dual Native ISO feature and its ability to shoot in V-Log/V-Gamut, just as my two Varicams will do.  It also now has the ability to record Blackmagic RAW to the Blackmagic Video Assist 12G HDR which allows it to easily intercut in up to 4K with my URSA MiniPro 12K.  We shot all of our 2021 Cine Gear Expo coverage combining the S5 with the Varicam LT and they intercut seamlessly.  We also shot behind the scenes, which can be the most important part of the coverage for two of our DCS productions.

Cinematographer Cameron Cannon used it to shoot a promotional documentary about a Riverboat cruise operation triumphantly returning to service on the Missippi after the pandemic.  The Producer/Director Ari Minasian owns other Lumix cameras including an S1 and S5, so this model was completely compatible. Cameron is a big fan of the camera, especially the form factor when shooting on jobs like on the Riverboat where a handheld gimbal was often employed.  He also likes the ability to quickly switch between various modes including stills, high-frame-rates, and variable ISOs all the way to 4000 without too much noticeable noise when V-Log is applied.  The speed and precision of the auto focus is also something he mentioned as a significant plus.

Cinematographer Enrique Del Rio also had the chance to evaluate the camera while shooting BTS for the DCS Illuminates program on the Cineo ReFlex R15.  Again, the Lumix S5 was a perfect option since we were shooting the main unit with the Varicam V35.  Although Enrique is a very experienced Cinematographer and Steadicam Operator who also has a background as a DIT and owns a wide variety of high end camera and lens packages, he didn’t have too much experience with this new class of mirrorless cameras.  It was really wonderful the way Cameron Cannon, who was serving as DP, was able to place the Lumix S5 into Enrique’s hands for the first time, give him a two minute rundown, and have him go to work getting some really great footage under difficult conditions.

Shooting behind-the-scenes is always a challenge as you are trying to tie in fully lit subjects in front of the main camera with the filmmakers lurking back in the dark recesses of the set.  It was especially challenging on this job since the subject of the piece was the brightest LED on the market, the Cineo ReFlex.  I think the Lumix S5 performed admirably, but you can judge for yourself by watching the video here:  

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Enrique’s feedback was mostly positive; he liked that the menus and touchscreen were intuitive and fast to master. He also commented on the brightness of the LCD along with the flexibility to angle it in so many directions making it easy to undersling or to get a high angle shot by holding the camera above his head and tilting down the LCD.  He also liked the low light capabilities and ease of adjusting the exposure, which came in very handy on this job where he was constantly going between extremely bright to very dark subjects, often in the same shot.

The Lumix cameras use the L-mount, as do Sigma and Leica mirrorless cameras, but I didn’t personally own anything with the L-mount at the time.  Although a Sigma EF to L-mount adapter allowed the use of my EF collection of lenses, the autofocus was not as fast or fine tuned as with native L-mount lenses.  Now, Enrique is not one to complain, but I could see the slow auto focus issues when editing the piece, so I later requested to borrow two Lumix lenses to test further: the 24-70 f2.8 and the 70-200 f2.8.  And in fact, fell in love and decided to buy them for keeps.

The Lumix cameras use the L-mount, as do Sigma and Leica mirrorless cameras, but I didn’t personally own anything with the L-mount at the time.  Although a Sigma EF to L-mount adapter allowed the use of my EF collection of lenses, the autofocus was not as fast or fine tuned as with native L-mount lenses.  Now, Enrique is not one to complain, but I could see the slow auto focus issues when editing the piece, so I later requested to borrow two Lumix lenses to test further: the 24-70 f2.8 and the 70-200 f2.8.  And in fact, fell in love and decided to buy them for keeps.

The Lumix cameras use the L-mount, as do Sigma and Leica mirrorless cameras, but I didn’t personally own anything with the L-mount at the time.  Although a Sigma EF to L-mount adapter allowed the use of my EF collection of lenses, the autofocus was not as fast or fine tuned as with native L-mount lenses.  Now, Enrique is not one to complain, but I could see the slow auto focus issues when editing the piece, so I later requested to borrow two Lumix lenses to test further: the 24-70 f2.8 and the 70-200 f2.8.  And in fact, fell in love and decided to buy them for keeps.

All-in-all, the Lumix S5 was an easy choice. Its recording format compatibility with my Varicam and Blackmagic URSA cameras, the high sensitivity, Full Frame sensor, excellent focus assist, relatively low price, and small size are all pluses. The only downside was the L-mount, but after purchasing the Lumix lenses, I found I could more than cover the purchase price with the sale of my EF glass and Canon 5D, which I really no longer have need of.

That said, the other Cinematographers who helped me evaluate the cameras have their own very valid reasons for selecting the cameras they decided to purchase.  All these cameras produce great results, so the real question comes down to what features are most valuable to each user, and to compatibility with other gear you own or share with other filmmakers. This cannot be understated, as much of the rental income I enjoy is a result of backing up other camera owners or providing the occasional additional cameras they may need.  In the end, there really is no best camera, but the Panasonic Lumix S5 is the right camera for me.

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