Full Frame Cameras: How Will They Affect Our Industry?

Published on in Equipment / Tech Reviews

By David Wells of Moving Picture Rental

The release of full frame cameras like Arri’s LF, Red’s Monstro, Canon’s C700, and Sony’s VENICE has made it clear that the future of cinema is headed toward larger sensor sizes. Of course, we have been shooting full frame video ever since the Canon 5D Mark II. But it’s only recently that high-end cinema camera manufacturers have brought larger sensor cameras to the market.

Large format digital cinema cameras took NAB 2018 by storm. Has the wanderlust worn off? Certainly, the buzz has slowed way down. You also have to ponder: Is this the next 3D fiasco where it was thought that if a movie didn’t have a 3D version, it was doomed to fail?

So why do people want these full frame cameras? Why is there a buzz? Michael Koerner of Koerner Camera in Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon is of this opinion, “Acquisition on these cameras will be for features, high-end display capture, big commercials. The LF format is just another arrow in the quiver of a Director of Photography.” And, John Engstrom, DOP, and Owner of Scheimpflug, NYC agrees, “Large format WILL have its place, but for now it will be limited to the big guys who can afford it.”

Now, let’s explore this new paradigm shift in image capture for the next 800 (or more) words!

A Brief History of Full Frame Cameras

First, a little background.

Fox developed a 70mm format back in 1928, Cinerama. Paramount’s VistaVision and Todd-AO 70mm appeared in the 1950s, and in 1970 IMAX came on the scene to give audiences the biggest, widest, most immersive cinema experience to date. While better optics and wider aspect ratios then peaked for celluloid, the race continues with digital cinema technology.

Many younger filmmakers who’ve only known DSLR tend to think it’s the standard sensor size for all digital cameras. To them, super 35mm (the standard since the 1990s) is full frame. Of course, with its 1.5x crop factor, 35mm motion picture film is far from full.

It wasn’t until the Canon 5D Mark II with its full-frame sensor appeared in 2008 that still and motion picture cameras started to merge.

Cameras for High-End Acquisition

Sony VENICE

The Arri Alexa LF is not the only high-end full frame camera. The Sony VENICE is another. The VENICE, however, is going to have an uphill battle as rental houses in the past have been burned by Sony when Sony created low price point cameras that produced the same image quality a year later for a fraction of the price of their professional line of cameras!

John Engstrom agrees, “At Scheimpflug, we’re not yet feeling the demand of full frame, and have not invested in the cameras as of yet…We also believe that the cameras will change faster than the glass will. For us - based on the limited demand and feedback we've received from our clients - we believe that it will be hard to pay off this first round of cameras before the next ones arrive, and we don't have the glass to support them - so, we're on the sidelines for now.”

Also, so far, the VENICE does not shoot slow-mo in 4K, and in general, can’t compete with the Alexa's ergonomics, accessories, user-friendly aspects, etc.  However, the VENICE does have nifty flexible lens mounts that change and a sensor that can be upgraded. According to Koerner, “The lens mount that Arri has developed complicates things (argh!) … Yet another variable.”

Who will come out on top? This will be a wait and see…

RED Monstro

The RED Monstro is a RED (need I say more?!) Like Apple and its iPhone, RED seems to release a new camera twice a year, and it has its own special love-hate relationship with rental houses, just like Sony.

As a rental house owner, I like to think that what we invest intends to shape the landscape on what cameras will be used for image capture. Reality check: Probably not the truth, just fantasizing here.

But moving on…

Arri Alexa LF

Back to Arri: Keeping in line with the Alexa 65 and LF, the imaging is immersive and draws people in with its intimate 3D feel. The company entered the full frame market in order to have an Amazon and Netflix qualified camera because the other Alexas didn’t shoot 4K.

So, does the Arri Alexa LF hold up in image quality? Yes! Now some speculate that the LF sensor isn’t as good as the Alexa 65, but it’s all about your personal opinion.

Full Frame Cameras: What DPs Need to Know

Industry professionals should understand a few things. Here are the top 8 reasons why full-frame acquisition will slow down and/or not accelerate:

  1. There is so much spherical glass out there.
  2. The big boy full frame cameras are expensive: Arri LF, Red Monstro, Sony VENICE.
  3. Not a lot of full frame glass choices, particularly zooms!
  4. Data load is super high. Heaps of drive space needed. (Koerner says, “Data is VERY cumbersome and complicates workflow, particularly on multi-camera jobs.”)
  5. The cameras (especially the Arri LF) consume loads of power: 200 watts.
  6. If you want a 50MM angle of view in super 35 with LF, you must use a 75MM lens.
  7. The LPL mount is a Unicorn and a royal pain in the ass.
  8. DP quotes: See them here.

Why full-frame will gain popularity:

  • You can go closer to your subject with wide angles with less distortion.
  • Less noise as the larger sensor has more photo sites; 800 ISO on standard Alexas becomes effectively 1600 ISO on the LF.
  • Filmmakers think that technology will make them better at their craft.
  • Filmmakers want the latest gear.
  • Or, filmmakers don’t know why they want it, but they know it sounds cool and will look good on their IMDB page!

Koerner predicts, “10 to 20% of all acquisitions will take place with full frame once the format is fully developed. This could take 5 years plus. Rehousing of Leica R lenses, Canon K35 and Canon FD’s will be a popular choice for glass when shooting full frame.”

John Engstrom is of a similar opinion, “Our first move would definitely be to buy the glass to support the cameras first as it's a much larger investment, and completely necessary if we did buy cameras.”

Full Frame: An Artistic Choice

While we never say never, it’s hard to believe that camera technology hasn’t reached its peak maturity concerning sharpness and precision. But that doesn’t mean filmmakers won’t want to explore the depth of field and perspective possibilities that large format cameras offer.

The Full Frame Bottom Line

As Conrad Hall once said, “Cinematography is infinite in its possibilities.” Whether you view full frame as a needed advancement or, given the fact that the pixel count is identical, a strictly artistic choice, there’s no denying it MAY have potential.

So, why choose to shoot full-frame at all? Because there are some minor tech improvements such as pixel size and better low-light performance that make it worthwhile. For some it’s also about staying ahead of the game. Rental houses like ours, for example, want to offer our customers the latest lenses and bodies.

Whether you’re in the camp that sees full frame cinema as a necessary evolution or someone who views it as just a shiny new alternative, these next-generation motion picture camera systems promise to satisfy the ever-increasing demands of creative minds.

Over the next few years, filmmakers will continue to explore the large format look of full frame cameras, and it will be fascinating to see how their use will affect a director’s storytelling. But don’t look for full frame cameras to take Super 35 out of the picture. Instead, the two formats will complement each other, offering more choices for filmmakers to choose from.

Moving Picture Rental of Miami stocks an extensive inventory of contemporary cameras, including full frame models. To learn more about our camera rental packages, call us today at 305.522.1361 or email us at info@movingpicture.com.

Last, but certainly not least: stay tuned for our post on full frame lenses!

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About the Author

Moving Picture Rental
Moving Picture Rental
Moving Picture Rental is your South Florida One-Stop-Shop for all your film and video production rental needs, serving the greater Miami area since 1987. As your on-site production partner, we share our collective film-making experience – guiding your team to the right gear and crew for the job. We provide digital cinema camera rentals, lens rentals, film lighting packages, grip truck rentals, post-production rentals, walkie talkies and expendables at competitive prices.

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